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Anatomy of a Prayer (2:1-3)

That Paul agonized and struggled in prayer for the Colossians is obvious. That we should do the same for other believers, whether we know them or not (cf. Col. 2:1), is also beyond dispute. But what did he pray for? What should WE pray for?

To answer this question we need to look closely at v. 2. There are two different ways of interpreting this passage. According to one view, Paul is informing them of his struggle on their behalf so that their knowledge of his labor and suffering will encourage their hearts and facilitate a bonding in love between them and him. This is certainly a possible way of reading the text, but let me suggest another.

The principal way in which he struggled on their behalf was through intercessory prayer, as we noted in the previous lesson. In v. 2 Paul turns to inform them of precisely what it is that he is asking God to do. The aim of my struggle, says the apostle, is that your hearts would be encouraged. This comes about primarily as you are knit together, one with another, in love and mutual support. The intended result of this ever-increasing unity and affection is that you might experience a deeper assurance that comes from increased understanding as well as a more profound and life-changing knowledge of Jesus Christ himself.

Let's begin with the first two elements in this "intercessory chain". Paul's purpose is (1) to encourage them and (2) to entwine them. The word translated "encourage" means more than simply to comfort: it means to strengthen or to fortify, and has in view not so much the physical maltreatment they might face but the heretical teaching and philosophical deception that could lead them away from the truth of Christ (v. 4 makes this clear; see also 2:8ff.; more on this later).

This strengthening of the heart to stand firm and resolute when tempted by false teaching comes about only to the degree that they are "knit together" or "entwined" by their love for one another (for the use of this word "knit together," see Col. 3:19 and Eph. 4:16). Love is the glue, so to speak, that binds and bonds their hearts one to another, prevents them from being ripped apart by schism and conflict, and equips them to not lose heart in the face of opposition.

"Yeah, yeah," Storms. "We've heard it all before. Our hearts need encouragement. We're supposed to love one another. Boring!" I understand your response. And if that were all Paul said, I might join the choir and sing the same song as you. But look at the second half of v. 2.

The result of encouraged and entwined hearts is full assurance and the knowledge of God's mystery, namely, Jesus! Implicit in Paul's language is the assumption that you can't grow up in God in isolation from other believers. Gaining the assurance of our faith and expanding our knowledge of Jesus are communal endeavors!

In other words, the result of affection and unity in the body is not merely a more passionate feeling but a more profound insight. Yes, thinking brings knowledge. But so too does love! Paul resists every temptation to cease praying; he strives and agonizes to overcome the listlessness of his physical frame and the alluring temptations of the devil. Why? Because he wants the hearts of these folk to be strengthened for battle and bonded in love SO THAT they can be ever more assured of the truths of the faith and ever more entranced with the beauty and all-sufficiency of Jesus Christ!

Yes, I suppose it's possible for a believer, in isolation from others, to grow in knowledge and assurance. But that's not the way God intends for it to happen. There is a strange and elusive spiritual dynamic at work when Christian men and women corporately and in loving, covenant relation one with another commit themselves to the pursuit of the knowledge of God. The insights we gain from one another, the mutual accountability, the collective wisdom that is generated in the context of the local church, all serve to enhance our growth in godliness and understanding in a way that can never be fully attained when we venture out on our own.

It has never been nor will it ever be God's design for you to pursue your relationship with him independently of other believers in the body of Christ. It is not only unbiblical to think otherwise, it is arrogant. A finger is effective only if it is united to a hand. An eye can see only if embedded in a head. A foot is good for movement only if attached to a leg. "For the body does not consist of one member but of many. . . . [Therefore] you are the body of Christ and individually members of it" (1 Cor. 12:14,27).

I'll have more to say about the assurance and knowledge and the mystery, which is Christ, in the next lesson. But let's not lose sight of Paul's primary point: "I'm praying for you," he writes, "that God would encourage you and entwine you in that most powerful of all affections, love, so that your minds might rest, without wavering, fully convinced of all that God has promised, and that you would be ever more enriched by the knowledge of that great mystery which is his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ."

Praying the same for you,

Sam