Peter O’Brien’s translation of Colossians 4:2 surprised me: “Persevere in prayer as you watch for the Lord’s return, and be thankful.”1 What is surprising about that? Well, none of my English translations mentioned “the Lord’s return” — nor does the Greek text! Translated literally, the verse just says: “In prayer, persevere, watching in it with thanksgiving.” There is nothing explicitly eschatological, and my understanding over the years — its not my first time to read these words — has been along the lines of Bishop Lightfoot’s comment: “Long continuance in prayer is apt to produce listlessness. Hence the additional charge that the heart must be awake, if the prayer is to have any value.”2
If it is not explicit in the text itself, from where did O’Brien import the reference to the Lord’s return? He believes it was implied in the word “γρηγορέω” (English: the name, “Gregory”). He explained: “Certainly γρηγορέω with the figurative meaning to ‘be vigilant’ turns up in contexts which refer to the Parousia, that day of the Lord which will come suddenly and unexpectedly (1 Thess 5:6; cf Matt 24:42; 25:13; Mark 13:35, 37; Luke 12:37; Rev 3:3; 16:15; cf Oepke, TDNT 2, 338). . . . while the context of the passage does not contain any explicit eschatological suggestion (though cf v 5 with its reference to redeeming the time, καιρός), it seems justifiable to assume that the concept of wakefulness had an eschatological character (note especially Lövestam’s treatment, Wakefulness) and that the apostle is here encouraging his readers to be on the alert in expectation of the Lord’s coming (Conzelmann, 155). Accordingly the prayer they are to persist in is for the coming of God’s kingdom. The petition Maranatha (“Our Lord, come,” 1 Cor 16:22; cf Rev 22:20) is to be on their lips and in their hearts as they look forward in anticipation to Christ’s glorious manifestation (Col 3:4).”
This did help, but I was not entirely persuaded, especially since O’Brien, like most interpreters would understand the “Lord’s coming” as an event at the end of history. However, a concordance search for the Greek word “γρηγορέω” led me to interesting and, I believe, edifying speculation.
“γρηγορέω” is used 23 times in the New Testament — not a rare word, but the angels are in the details. Of the 23 times it is used, all but 6 are on the lips of Jesus Himself. Three of Jesus’ sayings are in the book of Revelation (Revelation 3:2–3; 16:15), which was written after Colossians and would not have been something to which Paul would be alluding. Still, Jesus’ words in Revelation confirm the “eschatological” orientation in “watching” that O’Brien speaks of, for in Revelation, Jesus speaks like He does in the Gospels.
Of the 6 references that are not from Jesus Himself, 5 are from Paul — once in Acts (20:31) and 4 times in epistles (1 Corinthians 16:13; Colossians 4:2; 1 Thessalonians 5:6, 10). Peter uses the word once ( Peter 5:8). It is notable that all of these references — except perhaps for Colossians — are in contexts that are “eschatological,” some of them emphatically so.
That leaves 14 references, all of which are found in Matthew (6x), Mark (6x), and Luke (2x). Matthew and Mark each include the word “γρηγορέω” 3 times in Jesus’ eschatological discourse on Mount Olivet (Matthew 24:42–43; 25:13; Mark 13:34–35, 37). They also each include the word “γρηγορέω” 3 times when Jesus is in Gethsemane (Matthew 26:38, 40–41; Matt 26:38, 40–41). The 2 references in Luke are in a different context from the references in Matthew and Mark, but they do occur in a section in which Jesus tells a parable that is urging the disciples to “watch” because the Son of Man is coming at an hour they do not expect (Luke 12:35-40), similar to the warnings in the Olivet discourse.
What is especially important for understanding Colossians 4:2 is how the Colossian Christians would have heard this word, “γρηγορέω.” If we read the Bible as most modern scholars, we might doubt that Paul even wrote Colossians and we would almost certainly assume that if there were a Colossian church around AD 60 or thereafter, they would not have been familiar with the Gospels. Let me be clear: that is the wrong way to read and interpret the Bible. That way of reading Bible robs us of the grain and leaves us with chaff.
We ought to read the Bible differently. To begin with, we should assume — as I have argued in another essay — that Matthew wrote his Gospel in the same year that Christ died and the Spirit was given at Pentecost. If Paul wrote Colossians in AD 60 from his Roman imprisonment, the Gospel of Matthew would have already been widely distributed — perhaps both in Aramaic and Greek. Mark’s Gospel was probably written around AD 40 and again, it could have been known to the Colossian church. Even the Gospel of Luke, which had to have been written before Acts might have been known to this church.
It is good to recall here in passing that both Mark and Luke were with Paul when he composed this letter and they are both included among the men who greet the church, so they are at least known by name. How? The most obvious answer would be through the Gospels they penned. Neither of them were with Paul when he ministered in Ephesus. But if they wrote their Gospels around the time I suggest, they would have become known by Christians all over the empire.
However, the Colossian church was a backwater church — the least important church to which Paul addressed a letter. How could they have known these things? First, remember, Paul ministered in Ephesus — not far from Colosse (about 100 miles) — for about 3 years (AD 53-55?). Most likely, I think, Epaphras — who founded the Colossian church — heard the Gospel from Paul when Paul was ministering in Ephesus, but he might have heard the Gospel from someone else, even Philemon. We cannot be sure. We have to leave it there.
We should also remember that the Ephesian church included wealthy members — perhaps quite a few — who burned their books about magic (Acts 19:19). It is not wild speculation to imagine that they, having the means, would have replaced the books they burned with copies of books they treasured. The Gospels of Matthew and Mark — if not also Luke — would surely have been among them. It is reasonable to surmise that the Ephesian church would have heard the stories in Matthew and Mark over and over.
However and whenever Epaphras became a disciple, he would have no doubt heard the Gospel stories, too, for how could he have become an evangelist if he knew nothing about Jesus? Since he was an evangelist, he would have been telling the story of Jesus to everyone who would listen as often as he had an opportunity. That is what an evangelist does.
Philemon, Paul’s wealthy Colossian friend, might have even provided copies of Biblical books for the Colossian church. Again, however and whenever the Colossian Christians heard the Gospel stories, we can be sure that they were eager to hear them and that they were read to the church over and over.
What does this have to do with Colossians 4:2?
Among other things, it means that a keyword, like “γρηγορέω” would stand out clearly. It was not only repeated over and over by Jesus Himself, but it was repeated in contexts that had immediate application to the Colossians church. The Olivet discourse is not about the end of history, it is about the coming of the Son of Man to judge Jerusalem and the temple — in other words, it is primarily about AD 70.
The Colossians knew that the time of judgment must be drawing near, for Jesus said it would occur within that generation (Matthew 24:34) and 30 years had already passed. They did not know the day or hour, but they knew the generation. Jesus’ warning to watch was profoundly relevant for them, for they would know they were about to face the time of trial that He spoke of.
So, then, how are the warnings in the Olivet Discourse related to the failure of the disciples in the Garden? The Garden and the crucifixion that followed was a time of trial, of testing the disciples’ faith — the greatest test the disciples faced in their lifetime. In the Garden, Satan sifted the disciples like wheat and because they did not watch, they failed. They all forsook Jesus and gave up their faith until after the resurrection — when the Great Shepherd sought His lost sheep.
Thus, when the time of trial that Jesus predicted came upon the early church, remembering the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, combined with the warnings in Olivet discourse, would naturally be associated with the exhortation to “Watch!” in Colossians 4:2. “Watch” in other words would have been a keyword that inescapably elicited the last sermon that Jesus gave and the drama of the Garden of Gethsemane.
I hate to give a modern example of how this works and I know that the kind of example I think of might not communicate to some, but suppose you heard someone say something like “To shave or not to shave.” It is not what Shakespeare wrote and it could only be a joke in a commercial about razors or shaving cream, but no one would miss the allusion. The line is too famous. I suggest that for the early church, the exhortation to “watch” would have been no less recognizable, though far more solemn. Just hearing the verb “γρηγορέω” would call Jesus’ words to people’s minds.
“Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name’s sake. And then many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another. Then many false prophets will rise up and deceive many. And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold. But he who endures to the end shall be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come. . . . Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming.” (Matthew 24:9-14, 42)
The Colossians were expecting this time of tribulation and testing. They knew false prophets would arise, as indeed some had apparently come to their own church. Many Christians would be deceived and grow cold in their love. To endure to the end required watching, the very thing the disciples failed to do in their hour of trial in Gethsemane.
The Colossian Christians knew Jesus’ warning was a word for them, a proverbial truth with generational applicability, a motto for their day, an adage specifically for them! When Paul repeated the watchword, “watch”! the Colossians were reminded that the time of trial was coming soon and that they must pray and be ready.
Ralph Smith is pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church.
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