The Lord's Day Morning
July 25, 2004
I Timothy 2:1-7
“A Call to Prayer”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to First Timothy, chapter two, as we continue to work through this great letter of Paul to a young pastor working in Ephesus, a church where Paul himself had ministered. In fact, he had laid the foundations for this congregation and he is giving to Timothy a whole host of priorities for a healthy church. He's telling us–in this letter and in Second Timothy, and in Titus (collectively called the “pastoral epistles” by students of the New Testament)– he's telling them and us what the church ought to be like; how we're supposed to be as the family of God, the body of Christ in the local congregation. And so these words are just as relevant to us as they were to this congregation that received this letter almost two thousand years ago.
Today Paul moves from the topics of the first chapter to a very different subject matter. He moves first, in verses one through seven of chapter two, to the subject of prayer. Everything that Paul says in this passage has something to do with prayer and with ministry. And this morning I want you to see three things in particular. Paul, first of all in this passage, gives an invitation to prayer; then he explains why Christians ought to pray for all kinds and classes of people. And then he explains that this also has implications for Christian ministry. So we’ll explore those three things together.
Now let me also say that this passage has a number of puzzling, perplexing statements. By the way, it's not alone in First Timothy chapter two with making those kinds of statements, because when we come together, Lord willing, next week, to consider verses eight through fifteen, we get into the subject matter of the role relationship between men and women in the local congregation, there are going to be a number of statements which will no doubt raise a few eyebrows in the congregation then! And I trust that you’ll be in prayer with your pastor during the week as he prepares to address those things with some clarity, and boldness and faithfulness from the word of God!
So we won't be able to fully deal with all of these questions, but perhaps some of them will pop into your mind. For instance, you’ll notice in this passage that it says that “God desires all men to be saved,” and you may say to yourself, “Well, wait a minute. The Bible also makes it clear that not all people are saved–that there are some people who are not saved; there are some people who will not be saved. Judas, for instance, was not saved. Satan is not redeemed. There are many others whom the life and ministry of Jesus Christ rejected, and they are not saved. And how do we square this statement that God desires all to be saved, and yet not all are saved?” That's a very interesting and important question that we could explore. In fact, I could fill a couple of hours on this passage. But I'm not going to do it now.
Then there's this question, “Well, when we say that God desires all men to be saved, is that the same thing as His will? When we say that God desires all men to be saved, does that mean that He wills all men to be saved? And if it does, doesn't that mean that God's will isn't coming to pass, since all are not saved?”
Well, we say very quickly, “No.” ‘Desires’ here must be distinguished from God's will. There is a sense in which God has a disposition for the salvation of all sinners, and yet this is not part of His secret plan. Romans 9:1-24 makes that very clear.
Then there is this statement that “Jesus Christ is a ransom for all,” and that's a statement speaking about Christ's atonement. So is Paul saying that Jesus atoned for all people? Now, you know what ‘atonement’ means: atonement means covering sin and acquitting us of the wrath of God. So, if Jesus covered the sins and turned away the wrath of God for all people, then that would mean, in fact, that all people are saved–something that, again, the Bible does not affirm elsewhere. So, clearly, the statement that Jesus Christ is a ransom for all is not meant to mean, by Paul here, that Jesus Christ is the atoning sacrifice for every last person who is alive, who has ever lived, or who ever will be living. So you have to do some digging to understand each of these truths, and I trust that studying Paul's words in context will help us to learn something of his intent.
Let's hear God's word in First Timothy, chapter two, but before we do, let's ask the Holy Spirit for His help and illumination as we study God's word.
Heavenly Father, we thank You for the word. We recognize that the word of God itself is the product of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. You breathed it out, O Lord; You authored this word; it is Your word for Your people. Help us, then, to understand it, even in places that it's hard. And especially today, help us to begin to have Your heart as you reveal that heart for all people, in this passage. We ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.
This is the word of God:
“First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, in order that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony borne at the proper time. And for this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying) as a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy and inspired and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
This passage is a passage about three things. It's about prayer. You see that in verses one and two. And it's a passage also about God's attitude towards a sinful, rebellious world. You see that in verses three through six. But it's also a passage about what God's attitude towards that sinful, rebellious world means for our ministry and our attitude towards that sinful, rebellious world. You see that in verse seven. To be specific, this passage is a passage about how God's own heart and disposition towards all humanity informs the way we pray, and the way we minister to people. And I'd like to look at it with you for a few moments in three parts.
I want you to see three things today: A directive for prayer; God's disposition towards the world; and, it's implications for ministry. Those three things.
I. We must teach the Church to pray for all people.
First of all, let's look at verses one and two and see this directive for prayer. Verses one and two are an exhortation from Paul to the Ephesians, and to you and me, to pray. First of all, he says “I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men…”
Now why would Paul need to say this to the Ephesians? Well, think about it for a few moments. This is a congregation of Jewish and Gentile Christians–perhaps a very small group of people compared to the total population of Ephesus–huddled together in some house-church, and they are in a culture dominated by hostile, pluralistic religions. Nero is the emperor; Rome is not friendly to Christians; the Jewish community is perhaps antagonistic to the small group of Christians that are gathering, some of who are former Jewish followers, and some of whom are Gentiles claiming to be the proper recipients of the promises of God to Abraham. This is a persecuted minority. Now what would have been the temptation of their hearts? The temptation of their hearts would have been, if they prayed for people at all, to pray that, for instance, God might blast Nero into oblivion. That might have been a good subject matter for prayer at their Wednesday night prayer meeting in Ephesus.
Yet Paul is saying, ‘No, no, no: I want you to offer up prayers and entreaties and supplications, and even thanksgivings for all people! For kings and those who are in authority. The Roman emperor, who is so antagonistic toward you–pray for him, thank God for him, offer up supplications…’ Notice, Paul gives them lots of words for prayer, so that they know that they can't be perfunctory about this. You know, sort of gritting their teeth, “Lord, bless Nero…” and then going on to what they really want to pray about. No. Make prayers and entreaties and supplications, and even thanksgivings for all people–even those who are in authority, even those who are opposed to you, because their temptation would have been to hate the majority that was persecuting them. Paul says, no, here's the disposition that you’re to have towards the world, towards all people: you’re to be praying for them. You’re to entreat God, and supplicate to Him, begging that He would bless them with salvation in Jesus Christ. You’re to pray for those kings and those that are in authority that are giving you such a hard time. You’re to desire that they would come to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Pray for them!
What a timely message that is for us, in a culture that sociologists are telling us is more and more post-Christian. Now, we could debate that fact. Who knows? Maybe in twenty years, things will turn around. Maybe we're in the midst of a trend, and we don't realize it, where things are actually getting better. Doesn't feel like it, does it? But it doesn't matter. Whatever the case is, we know that Christians today are tempted to look at our nation and our culture and say, “Things have gone to pot!” And to feel more and more like we're a persecuted minority, like Hollywood is going after us, and the government is going after us, and the judiciary is going after us, and they’re undermining the foundations of our nation. The temptation is to be angry about that! And here's Paul saying to us, ‘Here's how I want you to be towards those folks: I want you to be praying, and entreating, and petitioning, and supplicating to God that they would come to a saving knowledge of Christ.’ And here we see something of God's directive for the church's prayer, and this speaks volumes to us who live in post-Christian times, and certainly it speaks to churches that are under persecution in places like the Sudan and elsewhere in this world.
II. We must understand and embrace the posture of God towards the world.
But secondly, notice in verses three through six that Paul doesn't just tell you to pray for all kinds and classes of people, even those who are your enemies; Paul goes on to say that we ought to do this because this is God's disposition towards the world. In verses three through six, Paul explains God's position towards the world, His attitude towards the world, His disposition to the world, is the basis for exhorting us to pray for all kinds and classes of people. And we must understand and embrace God's posture towards the world, and that will inform the way we pray for the world.
Why are Christians to pray for all kinds and ranks and classes and conditions of people? Even people who are antagonistic towards us? Well, Paul provides the rationale. He gives us two reasons. In verses three and four, he gives us the first reason; in verses five and six, he gives us the second reason.
In verses three and four, he explains to us that God's disposition towards humanity is one of a desire to see people come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Notice what he says: “This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” You see, Paul is just expressing an Old Testament hope there. What was the hope of the Old Testament prophets, and of the psalmists? That one day the earth would be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea, and that all the nations would come to Mount Zion and worship…whom? The Messiah, the Living God. And Paul is saying, you see, it's God's desire that the nations would come to a saving knowledge of Him.
Now, you see, very often Arminians, those who are not Calvinistic or Reformed in their belief, think that Calvinists, Reformed people, people like us, don't believe that. They think that we think that God only loves a tiny little number of people, and that He really hates the rest of mankind. They think that's what we think. That's not what Calvinists think!
Calvinists believe, right alongside Arminians, that God has a love for the entire world of people, but we believe in addition to that, that He has a special love for His own people, wherein He does not simply love us generally and desire us to be saved, but wherein He loves us specifically, and as Jesus says in John six, draws us to be saved. Jesus, in John seventeen, prays especially for His people. In fact, He prays only for His people. You remember His words in John seventeen? “I do not pray for the world, but for those whom You have given Me.” And so, the Calvinist believes that there is a general love of God for all humanity, but there is a special love that He has for a multitude that no man can number. And the Arminian doesn't believe that God loves anybody in that way. So, Calvinists actually believe that God loves a greater number of people in this special way than the Arminian does. This is very important for us to understand, as we come to a passage like this. **
The point of this passage is not to say that God has willed all to be saved, and so if they’re not, God's will has failed. The point of this passage is to make the exact same point of Ezekiel. Remember what Ezekiel said about the Living God? Over and over he repeats it in his book: “I, the Lord your God, do not delight in the death of the wicked, but I delight when sinners turn from their wicked way and return to Me.” That's exactly what Paul is saying here. Paul is telling us something about the delight of the heart of God: that He does not delight in the destruction of the wicked; He is not some ogre in the sky that loves to see people ruining their lives and being cast into Hell, although He will punish the wicked. But His real delight is when sinners are saved. We believe that, and Paul says that impels us to pray! Because God has this desire to see the world coming to Jesus Christ, we pray for the world.
But he doesn't stop there. He says something that's positively un-Politically Correct! In verses five and six, this is the second reason we ought to pray. Look at these words. “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time.” Do you see what Paul's saying there? Why should we pray for all people? Because there's one God; there's one Savior; there's one mediator. His name is Jesus Christ, and He is the one hope of all humanity.
You see what Paul's saying there? He's saying all roads don't lead up the mountain! He's saying there are not many ways to God! He not saying that all religions are the same–in fact, he's saying the opposite. He's saying there's only one way of salvation, one hope, and that hope is in Jesus Christ. And therefore, if we have been saved, if we've been ransomed by Jesus Christ, if we have partaken of that one hope–and there is only one hope–if we don't pray for the world, what hope does the world have? Because there is no hope apart from this Jesus Christ who has saved us from our own sins, therefore we must pray for this world!
You see, Paul is saying that God's heart and disposition, wherein He delights to see sinners saved, ought to be our heart, and it ought to move us to prayer. And the fact that there is only one way of salvation into Jesus Christ makes us to want to pray that the nations, all people, even our enemies, would come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Paul is saying that God's heart and God's person, God's Christ, God's plan–all of these things conspire together to move us as Christians to pray for all kinds and classes and conditions of people.
III. God's disposition toward the world must be determinative for our attitude in ministry.
But he doesn't stop there. Notice what Paul goes on to say in verse seven. Paul tells us that God's disposition towards the world was determinative for His own ministry. And because it was determinative for Paul's ministry, it's also determinative for ours. God's disposition towards the world must be determinative for our attitude in ministry. Paul said, “…for this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle, as a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.” You see, Paul was the most unlikely candidate in the history of the world to be the leading world evangelist of Gentiles. He made his name and reputation in his early career killing people who were trying to take the Abrahamic promises to Gentiles. He made it his business to kill Christians and to hinder them in any way from taking their message of the gospel about Jesus Christ, whom they said was the Messiah of Israel, taking that gospel to the Gentiles. And then God met him, converted him, and made him the chief apostle and missionary for the Gentiles. And so Paul is saying here, ‘I wasn't born as the apostle and teacher of the Gentiles, I was appointed to that job. I had worked with all my might against that job, and then God changed my heart, and He appointed me to be an apostle not just to the Jew, but also to the Greek. Not just to the one who had had all the glorious privileges of the knowledge of the revelation of God in the Old Testament, but to barbarian Gentiles.’
And you want to know what is the proof of the power of Paul's ministry to the Gentiles? It's that you’re sitting here today, Gentiles. Most of you are full-blooded Gentiles. And you wouldn't be here today had not God in His wisdom appointed Paul to take this message not just to the Jew, but also to the Greek, to the Gentile, to the barbarian; to slave, to free; to male and female. He goes out with that message. Why? Because God desires the world to come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.
And those of us ministering and living in a post-Christian society, we may be tempted to be angry with this world–a world that we see destroying itself; a world that we see turning its back on Christian principles and law and morality; a world that we see as antagonistic towards Christ and towards the gospel, and towards the church; a world that we see mocking us and our Lord at every turn. It's tempting to be angry with this world, and Paul is saying, ‘Oh, far from it! My position towards this world is to desire to see it come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.’
You see, when God chooses to love, He has to love a world that hates Him. Because we are born in sin, we are born in rebellion; there is none righteous, no, not one. And so, when God loves and chooses to love, His love must take initiative.
Paul is just sketching out for us once again the basis of the world missionary enterprise. We as Christians must long to see the world come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ; and if we don't, then it is perhaps an indication that we have not understood in our own hearts the wideness of God's mercy and the depth of His grace. But when you realize the wideness and the depth of His grace towards you, you want every person to know God savingly, as He by His grace has caused you to know Him.
And so, Paul is saying we're to pray for all kinds and ranks and classes and conditions of people; and we're to do this because of who God is, and because of His disposition towards the world; and because there's only one way of salvation, and this in fact is to impact our ministry. We, in our ministry, are to reach out to this world, even when it hates us. And we're to love, and we're to pray, and we're to preach, and we're to long for the nations to come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.
May God bless His word to us. Let's pray.
Our heavenly Father, we ask that You would so change our hearts by this beautiful and clear revelation of who You are and how You are, that we would have a heart for the world. That we would pray, and minister, and give and go to the very limits of our capacities, and perhaps even, by Your grace, beyond them; so that all kinds of people would come to know Jesus Christ, and would gather around His throne a multitude that no man can number, singing His praises, thanking Him for His grace, forever and ever. We ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.
Grace, mercy and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus, the Messiah. Amen.