If you are like me, you will feel the ‘sting’ of the Holy Spirit in your heart when you read verse 2: “Devote yourself to prayer, being watchful and thankful”. Very few of us claim that we are prayerful enough (and I am not one of the ‘few’). But rather than feeling condemned, let’s together just get a bit more devoted. The word ‘devoted’ means to ‘give yourself in an intentional fully-committed way’. So this is not a ‘status’ it is a journey, and to be intentional is a huge step in the right direction of pleasing God.
If the intentional commitment is one ‘leg’ of the ‘prayer stool’, then the other two legs are watchfulness and thankfulness. Watchfulness is being spiritually alert, listening to the Holy Spirit who knows how he wants you to pray (Romans 8:26-27); it gives us a greater degree of success in prayer, since we are praying according to the will of God (1 John 5:14-15). Thankfulness focusses on past and present blessings and answers to our prayers – it builds faith in the willingness of God to answer our future prayers too.
Pray for the spread of the gospel and the boldness of the people of God. It is God who ‘opens a door for the message’, but it is we who have to walk through that door. Boldness and clarity are what Paul asks for.
‘Outsiders’ are simply those who have not yet heard or responded positively to the gospel; let’s be wise in our dealings with them, taking those opportunities that God seems to give us. Our conversations should never be ‘bland’, but always have an ‘edge’, looking for a chance to dispense God’s grace.
Paul then begins to ‘sign off’ his letter, sending greetings from his co-workers who are with him – probably during his house-arrest period in Rome. The same names crop up in the letter to Philemon, which was therefore written at about the same time. Interesting that John Mark is one of Paul’s apostolic team again – the same Mark who abandoned Paul in his first missionary trip and whom Paul had distrusted thereafter. Clearly the grace of God had worked in Paul and in Mark to heal that relationship and make it fruitful again. (See also 2 Timothy 4:11, written at the end of Paul’s life.) If you feel that you have let God down, don’t despair: he will use you again if you allow him, and he can restore fully to us “…the years that the locusts have eaten” (Joel 2:25).
Few personal greetings are addressed to members of the Colossian church – probably because it was not one of Paul’s plantings, but that of his co-worker Epaphras. Paul, nevertheless, assumes an apostolic authority over them in the name of Jesus.
The letter to the Colossians was to be read out to the gathered church and sent also to the church at Laodicea; similarly, their letter (maybe the same as Paul’s to the Ephesians) was to make its way to Colossae.
JEREMIAH 14, 15, 16 and 17
We have all seen droughts on the TV news, along with the terrible human cost that they bring. Water is such a fundamental ingredient in biological life; without it, very little life can exist. The Lord had sent a drought to Judah, which inevitably created a famine also. The people were suffering greatly! They cried out to the Lord: “Why are you like a man taken by surprise, like a warrior powerless to save? You are among us, Lord, and we bear your name; do not forsake us!” (Jeremiah 14:9). And then… silence!
Instead, God has a private conversation with Jeremiah, saying that he is determined to destroy the people with the sword, famine, and plague. Jeremiah responds that the false prophets are prophesying peace and a sudden end to the famine and drought. God simply adds that the same sword and famine will fall upon those false prophets too. The final verse of the chapter is interesting: “Do any of the worthless idols of the nations bring rain? Do the skies themselves send down showers? No, it is you, Lord our God. Therefore our hope is in you, for you are the one who does all this.” (14:22). The verse contains two rhetorical questions: the first has the very obvious answer of ‘No’, but the second is a bit trickier… Do the skies themselves send down showers? Scientifically, we would answer ‘Yes’; that is where rain comes from. But the lesson here is that it is God who does it all really. We may study the sciences of meteorology and climatology, imagining that now we understand how the weather is determined, yet these are not really focussing on the primary cause of the weather – they are simply describing the usual way in which God operates with our atmosphere. It is truly God who sends the rain – and God who withholds it.
Over in chapter 15, the Lord continues to explain why he is punishing the nation – with death, the sword, starvation, and captivity – it is because of Manasseh the ex-king of Judah and his many sins. He was the most wicked king in the history of the nation and his sins were the main cause of their ultimate destruction.
Jeremiah, as part of his personal complaint against God’s harsh treatment of his prophet, highlights some of the ways in which he has been faithful to the Lord: “When your words came, I ate them; they were my joy and my heart’s delight, for I bear you name, Lord God Almighty” (15:16). He had so assimilated God’s words that they filled his entire life with delight. He had also ‘sat alone’ – i.e. never married (due to God’s command in 16:1) and had few friends – all for the sake of his ministry. The prophet was beginning to falter in his commitment, due to the extreme hardship of his life, and was interpreting this as God was letting him down. God responds that Jeremiah needs to repent, and that then God will restore him to the pole position of being God’s spokesman. God then also promises to rescue and save Jeremiah from his countrymen.
The reason Jeremiah was not permitted to marry and have children was because his life had to ‘enact’ his message; God was saying that life in Judah would get worse not better, and so would not be a place to bring children into the world. This was a chilling message to the nation – but one that went in through one ear and out of the other! “Judah’s sin is engraved with an iron tool, inscribed with a flint point, on the tablets of their hearts and on the horns of their altars” (17:1). This describes the most permanent of recording that will never be eroded by time; and God himself will not forget it either. “Through your own fault you will lose the inheritance I gave you. I will enslave you to your enemies in a land you do not know, for you have kindled my anger, and it will burn forever”.
Finally, a promise of hope: “Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him. They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leavers are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit” (17:7-8). This is a promise to all those who put their trust in the Lord. It is similar sounding to Psalm 1 in its outcomes. The metaphor is very close to the physical drought that Judah is enduring, but the real meaning is spiritual: as we put down the roots of our trust in God, we will remain alive, flourishing, and fruitful in our service of the Lord, even when the conditions around us are very unpromising for growth.
“The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure…”. God realises that his redeemed people will need a new heart and a new spirit if they are to be consistent and effective. God always operates at ‘heart’ level, rather than bothering much with externals, so we need to be aware of our heart’s condition all the time.
The end of chapter 17 shows that God was very concerned with the proper keeping of the Sabbath – the day of complete rest every week. Why? If we consider where the Jews had originated from, we see them as being the children of the slaves of Egypt; slaves had a 24/7/365 job description and certainly no rest periods set aside for them. God had brought them out of slavery into the freedom of his service, and one of the chief lifestyle changes was the Sabbath, the inheritance of the freed man. By ignoring the Sabbath, they were effectively saying that they rejected the Lord and wanted to go back to Egypt! The punishment for this would be to send them back into slavery – this time into Babylon!