SERIES: Colossians: Christ is the Answer
Right Angle Christianity
SCRIPTURE: Colossians 4:2-6
SPEAKER: Brad Harper
Introduction: In their admonitions concerning how believers should live, many biblical writers are fond of using what might be called a “right angle” image. They emphasize a balance between a vertical relationship (with God), and a horizontal relationship (with the world in which we live). Several general patterns emerge from this image. For example, a relationship with God is the necessary foundation for right relationships with people. Or, the other side of the coin, that service to people is the natural and necessary outgrowth of a right relationship with God.
So it is that we often find side by side in Scripture exhortations to study the Word and serve people, to worship God together and then build each other up with spiritual gifts. Here at the close of his letter to the Colossians, Paul presents us with another one of his many right angle models. In it he brings together the vertical side of prayer with the horizontal side of witness to unbelievers.
Let’s begin, as Paul does, with …
The vertical side: prayer
Pray devotedly. He begins with a simple and clear command, “Be devoted to prayer.” As one who has been a Christian for many years, I am intellectually forced to stop after reading such a command and to ask myself, “Am I really devoted to prayer?” And because most of you are at least a little bit like me, I know that right now you may be asking yourself some form of the same question.
I don’t like to ask myself that question. I don’t like to ask it because I have a personal ideal image of what it means to be devoted to prayer and I simply don’t measure up. Oh, I’ve tried to measure up and for periods I come close, but I never seem to be able to stay at the level I desire. Maybe many of you feel the same way about your prayer life. Friends, the purpose God has in this passage is not for us all to leave this place today under another guilt trip. Nevertheless, this is God’s Word and it’s designed to speak to all of us right where we are today, so let’s see how we can be profitably challenged by it.
First, let’s look at the word translated here as “devoted.” This word can conjure up some images for us which don’t necessarily match its true meaning. The word “devoted” often gives us the picture of someone who is overwhelmingly attracted, in an almost worshipful frame of mind, towards a person or activity. I get the picture of Nancy Reagan gazing at her husband as if he were the fourth person of the Trinity. But the literal meaning of the word here is to continue in something unremittingly, to persevere. It carries the sentiment, “Don’t give up!”
On a practical level it tells us a couple of things. One, consistent committed prayer is plain hard work. And two, it is something at which we will fail.
Martin Luther knew all about prayer being hard work, and about not measuring up to an ideal standard. As a monk he was required to say a certain number of pre-established prayers each day. But Luther often got so caught up in his teaching and studying of Hebrew and theology at the university that he would go an entire week without saying the prescribed prayers. so, racked with guilt, he would find himself in the chapel on Saturdays all day long, catching up on his prayers. One doubts whethr prayers made under such guilt could possibly result in a healthy relationship with God.
Then, of course, we have all heard many stories of how prayer dominated the lives of history’s most godly figures. I believe it was R. A. Torrey who said, “I pray two hours every day, unless I’m busy, then I pray three.” This man was not a mother of toddlers.
But the fact is that prayer does make a difference. We are told in Scripture over and over that prayer moves the hand of God to act in history for his people. And, I believe even more importantly, we are told that prayer is the key ingredient in building a relationship with God. For the writer of Hebrews urges us to go to God in prayer so that we may receive his mercy and grace in times of need.
In my own life there is no doubt that the times I am most committed to prayer produce the greatest spiritual riches. I remember it was in my freshman year of college that I first felt challenged to be devoted to prayer. But I lived in the dorm, and it seemed whenever I found time to pray, my roommate was in the room and I couldn’t be alone. Finally, desperate to find a place to be alone, I made a decision I would probably not make today. I locked myself in the bathroom in the dorm lobby at night and would spend a half-hour in prayer.
Now this was not the most thoughtful thing to do since it made for a long wait for a few anxious lobby visitors. But in spite of my lack of judgement, God provided me in those days with some of the richest hours of my life. In addition, I began to see the work of God in my life on a daily basis as never before.
What am I trying to say in all of this? Consistent, committed prayer is hard work and none of us lives up to our ideal image of prayer, no matter what it is. I think if the apostle Paul were here he might encourage us in at least two ways. I think he would say “Don’t give up.” We all struggle with discipline. We all have periods where we are lax in prayer. Realize that the past is gone and the future is really only a question mark. Begin with today and say “Lord, I need you. Help me find time today to spend time with you.” And then believe he will do that.
Which leads to the second way Paul might encourage us. As a result of his own crazy lifestyle, traveling from city to city, half the time on the run, he would encourage us to develop a practice of prayer that fits our life, not someone else’s.
I was taught that committed believers always spend time praying early in the morning because that’s how Jesus did it. But you may not be a morning person. What good is it if praying just puts you back to sleep? The point is to find a window of time somewhere in the day when you can focus your heart on Christ. If you’re a stay-at-home mom, you might need to use your children’s nap time to pray. If they don’t nap, you might need to ask your husband to watch them for awhile when he gets home.
As a father of young ones, one of the few places in my home I can be alone is in the shower, so I pray there. If you can find a regular time and place each day to pray, so much the better. If not, take each day as it comes and be at least committed to asking God to help you find time that day. I truly believe he will help you find time to do what he so much wants you to do.
I have spent a significant amount of time today on one small portion of Paul’s section on prayer because without a devotion to prayer, the rest of what Paul says makes little difference. But let’s go on to examine the kind of prayer Paul wants us to be devoted to.
Pray watchfully. To pray watchfully means to pray with an alert mind, to pray thoughtfully. Jesus had little respect for formally religious people who thought that by extended repetition of memorized prayers they would be honored by God. But he had a great deal of respect for the honest and heart-felt prayers of humble sinners who were acutely aware of their own needs before God.
To pray watchfully also means to pray with eyes that have taken note of the needs of others. It also means to be looking for God’s answers as we pray. Habakkuk, in a time of deep sorrow and frustration, prays to God and then says, “I will look to see what he will say to me, and what answer I am to give to this complaint.” Watching for God’s answers can be done by just being quiet and waiting for God to speak to us by his Spirit. But probably the most effective way of looking to see how God answers prayer is to keep a prayer journal.
Journaling is not something I do consistently, but I do it at various times during the year. Even such sporadic journaling gives me insight into God’s answers to prayer. Just last week I dug out my journal and, after reading it, was excited to call my wife and read it to her so we could see how God had slowly done a wonderful work in a couple of key areas of our lives.
Pray thankfully. The obvious indication here that we are to be sure to thank God for what he does in our lives. But there is a further implication which, I believe, gets deeper into the heart of what Paul means by thanksgiving, a subject he addresses often. To thank someone for something is to respond to them, usually right away, for something he or she has done for you. But Paul’s theology of thanksgiving is more than a passive response. It always carries with it the idea of going out and looking for things to be thankful for, and even of offering thanksgiving for things which have not yet been done.
Think about it. In this passage Paul connects thanksgiving with petitionary prayer. Again, in Philippians four he is even more clear when he says, “…in all things, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving. let your requests be made known to God.”
For the apostle Paul, thanksgiving is more of an attitude than an action, something that’s present even in the midst of our asking. He shows us that biblical prayer is not the prayer of those who would whip themselves into a frenzy before their god. It is not the prayer of anxious Buddhists and Muslims whose capricious gods will not necessarily respond with love and compassion. It is the prayer of grateful believers who, no matter what their circumstances, can come to God in thanksgiving.
The God we approach in prayer is the God who has promised us a response of love and compassion always and has proven it by giving us his only Son. He is the God who has promised to return and deliver us from the tragedy of death that we might be with him forever. No wonder that Paul, even while chained to a Roman soldier awaiting possible execution, could encourage believers to live and pray with an attitude of thanksgiving always.
Pray supportively. It’s interesting to me that Paul would ask others to pray for him. Here is the man whom Christ has miraculously appeared to and named the apostle to the Gentiles, whom God has miraculously healed, and through whom God has healed many. Doesn’t he have enough of God’s power on his own? Sure he does. But that’s not the issue. Paul knows that God uses corporate prayer to accomplish his purposes.
God’s purpose in Paul’s life was to use him to effectively share the gospel with the Gentiles. So he asks the believers to pray for two things. First, in his situation of limited exposure, in a jail cell, he needed opportunities to come to him.
Notice, Paul’s imprisonment did not eliminate his ability to share the gospel, he just needed to find new ways to do it. Second, he needed in this unfamiliar environment to be able to share the gospel clearly. What does this mean? Did Paul have a language problem? An information problem? No. More likely he needed sensitivity to present the gospel in such a way that it could be best grasped by those to whom he spoke. For the gospel is no mere intellectual message. It is a message which only becomes relevant only when it enters into the fabric of a person’s whole life.
With these thoughts in mind, Paul moves on to encourage the Colossians as to how they could best move from their vertical relationship with Christ to a horizontal relationship of sharing Christ with the world.
The horizontal side: witness
The basis of Paul’s exhortation here is that believers should act with wisdom toward unbelievers. This is not just a general command here, but a command in regards to how we share the gospel.
Witness wisely. Throughout history there have been many instances where the gospel has been shared with a glaring lack of wisdom. The forced Christianization of countries by their converted monarchs was not a wise way to share the gospel. Nor were the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition. In our own day, street evangelism and even large crusades, though certainly legitimate ways of sharing the gospel, are not the most effective. Sadly, statistics show that of the many people who make a profession of faith at a crusade, ten years later only about 10% of them are still committed to following Christ.
The fact is most people come to Christ through some kind of human relationship. And Scripture supports this idea. Early in Jesus’ ministry we see Peter being brought to Christ by his brother Andrew. And although we see some significant evangelistic sermons in the Book of Acts, we are told that the Christian community grew on a daily basis because of the loving relationships of believers with each other and with unbelievers.
Notice Paul says here, be wise in how you act towards unbelievers. Paul is preaching the gospel all over the Roman empire and he understands that people don’t necessarily come to Christ just because they hear the right message. They need to see the message fleshed out in the lives of believers. For the same reason, he says later that believers must be as concerned with how they speak to unbelievers as they are with the message they speak.
To sum up what Paul means by witnessing wisely would be to say that believers need to share the gospel through a lifestyle that demonstrates Christ, not just through a spoken summary of salvation truths. As one commentator has put it, “Few people will read the Bible, but everyone will read you.”
Witness opportunely. I know the word “opportunely” sounds a bit unusual, but I have it on good authority from Jerry Rich that it is actually a word. In the original language the word is a market term which means to buy up everything. Imagine if you walked into the model homes in a new subdivision and a salesman approached you and said “Friend, this is your lucky day. For the next five minutes every model home on this street is on sale for one dollar.” How would you respond? “Let’s see, should I buy one or not?” One?!? You’d buy the whole lot before you could catch your breath!
It is this type of attitude Paul says we should have when we are confronted with an opportunity to share the gospel, either in word or in lifestyle. This is probably the area where most of us comfortable American Christians fall short. We not only don’t look for enough opportunities, we often don’t jump when truly good ones come along. Notice it does not mean that every situation is a prime opportunity for sharing the claims of Christ. Most wise real estate investors don’t go for those “learn my method and I’ll make you a millionaire in five minutes” seminars. They know most of those are bogus opportunities. The key is that we must be alert to real opportunities and not let them slip away.
How do you find opportunities to witness for Christ? I believe Paul would tell us that we need to make it a part of our daily mental framework to look for opportunities. I’ll tell you one thing that has happened with me. When I ask God to open up opportunities for me to witness, they always seem to come my way. It’s nice to think that God might actually direct seeking people to me, but I suspect that what actually happens is that God makes me more sensitive to the opportunities that are around me all the time.
Witness graciously. Our speech, especially with unbelievers, is to be characterized by grace. The theological counterpart to grace is judgment, or condemnation. Too often we tend to be better at judging than at exercising grace. An examination of the ministry of Jesus shows an interesting pattern concerning grace and judgment. John 3:17 tells us that “God did not send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” Accordingly, Jesus’ words of judgment were usually reserved for the religious legalists. To sinners he talked much more about the wonder of salvation by God’s grace than he did about condemnation for sin.
Make no mistake, unbelievers must come to grips with their sin. But too often we confront them with their sin outside the context of God’s love. One of the classic examples in my life, and forgive me if I’ve shared this with you before, took place at a reception after my wife’s grandmother’s funeral in Los Angeles. The reception was at the grandmother’s house, so a few neighbors came by. The next door neighbor lady was there, clearly an unbeliever, and she lit up a cigarette. A friend of the family looked at her and said, “What’s wrong with you? Don’t you know your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit?” Now this was a nice Christian man. But his witness at that moment was decidedly ungracious. Needless to say, the woman did not repent on the spot and ask to be baptized.
Did you know that it is not our job to convict the world of its sin? In John 16 Jesus says the it is the job of the Holy Spirit to convict the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment. As believers in a culture full of baby-boomers who do not respond as well as their parents to guilt oriented messages, we should concentrate on emphasizing the grace of God in our speech to a far greater extent than we focus on judgment. As people who are debtors to God’s grace, we can hardly be judgmental of those who have not yet found it.
Witness perceptively. He says our speech is to be seasoned with salt. The image here is one of salt being a component which magnifies the good flavor of food. It needs just to be “seasoned” with salt. Too much salt is overpowering, while food with too little salt can be bland. So it is that the wise believer will not overpower unbelievers with the gospel, causing them to quickly spit it out. On the other hand, if our speech to our unbelieving contacts is never seasoned with the gospel, we offer them nothing more than our own humanity and personal wisdom when what they desperately need is the message of Jesus Christ through whom alone they can find God. It is in practicing the perceptive seasoning of our speech with the gospel that we can be used by God to bring his message of salvation to everyone who hears us.
I need now to get back to this idea of “right angle” Christianity and somehow tie all this together. Specifically, Paul has linked effective evangelism to committed prayer. More generally, Paul has reiterated a common theme in his letters, that our horizontal relationship with the world is dependent upon our vertical relationship with God. Both must be present and both must be in balance. Too much vertical with too little horizontal leads to fat and lazy Christians. Too much horizontal with too little vertical leads to Christians who are starving and disoriented.
Think about your own life right now. Have your horizontal relationships drained you to the point of discouragement? Or has your lack of reaching out to others made your relationship with Christ irrelevant? Perhaps your life is a bit out of balance.
One of the great problems of early monasticism was that monks focused almost entirely on their vertical relationship with God and refrained from contact with the world. In the year 358 A.D. a monk named Basil began a community of monks who did little other than pray and study the Scripture. He became well known and was eventually appointed Bishop of Caesarea and made responsible for the welfare of· the whole city. As he looked around the city he was struck by the many people in need. At that point he decided that monks should no longer simply read and pray. They must reach out into their culture and meet the needs of hurting people.
Conclusion: There is much we could learn from this passage today about how to pray and how to sensitively share the gospel with unbelievers, and so we should. But I ask you to take with you today something more simple. Solomon said it like this: The final duty of man is to love God and obey his commandments. We are responsible for two things: To be devoted to our relationship with God and to live and serve according to his grace in a world that desperately needs his love. “Right angle” Christianity is to pray devotedly and witness wisely. Is that what our lives look like today?
DATE: March 29, 1992