The Epistles of the (first) captivity of the Apostle (Philippians, Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon) represent his maturest experiences. As a consequence the prayers found in them are particularly noteworthy, revealing some of the deepest things of the writer's spiritual life. In this respect they are at once tests and models for us; and it is perhaps not too much to say that careful and prolonged prayerful meditation on the prayers found in these Epistles will prove one of the most valuable and helpful methods of deepening the spiritual life. The first of these we now consider.
1. THE REASON OF THE PRAYER.
Colosse was one of the Churches which Paul had neither founded nor visited (ch. ii.1). Christianity was brought there by Epaphras, one of his disciples (ch. i.7). But the Apostle was as keenly interested in its spiritual welfare as if he had been instrumental in founding it. So when he had heard of their faith and love (ch. i.4), and the fruitfulness of their life (ch. i.6), he thanked God on their behalf (ch. i.3), and prayed this prayer. Deep interest in the spiritual life of others was one of the prominent marks of the Christian character of St. Paul. His was no self-centred life, for he was ever keenly alert to appreciate the marks of grace in others. This is a test, and at the same time a rebuke, for us. How unlike we are to a Christian of the type of Barnabas, of whom we read: "Who, when he came, and had seen the grace of God, was glad" (Acts xi.23). This is only possible by having "a heart at leisure from itself"; and when we are thus deeply interested in the marks and manifestations of the Divine working in other people's lives we shall not only praise God on their behalf, but also, like the Apostle, pray for them; and thus the blessing will extend and deepen.
2. THE NATURE OF THE PRAYER.
The main point of his prayer was that they might be "filled with the knowledge of His will." The will of God known and done is the secret of all true living. It was the key-note of our Lord's earthly life. He came to do the will of the Father, and in one of the deepest experiences of His life He said: "Not My will, but Thine be done." He told His disciples that His meat was to do the will of Him that sent Him; and He taught them to pray, "Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven." The will of God is the substance of revelation, for what is the Bible from beginning to end but the revelation of God's will for man? Perhaps the most all-embracing prayer is: "Teach me to do Thy will"; and certainly the ideal life is summed up in the phrase, "He that doeth the will of God abideth for ever." Well might the Apostle pray for these Christians of Colosse to be filled with the knowledge of God's will.
The word rendered "knowledge" means "mature knowledge," and is one of the characteristic words of these four Epistles written from Rome. The Apostle evidently regarded mature knowledge, or deep spiritual experience, as the pre-eminent mark of a ripening Christian. In this respect St. John bears the same testimony, in his reference to the three stages of the Christian life represented by "little children," "young men," and "fathers." The little children have; the young men are; the fathers know (1 John ii.12-14). This spiritual knowledge or experience is the great safeguard against error, in that it gives power to distinguish between good and evil, between truth and falsehood.
The measure of this knowledge is to be carefully noted -- "filled with the knowledge of His will." The word also implies a fulness which is realised continually -- not a bare knowledge, but its completeness; not an intermittent stream, but a perpetual flow. When the soul experiences this it is provided not only with the greatest safeguard against danger, but also with the secret of a strong, growing, powerful Christian life.
The characteristics of this knowledge should be observed: "In all wisdom and spiritual understanding." "Wisdom" is a general term which implies the capacity and faculty for adapting the best means to bring about the best ends in things spiritual. "Spiritual understanding" is the specific coming or putting together of principles by means of which true action is taken. It really means "putting two and two together," comparing ideas and principles, for the purpose of adopting the best in any given course of action. Of the importance and necessity of wisdom and spiritual understanding scarcely anything need be said. Christian wisdom, Christian understanding, Christian perception in the thousand and one things of life -- this surely is one of our greatest necessities and choicest blessings. How many errors would be avoided, how many wanderings checked, by means of this spiritual wisdom! Still more, how much joy would be experienced and how much genuine service rendered, if we were always saying and doing the right thing, at the right time, in the right way.
"Filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding." This means for its complete realisation constant touch with that Book which presents the clearly expressed will of God. The will of God is in that Word, and when the Word is illuminated by the Spirit of God we come to know His will concerning us. No one will ever have the full knowledge of that will, no one can possibly be mature in experience, if the Word of God is not his daily, definite, direct study and meditation. It purifies the perception of the faculties by its cleansing power; it illuminates the moral faculties with its enlightening power; it controls the emotional faculties with its protective power; it energises the volitional faculties with its stimulating power; and thus in the constant, continuous use of the Word of God in personal practice, with meditation and prayer, we shall become "filled with the full knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding."
3. THE PURPOSE OF THE PRAYER.
Knowledge is not an end in itself, but the means to an end; and so the Apostle states the purpose for which he asks this knowledge of God's will: "That ye might walk worthy of the Lord unto all-pleasing ... fruitful ... increasing ... strengthened ... giving thanks."
Their life is to be influenced by this knowledge -- "walk worthy of the Lord." Knowledge is to be translated into practice. "Walking" is the characteristic Bible word descriptive of the character of the Christian life, the full expression of all our powers. As it presupposes life, so it means energy, movement, progress; and for this, knowledge is essential. How can we walk unless we know why and whither we go? The knowledge of God's will gives point and purpose to the activities of life.
"Walk worthy of the Lord." What a profound and searching thought is here -- "Worthy of the Lord." Surely this is impossible; yet these are the plain words of the inspired writer. To walk worthy of the Lord -- it is almost incredible, and yet this is one of the possibilities and glories of grace. The Apostle is fond of the word "worthy." We are to walk worthy of our vocation (Eph. iv.1), worthy of the Gospel (Phil. i.27), worthy of the saints (Rom. xvi.2), worthy of God (1 Thess. ii.12). We may be perfectly sure that Paul would not put such an ideal before us if it could not be realised. God's commands always imply promises.
"Unto all pleasing." Bishop Moule beautifully renders this phrase: "Unto every anticipation of His will" (Colossian Studies). "Teach me to do the thing that pleaseth Thee" (P. B. version). What a glorious ideal! We are so to walk as to please Him in everything. Not only doing what we are told, but anticipating His commands by living in such close touch with Him that we instinctively know the thing that will please Him. These words sound a depth of the spiritual life with which comparatively few are familiar; and yet here they are, facing us definitely, with their call to realise that which God has placed before us.
The specific details of this worthy walk are next brought before us in four pregnant phrases:
"Being fruitful in every good work." Notice every word of this sentence. Our life is to be characterised by good works, and in each and every one of these we are to be fruitful, manifesting the ripeness, and, if it may be so put, the beauty and lusciousness associated with fruit. Mark, too, that it is "fruitful in every good work," that is, in the process of doing the work, and not merely as the result or outcome of it. The very work itself is intended to be fruitful apart from particular results. There may be very few results of our service for God, but the service itself may and should be fruitful.
"Increasing in the knowledge of God." Notice the difference between the knowledge of His will and the knowledge of Himself. "That I may know Him" (Phil. iii.10); "They might know Thee" (John xvii.3); "Ye have known Him" (1 John ii.13). The knowledge of His will will lead us to the knowledge of Himself, and beyond this it is impossible to go.
"Strengthened with all might, according to His glorious power, unto all patience and longsuffering with joyfulness." The Apostle's thought pours itself out in rich abundance in these words. It seems as though he could not adequately express the possibilities and characteristics of the Christian life about which he prays. They are to be "strengthened," and not only so, but "with all might." The principle or standard of it is "according to His glorious power," and the end of it is "unto all patience and longsuffering with joyfulness." The man of the world might see in this phrase an anticlimax, when it is said that the end of strength is patience and longsuffering; and yet Christianity finds its ideal in energy expressed in character, activity manifesting itself in passivity, and might in meekness.
Notice, too, the suggestive addition, "with joyfulness." Patience and longsuffering without joy are apt to be cold, chilly, unattractive. There is a stern, stoical endurance of suffering which, while it may be admired sometimes, tends to repel. But when patience and longsuffering are permeated and suffused with joyfulness, the very life of Christ is lived over again in His followers. Resignation to the will of God is only very partially a Christian virtue; but when we take joyfully the things that come upon us we are indeed manifesting the very life of God Himself.
"Giving thanks unto the Father." This is the crowning grace for which the Apostle prays -- thankfulness. How much it means. The heart full of gratitude and gladness, the life full of brightness and buoyancy, the character full of vitality and vigour. The joy of the Lord is, indeed, the strength of His people, and when this element of thanksgiving characterises our life, it gives tone to everything else, and crowns all other graces.
4. THE CHARACTER OF THE PRAYER.
We have seen what the Apostle desired for the Christians of Colosse, and in so doing we have learnt some of the deepest secrets of Christian living. It remains to notice the characteristics of this prayer, in order that our prayers may be taught and guided and inspired with power.
His prayer was urgent -- "Since the day we heard." From the moment the tidings came by Epaphras of the Christian life in Colosse the Apostle's heart went up to God in prayer.
His prayer was incessant -- "Do not cease to pray." Again and again he asked, and kept on asking, so fully was his heart drawn out in prayer for these Christians whom he had never seen.
His prayer was intense -- "And to desire." This was no mere lip service. His heart had evidently been stirred to its core by the tidings of the Christian life at Colosse, and as he heard of their faith, their love, their hope, their holiness, their service, a deep, intense, longing desire came into his soul to seek for still fuller and deeper blessing on their behalf. What a man he was, and what prayers his were!
His prayer was offered in fellowship with others -- "Since the day we heard." Timothy was associated with the Apostle in these petitions. United prayer is one of the greatest powers in the Christian Church. "If two of you shall agree as touching anything that they shall ask, it shall be done." Personal prayer is precious, united prayer is still more powerful.
Thus in these verses we have one of the fullest, deepest and most precious of the Apostle's prayers, and as we consider its union of thought and experience, of profound teaching and equally profound revelation of Christian life, we learn two of the most urgent and necessary lessons for the Christian life to-day.
The first of these shall be given in the words of Bishop Moule: "Beware of untheological devotion." If devotion is to be real it should be characterised by thought. There is no contradiction between mind and heart, between theology and devotion. Devotional hours do not mean hours when thought is absent. Meditation is not abstraction, nor is devotion dreaminess. "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy mind" is an essential part of the commandment. If genuine thought and equally genuine theology do not characterise our hours of devotion, we lose some of the most precious opportunities of grace and blessing. A piety which is mere pietism, an evangelicalism which does not continually ponder the profound truths of the New Testament, can never be strong or do any deep service. We must beware of "untheological devotion."
We must also beware of "undevotional theology." This is the opposite error, and constitutes an equally great danger. A hard, dry, intellectual study of theology will yield no spiritual fruit. Accuracy in knowledge of Greek, careful balancing of aspects of truth, large knowledge of the doctrinal verities of the New Testament, are all essential and valuable; but unless they are permeated by a spirit of devotion they will fail at the crucial point. Pectus facit theologum -- it is the heart that makes the theologian; and a theology which does not spring from spiritual experience is doomed to decay, to deadness, and therefore to disaster.
When, therefore, our devotions are theological, and our theology is devotional, we begin to realise the true being, blessing, and power of the Christian life, and we go from strength to strength, from grace to grace, and from glory unto glory.