Colossians 4:5 instructs us as believers, to “Walk in wisdom toward those who are outside.” Now, as much as it is my favourite place, this is not about the outdoors. As I am sure you know, Paul is referencing those who are outside the faith and we need to understand what it looks like to walk in wisdom toward them. Some assert that wisdom dictates we never saying anything that would offend someone outside the faith. Others think it means simply being nice to people. While I think it is wise to not intentionally offend others and that in principle, we should generally be nice to others, that is not the primary intent of Colossians 4:5. Given that Paul wrote this let’s look at some of the things he said to those who were ‘outside.’
In our first example Elymas, a local sorcerer, was opposing Paul’s presentation of the gospel message. Here is how Paul responded with wisdom.
9 Then Saul, who also is called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him 10 and said, “O full of all deceit and all fraud, you son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, will you not cease perverting the straight ways of the Lord? 11 And now, indeed, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you shall be blind, not seeing the sun for a time.” And immediately a dark mist fell on him, and he went around seeking someone to lead him by the hand. 12 Then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had been done, being astonished at the teaching of the Lord. Acts 13:9–12 (NKJV)
Paul certainly wasn’t ‘nice.’ He was however truthful and speaking under the anointing of the Spirit. On this occasion his wisdom to one outside was a rebuke and pronouncement of judgement due to their open opposition to the gospel. I am confident that Paul’s ultimate hope was that Elymas would come to repentance. Later in Acts we see a different approach by Paul.
24 And after some days, when Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish, he sent for Paul and heard him concerning the faith in Christ. 25 Now as he reasoned about righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come, Felix was afraid and answered, “Go away for now; when I have a convenient time I will call for you.” Acts 24:24–25 (NKJV)
Here there was no rebuke. Paul simply reasoned with Festus and presented the facts of the gospel, the need for righteousness, self control and the reality of a future judgement. Though Festus became afraid of the message Paul, a Roman prisoner here, still faithfully but respectfully, delivered it. In Acts 26 before King Agrippa Paul again respectfully but firmly presented the gospel and his conversion experience with the goal of Agrippa being converted.
In these examples Paul approached each situation a little differently but each time walked in wisdom and responded correctly to the need of the moment. As we seek to walk in wisdom as Paul did it is important to distinguish between knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge is information. Wisdom is the correct application of the knowledge we possess. Paul knew the status of Festus and Agrippa and respectfully yet firmly presented the gospel so that it would receive a hearing. His goal was their salvation. Paul knew Elymas was a sorcerer and that he was in a spiritual battle where the proconsul wanted to hear the gospel while Elymas sought to prevent it. Paul knew Jesus’ power needed to be on display for Sergius Paulus to hear.
We each encounter our own moments where wisdom is required. I remember a time some decades ago when as a fairly new believer we had two new nursing students on the unit I worked on. I ended up talking with the two of them one day when we had a bit of down time. One of the two was a believer. Following the conversation the believer sought me out privately and said, “That was neat, you shared the gospel and didn’t even use the four spiritual laws.” I did let her know that I didn’t know them, however I also let her know that I was simply seeking to share from my heart about salvation and why it was important. I don’t know the ultimate outcome in the life of the unbeliever, I do know I was seeking to walk in wisdom. That is my prayer, that we be found walking in wisdom toward those who are outside, depending not on a formula but leaning into our relationship with Jesus, knowing what to say when.