Encouraging words for your prayer life.
On Paul’s preeminent charge to pray from 1 Timothy 2.
Paul’s charge to Timothy begins with a pastoral bang, of sorts, with the celebrated apostle encouraging his protégé to hold fast to sound doctrine for as long as he holds the office (1 Tim. 1:3–11). This represents a sober calling brought to Timothy’s charge. His mission and position in the church necessitates a dogged determination to bring the solid truth of Christ to bear for the people he’s entrusted with shepherding. After this introductory salvo is out of the way, Paul officially begins his exhortation in chapter two — and we ought to take note of the first injunction the apostle mentions:
I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; for kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. (1 Tim. 2:1–2)
It’s not by accident that the first Paul mentions to this young pastor is the necessity of prayer. Not Scripture memory. Not seminary training. Indeed, no other religious duty other than prayer is what Timothy needed most. Which isn’t to say that those other disciplines or endeavors are unimportant, only that the weightiness of prayer supersedes the others. “First of all, pray,” Paul says. It is the chief assignment for those entrusted with the proclamation of the gospel that they be praying gospelers. You and I need prayer. The Christian life depends on it. It is our lifeblood. Our spiritual oxygen. In the words of Martin Luther, “A Christian without prayer is just as impossible as a living person without a pulse” (Works, 24:89). It is a contradiction in terms to attempt to function as a Christian without prayer. Luther affirms the same thing, writing elsewhere that:
You cannot find a Christian who does not pray; just as you cannot find a living man without a pulse that never stands still, but beats and beats on continually of itself, although the man may sleep or do anything else, so being all unconscious of this pulse. (quoted in Herrman, 332)
The point remains that prayer is the indispensable ingredient of the life of faith. It is the most vital element of our personal and public worship of the almighty God. “Men never learn to pray in public: they learn in private,” John Henry Jowett affirms. “We cannot,” he continues, “put off our private habits and assume public ones with our pulpit robes. If prayer is an insignificant item in private it will be an almost irrelevant ‘preliminary’ in public. If we are never in Gethsemane when alone we shall not find our way there with the crowd. If we never cry ‘out of the depths’ when no one is near there will be no such cry when we are with the multitude. I repeat that our habits are fashioned in private, and a man cannot change his skin by merely putting on his gown” (156). Jowett’s point was, like Paul’s, largely directed towards those in the ministry. But the broader point remains: the Christian life is the highest priority item we can nurture in our walk with the Lord Jesus Christ.
Unfortunately, we don’t always approach prayer that way. We relegate it to the “use-in-case-of-emergency” department of our spiritual lives. Almost as if it’s the fire extinguisher God gives us for life’s problems. We only break that glass when the blaze is out of control. I don’t mean to come across pedantic. I’m speaking from experience. I’ve often said that we treat prayer much like we do flossing. The busier we get, the less we do it, the less time we make for it, all despite knowing how good it is for us. We nod and say we floss when we’re sitting in the dentist’s chair, feeling pale with guilt that we haven’t flossed since the last time we sat in that chair. We fib because we’d feel too ashamed otherwise. I wonder how often prayer is treated similarly when we sit in the pew week after week? We should, therefore, take notice of the prominence the apostle gives to prayer in this text.
The prevalence of prayer.
Paul’s charge that Timothy give himself to pray is supplemented by prayer’s scope — namely, “for all men” (1 Tim. 2:1). There is nothing that should hinder us from praying for someone. “All” cannot mean something other than all. Breathing humans are worthy of our petitions. God’s not interested in constricted prayers precisely because there’s no one who sits outside the scope of his ransom (1 Tim. 2:6). Even your enemies deserve your prayers and your kindness (Matt. 5:44). The apostle, however, amplifies this exhortation to pray by specifically mentioning “kings, and all that are in authority” (1 Tim. 2:2). It matters not our particular view or opinion of the leaders and dignitaries that reside in our government, they are in need of our prayers. “I am quite sure of this,” writes H. A. Ironside, “if we prayed more for those at the head of the country and in other positions of responsibility we would feel less ready to criticize them; we would be more disposed to recognize the heavy burdens resting upon them, and to understand how easy it is to make mistakes in times of crises” (53–54). It’s hard to dishonor and demean someone for whom you are praying. Bringing leaders, especially those you disagree with, before the God of all grace, puts in the same position — that of one who’s dependent on Another. Prayer levels the playing field, reminding us that we are all desperate for grace.
The power of prayer.
Paul communicates power of prayer by conveying God’s purpose in and through it: “Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). It is the Lord’s prerogative that all men are delivered. He’s not desirous of any soul’s damnation (Ezek. 18:30–32; 33:11). This, of course, doesn’t mean to indicate some universalistic gospel. But neither can we stretch this sentiment to mean only the elect. “All” means all. This is the design of God in the gospel. His atoning sacrifice was powerful enough to cover the sins of the whole world (John 3:16). He “gave himself a ransom for all” (1 Tim. 2:6). The atonement is universal gift held out to all, made effectual when we repent and believe in its all-encompassing salvation. Even still, many plunge headlong into hell leaving that gift in its wrapping. “God makes hell possible, but not necessary,” writes Robert Capon in Between Noon and Three; “human beings, unnecessarily, make it actual” (276). Hell, you see, is full of people who’ve rejected the free forgiveness offered to them in Christ. Instead of clinging to Jesus’s death, they cling to their own means of salvation. “Hell,” writes Capon elsewhere, “is only for those who insist on finding their life outside of Jesus’ death” (Parables, 81). H. A. Ironside similarly writes:
If ever you are lost eternally it will not be because God was not ready to save you; if you are shut away from the Home of the Blessed for the ages to come it will not be because there was not a welcome for you if you had come by way of Calvary’s cross. (57)
Christ died for all, thereby making salvation possible “for all men.” Therefore, it is proper to pray for all men, too.
The person of prayer.
The true resonance of Paul’s exhortation comes when you consider its primary subject — which, of course, is a person, but his name isn’t Timothy. “For there is one God,” the apostle says, “and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). Prayer puts you in contact with a Person, a living, breathing Intercessor who takes our pitiful cries and infuses them with the power of his Spirit. What makes prayer powerful isn’t the words we utter, but the One to whom we pray. Our “lively hope” (1 Pet. 1:3). The ears of the Creator are bent towards his children in prayer. He hears us in prayer. He knows us in prayer. He is with us in prayer. Prayer puts us into communion with our Arbiter and Advocate, the One who gives us his peace in exchange for our penalty.
Paul knew he was dependent on God for all that he was and had and was called to do. There was nothing that he had earned for himself that allowed him to attain this ministry of the gospel to the Gentiles. It was a gift. It was grace all the way through. And such is why he prayed, because he knew that and felt that in his bones. “The extent to which you are not engaged in prayer is the extent to which you are relying on your own strength,” notes Jared C. Wilson (77). And, to be sure, Paul wasn’t one to rest on his own laurels or bank on his own abilities (1 Cor. 15:9–10). He was a desperate soul who knew who it was that was working in and through him. Such is why he prayed. Because he knew he was but a “groaning soul” whose next breath was contingent on his Savior’s grace. “Prayer, reduced to its essence,” notes Rev. William James, “is simply this — the groaning of a soul in bondage, its breathing and panting after spiritual liberty” (217).
And such is why prayer is “first of all.” All God’s children, but especially those who are called to be his under-shepherds, are to be given to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). “Be much in prayer,” declares Charles Spurgeon. “Prayer keeps the Christian steadfast. You may make a loud profession, but it will not last without prayer. Amidst work and worry, heavy responsibilities and incessant anxiety, you had need often renew the confession of sin and weakness on your bended knees” (354). Indeed, let us never cease to pray until we cease to breathe.
Grace and peace, friends.
Robert Capon, Between Noon and Three: Romance, Law, and the Outrage of Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997).
Robert Capon, The Parables of Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996).
Martin Luther, quoted in Wilhelm Herrman, The Communion of the Christian with God, translated by J. Sandys Stanyon, revised by R. W. Stewart (London: Williams & Norgate, 1906).
H. A. Ironside, Addresses on the First and Second Epistles of Timothy (New York: Loizeaux Bros., 1951).
William James, Grace for Grace: Letters of Rev. William James, edited by S. W. H. (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1875).
John Henry Jowett, The Preacher: His Life and Work (New York: Hodder & Stoughton, 1912).
Martin Luther, “Sermons on the Gospel of John,” in Luther’s Works, edited by Jaroslav Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann (St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 1961).
Charles Spurgeon, Storm Signals (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1885).
Jared C. Wilson, The Gospel-Driven Church: Uniting Church-Growth Dreams with the Metrics of Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019).