After an introductory summary description of Christian ethics in 3:1-17, Paul addressed six groups of Christians in regard to the specific responsibilities that belonged to their station in life: wives and husbands, children and parents, and slaves and slave owners. In a short conclusion Paul now wraps up his description of the Christian life with a set of brief exhortations. We have a similar short paragraph in Philippians 4:4-9. It is significant, I think, that none of the summary descriptions of Christian living is precisely the same as any other. It is too large a subject to reduce to a few rules in any case, every group of Christians needs reminders tailored to their own circumstances, and — and perhaps this is the main lesson — the Christian life is simply the application of the believer’s experience of salvation to his own behavior. The Christian life is the reflex of the experience of divine grace and love. So, no matter how it is described and in respect to what particular behaviors, the same basic principlesalways apply because God and Christ are the same and their grace and love are the same. The Christian life is at bottom an effort to be like God and to act like Christ in all our thinking, speaking, and doing and to make an appropriate response to the great gifts God has lavished on us. Every description of the Christian life, therefore, is a reflection of those facts. As Paul summarized it at v. 17: the simple way to describe the Christian life is to say that it is a life of gratitude lived with a view to serving Jesus Christ and pleasing him in everything that we do.
That’s uncontroversial when uttered to an audience like this. But it is important for Christians nowadays to realize how radically uninteresting, if not repellent, that vision of life is to the modern secularist mind. It has always been at bottom uninteresting to the unbelieving mind, but until recently its dislike of a Christian understanding of life was more likely to be masked, even to itself. It was the rare person who would say with Milton’s Satan, “Better to reign in hell, than to serve in heav’n.” [Paradise Lost, I, 263] But nowadays we are more likely to hear such sentiments expressed out loud and defiantly. One modern writer expresses his disgust for the life we aspire to lead in this way.
“’Man’s chief end,’ admonishes the Scottish shorter catechism, ‘is to glorify God and enjoy him for ever and ever.’ What kind of life can be said to be significant if we are totally dependent upon this God for our existence and sustenance? Is not the life of an independent free man to be preferred to one of eternal bondage? As Bertrand Russell has said, to sing hymns in praise of Him and hold hands throughout eternity would be sheer boredom. For the free man, Hell could not be worse.” [Paul Kurtz, The Fullness of Life, 86, cited in David Jones, Biblical Christian Ethics, 37]
There are so many things wrong with that statement it would take too long to unravel the problems, but take the point. What seems to us so straightforward and uncontroversial in what Paul has been telling us actually disgusts a lot of our neighbors. But, then, we look at their lives and see nothing we want; certainly not the life of Bertrand Russell; nothing any human being really wants if only he or she will be honest. The problem is, never having experienced the love of God, they have no sense of what life can be and what life ought to be.
The general nature of these commandments is obvious immediately. We are often told to be thankful in our prayers. The best way to ensure more blessing is to be thankful for the blessings we have already received. But what does it mean to be watchful in prayer? I think it most likely that Paul is urging these Christians to be alert to the needs of the time. As one commentator put it, “The church can always pray for ‘peace in our time;’ but at a certain juncture it should pray, ‘Restrain Hitler,” or ‘Calm the Middle-East.’” [Clark, 126]
Some confirmation of that interpretation is found in what follows. Paul asks for a specific blessing for himself and his entourage, related to the circumstances of his life and ministry at that moment. Paul, as you remember, was in prison in Rome when he wrote Colossians. You’ll notice the verse begins with “us” but ends with “I.” Paul is in prison, but a number of his associates with him in Rome were not, including Timothy, mentioned in 1:1, Tychicus, mentioned in 4:7, Aristarchus (who is also in prison) and Mark, mentioned in 4:10, Epaphras in 4:12, Luke and Demas in 4:14. The work is proceeding with Paul directing it from prison through his subordinates. His imprisonment on this occasion was apparently relatively relaxed, more like house arrest. He would eventually be released. If you remember, Paul was in prison because he had himself appealed to Caesar. It was possible for him to be virtually as involved in his work as the founder of European Christianity as he had always been, though confined to Rome. So it was natural for him to ask the Colossian brethren to pray for the progress of that work. It does not seem to be the case, by the way, that Paul here was asking for prayer that he might be released from prison. The Colossians no doubt prayed for that as the best way to further the work, but Paul doesn’t seem to say that the work is being hindered in particular by his being in prison. That doesn’t mean he didn’t feel the burden of imprisonment. He certainly did as is indicated in the second to the last sentence of the letter.
As many of you know, our Wednesday evening prayer meeting was modeled after the prayer meeting Florence and I encountered at Gilcomston South Church of Scotland in Aberdeen between 1975 and 1978. William Still was the pastor — had been since VE day in 1945 and would be for some twenty years more — and the prayer meeting was the of his early ministry. What struck us — both of us had been raised in evangelical prayer meetings — what we found so remarkable about that prayer meeting was its outward focus. It met in the church hall, a smaller room behind the sanctuary building and attached to it. The hall probably held between 60 and 70 and it was usually full for the prayer meeting that lasted from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. every Saturday night. The front wall of the hall was covered with a peg board from floor to ceiling and across the wall, in small yellow letters, one could see literally hundreds of names. On the left side were the names of many countries of the world with a list of personal names beneath. Under the United States, for example, my name has been there since we left in 1978. The right side of the wall represented Scotland itself. No map was drawn but in the upper left would be the names of ministers and missionaries in the northwest of the country; in the lower right would be names of ministers working in the southeast, and so on. One very quickly discovered that prayer meeting knew as much or more about gospel work going on around the world and, in particular, evangelical ministry in Scotland as any group of Christians anywhere. During the prayer meeting news would be read from a host of different sources bringing the folks up to date regarding gospel work here or there, challenges being faced, opportunities needing to be taken advantage of, and so on. That was a congregation that continued steadfast in prayer and was watchful in it! And people sent news to them from all over the world precisely because they knew they would be prayed for specifically and knowledgeably and with respect to the particular circumstances of their ministry at that time. Well our prayer meeting is like that; at least we aspire to make it as much like that as possible. And if you wish to be obedient to Paul’s commandment here, which is, after all, the Lord’s commandment, the easiest way is to be a regular attender and participant at our Wednesday prayer. Go to 40 or 50 prayer meetings a year and participate intelligently and with interest and you will be able to say to the Lord that you were steadfast in prayer and watchful in it. No small thing to be able to say!
It perhaps has surprised you, as it surprised me that there are hardly any texts in the New Testament that ring the changes on the ordinary Christian’s obligation to evangelize his friends and neighbors. Growing up in our spiritual culture, having read as young people Dawson Trotman’s Born to Reproduce, we might well expect to find any number of texts scattered throughout the New Testament that tell us in explicit terms to share our faith, to challenge our neighbors with the good news, to bear witness to the world that Jesus is Lord, and so on. But apart from the Great Commission at the end of Matthew and the Lord’s commission to his disciples before Pentecost in Acts 1, both of which are specifically addressed to the apostles, there is no clear, forthright, unmistakable command addressed to Christians in general to be evangelists. Even here, “walk in wisdom toward outsiders,” while it undeniably has implications for our witness to the unsaved, is hardly the statement we expect to find: “tell your unsaved friends about Jesus and urge them to believe in him that they might be saved.” We might have thought such a statement would be found a hundred times in the New Testament. The obligation is there, to be sure; it is here, as we will see, but it is surely interesting is it not, something to ponder, that it we don’t find it taught and emphasized as we might have thought it would have been.
The use of “answer” at the end of the last sentence calls to mind Peter’s exhortation that we stand ready to give an answer to anyone who asks us the reason for the hope that we Christians have. As the word “answer” suggests, much of the lay Christian’s evangelism is responsive, that is, a response to things others say and do, a response to opportunities offered or opened to him or to her. The ordinary Christian’s obligation is more to accept opportunities than to create them. As Richard Lucas, the well-known pastor of St. Helen’s Bishopgate in London, put it:
“It is obvious what strain this removes from conscientious Christians. The pressure to raise certain topics and reach certain people can make it difficult to live or talk normally. In any case, we go to the office to work, not to evangelize. But by being ready and willing to respond the way is opened to a more serene, and successful, approach to each day’s opportunities. It opens the way, too, for a greater dependence on God’s leading as well as for a more relevant and sensitive witness, suited to each individual. And remember, when the outsider has chosen the time and the place and the subject, how wonderfully free is the Christian to ‘open his mouth’ and tell ‘the good news of Jesus’. [From Acts 8:35; in Lucas, 174]
So whether Paul is speaking only about evangelism in these verses, which I doubt, bearing witness to unbelievers concerning Christ and the gospel certainly is involved in what he says here. This is all the more clear because these verses follow Paul’s exhortation to the Colossians to pray for him that he might make the gospel — what he calls the mystery of Christ — clear to others. Now he is urging them to do what he does: make it clear to others and take every opportunity to do so. Don’t just pray that others might do this; do it yourself as you have opportunity!
But it must be done wisely. Probably most of us in this room have done this unwisely. Our tone or temper was wrong or we blundered our way through a gospel presentation and thought only later about what we should have said instead. I can think myself of far too many occasions in which I have done that! Well, here we are told to speak to unbelievers skillfully, for that is what “wisely” means. If we don’t know how to do that, it is time we applied ourselves to learning how. Read some Lewis, some Schaeffer, read James Kennedy’s Evangelism Explosion, read Paul Little’s, How to Give Away your Faith, and Will Metzger’s Tell the Truth. If you are up to it, read Michael Green’s Evangelism in the Early Church and find out how it was done well in a world so much like our world today. There are a host of really helpful books that will make you wise in speaking to others and there are folk here who are doing that very well from whom you can also learn.
“Making the best use of the time” is literally “buying the moment.” The point is: make the most of any opportunity because once it is gone it is very often gone for good. Speech that is seasoned and gracious is likewise wise speech and so effective speech.
I could, of course, preach any number of sermons on these few verses: several on prayer, some on Christian witness, talking about how to do it wisely, how it is an “answer,” what it means for a Christian’s speech to be seasoned with salt, and so on. But the Colossians heard this all at once. What was the overall impression of these exhortations upon them?
Well, I think, don’t you, it would have been that they were to live, and conscientiously so, an other-centered life. They were to pray not only for themselves but often and at length for others and especially for the progress of the kingdom of God and the gospel of Christ. They were to devote their lives, in other words, to the highest things. And not only in prayer, but in conversation with unbelievers they were to be alert to opportunities to speak on Christ’s behalf and then they were to make the very most of those opportunities when the time came for them to open their mouths.
There is so much in the Christian life that reduces to this isn’t there? How are we to treat others? Well, we are to treat them in grace and love because that is how Christ treated us. Our life before others is the reflex of our own experience and God’s grace. How are we to think about ourselves? Well as sinners saved by grace we are to be humble. But what is humility? Well, one of the simplest definitions we are given in the Bible is that humility is other-centeredness. A man who knows he has no claim on God’s favor and yet received it nevertheless is set free to treat others as more important than himself. He will want to do that. What is obedience? Well, Paul reminds us that all obedience is one form or another of love. Love for God and love for our neighbor, usually both at the same time. Love is the fulfillment of the law. And love is, once again, other-centeredness, a commitment to the welfare of another, which the gospel teaches all of us to have because its message is that our salvation originated in God’s love for us that worked powerfully even at great cost to himself. As God has loved us, so we are to love one another.
And to the one who has his or her own set of problems and wonders how he can think of others when his or her own problems are so consuming, again and again in the Bible we are taught and shown that other-centeredness is key here as well. As the Lord famously put the principle: he who loses his life finds it. Nothing is better for us, even in the darkness of life, than forgetting ourselves and concentrating on the welfare and especially the salvation of others. God loves to bless those and help those who are seeking to bless others in his name. Right? Does anyone disagree with that? I hope not because it is true.
The particular instructions we are given here concern primarily our speech: our speech to God (that is, prayer) and our speech to others and particularly to unbelievers, so our witness. As with so much in life, everything depends upon our speech. Words are the greatest instrument, or tool, or weapon of human life. The fact that we can speak and wield words is what creates human life as we know it and it is the means by which human life is lived. I’m reading the new third volume that we’ve waited eighteen years for. The final volume of the late William Manchester’s biography of Winston Church. It is written by a friend of his. I have been reminded through the last three or four hundred pages of this biography that, in way I think we scarcely understand, the Second World War would not have gone the way it went had it not been for Churchill’s words. There were a lot of people in England and in England’s government who were ready to throw in the towel in 1940-41. It was Winston Churchill’s rhetoric, his spoken word that nerved them to stay the course. Words are potent things.
It is with our speech that we form relationships, that we love or hate, that we instruct, that we help or harm, encourage or discourage, that we bless or curse. And there is nothing, therefore, more important for a Christian than that his or her speech glorify God and be helpful to others. If one’s speech is other-centered, to a very great degree his or her life will be other-centered.
And we know all too well that it is not always so. Pascal has some dreadful things to say about the corruption and misery of man, but nothing sends the barb deeper than his observation that if only our friends knew what we said about them behind their backs we wouldn’t have four friends left in the world. What a world of evil is the tongue, James reminds us, and how much damage it does. And even when our tongues are not being used to cut down someone else, even when our speech does not drip with contempt or indifference or disdain, so often our speech is still useless. We say little of real importance to anyone else, there is little of Christ in it, no one is helped or encouraged or lifted up by what we say. No one hears us to real profit. Thankfully, it is not always so! I know that. Many of you use your words very wisely and well. Still none of us uses them as we ought. And here the Apostle Paul is effectively telling us, you’ve got to think about what you are going to say when you open your mouth. Our words are too important to be haphazard. Paul effectively tells us three things that ought to be true of a Christian’s conversation.
- He says first that it ought to be timely.
We said that such apparently is the sense of “watchful” in v. 2. Our prayers ought to be timely. They ought to reflect the circumstances of the moment especially in regard to others. Someone who is thinking about praying for others in a timely way — what Paul asks from the Colossian Christians for himself — is going to find that he is much more useful to others than he would otherwise be and will find himself thinking about others more than he did before. If you want missionaries and Christian workers to remember you and be grateful for you, all you have to do when you see them is to comment on some recent development in their ministry that you have learned about and tell them that you have been praying with them about that problem, or that opportunity, or that challenge. Talk to missionaries. They’ll tell you it doesn’t very often happen. But when it does they take notice. Somebody is actually paying attention to what we said. Somebody is actually participating with us in this hard-scrabble work that we are involved in. Timely speech like that means the world to people.
I’ll never forget the first words spoken to us by the man who would be our pastor for three years in Aberdeen, Scotland. We had been in Scotland for ten days when we went to church in Aberdeen for the first time. Our first Sunday we had spent in Edinburgh. After the service we were introduced to Mr. Still as a young American couple come to study at the University. What do you imagine he said to us? “Welcome, I hope you enjoy your stay?” That would have been a polite answer. Or “We’d be delighted to have you worship with us while you are in Aberdeen?” That would have been a welcoming thing to say. Or, considering the poor reputation American oil people had earned for themselves in Aberdeen in those years, perhaps with a wry smile, “Oh, more Americans!” No, nothing like that. He leaned over to Florence, caught her eye, and asked with all the sincerity in the world, “Are you lonely?” Two youngsters, far from home, beginning three long years in a strange place — and in those years you didn’t expect to fly home once or twice a year: we were expecting to be there for three years before we saw home again — what an opportune thing to say! Talk about speech seasoned with salt. “Are you lonely?” It endeared him to us immediately.
Whether talking to God or talking to others, if our speech is timely it means it’s thoughtful, it means it’s intelligent, it’s engaged. You are speaking about things you have thought about. Such prayers are not always prayed, we know that. We’ve all listened to prayers that could have been prayed by anyone at any time in precisely the same words, conventional, predictable generalities, one after another. We all know prayers that are repetitious and formulaic. We pray them ourselves too often. But someone who is thoughtfully concerned to make his prayers timely and his speech to and about others timely is going to pray not only different things, but in different ways and in a different tone from prayer to prayer and speak in very different ways from conversation to conversation. It is the proof that such a person is truly engaged in life as a Christian ought to be.
- Second, our speech, Paul says, should be lively and spirited.
Our speech, he says, should be gracious to be sure. We have tasted the grace of God and that grace ought to be a mark of our speech to and about others. There ought to be kindness in our speech, a spirit of forgiveness, of love; all of that to be sure. But our speech also ought to be seasoned with salt. You season your food with salt to make it tastier, to keep it from being bland, insipid, and uninteresting to your palate. Christians ought to be sparkling conversationalists. Everyone isn’t knowledgeable; everyone doesn’t have a great sense of humor and the skill of witty repartee; everyone isn’t quick on his feet; but every Christian is someone in whom the Lord has done a work of divine grace, every Christian is on his way from earth to heaven and has experienced all manner of the Lord’s interventions along the way. Everyone who is the object of God’s love has something to contribute to a conversation. And every Christian knows about the most stupendous things in the world. Don’t talk about yourself, believe me that is the most boring topic in the world to everybody else but yourself; listen with interest and sympathy, and you’ll be surprised how much you can contribute to any conversation.
You remember the scene, one of the great vignettes in the historical record of the Christian faith, when a young John Bunyan, still an unbeliever, happened upon a conversation between some Christian women of the Bedford church whose morning work was done and who were sitting on a doorstep in the sun talking about the Lord and his ways. He was standing off supposedly working at his tinker’s trade, but he was really listening in on these women. “They spoke,” Bunyan wrote in his autobiography,Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, “as if joy did make them speak.” It was overhearing that conversation between Christian women — not participating in it, but only overhearing it — that convinced Bunyan that he wasn’t saved and needed to be. The whole world owes an immense debt to those Bedford women whose speech was so seasoned with grace and with salt and could speak in a lively way about their experience of the grace of God that Bunyan couldn’t tear himself away from it.
I have been favored with the friendship of many such Christians whose conversation lifted me up, inspired me, instructed me, and made me want to be a better Christian. There are some folk I love to be with because their conservation is so helpful and encouraging and pleasant to me. Some of you remember the English pastor Ian Tait, who once supplied the pulpit here for a month while I was away. Mr. Tait was a witty, intelligent, very knowledgeable man and I always learned a lot from listening to him. I remember more than once turning away from his conversation and writing some things down that I didn’t want to forget. But he was also gracious and lively in his conversation about spiritual things and that inspired me as well for those were things I realized I should be speaking about in the same way. They are subjects deserving of inspired and inspiring speech. Dawn Darby’s father, Bill McColley, was such a conversationalist as well. I never left a conversation with him without being better for it, wiser for it. So with Ian Hamilton and a number of other men and women whose lives have graced my own. That’s Paul’s point. Let your conversation be the salt in someone else’s heart and life.
There ought to be vitality in our conversation, we who know the great mysteries of God and salvation, who are en route to heaven, and have great things to accomplish along the way. It was once said of Alexander Whyte that “many would have announced the chaining of Satan for a thousand years with less expenditure of vital force than Dr. Whyte gave to the mere announcing of a hymn.” Some of that, no doubt, is personality and temperament. But all of us have reason enough to be animated and lively in our conversations with others, knowing what we know and feeling about things as we do.
- Then, third and finally, Paul says that our conversation, our speech should be appropriate to the occasion and to the person and persons to whom we are speaking.
That is what Paul means when he says that our speech should be wise or skillful and when he speaks of our knowing how to answer each person. Our conversation must be timely, as we said, but it must also be appropriate.
We know how well Paul followed his own counsel. He spoke one way to the Athenian philosophers, another way to the Jews in a synagogue, another way to Gentile inquirers, another way to hard-boiled opponents, another way to government officials, and another way to Christian brethren.
Paul’s challenge is that we open our mouths intentionally, that we think before we speak about the person to whom we are speaking and the situation into which we are speaking and utter appropriate words in an appropriate way. You know very well how this works and many of you, I know, are very skillful at this. Your boss or your employee, your children, your friends, can all be spoken to more effectively in one way rather than in another. You know how to speak to them in a way that will encourage them to listen, you know what irritates them; you know how to encourage them and to lift them up. And the more you think about this, the more you observe the conversation of others, the more skillful you become. So-called Christians who rage against homosexuals or against the Koran are violating every principle that Paul lays down here.
Francis Schaeffer, on the other hand, was a master at doing what Paul tells us all to do here. His ministry was as immensely influential as it was in large part because of the way Dr. Schaeffer spoke to people. He was watchful and spoke in a timely way. He addressed them as inhabitants of a modern culture, as people struggling with the problems churned up by that culture. He met them where they lived. His conversation was also lively and stimulating and full of passion. Nobody went away from Dr. Schaeffer feeling he didn’t really care about the things he was talking about. He cared deeply. His words carried conviction for the earnestness with which they were spoken. But they were so appropriate as well.
I fear I would have told many of those who came to hear Dr. Schaeffer to get a haircut! But he must have asked himself many times a day, “How can I speak to this person or that and gain a hearing for the gospel? How can I avoid giving offense and still get to the nub of things?” And the result was that over and over again people heard from Dr. Schaeffer what they wouldn’t have heard from anyone else. He had become a master of knowing how to answer each person. Our calling, too, in our own way and on our own level.
Our tongue, our speech, whether in prayer or in conversation is the primary instrument with which we serve the Lord in this world. Alas, too often we use it to no effect or to dishonor the Lord rather than serve him. But Paul is saying, “As often as you open your mouth, and as much as you talk every day, take care to speak as a Christian for the Lord. Make it plain in your speech that you are a Christian, in love with God and Christ for their goodness to you, and that you have very interesting and important things to say in Jesus’ name to others and it is your privilege to say them. Think about and learn how to say them in the most skillful, disarming, and winning way.
I used to watch Ken Anderson, our late elder, doing carpentry. He did a number of projects at our home through the years and I would watch him work. He was wise enough not to have me do any of the work, but he let me watch. And one thing I noticed again and again, and I gather this is true of all really skillful carpenters, he spent more time figuring out what he was going to do than he spent doing it. But because he planned and measured and marked so carefully, the work, when finished, was what he hoped for: everything lining up just right, fitting exactly into the space available, and so on.
Well, so with your speech. Talking is one of the easiest things you do and so it is very easy to do without thought. But no one can be a skillful Christian speaker who doesn’t think about his speech, plan it, consider it, and prepare for it. Talking is the most important thing you do. No wonder it takes preparation and no wonder that those who think about and plan to do it well and who strive to make their prayer to God and their conversation with others timely, full of vitality, and appropriate to the person and occasion, do the most good in this world and are the most loved. Whatever you say, say it all in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, giving thanks to God the Father through him. Paul wants our speech to be other-centered, self-consciously, intentionally, and thoughtfully other-centered. And he has told us here how to make it so!