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  • Writer's pictureTim Hemingway

Prayer Factory


"Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should.” Colossians 4:2-4

The vitality of Riverside Baptist Church relies mainly on two things: One, the measure to which its people habitually listen to God speaking to them. And two, the measure to which its people habitually speak to God.

A person cannot stay alive without breathing and Christians cannot stay alive without breathing in the Word of God and breathing out the concerns of their hearts.

Here in verse 2, the Apostle Paul gets nitty-gritty with the Colossian church about the second of those habits – prayer. And I think he has two main spheres in mind for the target of their prayers. And the goal is the same for each – the goal is salvation.

The first sphere is the Colossians themselves – he wants them to attain to salvation. And the second is other people – he wants others to attain to salvation.

Verse 2 is the sphere of their own salvation. And verses 3 & 4 are the sphere of other’s salvation. And the order is significant. If your own salvation is in doubt how can you effectively pray for the salvation of others?

It’s like the emergency drill on the aeroplane – sort your own oxygen mask out first because if you don’t have oxygen you can’t help someone else get there’s on. So, there’s an order here.

Now, let’s take them one at a time and see what Paul would have us be like in prayer.

The reason I think verse 2 is Paul urging the Colossians (and us) to prayerfulness with the goal being ‘salvation’ – even though he evidentlyregards them as believers – is because of the word ‘watchful’.

The combination of the word ‘watchful’ and the concept of prayer is soevocative of an event in the life of Jesus that it’s too obvious to be coincidence.

The event Paul evidently had in mind was Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane and his admonition to the disciples. Here’s what Jesus said, ‘Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak’ (Matthew 26:41).

Jesus regarded his disciples as faithful followers too. He would subsequently give them authority to make disciples for him from all nations, so there’s no doubt in his mind. But evidently there are meansthat accompany perseverance to the very end, and final salvation – namely watchfulness and prayerfulness.

In Matthew’s account, Jesus exhorts the disciples to ‘watch’ 7 times between chapters 24 and 26. So clearly, Jesus places a high emphasis on spiritual alertness and vigilance.

Like a lookout placed to keep watch through the night for potential would-be attackers, we are to be on guard against our enemy the devil who is prowling around like a roaring lion looking to devour us.

It is not safe to be careless about our salvation. And the means by which we endure is steadfast watchfulness and prayer according to Jesus and Paul.

That kind of alertness to the spiritual forces of evil arrayed against us and our ongoing peril in the dark days we live in, will make us acutely aware of our own neediness.

God’s word to us will show us what to be wary of and the things to watch out for. And when we see those things clearly it will be obvious to us that we are not equal to them. It will be obvious, we need help.

That’s what prayer is – it is asking our Father in heaven, through his Son who intercedes on our behalf, by the powerful working of his Spirit in us, for help.

And like any good father, he loves to be relied upon for help. It does notglorify him when we rely upon ourselves for things that we cannot do ourselves.

And the extent of what you can do yourself is, according to Jesus, what?

Nothing. John 15:5, ‘I am the vine you are the branches. If you remain in me and I remain in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing’.

So, prayer is essential to perseverance because the days are evil, and being watchful is essential to prayer.

But Paul has an extra emphasis here in Colossians. He has watchfulnessas a mode of prayer too. Just as he also has thankfulness as a mode and devotedness as a mode.

The Greek sentence construction reads something like this: ‘In prayer continue steadfastly watching in it with thanksgiving’.

I think you can hear how knitted together that sentence is.

We’ve established that prayer is essential for Christian survival – that’s true. But what should that prayer look like. 3 things:

First, it should be devoted. That means it should be continued, steadfastly. It shouldn’t be intermittent, it should be constant. The Greek word for ‘In prayer’ means ‘a place of prayer’.

The Jews would have used it for Synagogue – the place of prayer. It means the location of prayer. Literally, ‘be in a location of prayer all the time’.

Little children know how to do this – to the point of near unparalleledfrustration. Children are like request factories. They never stop asking. It’s because they feel their needs acutely and their parents are the ones who can supply all their needs.

God does not get frustrated with request factories – he loves them. This is how he wants us to be – just continually pouring out our requests to him.

Negatively, James rebukes the believers, ‘You do not have because you do not ask God’. And positively Paul encourages, ‘in every situation…present your requests to God’ (Philippians 4:6).

So, be a request factory – be steadfast in prayer.

Second, be watchful in prayer. Watchfulness leads to prayer, but there is this mode of prayer that is watchful also. It means, don’t be halfhearted in prayer. Don’t be luke-warm in prayer.

When you pray; be urgent; be alive; be invested; be without doubt. Doubt is the enemy of prayer. James says, ‘when you ask you must believe and not doubt’.

So, prayer is extensive – all the time, and it’s intensive – fervent.

Thirdly, be thankful in prayer. Literally, pray with thanksgiving. Here’s where we’re not to be like children. Children have always been part of the family - they were born part of the family. So, all of their asking takes that for granted. They never ask with a spirit of thankfulness for the fact that they can ask.

That’s not how we’re to be. We were not born into the family of God. Jesus has translated us into the family by a free gift. So, our asking must not take our family status for granted. Our asking must be with a spirit of thanksgiving that we can ask and be heard by God.

We don’t deserve that privilege – it is not our right. So, our prayers must always be in a spirit of thanksgiving for the right to be heard - nevertaking that right for granted. Otherwise we are entitled. Pride underpins entitlement. And we know God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble.

So, let’s sum up the first sphere: Knowing that the days are evil be alertunto prayer for you need help to make it to the end. And let your prayer be extensive – all the time; and intensive – always believing; and in the right spirit – always thankful.

These are the key ingredients.

Ok, so now that we’ve prayed for ourselves, we can pray for others.

You know, one of the challenges that I find with prayer is the vast number of things that are worthy of prayer. And when you think of how busy our lives are, there is simply not enough time to pray for everything. That often troubles me.

It means that inevitably we need to find ways to prioritise matters for prayer. Now, this expansive approach from Paul perhaps gives us a pointer as to how to do that. Paul is moving from the sphere of the individual out to the sphere of the collective.

And if you take that approach and think of your life in terms of spheres and the relative closeness of those spheres to yourself, that might help you to shape your prayers.

So, perhaps a useful way to pray is to think, I’ll take an item from each sphere of my life and pray them in order away from myself.

So, number one - oxygen mask on – pray for yourself in some way. Then pray for something in the next closest sphere to you – let’s say immediate family. And then pray for something in the next sphere – let’s say church family. And then, it might be neighbourhood or work setting. And then it might be government – because we’ve been told to pray for them. And then it might be a global situation – Ukraine for example.

And then it might be missions because Jesus wants disciples to be made from all people groups.

You can probably think of loads of spheres that I’ve missed out there, but you get the idea.

And, of course, there are going to be times when you need to concentrate on one sphere because there is just so much going on in it.

Prayer-focus will have seasons and you can’t keep praying for every matter all the time or indeed indefinitely. Prayer because of the vastness of our lives and the limitations of our abilities is inevitably variable.

But one thing we know we must pray for – and this is particularly pertinent to collective prayer as a church – is the sphere of the salvationof lost people. And that’s what Paul turns his attention to in verses 3 & 4.

So, let’s go there now.

I see 3 things Paul is requesting the Colossians pray for him. The first is that God would open a door. The second is that the message that goes through that door would be effective. And third, that in spite of the opposition, Paul and his associates would be able to proclaim it clearly.

Now those are prayer requests from Paul to the Colossians for the frontier mission that Paul was on. And we’re not on frontier mission, we’re on local mission. But I’m convinced that Paul’s prayer requests from his mission field then, are as valid for us now in our local setting.

I consider it a wonder that this word should come to us at this moment in our development as a small church – when we are seeking to establish Sunday club and develop outreach strategies for our community.

This word seems very relevant to Riverside, right now. And especially when taken in connection with the second half of Paul’s message last week.

So, let’s consider each one of these prayer aims Paul lays down.

First, that a door would be opened. Paul was always looking for doors that might be opening. In his first letter to the Corinthians he noted that ‘a great door of effective work’ had opened for him. And in his second letter to the Corinthians he again noted that when he went to Troas he ‘found that the Lord had opened a door’ for him.

So, almost certainly Paul has in mind here a set of conducivecircumstances that afford him an unhindered way to preach, declare, or herald the gospel to people. But that wouldn’t be all the Apostle had in mind, I don’t think.

Because, to have a circumstantial door open is virtually irrelevantunless another type of door is opened. And we get a flavor of this in Acts 14 where Luke is telling us about Paul’s missionary journey and his subsequent return to Antioch when, he and his associates gathered the church together to tell them how God had ‘opened a door of faith to the gentiles’.

And Jesus spoke in these terms too when he said, ‘to the one who knocks the door will be opened’.

The heart is a room with a heavily defended door. And it is firmly shutuntil God supernaturally blows it wide open. That simply must happen if anybody is going to be saved. We can have all the best gospel-conducive circumstances in the world, but if God doesn’t open the heart then salvation cannot come in.

Evidently God had done that for Paul during his earlier journeys, now he’s in chains (v.3) for Christ in Rome and he’s asking that the Colossians pray it would happen again.

So, two meanings of the open door are critical here – and we need both – effective circumstances and effective circumcision (open hearts). Bolted doors blown open by the power of God’s Holy Spirit! We can’t do either of those things, but both are essential, so we need to pray they would happen.

Before we move on to the second thing Paul wants the Colossians to pray for, notice this: The gates of Paul’s prison cell are not what he has in mind when he says ‘pray that God may open a door’. That had happened to him before. Remember Acts 16, when Paul and Silas were in prison?

About midnight, they were singing hymns and praying, and suddenly there was a mighty earthquake. And all at once all the prison doors flew open and everyone’s chains came loose.

Paul’s not praying for that. His suffering is not his chief concern. The eternal suffering of the lost is his chief concern. He’s praying for hearts to be blown open not prison doors. So, that’s a lesson in suffering for the gospel and how our prayers should be mainly shaped around eternal suffering.

The second thing Paul wants them to pray for is that their message go through that open door. According to verse 3, their message is the ‘mystery of Christ’. That means that the truth about Jesus was an ‘unknown’ to his audiences.

And surely, we must conclude the same in our day. The people we are trying to reach may have heard of Jesus, but do they know the truthabout Jesus? The answer is surely ‘no’. He is, to all intents and purposes a mystery to the people we are seeking to reach.

But then there’s this too: Every time we use our minds to construct a message about the truth of Jesus, the pure, unadulterated message is getting mixed with our own inadequacies. That means that the strengthof the good news about Jesus is always being hindered or obscured in some way by the words we use, the tone we adopt, the sentence construction we exercise.

Which might leave you wondering, why would God use fallen, failing people, like us to proclaim his good news of salvation in Jesus. Surely if he spoke it himself, then people would come to believe it.

He hasn’t done it that way at least for one reason that is evident here: Knowing our own inadequacies causes us to turn to God in prayer and rely on him to take the message that we speak, in the best of our abilities, and to thrust it through that open door into the souls of people with life-changing effectiveness - that they may believe.

God does work the miracle but he uses weak, defective people like us who prayerfully ask him to do the miracle, to do the miracle.

In this, his power is seen more effectively than if he were to do the whole thing directly himself. So, we need to pray for the effectivenessof our message.

And that leads us to the third thing. The fact that God is the one who thrusts the message through the door, does not absolve us of our responsibility to speak it as clearly as we possibly can. And that is always a struggle. Our natural abilities and our natural inclinations are enemies of clarity.

For example, the clearest message comes when our natural abilities are employed to the best of their powers, but that takes a lot of effort on our part.

And the clearest message comes when our natural fears are put down; and our natural shyness is subordinated; and our natural self-consciousness is suppressed.

The word ‘should’ in verse 4 is Paul telling us that it is our responsibility, before God, to grapple with the things that hinder clarity. And the word ‘pray’ in verse 4 is Paul telling us that we need God to help us overcome those things that hinder clarity.

So, it’s not one or the other, it’s both. Don’t be so confident in your fight against natural weakness that you don’t pray. And don’t fail to strive for clarity in spite of the fact you’ve prayed about it. It’s both.

So, these are the ways we need to pray for the salvation of other people: For open doors – both for open opportunities and open hearts; for the message to enter in through those open doors; and for clarity to convey that message.

How easy it is for us to think that the obstacles are too great for us to effectively reach the lost. But I’m not sure you could conceive of a lesspromising situation than Paul found himself in. Incarcerated in chains for the gospel in the heart of the greatest empirical power on earth at the time. Nevertheless, his call to the Colossians is ‘pray’. Pray for yourselves and pray for the gospel.

I think there are lessons here for us.


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