And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
One of the benefits of expositional preaching through small books is that we really get to focus on the details of the Bible. Details like “And so,” at the beginning of this passage. Those little words tell us that Paul’s prayer here flows out of what he has just said in his introduction. “Because of this, we’ve been praying this.” So I want to begin this sermon by talking about what prompted these prayers from Paul, and I want to focus on one element in the passage, and one that is background information. The one from the passage is what Jonathan preached last week: Paul heard from Epaphras about what had been happening since the Colossians first heard the gospel. And what had been happening was a small, young, growing church in Colossae. This is a church that is trusting in Jesus, that is loving one another, and that has a hope in heaven. The gospel is flourishing in Colossae, just as it is everywhere. In light of this new, fledgling church, Paul prays.
The second element is background about Colossae. Colossae is a city in Phrygia, Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). It’s about 125 miles from Ephesus and the coast of the Aegean Sea. It’s a part of a cluster of three cities, along with Laodicea and Hierapolis (cf. Col. 4:13). These three cities are clustered around a river, and they are essentially a crossroads for major trade routes in Asia Minor, one running east to west (Ephesus to Antioch in Pisidia and beyond), and the other veering northwest to Philadelphia and Sardis. From what we know, Colossae was a multi-ethnic city, with Jews, Greeks, and Phrygians in the population, and as a result, a multi-cultural and pluralistic city, with pagan mystery religions, worship of the emperor, worship of the Greek gods, and worship of angels, along with Judaism.
Now I highlight those two elements in order to say this: the book of Colossians is relevant to all people at all times. It’s Bible. However, if you happened to live in a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, syncretistic city that was a part of a cluster of cities along a river and at the crossroads of important trade routes, and if you happened to be a part of a young, fledgling church plant, filled with people who trusted in Jesus and loved one another because of our heavenly hope—if that was the case—then Colossians might have special relevance for you. You don’t have to be a part of a new church in a multi-ethnic city on a river to benefit from Colossians. But if you were a part of such a church in such a city, you might ask yourself, “How does the apostle Paul pray for that kind of church?”
So let’s unpack this prayer. I see four sections to this prayer:
- The primary request (1:9)
- The goal of that request (1:10a)
- An unpacking of that goal that concludes with gratitude to God the Father (1:10b-11)
- A celebration of the Father’s work on our behalf (1:12-14)
We’ll take each of these sections in turn, and then I’ll conclude with an exhortation to this new church in this multi-ethnic cluster of cities on a river.
Paul asks that the Colossians be filled with the knowledge of God’s will. What does he mean? In the Bible, “the will of God” has two main meanings. The first is something like, “Providence” or “What God Decrees Will Happen.” When we say, “If the Lord wills, we will do this or that,” we mean “If God in his providence allows it.” On the other hand, the will of God often means something like “God’s commands” or his expectations for us. “This is the will of God: your sanctification” (1 Thess. 4:3). In Romans 2:18, Paul speaks of knowing God’s will and approving what is excellent because we are instructed from his law. In this case, I think this second meaning is what Paul is praying for. I think that mainly because nowhere in the Bible are we commanded to somehow discern God’s providential plan ahead of time. We’re not commanded to go searching for the needle in the haystack. Instead, we’re commanded to hear and obey the revealed will of God that we have in the Bible. So it makes sense for Paul to pray that we would be filled with the knowledge of God’s will, as it is revealed in the Bible, as it is revealed in the rest of this letter. Paul wants us to know what God expects of us.
But he doesn’t just want us to know a list of rules. There are rules, laws, and commands, and Paul prays that we would be filled with the knowledge of them. But he prays that we would have such knowledge “in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.” I take this to mean that there is a kind of wisdom, produced by the Holy Spirit (the word “spiritual” in the New Testament doesn’t mean “immaterial,” but “produced by the Holy Spirit”), that discerns how and when to apply the commands and expectations of God in a variety of circumstances. So we fill ourselves with the commands and promises of God, and then the Holy Spirit does an internal work that enables us to approve what is excellent, to discern what is best at any given moment, to apply the right command at the right time in the right way. That’s what wisdom does: it makes a match between the truth and life. Is there any supporting evidence that Paul thinks that way in Colossians?
Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. (1:29)
Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you, always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God. (4:12)
Note the common threads: Paul proclaims Christ, warning and teaching (that’s Bible / will of God) with wisdom, so that everyone grows up into maturity. And then Epaphras, the missionary, prays that the Colossians will stand mature and assured in the will of God. This helps us to understand what Christian maturity is. To be mature is to be filled with the knowledge of God’s will (biblical teaching, warnings, commands, and exhortations) and then having the wisdom to know how to apply it in all the various situations of life.
Now what’s the purpose of this main request? That we would walk worthy of Jesus so that we fully please him. If we know what God requires of us (his will), and if we know how to fit his requirements to our lives, then we’re able to live (walk) in a way that reflects who Jesus is, and that pleases him. Throughout Paul’s letters, he teaches that there is a kind of conduct, a way of life, that fits with the gospel of Jesus.
Galatians 2:14: there is a conduct that is “in step with the truth of the gospel”
Galatians 5:25: “If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.”
Ephesians 4:1: “Walk in a manner worthy of your calling,” which means “not like the Gentiles” (4:17), walking in love (5:2), as children of the light (5:8), walking wisely, understanding the will of the Lord (5:15-17). (Reading and comparing Ephesians to Colossians is a very fruitful exercise).
We’ll see this same language of “walking” again in Col 2:6 and 4:5. Now what about this notion of “fully pleasing to him”? I think the word “fully” is important. If you’ve trusted in Jesus, you’re pleasing to God because of Jesus. It doesn’t matter if you're a new Christian or an old Christian, if you trust in Jesus and his blood covers you, you are embraced and accepted by a happy Father. But let’s say that you’re an immature, baby Christian. What does God desire for you? He’s pleased with you, but he wants you to grow up. He wants you to become mature. He wants you to be filled with the knowledge of his will and to know how to fit his commands to your life and to put it into practice. When that happens, there is a fullness to his pleasure in you, since you are now becoming what he always intended you to be.
Unpacking A Worthy Walk
Now this notion that we’re to walk worthy of Jesus and please him is a bit opaque to me. It feels abstract, and so Paul unpacks what a worthy walk looks like in the next two verses. There are four aspects to a worthy walk. Someone who is walking in a worthy way:
- bears fruit in good works
- increases in the knowledge of God
- is strengthened for endurance and patience
- gives thanks to God the Father
Now what I love about these four dimensions of walking worthy is how dependent upon God and the gospel they are. It’s not as though God demands that we walk worthy of him and fully please him and then turns us loose to figure it out on our own in reliance on our resources. Walking worthy of Jesus means a life of total and radical dependence upon Jesus. That’s how Paul unpacks it.
There’s a connection between the first two elements and what Paul said earlier in the passage. Colossians 1:6 says that the word of the truth, the gospel, is bearing fruit and increasing in the whole world and among the Colossians. So the gospel is bearing fruit and increasing and growing and flourishing among the Colossians, and then Paul prays that, because of this gospel flourishing, the Colossians themselves would become fruitful and growing in their good works. So the good news bears good fruit (people). And then the good fruit (people) does good works. Or again, a fruitful and growing gospel makes fruitful and growing people.
Jesus highlights this same dynamic in John 15.
Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:4-5)
Bearing fruit depends on abiding in the Vine. Bearing fruit in every good work is dependent upon the gospel bearing fruit among us. There’s this flowering and flourishing that happens. The grace of God in the gospel comes to a place and it lands in power, and it bears fruit; people are converted and come to Jesus. And then that same gospel makes them fruitful. God saves us and renews us and then we walk in the good works that God has planned for us (Eph. 2:10).
This same dependence is made explicit in the next two elements. What does it mean to walk worthy of Jesus? It means that the almighty power of God strengthens you to endure trials. The power that flung the universe into existence. The power that sustains every atom at every moment. The power that split the Red Sea at the Exodus. The power that raised Jesus from the dead. The power that has caused the gospel to grow and increase in the world—that power is now dedicated and devoted to your good, your endurance, your patience. And Paul’s prayer for this new church is that God would strengthen them with that power, so that they endure when it gets hard. When the kids are sick week after week after week. When the job is monotonous and the boss is frustrating. When the darkness and depression doesn’t lift. When the pain and suffering and loss is so deep and real that it gnaws at your joy. When outsiders mock, scorn, and despise who we are and what we believe. When friends reject us because we seek to walk worthy of Jesus. What do we need in all of those situations? We need the glorious and mighty power of God himself, working in us endurance and patience, with joy.
And that last element is the clincher. People can endure a lot apart from the power of God in Jesus. They can gut it out for a long time, with clinched teeth and strenuous effort. They can hang on. But can they do it with joy? Can they do it with gratitude to God the Father? That’s what the power of God is for. Your heart may break in sorrow, but underneath is the deep and abiding joy in who God is and what he is done for us.
I’d love to say more about gratitude here. But it will show up a number of other times in this book, so I’ll refrain for now. Instead, I want to focus on the cause of the gratitude and joy. But first let’s summarize:
Paul has heard of a new and growing church in a multi-ethnic city on a river and he prays for them. And in his prayer, he asks God to fill them with knowledge of God’s will and desires and commands, along with the spiritual wisdom to know how to fit God’s truth to real life. And he prays this so that they would walk worthy of Jesus and fully please Jesus. And he explains this worthy and pleasing lifestyle in terms of bearing fruit in good works and growing in knowledge of God because we are totally dependent upon Jesus and the gospel for everything, and in terms of a life of God-dependent endurance and patience in the face of suffering and trial, but with joy and gratitude.
The Father’s Work
What has God done for us that calls forth this gratitude and joy that can stand even when things are hard? Four things, all of which are benefits of the gospel of Jesus.
God has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. This is amazing. God has given us a portion, an inheritance, a place, a homeland. We do not deserve that portion. In ourselves, we are not qualified for it. In fact, we’re disqualified for this inheritance. If this inheritance were offered as something that we must qualify for, as something that we must be sufficient for, none of us would get it. But the Father has qualified us. He has made us sufficient. All we are is need, lack, and emptiness. All he is is power, sufficiency, fullness. It’s a match made in heaven.
God has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son. These two hang together. We were under the authority and power of darkness. We were slaves to dark powers; that’s why we were disqualified. And God has set us free. He has moved us from one realm to another. There’s been a massive, spiritual resettlement project. Here we were, in this domain of darkness, this multi-cultural city on a river, enslaved to our passions and desires, and then God up and moved us. He transferred our citizenship from one kingdom to another. Physically, we still reside in the Twin Cities, in a land of deep darkness, but our citizenship is in heaven, and we’re waiting for the king.
Finally, God has given us redemption, the forgiveness of sins in Christ. The Dark Powers held us captive under Sin. Our guilt and condemnation was the fundamental way that they kept us enslaved. And God has forgiven us. He’s wiped away the sin. None of it hangs over your head. You’re qualified. You’re fully pleasing to him, and you’re on your way to being even more pleasing to him, as your life increasingly conforms to his will and his Son. Now that reference to the beloved Son of God and redemption in him launches Paul into a hymn to Christ. That’s next week. For now, let me close with some concrete application for us in this multicultural city on a river.
My application is simple: memorize and pray this prayer for yourself and this church. Let me give a couple of reasons.
First, the relevance of this prayer for our mission. Paul wrote this letter while he was in prison, probably in Rome. What’s interesting to me is how similar this passage is to Paul’s own calling which he preaches to King Agrippa in Acts 26. Paul says,
Delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’ (Acts 26:17-18)
Note the similarities. Paul is going to the Gentiles so that they would be turned from darkness to light, moved from one kingdom to another, from the power of Satan to God, that they would be forgiven their sins, and given a place and inheritance with the saints/sanctified. Paul is given a mission to go do this eye-opening work, and the Colossians are the downstream fruit. And this mission isn’t just Paul’s mission. It became Epaphras’s mission, and now it’s our mission. This is what we want to see happen in these Cities: people qualified to receive a place with God because they’ve been forgiven and delivered from the domain of Satan and darkness and transferred into the kingdom of Jesus. I know that one of the chief barriers for us in fulfilling God’s mission is that we feel how unqualified we are. We wrestle with questions like, “When should we speak? When should we listen? What should we say? How should we say it?” If you feel those questions, what should you do? You should pray this prayer. “God, fill me with the knowledge of your will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding. Help me to walk worthy of you. Help me to walk in wisdom toward outsiders, and help me to walk worthy of Jesus and please him.”
Second, the relevance of this prayer for this body. Are you on the lookout for good works, for opportunities to bear fruit by relying on Jesus and doing good to others? Are you on the lookout for ways to strengthen others as they endure trials? Can you be a bringer of God’s joy and power to someone who is hurting? Are you praying that you’d have the wisdom to know what’s needed and to take action? We will know if God is answering this prayer when our good works are fruitful, both inside and outside the church.
Third, for me, the most convicting part of preparing this message was the first few words. “From the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you.” As soon as he heard of their faith, hope, and love, he started praying and struggling on their behalf, that God would multiply that good work. For Paul, hearing led to immediate and sustained action. How convicting that is to me. How often are my prayers delayed, or diverted, or temporary? Both the immediacy of Paul’s prayers, and the constancy of his prayers, convict me. I don’t think that unceasing prayer means that Paul did nothing but pray. I think it means that he set aside time and devoted concerted effort to praying for the Colossians and for others. And I want to be like that. And I'm not. My prayers too often are haphazard.
So I invite you to join me, in memorizing this prayer, and making it a daily part of your Godward life. Pray this for this church. Pray it for your spouse and your children and your roommates. Pray it for other churches and for these Cities and for your neighbors. And don’t grow weary in praying it. Let the good news that God has qualified us for an inheritance and delivered us from evil and transferred us into his kingdom and forgiven us for our sins spur you on to pray with endurance and patience and joy for a greater grace.
This table represents and communicates our qualification for our inheritance. We are awaiting that inheritance. The Lord has not yet brought it to us. But now in the present, we proclaim his death, in which we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. It is because of that death that we have been rescued from darkness and dwell now in his kingdom. This meal tells us that we are pleasing to God, and through it we grow up into maturity so that we are fully pleasing to him.