Col 1.1-14, 1 Ki 8.12-21, Mt 6.5-15
Ellelein told me this week about a Christian film called the ‘War Room’ where an elderly woman goes to spend time in her prayer room with God and engage in Spiritual Battle. When a neighbour shares some marital difficulties and the lady says she will take it to her ‘War Room’, the neighbour is openly cynical. How is talking to the ceiling going to make any practical difference to her failing marriage? But you have guessed it – praying made all the difference!
Someone has said: ‘If you want to discover a person’s real priorities, there are two key questions to ask: what do you spend most money on, and what do you most often pray for yourself and others?’ It might be difficult to find out about the apostol Paul’s spending habits but his praying habits can easily be seen. As soon as he hears about the Colossian Christians from Epaphras – he gets down to pray. Most of today’s passage is in fact one long prayer.
This week several of the home groups have been looking at Colossians 1 but first we asked ourselves what do we most pray about. Well what mainly came up was that we pray lots for our family and friends, for their health and safety. We also realised that we prayed often for practical issues that we were facing at work or at home – asking God for help to get through each day. And it is good to pray for these things. If you go back a chapter in your bible, Paul says in Philippians 4.6 – ‘do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God’.
What we will see today is that Paul prays differently. His concerns are quite different to ours. But first a bit about the letter to the Colossians which we will looking at throughout October and November.
Based in the Lycus valley in Turkey, near Laodicea, Colosse has not existed since it was destroyed in an earthquake in 60AD. In fact this letter is about the only legacy that has survived from that once vibrant city. Paul hadn’t visited there but a convert of his from Ephesus took the Christian message there and planted a church. Mark Meynell, part time chaplain in Whitehall and ex-bible college lecturer in Uganda, says the following about this letter:
‘It is not usually until it gets pointed out that modern readers realise just how bold this letter to the Colossians really is. Paul is shockingly & dangerously politically incorrect. He is writing to people he hasn’t met… but still has the audacity to write to them about their lives and faith, to instruct and even to challenge them. But even more courageous is his determination to speak of cosmic and eternal realities in universal terms. … ‘Whatever Christ has said or achieved is automatically true for every person at every time and in every place. The are no exceptions. He is the universal king’.
Rome seduced it’s subjects into believing that they were better supporting the Roman Empire because only it could guarantee security in an uncertain world. Adoration of the emperors was also encouraged. The poet Horace said of the first Cesar, Augustus: that he had ‘bought back fertile crops to the fields’ and ‘wiped away our sins and revived the ancient virtues’. So the emperor amazingly gave his subjects: Peace, Provision & Forgiveness!
But Paul knew that these basic needs: Peace, Provision, & Forgiveness could not be delivered by even Cesar & he was prepared to risk everything to say so. For it is God’s Christ (and not Rome’s Cesar) who holds everything together in ultimate peace and security. Even, when like today, it doesn’t always seem or feel like it. So what this letter to the Colossians taught 2000 years ago and what it teaches us today is that Jesus really is the cosmic Lord. And it challenges us that if that is so how can we not dedicate every fibre of our being to him and his service?
Greetings to faithful believers 1-2
So let us get stuck into to our passage. Before the two main sections, in the opening verses we have Paul’s greetings to faithful believers. We see in first place that Paul always works in teams. Even though he knows that he is an apostle and has been chosen by Christ Jesus to go and take the gospel to the nations, he is with his disciple and fellow leader Timothy and writes from them both.
Paul also knows to whom he belongs. Paul’s allegiance is to Jesus. He is Christ’s man, not Cesar’s man. Or in today’s world we would say a Christian is not Boris Johnson’s woman or Jeremy Corbyn’s man but only belongs to Jesus Christ. Is that how we first identify ourselves when writing or presenting ourselves to others?
Then we see that the letter is addressed to the ‘saints’ in Colosse v.2 a word which is repeated in v.4. Saints aren’t dead people who reached a special spiritual level, but all those who are Christians and who have been saved and sanctified by Jesus. So the letter is for each of us who have placed our lives in Jesus Christ’s hands. Paul wishes two things for these saints – these faithful believers: Grace and Peace.
Grace is ‘the love and mercy given to us by God because He desires us to have it, not because of anything we have done to earn it.’ Peace is ‘The perfect peace that once existed in the Garden of Eden: a peace the world can not fathom and only originates from Christ himself. The kind of peace that casts out all fear and anxiety. These are the basics of the Christian faith. God gives us a free gift thru Jesus’ death on the cross in our place. If we take it up, instead of having enmity with God, we are forgiven and can live in peace with the creator of the universe.
Awesome facts that Paul knows the Colossians already have and which he prays they will receive and understand more of.
Thanksgiving for new birth 3-8
In the rest of our passage we see two types of prayer from Paul. (We will look at one this week and one next week) In v.3-8 we see Thanksgiving for new birth. The conversion of the Colossian Christians. Then in v.9-14 we see a Petition for their Spiritual Growth. (Paul gives thanks for successful Evangelism and prays for deepening Discipleship).
Paul’s prayers start with deep gratitude: ‘we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you’ (3). In v.7 we see that Epaphrus shared with Paul of the church planted in Colosse and this obviously delights Paul. He begins his prayer with gratitude to God that one of his disciples has spread the good news of Christ to a place that he has not even visited. And his gratitude is prompted by three things.
1. ‘Their faith in Christ Jesus’ v.4. Paul knew how costly this new faith was, how counter-cultural it was at a time when Christianity was new in the region. The Colossians were rejecting all the other gods and ideologies on offer and this delighted Paul. We see echoes of Jesus’ statement, that there is a party in heaven each time someone is converted and turns to Christ. Do we thank God for people that we see turn away from their indifference to Him and embrace the grace Jesus offers them?
2. ‘The love that they had for all God’s people’ v.4. The new allegiance that the Colossian Christians had, wasn’t just a philosophical belief or a religious fad but produced practical change in their lives. This love was prompted by the HS v.8. It wasn’t a sentimental feeling but a costly and practical commitment. One of the Roman emperors complained that the Christians not only loved and helped their poor but also the pagan poor in a way other pagans didn’t. When there were plagues it was the Christians who went into dangerous situations to help save people unlike others who rushed away to save their skins. The love of early Christians was radical and costly and impacted their society deeply.
Love for those who are different from us (be they Christian or not) is so counter to human nature that it surely points to this being the Holy Spirit’s work. When we bear grudges and can’t forgive others it is a sign that we are operating in the flesh and not in the Spirit. The Colossian Christians showed that their conversion was real because of their love for others. Is that true for us?
3. Thirdly Paul thanks God for the ‘Hope stored up for them in heaven’ v.5. Hope underpins their faith and love because it gives them confidence to persevere through difficult times. This isn’t ‘I hope to win a lottery ticket’, i.e. a desire based on luck, but it is hope based on the very real action of Jesus Christ. If they had to depend on their own efforts to reach God they would have no real hope. But as their faith & love depends on Jesus’ grace towards them – they are confident that they will reach God’s presence in heaven.
This is because the gospel – the good news of Jesus is spreading and bearing fruit all over the world (6). We should have this constantly in our thoughts and prayers. Lives were being transformed, people were growing in love and faith. That is all evidence of God’s surprising and inspiring work. No wonder Paul is thrilled and grateful.
So these new believers’ lives showed: a) faith in Christ, b) love for all God’s people & c) hope for heaven. Are these things that others might thank God about us for? What evidence is there that we are ‘saints’ – Holy people? Do we show genuine faith? Not just believing things are true intellectually but showing it practically? Do we thank God when we see that genuine faith in others? Are we praying it for our friends and family who are not yet Christians? (If not let us do so daily) Pray.
(8.30 – finish here/10.30 continue)
Petition for spiritual growth 9-14
So Paul prays differently because he was concerned about new birth, about people becoming Christians & coming into a relationship with their Heavenly Father. And this is emphasised right at the end of our passage too, in v.12-14. There it mentions three things that the Father has done for the Colossians.
1. Qualified them to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light.
2. He did this by rescuing them from the dominion of darkness and bringing them into the kingdom of his beloved Son: Jesus Christ.
3. The way he did that was through Jesus redeeming us. We saw in the story of Ruth how Boaz acted as a Redeemer for Ruth and so pointed to Jesus doing the same for us all. He delivers us from our sin and frees us from captivity.
As Don Carson says: ‘If God had perceived that our greatest need was economic, he would have sent an economist. If he had perceived that our greatest need was entertainment, he would have sent us a comedian or an artist. If God had perceived that our greatest need was a political stability, he would have sent us a politician. If he had perceived that our greatest need was health, he would have sent us a doctor. But he perceived that our greatest need involved our sin, our alienation from him, our profound rebellion, our death; & so he sent us a Saviour’.
There is a lot more to say about this qualifying, rescuing and redeeming but it just shows all the Colossians had to be grateful for. Their good standing with God didn’t depend on what they would do for God in the future but it rested on all that God had already done from them in the past. That gave them peace – freedom from the anxiety of not knowing their spiritual destination. It is one of the great privileges of being a Christian that no matter what happens in the world around us we can rest in our relationship with God without having to strive to win his favour.
But does Paul stop there? Now these Colossians have become Christians, now there is a church in Colosse? No, the job is only half done. He doesn’t want these new believers to stay as spiritual babies for ever. No he wants them to grow into adult Christians and so he carries on praying. V.3-8 tie into the first part of St Michael’s vision and mission: ‘In short, the Lord calls us to make new disciples’ and v.9-14 into the second part: ‘and to mature existing ones.’ Look at v.9 again.
‘We have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding’.
Mark Meynell explains that ‘To understand what God wants we need to know what God is like. To know what God is like we need to spend time with him’.
Sometimes people see theology as a dry cerebral pursuit rather than a living breathing way of life. Theology is all about our relationship with God and is why this prayer of Paul is so important. Perhaps the most important concept here is Wisdom. There is a business model that is used to distinguish between Data – Information – Knowledge – Wisdom (see ppt).
As a society we are drowning in data and information and even when the importance of wisdom is acknowledged it is often confused with knowledge. Data is the raw material that we might have collected – say in a census. Once it is collected we might see the connections and thus have useful information. Say the ethnic percentages in a geographical area or the levels of poverty there.
When all the information is pooled we can then form what can be called knowledge – we can see why there might be racial or social tension in an area but that in itself doesn’t lead to any solutions. From there we need wisdom which is about knowing what action or behaviour is good, what is beneficial, what is healthy. This often takes years of experience and insight, years of success and particularly failure. That is why the wisest in society are usually reckoned to be those who have lived longest.
So Paul isn’t praying that the Colossians Christians receive more information, that they could remember the order of the minor prophets of the OT, knew the names of the kings of Israel or could quote the psalms off by heart. He wants them to be filled with knowledge so they can have spiritual wisdom so they can live lives worthy of God.
Or to put it another way there is a direct relationship between what we know about God (Christians call this Doctrine) and what we do in God’s name (which we call Ethics). Doctrine in itself isn’t much good unless it leads to good ethical decisions. That is why in medieval times when scholastics ended up debating how many angels could balance on the head of a pin – they were of little use to anyone.
But conversely if we don’t have good doctrine – right belief in God, then our ethics fail. When we forget that God is good and that mankind was made in his image then human life loses its value and we end up with euthanasia, abortion & genocide. Paul’s prayer from the day he heard about the new Colossian christians was that they would grow in knowledge of God through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. Why? V.10 ‘we pray this in order that you may life a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every good work’.
So how are you growing in the knowledge of God? How are you feeding your mind? It has always surprised me when folk say they haven’t got time for a home group or a bible course (thinking about past churches obviously – that excuse wouldn’t be used at St Michael’s of course) but have time for many TV programmes, series or other leisure pursuits.
If we want to grow as Christians, if we want as a church to make an impact on our community we need to grow in our understanding of who God is and what his purposes for us are. And that only comes with the ongoing spiritual disciplines – especially bible study and prayer.
Some of you might have been following the World Athletics Championships.
You might have been thrilled and impressed by the performances of amazing athletes such as Dina Asher-Smith and Katrina Johnson-Thompson who won golds in the 200m and Heptathlon. How did they get to be so healthy, fit and successful? By training day in day out, by sacrificing many things to focus on their athletics career. To grow spiritually we need to be constant in our searching for God, spending time in the scriptures and in prayer with God. Then we will live meaningful, purposeful lives that honour God.
I want to finish by showing you a trailer for the film I mentioned at the beginning. Look out for the prayer room – full of articles and pictures of folk the protagonist was praying for. This year I went with Josh down into the WW2 bunker in Uxbridge where the Battle of Britain was planned and where Winston Churchill was on the fifteenth of Sept ‘40 – the crucial day of the Battle. The Germans never discovered it, few Brits knew of its existence but from there that strategic battle was fought.
This film reminds us that we are in a spiritual battle, we need our war rooms – Paul was well aware of that. Jesus also taught his followers in Mt 6.6: ‘But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father in heaven, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you’.
Over the next two months I will offer two sessions on Tuesday mornings before work (at 7.30 and 8.00am) to look at how we can grow in prayer. We will work through the Lord’s prayer and see how it is a model we can base our prayer lives around. But here is the film clip to remind us of the importance of prayer.
“We thank you God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, because we know of the faith in Christ Jesus of this community of St Michael’s and of the love they have for God’s people— their faith and love which springs from the hope stored up for them in heaven and about which they have already heard in the true message of the gospel that came to them.
For this reason, since the day we heard about them, we have not stopped praying for them. We continually ask you to fill St Michael’s with the knowledge of your will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that they may live lives worthy of you Lord and please you in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of You, being strengthened with all power according to Your glorious might so that they may have great endurance and patience, joyfully giving thanks to you, their Father”. We ask this in Jesus Christ’s name. Amen
Colossians 1:3-5, 9-11 NIV