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Lesson 28: Private Prayer, Public Witness (Colossians 4:2-6)

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June 19, 2016

If you saw the title of today’s message in advance and showed up anyway, I commend you for your courage, because our text deals with two subjects that probably cause more guilt among believers than any other, namely, prayer and witnessing. If you feel like a failure in your prayer life and in personal evangelism, welcome to the club! I think I’m the club president!

But my aim today is not to add to your guilt. While God used my guilt over my failure at witnessing to motivate me to get some training on how to do it better (see my message, “Wise Witnessing,” 5/30/10), generally I find guilt to be a lousy motivator. My aim today is to give some practical help from our text on how to pray more faithfully and to bear witness more effectively. The connection between these two areas is that a private life of prayer is the foundation for a public life of effective witness.

In private, devote yourself to prayer; in public, be a godly witness for Jesus Christ.

In private, we are to be persistent in watchful, thankful prayer. In public, we are to be wise in our conduct and winsome in our words so that we might be effective witnesses of Christ.

1. In private, devote yourself to prayer.

Col. 4:2-4: “Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with an attitude of thanksgiving; praying at the same time for us as well, that God will open up to us a door for the word, so that we may speak forth the mystery of Christ, for which I have also been imprisoned; that I may make it clear in the way I ought to speak.” First, Paul tells us how to pray; then he tells us what to pray for.

A. How to pray: persistently, watchfully, and thankfully.

1) Pray persistently.

The Greek verb that is translated “Devote yourselves” is often used in connection with prayer. Acts 1:14 says of the early disciples before Pentecost, “These all with one mind were continually devoting themselves to prayer….” After the Day of Pentecost, we read of the early church (Acts 2:42), “They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Later, rather than getting distracted by waiting on tables, the apostles declared (Acts 6:4), “But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” In Romans 12:12, Paul says that we should be, “rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, [and] devoted to prayer.” And in Ephesians 6:18, Paul uses the noun when he commands us to pray “with all perseverance and petition for all the saints.”

Paul cites his own example of persistent prayer in Colossians 1:3, where he says that we are “praying always for you.” He adds (Col. 1:9), “For this reason also, since the day we heard of it, we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.” Referring to his prayers for them, he adds (Col. 2:1), “For I want you to know how great a struggle I have on your behalf ….” And he mentions (Col. 4:12) that Epaphras was “always laboring earnestly for you in his prayers.” In 1 Thessalonians 5:17 Paul gives the brief command, “Pray without ceasing.” “Without ceasing” does not mean praying nonstop every minute of the day, which would be impossible. Rather, it means coming back to prayer again and again. It was used of a nagging cough, which a person does over and over again (James Moulton & George Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament [Eerdmans], p. 9).

Jesus taught persistent prayer in two humorous parables. In the first (Luke 11:5-8), a guy and his family are in bed at midnight when his friend starts banging on the door, asking to borrow some bread for a visiting guest. The guy in bed tells him to go away, but the guy won’t quit knocking. So finally, he gets up and gives him what he’s asking for. In the second parable (Luke 18:1-8), a widow bugs an unwilling judge to give her legal protection from her opponents. At first he resists, but finally, because of her perseverance, he relents and grants her request. The point of both parables is not that God is unwilling or unconcerned about our needs, but rather that we should persist in asking until He grants our requests.

With regard to prayer for family or friends who are lost, is there a point where we should quit praying? Well, probably not until the person is dead. George Muller began to pray daily for the salvation of five individuals in November, 1844. After 18 months, the first man was converted. After five more years, the second man got saved. After six more years, the third man came to saving faith. At the time Muller mentioned this in a sermon, he had been praying daily for the salvation of the other two men for 36 years! Just before Muller died in 1897, 53 years after he had started praying, one of the last two men got saved. The fifth man was saved a few years after Muller’s death (see Roger Steer, George Muller: Delighted in God [Harold Shaw Publishers], p. 267). While I don’t come near to Muller’s faithfulness in prayer, he is an encouragement to persist.

2) Pray watchfully.

“Keeping alert” may also be translated, “staying watchful.” It’s often used in the context of mentioning our adversary, the devil. After urging us to cast all our anxieties on the Lord, because He cares for us, Peter exhorts (1 Pet. 5:8): “Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” Jesus tells us to be on the alert regarding His second coming (Matt. 24:42; 25:13). In the Garden, just before His arrest, He told the disciples (Matt. 26:41), “Keep watching and praying that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

If we knew that a dangerous lion had escaped in our city Sunday morning and the authorities had last seen it near South Beaver Street, we’d all be very watchful as we left church to head toward our cars! Well, a dangerous lion is on the loose in Flagstaff, not just on Sunday mornings, but all the time! Prayer is how we stay on the alert against this unseen, but frightening enemy (Eph. 6:10-18).

3) Pray thankfully.

To pray thankfully is to pray in faith, especially when our circumstances often do not seem to be in our favor. Perhaps you’ve lost your job and have a pile of bills due. Maybe your teenager is rebelling and running with the wrong crowd. Your doctor has just diagnosed you with a serious illness. Whatever the overwhelming trial, it takes faith to pray, “Lord, thank you for this trial, because I know that it’s not too difficult for You. I know that You are for me and You intend to work it together for my good. You will use it to strengthen my faith. So I ask You to answer for Your glory and Your name’s sake.” So we’re to pray persistently, watchfully, and thankfully.

B. What to pray for: Pray for God’s kingdom to expand through the spread of the gospel.

Paul goes on to ask for prayer for himself. If you were in prison unjustly for the sake of the gospel and sent out a prayer letter, it would probably include first, “Pray that I’ll get out of here soon!” But Paul, in effect, prays, “Your kingdom come….” He says (Col. 4:3-4), “praying at the same time for us as well, that God will open up to us a door for the word, so that we may speak forth the mystery of Christ, for which I have also been imprisoned; that I may make it clear in the way I ought to speak.”

John Piper points out that one of our major problems with prayer is that we have made it a domestic intercom to call for refreshments from the butler rather than a wartime walkie-talkie to call in support for the troops (“Walk in Wisdom Toward Those Outside,” on He puts it like this:

Here’s one way to picture what is going on here. Paul and Timothy (1:1) and Aristarchus (4:10) and Epaphras (4:12) are a unique team of storm troopers in the spiritual battle to recapture the hearts of men for God. They have made a strike at the enemy lines and met a tremendous counterforce. Paul and Aristarchus are prisoners of war. And it looks as though the enemy has a tactical victory in his pocket.

But Paul manages to smuggle a letter out of the prison camp to some fellow soldiers stationed to the rear—that’s the Colossians. In the letter he asks them to get on their walkie-talkie, call command headquarters, and ask headquarters to fire a missile that will blast open a door in the prison wall and in the enemy’s front line so that Paul and his squad can get on with their mission to release people from the power of Satan and bring them to God.

Praying for God’s kingdom to expand involves praying for the workers, for open doors, and for gospel clarity.

1) Pray for the workers.

This includes those on the front lines, who are engaged full time in spreading the gospel. But it also includes all believers, that we all would keep our focus on lost souls and not get distracted with all of the worldly stuff that clouds our eternal perspective. Get a church directory and pray for each person to be effective as a witness in his circle of friends If you’re not on our church email prayer list, ask to be added to it. Whether it’s a need with our brothers and sisters in Nepal or those here in Flagstaff, you can stop and pray when you get those emails.

2) Pray for open doors for the gospel.

Even someone as gifted as Paul could not open his own doors for the gospel. He didn’t rely on clever methods or salesmanship techniques to get an opening. Rather, he relied on God to open the doors (Acts 14:27; 16:14; 1 Cor. 16:9; 2 Cor. 2:12). God must open the door for witness (Rev. 3:8), but then we need to walk through it. When God opens the door and we share the gospel, it is powerful to save souls and transform hearts (Rom. 1:16; 1 Cor. 2:1-5; Col. 1:6; 1 Thess. 2:13). So pray for yourself and for others in this church that God would open doors for the gospel.

3) Pray for clarity in presenting the gospel.

This is Paul, the apostle who wrote 13 New Testament letters, including Romans, asking for prayer that he would be clear in presenting the gospel! He refers to it as “the mystery of Christ, for which I have also been imprisoned.” He does not mean that the gospel is mysterious or difficult to understand. Rather, “mystery” refers to a truth that was previously unknown, but now has been revealed. It can’t be known by human wisdom, but only by God’s Spirit. It especially referred to the truth that salvation, which had previously been revealed only to the Jews, was now available to the Gentiles, who now can enjoy right standing and equal access to God through faith in Christ (Col. 1:26-27; Eph. 2:11-3:7).

The gospel (good news) starts with bad news: Our sins have alienated us from God. Because He is holy and just, God cannot just brush away our sins. The penalty must be paid. God has declared that the penalty for our sins is death, eternal separation from Him. No amount of good works can pay that penalty. But what we cannot do, God did. In love, He sent His own Son, Jesus Christ, who is fully God and fully man. He lived in perfect obedience to the Father. His death on the cross was substitutionary. He paid the debt that sinners deserve. God raised Jesus from the dead and now offers a full pardon and eternal life to every sinner who will turn from his sins and trust in the risen Christ alone to save him (Rom. 3:23; 6:23; Eph. 2:8-9; Rom. 4:4-5; John 3:16).

Praying for God’s kingdom to expand through the gospel does not mean that we cannot pray for personal needs. Jesus instructed us to pray for our daily bread, for forgiveness of our sins, and for personal holiness (Matt. 6:11-13). But before we bring these needs to God in prayer, we should pray (Matt. 6:10), “Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

I encourage you to pray persistently, watchfully, and thankfully for Christian workers, for open doors for the gospel, and for clarity in presenting the gospel. Private prayer is the foundation for public witness. To put it another way, talk to God about people before you talk to people about God. But then, talk to people!

2. In public, be a godly witness for Jesus Christ.

There are two parts to this: your walk and your words.

A. A godly walk is the basis for effective witness.

Col. 4:5: “Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity.” “Conduct yourselves” is literally, “Walk,” a favorite metaphor of Paul. In Colossians 1:9-10 he prayed, “…that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.” In Colossians 2:6, he commanded, “Therefore as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him.” (See, also, Eph. 2:2, 10; 4:1, 17; 5:2, 8, 15.)

To walk with wisdom towards outsiders means to base your daily life on the wisdom found in God’s Word. In the Old Testament, “wisdom” comes from the word for “skill.” Just as a carpenter has the skill to take rough materials and craft a beautiful piece of furniture, spiritual wisdom is the skill to build a beautiful, godly life. Proverbs 9:10 states, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” In Col. 2:3, Paul says that in Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” He also has exhorted (Col. 3:16), “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” So wisdom comes from fearing the Lord, knowing Christ, and letting His word richly dwell within you.

To walk with wisdom toward outsiders means that we are to live in line with God’s Word so that those who are not Christians will see the beauty of Christ in our lives and relationships. That gives us a platform to tell them the good news that changed our lives. A godly walk is the foundation for effective witness.

Also, part of your godly walk is “making the most of the opportunity.” When God opens the door, walk through it. The Greek word means to buy up or grab the opportunity. Some of you ladies have gone to a sale. You know what you’re looking for. When you see it on the sale table and it’s a steal, you grab it. Or, a businessman is looking for a good investment opportunity. The minute he sees it, he takes it before it’s gone.

In John 4, there is a contrast between Jesus and the disciples with regard to the woman at the well. Jesus saw her as a lost soul who needed the living water that He alone could give her. And He had a harvest mindset: He saw the fields as white unto spiritual harvest (John 4:35). But the disciples were focused on getting Jesus to eat His lunch so that they could get on with their journey (John 4:31, 33). So Jesus made the most of the opportunity which the disciples totally missed.

The foundation for buying up opportunities for witness is prayer for God to open doors for the word. Pray for God to give you gospel opportunities with people you have frequent contact with. The second He opens the door, you’re ready to go through it.

B. Winsome words are the means for effective witness.

Col. 4:6: “Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person.” Here Paul tells us, “Be gracious; be interesting; and, be sensitive.”

1) Be gracious.

In light of Paul’s repeated emphasis on grace (Col. 1:2, 6; 3:16 [“thankfulness” = “grace” in Greek]; 4:18), this probably means that our presentation of the gospel should be permeated with God’s grace, the message that He gives salvation as a free gift to sinners who deserve His judgment. Since most people think that we earn salvation by our good works, it’s really important to make sure that they understand that salvation is by grace alone apart from any works (Eph. 2:8-9; Rom. 4:4-5).

But, also, letting your speech always be with grace includes speaking graciously to others. As a sinner who has received grace, you don’t speak in a condescending or condemning manner to another sinner. You are kind and humble, letting the other person know that we’re all sinners who would be on the way to hell, were it not for God’s grace. Sharing the gospel is like one beggar telling another beggar where to get free bread.

2) Be interesting.

When Paul says to let your speech be “seasoned with salt,” he doesn’t mean to use “salty” language, as sailors use, of course! Salt had two main uses in Paul’s day. It was used as a preservative from spoilage, which implies that our speech should be pure and free from corruption. It should show those whose lives are spoiled due to sin how they can be restored through the gospel. But, also, salt was used as a spice, to make food tastier. Our presentation of the gospel should stimulate people’s taste to want more. Learn some helpful illustrations to help explain the gospel. To explain what it means to believe in Jesus, you can talk about the difference between believing that a plane will fly and actually getting on board. To believe the gospel is to entrust your eternal destiny completely to Jesus and His death on the cross for your sins. He doesn’t need your help “flying the plane.” You just need to get on board!

3) Be sensitive.

Paul says that you must “know how you should respond to each person.” This is where you must be careful about using a memorized presentation of the gospel. Such presentations are helpful to give you a general plan, but you need to tailor it to each person. One person may need to understand sin and judgment, but the next person may need to hear about God’s abundant grace for sinners who repent. Study Jesus’ witnessing encounters in the gospels. He never used the same approach twice. He dealt with each person individually. He confronted the proud Pharisees, but was gentle (although He still dealt with sin) with those who knew they were guilty. Pray for wisdom as you speak, so that you will know how to respond to this person’s unique needs.


Years ago, the China Inland Mission discovered that the number and spiritual strength of the converts at one station far exceeded anyone’s expectations and could not be accounted for by anything exceptional about the missionary personnel there. The mystery remained unsolved until Hudson Taylor visited England. There, at the close of Taylor’s message, a man from the audience stepped forward to greet him. In the ensuing conversation, Taylor learned that the man had detailed knowledge of this station.

“How is it,” asked Taylor, “that you are so conversant with the conditions of that work?” “Oh,” he replied, “for four years I have corresponded with my missionary friend there. He has sent me the names of inquirers and converts, and I have daily taken these names to God in prayer.” Taylor realized the answer to the puzzle: the daily, specific, prevailing prayer of this man had brought eternal fruit for God’s glory.

God wants us to prevail in prayer with Him concerning His plan of salvation for all people, both here and abroad. In private, devote yourself to prayer. Pray persistently, watchfully, and thankfully. Pray for the workers, for open doors for the gospel, and for clarity in presenting the gospel. In public, your godly walk is the basis for your effective witness. Winsome words that are gracious, interesting, and sensitive are the means for effective witness. I hope you’re encouraged to pray for revival and to be a part of it through godly witness.

Application Questions

  1. Some say that since there is no biblical command or example of praying for someone’s salvation, we should not do so. Your response?
  2. How can we know when to persevere in prayer and when God is saying “no”?
  3. What do you find most difficult about witnessing? Why?
  4. How can we be more alert to opportunities for the gospel?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2016, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Evangelism, Prayer

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