The Point of our Praying
One of the things I love about preaching is that it forces me to study the Bible in a really careful way. Many times I have gone into a week with certain assumptions about a passage, only to have those assumptions challenged by careful study.
That happened to me again this week. Up until last Monday, I thought that as chapter 1 concluded, Paul had basically wrapped up his instructions to Timothy regarding the false teachers at Ephesus. And then when he gets to chapter 2, he changes the subject and goes on to give Timothy some instructions regarding how the church was supposed to operate that had no real connection to what came before
But something never quite lined up about that. Because if chapter 2 is just describing how the church was supposed to operate, why does it only talk about prayer before moving on to the roles of men and women? Was that all the church was supposed to do—just get together and pray?
From the rest of the New Testament, we know that when the church gathered they sang together (Ephesians 5:19) and ate the Lord’s Supper together (1 Corinthians 11:17-34) and had God’s word preached to them (Acts 2:42, 2 Tim 4:2). So why does our passage only talk about prayer?
The answer is found in that very important word “then.” “First of all, then.” That word could be translated as “therefore.” “First of all, therefore.” And this word is so important because it shows us that what comes to us in chapter 2 is not a new train of thought. There’s no change of subject. It is completely connected to everything we’ve already heard in chapter 1.
“Command the false teachers to stop teaching different doctrine”—which is all of chapter 1—“and therefore, first of all, I urge that prayers be made for all people.”
So in other words, this teaching on prayer is one of the ways that Timothy pushes back against the false teachers. He stops them by teaching the church to pray like this.
So that’s why he just focuses on prayer in these first seven verses. There’s something about this teaching on prayer that was a push back against the false teachers.
So the natural question is, what was it? What were the false teachers teaching, and how does this push back on them?
Were the they telling people that they shouldn’t pray at all? And Timothy pushes back by just telling the church to pray?
That’s probably not the case. Instead, we can see where the battle lines were drawn by noticing a word that Paul uses four times in our passage today. It’s the word “all.”
- “…I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions…” (1 Timothy 2:1-2)
- “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.” (1 Timothy 2:3–4).
- “…Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all…” (1 Timothy 2:6).
That word is the line in the sand. That’s where the battle was being fought.
So again, another natural question. “What kind of false teaching is going to be challenged by this word ‘all’? What were these guys really saying, and why would this word ‘all’ have been so confrontational?”
If we go back to chapter 1 we’ll find some clues. Verse 4 told us that the “different doctrine” these guys were teaching went hand-in-glove with “myths” and “endless genealogies” and “speculation.” And then in verse 7 we heard that these guys were trying to be teachers of the law. And as we studied those verses we saw that these elements point to a very Jewish type of false teaching.
We know from the rest of the New Testament that one of the most common false teachings in the early church came from a group of Jewish Christians who had a really hard time accepting that God was saving the Gentiles, and that He was doing it by faith alone. And some of these guys were saying, “No, no, you can’t be saved unless you convert to Judaism first” (Acts 15:1).
They were so used to being God’s chosen people. And they had forgotten that they had been chosen for the sake of the nations. Instead, they wanted to keep salvation to themselves and they treated the Gentiles like they were good for nothing. And this was so pervasive that it even impacted the Apostle Peter. Galatians chapter 2 talks about a time when he was trying to impress some of his friends from Jerusalem and so he wouldn’t even sit down and eat a meal with the Gentile Christians (Galatians 2:11-14).
And this is most likely what was going on at Ephesus. We know from Acts chapter 19 that there was a strong Jewish element in the Ephesian church (Acts 19:8-10). And we can see how this is what the endless genealogies were for. It was all about proving that you were of pure Hebrew stock. That’s what this misunderstanding of the law was about—trying to force people to conform to these Jewish practices. It was a deadly mix of legalism and ethnic pride.
And so Paul is intentionally pushing back against this when he tells Timothy that the church needs to pray for all people, because God is the saviour of all people. In other words, not just of the Hebrew people or those people who convert to Judaism. He’s the saviour of Jews and Gentiles. And the church needed to pray and work for the salvation of all groups of people.
So that’s what’s going on in chapter 2. It’s not that the church had forgotten to pray. It’s that the church needed to push back against the false teaching by intentionally praying for the salvation of all people.
“All Kinds of People.”
And this line of thinking is confirmed for us when we look at little bit deeper at this phrase “all people” which shows up in verse 1 and then a down again in verse 4. This phrase does not mean “all individual people alive on planet earth.” Instead, this phrase is best understood to mean “all kinds of people,” as in, Jewish people and Gentile people. And you can see how that fits in with the whole passage. Combat this ethnic pride by praying for all kinds of people.
Now how do we know that this phrase means “all kinds of people”? Well, for starters, we can see how verse 1 moves into verse 2. Verse 1 says “pray for all people.” And then verse 2 lists off a kind of person that they should pray for: “kings and all who are in high positions.” It doesn’t list off individuals. Instead, it begins to list a group of people or a kind of person that they should pray for.
And in fact, this phrase “all people” is used several times in the New Testament to very clearly refer to “all kinds” of people instead of all people individually. I’ll give just one example. Acts 22:15 says that after Paul became a Christian, Ananias went and told him, “you will be a witness for him to everyone of what you have seen and heard” (Acts 22:15). That word “everyone” is just a different way of translating the same words in our passage—“all people.” “You will be a witness for him to all people of what you have seen and heard.”
We know that Paul was not a witness to all individual people. He didn’t talk to every person alive. But he was a witness to all kinds of person. All different groups of people. Like, Jews and Gentiles, slaves and kings. (c.f. Colossians 3:11).
So that’s what this phrase means. And if that seems hard to wrap your head around, it’s probably because we’re here in North America where we tend to think very individualistically. When we hear the phrase “all people,” we think about all individual people. But you need to remember that this is not the way most of the world thinks, and this is not the way that the people in the Bible thought.
Most of the world, and the people in the Bible, don’t think of themselves as individuals first. They think of themselves as members of a group first. And the individual part comes later. So when they read “all people,” they’re going to think all groups of people. All kinds of people.
And again, this just emphasizes the big idea in our passage. When Paul urges prayer for all people, what he’s saying is “Don’t just pray for the people who are like you in your own little group. Pray for all people.”
This Group, Especially
So what do “kings and all who are in high positions” (1 Timothy 2:2) have to do with this? Why were people supposed to pray for that group of people?
The answer comes when we keep reading though verse 2 and to the end of verse 3. They were supposed to pray for this group of people, their political leaders, so “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Timothy 2:2b).
This word for “peaceful” is not the usual word for “peace.” In fact, this is the only time this specific word is used in the New Testament. And the basic sense of this word is “undisturbed.” The word for “quiet” is similar. It speaks to being tranquil and well-ordered. In other words, he’s basically telling them to pray that the government leaves them alone. That their political leaders will not put pressure on the church and interfere with them but give the Christians the freedom to live godly and dignified lives.
A dignified life is a respectable life. It means that other people are looking at us and having respect for us. And we’re supposed to pray that the government lets us live this kind of life. The kind of life that attracts the respect of others.
And why? Why should we pray for this? Verse 3 and 4 tell us that is is good and pleasing in the sight of God our Saviour who desires all people to be saved. In other words, he doesn’t just want to save us or people who are like us. He wants to save all kinds of people. Jews and Gentiles. Rich and poor. Slave and free. And our lives have a major role in attracting others to have faith in Jesus.
So as we pray for all people, we should especially pray for our government, that they will give us the freedom to live lives that attract all peoples to come and know Christ.
Do you see how this passage all fits together, and how it all pushes back against the false teaching that says God only cares about one particular group of people?
And finally, verses 5-7 deliver the final knockout blow to this false teaching by giving the ultimate reason we should pray like this. “There is one God,” verse 5 says. There are not different gods for each group of people. There’s one God. And “there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.”
That word “man” is the same word for “people” in verse 1 and 3. It’s not very politically correct, but it’s like he said, “pray for all men… God desires all men to be saved… there is one mediator between God and man.” He’s pointing to the fact that Jesus did not die for just one group of people. He is the saviour for us all. He “gave himself as a ransom for all,” like verse 6 says. All kinds of people. Just like Revelation 5:9 says: “for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.”
And when we put the whole passage together like this, we can finally understand why verse 7 says what it does. Because in verse 7 Paul mentions that God sent him to teach the Gentiles and then he says that he’s telling the truth and not lying. Obviously, his story had come under attack at one point. You can almost hear them saying, “God didn’t send Paul to the Gentiles. Salvation is for us, not for them.”
And the whole point of this passage is to say the salvation is for all kinds of people. And that’s why the church needed to pray for all people. That’s why they needed to especially pray for their government leaders, so that they might have the freedom to continue to live lives that attracted all kinds of people to believe in the gospel of Jesus. And we can have confidence as we pray like this, knowing that Jesus is the mediator for all people and died to ransom people from every tribe and language and people and nation.
So hopefully, by this point, we understand what this passage meant to Timothy and the church in Ephesus. But now we need to ask, “what does this passage mean for us?” What I hope we’re going to discover is that even though we live in a different place in the world and in a different spot in history, this passage has a lot to say to us today.
Let’s start with this question of ethnicity. Or ethnic pride. We maybe haven’t taken things as far as those false teachers did, but isn’t it true that we all tend to treat people who are different from us a little bit differently than people who are like us? And isn’t it true that, as Christians, we very easily act like God is our God more than he is their God, and that God likes the way we do things more than he likes the way they do things?
I think it’s so significant that this passage lined up with our missions moments earlier in the service. Because it’s helpful to remember that right now, there are Christians in Uganda. And there are many ways in which they are different from us. Their worship services look very different form ours. And God is their God just as much as He is our God.
Right now, there are Christians in Korea. There are many ways in which they are different from us. Their worship gatherings look very different from ours. And Jesus is their mediator just as much as He is our mediator. He represents them before the Father just as much as us.
And right here in Canada, more and more each year, come people from all different parts of the world, who are all different in various ways. And this passage calls us to remember that God desires for all people to be saved. Do we? Do we desire what God desires? And if so, what are we doing about it?
There’s a second way that this passage speaks to us today, and that’s in regard to our understanding of government. This passage tells us to pray for our government so that Christians can live peaceful, quiet, godly, dignified lives so that others will be attracted to the gospel.
It’s important that we remember that this is not telling us to pray that our government will operate like a Christian organization. And it’s not about praying that the government will give special privileges to Christians and do things to deliberately help out the church. The Roman government did none of those things! All it says is basically, “pray that the government leaves us alone so that we can do our thing without interference.”
And we need to acknowledge that we have this. God has answered this prayer in the affirmative for Canadian Christians. It’s true that in recent years, many Christians in Canada have grown concerned about the ways that the government seems to be stepping on our toes. We fear that our freedoms are under threat. And some of these fears are justified.
But I want to ask us this morning: what are we doing with the freedom we do have, today? Are we living warm and inviting lives, acting in a godly and dignified way so that other people are attracted to Jesus? And when people are drawn to our lives, do we actually tell them about Jesus, which is the whole point of why we live that way?
Let me ask this question another way: tomorrow, if it became illegal to share the gospel, would anybody even notice?
I want you to know that this question challenges me as much as anybody else. But it reminds us of what this is all about. This is why we pray for our government. We don’t need special treatment. We just want to be undisturbed as we live and share the gospel.
These are important questions to ask in the middle of an election campaign. And in this season, I trust that this passage draws our attention to what really matters.
There’s a third and final way that this passage talks directly to us in 2019. And it’s on the matter of prayer. You’ll remember that this passage is not telling the Ephesians to pray. It assumes that they were already praying. The question is, what were they praying for? And this passage instructs the church to pray in alignment with the mission of God to save for Himself a people out of every tribe, language, nation and people.
In other words, we can put it very simply: our understanding of the mission of God will impact how we pray.
So, here’s a question. If people were to just listen to your prayers, what would they learn about the mission of God?
If people just listened to our prayers on a Sunday morning, what would they learn about the mission of God?
How much does our praying line up with God’s mission?
This fall we’ve begun to take a few minutes in each service to explain why we do a certain element of our service. And today, in the middle of the sermon, I want us to think about our prayer and share time. Each week we pray together and share requests with each other, and this is a powerful way to express our fellowship and act like the family that we really are.
But our passage today reminds us that, as a church family, we have a mission. And this mission is to glorify God by attracting people to the gospel. And so I want to encourage us today to make sure that our prayer time lines up with this mission.
It should be normal for us to share requests like, “I want to share Jesus with my neighbour. Please pray for courage for me.” Or, “I’ve been getting to know a new family that just moved in down the street. Let’s pray that they come to know Christ.” Our prayers should be saturated with the advance of the gospel.
Very often our prayers have to do with difficult things. Sickness or tragedy that impacts us or those we know. And it’s ok for us to pray for those things. But as we pray for those things, we need to remember God’s mission. And God’s mission is not to give each of us a comfortable life. God’s mission is to bring glory to Himself by saving a people from all nations and making them more like His Son Jesus.
So when we get sick, we pray along with Paul, whose desire was that “Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death” (Philippians 1:20).
And when tragedy strikes, we pray that, through these events, God would help His people to reflect Him and bring glory to Him and draw others to trust in Jesus.
This is one of the most practical, hands-on ways for us to apply this passage as a church. When we gather to pray each week, let’s remember the mission. Let’s pray for the mission in everything that we pray for. Just like Jesus taught us: “Your kingdom come, your will be done” (Matt 6:10).
And we don’t have to wait for next week to do this. You’ve got six days between now and then to pray this way yourself. To pray for all people—your neighbours and the people who serve you coffee and your mayor and town council and premier and government and future government. Let’s pray the mission and then let’s live the mission for the glory of God.