(Note: For a few weeks , I will post the manuscript that goes with the audio (posted Tuesdays) from a sermon in the Powerful Prayers series. People have requested the sermon manuscripts many time, but I’ve always been reluctant to make it available for two principal reasons: 1) I never simply read a sermon, so what people read is not exactly what I spoke. The manuscript might be better or it may be worse but it will be different. And (2) because the sermon has not been edited for publication. With those caveats, here is Prayers God Love to Answer: Colossians 1:9-12, Part 2.)
St. Paul wrote more of the New Testament than any other writer – he is the author of something like one quarter of the New Testament. If we are going to understand his letters, it is important to realize that he wrote them with some basic assumptions in place. He doesn’t argue for these things. He takes them for granted and assumes his readers do the same. For example, Paul assumes that the Creator of heaven and earth is actively involved in what is happening in our world. He is not on vacation. He is paying attention.
He assumes that the Creator, who is the God and Father of Jesus Messiah, is currently at work in our day-to-day world. All people on earth and every institution of which they are a part is known by God, accessible to God, and responsible before God. That includes you and me and Lockwood Church. This is not something Paul argues; he takes it for granted.
He further assumes that this God is pursuing a specific goal and is employing individuals and institutions to achieve it, whether they realize it or not, whether they cooperate or not. That goal is stated this way in the letter to the Ephesians: “to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ” (Ephesians 1:10).
We read over that and miss how revolutionary (in the fullest sense of the word) it is. The goal is to bring all things – nations, for example, and their governments – under the headship of one leader: Jesus. The U.S., Russia, China, England, France – and the other 191 so-called sovereign states – will be governed by one head, Jesus Messiah. That’s the plan. Talk about a one-world government – this is it – and it is God’s intention to make it happen.
But it is not just nations. It is people, animals, weather systems, physical processes, spiritual forces – authorities, powers, and dominions – everything. Paul sees God making all things work together toward this goal and Paul has committed himself – even to the point of sacrificing his life – to that cause. He further assumes that the Colossian church exists for the same purpose: the realization of the universal lordship of Jesus; otherwise, they would not be a church.
If we read Paul without realizing this, we will unwittingly substitute some other goal in place of this one. For example, we’ll assume (like most of the people we know) that the goal of life is happiness. We’ll read a passage about prayer (for example) against that background and it will look quite different to us than it did to Paul. We can carefully exegete the passage, do word studies, and have really good insights. We can use the right theological terms to describe it, but we’ll nevertheless miss the point.
Take, for example, the request we looked at last week: that church people be filled with the knowledge of God’s will. That will look very different to us than it did to Paul, if we assume the reason for knowing God’s will is so we can help our children succeed in school or establish our financial security in retirement. Paul assumed the reason for knowing God’s will is to establish the headship of Jesus over all the earth.
This explains why some people try the Christian life for a while and then give up: they thought it was about one thing when it was really about something else entirely. Some years ago, we had a remote control for the TV, another for the VCR, and one more for the DVD player, and we kept them all in the same drawer. Sometimes, I would grab one, push the power button and, when nothing happened (or, at least, nothing I noticed), I’d think: “This thing isn’t working!” But of course it was. I was just trying to make it do something it wasn’t designed to do.
If we think the purpose of knowing God’s will is so we can avoid every difficulty and live a comfortable and prosperous life, we’re bound to come to the conclusion that prayer doesn’t work. However, if, like Paul, we are committed to and engaged in preparing for Jesus to take sovereign rule over all the world, we’ll see that prayer works exactly as intended.
With all that in mind, let’s look at the next prayer in our Powerful Prayers series. Paul prays for his friends in the city of Philippi (Philippians 1:9-11): And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.
Back to what I was just saying. When Paul writes of “what is best” in verse 10 (we’ll go into that shortly), it is with the goal – the universal headship of Jesus – in mind. What is best is not determined by our ease, comfort, or prestige, but by the establishment of the sovereign rule of Jesus Messiah over all the earth. If you haven’t realized it before, the people of Jesus are insurgents, revolutionaries, preparing for the overthrow of the status quo and the return to power of earth’s rightful ruler.
So, it might surprise us that Paul, the committed revolutionary who for the sake of the cause spent years in jails and prisons all around the Mediterranean, prays for the Philippian revolutionaries’ love life. He’d already written in verse 4 of “all his prayers” for the Philippians and mentioned that he always prays for them with joy. In verses 9–11, he tells them what he prays, and it is about their love. What has love got to do with the subjection of every nation and people and power on earth under one head, even Christ? What’s love got to do with it?
Everything. The revolution to which Paul was committed is a revolution of Love. The Lord to which Paul submitted is the Lord of Love. His rule is the rule of love: To “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’”; and to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27) is the law of his kingdom.
Life as Jesus’s person begins with, and ends in, love. If your faith does not equip you to love – God and people – something is not right. Jesus called love the greatest command.1 He told his followers that they must be like their Father in heaven and love even their enemies.2
Paul told the Roman Christians to “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellow man has fulfilled the law.”3 He wrote, “Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”4 In Galatians, he went so far as to say, “The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself”.”5 James, the first leader of the church at Jerusalem, wrote, “If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right.”6
Jesus told his disciples that love was their ID card. “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”7The reign of Jesus will not be one of severity and dominance but of love. The revolution is powered by love – love is the Church’s secret weapon. No wonder Paul prayed for the Philippians’ love. We can’t do right when love is absent. We can’t be right when love is wrong.
Paul’s prayer for his friends is that their love will abound. That word is frequently translated “overflow,” like a river that overflows its banks. Kenneth Wuest says the word suggests something that is conspicuous. When the river that flows through some town overflows its banks, it is conspicuous. Paul is praying that the thing about these Christians that overflows, that is most conspicuous, will be their love.
Let’s pause there for a second. Is that the most conspicuous thing about Lockwood people? Is love the first thing others notice about us? God gave the Church no substitute for love. Organizational efficiency can’t replace it. Good preaching won’t compensate for its absence. Superb music is no alternative. Love is what makes a church great. Lack of love is what spoils it.
There are two specific qualities in love with which Paul is especially concerned. He wants love to abound more and more – start overflowing and never stop – in knowledge and depth of insight. Both those qualities merit close attention.
Knowledge is the same word we saw previously in the Colossians’ prayer, and carries the idea of recognition. In Colossians, that knowledge had to do with recognizing God’s will. Correlating love with knowledge seems odd to us because we, influenced by Chaucer and Shakespeare, think that love is blind. Paul thinks that love alone truly sees.
Now, this has consequences. If Paul is right, we’ll never really understand someone we don’t love. Husbands won’t understand their wives, wives their husbands, parents their children, children their parents, without love. The Senegalese poet Baba Dioum had it backwards when he said, “we love only what we understand.” We only understand – really understand – what we love.
That means if you’re having trouble understanding someone – “Why is he doing this? I don’t understand him at all!” – your first step should be to ask God to love him through you. Then love him. Pray for him. Speak well of him. Do good to him. That is the path to understanding.
Paul prays that “depth of insight” will also abound in their love. “Depth of insight” translates a single Greek word, which originally referred to sense perception. Paul is praying that the Philippians’ love will be perceptive. Love can actually heighten a person’s perception.
Think about a quarterback who is totally in the zone: he sees things he wouldn’t otherwise see. Nobody displayed this ability more often than Peyton Manning. When he was on his game, he could see (without realizing he was seeing) the middle linebacker picking up the slant, the cornerback blitzing from the right side, the safety helping out on the wide receiver and the tight end releasing and having about a five-yard opening. Because he perceived all this, he could choose the best option, hit the tight end, and make a first down.
For us, the way to get in the zone is to love. When we love, we perceive things we would otherwise miss: the delay in answering; the tense facial muscles, the hesitation in speaking. We will sense things we would normally not notice. That is love at work.
When does this “depth of insight” come into play? It comes into play all the time: when we’re raising children; doing our jobs; spending our money; relating to our parents; teaching a class; helping our friends; even playing the piano or building a house. Paul knows that the knowledge and depth of insight available through love will help us discern what is best.
The word translated “discern” is an important one in Paul’s vocabulary. 86 percent of the time it is used in the New Testament, Paul is the one using it. It is a “quality control” word. It has the idea of testing something for approval. It’s the word Paul uses in Roman, when he tells the Christians there that they will be able to “test and approve what God’s will is” (Romans 12:2).
How often we need to do that. Is this opportunity from God? Should I forge ahead or hold back? Should I take this job, volunteer for this ministry? We weigh the pros and cons – which is the right thing to do – but in the absence of discerning love we’re bound to misjudge their weight. We’ll think the financial component weighs more than it does and the relationship component less. We’ll approve or reject an opportunity without realizing we’ve set it on an inaccurate scale. Only love can balance the scale.
If (verse 10) we are “able to discern what is best” we will be able to remain “pure and blameless until the day of Christ …” The word we have here is not the one usually translated “pure.” It is a compound word with two roots: The first meaning sunlight, and the second from the verb to judge. “Something evaluated in the light.” Paul wants his friends to lead the kind of life in which they can see clearly and be seen, without deceiving or being deceived. That has never been more important than now.
The word translated “blameless” is also not the usual word. The idea here has to do with avoiding stumbling. Paul is praying that his friends’ love will enable them to make choices they (or others) won’t stumble over later. I’ve seen people make choices that eventually caused them to stumble and fall out of a healthy relationship with God, with spouse, and with family. Paul doesn’t want that for his friends.
A therapist who specializes in working with millennials says there is a theme that runs through the various encounters she has with her clients. Whether they come to her because they struggle with anxiety or feel like failures, the theme that resurfaces again and again is: “I can’t decide what to do. What if I make the wrong choice?”
What these millennials need is exactly what Paul is talking about: love that overflows with knowledge and insight. It’s what we all need.
The result of this perceptive, discerning love is (verse 11) a life that brings glory and praise to God. Sir Christopher Wren built St. Paul’s Cathedral in London to the glory of God. J.S. Bach composed his music to the glory of God. Handel dedicated his Te Deum to the glory of God. Countless church and school buildings have “To the glory of God” etched on their cornerstones. But nothing brings more glory to God that a person who loves, except a church-full of people who love.
We can only live this kind of life if we are connected to the source of this kind of love. This “Love,” as St. John put it, “comes from God” (1 John 4:7). Paul writes, “God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5:5) It is possible to connect to the source of love, through confidence in his Son Jesus Christ. If you’ve never done that, I invite you to do so today. If you don’t know how to do that, please talk with me after the service or get together with a Christian friend whose life you respect and ask them how they got connected to God.
It’s a little like using a hose. It doesn’t work unless it’s connected to a spigot. The hose doesn’t make water; it conveys it. No water is coming out of it unless water gets into it. It has to be connected. But that’s not all. Once connected, we need to open the valve. The way we do that is by choosing to love. That choice is ours.
A wise man once said, “Do not waste your time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this, we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him. If you injure someone you dislike, you will find yourself disliking him more. If you do him a good turn, you will find yourself disliking him less.”12
Choose to love. Choose it again and again. It’s not enough to say you love your spouse. You must choose to love your spouse. Choose to love your friend, your enemy, your teacher, the stranger in the store. Your choice is what opens the valve.
Love – not only a feeling but an attitude; not only an attitude, but a commitment –is eagle-eyed. Love discerns what is best. Love keeps us from making decisions that will trip us up and hurt those around us. Love is what brings glory and praise to God. Dare to love. Choose to love. Live a life of love.
Go and be imitators of God. Choose to love. Dare to love. Live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. Amen
1 Matthew 22:37-40
2 Matthew 5:43-48
3 Romans 13:8
4 Romans 13:10
5 Galatians 5:14
6 James 2:8
7 John 13: 35
12 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity