Yesterday I introduced this prayer from the apostle Paul and gave some some personal reflections. There was a time when I don’t think I could have talked about the ongoing stages of the Christian journey without reference to the power of the Holy Spirit. And, that would be the way I would still speak of it today. But, in Colossians Paul uses terminology that is more focused on Christ than on the Holy Spirit.
So, as I was saying, this section of the letter displays another common feature in Paul’s letters to the churches.
He generally assures the Churches to whom he writes that he is praying for them. Churches should know that their pastors and leaders are praying for them.
9 Διὰ τοῦτο καὶ ἡμεῖς, ἀφ᾿ ἧς ἡμέρας ἠκούσαμεν, οὐ παυόμεθα ὑπὲρ ὑμῶν προσευχόμενοι καὶ αἰτούμενοι, ἵνα πληρωθῆτε τὴν ἐπίγνωσιν τοῦ θελήματος αὐτοῦ ἐν πάσῃ σοφίᾳ καὶ συνέσει πνευματικῇ, 10 περιπατῆσαι ἀξίως τοῦ κυρίου εἰς πᾶσαν ἀρεσκείαν, ἐν παντὶ ἔργῳ ἀγαθῷ καρποφοροῦντες καὶ αὐξανόμενοι τῇ ἐπιγνώσει τοῦ θεοῦ, 11 ἐν πάσῃ δυνάμει δυναμούμενοι κατὰ τὸ κράτος τῆς δόξης αὐτοῦ εἰς πᾶσαν ὑπομονὴν καὶ μακροθυμίαν. Μετὰ χαρᾶς 12 εὐχαριστοῦντες τῷ πατρὶ τῷ ἱκανώσαντι ὑμᾶς εἰς τὴν μερίδα τοῦ κλήρου τῶν ἁγίων ἐν τῷ φωτί·
“9 For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, 10 so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God. 11 May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully 12 giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.”
Thus, before the apostle Paul begins to correct the false teachings in the Church he:
- gives them encouragement, and
- lets them know he is praying for them.
Prayer is at the foundation of all church renewal. Before we need new ideas and quick-fix solutions, we need prayer. We are regularly encouraged to pray. “Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.” (Ephesians 6:18 NRSV). We are given the examples of Jesus and Paul, who made prayer and intercession priorities in their lives and ministries.
And, this is a certain type of prayer: this is intercession. The word “prayer” can have several, perfectly legitimate, meanings. Prayer can be meditation. Prayer can be sensing God’s presence. Prayer can be reflection on Scripture. The very highest form of prayer is praise and adoration to God.
I think prayer as meditation is pretty noncontroversial. Anyone can pray this way. In fact, meditation per se does not even require a belief in God. And, there are benefits to practicing silence and contemplation. For Christians, such prayer can be a deep awareness of the presence of God — an attempt to hold ourselves in that state of God-awareness. But, people can bring whatever worldview they have to such an experience. As long as we confine prayer to meditation, no one objects.
Not so with intercession. This is where prayer becomes controversial. This is where objections begin to arise. This is where the conception of a God who hears and answers becomes necessary. This is where people have difficulties.
- God hears the individual who prays? Really?
- If God answers one way for one person, isn’t God duty-bound to answer everyone in exactly the same way?
- Why would God heal one person and not another?
- How can we know God hears us?
- Can prayer be scientifically studied and verified?
And, so forth.
But, Christians cannot allow these intellectual difficulties keep us away from either petition or intercession. It is assumed throughout the Bible that prayer is a matter of request — either for ourselves or others. And, intercession is one way we re-affirm in our thoughts the priority of love. Many years ago, a recognition of the value of intercession brought my prayer life alive again, and it still has that value for me. My family, the people I meet in the course of a day, the friends I’ve lost track of, these are the focus of my prayers.
Prayer is a relationship. It is an ongoing conversation with God. We speak what is on our heart. We lay bare our inadequacies. We ask. All these things are embraced by the generic term for prayer that Paul uses here: προσεύχομαι (“to speak to or to make requests of God” — Louw & Nida). At the immature stages of our relationship with God, our own needs and desires fill our minds. Over time, by the power of God’s grace, love transforms our prayers. More and more, they are about others. More and more, they are expressions of our renewed dedication to God’s purposes — for ourselves and for others. Because the essence of Christian devotion is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself'” our minds turn outward in prayer.
Prayer was an essential part of the apostle Paul’s ministry. He assures the churches to whom he writes of his prayers for them.
And, through these prayers we also see his goal and desire for their lives. His desire was not just “right belief” (though that was important — this letter was written to counter false teachings that had taken hold in the church), but right character and behavior. He desired to see their very lives transformed and renewed by the grace of God. Nothing less would do.
And, as I said before, he frames these character goals in Christ-focused terms. It is remarkable that he avoids references to the Holy Spirit.
First, there are specific prayer requests:
- (a.) that they will be sensitive to God’s will, so that they understand what is spiritually valuable;
- (b.) and, that this, in turn, would issue in conduct worthy of the name “Christian” and pleasing to God (every good work & growth in the knowledge of God);
- (c.) that they be strengthened by God’s power to stay the course.
Then, there is thanksgiving: for light, for love, and for rescue from evil.
Then, there is the recognition that all this has sprung from what God has done in Christ.
So, in summary, the prayer is for:
- the discernment of God’s will and
- the power to perform God’s will.
Similar sentiments are expressed by the apostle Paul in Philippians 1:9-11:
“And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.”
First, we are shown by example the importance of the ministry of intercession. Then we are shown what the substance of that intercession for the Church should be.