Paul’s Instructions About “Outsiders” (Part 2)
In analyzing Paul’s letters for direction in how to live among those “outside” the church (Col 4:5), we find that of first importance to him is the matter of prayer. Beginning the final charge of his letter to the Colossians, Paul urges, “Continue steadfastly in prayer” (Col 4:2), specifically asking for them to pray concerning his evangelism of the lost. He uses the verb προσκαρτερέω (proskartereo), meaning “be devoted to, fully invested in” the matter of prayer. To pray is Paul’s opening charge to Timothy in his first Pastoral letter: Pray for all people because God desires all people to be saved (1 Tim 2:1, 4). The salvation of his own people, the Jews, was also Paul’s constant prayer (Rom 10:1).
As a side note, we see Paul’s intuition about the primacy of prayer fleshed out in the book of Acts. Whenever prayer is coupled with the ministry of the Word the Lord advances the building of his church. For example, the 120 were “devoting themselves” (προσκαρτερέω) to prayer in the upper room (Acts 1:14) when the Spirit was poured out and 3,000 people believed on the Lord through Peter’s preaching (Acts 2:41). Those who were saved “devoted themselves” (again, προσκαρτερέω) to four activities, two of which were prayer and the apostles’ doctrine (Acts 2:42), and the Lord continued to increase their numbers daily (Acts 2:47). Peter and John went to the temple to pray and, when they preached the gospel after the Lord healed the lame man, the number of the church came to 5,000 (Acts 4:4).
As soon as these same apostles were released from their imprisonment by the Sanhedrin, they immediately prayed with the church for boldness to continue to proclaim the Word (Acts 4:24–30), and the place was shaken and they were filled with the Holy Spirit and boldness and they continued to preach (Acts 4:31). Soon, Luke says, “more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women” (Acts 5:14). After the church organized the first deacons so that the apostles could “devote themselves” (once again, προσκαρτερέω) to “prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4), Luke tells us that “the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7).
We can see, therefore, that Paul’s idea of the importance of prayer in ministering to “outsiders” is in lockstep with the approach of the first apostles and the church.
So when Paul asks for prayer for those “outside,” what in particular does he ask the church to pray for? Paul’s prayer requests to the Colossians and to the Ephesians are essential for answering this question.
At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison— 4 that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak (Col 4:3–4).
… praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, 19 and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak (Eph 6:18–20).
There are two significant, related prayer requests concerning “outsiders” that are discernible here.
First, Paul asks that they …
Pray for an Open Door
Paul asks for prayer for an open door “for the word” (Col 4:3). In other words, he desires the Lord to give him an opportunity to communicate the gospel.
But a door is only “open” if people are listening, if they are engaged, if they are thinking about what is being said to them.
We’ve all had the experience of talking to someone who is faking attention. Maybe the person is in a profession that requires them to talk to people all day—a cosmetologist, a waiter, or a taxi driver—and they’ve learned to feign interest in order to be polite.
Maybe you’ve tried to talk to someone about the gospel in one of those situations, or on a train or a plane. You may have had a captive audience, but you may not have had an open door.
Even Jesus himself, who preached to many crowds, did not always have an open door. So he would often say, “He who has an ear let him hear.” That is, let him engage, let him consider, let him open his heart to the teaching.
Paul considered his ministry in Ephesus to be an “open door” (1 Cor 16:8–9; cf. Acts 19:1–41). When he did not have success in teaching the gospel to his Jewish brothers in the Ephesian synagogue, Paul rented the public hall of Tyrannus, and the door opened for two years “so that all of the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Gentiles” (Acts 19:10).
But when the success of the gospel threatened the livelihood of the craftspeople who made the idols to Artemis, the silversmith Demetrius staged a riot against Paul and the Christians (Acts 19:23–41). Possibly for his own safety and those of the other believers, Paul soon left town (Acts 20:1).
So Paul knew a thing or two about doors. He knew that God is the one who opens doors and God is the one who closes doors. When it comes to sharing the gospel, God is the doorkeeper of opportunities for people to listen to the gospel (cf. 2 Cor 2:12; Rev 3:8).
We can try to create open doors, and we should. We can invite unbelievers to a church event or start a Bible study or serve in the community or try to build friendships with people at work.
But in the end, these efforts will come to nothing if God does not grant the open door.
Paul was bound daily to an imperial guard, possibly more than one per day (cf. Phil 1:13), so he quite literally had a captive audience. Now, says Paul, pray that this captive audience will become an open door.
But Paul has one more request. Not only does he ask the church, “Pray for an open door,” but also …
Pray for an Open Mouth
In Col 3:3, the goal of Paul’s prayer is that he might “declare the mystery of Christ.” The word “declare” translates one of the most common words in the Greek NT. It’s simply the word “to speak,” or, if anyone wants a more technical definition, “to open one’s mouth and say something.”
There are other more “important” words that mean “to speak.” Like, declare, or announce, or assert, or argue, or preach, or herald, or cry out, or deliberate or pontificate. And perhaps we hesitate to share the gospel because we think we have to speak in one of these important ways. But Paul is asking for prayer that he might simply “speak,” to open his mouth when the time comes. For, what good is it to stand at an open door without an open mouth?
So Paul says, “Pray that the door opens up and that we speak up.” And this ability from God to speak up seems to be the focus of much of Paul’s prayer request here. Paul prays, “that I may make [the gospel] clear, which is how I ought to speak” (Col 3:4), as opposed to earlier in verse 3, where he is asking for the open door for his entire team. So when it comes to the matter of an open mouth, Paul humbly senses his own need.
Paul expresses this need more obviously in Eph 6:19 and 20, where two times Paul asks for prayer that God would give him boldness in opening his mouth. The request is even more striking when we consider that Paul has just challenged the church to arm itself with the whole armor of God—to stand fearlessly against the enemy with the helmet of salvation, and the breastplate of righteousness, with the shield of faith and the sword of the Spirit (Eph 6:10–17). But full body armor is not enough to quell the quaking of the heart when it comes to giving the gospel, especially in the face of ridicule or persecution. So Paul says, “Pray for me, that I might open my mouth with boldness.”
So how do we live among and interact with those “outside” the church? First, we yearn for them to be inside the church through genuine faith in Christ. And the primary means to bring them to faith in Christ is prayer. Not only prayer for them, but prayer for us who desire to reach them. That God might grant us an open door, and an open mouth.