We live in an age of hate. One political party hates the other. One nation hates another. But the polarity of our national and international struggles of 2022 is nothing new, as you can imagine. They’re as old as sin. Forty years ago, Pastor John said in a sermon, “The 1980s are becoming the decade of hate, and oh, how easy it is for Christians to be sucked into one group and start hating the other group.” Same today. We’re tempted to fall in line with the world and hate our human opponents. But what a very different calling God gives to his church.
To understand God’s countercultural calling for us today in 2022, we rewind 41 years to hear a clip from a John Piper sermon. He was preaching on 1 Timothy 2:1–4. It’s one of my favorite sermons, especially when we face geopolitical chaos in the world. It’s an early sermon, preached on January 20, 1981. We heard another clip from this same sermon last Wednesday. There I mentioned that this sermon was preached two days before the Iran hostage crisis came to an end, and the same day Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as the new president of the United States. There was a lot of national and international news in the air when Piper preached on 1 Timothy 2:1–4.
The apostle Paul’s words were very relevant. Paul was eager for Christians to hold to the faith with “a good conscience,” according to 1 Timothy 1:19. That includes, as Paul explains, that Christians take a global worldview to offer
supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings . . . 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. 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 2:1–4)
Piper took up this plea from Paul and preached on what it meant to pray for others in the age of global hate. Here’s Pastor John.
It’s a great blessing to have our daily bread. It’s a great blessing to have our trespasses forgiven. It’s a great blessing not to be led into temptation, but to be delivered from evil. But we don’t pray — Jesus didn’t teach us to pray — “Lord, bless us. Amen.” He taught us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread. Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matthew 6:11–13).
We have not been taught to pray in broad, sweeping generalities. We have been taught to pray for particular kinds of problems. When Paul wanted help for himself, he asked the churches, “Pray for me in particular — don’t just pray for the missionary cause,” for example. Therefore, I do not think that we will satisfy the demand of 1 Timothy 2:1 if we say something like, “God, bless all men everywhere. Amen.” What does it mean? How can we satisfy it?
Prayer for All People
If we give Paul a sympathetic reading here — that’s what you always should try to give anything you read: give it a sympathetic reading; try to put yourself in the shoes of the writer — I think what he’s going to say is something like this: “Timothy, push out the boundaries of your concern. Don’t let your prayers be limited to any group, or any kind of people. Enlarge the circumference of your love, Timothy. Don’t be provincial or sectarian or elitist or nationalistic or racist in your prayers, Timothy. Let your prayers embrace all kinds of people — high and low, white and black, Democrats and Republicans, Soviet premiers and Iranian ayatollahs. Enlarge the heart of your prayers, Timothy. Go to school at Calvary, and learn to hate the bigotry and the racism of the Ku Klux Klan and the neo-Nazis, but to pray with earnest yearning for those men and women.”
“Don’t let your prayers be limited to any group, or any kind of people. Enlarge the circumference of your love.”
Isn’t Paul’s point the same as Jesus’s? “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies” — and do what? — “pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:43–45). Or to put it another way, “Timothy, there is no category of people of whom it can be said, ‘You ought not to pray for those.’” There is none. Here’s a message for our day, isn’t it? The 1980s are becoming the decade of hate, and oh, how easy it is for Christians to be sucked into one group and start hating the other group.
Jesus warned us in Matthew 24:11–12, “Many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold.” May it not be said of Bethlehem Baptist Church that we’ve made any contribution to the destruction of the world through icy hate, but let it be said of the Christians at Bethlehem — and oh, of all Christians — “Behold how they love one another. Look how they do good to those who hate them. Look how they bless those who curse them. Look how they pray for those who abuse them. Look at the parameters of their prayer. Why, there’s no boundary.”
Isn’t that the point of 1 Timothy 2:1? And if we pray like that and act like that, won’t people begin to say, “There must be a God of grace in the heavens, and he’s got a peculiar people on earth and in Minneapolis at this corner, people who are not conformed to this age or to this decade”?
Prayer for Kings
Now, after he stressed the wideness of the circumference, for some reason, Paul focuses in on kings and all in high positions. Pray for kings and all in high positions. Why? Why did he narrow in here? It’s clear from 1 Timothy 2:4–7 that Paul wants to emphasize that nobody be excluded from our goodwill, for nobody is beyond the grace of God. Why, then, do kings and people in high positions come in for special mention? I think there are at least two reasons — perhaps more, but I’ll just mention two.
The first is this: there are characteristics, aren’t there, about leaders that make it hard to pray for them — at least hard for those early Christians to pray for them, and I think still for us in many ways. One, for example, of those characteristics is that they are so distant and so remote — if not visually, or in miles, then in accessibility, anyway. They’re so remote.
It’s hard to pray for somebody earnestly, with heart yearning, that you don’t even know or don’t ever see. and yet Paul says, “That difficulty must be overcome. We must pray for the emperor, Nero. We must pray for the governor, Gallio. We must pray for proconsuls, and we must pray for Pilate and Herod and the like.” Those people must be prayed for, if you don’t ever see them. They may seem remote to you. They are not remote to God, and you can get as close to them through prayer as any of their closest advisors.
Here’s another example of a characteristic that makes them hard to pray for. They are often godless people, insensitive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. That was almost universally true in Paul’s day. I think in our day, if you take all the countries of the world — and let’s not just limit this command to America — it’s probably still true today. It doesn’t matter where or when we have lived. If we are going to pray for those who are kings and all in high positions, we are going to wind up praying mostly for people who are hostile to or indifferent to our faith. That seems to be a stumbling block for many people.
Stream of Water in God’s Hand
What do I pray for them? Well, Paul says, “Don’t hesitate to pray.” First of all, God can save. God can change kings and those in high positions. And second, he uses unbelievers in high positions to accomplish his purposes anyway, whether they believe or not. A couple of examples. In Isaiah 10 in the Old Testament, God takes the wicked king of Assyria and turns him into a rod of his wrath when he wants to punish his people, Israel, and then he casts him aside because of his arrogance when he’s through with him.
Once Nebuchadnezzar, the great, proud king of Babylon said this: “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence for the glory of my majesty?” (Daniel 4:30). You know what God did? He took away his reason and made him eat grass like an ox until he learned this lesson. In Daniel 4:34, Nebuchadnezzar says,
[The dominion of the Most High] is an everlasting dominion,
and his kingdom endures from generation to generation;
all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing,
and he does according to his will among the host of heaven
and among the inhabitants of the earth;
and none can stay his hand
or say to him, “What have you done?” (Daniel 4:34–35)
No king, no president, no Soviet premier or Iranian ayatollah can stay his hand when he has purposed to do a thing. “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will” (Proverbs 21:1). The wise man said, “Many are the plans in the mind of a man [and a king], but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand” (Proverbs 19:21). Therefore, we have strong encouragement to pray because God rules over men, whether they believe him or not. God reigns, and none can stay his hand.
Working Through Wicked Kings
Now, one implication of that is that our prayers for these kings and these people in high positions will not only be for their conversion, or even their sanctification — that we must pray for, or we disobey our Lord Jesus. But we will go beyond that, and we will pray that God’s good saving purposes would be accomplished through them anyway, even if they are impenitent. That’s the second reason why I think Paul mentions the need to pray for kings and those in high positions — namely, because God is able to do so much good in the world through people in high positions.
Even a bad king, Paul thinks, is better than anarchy. Paul is in a Roman prison or is under house arrest in Rome when he writes 1 Timothy. The emperor is Nero. In a couple of years, he’s going to put Paul to death. Probably, he died in the lions’ arena. Now, Paul is saying what he says under those conditions. Therefore, he is not naive when he says, “Make thanksgivings for all men, for kings and all in high positions.” Thank God for Nero? Why? How can he say that?
At least for this reason: Paul’s perspective on the world is so good. It’s so big. It goes above and beyond his own little life, or even his own little (great) ministry. The emperor who puts Paul to death in Rome keeps peace in the provinces where the gospel is spreading like wildfire, and for that, Paul is very thankful. So, our prayers for kings and for leaders and for all men should be seasoned with thanksgiving.
Peace for the Gospel’s Sake
But the main thing Paul says to pray for is this: “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Timothy 2:2). Now, taken by itself, that might seem to fly right in the face of everything I’ve said. Is it really the case that in the last analysis, the only reason we pray for leaders is so that we might have the good life, so that we might have peace and tranquility and build our estates?
“May we never forget it, brothers and sisters in Christ, that we are exiles here in America.”
Many professing Christians seem to think so. But that would be a terrible misunderstanding of this text, wouldn’t it, because 1 Timothy 2:3–4 sharpens the focus of what Paul is really after. Why pray that we have peace and tranquility? Answer: “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 a knowledge of the truth.” God approves of peace and tranquility because he approves of the advance of the gospel. Peace is not the main thing; salvation is the main thing. Tranquility is not the main goal; the knowledge of the gospel of truth is the main goal.
May we never forget it, brothers and sisters in Christ, that we are exiles here in America. And I would say the same thing if I were talking to the Russians, the Iranians, the Mexicans, the Brazilians. We are exiles here in this land. We are not at home in America, Russia, Iran, Egypt, Israel, or anywhere on this earth. Our commonwealth is in heaven. We do not pray, I do not pray, simply for the prosperity of any land. I pray for the magnificent spread of the saving purposes of God in every land and for whatever conditions it takes to achieve that.