On Monday I was asked a very insightful question about Sunday’s sermon. In that sermon we saw that Paul urged Timothy and the Ephesian church to pray for all people without distinction. This includes praying for kings and all those in authority. This was a significant instruction from the apostle for Nero was the emperor at the time and he was known for his abhorrent, debauched, and cruel behavior, including toward Christians.
Paul gave the reason for praying for kings and all those in high positions: “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way”. The question was this: does this peaceful life come because our prayers make a difference in how kings and those in high positions govern, or because the prayers for them change the hearts of those who pray, resulting in inner peace and quiet?
As with every sermon, much more could have been said about the text. To answer the question, let’s take a closer look at this particular verse (1 Timothy 1:2). Paul’s reason for Timothy and the Ephesians praying for all people is God desires to save all people. His eternal purpose in Christ is for every tribe and language and people and nation. In Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, there is no male or female” (Galatians 3:28).
The motivation for praying for all people is there is only one God and there is only one mediator between this one God and all humans, and that mediator is Jesus, who is God in human form. Because God desires to save and because Jesus has given himself as a ransom for every tribe and language and people and nation—all people without distinction—it is imperative that God’s people pray for all people.
Paul specifically includes kings and all who are in high positions. For the church to accomplish its mission of making disciples the church must have the necessary freedom to proclaim the gospel of Jesus. This is not an absolute requirement for the gospel is the very power of God (Romans 1:16) and therefore is not limited by laws prohibiting the proclamation of the Christian faith. Paul desires freedom of movement for himself as an apostle and he desires that same freedom for the church in Ephesus. Bear in mind that it was only a few years prior to his letter to Timothy that the city rioted on account of the gospel being preached in Acts 19.
When Paul instructs Timothy to pray for kings and those in high positions, he specifically indicates the reason: “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way”. There are two parts to this. New Testament scholar George Knight helpfully points out the reason is two-fold: it is for both proximate and ultimate goals.
Prayers for civil authorities serve a very practical aim. Paul knew it was only the intervention of government authorities in Ephesus that enabled him to meet with the disciples in Ephesus after the riot in Acts 19. Those in high positions in Ephesus stopped the riot and granted Paul the freedom to meet with the believers before setting off for elsewhere. When Paul was in Corinth it was the Roman proconsul Gallio who prevented the Jews there from attacking Paul and therefore granted Paul the freedom to engage in ministry.
In a very real way, then, Paul urges prayers for government officials for this reason: that they would govern with fairness and justice and would allow Christians to go about their business of being the church and making disciples. That’s the proximate goal of praying: a peaceful and quiet life. The immediate impact would be freedom to follow Jesus and serve him. This freedom would be from government interference and from violence committed against them. It is quite probable that Paul has in mind Jeremiah’s instructions to the exiles in Babylon.
Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.Jeremiah 29:4–7 ESV
Notice the Lord calls upon his people who are living in a strange and foreign land to live at peace in that land. They are to work and play. They are to marry and have children. What they are not to do is huddle up and withdraw from the broader society. They are to participate in the life of the city in which they find themselves. They are also to seek the welfare of the city and to pray for the city.
The “welfare” of the city is its shalom—its peace and its wholeness and its well-being. They are to pursue what benefits the city. They are to be intentional to live in such a way that they encourage human flourishing. Let me give a personal example. When I was a much younger man I voted against every tax increase the City of Grand Rapids proposed. I didn’t ride the bus; why should I vote for more funding!? Then I realized just how many are dependent on public transit, and how selfish it was of me to deny them greater access in order to save a few bucks a year. I resolved to “seek the welfare” of my city. This was God working in me to bring about my growth in sanctification.
When Paul tells Timothy to pray for those in authority, the proximate or immediate goal is for good governance, or for those in authority to govern in such a way that encourages human flourishing. This applies to everyone, not just the Christians in Ephesus. Paul surely has Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in mind when he writes this. The peaceful and quiet life Paul mentions should come about, at least in part, through the prayers for those in authority.
The ultimate goal of their prayer, however, is to live “godly and dignified in every way”. The end result Paul has in mind is the transformation of the Ephesian believers. Everyone in Ephesus should be able to live a peaceful and quiet life—all people, the very people for whom they are to pray. The believers must also live godly and dignified lives. The peaceful and quiet life is to be the setting for them to live as followers of Jesus. A significant means of bringing about Christ-likeness in their lives is prayer. I shared this Tim Keller quote in that sermon:
Prayer is the way that all the things we believe in and that Christ has won for us actually become our strength. Prayer is the way that truth is worked into your heart to create new instincts, reflexes, and dispositions.Tim Keller, “Prayer”
This means that the peaceful and quiet life Paul mentions as the outcome of praying for those in authority over us is intended to bring about real, actual peace and quiet in our lives, that we may be free to pursue the mission God has given. It also means it brings about an inner life that is at peace and filled with quiet before the Lord. This is how, even in the midst of turbulent and oppressive times, God’s people can remain faithful to him, unmoved by the shifting of everything around. We must pray for the well-being of our city and we must pray that we would be transformed in the midst of whatever our circumstances may be.