Colossians 1:3-14; 4:2-6,12
Have you ever seen a nest of newly hatched birds? A picture that is associated with this is the little birds with their mouths wide open waiting for food from the parent bird. What does such a picture suggest to us? Is a picture that makes us think negatively or positively? Now if I sat at the dinner table like that, it would be considered crude, demanding and inappropriate but we don’t think that we of a baby bird. Is it not rather necessary, the right thing and a beautiful picture of dependence? That little bird needs to be fed by its mother. It is completely dependent on the mother. If it does not open its mouth and receive food from the mother bird, it will die.
Why is it then that we are reluctant to open our lives to God in the same way as a baby bird? Somehow we think that it is wrong to be like a baby bird before God. We don’t think it is right to pray openly and boldly to God recognizing that unless he blesses us, supplies our needs, saves us and gives us life, we will die.
Today we will have the last message of a series that we have been looking at recently on Colossians. In the midst of a wonderful book that talks about our salvation and what it means to walk in the Lord, there are numerous verses which talk about prayer. Colossians 1:3-14; 4:2-6 and 12 all have prayer as their theme. In these verses there are some wonderful lessons about prayer.
Let us read a few of these verses and see what we can learn about prayer. Read 1:3,4, 9-12; 4:2-4; 4:12.
Colossians calls us to the work of prayer. Colossians 4:2 is a command - “devote yourselves to prayer.”
I read about a man who met an intelligent Sikh from the Punjab. He “asked him about his religion and the Sikh replied, ’I believe in one God, and I repeat my prayers every morning and evening. These prayers occupy six pages of print, but I can get through them in little more than ten minutes. ’”
Being devoted to prayer is more than just a habit. If we see prayer as a duty which must be carried out, it is easy even for us as Christians to “do” our prayers, seeing how fast we can rattle them off. The wonderful thing about prayer is that it is a relationship with the creator of the world in which we have been invited to have a conversation with him. When we understand that this is what prayer is and when we realize the power that is available in prayer, it helps us to avoid the formality and habit of prayer and invites us to be devoted to it as the text says.
In spite of the fact that we have the privilege of talking to the creator of the universe and have the assurance that He is listening, that does not mean that prayer is always easy. In Colossians 4:12, we read about the prayer of Epaphras. It is interesting to read that he was “always wrestling in prayer” for the Colossians. When Jesus prayed in the garden of Gethsemane, we read in Luke 22:44, “And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” This was certainly no picnic, it was prayer that was work. In a similar way, we read about the early church in Acts 12:5 that “Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.” In all these passages, we notice that prayer is work. It is work because we are easily distracted. It is work because Satan doesn’t want us praying. It is work because of all that needs to be done in prayer. Are we willing to devote ourselves to the work of prayer?
In Colossians 1:9 Paul says, “we have not stopped praying for you…” In spite of the fact that prayer is work, Paul engages in it diligently and regularly because it is so important. One writer said, “Paul regards prayer as more than just a pious ancillary activity to preaching and teaching: it is part of the work itself.”
Colossians is a wonderful example of people engaged in this essential work of prayer. It is interesting to note that there is a reciprocity in prayer. It is not just the work of leaders, missionaries and pastors, but must be the work of everyone in the church.
We have already noted that Paul prayed for the Colossians. In the opening of his letter to them, he encourages them by saying that he is praying for them. In fact, he mentions it twice - in verse 3 and verse 9.
We have also already noticed that Epaphras prays for them. Epaphras was the church planter in Colossae. Now he is ministering elsewhere, but he has not forgotten the Colossians. He remembers them and recognizes that when he is away from them, the best thing that he can do for them is to pray for them. So we read in 4:12 that he does just that.
But, as I have said, there is a reciprocity in prayer. Not only do Paul and Epaphras pray for the Colossians, Paul also asks that the Colossians should pray for him. He asks that they will pray for his ministry in 4:3,4.
Are you engaged in the essential work of prayer? Do you pray for other believers? Are you praying for the leaders of the church? Are you praying for missionaries. Because there is no doubt that God’s word tells us that this is important work, I want to encourage you to devote yourselves to prayer.
Because this is not written as a teaching on prayer, rather, it is prayer in life, it gives us a great example of prayer and we can learn from prayer as it is being done. The other thing we learn about prayer here is the content of prayer. As we look at the specific things Paul and Epaphras prayed for the Colossians and what Paul asked them to for, we get some great lessons on how we should pray for each other.
The first thing we notice about the content of their prayer is that it is God directed. He prays with thanksgiving for what God has done in 1:3.
I think that there is a lesson here about how we ought to pray. We find it easy to thank God for other people. We thank other people and praise them for what they have done. These are good things to do, but they must never take our focus away from where it ought to be. Paul is aware of the faith, love and hope of the Colossian people and thanks God for it. When he says, “we have heard about your faith in Christ Jesus and the love you have for all the saints…” he is not praising them for their faith and love. Rather, you will notice that he says “because we have heard…” Their faith and love is an occasion to give thanks to God because God is the one who has put faith into them and God is the one who has changed their hearts so that they are able to love.
This summer I met a friend whom I hadn’t seen for a while. I remember meeting him about 5 years ago when he brought his daughter to girls club. Over the years, we talked to them and they slowly began to be involved in church and in a home study group. When I met him this summer, one of the first things he told me was that he had been baptized. What a change had taken place in his life. I felt like commending him for his faith, but I realized that God had done an amazing thing in him and his family and I had to praise God for what had happened.
Do we pray like that for other people? What a tremendous prayer that is. It is a prayer that recognizes that God is at work. This prayer of Paul’s encourages me to look at the lives of other people and praise God for what He has done for them. I am sometimes concerned about the selfish and earth directed nature of our prayers. When we pray like this, the focus of prayer remains solidly where it should and that is on God.
The second lesson about how we can pray for each other arises out of the prayers of both Paul and Epaphras. As we read these prayers, we notice the underlying concern of both of these spiritual leaders. It is a concern that is different than the ultimate concern we often have as we pray for others.
What is it we are concerned about regarding the people we pray for? In the Star Trek shows, a common line was “live long and prosper.” That line represents what we are often concerned about most for each other. It is the desire of all parents that their children will “live long and prosper.” It is the desire of all of us for each other in the church that we will “live long and prosper.” Does God want us to “live long and prosper?” I believe that he does because in Matthew 6:26 Jesus says, Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”
Yet I do not think that this is God’s ultimate concern for us. If it was, he would not tell us in Hebrews 12 that when we are disciplined, we are being treated as sons. If it was, then He would not say to Paul when he asked God to remove his thorn in the flesh in II Corinthians 12:9, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
The prayers of Paul and Epaphras in Colossians teach us that we ought not to limit our prayers to praying for people that they will “live long and prosper.” We need to learn to pray, as these men did, regarding God’s greater concern for us.
Paul prays first of all in 1:11 that they will be filled “with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding.” As we pray this prayer, we need to pray it in a broader sense than we often do. We pray about God’s will - whether we should sow canola or sunflowers. We pray about whether we should go to Bible School or get a job. God is certainly concerned about these things and we ought to pray about them, but when Paul prays that they will know the will of God, he is praying that they will fully understand how God works. He prays that they will understand the plan of God from the beginning of the universe and how they fit into that plan. He prays that they will come to a greater understanding about the purposes and ways of the creator of the universe.
When God’s will is known, the concern is not so that we can live comfortably and be happy, but so that we will walk in holiness. Notice the word order here. He prays that they will be filled with the knowledge of God’s will…in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord.” Paul prays that they will live the way a Christian ought to live. He uses numerous images to convey this thought. He prays that they will live “worthy of the Lord,” that they will “please him in every way” that they will “bear fruit” and that they will grow “in the knowledge of God.” Paul’s concern, as well as God’s concern, is for the spiritual maturity of believers and that they will follow God. As they know God’s will and obey it the amazing thing is that they will also then come to know God better.
The last part of his prayer is that they will have power to endure and have patience. This is most interesting. Endurance and patience assumes difficulty and Paul does not pray that the difficulty be removed, but that they will have the strength to endure the difficult circumstance and that they will have the patience to live with difficult people.
What a different way of praying than we usually pray for each other. I am not saying that we ought to stop praying for God’s healing or praying that conditions will improve. But that may not be God’s will. We need to learn to see our trials in light of God’s ultimate will, which is that people mature in Christ, and we need to pray for each other that God will do his amazing work of changing us, causing us to grow and making us into the image of Christ. Do we pray like that for each other?
The prayer of Epaphras is similar. As we read the content of his prayer in Colossians 4:12, we notice that he prays that they will stand firm in the will of God. Here we have the matter of the will of God again. His prayer assumes Paul’s prayer - that they will know God’s will, but not only know it, but also walk in it.
His second concern of prayer is that they will mature. Maturity in Christ is the ability to trust Him no matter what comes into life. It is the knowledge of God’s will and the obedience to that will, just as we looked at in Paul’s prayer.
The third element in his prayer is that they will have full assurance. He prays that they will not waver in faith, but that they will be sure that God has saved them, that He loves them and that He is caring for them.
I suppose that these thoughts struck me because I am often thinking about how to pray for you. I have often prayed for healing, for God’s blessing and I will continue to do so. But this passage challenges me to be even more concerned in my praying that you, each one of you, will know God’s will, live worthy of the Lord, be confident in faith and mature as followers of Jesus.
The third lesson on how to pray for each other is found in Paul’s request in 4:2-4. As we noted earlier, prayer is reciprocal. Paul prays for them and now asks that they pray for him. The content of his prayer is that they will pray for him in his apostolic ministry.
The first part of the prayer is that God will open doors of opportunity. What kind of doors are meant here is not certain. Some suggest that Paul was in prison and was asking that they pray that he could be released from prison in order that he could continue his preaching tour. Others suggest that he was speaking about open doors for the gospel, that many would accept the message. Either way, it is worth noting that he is asking them to pray for the work of mission. What a great encouragement to pray for open doors so that God’s good news will spread. When I pray for missionaries, I have often prayed in this way, that God would open doors for them in a country, in a particular ministry and that God would open the doors of some hearts to respond to the gospel.
The second part of the prayer is that Paul himself would have the ability to proclaim the gospel clearly. Have you have seen the adds on TV for Clarica with the line “A little clarity goes a long way?” How much more important that the gospel goes out clearly. As you pray for Amos and myself, or as you pray for your Sunday School teacher or Bible Study leader or any of the missionaries our church has, I would encourage this same kind of prayer. Pray that God will help them to be able to teach effectively and make His truth known with clarity. Let us pray for all who proclaim it that they will be able to do so clearly.
We began by recognizing the command to prayer in Colossians 4:2. That verse is very interesting in revealing the attitude in which we pray. Paul says, “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.”
In that phrase there is an interesting interplay. It teaches us that we must pray. The reason we must pray is because we are dependent on God and we have no hope apart from looking to Him and seeking Him out.
If that is true, then it is natural that in our prayers we be watchful. Being watchful may mean several things. It may mean that we do not neglect prayer. It may mean that we keep on praying even when we don’t always feel like it. It may mean that we not allow ourselves to be distracted by all kinds of other things when we pray. I think it also means that we watch to see what God is doing. This is the aspect that I would like to focus on today. If we pray because we know that there is no hope apart from God, then when we pray, it seems natural that we look to see how God will answer that prayer. If we watch, we will begin to see things that God is doing all around us. If we pray for the salvation of our children, we may not see an answer to that prayer, but if we are watchful, we will see how God is constantly bringing just the right people into their path. We will see how God is correcting and drawing and working in their lives.
Someone I spoke to this week blessed me. They were dealing with a challenge in their life. It was a difficult time and they were struggling, but that did not prevent them from recognizing all the things that God was doing - people who were praying for them, little blessings that were given, small steps of help toward a solution. Being watchful means that we observe very carefully what is happening and learning to recognize what is God’s work surrounding us with support and moving towards the answer to our prayer.
If we do that, then we must also respond in thankfulness. We need to give thanks to God every time we see what He is doing. We won’t see what he is doing if we are not watchful and we will not recognize His hand if we are not thankful, so thanksgiving for God’s grace and His work is an important part of prayer.
In our prayer, there is a significant connection between utter dependence, prayer, watchfulness and thanksgiving. This passage reveals that connection. As we pray, we declare our dependence on God. As we pray with this attitude, we watch to see God at work and as we see Him at work we give thanks because we know that the answer could have come in no other way than at the hand of God. As we give thanks, we grow in our dependence on God.
In our church we have a prayer team. Each week, they receive a letter to help them pray about the concerns of the church and the people of the church. Once in a while, we meet in order to pray together as a group.
I want to thank all those who are a part of the prayer team. When we read a passage like this, we are reminded of what an important work we are doing when we pray. If you would like to become a part of the prayer team, I would invite you to do so. Just let me know.
I would also like to encourage all of us to be devoted to prayer. I would like to encourage all of us to learn how to pray more effectively by following the lessons on prayer which God teaches us in Colossians.
God, the creator of the universe, wants to have an ongoing relationship with us. Let us enter into that relationship and be devoted to prayer.