Participating in God's Mission (Colossians 4:2-6)
I. “How Can I Help?”
It's a wonderful pattern that speaks to how both God's common grace and saving grace is at work in the world today: when something like a hurricane or wildfire or even terrorist attack takes place (or as we've seen recently, when a country is invaded, and civilians become either refugees, combatants, or collateral damage), it's wonderful to hear people (sometimes from all of over the world) asking, “How can I help?” Some show up to the scene of a disaster and say, “Put me to work.” Others open their homes or help promote the need. And many, maybe the majority, send money to groups who are working on the frontlines. When the need is clear, when it is severe and urgent, people often want to participate in efforts to meet the need. Are you one of those people?
As most of you know, the most important mission in the world is the one that addresses our most severe and urgent need as human beings. Wars and wildfires are tragic and devastating, but as God's word reveals, the captivity and consequences of sin are far, far worse. But our need is not simply to be rid of sin. We should long for that for a variety of reasons. And yet, one reason stands above all: our deepest need (yours and mine) is to be right with, to be reconciled to, the God who made us. Sin is a barrier to that. That's why we need it decisively dealt with.
This morning we are incredibly grateful that God has done just that through the person and work of Jesus. Amen? As one who was (and is) without sin, He, as God the Son, was able to take our sin upon himself when he suffered and died on the cross. And when he died, His costly payment ransomed us from sin's power. That work begins with individuals like you and me, but one day, it will transform everything, purging the universe of sin's corruption.
But if God has met this deepest of human needs, and there is a mission underway as we speak to bring that help to those still ensnared, still enslaved, shouldn't we be asking, more fervently than we've ever asked, “How can I help? How can I participate in what God is doing?” For those interested in God's answer to that question, turn over to Colossians 4.
II. The Passage: “Wisdom Toward Outsiders” (4:2-6)
As I mentioned in our previous time together, Paul did not plant the church to whom Colossians was written. A brother named Epaphras was used by God to proclaim Jesus to the recipients of this letter. He's actually mentioned in both 1:7 and 4:12. But if these readers didn't know Paul, then why was he writing this letter? Well, they may not have known Paul, but they certainly knew of Paul. The tone of this whole letter communicates that there is already a connection between Paul's ministry as an apostle and their encouragement and instruction. Undoubtedly, they had heard of how Paul and his team had been used by God throughout Asia Minor to proclaim the Good News about Jesus and plant and strengthen churches. Just listen to the opening greeting of this letter and what it reveals about the mission of God. Look back at 1:3-6,
We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel, which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and increasing—as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth...
Notice how Paul affirms what God has done and is doing among them, but that he also wants to remind them or reveal to them the bigness of what God was doing throughout the Roman world. So keep that mission in mind as we look together at 4:2-6. What we will discover in these verses is Paul describing for the Colossian disciples three ways that they can also participate in God's mission. Interested? Let's look at those one at a time. So first, Paul invites his readers to...
1. Participate Through Prayerful Support (vs. 2-4)
Look with me at verses 2-4 of chapter 4:
Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.  At 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— that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak.
So notice how Paul's general call to prayer in verse 2 flows into a specific call to pray for Paul's gospel-declaring ministry. The companion letter to Colossians, the letter we call Ephesians, ends with this same progression in Ephesians 6:18-20. How could these disciples participate in this work of (1:5-6) advancing “the word of the truth, the gospel, which [had] come to [them], as indeed in the whole world it [was] bearing fruit and increasing”? First, they could pray.
Paul often connected prayer and mission. But do we? Do you? As is evident from his words in verses 3 and 4, Paul really believed that the prayers of these Christians mattered when it came to the work of the gospel. Do we believe that... about our prayers? Last Sunday, some of you prayed for the two church planting families we partner with in Quebec, the Laustsens and Murrays. It's important to note that what you were doing then was exactly what Paul was requesting in these verses. What you were doing mattered. Your prayers offered in Buckeye have made and/or will make a genuine difference in Quebec. Does that excite/encourage you?
We could ask, “But how can we pray for those who are evangelists and church planters, like Paul and his team?” Undoubtedly, there are many answers to that question. But you may have noticed that Paul offers two specific requests in verses 3 and 4. First, he asks them to pray “that God may open to us a door for the word”. Please don't miss that Paul's request here is not just for an 'open door', but for God to “open... a door”. The Apostle understood that “salvation belongs to the Lord”; that he is sovereignly moving to draw men and women to himself; that he opens doors and closes doors, and thus, calls his people to be watchful and ready as he does.
The second request we find here comes in verse 4. Paul goes on to ask, not for the where-withal to walk through the door that God opens (he's fully committed to doing that), but when he does pass through, to “make it clear”. Okay. Wait. Make what “clear”? The gospel! As Paul adds at the end of verse 4, “clear... is how I ought to speak”. Think about that for a moment. What a humble request. If anyone could be “clear” when it came to the gospel, it was the Apostle Paul, right? But he knows that he must ultimately depend, not on his own learning, skills, experience, but on the Holy Spirit. What a prayer to pray for all who declare, who share the Good News!
But that second request raises a question: how many opportunities has God given his people in which we've respond with an unclear gospel. For example, some talk about Jesus as Savior, but it isn't clear why people need to be saved. Some speak of Christ's love, but focus more on our charitable works than his work on the cross. Some talk about the importance of faith, but end up describing a staircase to climb rather than a free gift to receive. Whatever that unclear gospel looks like, this is a great reminder for us to pray for both of these requests: that God would open a door for the word, and when he does, that the word would be declared clearly.
But please don't miss the larger idea here: prayer is a powerful way to participate in the mission of God. And you can do it anywhere, at anytime. You don't have to buy an airline ticket. You don't have to read a book or learn a new language. You simply have to bring your requests to the God who, all over the world, regardless of borders, sends and stirs and strengthens and saves. As you hear about those who are serving like Paul in some way, participate with that brother/sister, participate with the Holy Spirit, by... praying. But notice how Paul shifts things as we move to another way we can be involved. We can...
2. Participate Through Wise Interactions (v. 5)
Listen to where Paul takes things in verse 5. He writes...
Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time.
Now, it's important to emphasize that Paul is still talking about “outsiders” here, that is, those outside the church; those who are still outside the circle of God's saving grace. The 'open door' Paul just mentioned in his request from verse 3 is an 'open door' that leads to... “outsiders”, right? His request in verse 4 is that he might declare the gospel clearly to... “outsiders”. So here in verse 5 that focus continues. But there is a shift in this verse. Do you see it? He's moved from talking about his ministry to talking about their ministry.
According to Paul, their ministry in Colossae doesn't begin with planning a service to which they can invite the community. While it may be a good idea at times, it's important to note that none of the apostles, including Paul, ever suggested inviting unbelievers to the church gathering as an evangelistic strategy. Similarly, Paul doesn't urge them to first offer a training course on sharing your faith. No. He begins with what seems like a simple strategy: “walk in wisdom toward outsiders”.
Notice that he's not simply saying, “walk in wisdom before outsiders” or “around outsiders”. He's encouraging them here to be wise... in their interactions with unbelievers. And he adds a qualifying phrase to drive this home: “Be wise in your interactions with unbelievers, making the best use of the time”; or as the Authorized Version puts it “redeeming the time”. The NIV and NASB translate that phrase “making the most of the/every opportunity”. Since the verb here has to do with the marketplace, one translation puts it, “snatching up every opportunity”.
Do you see the picture Paul is painting here? He wants us to be sensitized and intentional whenever we are interacting with unbelievers. First off, that means being very careful to not look past a person's humanity and turn him or her into a prize to be won. It also means... being wise in the way you listen; being wise about the questions you ask; being wise with the needs that person reveals; being wise with your verbiage; being wise in responding to their worldliness; being wise about your motivations... and... what you can discern about their motivations.
What Paul is describing here is a believer who understands that God's mission is the most important mission in the world, and who is, in light of that, eager to be a good steward of the 'divine appointments' God has scheduled for them with their unsaved friends or neighbors or coworkers or family members. But look at how all this flows into a final idea. We can also...
3. Participate Through Gracious Speech (v. 6)
Paul writes in verse 6: Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.
If we looked at the original language here, we'd see that the very first phrase of verse 6 is “your speech” (“… let it be...”). Paul seems to be saying, “I just talked about my speech. Now let's talk about your speech.” Not only should our speech be clear when it comes to the gospel, as Paul prayed, but it should also be gracious, or literally “with grace”. How often? “Always”! In a day and age where our civic discourse often lacks grace, when our culture seems drawn to the coarse and combative, it is so important for the grace in our hearts to be on display through the grace in our words. This is a clear way for us to be wise in our interactions with non-Christians.
What does that look like in our conversations? It could mean giving others the benefit of the doubt. It could mean patience and understanding. It could mean avoiding caricatures and stereotypes. It could mean refraining from language that's demeaning, dehumanizing, or demonizing; language that bullies or belittles. It could mean restraint when others are caustic or cruel. We might ask ourselves, “Is it evident to the other person that my words flow from a heart that has been humbled and empowered by God's amazing grace?”
But Paul adds another point here about their speech: it should also be “seasoned with salted”. What exactly does that mean? Well, it could mean a number of things. But I think that final phrase narrows down its meaning. The reason your speech should be “seasoned with salt”, is “so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” I think this reflects the rabbinic usage of salt as a metaphor for wisdom. When our speech is seasoned by wisdom, we are able to provide personalized answers to those who ask. What questions might they be asking? Given the context, Paul seems to mean questions about our faith. As another apostle told his readers, “always [be] prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet [here comes that grace] do it with gentleness and respect...” (I Peter 3:15)
III. Aligned with His Call
What have we learned this morning? From God's word through the Apostle Paul, we've learned three ways to participate in the mission of God. Do you recognize the severe and urgent need of lost sinners? Do you understand what God is doing today in light of that need? Are you asking, “How can I help?” If you are, then remember... prayerful support, wise interactions, and gracious words. Sensitized. Intentional. Good stewards of the 'divine appointments' God has scheduled for you. And when your mind and heart and will are aligned with this call, with God's call, how could you not circle back and offer the same prayer request Paul offered in vs. 3-4? “Pray also for [me], that God may open to [me] a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ... that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak.” And by God's grace, all the while we are remembering how, at some point in the past, God opened a door for us to hear; how God met your need... my need. The Son was sent by the Father, someone was sent to you by the Son, and now the Son sends you. This is how the gospel bears fruit and increases! May that same gospel inspire us to go in love and gratitude, as God reminds us, “Here's how you can help.”
More in Our Bible Reading Plan (2021-2022)
August 14, 2022It Really is Finished (John 19:28-30)
August 7, 2022Your Survival Kit for a 'Jesus-less' World (John 14:25-27)
July 31, 2022Hearing the Voice of Jesus (John 10:22-27)