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.
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.
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