“In our prayers….” Paul opens his letter to the Colossian church with an expression of gratitude to his fellow sisters and brothers in Christ. At first glance, it may seem like Paul is laying the compliments on pretty thick. In our day, the reaction to a greeting like this might be suspicious. Who hasn’t been buttered up by someone who mentions your good traits and accomplishments only to have the hammer of criticism brought down hard? It's the compliment sandwich with the true substance of the comments wedged between two slices of bread that only really keep your hands clean. It happens enough to those good servants of Jesus Christ who serve as pastors in local churches.
Amid the compliment sandwich from the stray individual or group, it can be challenging to see the good work that God is doing among our people. Furthermore, it can be just as challenging to pray for God’s genuine blessing on those who make life hard. Unfortunately, a few sour grapes spoil the whole bunch, and we can get distracted from caring for those striving to be faithful.
The opening to Paul’s letter gives us a chance to speak from our hearts to those we serve. The preaching or teaching moment can be an opportunity to dwell on the beautiful things God is doing among you and your people and reveal your deepest desires to see your friends grow in grace and truth.
Verses three through eight reports all the good things Paul has heard about the Colossian church. He has heard of their faith in Jesus which is proven by their love for all the saints. The Colossians have faith, love, and hope. Their faith is fueled by their hope that in the end, Jesus Christ will come finally and fully, making all things new. Their faith is expressed as love for those around them. As you prepare to preach or teach this week, how have you seen faith, love, and hope expressed by the people in your congregation? Whose story might you be able to tell as an example?
As Paul’s declaration of thankfulness continues, he connects his readers with the larger work that Jesus is doing all over the world. Faith, hope, and love rooted in the gospel are bearing fruit worldwide. God’s grace is changing people and places, of which Colossae is only one place. In a world where Christianity was not yet anything other than a sect of the Jewish faith, it must have been easy to feel as if they were isolated and alone with trials and persecutions all around. It is as if Paul is saying, “Look! You are not alone. What God is doing in and through you, God is doing all around!” How can you connect the good work your church is doing with what God is doing worldwide?
Finally, Paul highlights the work of Epaphras, a fellow servant of Christ. Epaphras is at least partly responsible for the state of things in the Colossian church. He’s also responsible for informing Paul and Timothy of the way God is working in their church. He’s a faithful minister. Is there an individual or a group of individuals who have poured themselves into the work of helping your church grow in faith, hope, and love? How could you incorporate their story into your time of teaching and preaching?
“For this reason….” In verse nine, the letter’s opening shifts. Because of all the good fruit the church is producing, because of their faith, hope, and love, Paul prays for them constantly. Not only does Paul celebrate the Colossian church in a letter, but he does so before God as well. At the same time, Paul prays that they “may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding….” Paul's prayer takes on fresh significance in a world filled with a constant stream of voices telling us what to believe, what to do, and how to do it. Discerning God’s will and seeking God’s wisdom, which is foolishness to the world, is our constant prayer. Express how much you pray and long, and work for your friends to intentionally pursue becoming disciples of Christ and not disciples of Facebook, cable news, or talk radio.
In the following phrase, Paul makes a clear connection between the type of fruit a church will bear and its knowledge of God’s will. Only concentrating on the voice of God as it seeks to lead us in faithful work and witness will produce good fruit. Paul knows, too, that we cannot concentrate on God’s voice without strength from above, and so he prays that his friends may receive the power that only comes from God for good work and patience, and joyful endurance. Express to your people how much you long for them to rely entirely on God’s strength.
Finally, Paul reminds his friends to which kingdom they belong. Once, we belonged to the “power of darkness” but no longer. Now we reside in the “kingdom of his beloved Son.” The same voices that seek to tell us what to believe and do tell us that their kingdom is the best, that happiness and contentment can only be found in the kingdom of this world. There is a constant pull to return to and live fully in that kingdom. Yet, the kingdom of God has come, and we are now full citizens of it. Remind your folks that the kingdom of God is less about location and more about a particular and distinct way of life. Remind them of their baptism, which ushered them into God’s kingdom, into God’s family. Tell them how much you pray that they might be true and faithful signs and witnesses pointing to God’s redemption and restoration of all things.
Paul’s opening is no compliment sandwich. Paul is thankful for God’s faithfulness and the church's faithfulness. The opening expresses Paul’s longing and hopes for the church to continue to grow into all that God is calling it to be. This week, may your time of teaching or preaching communicate your thankfulness for God’s faithfulness in and through your church. May it be a faithful expression of your longing and hopes for your local church.