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:
I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments. – Colossians 2:4
Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, – Colossians 2:6
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?
1And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. 2He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. 3And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ 4For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, 5yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’” 6And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. 7And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? 8I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” – Luke 18:1-8
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.
15See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. 16Rejoice always, 17pray without ceasing, 18give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. -1Thessalonians 5:15-18
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.
2Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. 3At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison— 4that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak. 5Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. 6Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person. – Colossians 4:2-6
- 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.