Prayer is at the foundation of all church renewal. 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. Before we need new ideas and quick fix solutions, we need prayer.
Prayer is at the heart of Christian ministry and at the heart of the life of the Church. This part of the letter is very important, and it’s going to take me a while to fully discuss this.
I need to begin by pointing out something about this prayer that seems odd at first. So, first some brief introductory remarks, and then some personal reflections.
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.”
Okay. We know there was false teaching at the Colossian church. Paul is writing to them, in large part, to correct this. But, 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.
A Personal Note
And, at this point, we come to one of the features of this letter that has always fascinated me — and that surprised and puzzled me when I first discovered it.
And, to talk about that I need to say something about my own spiritual journey, and the movements and teachings that influenced my early experiences in the Christian faith.
I know some people have been nurtured in the faith in environments where the Holy Spirit is rarely mentioned. With me, it was just the opposite.
The early, formative experiences of my faith were in a very Bible-trusting, revivalistic United Methodist congregation, in the holiness camp meeting, and also in Pentecostalism. I am abidingly thankful for the people, the fellowships and ministries that nurtured me in the faith. And they were mostly Holy Spirit-oriented people and movements. The focus was not simply on an initial experience of salvation (being “born again”). Certainly there was that. But, beyond that, emphasis was given to a subsequent experience of spiritual empowerment. Among Methodists and Holiness movement folks this was called Entire Sanctification. (Much more rarely the term “Christian Perfection” was used.) It was preached and taught as an experience of spiritual cleansing. Sometimes it was also called the Baptism in the Holy Spirit. And, my Pentecostal friends also spoke of an experience called the Baptism in the Holy Spirit — though officially, they taught that, to be genuine, such an experience must be accompanied by Speaking in Tongues.
This was the religious milieu of my earliest life in the faith. It was mostly Holiness with a little smattering (because of some friends and some outreach ministries I was involved in) of Pentecostalism. And, for me at least, this was not an oppressive religious environment at all. I know it has been for some. But, at this point in my life, the faith was still something new to me. I had not been brought up in it. As a child I had only been exposed to a lifeless, conventional religious liberalism. But, now I had encountered something new — a faith that was an experience and a life and a task. This was God as part of my daily life.
But, I hadn’t been raised in religious legalism. So, I hadn’t learned to rebel against it. I hadn’t been dangled over the pit of Hell all through my childhood. No one had tried to stuff this religion down my throat, so I hadn’t learned to resent it. And, being by nature independent and skeptical, I had a appreciative but critical attitude toward what (with otherwise great appreciation) I was hearing and learning. Faith in Christ seemed to open up life to me — giving me a frame of reference to understand life. I didn’t experience it as primarily a restriction of life or a burden to be borne.
I am deeply grateful I learned the faith in a community of people who believed that the grace of God in Christ made a real, observable, lived-out difference in a person’s life.
Okay. I’m saying all of this to point out the importance of the spiritual life in the teaching I received in those days. We were exhorted to experience the Spirit, to allow the Spirit to set us free, to be filled with the Spirit, to be spiritually cleansed by the Spirit. Yes, as I said, sometimes terms like Entire Sanctification or Christian Perfection were used to talk about this, but more often it was Baptism in the Holy Spirit or just the Spirit-filled Life.
So, this was the conceptual baggage that I brought to my initial studies of the book of Colossians. And, I was surprised.
In this prayer in verses 3-8 Paul lays out his hopes and wishes for the spiritual lives of the believers at Colossae. And, in later chapters of this book, he talks about everything I believed was the very essence of Spirit-filled living.
Yeah. But, he doesn’t mention the Holy Spirit!
Scholars have noted this as one of the distinctive features of Paul’s teaching in this letter. I’m not sure how I was first put onto this feature of Paul’s teaching in Colossians. But, once I recognized the absence of any teaching about the Holy Spirit in this letter, I became fascinated with this. What I had called the “Spirit-filled life” could be characterized and discussed without any explicit reference to the Holy Spirit!
As I say, I’m not sure when I first realized this. Like many others, I often read the Bible as a whole — not noticing as well as I should, the distinctive features of each book and each writer. I think it may be the following rather off-hand comment of
C.F.D. Moule about the phrase ἐν πνεύματι (“in spirit“) in verse 8 that alerted me to this distinctive feature of Colossians:
There is practically nothing in this epistle about the Holy Spirit; although others (e.g. Romans) are rich in allusions.
— C. F. D. Moule, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Colossians and to Philemon (Cambridge Greek New Testament Commentary) Cambridge 1957. p.52.
Moule is simply making a brief comment on a distinctive feature of this letter. But, the idea was revolutionary to me. You mean the goals of Christian discipleship and spirituality can be described without explicit reference to the Holy Spirit? The apostle Paul (of all people) could do that?
It has sometimes been claimed (notably by Donald W. Dayton in his essay “Asa Mahan and the Development of American Holiness Theology”) that there are two strains of teaching about the spiritual life in Wesleyanism:
- one (the more original and classically Wesleyan) that is Christological, that is, focusing on Christ and conformity to the character of Christ; and,
- the other (flowing from the teachings of John Fletcher) which is Pneumatological, that is, focusing on the Spirit and empowerment.
Early Methodists took a Christ-focused approach to the spiritual life, while in the late 19th Century the Spirit-focused approach became dominant. The first approach emphasizes the character of one’s life that results from the effects of God’s grace. The second approach emphasizes the experience itself (getting “zapped” by God).
It may well be that Paul avoided writing much about the Holy Spirit here because of the use of spirit-terminology in the teachings he is seeking to refute at Colossae. So, instead, he launches into a remarkably Christ-focused exposition of the Christian life. Compare the prayer here with other similar passages in Paul’s letters, and you will see at once his careful avoidance of reference to the Holy Spirit.