Connections 11.24.2019: Prayerful Hopes

Colossians 1:9-20

Since my daughters were very small, I have written them several letters per year in special journals that I bought for them. The earliest entries detail their milestones (“You crawled toward the remote control today” or “You slept in your big-girl bed all night without waking us up”). The middle entries talk a lot about family trips, birthday parties, and friends. The more recent entries communicate my hopes and dreams for them as they get closer to independence.

No matter when I wrote them, many of these entries read almost like prayers. I direct them all to my girls, but the spirit behind the sentences is prayerful, hopeful, beseeching. Just before my oldest started high school in August, I wrote her this: “I hope the fun memories of summer will help you feel refreshed and confident as you start this new school year. That you will always view our home as a safe refuge for you. That you will walk with your head held high like the strong, confident young woman you are. That you will maintain your uniqueness of style, your humor, and your compassion for others. That you’ll work hard and do your best.”

The writer of Colossians seems to have felt a similar fondness and yearning for the believers he wrote to: “…we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God. May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light” (Col 1:9-12).

Most of the journal entries to my girls are conversational and organic to what they are doing in their everyday lives, but there is always a foundation of faith in what I write. My love for them leads me to long for their lives to be worthy of the Lord and for them to grow in their knowledge of God, to be strong, to endure, and to give thanks always.

One of the most beautiful gifts from God is community—whether it exists within a family unit, in a congregation, among castmates rehearsing for a production, between colleagues at work, or anywhere else. Wherever we find our community, may we love its people and nurture them like the writer of Colossians did for the community he loved.

Discussion

• Where do you find your community? What draws you together?

• What makes you fond of each other? What makes you yearn for each other’s best interests?

• The spirit of love and nurture in Colossians 1:9-12 is found in other New Testament letters. Use a concordance or do a digital search for the words “grace and peace,” a common phrase in the letters that people like Paul wrote to communities they loved. How many instances of this phrase did you find? What are each writer’s hopes and dreams for the communities they address?

• Why do you think it is important to communicate your prayerful hopes for those you love? What has it meant to hear others’ prayerful hopes for you? How has it encouraged you in your life of faith?

Reference Shelf

Prayer (1:9-12)

In the prayers of his letters Paul usually intercedes for things mentioned in the thanksgiving, and this is the case in Colossians. Verse 9 follows closely from what preceded it. The intercession is based on the good report Paul and Timothy have received (vv. 6-8); that report is the antecedent of “it” in v. 9. On the basis of what God has already done among the Colossians, Paul presumes to ask God to do more. The theme of constant prayer (“we have not ceased to pray for you”) is picked up from v. 3 (“We always thank…when we pray for you”).

The prayer itself has two petitions, one for fullness and one for power. In v. 9 Paul prays that they will be granted three theological virtues: knowledge of God’s will, wisdom, and spiritual understanding. Those virtues result in practical consequences: a life worthy of the Lord, pleasing to the Lord, and bearing fruit and growing (v. 10). Verses 9 and 10 introduce the crucial Pauline assumption that theology is important because action proceeds from it. The second petition in v. 11 returns to theological virtues and the spiritual endowments the Colossians will need for practical activity. The prayer closes by pointing toward the final rewards of faithfulness.

The first petition begins by asking that they “be filled.” The word is a subtle introduction of the concept of “fullness,” which will be crucial later in the letter (see 1:19 and 2:9). The three endowments with which Paul asks that they be filled—knowledge, wisdom, and understanding—are not original to him. The triad occurs in Exod 31:3; 35:31; Isa 11:2; Sir 1:19; and in the Qumran literature (1QS 4:4; lQSb 5:21; 1QH 12:11 ff., for example). In addition to their associations with Jewish wisdom tradition, the terms would be familiar to those whose background included the Greek religions, especially the mysteries and Gnosticism. One wonders if Paul is intentionally introducing the language of the false teachers in order to begin to refute it.

“Knowledge” in the Hebrew Bible is always connected with practical obedience, and so serves to counter the heretical concept of knowledge that is speculative. “Wisdom” for the Greeks implied mental excellence, but for the Jews “wisdom” connoted the ability to apply knowledge of God’s will. Again, wisdom is understood as practical. “Understanding” in this sense means “insight,” the ability to put ideas together and draw conclusions, or to see the relationship between ideas.

Paul stresses these theological virtues because of their practical result; they will allow the Colossians to lead lives appropriate to the Christian faith they profess. For Paul, theological virtues are confirmed in practical living. Here he outlines four consequences of spiritual knowing: a life worthy of the Lord, pleasing to him, bearing fruit, and growing in knowledge (v. 10). The section begins with an infinitive of purpose, whose Greek root means literally “walk.” The Colossians are to conduct their daily walk, their lifestyle, in a way that is worthy of God. The word for “pleasing” is found in parallel literature with negative connotations; it means something like “brown-nosing,” fawning to gain favor. But in this, its only use in the New Testament, Paul gives it positive content.

We have already encountered “bearing fruit” and “growing” in v. 6. The image of a vigorous plant with its health attested by fruit and new growth (that also promises continuance) is reintroduced. What the gospel is doing “in the whole world,” Paul wants done in Colossae as well.

At the beginning of the second petition of the prayer Paul again introduces a word that will be crucial in the following argument. He prays that they may be “strengthened with all power” (v. 11). The root of both words is dynamis, in Hebrew tradition the chief characteristic of God, but also a concept that is crucial when Paul discusses Christ’s authority over “the powers” (2:15). “All power” comes from God; forms of “all” occur eleven times in vv. 4-11 and twice in v. 11 to emphasize that fact. In the prayer Paul makes it clear that power belongs to God, who is glorious in might, and undoubtedly Paul hopes the Colossians will recall this as they consider his arguments later in the letter.

The Colossians are to be strengthened with power for endurance and patience, characteristic Pauline virtues which are frequently linked in eschatological contexts as necessary endowments for the end times (see 2 Cor 6:4ff. and 2 Tim 3:10). Endurance is the refusal to be daunted by hard times. Its root word means “to stay,” “remain,” “abide” or “last,” and it characterizes the athlete in Heb 12:1 who runs the race with perseverance. In Paul the term appears in Rom 8:25 and 15:4, again, as an eschatological virtue. “Patience” connotes a more social virtue. It literally means being greater than anger and implies the refusal to be upset by perverse people, the sort of self-restraint that makes it possible to face opposition without retaliation, in other words, patience with people.

Both endurance and patience are to be exercised with “giving thanks to the Father” (v. 12). The idea of thanksgiving turns the whole petition away from simply grim long-suffering. It also signals the end of this section of the letter and the beginning of a new section. The letter proper begins with thanksgiving in v. 3, and its recurrence here signals a liturgical conclusion. This is borne out by the introduction of eschatological language in “the inheritance of the saints in light.” “Inheritance” is used in Exodus for the Promised Land, what is assigned or allotted, and in the LXX for the division of the land among the twelve tribes. The Christians in Colossae are being granted a new allotment. The light-and-dark imagery introduces cosmic language that prefigures Paul’s description of Christ’s defeat of “principalities and powers.” The immediately following verses, vv. 13-14, give the reasons for thanksgiving (deliverance, redemption, and forgiveness), and they shall be treated shortly.

In the prayer, which constitutes a standard feature of hellenistic letters, Paul accomplishes a number of objectives. First, he keeps the themes raised in the thanksgiving at the fore. Second, he introduces two issues that will be crucial in what follows (fullness and power) and makes subtle reference to the false teachers he hopes to refute. Third, he places all the teaching that follows in the context of prayer to the all-powerful God. Finally, he continues the almost lock-step progression of ideas that was begun in the movement from the thanksgiving to the prayer sections of the letter. In Greek, vv. 9-20 form virtually one continuous thought. In v. 12, the last verse of the prayer, the attitude of thankfulness is introduced, so that the reasons for thankfulness can be set forth in vv. 13-14, which form the transition to the body of the letter in which Paul will set forth Christ as cosmic ruler and lord.

Bonnie Thurston, Reading Colossians, Ephesians, and 2 Thessalonians (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 2007) 20–22.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor of Smyth & Helwys curriculum and books since 2001. In addition to this work, she is a freelance editor for other publishers and authors. She also regularly volunteers for Jay’s HOPE, a nonprofit serving families of children with cancer. Kelley enjoys spending time with her daughters, Samantha (15) and Natalie (12), and her husband John. Occasionally, she appears onstage in community theater productions and can sometimes be found playing board games with a group of rowdy friends. She loves Marvel movies, Harry Potter, and Doctor Who, and she’s still trying to write a young adult novel that her girls will enjoy.

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