Welcome back to the podcast. Welcome to June. It’s June 1, a Thursday — our first Thursday episode in a long time, but now part of our new routine here on the podcast, at least for the season ahead. You can now expect APJ episodes on Mondays and on Thursdays. No more sermon-clip Wednesdays. John Piper’s sermons are now being curated in a new podcast from Desiring God, called Light + Truth. So if you want your five-days-a-week fill of John Piper sermons — old and new — subscribe to our new podcast, Light + Truth. I’m sure many of you already have.
But on this Thursday episode, we’re back in the studio with Pastor John to field a question from Dustin in Indianapolis, Indiana. He writes this: “Pastor John, hello! In light of 1 Timothy 2:1–4, how are we to pray for unrighteous leaders? How about presidents and other politicians? How do you do it? And what specifically do you pray for?”
Let’s read the text that Dustin is referring to so that we can be specific.
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made 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)
So, Paul is calling for Christians to pray for all people. We focus on the kings, but it says “all people.” “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people” — and then the kings and all those in high positions are a subset of “all people.” They are mentioned explicitly, I think, because they are especially relevant for the purpose of the prayer mentioned in the next clause — namely, that we may lead a life that’s “peaceful and quiet . . . godly and dignified in every way.”
So, I take the “all people” to mean that wherever we look in the world and see people who might in some way make decisions that have a bearing on the circumstances in which Christians live, we should give thanks — underline “thanksgivings . . . for all people” — for whatever proper role they fill. And we should ask God to incline their thoughts and incline their wills toward those decisions which carve out a space of justice and peace and freedom that allows Christians and others to live out our faith without physical resistance and without tumults and lawlessness and mob rule and war. That would include using their civil powers to restrain different forms of injustices.
Two Prayer Levels
So, there are two levels at which we pray for people in high positions. One is that they be saved. And Paul said in Romans 10:1, “My heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved.” He was referring to his Jewish kinsmen, whatever their rank — whether they’re a high priest or a synagogue ruler or just an ordinary Jewish person. He’s praying, “God, save my kinsman.”
So that’s what we do for all people who come into our mind. We ask God to save them, to show them the truth and beauty of Christ and to incline their hearts to believe and embrace Christ as their Savior and Lord and treasure. Our hope as we pray this is that they will then, if they have any kind of authority at all, see more clearly which decisions that they have to make are just and peaceable and freedom-loving, so that some measure of freedom and justice and peace can be established, so we can go about our lives without tumult or attack. That’s one level: salvation.
“The way the state keeps the peace and the way Christ spreads his saving rule are radically different.”
Even if the first prayer is not answered right away — namely, for their salvation — we keep on praying for them. Paul does not say to pray only for Christian leaders or only that leaders become Christian. In fact, it seems to me that Paul assumes in this context that most of the leaders Timothy would be praying for are not Christians. They’re mainly Roman officials at various levels: emperor, governors, military leaders, town justices, as well as some Jewish synagogue leaders and so on. They’re virtually all unbelievers; that’s what he’s mainly referring to. And the way we pray for unbelievers, besides praying for their conversion, is at the second level I’m talking about — namely, the level of providence. At least, that’s one way to describe it.
We know from Scripture that “the king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will” (Proverbs 21:1). Now, that’s true of all kings and rulers, whether they’re godly or not. So, we pray that God, in his all-governing providence over unbelievers and believers, will incline the thoughts and the wills of non-Christian rulers to make decisions, even within their limited framework of right and wrong, that are just and freedom-producing and peace-producing, so that those things that would enable Christians to proceed with their ordinary lives would hold sway.
Peace, Not Power
I think the way Paul calls for prayer for leaders contains a warning for us of how not to think about the role of rulers in relation to the Christian faith. In spite of what I said about praying for their conversion (which is what we do for all people), that’s not what Paul focuses on in this text. Paul is writing in a situation in which civil authorities are virtually all non-Christian. They may be ignorant of the Christian faith; they may be neutral; they may be hostile.
So, Paul’s foremost thought is not that these prayers are prayers for Christian advocacy. I think this is crucial. He’s not telling us to pray that civil authorities would become a conscious weapon of explicitly Christian promotion of the faith. He’s thinking about pagan rulers who remain pagan but still are influenced by the providence of God to bring about, in their limited godless framework, some measure of justice and peace and freedom. Christians benefit from this as others do, but this providence of God is not an example of Christians trying to turn state power into an explicit promoter of Christ’s spiritual kingdom.
“We don’t pray as if the kingdom of God, the saving reign of Christ, is of this world.”
Now, the reason I mentioned that warning is because Jesus said to Pilate at his trial, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world” (John 18:36). In other words, Jesus was eager that Christians not look to civil authorities for the establishment of his kingdom on earth. The way the state keeps the peace and the way Christ spreads his saving rule are radically different.
So, we don’t pray that the state become an arm of the church. We don’t pray as if the kingdom of God, the saving reign of Christ, is of this world, or that it would be advanced through an explicitly Christian use of the sword. Rather, we pray that God would have mercy on us and on the world — which he aims for us to evangelize, in this text — and would cause the hearts of presidents and governors and mayors and legislators to make decisions that bring about justice and peace and freedom so that we can go about our lives of worship and godliness and love and evangelism and world missions.