This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Author: Rev. Stephen Rhoda of Sioux Center, Iowa
In each of these two passages of God’s Word, we hear the resounding call of God to be His people of prayer.
Psalm 116 makes it clear that prayer is the response to God’s salvation. Listen to verses 1 and 2 of that Psalm. They say - “I love the LORD, for He heard my voice; He heard my cry for mercy. Because He turned His ear to me, I will call on Him as long as I live.” Verses 12 and 13 say- “How can I repay the LORD for all His goodness to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the LORD.” Again, verse 17 says- “I will sacrifice a thank offering to you and call on the name of the LORD.” To call on the name of the Lord is to pray. And the reason we pray every day as believers in Jesus Christ is because God has already heard and answered our prayerful cry for salvation through Jesus Christ. It’s just as the Heidelberg Catechism says- “Prayer is the most important part of the thankfulness God requires of us?” (Question & Answer 116).
But even as God’s Word calls us to pray, it also instructs us what to pray for. And that brings us to Colossians 4:2-4. This passage calls us to pray specifically for the ministry of those who proclaim the Word of God. Starting at home from pulpits across the land, but even more, through missionaries far and wide, the church must be proclaiming the Word of God. And while we may not all be called to preach, every last one of us is called to pray, for the ministry of God’s Word. We must support those who proclaim with our finances, prayers, and encouragement. And given our generally well to do status within a culture of wealth and abundance, the easiest part may very well be our financial support. But the hardest part may be our prayer support. And in order that we might recommit ourselves to praying for the ministry of God’s Word, let us consider from God’s Word the call to pray for those who proclaim.
In Colossians 4:2-4, we hear the apostle Paul wrapping up his letter to the Colossians. It seems that when Paul wrote this letter he had in mind certain main issues and themes that he hoped to address in that church. But, when the end of the letter came around, he was left with a whole list of additional, very important matters yet to be addressed. For the apostle Paul, it was no small undertaking to write and deliver a letter across hundreds of miles. So rather than miss the opportunity to say what needs to be said, Paul concludes his letter with several additional, very important matters at the end of his letter.
So in Colossians 4:2-4, we hear Paul addressing the matter of prayer and calling the church to be in prayer. And within these three verses that constitute his instruction on prayer, we might take each verse as a separate point. First, in verse 2, Paul calls upon the church to pray with devotion. Second, in verse 3, he calls upon the church to pray for an open door for the gospel. And third, in verse 4, Paul calls upon the church to pray for a clear proclamation of the gospel. Can there be any doubt what Paul expects the church to be about? We might be reminded here of Jesus’ words to the apostles upon His ascension. In Mark 16:15, Jesus says- “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.”
Now, when we hear Jesus commission His disciples in this way, we understand Him to be speaking to the church as a whole. This commission, this assignment, belongs to the whole church. But not everyone, obviously, is called to be among those who go out into all the world or stand in the pulpit. And yet, no one in the church is left out of this commissioning, because there are other roles, other supporting ministries to be undertaken and fulfilled. And one role that everyone is called to fill is prayer.
I. Pray with Devotion
So let’s first consider the call of the Spirit in Colossians 4 to pray with devotion. Verse 2 says- “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.” Now when we hear the words “devote yourselves” and hear the call to pray with “devotion,” we will likely think of our concept of “devotions.” We are likely to think of reading our Bibles and spending time in prayer to start the day, at meal times, and hopefully even to end the day. And this is certainly not an inappropriate understanding or use of the word “devotions.” But consider with me what Paul is saying here. The word in the original language here conveys the idea of perseverance, so that another version of the Bible puts it this way- “Continue steadfastly in prayer.” (ESV)
“Perseverance in prayer” -- “Steadfastness in prayer.” That’s the idea being conveyed here, which might be understood in two ways. On one hand, devoting ourselves to prayer means to persevere in prayer throughout the day. Now obviously we have other very legitimate things to do, things by which to serve Christ faithfully. Obviously we are not called simply to stay in our homes and to pray all day long as we neglect our other duties. But if our heart beats with the heart of the church, and if the church’s heart beats with the heart of God, then surely we will be mindful of prayer throughout the day, all day long.
But on the other hand, devoting ourselves to prayer means to persevere in prayer day by day. It’s not entirely clear whether Paul means to continue in prayer throughout the day or to continue in prayer day by day. Perhaps he has both in mind. But the idea is to pray and to keep on praying. And this is certainly not the only place where Paul conveys as much. In 1 Thessalonians 5:17, he writes- “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances.”
Even more, such instruction ought to remind us of the parable of the persistent widow in Luke 18. This widow pesters a judge until he grants her request simply to get her off his back and out of his hair. And the point of the parable is not that God is reluctant to hear His children praying nor that it bothers Him when we pray much. The point is clear from the parable that we are to pray persistently, persevering in prayer, praying without ceasing, as we devote ourselves to prayer.
II. Pray for An Open Door for the Gospel
But secondly, the apostle Paul calls upon the church to pray specifically for an open door for the gospel. Verse 3 of our text says- “And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains.” More literally, the call here is to pray “that God may open to us a door for the Word.” (ESV)
This brings up some important matters. What we see in the book of Acts is that the apostles have been entrusted with the ministry of preaching God’s Word. However, God remains sovereign. He is still in control of where His Word is preached and who responds to it in faith. In Acts 16, verse 6, for example, Luke records that “Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia.” And in the very next verse it says- “When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to.” God was clearly leading and directing the apostles to go where He wanted them to go, to preach to whomever He wanted them to preach. Even more, again in Acts 16, later in verse 14, it records that “one of those listening was a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, who was a worshiper of God.” That is, she was a follower of Judaism. And it says, “the Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.”
Such passages could lead us to consider teachings like election and predestination and the gift of faith. The point here is to point out the sovereignty of God in the preaching of the gospel. It is for the sake of hearing the call to pray. “What’s the connection?” someone might ask. And it’s really a wonderful connection! The connection is this that God has ordained to work through the prayers of the church, in bringing the gospel to the world. Paul has learned that the church is not just his financial partner. In fact, Paul often refused the financial support of the church if he thought it would lessen the effectiveness of his ministry. The partnership that Paul never refused but always sought out was the partnership of prayer. He had learned that God is sovereignly directing the proclamation of His Word, the gospel. God had sovereignly ordained to work through the prayers of the church.
“And pray for us,” he writes. And the more we know about Paul, the more we can hear the urgency in his words. “Pray for us!!” he cries. “Pray... that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains.” So here is the “power of prayer.” Only let us be careful not to become puffed up in prayer as if we were the source of this power. In fact, it really ought to humble us to be used of God in this way. But the power of prayer is found in these two words- “so that.” “Pray... that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ...” Pray for an open door, because until you do, we can’t proclaim the gospel. Your part, says Paul, is to pray. And until you do your part, we can’t do our part.
It’s not just about seeing God open doors into new regions. It’s about seeing God open the closed hearts of those who are dead in sin. Here we might go into the teachings of scripture regarding the depth of sin in the human heart. But suffice it to hear Paul writing to the Corinthians, to say- “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Corinthians 2:14) Every believer in Jesus Christ has received a new heart from the Sovereign God of his or her salvation. It’s true of every believer in Jesus Christ. Faith is not of us because we are dead in sin. We can’t even understand the gospel, let alone believe it to be saved, unless God opens our hearts. Whether we talk about God opening the heart, or giving us a new heart, or resurrecting our hearts, or giving us to be born from above, God is sovereign in salvation.
And the same connection is found here too. God is sovereign, but He has sovereignly ordained to call upon the church to pray, and in answer to our prayers, to open up hearts to the gospel, like He did the heart of Lydia. (Acts 16:14) And the point is not to share the glory with us or to make us partners with Him in salvation. The point is to make us aware that God is the One who must do this. And God is the One who does do this. The point is to pray for an open door for the gospel and so to prepare us to see His work and to give Him all praise as the gospel goes forward.
This – in part – is why Paul refers to the gospel here as “the mystery of Christ.” For those who have been given to understand and believe the gospel, they can go back even into the pages of the Hebrew scriptures and find the gospel there. In Ephesians 3:4-5, Paul refers to the gospel as “the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets.” And in the same chapter, in verse 9, he refers to “this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things.”
Someone might want to say, “How is it hidden? I see it plainly even in the book of Genesis.” But it’s a mystery because sinners had not yet been given the eyes to see it written plainly on the pages of scripture. Now it is revealed, because Christ has come and the Spirit has been poured out. New life has been given. Even as Paul and the other apostles preached the same scriptures that some even memorized, their eyes were opened, their hearts were opened, the door was opened, that they might understand and believe.
What a privilege! We might have thought that prayer is unengaging. Unengaging? Through the ministry of God’s Word, people are coming to faith in Jesus Christ because we are praying, because God has ordained to use the prayers of His saints to increase the number of His saints in Jesus Christ!
III. Pray for a Clear Proclamation of the Gospel
And finally, Paul calls upon the church to pray for a clear proclamation of the gospel. In verse 4, he writes- “Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should.” Here is the struggle of every person who proclaims the Word of God. When people don’t respond, is it because I haven’t been clear or because God hasn’t yet opened the heart of the unbeliever? Paul says, “Let God be sovereign, but let me be clear.” God’s sovereignty doesn’t mean that those who proclaim His Word don’t have to work hard. God’s sovereignty isn’t an excuse for shoddy ministry. The church is called to pray with devotion. And those who proclaim are called to show the same devotion in their ministry.
Therefore, praying for a clear proclamation of God’s Word means praying also for those who are preparing to stand in the pulpit or to preach on the mission field. We must pray not only for those already in the ministry but also for those who are in training for the ministry. And our specific petition before God, must be for a clear proclamation of the gospel, through all forms of preparation for the ministry.
And it’s worth noting that the apostle Paul is writing this instruction from prison. It’s worth nothing that those who proclaim the Word of God will always meet with the temptation to alter the message. The challenge will always be to proclaim the full counsel of God’s Word and to proclaim it clearly, because the fuller and clearer the proclamation, the greater the persecution will be in response. So we must pray that the proclamation of God’s Word will be full and faithful and that those who proclaim it will have the courage to be clear.
May God bless the ministry of His Word. May God bless each of our missionaries. May God also bless each minister who works to proclaim the Word of God. But here’s the thing, that as God does that, as God blesses missionaries and minister who proclaim His Word, He will do so, at least in part, through us as we pray for them. Here then is the thrilling nature of prayer! People throughout our land, and around the world, will be brought to faith as we pray. May God bless those who proclaim with a church that will continue steadfastly in prayer for them, praying that God will open doors to their ministry, praying that God will bring forth from them a clear proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Liturgical Help: Suggested Hymn of Response - Psalter Hymnal #477