How are we to understand these various Scripture verses that encourage us to “be in constant prayer” (Romans 12:12), “pray at all times” (Ephesians 6:18), “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17), and “continue in prayer” (Col 4:2)? Can we fulfill them by setting an app on our smart phones to remind us to pray 15 minutes of every hour? If not number of minutes, what are the authors asking us to do?
It’s easy to approach a verse like Colossians 4:2 with a particular theology of how prayer works and leave with that theology reinforced. Since Paul is not specific about what he’s asking them to do, Bible students fill in the gaps with their own theology. The challenge is let the overall context and theme of this letter inform our understanding of 4:2.
Paul is writing to a church on the verge of believing a legalistic gospel. This legalistic gospel claims we must practice certain practices to maintain our favor with God.
In Colossians 1, Paul encouraged the Colossians to flee from these “teachings of men” and to remain true to the apostolic gospel: namely that we are saved by grace through faith in the blood of Jesus Christ. He began his main point in Colossians 2:
In Colossians 3, through a series of exhortations he gave examples of how belief makes a difference in our lives. Colossians 4 is Paul’s conclusion.
Primer on prayer
The Parable of the widow and the unjust judge asks the question will we pray? Or will we give up?
This parable is often misunderstood as saying: if I really want something from God, I need to keep going back until I wear him out. Rather the point is: If it made sense for the widow to keep turning to an unjust judge, how much more sense does it make for God’s people to keep seeking Him knowing that He is just and good and loving? Of course the Lord won’t turn away from the cries of His chosen ones. Thus we ought to keep praying and not lose heart.
In a similar close in 1 Thessalonians, the emphasis is rejoice, pray and give thanks in every kind of circumstance, knowing that God has a plan and a purpose for them.
The admonition then is not go through the motions of prayer as much as you can and as often as you can. The admonition is to rejoice, pray and be grateful in all kinds of situations: the highs and lows; the tragedies and the triumphs.
Paul is writing to people on the verge of turning to a false gospel. Throughout the letter he has been encouraging them to remain faithful and cling to the truth. We would expect his summary to reflect that theme.
- The admonition in 4:2 is to continue to trust and turn to God in the sense of persevere (not in the sense of spend 10 hours instead of 1 hour).
- “Being watchful” in the sense of stay awake because you know the thief is coming in the night (Luke 12:35-40). Don’t get distracted by the cares of this world.
- Prayer is not something we do to entice or manipulate God into acting. That kind of thinking is appealing to us because we want to be in control.
- We ought to pour out our hearts to God in prayer with an attitude of humble acceptance of His answer whatever it is.
- Walk in wisdom (4:5) as opposed to folly. Likewise, speak with an understanding of grace (4:6) Live your life with a clear understanding of the hope of the gospel and resist the temptation to fit in.
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Study: Colossians Resources
Scripture quotes are from the English Standard Version of the Bible.