A Prayer for Life-Changing Knowledge of God (Colossians 1:9–14)

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This sermon is part of a series: “Colossians: Christ Preeminent.” It is written for a congregation of mostly new believers with the intention of helping the church to see the exclusive power, authority, and beauty of Jesus, and to experience spiritual transformation, stability, and maturity in him.

In our last sermon, we observed that our culture is a melting pot of religious ideas and superstitions, much like that of the early Christians in the city of Colossae. We learned that Epaphras had planted the church in Colossae, and later visited the Apostle Paul in prison to tell him about the cultural pressures they were facing. Paul then wrote a letter to encourage the Colossians to remain faithful to Jesus and experience new life in him.

In verses 1–8 of Paul’s letter to the Colossians, Paul thanks God the Father that the Colossians heard the truth of the gospel—the good news about Jesus—and that this powerful message of hope inspired in them both faith in Christ and love for all the saints. This passage is foundational for the rest of the book, and for our lives: unless we have been transformed by the power of the gospel, all our good deeds and moral effort are in vain. The Christian life is not about earning God’s favor; it is about expressing thanksgiving for what God has done in Christ. The whole Christian life could be summarized in one word: gratitude.

Paul’s Prayer

In verses 9–14, Paul reports his prayer for these young Christ-followers. As a pastor, I have used this prayer countless times to pray for other Christians and myself. I’d encourage you to highlight or bookmark it in your Bible and do the same. Colossians 1:9–14:

9 And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, 10 so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; 11 being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy; 12 giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. 13 He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

Notice how the prayer starts: “And so” or “for this reason” (NIV). The basis for this prayer is what God has already done for the Colossians. “It is because of what God has already done that Paul can pray with confidence for what God will do. Having begun a work of grace, God will continue and complete it (see Phil. 1:6)” (Wright, Colossians and Philemon, emphasis original).

Last time, I ended by asking if you had true faith in Christ. If the answer is “Yes,” and God has changed your life, then God is taking you somewhere. He will complete the work he has begun in your life. This prayer is a good place to start to understand what that work is and how he wishes to go about it in our lives.

The Knowledge of His Will (1:9)

A key feature of this prayer is the importance of knowledge in the Christian life: we are to be “filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding…increasing in the knowledge of God.”

Recall from last time that the Colossians came to Christ when they “understood the grace of God in truth” (Col. 1:6). In 1 Timothy 2:4, Paul writes that God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” There is no salvation without this knowledge of Christ. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and there is no path to God except through him.

Those who are saved through knowledge are also being sanctified (made like Christ) through knowledge. Paul will later write in Colossians 3:10 that Christians “have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” There is no spiritual maturity without knowledge.

Paul’s desire for all Christians to be filled with knowledge permeates his letters. In Ephesians 1:17–19, a parallel passage to our text from Colossians, Paul offers a similar prayer for the Ephesian Christians; he asks

that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, [that you may know] what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and [that you may know] what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe.

Look at Colossians 2:2–3. Once again, Paul expresses his great struggle to help the Colossians reach this knowledge: “I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you…to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”

Near the end of the letter, Paul mentions that Epaphras was also praying that the Colossians would be full of the knowledge of God’s will: “Epaphras, who is one of you…[always struggles] on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God” (Col. 4:12).

We should never be afraid of theological knowledge or higher learning—only of hard hearts that refuse to walk in the truth.

So, what is “the knowledge of God’s will”? What is this knowledge that Paul so desperately wants us to understand? There are at least three things we need to understand about it:

  1. First, it only comes from God through his Spirit. When Paul prays for the Colossians to “be filled,” he is asking God to do the filling. When he prays that they would “be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding,” he is indicating that this wisdom and understanding comes from the Spirit. We saw this in the parallel passage in Ephesians, where Paul prays for the Father of Christ to give “the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him” (Eph. 1:17).
  2. Second, the knowledge of God’s will centers on the knowledge of what God has done in Christ. When we hear the phrase “God’s will,” we often think of God’s will for our individual lives (where we will live, who we will marry) or how God wants us to live (careful, holy), and there is truth in both of these meanings (see 1 Thess. 4:3; Eph. 2:10). But in Colossians, Paul’s focus includes the knowledge of God’s saving action in Christ (see Col. 2:3), “his salvific will as he accomplishes his plan of salvation” (Pao, Colossians & Philemon), so that one may appropriately live out the Christ-life. God wants every Christian to come to a fuller understanding of what he accomplished by sending his Son, and the implications that it has for his people.
  3. Third, it is transformational knowledge. This knowledge is not mere facts that we accumulate so that we can win in Bible trivia. As the Spirit reveals more to us about the preeminent Christ, we witness God’s glory, and it changes us. As we find in Christ all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18).

We should never be afraid of theological knowledge or higher learning—only of hard hearts that refuse to walk in the truth. Holiness goes hand-in-hand with knowledge, wisdom, and understanding. N. T. Wright explains,

For Christians to ‘grow up’ in every way will include the awakening of intellectual powers, the ability to think coherently and practically about God and his purposes for his people. Paul never plays off spiritual life against intellectual understanding. The wisdom and understanding commended here are given the adjective ‘spiritual’, and at once expounded in practical and ethical terms in verse 10.

Why We Need this Knowledge: Pleasing God (1:10–11)

Verse 10 explains in more depth why we need to be filled with this knowledge: “so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him.” There is no way to walk worthy of God or to please him without knowledge. But when we receive the Spirit’s revelation of the knowledge of God, it becomes possible to do so.

This is vital: through Christ, it is possible to live a life that makes God happy. In fact, it is expected that we will live as “saints and faithful brothers” (Col. 1:2). If you believe that pleasing God is impossible, you are likely to remain trapped in weak, fruitless, unholy, unthankful patterns of behavior. But if you have faith that God has, as he said, truly made his power available to you through Christ, you can experience deep and lasting change.

Of course, the knowledge (cognitive awareness of information) of what God has done in Christ must be shaped into spiritual wisdom and understanding (skill in perspective and application). Pleasing God requires us to reshape our worldview by theological knowledge and learn how to put it into practice.

Pleasing God requires us to reshape our worldview by theological knowledge and learn how to put it into practice.

Paul mentions four ways that we walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him:

  1. By bearing fruit in every good work.
  2. By growing in the knowledge of God.
  3. By being strengthened with all power.
  4. By giving thanks to the Father.

As we will see, the final point (giving thanks to the Father) leads Paul to celebrate what the Father has done for us in Christ. It is the gateway to the rest of the letter. God’s saving action in Christ is the foundation for all of our thanks-giving and thanks-living, which is the purpose of our redemption.

BY BEARING FRUIT

First, Paul prays for the Colossians to please God by “bearing fruit in every good work.” In Ephesians 2:8-10, Paul is clear that, although we are not saved by works, we are “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

Jesus warned against those who did not practice what they preached (Mt. 23:3); they claimed to be followers of God, but their walk did not match their talk. Christ urged his disciples to be fruitful: “let you light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (Mt. 5:16).

James asks, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that [dead, empty] faith save him? … Even the demons believe—and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless?” (Jas. 2:14, 19–20).

Those who truly understand the gospel, and are changed by the knowledge of God’s saving will in Christ, are also empowered to live fruitful lives in the Spirit. Jesus said that “fruitless Christians” do not remain in Christ; they are taken away and burned (John 15:2, 6). Some Christians are more fruitful than others, but all Christians are called to please God by “bearing fruit in every good work.”

Jesus and Paul taught that we will be rewarded according to our works. The more fruit that we bear, the greater our reward will be in heaven. Are you striving to be as fruitful as possible? Are you living in total obedience to him? If we are living for “the hope laid up for [us] in heaven” which Paul mentioned in verse 5, then we should lay up treasures in heaven as Jesus said (Mt. 6:19–20).

BY GROWING

Second, Paul prays for the Colossians to please God by “increasing [or growing] in the knowledge of God.” Paul warns about those who are “always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 3:7); Christians are always learning because they have arrived at the knowledge of the truth. When we discover true knowledge in Christ, a new desire for God is awakened, a new thirst for the knowledge of the holy. Higher learning itself is not the problem; rather, growth in true knowledge is necessary for growth in true holiness.

When we discover true knowledge in Christ, a new desire for God is awakened, a new thirst for the knowledge of the holy.

How do we grow in the knowledge of God? Proverbs tells us, “if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding” (Prov. 2:4–6). The “hidden treasure” of the knowledge of God is hidden in Christ; the Lord gives wisdom by revealing this treasure through his Spirit. One reason for this series, “ Christ Preeminent,” is so that we can grow in the knowledge of God together.

BY BEING STRENGTHENED

Third, Paul prays for the Colossians to please God by “being strengthened with all power [dunamis], according to his glorious might [kratos], for all endurance [hupomonē] and patience [makrothumia] with joy.”  This is a jam-packed phrase, so let’s break it down.

“Power” and “might” are closely related: God’s power is glorious, and therefore he can give you power. God is all-powerful, and thus he has plenty of power to strengthen you.

Why do you need powerful strength? For all endurance and patience. These words are also closely related. Together, they refer to the ability to persevere, hang in there, and press on, despite painful suffering and challenging circumstances.

Why do you need to be strengthened in this way? Because “growth in the knowledge of God, and in holiness, is an uphill battle, and that strength for this battle can only come – but will surely come – from the power of God himself” (Wright, Colossians & Philemon). When our strength comes from the Lord, we are able to press on with joy. “Sing aloud to God our strength; shout for joy to the God of Jacob!” (Ps. 81:1).

BY GIVING THANKS

Finally, Paul prays for the Colossians to please God by “giving thanks to the Father.” The fruit we bear, the knowledge we acquire, and the strength we receive, are all intended to express and fuel our thanksgiving to God for what he has done in Christ.

Don’t underestimate how important this thanksgiving is in God’s redemptive plan. In 2 Corinthians, Paul recites the unimaginable sufferings that he endured in Christian ministry (remember, he was in prison when he wrote the letter we are studying). Then, he says this: “it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God” (2 Cor. 4:15). This is the big thing: God’s transformational grace is preached, people respond with thanksgiving, and God gets the glory.

On the flip side, unthankfulness is the first sign of backsliding, as Timothy Cooley often notes. An unthankful Christian is not likely to be a Christian for long. In Romans 1, Paul writes that “although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Rom. 1:21). Unthankfulness is the door to idolatry.

Unthankfulness is the door to idolatry.

William Law, in A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, a formative book in John Wesley’s life, wrote this: “If anyone would tell you the shortest, surest way to all happiness and all perfection, he must tell you to make a rule to yourself to thank and praise God for everything that happens to you.” To cultivate thankfulness in our lives requires disciplined intentionality. It’s tough—that’s why we need to be strengthened with God’s glorious might! Samuel Logan Brengle said, “Truly, we have much to thank God for, but if we would be thankful, we must set our hearts to do it with a will. We grumble and complain without thought, but we must think to give thanks.”

Thanks to the Father (1:12–14)

As Christians, all of our thankfulness centers on what God has done through Christ. This is Paul’s focus in verses 12–14.

FOR QUALIFYING US

First, we thank the Father because he has “qualified [us] to share in the inheritance of the saints in light” (v.12). This implies that we were formerly unqualified: unfit to be filled with God’s Spirit and for the hope that is now laid up for us in heaven (Col. 1:5). But when God calls us out of our sinful, self-centered, unfit lifestyle through the gospel, he qualifies us by making us right with him through his Son Jesus. In Christ, we are heirs to the inheritance of the saints—all God’s people—in light. This is reason enough for a lifetime of thankfulness. No one else in my life has ever been so generous to me.

In 2 Thessalonians 2:13–14, Paul gives thanks to God “because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” We do not qualify ourselves to receive God’s inheritance; we are all unfit. The good news is that God calls unqualified sinners to himself, and makes them fit to receive every spiritual blessing in Christ. Verses 13 and 14 go into more detail about this great salvation.

FOR DELIVERING US

Paul continues in verse 13: “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son.”

Recall from our last sermon the life story of the Apostle Paul. Paul persecuted Christians before the risen Jesus appeared to him on the Damascus road. With Colossians 1:13 in mind, listen carefully to what Jesus said to him on that life-changing day:

I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’ (Acts 26:15–18)

Years later, when Paul wrote his letter to the Colossians, he thanked God for this very thing: that every person who has faith in Christ is delivered from “the domain of darkness” (Satan’s kingdom), and placed under the authority of King Jesus (God’s kingdom), so that he or she can “share in the inheritance of the saints in light,” that is, “in the kingdom of light” (Col. 1:12, NIV). This is the gospel of the kingdom: the good news that God’s saving reign has come through the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, bringing deliverance for all who put their trust in him.

In Ephesians 5:5, Paul writes of the “inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God” that belongs only to those in Christ—not to the sexually immoral, impure, or covetous who are unfit and unqualified for this inheritance. Thankfully, God has made us fit in Christ; he made a way to enter the kingdom when there was none.

FOR REDEEMING US

Notice that it is the Father who qualifies us and transfers us to “the kingdom of his beloved Son.” The Father’s work is mediated by the Son, “in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

The little phrase “in whom” (elsewhere “in Christ”) is packed with explosive meaning. It does not merely mean that forgiveness comes through Christ; it means that forgiveness comes to those who are in Christ, united to him by the Spirit of God. This doctrine of union with Christ will be explored in subsequent sermons. But for now, it is enough to thank God for providing redemption and forgiveness in his Son.

Through the blood of Jesus, God has redeemed us from slavery, as he once redeemed Israel from bondage in Egypt. He has marked us as his holy ones, as he once set apart Israel through the exodus. He has granted for us to share in the inheritance of the saints, as he once granted for Israel to share in the possession of the promised land. He has set us free from the dark power of Satan, as he once delivered Israel from the oppressive rule of Pharoah, who was himself under the power of the god of this world. Christ secures for us a new exodus. Through the atoning work of Christ on the cross, our sins are forgiven, and we are able to enter into God’s holy presence and the fellowship of the saints.

How should we respond to all of this? Thankfulness!

Living for Jesus a life that is true,
striving to please him in all that I do,
yielding allegiance glad hearted and free
this is the pathway of blessing for me.

O Jesus, Lord and Savior,
I give myself to you,
for you in your atonement
did give yourself for me.
I own no other master
my heart shall be your throne:
my life I give, henceforth to live,
O Christ, for you alone. (Chisholm, “Living for Jesus”)

Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is President and Founder of Holy Joys. He serves as a preaching and teaching pastor in Newport, PA, where he lives with his wife Alexandra and son Adam. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.