In Colossians 4—the closing chapter of this epistle—the apostle Paul winds down his letter to the Colossian believers. He has declared the doctrine of the preeminence and supremacy of the Lord Jesus Christ and has called for a corresponding duty in relation to this doctrine in the mind (3:1-10), the church (3:11-17) and the home (3:18-4:1). In vv. 2-6 he calls for an appropriate response to Christ’s supremacy in the world; that is, in the believer’s relationship with the unbelieving world.
Paul was concerned that he and the Colossians so live in light of the preeminence of Christ that they would all proclaim it whenever and wherever they went—regardless of their circumstances.
Paul was in prison and wanted prayer that he would faithfully and fruitfully proclaim the gospel of Christ. He wanted to make full use of his opportunity and this led him to exhort this church to make full use of their opportunities. Both sections in this passage (vv. 2-4 and vv. 5-6) are exhortations concerning the spread of the gospel. They are exhortations to evangelism.
According to a recent questionnaire completed by members of BBC, there is a general agreement that evangelism is a weakness of our body life. We clearly need to strengthen in this area, and there is surely no better place to start than by listening to God’s lawful and gracious Word exhorting us to this duty.
Previously, we considered vv. 2-4 under the theme of “prayer and the Great Commission.” Our text for this study—vv. 4-5—gives us balance regarding our prayers for the Great Commission. Yes, we must be concerned about reaching the nations but let us not neglect our own nation and the portion of the nation by the providence of God assigned daily to us. And we fulfil this duty by carefully watching both our walk and our talk.
The Believer’s Walk
“Walk comes before talk, for ministers as for all servants of Christ,” wrote A. T. Robertson. “Those without the pale of Christianity were keenly watching the walk of believers in Christ. It has always been so, and it is as true today as ever. . . . They judge and measure our talk by our walk.” This is why Paul wrote, “Walk in wisdom toward those who are outside, redeeming the time” (v. 5).
William Hendriksen helps us to appreciate this admonition when he writes, “In the days of the early church believers were often slandered by outsiders. For example, they were called atheists because they served no visible gods, unpatriotic because they did not burn incense before the image of the emperor, and immoral because, of necessity, they would often meet behind locked doors. The apostle knew that the best way to defeat this slander was for Christians daily to conduct themselves not only virtuously instead of wickedly but also wisely instead of foolishly.” Hendriksen then summarises Paul’s thoughts: “Though few men read the sacred scrolls, all men read you.”
The Conduct Expected
Paul expected his readers to walk in wisdom. The word “walk” means “to tread about,” or “to make one’s way.” It is an idiom for conducting one’s life.
The new birth makes a difference in how we walk. our encounter with Christ creates an obligation from God and an expectation from Him (as well as from the church and the world) that our walk will change. When Jacob wrestled with the angel of the Lord (Genesis 32), the angel touched and injured his thigh. Jacob (literally) walked differently from that moment forth. That is a wonderful illustration of what an encounter with God produces in the believer’s life.
In Romans 6:4 Paul urges believers to “walk in newness of life,” and Ephesians 4:1 he exhorts us to “walk worthy of the calling with which you were called.” When we have an encounter with the Lord it changes our walk.
Specifically in the context of Colossians 4, we are to walk as those who are wise. We are to walk in the realm of wisdom. We are to walk wisely—with biblical discernment and understanding.
What precisely does this look like? Biblical wisdom is to make life work for the glory of God. Moses prayed, “So teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12). He prayed this as an old man, who still desired to live life for the glory of God. Those who live wisely live lives that glorify God.
In a nutshell, those who walk in wisdom are Christlike, for Christ is the very personification of wisdom. The Proverbs often speak of wisdom as a personification of a person, and the ultimate Person in whom wisdom is personified is no doubt the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ “became for us wisdom from God,” said Paul (1 Corinthians 10:310).
Of course, the only sure means for us to walk in wisdom—to live like the Lord Jesus Christ—is to let the Word of Christ dwell in us richly (3:16). As we do so, we are filled with the Spirit and live a Spirit-controlled (Christlike) life.
Paul wanted believers to live in such a way that we are governed by Christ rather than by circumstances. His circumstances were largely unfavourable, and certainly believers in the first century understood what it meant to face unfavourable circumstances for the name of Christ. But they could not allow their circumstances to control them. They needed to think and to deliberately choose to walk wisely, and we must make the same deliberate choice today. The alternative, of course, is to walk as fools (Ephesians 5:15) and, biblically, a fool is one who lives as if there is no God!
The Community Engaged
The reason that we must “walk in wisdom” is to engage a particular community: “those who are outside.” The description of those “outside” serves to separate those within the church (believers) from those without the church (unbelievers). Paul uses similar terminology in 1 Corinthians 5:12-13; 1 Thessalonians 4:12 and 1 Timothy 3:7. John Calvin concludes, “The Church is like a city of which all believers are the inhabitants, while unbelievers are strangers.”
Wise living is winsome. Proverbs 11:30 teaches this when it says, “The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, and he who wins souls is wise.” This verse does not, as so many interpret it, teach that wise people are great evangelists. “He who wins souls” speaks of someone who is winsome, who wins people to himself. Those who walk wisely, says A. S. Peake, “must be wise in their relations with them so as not to give them an unfavourable impression of the Gospel.”
Be wise about where you are walking and this will help you to be wise about how you are walking. Our walking is to be done with the awareness of who is watching. One of my fellow elders always signs his letters with the phrase coram Deo. This Latin phrase means “before the face of God.” We must indeed live consciously before the face of God, consciously with the understanding that He is watching everything that we do.
People are looking for plenty of excuses not to believe. Let’s not satisfy such individuals! Let us not give anyone an excuse to reject the gospel. Ultimately, of course, each person will answer God for their own response to the gospel, and no one will be able to blame others. Nevertheless, we want to live in such a way that no one can claim that we have given them a reason to reject the gospel. Curtis Vaughan summarises:
To “be wise in the way you act toward outsiders” is to show practical Christian wisdom in dealing with secular society. . . . Be cautious and tactful so as to avoid needlessly antagonizing or alienating their pagan neighbours. . . . Conduct themselves so that the way they live will attract, impress, and convict non-Christians and give the pagan community a favourable impression of the gospel.
We need to be careful of living as if we are better than unbelievers. They must see in us that the gospel is for real life. George Harley was a missionary to Liberia. For five years he ministered to the Liberians without success. Their attitude was that he was a “white man” who knew nothing of their culture and the things they faced. One day, he was shedding tears while burying his son. The single Liberian who had come to assist with the burial saw his tears, and immediately shared with his friends that “white man, white man, he cry like one of us.” The following Sunday, his church was packed with Liberians.
To walk in wisdom does not mean to walk in perfection. It means to walk in grace. Many years ago, a good friend was working for Pizza Hut while training for ministry. He delivered pizzas, which gave him plenty of time to memorise Scripture while he worked. All his colleagues knew that he was a believer, studying for the ministry.
One night, my friend was angered about something, and as he walked out the door of the Pizza Hut, he slammed it hard in anger behind him. His colleagues immediately noticed and said with scorn, “And he’s supposed to be a Christian!”
My friend was greatly convicted by this, and later returned to confess his sin to his colleagues and ask their forgiveness. That act was no doubt a great witness to them. They immediately understood that he was not perfect, but that he had hope of forgiveness when he sinned. The world needs to see this in us.
This applies in every sphere of life: school, home, workplace (employees and employers), neighbours, etc. We need to see everywhere that is “without” as a place of witness. And we must live as good witnesses for the glory of God.
We need to be concerned that those outside come inside! And to this end, we must both pray and share the gospel with those outside.
I said in our previous study that (corporate) prayer is certainly one of BBC’s great weak points. Above, I confessed that evangelism is another weakness of our church. I wonder if the two are related. Surely the church that is passionate about corporate prayer will at the same time be passionate about the Great Commission in its own community?
Regardless, let’s be careful to cultivate a concern for the glory of God as well as for the good of our fellow man. Warren Wiersbe offers this relevant pastoral insight,
Those of us who are born again are the “spiritual insiders” because we belong to God’s family and share His love. However, as Christians, we must never have a sanctified superiority complex. We have a responsibility to witness to the lost around us and to seek to bring them into God’s family.
The Commodity Esteemed
Paul adds that we are to be “redeeming the time.” This is a very interesting phrase, and one that deserves some explanation.
First, the word “time” is a translation of the Greek word kairos, which refers to a point in time. It does not refer to the chronological passing of time. Thus, any time and all time is to be “redeemed.”
Time is something that we all wish we had more of. But let’s understand that, essentially, God has given us all the time we need. We all have 24 hours a day, 168 hours a week. Time is God’s gift to us, and we are all dependent on the Lord for our time. Our problem is not that we don’t have enough time, but that we do not properly esteem it. That seems to be Paul’s point here.
The word “redeeming” literally means “to buy up” or “to ransom.” The ESV translates the phrase as “making the best use of,” whilst the NASB renders it, “making the most of.” Paul’s exhortation seems to be that we must exchange our time for that which is of the greatest value; that we must invest our time in the most honourable pursuits. And in the context, of course, the most honourable pursuit is wise living before the lost.
We must rescue from loss all opportunities to impact for Christ that which might otherwise be lost. But what, specifically, does this mean? C. F. D. Moule asks,
Does it mean “buy up the entire stock of opportunity”—eagerly seize every opportunity; or does it mean “buy out of slavery—emancipate—the opportunity” from the control of Evil into whose hands it has fallen?
I suppose both elements are included in the exhortation, but most fundamentally it means to seize every opportunity. Robertson observes, “We all have the same time. Paul goes into the open market and buys it up by using it rightly.” J. B. Lightfoot concurs when he summarises Paul’s teaching: “Letting no opportunity slip you, of saying and doing what may further the cause of God.” And Hendriksen writes, “Avail yourselves of every opportunity to be a blessing to others.”
What applied to Paul applied also to his Colossian brothers, and it applies to us centuries later. Do we “buy up” every available opportunity? Wiersbe notes that the phrase “is a commercial term and pictures the Christian as a faithful steward who knows an opportunity when he sees one.”
Francis Chain tells an incredible story of his experience with this truth. In one particular blog entry, he writes,
On Wednesday morning, I flew up to Seattle. On the plane ride up, a gal was sitting in my row with an empty seat between us. I knew I was supposed to talk to her about God. I asked for an opportunity, but basically chickened out and didn’t make the effort. I then went to the pastors’ gathering where I preached on “courage” of all things. The whole time, I was struck by my failure that morning on the plane.
After speaking I went right back to the airport to fly home. When I arrived at my seat, guess who was seated right next to me! Do you know how impossible that is? For her to be on the same flight was already amazing, but for her to be seated next to me was near impossible! Even she had to know it couldn’t have been a coincidence. I was able then to share with her why I believed God placed her next to me. She opened up about her life, and we had a great conversation. The greatest part is that she had to know that God Himself was pursuing her. As for me, it was another reminder that God is constantly walking with me.
Are you making the most of the opportunities God gives you—at your workplace, at school, in your community, and in your family? I am involved in our local neighbourhood watch, and though it is not always easy to fulfil my responsibilities in this project, I do so in part because I believe that God has placed me there to redeem the time. For several hours a week, I have opportunity to drive around the neighbourhood with another community member and share the gospel with them.
Our church recently registered a running club, where we will participate in organised races in our area. I trust that—in addition to keeping church runners fit—this ministry will prove an effective means of reaching the community with the gospel.
We must strive to “create” opportunities; that is, look for them. We need to be proactive in our evangelistic outreach and not always wait for people to come to us with their questions. “The Christian must be a man on the outlook for opportunity,” says William Barclay. “He must buy up every opportunity to work for Christ and to serve men that he possibly can.”
In recent months, we as an eldership have grown in our conviction that our church needs to move in the direction of small group ministry. There is no plan to disband the corporate Lord’s Day gathering of the church, but for midweek meetings we believe that it will help strengthen our church if we focus on ministering to small groups rather than being centralised at the church building.
We believe that this move will achieve several goals for the church family, one of which is to strengthen those inside who will then be able to reach those outside.
Every one of us has the responsibility to walk wisely toward those who are without. Every relationship that God gives us is a potential opportunity for gospel ministry. And we must all be involved in this ministry in our own capacity. We cannot be content as churches to only evangelise from the pulpit those unbelievers who come into the services on Sundays. Alexander Maclaren, whom Robertson considers “one of the greatest preachers of all time,” has illustrated this wonderfully.
It is better for most of us to fish with the rod than with the net, to angle for single souls, rather than to try and enclose a multitude at once. Preaching to a congregation has its own place and value; but private and personal talk, honestly and wisely done, will effect more than the most eloquent preaching.
The Believer’s Talk
But the believer’s talk is as important as his walk, and so Paul writes, “Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person” (v. 6).
Conduct and conversation go together. Our conversation is to be winsome and this winsomeness is to be proven in our conduct—and vice versa.
First, Paul urges us that our speech must be “always with grace.” That is, our speech should be pleasant, lovely, gracious, delightful, and joyful. And it must be alike this continually—“always.” John MacArthur notes,
Consistency of life must be followed by consistency of speech. . . . There is no place for those things that characterize the unredeemed mouth. Whether undergoing persecution, stress, difficulty, or injustice, whether with your spouse, children, believers, or unbelievers—in all circumstances believers are to make gracious speech a habit.
Believers should never be characterised by backbiting, complaining, sulking, or criticism. Our speech should never be lewd or contain innuendo. Our mouths must not betray covetousness or hatred. Our speech should not be ugly.
Rather, our conversation is to be kind, biblically positive, forgiving, helpful, hopeful and compassionate. We are to be “speaking the truth in love” so that we may “grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ” (Ephesians 4:15). Christ was full of grace and truth. The common people heard Him gladly for He did not speak as the scribes but as one with authority. In Christ, “mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed” (Psalm 85:10).
This matter of using our tongues aright is a universal matter. It matters not where we live, what our status is in society, or who our associates are. We all battle with the tongue, and thus we all need to hear this exhortation.
Second, Paul instructs us to have our speech always “seasoned with salt.” The Bible speaks of salt as an element that inhibits corruption. The salt of God’s Word ought to inhibit any corrupt speech that might proceed from us. But it is interesting that, in ancient Greek culture, having one’s speech “seasoned with salt” was a euphemism for speaking with wit. Perhaps Paul was exhorting the Colossians to have speech that was flavourful without being salacious. He wanted them, perhaps, to arrest the attention of “those without” with the way in which they spoke. Hendriksen explains further:
When Paul uses the term he has reference to the type of language that results from the operation of God’s grace on the heart. Negatively, such speech will not be abusive. . . . Neither will it be vindictive. . . . Positively, it will be truthful and loving. Speech flavored with salt is, accordingly, not empty or insipid, but thought-provoking and worth-while. It is not a waste of time. . . . It is distinctive: a Christian is known by his speech as well as by his conduct.
Calvin adds, “He does not merely condemn communications that are openly wicked or impious, but also such as are worthless and idle. . . . He reckons as tasteless everything that does not edify.”
After F. B. Meyer spent an evening with A. T. Robertson, he concluded of Robertson, “That was worthy talk.” Our speech ought to be such that we have something worthwhile to offer to conversation. Unbelievers should not find our conversation full or pointless. We should be so consumed with Christ that when we speak, unbelievers will listen to us as they did to Him.
Warren Wiersbe highlights another principle from this exhortation. He notes that, in Leviticus 2:13, God instructed that grain offerings be offered with salt. “You shall not let the salt of the covenant with your God be missing from your grain offering.” Wiersbe concludes, “Perhaps Paul was suggesting that we look on our words as sacrifices offered to God, just as our words of praise are spiritual sacrifices (Heb. 13:15).”
Be conscientious about being God-centred in conversation. Again, listen to MacArthur, “It is not only to be gracious, but also to have an effect. . . . Believers’ speech should act as a purifying influence, rescuing conversation from filth that so engulfs it. Salt also adds flavor, and the speech of the new man should add charm and wit to conversation.”
Our words should be interesting because they are biblical. Countercultural talk can be very interesting! In my experience, countercultural speech often makes for interesting conversation. Many years ago, a man who had been coming to church confessed to me his unashamed racist heart, and asked me what I thought. I forthrightly declared that I did not consider him a believer, and that honesty sparked an interesting conversation.
Instead of shying away from saying the difficult things, we ought always to declare the truth in love. Who knows the opportunities our commitment to the truth might create for sharing the gospel.
John the Baptist, Paul, Jesus—these men were known for arresting the attention of their hearers. In fact, their critics were compelled to become hearers.
Make sure that you know what you are talking about! This will mean that you must be a student, both of Scripture and of the surrounding culture. Read, meditate, study—and then look for opportunities to arrest others with your speech.
Finally, our speech must be always appropriate. Paul wanted his hearers to speak in such a way “that you may know how you ought to answer each one.”
The word “answer” is a translation of apokrinomai, and it means “to conclude for oneself” or “to judge from.” It is a Hebraism for “to begin to speak.” Principally, the word means “to sing,” but it is used of pronouncing anything with a loud, solemn voice. Hence, it is frequently used in a forensic sense: a judge giving sentence or a witness giving evidence.
Note that the word “answer” implies that our walk will generate questions—just as questions were generated by Jesus’ wisdom (Luke 2:47; 20:26).
Watching a man like Al Mohler is a good example of this. And yet it is not reserved for the super-skilled. If you know God and His Word I dare say that you too can give appropriate answers. In fact, this very exhortation proves this! Paul would not exhort us in this way if we could not in fact obey his exhortation.
Of course, the ability to provide suitable answers requires preparation. This is why Peter wrote, “But in your hearts honour Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).
Lightfoot writes, “Not only must your conversation be opportune as regards the time; it must also be appropriate as regards the person.” And Peake adds, “They must strive to cultivate the gift of pleasant and wise conversation, so that they may be able to speak appropriately to each individual (with his peculiar needs) with whom they come in contact.”
Sometimes the best answer may be no answer. Jesus did not answer His accusers at His trial. And He warned us not to cast our pearl before swine. But sometimes wisdom requires that we give an answer to those who are without.
Warren Wiersbe summarises the dual exhortation: “Nothing will silence the lips like a careless life. When character, conduct, and conversation are all working together, it makes for a powerful witness.”
MacArthur adds a final exhortation: “Unlike the ungodly, who say, ‘Our lips are our own; who is lord over us?’ (Ps. 12:4), we as believers should echo the prayer of the psalmist in Psalm 141:3: ‘Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips.’”