The Ministry of Prayer (4:2-4)

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).

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