The Speech of Prayer
Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with an attitude of thanksgiving. (4:2)
It is fitting that Paul begins with prayer, because it is the most important speech the new man can utter. Prayer is the strength of the believer’s fellowship with the Lord and the source of his power against Satan and his angels (cf. Eph. 6:18). Through prayer, believers confess their sin, offer praise to God, call on their sympathetic High Priest (Heb. 4:15–16), and intercede for each other. Prayer from a pure heart (Ps. 66:18) is to be directed to God (Matt. 6:9), consistent with the mind and will of the Holy Spirit (Eph. 6:18), in the name of Christ, and for the glory of the Father (John 14:13).
In 4:2, Paul touches on an often overlooked aspect of prayer, that of perseverance. Devote yourselves is from proskartereō, a compound word made up of kartereō (“to be steadfast,” or “to endure”) with an added preposition that intensifies the meaning. The verb means “to be courageously persistent,” “to hold fast and not let go.” Paul is calling strongly on believers to persist in prayer. They are to “pray at all times” (Eph. 6:18; cf. Luke 18:1), “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17), and be devoted to prayer (Rom. 12:12). By so doing, they follow the example of Cornelius (Acts 10:2) and the apostles (Acts 6:4).
Praying at all times is not necessarily limited to constant vocalizing of prayers to God. Rather, it refers to a God consciousness that relates every experience in life to Him. That does not, however, obviate the need for persistence and earnestness in prayer. Such persistence is illustrated repeatedly in Scripture. The 120 disciples gathered in the Upper Room “were continually devoting themselves to prayer” (Acts 1:14). The early church followed their example (cf. Acts 2:42).
Our Lord told two parables illustrating the importance of persistent prayer:
Now He was telling them a parable to show that at all times they ought to pray and not to lose heart, saying, “There was in a certain city a judge who did not fear God, and did not respect man. And there was a widow in that city, and she kept coming to him, saying, ‘Give me legal protection from my opponent.’ And for a while he was unwilling; but afterward he said to himself, ‘Even though I do not fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow bothers me, I will give her legal protection, lest by continually coming she wear me out.’ ” And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge said; now shall not God bring about justice for His elect, who cry to Him day and night, and will He delay long over them? I tell you that He will bring about justice for them speedily.” (Luke 18:1–8)
And He said to them, “Suppose one of you shall have a friend, and shall go to him at midnight, and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves; for a friend of mine has come to me from a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; and from inside he shall answer and say, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been shut and my children and I are in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his persistence he will get up and give him as much as he needs. And I say to you, ask, and it shall be given to you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and he who seeks, finds; and to him who knocks, it shall be opened.” (Luke 11:5–10)
The point of both those parables is that if unwilling and sinful humans will honor persistence, how much more will our holy, loving heavenly Father?
Virginia Stem Owens wrote the following about wrestling with God in earnest prayer:
Christians have always interpreted the splitting of the temple veil during the crucifixion as symbolic of their liberation from the mediated presence of God. Henceforth they were “free” to approach him directly—which is almost like telling someone he is “free” to stick his head in the lion’s jaws. For once you start praying there is no guarantee that you won’t find yourself before Pharaoh, shipwrecked on a desert island, or in a lion’s den.
This is no cosmic teddy bear we are cuddling up to. As one of the children describes him in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, “he’s not a tame lion.” [Jacques] Ellul is convinced that prayer for persons living in the technological age must be combat, and not just combat with the Evil One, with one’s society, or even one’s divided self, though it is also all of these; it is combat with God. We too must struggle with him just as Jacob did at Peniel where he earned his name Israel—“he who strives with God.” We too must be prepared to say, “I will not let you go till you bless me.”
Consider Moses, again and again intervening between the Israelites and God’s wrath; Abraham praying for Sodom; the widow demanding justice of the unjust judge. But in this combat with God, Ellul cautions, we must be ready to bear the consequences: … “Jacob’s thigh was put out of joint, and he went away lame. However, the most usual experience will be God’s decision to put to work the person who cried out to him.… Whoever wrestles with God in prayer puts his whole life at stake.”
Awful things happen to people who pray. Their plans are frequently disrupted. They end up in strange places. Abraham “went out, not knowing where he was to go”.… After Mary’s magnificent prayer at the annunciation, she finds herself the pariah of Nazareth society.… How tempting to up the stakes, making prayer merely another consumer product. How embarrassing to have to admit not only that prayer may get you into a prison, as it did Jeremiah, but also that while you’re moldering away in a miry pit there, you may have a long list of lamentations and unanswered questions to present to your Lord. How are we going to tell them they may end up lame and vagrant if they grasp hold of this God? (“Prayer—Into the Lion’s Jaws,” Christianity Today, November 19, 1976, pp. 222–23; italics in the original)
That stands in marked contrast to the glib, self-centered prayers of our day. Much of the contemporary church has lost its reverence for God. He is too often viewed as a sort of cosmic automatic teller machine. If we punch in the right code, He’s obligated to deliver what we want. The Lord might well ask the twentieth-century church what He asked the rebellious priests of Malachi’s day: “ ‘A son honors his father, and a servant his master. Then if I am a father, where is My honor? And if I am a master, where is My respect?’ says the Lord of hosts” (Mal. 1:6).
True prayer often involves struggling and grappling with God, proving to Him the deepest concern of one’s heart. Prayer is to be a persistent, courageous struggle from which the believer may come away limping.
Such prayer gives the believer a holy boldness to pray forcefully when convinced of God’s will, as the following example shows.
In 1540 Luther’s great friend and assistant, Friedrich Myconius, became sick and was expected to die within a short time. On his bed he wrote a loving farewell note to Luther with a trembling hand. Luther received the letter and sent back a reply: “I command thee in the name of God to live because I still have need of thee in the work of reforming the church.… The Lord will never let me hear that thou art dead, but will permit thee to survive me. For this I am praying, this is my will, and may my will be done, because I seek only to glorify the name of God.”
Those words are shocking to us, but they were certainly heartfelt. Although Myconius had already lost the ability to speak when Luther’s letter came, he recovered completely and lived six more years to survive Luther himself by two months.
There is a tension between boldness and waiting on God’s will. That tension is resolved by being persistent, yet accepting God’s answer when it finally comes.
True prayer also involves keeping alert. In its most basic sense, that means to stay awake and not fall asleep during prayer. While in Gethsamane, Jesus “came to the disciples and found them sleeping, and said to Peter, ‘So, you men could not keep watch with Me for one hour? Keep watching and praying, that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak’ ” (Matt. 26:40–41). It is impossible to pray while sleeping. Christians should choose times when they are awake and alert to pray.
Paul’s thought here, however, is broader than mere physical alertness. He also means that believers should look for those things about which they ought to be praying. Christians sometimes pray vague, general prayers that are difficult for God to answer because they do not really ask anything specific. To be devoted to prayer requires something specific to pray for. We will never persistently pray for something we are not concerned about. And to be concerned, we must be alert to specific needs.
A third element in prayer is an attitude of thanksgiving. This is the fifth time that Paul has mentioned gratitude in this epistle. Believers are to be grateful for salvation (1:12), for growth (2:6), for fellowship with Christ and His church (3:15), for the opportunity to serve (3:17), and, here, for the guarantee that God will answer prayer in accordance with His purpose. That, of course, is what is best for our good in time and our glory in eternity.
When believers pray, they can begin by being thankful for the following spiritual blessings and privileges. First, believers are to be thankful for God’s presence. In Psalm 75:1, the psalmist writes, “We give thanks to Thee, O God, we give thanks, for Thy name is near.” Second, believers are to be thankful for God’s provision. Adrift at sea in the midst of a raging storm, Paul nevertheless was grateful to God for the food He provided: “He took bread and gave thanks to God in the presence of all” (Acts 27:35). Third, believers are to be thankful for God’s pardon. Paul said in Romans 6:17, “Thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed.” Christians should be grateful for their salvation. Fourth, believers are to be thankful for God’s promise: “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:57; cf. 2 Cor. 2:14). “For as many as may be the promises of God, in Him they are yes; wherefore also by Him is our Amen to the glory of God through us” (2 Cor. 1:20). Finally, believers are to be thankful for God’s purpose: “We know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28).
2 Earlier in the letter, Paul informed the Colossians that he and Timothy prayed incessantly for them (1:3, 9). In concluding the epistle, he informs the congregation that Epaphras is always agonizing in prayer on their behalf (4:12). Here, the apostle enjoins the assembly to persevere in prayer (cf. Ro 12:12; Eph 6:18; 1 Th 5:17). Paul presupposes the importance of prayer and encourages believers to be at prayer (cf. 1 Co 7:5; Php 4:6). He shared a commitment to prayer with his fellow Jews, including Jesus, and with the early church (Mt 6:5–13; Lk 5:16; Ac 1:14; 2:42; Jas 5:13–18).
The Colossians are to devote themselves to and be “watchful” in prayer. Holding spiritual sleep in abeyance, they are to be alert in prayer and not to succumb to slumber as Jesus’ disciples did in the garden of Gethsemane (Mt 26:40–46). Watchful prayer enables disciples to see what God is doing and to discern what sinister forces might be seeking to undo (cf. 1 Pe 5:8). The eschatological orientation of Paul’s admonition to be watchful in prayer should be noted. The gospel of Luke explicitly conjoins watching and praying with Christ’s coming (Lk 21:36; cf. also Mk 13:32–37), and it is altogether likely that Paul is tapping into this stream of Jesus tradition (so, rightly, Dunn, 262; contra Caird, 210).
In addition to being watchful in prayer, the Colossians are to be “thankful” in their praying. Thanksgiving, a theme woven through this letter, appears here for the final time (cf. 1:3, 12; 2:7; 3:15–17). Gratitude is a grace that Christian people are to cultivate. Instead of continually complaining to or presuming upon God, believers would do well to recall that we have nothing that we did not receive from God (1 Co 4:7), the One from whom and through whom and to whom all good things flow (Ro 11:36; cf. Jas 1:17). Paul would have concurred with the psalmist: “It is good to give thanks to the Lord” (Ps 92:1 NASB). His admonition to the Thessalonians is applicable to all Christians in all places at all times: “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Th 5:18; cf. Eph 5:20). Thankfulness should be threaded through our lives even as it is throughout this letter.
Prayer and the believer (vv. 2)
Does God really answer prayer? If so, God’s Children need to ‘continue [persevere] earnestly in prayer, being vigilant in it with thanksgiving’. Prayer prevails with God because we are his adopted Children (Gal. 4:6). These words echo the words of our Saviour who taught that ‘men always ought to pray and not lose heart’ (Luke 18:1). Time must be set aside for prayer. Jesus told the parables of the friend at midnight (Luke 11:5–8) and the unjust judge (Luke 18:1–8) to encourage us to intercede until the answers come.
prayer is a battle: ‘continue earnestly in prayer’. Mental, emotional and physical effort is involved in prayer, and one can feel exhausted by it all. This is because it has to do with the whole person. Thus when we pray the mind is engaged (1 Cor. 14:15), the will is involved (Acts 12:5) and the heart is burdened (James 5:16). This is illustrated both by our Saviour in Gethsemane, where he was ‘exceedingly sorrowful, even to death’ (Matt. 26:38–44), and by Jacob, when he wrestled in prayer at Peniel and would not let Jehovah go until he was blessed by him (Gen. 32:24–31).
prayer is a ministry: ‘being vigilant in it’. Prayer is vital if the ‘spoilers’ are not to corrupt the minds and hearts of the believing members. Satan wants to irritate and distract with disputes, problems, etc., but it is a saint’s duty to bring all these issues to God in prayer. When this is done, Satan will fail and the ‘spoilers’ will not succeed (James 4:8). Prayer cannot be made if you are asleep, as it is wakeful fellowship and communion with the Father through the Son by the help of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 26:40–41a).
prayer brings victory: ‘with thanksgiving’. Prayer brings victory when it is full of thanksgiving. Paul adds the element of thanksgiving deliberately, because praise of this sort ‘imparts spiritual freshness to prayer’ (Carson). Let every Christian be grateful for grace, happy about holiness and delighted with so great a salvation (1 Thes. 5:18). The Fatherhood of God is evident here, and the mystical spiritual relationship which believers have with Christ is emphasized. The best types of prayers are those ‘according to his will’ (1 John 5:14–15). Jesus taught us in the Lord’s Prayer to say ‘Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ (Matt. 6:10). Faith tells us that God’s good pleasure is best for us because his wisdom is to be preferred to ours. We need therefore to submit to his will with meekness, while putting away self-will and pride.
4:2 / The opening verse in this section continues the ideas on corporate worship that were developed in 3:16–18. The summons to devote yourselves to prayer is a theme that is repeated a number of times in the nt (Luke 18:1; Acts 1:14; 1:24; 6:4; Rom. 12:12; Eph. 6:18). This idea of persistence is emphasized by the additional exhortation to be watchful (grēgoreō) and thankful. Thus it is not just the importance of prayer but the manner in which it is offered that is stressed.
This exhortation may be a caution against casualness in prayer. The call to “watchfulness” formed one of the categories of the baptismal (catechetical) instruction that was given to new Christians (cf. Eph. 6:18–20: “Pray … be alert”; 1 Pet. 4:7; “clear minded … pray”; 5:8: “Be self-controlled and alert”). Its inclusion in Colossians is another example of traditional material that was taken over and applied to the situation at Colossae.
Prayer is to be offered in thanksgiving. This is the seventh time that thanksgiving is mentioned in the letter (1:3, 12; 2:7; 3:15, 16, 17). Both thanksgiving and prayer are appropriate responses of the Christian and should be exercised by the worshiping community as well as by the individual. It is the pattern that Paul followed in the letter as he thanked God for the Colossians (1:3–8) and then prayed specifically for them (1:9–14).
Communication: Sharing Our Most with God (v. 2)
Supporting Idea: Believers should pray with diligence, awareness, and thanks.
4:2. Paul has reminded believers that they are identified with an extraordinary Christ who has absolute supremacy. He has called believers (ordinary people) to live their ordinary lives in an extraordinary way. How is the believer to accomplish such a challenging assignment? Is assistance available? Yes. The believer is not alone in a world of temptation and deception. Strength and perspective are always available by looking above in prayer. Paul exhorts believers to pray with (1) diligence, (2) awareness, (3) gratitude.
Prayer should be done with diligence. Devote means “be busily engaged in,” persist in, or give constant attention.” Prayer in the believer’s life is not just an option for occasional emergencies. If believers are to withstand the constant pressures of a fallen and unfriendly world, an attitude of persistence and perseverance in prayer is needed.
Watchful literally means “stay awake” and refers to an attitude of being spiritually alert. Using the same term, Peter encouraged his readers to “be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8, emphasis added). Believers need to be alert because Satan wants to devour them. Colossians tells believers to be alert because false teachers want to deceive them. Believers need to be aware of the evil forces which seek to tantalize and capture them. If believers wish to be wide awake in their prayer life, the insight of C. S. Lewis can be helpful:
No one in his senses, if he has any power of ordering his own day, would reserve his chief prayers for bedtime—obviously the worst possible hour for any action which needs concentration.… My own plan, when hard pressed, is to seize any time, and place, however unsuitable, in preference to the last waking moment.… The body ought to pray as well as the head” (The Joyful Christian, New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1977, 88–89).
Finally, Paul calls believers to thankful prayer. Believers who pray with gratitude for God’s blessing will be less likely to be led astray by the lures and lies of the enemy.
4:2. As Paul is now approaching the close of the letter he issues certain admonitions of a general nature, as in 3:1–17; with emphasis on the positive, cf. 3:12–17. It is not surprising that, having spoken about the word (3:16), the apostle now stresses the importance of prayer, for word and prayer belong together: in the former God speaks to us, in the latter we to him. Says Paul: Persevere in prayer. Prayer is the most important expression of the new life. As such it is the means of obtaining for ourselves and for others the satisfaction of needs, both physical and spiritual. It is also a divinely appointed weapon against the sinister attack of the devil and his angels, the vehicle for confession of sin, and the instrument whereby the grateful soul pours out its spontaneous adoration before the throne of God on high. Accordingly, perseverance in prayer is urged. See also Acts 1:14; Rom. 12:12; Eph. 6:18. This is in keeping with the teaching of Jesus in which he admonished his disciples to persevere in prayer, and not to lose heart when a petition is not immediately answered (Acts 18:1–8). Paul adds, keeping alert in it. This admonition to remain fully awake in prayer reminds one of Matt. 26:41; Mark 14:38; Luke 22:40, 46. Yet, in these Gospel passages the wakefulness referred to is to be taken more literally, as the respective contexts indicate. What the apostle has in mind is that, while continuing in prayer, the worshiper shall be alive to such matters as: a. his own needs and those of the family, church, country, world, b. the dangers that threaten the Christian community, c. the blessings received and promised, and (last but not least) d. the will of God. Cf. Acts 20:31; 1 Cor. 16:13; 1 Thess. 5:6; 1 Peter 5:8; Rev. 3:2, 3. From the Greek verb which expresses this necessity of being vigilant—a form of grēgoréō (I am awake, I remain alert)—the early Christians coined a favorite proper name: Gregory.
Now when one is deeply and humbly conscious of blessings received and promised he will express his gratitude to God. Hence, Paul continues: with thanksgiving. Cf. Eph. 5:20; 6:18; Phil. 4:6; 1 Thess. 5:18; and see also above, on Col. 3:15, 17. It is worthy of note that the apostle wedges his admonitions to particular groups (3:18–4:1) in between two reminders to give thanks to God (2:17 and 4:2), as if to say, “Wives, husbands, children. fathers, slaves, masters, obey these instructions spontaneously, prompted by gratitude for the many blessings received.”
It should be borne in mind that the man who issues this directive is a prisoner. However, this prisoner is able to thank God even for his chains (Phil. 1:12–14). Surely, on the basis of the thought expressed so beautifully in Rom. 8:28 the believer can be thankful for whatever happens to him.
4:2 Paul never tires of exhorting the people of God to be diligent in their prayer life. Doubtless one of the regrets we all will have when we get to heaven will be that we did not spend more time in prayer, especially when we will realize the extent to which our prayers were answered. There is a great deal of mystery in connection with the whole subject of prayer, many questions which cannot be answered. But the best attitude for the Christian is not to seek to analyze, dissect, or understand prayer’s deeper mysteries. The best approach is to keep praying in simple faith, leaving aside one’s intellectual doubts.
Not only are we to continue earnestly in prayer, but we are also to be vigilant in it. This immediately reminds us of the Lord Jesus’ request to the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation.” They were not vigilant, and so fell sound asleep. Not only are we to watch against sleep, but also against wandering thoughts, listlessness, and unreality. And we are to watch to see that we are not robbed of time for prayer (Eph. 6:18). Then again, our prayers are to be with thanksgiving. Not only are we to be thankful for past answers to prayer, but in faith we can also thank the Lord for prayers He has not answered. Guy King summarizes nicely: “His love wants the best for us; His wisdom knows the best for us; and His power gets the best for us.”
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1992). Colossians (pp. 179–183). Chicago: Moody Press.
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 McNaughton, I. S. (2006). Opening up Colossians and Philemon (pp. 82–84). Leominster: Day One Publications.
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