Intercession: Why, for Whom, and How Often? (1:9a)
Let's be sure we understand the nature of intercessory prayer. I've heard any number of definitions, but none better than that of Lloyd John Ogilvie who said that intercession is not so much my placing my burdens on God's heart but "God putting his burdens on our hearts."
I can't prove it, but I suspect that God takes greater delight in blessing me in response to your prayers on my behalf than he does when I ask him myself. That isn't to say I shouldn't pray for myself or that you shouldn't petition God for needs in your life. It's simply to say that with intercession, unlike other forms or expressions of prayer, there is a mutual love, fellowship, and spiritual bond that develops in a way that can't occur if we were only to pray for ourselves and not others.
This reminds me of what Paul said in 2 Corinthians 1:11 in the wake of his deliverance from the life-threatening circumstances he encountered in Asia. If God, on whom "we have set our hope," will "deliver us again" (v. 10) "you (Corinthians) must help us by prayer so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many."
Note two things here. First, the "blessing" of protection and perseverance is granted "through the prayers of many" (v. 11). No prayer, no protection. We can emphasize the sovereignty of God all day long (and we should!), but the fact remains that God chooses to suspend many of his blessings on the intercessory prayers of his people. See also Philemon 22; Phil. 1:19; and Rom. 15:30-32.
Second, not only would Paul benefit from their prayers on his behalf but, more important still, God would be glorified by the many expressions of gratitude that will be uttered for the blessings he bestowed on Paul through these prayers. It's a win-win! Paul gets the protection and God gets the praise!
Now, let's return to Colossians 1:9 and observe the answer to my three questions.
First, why does Paul intercede in prayer for the Colossians? Literally, v. 9 opens with the words "for this reason" or "on account of this." He's obviously referring back to the news concerning their faith, love, and hope described in vv. 3-8. I can just imagine Paul's reaction when Epaphras informed him of events in Colossae. He probably called in Timothy, Aristarchus, Mark, Justus, and Luke (cf. Col. 4:10-14), eager to share with them the good news of what God was doing in the lives of these saints.
I wish this were always the case, but it isn't. Often times when Christians hear of other Christians flourishing and prospering they begrudge them such benefits or find envy rising up in their souls or even wonder aloud whether such folk are deserving of so much good from God (as if any of us were). Not Paul. Although he languished in prison, he rejoiced over the success and spiritual prosperity of those in Colossae. Unable to restrain his exuberance, he lifts these saints before the throne of grace with gratitude and intercedes on their behalf for yet more and even greater spiritual benefits. We don't read so much as a word of: "Hey, God, what about me? If it weren't for me those Colossians wouldn't even be believers. How come you bless them so abundantly and leave me in this stinking Roman jail?"
Second, for whom does Paul intercede? It's not enough simply to say, "the Colossians." Never forget that Paul had never met these people! As best we can tell, Epaphras brought the gospel to Colossae. Paul wouldn't have known a single name or recognized a single face in that church. Yet he prays for them passionately and persistently, which brings us to our third and final question.
How often did he pray for them? Unceasingly, Paul says in v. 9. "We have not ceased to pray for you," he happily declares. This doesn't mean that Paul never did anything else but pray, as if every waking moment was spent in intercession. It simply means that every time Paul prayed, and it was probably quite often and intense and prolonged, he came to the throne of grace with the Colossian believers in his heart and on his lips. Although Paul's "prayer list" must have grown daily as news of the success of the gospel reached him (cf. v. 6), he never failed to include the Colossians.
So, let's ask ourselves again: why do we pray for others? Is it only because we think they are praying for us? Is it only if we have prior assurance that they will continue to love us and provide for our needs? Is it only because we think that by doing so God will surely bless us in the way he has blessed them?
For whom do we pray? Is it only those we know and can recall by name and with whom we have shared much in life? Yes, you can pray fervently and successfully for that distant congregation in Sri Lanka about which you only read in the newspaper. Yes, you can intercede passionately, for their good and God's glory, on behalf of the persecuted church in Iran.
Finally, how often does this occur in the midst of your daily routines? You may not have prolonged seasons free from the distractions of life, but you can find a minute here, or perhaps ten there, to bring to heaven those whom God has placed on your heart. And remember, God only places them on your heart because they are first on his.
Praying with (and for) you,