Colossians 4 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
Paul's Evangelistic Concern for Outsiders
Paul's opening exhortation is framed by two imperatives, both of which convey his deep concern to evangelize the lost. The community that God has called out of the world for salvation by the gospel (see Rom 10:8) is called in turn to preach that gospel; evangelism is the church's vocation. The work of evangelism includes prayer (4:2-4) as well as proclamation (4:5-6)--a point already highlighted in the letter's opening words (1:5-9). In fact, this concluding passage connects well with Paul's opening thanksgiving (1:3-12). So Paul's exhortations to pray for the church's mission (4:2-4) and to be wise toward outsiders (4:5) form a sort of bookend, paired with its opening thanksgiving, bringing into even clearer focus the purpose of the letter's main body. That is, Paul's interest in correcting the errant philosophy concerns the church's vocation; the Christless teaching and ascetic morality of the "hollow and deceptive philosophy" (2:8) threaten the church's evangelistic mission to outsiders.
Paul is first of all concerned with his readers' prayer life, and he commends three characteristics of effective prayer to them. The opening imperative, devote yourselves (proskartereite), is frequently used regarding prayer in the New Testament (especially in Acts: 1:14; 2:42, 46, etc.) and suggests a gritty determination not to give up until God's response comes (compare Lk 18:1-8). The second phrase, being watchful, may imply a perspective toward the future, when Christ returns and God will answer every prayer fully. Most commentators are inclined not to find a futuristic meaning in this phrase because of Paul's emphasis in Colossians on a realized eschatology; but I disagree. Paul's opening thanksgiving is grounded in the congregation's future hope (1:5) and restated as the aim of his Gentile mission (1:22, 28). The congregation is called to pray in the confident expectation that it will be made acceptable before God at Christ's return (Schweizer 1982:172). In addition, the word for watchful (gregoreo) modifies and intensifies Paul's exhortation to pray, calling for vigilance or alertness to petition God for all that agrees with God's eschatological plans. In the immediate context, persistent and vigilant prayer is an ingredient of the church's evangelistic mission: believers must pray that those in need of God's salvation be converted before Christ returns.
The third characteristic of prayer, thankful, suggests two possible meanings. A thankful prayer expects God's answers (see 1:12; Wright 1987:152). Since this exhortation concerns the church's evangelistic mission, a thankful prayer also acknowledges that salvation finally belongs to the Lord and is the work of God's grace.
The more specific object of the congregation's intercessory prayer is that God may open a door for our message. The meaning of the "opened door" metaphor is debated among scholars (see Wright 1987:152). Elsewhere in Paul's writing the image refers to the occasion for conversion granted by God through the preaching of the gospel (1 Cor 16:9; 2 Cor 2:14; compare Acts 14:27). No doubt this is the primary meaning intended by Paul here. But Paul may well have placed this phrase in an inverted and parallel relationship with the next two phrases, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. If this is the case, then the church's message is more specifically the mystery of Christ (compare 1:26-7). Thus to pray for an "opened door" is to pray that Paul's prison door be opened by God's grace so that he will be "given another chance to preach" God's gospel (see Lohse 1972:165).
The transition from the plural our message to the singular I am in chains no doubt is intended to underscore the difficulty of Paul's personal situation. While he is called by God to proclaim the mystery of Christ, he cannot do what he should because he is in prison. In effect, then, the community prays that God's will be done on earth as it is in heaven: that God open the door of Paul's prison, setting him free to reveal the mystery of Christ, which is that Christ is for Gentiles too, and that he is the "hope of glory" for them as well (1:27).
Paul's second imperative to the Colossians is to be wise in the way you act toward outsiders. The word outsiders generally refers to non-Christians (1 Cor 5:12-13; 1 Thess 4:11-12). In rabbinical use, however, it may include believers who stand outside correct teaching. Perhaps Paul has both groups in mind, including those persuaded by the false teachers along with the lost of the world, since the ministry of evangelism includes both. Moreover, he would have been especially concerned about the negative effect immature believers have on the lost. Since we authenticate God's salvation by our lives and words, we can either impugn or enhance God's reputation by bad or good example (Lohse 1972:167). How many non-Christians justify their unbelief by testimonies of a Christian's hypocrisy! To excuse our sins by referring to our spiritual immaturity or by pointing out the Lord's perfect love will simply not do. In Christ's earthly absence, the church remains the conduit of the word of truth on earth, for good or for ill. If we remain in vice and despair, without any indication that God's grace makes a difference, who but the fool will believe the claims of the gospel? For this reason Paul calls us to life grounded in a wisdom that knows God and remains committed to the trustworthiness of the gospel (1:9-10; compare 1:28; 2:3; 3:16).
With respect to the ministry of evangelism, the exhortation to be wise suggests two concerns. First, the wise community exploits every opportunity it is given for evangelism. Watchful prayer makes one keenly sensitive to people and setting. In fact, O'Brien suggests that the middle voice of the verb make the most signifies "the personal interest" or involvement of believers in their environment (1982:241). But the reason for our activism is pointed and clear: this is a call not so much to be a "good Samaritan" as to share with Paul in the work of evangelism. Second, the wise community, eager to proclaim the gospel, engages the lost in conversation [that is] full of grace, seasoned with salt. This last phrase, so graphic and memorable, captures the wisdom of ancient rhetoric: ideological substance without personal style fails to convince people. If a believer, who has a wonderful story of conversion to tell, cannot tell it in a "salty," interesting way, the story will not be heard. Of course, lively stories, like "fine-sounding arguments," are sometimes used in the service of lifeless substance. In this case, however, the communication of the "word of truth" is undermined by uninteresting or incoherent words.
Paul may have mentioned grace to link human graciousness, a characteristic of effective communication, with divine grace. In this sense, the gospel of God's saving grace will find its audience through a gospel ministry characterized by a generous civility (see 3:12). The spiritual triumphalism that some evangelists exemplify today not only fails to edify the church but fails to attract an unsaved audience as well. Yet their rhetoric is often "salty," full of vibrant images and pungency, hardly dull and never boring. Evangelists know that an audience will never be attracted to new life by lifeless words, old cliches and tired slogans! Paul's wise exhortation is to bring humane graciousness together with carefully chosen words in our preaching ministry.
The meaning of the final phrase, so that you may know how to answer everyone, depends on whether it expresses the result of "gracious and salty" proclamation or describes its occasion. Probably the latter option fits this context best: the evangelist who makes the most of every opportunity finds a "gracious and salty" answer for every sincere query or malicious challenge facing the church.