When Paul wrote his first letter to Timothy, his explicit goal was that his protégé might “know how one ought to behave in the household of God” (1 Tim. 3:15). The letter is thus a wonderful resource for the church as it asks questions about what it should do and how it should do it. And Among Paul’s many concerns in 1 Timothy, and the one he presents “first of all” is “that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people” (1 Tim. 2:1, emphasis added).
In 1 Timothy 2:1–8, Paul teaches Timothy how the church should pray: who, for whom, and to what end. And he teaches him that the church’s prayer has its origin in the heart of God.
How the Church Should Pray
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. … I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling. (1 Tim. 2:1–2, 8)
Paul begins his instructions by saying that it is a priority that believers pray “for all people.” This is what he urges immediately after providing a sobering reminder about those who had “made shipwreck of their faith” and had been “handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme” (1 Tim. 1:19–20).
In Ephesus, where Timothy was ministering, “certain persons” (1 Tim. 1:3) had tied themselves in genealogical knots, and they had concerns about the law that were misguided. They were insisting upon the exclusiveness of the Gospel and would have been prepared to say, “We must issue requests and prayers and intercessions and thanksgiving, yes—but we’re only going to pray for the people that we think it’s right to pray for. And we know who they are because of our particular genealogical charts.” So Paul reminds Timothy that it is a matter of primary importance to pray for all people, not simply those who belong to our domain. Just as the heart of God goes way beyond genealogies or preferences, so we also must go beyond our own particularities.
We are to pray for peace, we are to pray peacefully, and we are to pray with godliness as our aim.
As one illustrative example, Paul encourages prayer for the kind of people we are most tempted to despise, reject, dismiss, and abandon: those who are in authority. It is staggering how often professing Christians today slander political leaders as if they are something less than image bearers! Where did we get the idea that we can pray for whom we like and not pray for whom we don’t like? It certainly didn’t come from Scripture.
Paul clarifies that there are clear and distinct benefits to praying for all: that peace may be established and that godliness may flourish. It is good for God’s people to live “a peaceful and quiet life”—that is, to live with a proper sense of God and of our responsibility to Him.
God hasn’t called His people to create a disturbance, to make a general nuisance of ourselves, or to be civilly disobedient at every turn. Instead, we are to pray for peace, we are to pray peacefully, and we are to pray with godliness as our aim. Prayer, faith, the power of His Spirit, and His Word are the weapons that God has given His church (2 Cor. 10:3–4). People may say, “You don’t think preaching really makes a difference, do you? You don’t think prayer really makes a difference, do you?” Absolutely we do! God’s Word says it does. And our lives ought to be evidence of that reality.
The Scriptures teach us that when Christians face persecution, it should be the result of righteous living, not the result of disobedience (1 Peter 3:17). We’re not supposed to be persecuted for slandering people on social media. We’re not supposed to be persecuted for being downright cruel to people with different beliefs. We’re supposed to be persecuted because we uphold a standard of righteousness. As Peter wrote, “This is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people” (1 Peter 2:15). But too often, the reason people hate us is because we’re hateful to them. We can’t proclaim the Gospel and pray for all and then turn around and curse our neighbors.
It’s important to notice, too, that God gives men the responsibility of leading in prayer. The word for “men” in v. 8 does not mean “people.” It means men as distinct from women, whom Paul addresses in v. 9. Men and women come to faith in the Lord Jesus in the exact same way. There is equal standing; there is equal access; there is equal privilege. There is no inferiority within the framework of the experience of salvation. But equal standing before God does not invert the role relationships within the church. God has called men to take the lead in praying “for all people.”
If you go to a typical Sunday morning prayer meeting, who is there? In many places, you will find the room full of women. And women ought to be there making “supplications, prayer, intercessions, and thanksgivings … for all people.” It is not their presence that should disturb us—indeed, we want more and more godly women to be in prayer meetings!—but the absence of the men, because God has called the men to take the lead in prayer.
God’s Heart for Prayer
This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth. (1 Tim. 2:3–7)
God Is Pleased by Prayer for All
Notice that the apostle Paul does so much more than simply provide Timothy with a how-to guide for prayer. He encourages us always to have these questions in mind as it relates to prayer: “Is this good, and does it please God our Savior?” We aren’t to worry about whether our words please ourselves or someone else. We may prefer lifting up the people in our own little group, but God’s aim is so much grander, for He “desires all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”
If we trust that God “desires all people to be saved,” then we will preach and pray according to His desire.
Yet while God desires the welfare and salvation, He has not decreed it. If He had, then all would be saved. But not all are saved. Therefore, we must realize and remember that there is a distinction between what He desires and what He decrees. We may not fully understand the wonder of God’s election, yet we can trust that it is part of His good and perfect plan.
And if we trust that God “desires all people to be saved,” then we will preach and pray according to His desire. We can rise on the highest pinnacle of the earth and proclaim the Gospel to everyone who has ears to hear, knowing that God will redeem those whom He has purposed to save. The magnanimity of His love extends to the whole world, and so must ours. The magnanimity of His love extends even to His enemies, and so must ours. And so we pray for all in order to please Him.
Jesus Christ Has Provided for All
God did not stop at desire. He provided the very solution for salvation. Jesus Christ “gave himself as a ransom for all.” He is the “one mediator between God and men.” It is only man who is able to represent man to God, and it is only God who can bring God to man. The only person who could ever bridge the gap between a holy God and sinful man is none other than the Lord Jesus Himself, the God-Man. And He has done this by paying a price, giving a ransom, offering a substitution.
We have no right to hold back what Christ has offered, and so we must heed the command to pray for all.
The ground is level at the foot of the cross. Jew and gentile, slave and free, male and female—all are equally caught in the net of sin and death. All are equally in need of a Mediator. And this Mediator “gave himself as a ransom for all.” We have no right to hold back what Christ has offered, and so we must heed the command to pray for all.
Our Calling Is to Proclaim Truth to All
Paul finally recalls his own appointment to the evangelizing of the gentiles. He urges that prayers be offered for everyone because there’s only one God, and everyone needs to know Him. And since the one God has only revealed Himself savingly and finally in one Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, then all men everywhere need to know about Jesus. It’s as simple as that.
Where we find a diminishing concern for the spiritual needs of the world, it’s often because we’re preoccupied with the wants and needs of our little circle. We can too easily become upset that things aren’t “how they used to be,” deciding, “We’d better join together and get this all put back.” But as Paul helps us to see, this is not our highest aim.
If God desires all to be saved and Jesus Christ gave Himself as a ransom for all, then who will pray for Iran? Who will go to China? Who will bear the burden of the nearly two billion Muslims around the world, let alone those who are in our own communities? Who will get up from their seat and say, “All I have is what Christ has given me, so I will give it back to Him; I want to give myself to see unbelieving people way beyond the pale of my understanding come to faith in Jesus Christ”?
Don’t Pray like Jonah
In Jonah 4:1, we find God’s prophet “displeased … exceedingly” and “angry.” Why? Because when he finally obeyed God and called the Ninevites, a people that he didn’t like, to repent, they were converted! Jonah wanted a God who was compassionate enough to save him but not a God who was compassionate enough to save the people that he didn’t care for. His prayer was akin to saying, “O God, save the world—but don’t save the rude lady three houses up on the left-hand side. God, save everybody—but not my boss. God, save everyone—but not the ones who didn’t vote like I did.”
God desires the salvation of all, and Christ gave Himself as a ransom for all. And so we pray for all.
The history of the church is full of the dreadful temptation to ignore God’s desire for all to be saved—and if we’re honest, we have to admit that the temptation is still with us. But this is not how we are to behave in the household of God. God desires the salvation of all, and Christ gave Himself as a ransom for all. And so we pray for all, and we do good, and we preach the Gospel indiscriminately in the hope that “all people” will “be saved and … come to the knowledge of the truth.”
This article is adapted from the sermon “Public Prayer: Its Importance and Scope” by Alistair Begg.