Children have to learn to pay attention. They have to be able to spot a car that may have an inattentive or distracted driver, and stay at the curb until danger passes them by. The safest child is most often the alert child – one who has learned to keep his or her eyes watchful for trouble before it comes. We don’t want to make our children paranoid, but we want them to know WHEN to look, WHERE to look, and WHAT they should be looking to see before it comes. That same caution existed in the Apostle Paul’s heart when he instructed the early church about the challenges that lay ahead.
The Roman world at the time of Paul’s preaching and the church’s establishment was a world in transition. The Principate – the scholastic term for the Roman Empire – was tottering with a madman at the helm. The government projected stability, but the Palatine hill was occupied by a man who NO ONE thought was stable by the year Paul wrote the letter to the Colossians. Paul could have written about the need to collect non-perishable goods and hide in the caves of Cappadocia – but survivalism wasn’t the point of God’s work – testimony was. Under the direction of the Spirit, Paul wisely cautioned believers to keep their focus in two directions to make an impact – not just one.
It was a call for a balance that was rare then, and even rarer now. Why? Many churches form their program around the chief gifts of their leaders.
• In a church that is led by an evangelism-gifted leader, growth will often be spectacularly fast, but the church will expend huge amounts of time, energy and material resource on the outreach. Administration will often be weak in such a place, as the workers are overwhelmed with new outreach vision on a weekly basis. Ever expanding in outreach, just keeping the facility able to hold the people and keeping the leaders aware of the next waves of activity is difficult, let alone keeping the place prepared and accessible.
• In an administrative-led ministry, the property is well kept. The constitution is completely and carefully followed. The bulletin is flawless. The ladies’ room is always supplied. If someone visits, they get the visitor’s packet. If someone makes a commitment, there is a chart for follow-up.
• In a compassion-led ministry, the property needs work, because the resources have been heavily allocated to those who have less. A food pantry is given more attention than a Sunday School class. Soup kitchens are often defined as “real ministry” – and the focus is often placed on a hurting world outside the church.
• In a teacher-led ministry, the emphasis is placed on the Word and its careful dissemination. People come because they want “depth” in the teaching. The team evaluates every presentation on whether or not the material is explained thoroughly, while being presented in a relevant and timely way. The study becomes the point of the whole presentation, and the worship in song seems more like “preliminaries” to the presentation of the meat to a hungry and often weary traveler.
Paul advocated a team ministry, and he argued that no ministry was what God wanted it to be if it only focused on one direction. It was imbalanced and as unsafe as a child crossing the street only having looked in one direction.
Key Principle: Team ministry and disciple building require looking in two directions – growth inside the work and impact outside the work.
If you listen carefully to the five verses near the beginning of what is now the fourth chapter of Colossians, you will pick out six priorities of a healthy body of believers. If you distill the six, you will see both directions they are to focus – inside and outside the body. Look at the verses for a moment:
Colossians 4:2 Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with [an attitude of] thanksgiving; 3 praying at the same time for us as well, that God will open up to us a door for the word, so that we may speak forth the mystery of Christ, for which I have also been imprisoned; 4 that I may make it clear in the way I ought to speak. 5 Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity. 6 Let your speech always be with grace, [as though] seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person.
First, Paul offered an “INSIDE focus” (between believers) in three priorities:
1. God’s Work is God led – so PRAYER is essential (Col. 4:2a).
Anyone can do philanthropy – with or without the leading of the Holy Spirit. They can do GOOD work – but they cannot truly do GOD’S work – because they aren’t being led by God. There is a flesh alternative to almost every spirit work – and we must be wise to recognize which is God’s direction and path.
Colossians 4:2a: Devote yourselves to prayer. What a simple statement. It doesn’t say, PRAY. It says “devote yourselves”. The term proskarteréō is a combination of a prefix “pros”, which in this context means “towards, interacting with” and “karteréō”, a word of some intensity that can be translated to “show steadfast strength”. The idea of kartereo was derived from krátos, which means the FINAL JUDGMENT that comes by “prevailing strength”. The word DEMOCRATIC is from this word, and means “gets its judgment strength from the common people”. In the Scripture, the idea of DEVOTING OURSELVES means “to continue to consistently do something with deliberate and intense effort, with the implication of expecting resistance and difficulty – as in the idea ‘to persist’.
The believers needed to be instructed that God’s empowering followed the believer’s requests for that power. The requests were to be steady, deliberate, consistent, and resistant to distraction.
Does that describe your walk with God? Does it describe our church?
What are we asking God to do in this place, and how consistently are we asking Him to do it? How SET are we on the life of prayer?
2. God’s Work is God filtered – so events must be viewed through the lens of God’s goodness (Col. 4:2b).
Events that challenge our life will always be on the horizon. Troubles fill our fallen world until the Savior calls for the end of all of this. Yet, believers were told to view their world through a different set of glasses. They were not “rose colored” – but they were GOD COLORED! That is the secret to the words found in Colossians 4:2b: “…keeping alert in it with [an attitude of] thanksgiving.
The phrase follows the command to pray consistently, and cannot be grammatically separated – it was a phrase that described HOW a believer should prayerfully tackle life. Look closely at the description as Paul wrote the words: “keeping alert”. This is the term grēgoreúō – the word we get the name GREGORY from. It literally means to “stay awake”, and comes from the guard duty of a soldier. It was figuratively used to command one to “be vigilant and watchful”.
Think about that for a moment. Paul didn’t say “be thankful”, he said “keep your eyes peeled with an attitude of thankfulness”. When we read these words, there is a natural question: “What am I watching for?” The answer isn’t as simple as you might think.
• We need to watch for those attacks of negative attitudes that will leave us grumbling and unthankful.
• We need to watch for coming difficult things that will challenge us, so that we can pray about them and search for some possible uses God can make of things meant for our harm.
• We need to recognize that with an overwhelming number of troubles, our temptation will be to disengage, and keep ourselves happy and numb – but that isn’t being watchful.
Paul told the Colossian believers they were to PRAY consistently and diligently – but with pray with their EYES OPEN. They were to be ever watchful of the coming troubles on the horizon, gazing at them through ‘God-colored glasses’. The purpose of watching the horizon was NOT to grouse and moan, but to plan. If I cannot ignore the coming troubles, and I cannot grumble about them, what CAN I do? I can pray fervently with my eyes fixed on the horizon. I can see what appears to be coming our way and look for ways God can use it to further His Kingdom through our lives. I cannot moan, but I can plan. I cannot control, but I can pray! The true weakness of the modern church in this hour is that we prefer personal complaint and public protest to consistent expressions of thankful prayer. That is painful for us to admit, but we are constantly tempted to fight a spiritual battle with a political alternative – and that simply won’t work. Political cause can often fill an auditorium, while prayer meetings can just as quickly empty it.
3. God’s Work is Vast – so keep your eyes open to the fields outside the one you are working within (Col. 4:3-4).
Paul told the believers they were to pray consistently and expectantly – but they were also to pray generously. Their prayer time was to be balanced between anticipation of both challenges and blessings from God, and looking TO OTHER PLACES where God was at work. He was careful to tell them WHERE to focus, as well as WHAT to focus upon. Look at his words:
Colossians 4:3 praying at the same time for us as well, that God will open up to us a door for the word, so that we may speak forth the mystery of Christ, for which I have also been imprisoned; 4 that I may make it clear in the way I ought to speak.
Paul didn’t want prayer to become an exercise in INTROSPECTION ALONE. Immature believers spend all their time focused on THEIR OWN NEEDS, praying with the urgency of people who think that prayer is about INFORMATION. God KNOWS what you need. We don’t present it to inform God – but to conform to God’s work and plan. We KNOW God can work, but we want to be a part of that work.
Along with praying for our own needs, which is something we should and will do, we should pray for those outside our immediate circle of life. Paul urged the people to pray for HIS TEAM as they moved about with God’s Word. He implored them to seek God’s aid as they shared reveled truths to those who had not received them yet. He asked them for one specific request – that Paul would be clear and speak as he ought.
This is the call for those of us who speak for God – that we not ad lib, that we not obscure – but that God’s Words are faithfully, carefully and distinctly set in front of people. We must be careful about our commentary, and clear in our delivery. We should not seek, nor should we hunger to have our words and thoughts remembered – but HIS words and thoughts. Our job, on our best day, is to relay a message from God’s Word, delivered in harmony with the empowering of God’s Spirit. Our message is to be Biblical, practical and clear – and that is what Paul asked people to pray for concerning his work.
Let me ask a pointed question: “How much time have you spent asking God to get the message of the Word out from this church, its mission staff, or from any other work God is doing on the globe?” Can I kick a Biblical truth around for a moment? If the empowering of the work is through prayer, how much power are we expecting to see when we invest little in asking? I think you see where I am going with this. Let’s just agree that we will see more when we SEEK more. Sometimes, we have not, because we ask not.
Take a moment now, and review the three INSIDE FOCUS priorities, and then we’ll move on in the text:
• The people were called to devote themselves to prayer. Prayer is the engine of God’s empowering, the check of self-will, and the typical expression of a heart dependent and thankful.
• The people were implored to be alert with an attitude of thanksgiving. A piercing look at life through the lens of God’s goodness fuels a thankful heart, an appreciative spirit, a renewed reliance of trust in the intrinsic righteousness and sound wisdom of our Master.
• The people were told to pray for others in the fields beyond their own. A sweeping view of the whole horizon of God’s work among partners around the globe guards us against tunnel vision, and invites us to celebrate the body world-wide.
Next, Paul offered an “OUTSIDE Focus” (toward the world) in three other priorities:
1. Believers must be circumspect and wise in deportment – we must conduct ourselves in an exemplary way (Col. 4:5a).
People take their first step toward Christ, very commonly, watching someone who already belongs to Him navigate difficulties of life. That isn’t always the case – but most of the time, that is true. People watch believers before they see Christ. When Paul admonished in Colossians 4:5 “Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders…” he was really calling the followers of Jesus to two things:
Watch out that you walk with a view toward your testimony – don’t be unwise in your life in a way that will cause the name of Christ to be defamed. In difficulty, you don’t choose your circumstances – but you do control your choices. Because mature people recognize that life in a fallen world isn’t fair, and that you didn’t necessarily contribute to the disasters that come into your life – they will be slow to blame you for the circumstances – but they will watch your response in attitude and action.
You have faithfully, as best as you were able, walked through a marriage, with all its normal rough spots. You came home and find your spouse with someone else intimately. Your heart is broken. Is there anyone who would blame YOU for the failure? Probably there are, but no one with much life experience. Immature people are quick to judge. Those who live longer know better – simply by personal experience.
Rather than feel like a failure, or try to fit a “D” on your forehead, think about something for a moment. Isn’t the real test of your faith how you respond to this crushing blow?
You worked hard to keep the business on track, but the government began selling in your sector and undercut your prices. Social policies that make an ever-expanding government take over every responsibility of life from feeding children breakfast to backing our home mortgages just decided your trade was a good one for them to invest in. Now they have inadvertently undercut your ability to compete because they use your own tax revenues to defeat your business plan as they underprice and undervalue your service. Your once thriving business fails, and you are forced to release your workers, though you gave all you had to make things work.
Rather than sit and stew at the part of society that votes to destroy your livelihood so that they can seem to get some temporary benefit – you can choose a path of peace and productivity. You are angry, and you feel unjustly broken down. That makes perfect sense to all of us. Your testimony will be seen, though, in how you get up off the mat.
Believers will have greater chances to share Christ from the ashes of their own lives than from the platforms of victory – because far more people draw inspiration from those who rise in spite of the circumstances than those who gloat at award ceremonies because of their victories. We should live in such a way that we use our defeats, our challenges and our victories to reflect God’s values – not in self-exaltation, but in a fixed view toward a positive testimony about HIM to the world. Yet, that is not all that Paul was saying in his call for believers to conduct themselves wisely in the world. There was another aspect to that command…
Watch out for what the outsiders will do to harm God’s church – keep private things private. Paul divided the world in the statement “Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders…” – can you see that? Paul split the world between those INSIDE and those OUTSIDE. He made the point that some things don’t belong being aired before the world. The intimate workings of God’s people, and in particular the disciplines that sometimes must be applied to God’s family, must not be placed before a lost world. We must learn to keep family business inside the family.
A Bible study leader was pulled over by a policeman on his way back from a family birthday barbecue and cited for being over the limit in blood alcohol. He gets home and calls his Pastor and says that he was wrong, and he would like help. He isn’t an alcoholic, but he used poor judgment, and he now recognizes that he needs to place very tight limits on his life. He also goes on a diet, and cuts down his media and television time. He and his wife begin a program of accountability with each other on a series of disciplines. A few months pass, and the Pastor checks in on the couple by phone and gets a “two thumbs up” and puts him back in the rotation for teaching the Bible study. Someone who reads every day’s police blotter in the local paper, without speaking to anyone in leadership about the issue, begins to raise concerns with people both in the church, and in the trailer park where the Bible study is held. Unbelievers are informed that this is a “compromised” Bible study, and the attendance drops off. People from the park ask the Bible study leader to step aside, and the whole group becomes known as the “drunkard’s study”, killing the outreach. One believer, thinking they were doing “God’s work” of keeping people righteous, ended up killing the outreach opportunity. All they really needed to do was sit down with their Pastor and check that the situation was being addressed properly by leaders. Instead, they exposed a brother to ridicule, and brought the work of Jesus to a standstill in that place.
It is essential that believers understand that even their good friends in the world don’t have the same Spirit, and therefore don’t share the same ultimate realities and ends. They may be affirming, but the spiritual aspects of life aren’t fully grasped without the work of the Spirit of God within – and they don’t have that! It is true that believers fail to live the standards of the Word – it is equally true that we need to provide a SAFE PLACE where correction can occur without the public grandstanding of the Pharisee that cries out: “Thank you Lord that I am not as these sinners are!”
2. Believers must keep watch on the time clock – our opportunities slip away swiftly (Col. 4:5b).
Men and women of God must watch out for their testimony – that much is clear. Yet, there is another enticement that is equally alluring – the idea that we have MUCH TIME to begin to live for God, to share God’s salvation, to show love to people in the world around us. Paul wrote to the believers in Colossians 4:5b “…making the most of the opportunity.”
Some among us will “perk up” when we hear that this term for “making the most” is actually an ancient SHOPPING TERM. The word eks-agorázo is take from ek which means “completely out from” a prefix which intensifies agorázō – the term for “buying up at the marketplace”). This is a word for the shopper that finds the incredible sale seizes that buying-opportunity, This is the man who bought twenty cases of dog food because it was “practically a give-away price” – (fat pooch to follow).
The simple point of the word is this – we think we have more time than we do to get God’s things done. The word kairós is translated time, but it has a greater meaning. It is more properly the word “opportunity”. The word kairós (“opportune time”) is derived from kara (“head”) and refers to things “coming to a head. God brings about the “favorable moment” in our lives, and desires that believers look for the opening.
The difference between a good running back in the NFL and a great running back is this: one can spot the openings in the other team’s defensive lines. All the players on the field are strong – or they wouldn’t have made the cut. All the players can run – or they would be of no value to their respective franchises. What makes some men particularly valuable is they can see the play in their head before it happens on the field. They ANTICIPATE the opening, and get ready for it.
Not everyone can relate to athletics. Some of you may see it better this way:
The greatest benefit to playing chess is that when one learns the game well, you learn to think five, and even ten moves out. Strategy is the ability to see the range of responsive moves your opponent will make, and plot an alternate response to each – ending in your win.
Believers don’t simply need to read the second part of Colossians 4 and say, “Gee, I need to really use time better!” That isn’t the whole point. What Paul was calling for was “watchfulness” – not regret. We are called here to live strategically, looking down the road at the ways we will live out a testimony in the different circumstances that appear to be emerging on the horizon.
3. Believers must learn to guard our mouths – speaking in a way that covers our brothers and sisters (Col. 4:6).
One of the chief places believers damage God’s work today is the use of our mouths. I do it, and you do it too. We say the wrong thing, we say the right things insensitively or at the wrong time, or we speak the truth to the wrong people for the wrong reasons. Paul urged: Colossian 4:6 Let your speech always be with grace, [as though] seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person.
We have spoken about salt and the “salt covenant” in the past a number of times. Remember that salt was a commodity in antiquity that was traded for all kinds of goods. We get the term “salary” from salt. We get expressions from our past, like “He’s not worth his weight in salt!” as a way of expressing someone is marrying a man less worthy of the covenant.
Salt was used to preserve meats and vegetables, but it was also used in the Near East as a covenant symbol. For the Levites (Numbers 18) salt was a reminder that God promised to be faithful to them if they shared God’s truth with the tribes who were apportioned property. God would not forget them – He would be LOYAL. In the Davidic line, salt was a symbol of the LOYALTY of God to the promise He made concerning David’s line – a point that King Abijah made to King Jeroboam when the tribes of Israel attacked the household of David in Judah (2 Chron. 13).
When Jesus said that His followers were the “salt of the earth” in Matthew 5:13, He also spoke of LOYALTY – though in Matthew it is hard to see it. In the cross reference in Mark 9:50 it is clearer, where Jesus followed the saying with “Have salt in yourselves, have peace with one another.” (Mark 9:50). The clear statement was that LOYALTY between believers should bring PEACEFUL RELATIONSHIPS in the same place.
This is a very old idea, and one that Leonardo da Vinci knew when he painted “The Last Supper” in what is now the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria della Grazie, in the northern Italian city of Milan. He began the work just after Columbus discovered the New World – painting around 1495 for his patron Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan. If you look very closely on the table – there is a HINT that Jesus has told the men that “One of you is going to betray Me!” You can see the troubled faces. You can see that Judas has left. If you look closely, you will see the salt container is spilled out on the table – because the loyalty of a disciple has been broken.
Don’t get lost in the history. Remember the simple call of Paul. Our speech is to be gracious, but our speech is to be LOYAL. We should speak of each other in a way that is not demeaning, and not disclose personal problems without the most urgent need to do so. People will ask about the other people we know – and we need to know how to respond graciously and loyally, but truthfully and honestly. We must represent Christ in our mouths as much as any other part of our lives. James exclaimed: “See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small flame!”
At long last, we can see that believers must not only look INWARD to the needs and actions of the Body of Christ, but also OUTWARDLY to the world.
• We need to be circumspect and wise in our conduct – the world is watching how we live.
• We need to be watchful for opportunity – the world is fading away quickly.
• We need to be careful with our words – the world is listening to how we speak, even of each other.