The Gospel for All
(1 Timothy 2.1-7)
- Jason Procopio
Over the last few weeks we’ve been looking at the first chapter of Paul’s first letter to Timothy. He’s been exhorting Timothy to defend the truth of the gospel at all costs, to refute errors, to reproach those who preach false doctrines, because the gospel is of central importance. And we saw at least one reason why Paul is so adamant about it, in v. 15: The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.
And now, at the beginning of this second chapter, he's going to say something similar, but he's going to take it even farther, saying that God's desire for those who don't know him should have an influence on our way of life...not only when we're at home, but even (and perhaps especially) when we're together. Corporate worship is the time when Christians get together, but apparently it's not a time that's exclusively for us.
So here’s where we’re going: Paul is going to encourage Timothy to make sure that in his church they pray for all people; he’s going to show how this prayer for all people reflects God’s own character; and he’s going to show how God manifested his character by sending one mediator for everyone.
1) Prayer for All (v. 1-3)
First of all, then—OK, stop for a minute. That then is there for a reason. It’s referring to everything Paul has just said. He’s been pleading with Timothy to fight the good fight of the gospel, to defend the gospel against error, to work the gospel out in practical obedience, keeping faith and a good conscience, because it is through the church that the world will know that the gospel is true. So it is for this reason that (v. 1 again) I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, 2 for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. 3 This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior…
So here’s the first thing: because the gospel is of central importance, pray for everyone: I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for ALL PEOPLE. It’s difficult to know why Paul introduced four different words to talk about prayer, mentioning supplications, prayers, intercessions, thanksgivings. Calvin himself said, “I admit that I do not completely understand the difference [between them.]” We can say that supplications and intercessions are when we ask God for something in prayer, and thanksgivings are, of course, when we thank God for something in prayer. Whatever the distinction one cares to make, the point here is that our prayers to God should include all people.
This is actually very counterintuitive, because we’re naturally self-centered. Most of us, when we pray, we pray for our family, our friends, our acquaintances…perhaps the occasional person we met somewhere, and for whom we said we’d pray. But how often do we really pray for all people? Not very often. So we shouldn’t be surprised that we find it difficult to genuinely love all people. Anyone who prays knows this is true: there is a very real correlation between our prayers and our loves. We pray for those whom we love, and (inversely) praying for someone actually teaches us to love them. This is why Christ tells us both to love our enemies and pray for our enemies. We pray for them because we love them, and we pray for them to learn to love them. If we pray for all people, we will find ourselves learning, over time, to love all people.
Paul’s going to come back to this subject in a minute, but first he’s going to mention one particular group of people for whom we should pray: for kings and all who are in high positions. This sounds like a non sequitur, but it’s not; the reason we should pray for those in authority goes to the heart of our prayers for all people. Why should we pray for those in authority? First of all, and simply, because they’re people, so they’re included in the all people for whom we’re meant to pray; but secondly and more specifically, we should pray for them (v. 2) that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. How would prayer for authorities help us lead peaceful, quiet, godly, dignified lives? What does our prayer for those in authority have to do with the way we live?
Quite simply, we pray for those in authority, that they may act as God’s agents of peace in our country, because peace facilitates. Firstly, peace facilitates the holiness of the church, making it easier to withstand temptations to doubt and fear (because when we live in a country at peace, we have less to fear). But secondly (and more importantly), peace facilitates the testimony of the church. That is, we pray for our leaders, that they might not put further roadblocks in the way of the gospel’s advance.
There are many countries in which the ministry of the gospel is practically impossible. Imagine how surprising it would have been to read this text in Ephesus—at the time Paul wrote this letter, the reigning emperor was Nero, who was openly hostile toward and persecuted the Christian church. So Paul encourages Timothy to have the Ephesians pray for Nero and all others in authority, that the gospel may be allowed to advance, because when the church is free to operate visibly for the good of the city, people will (of course) see it. They will be afforded the opportunity to see the gospel lived out in the life of the church.
We are called to pray for all people, 2 for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. We pray for those in authority that our holiness and the testimony of the church might not be hindered, and we pray for all people is that we might learn to love all people. But we haven’t seen yet how prayer helps us love others; that’s where Paul’s going next.
2) God’s Desire for the Salvation of All (v. 3-4)
V. 3: This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior… So here’s the second reason, and it’s simple enough: praying for all people is good and pleasing in the sight of God our Savior. But why, specifically? Prayers for all people are pleasing to God because they reflect God’s own character. V. 3 again: 3 This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
Now if you’ve never read the Bible this seems completely obvious and natural. It seems evident that God should desire all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. But if you’ve read the Bible, you’ve already come up against certain challenges to this idea. Now before we look at some of these challenges, I'd like to give a bit of a disclaimer. Église Connexion holds to what is called "Reformed," or Calvinist, theology. And one thing Calvinists are often accused of is trying to read Calvinist doctrine into texts which don't contain them. What I'm about to do may seem like that, but I'll tell you why I'm doing it. First of all, if you've read the Bible carefully, the questions I'm going to ask are questions you will have asked yourself; if you get through reading Romans, or Ephesians, and then you read 1 Timothy, you'll immediately see these verses and go, "What did he say?!" And secondly, if you've been going to this church for any length of time, you'll have heard me preach from the Bible certain truths that seem to go counter to what he's saying here. So we need to come to grips with not just what Paul is saying in the light of his letter to Timothy, but in light of the rest of the Bible.
That being said, what does Paul mean when he says that God “desires all people to be saved”? Because the truth is that not everyone is saved; not everyone does come to a knowledge of the truth. So if it’s true that God desires all people to be saved, why aren’t all people saved? One of the defining attributes of God is his ability and his resolve to do all that he wants to do. The psalmist said in Ps. 115.3, Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases. So if God desires all people to be saved, why doesn’t he save all people?
Or we could pose the problem in a different way. The Bible presents God as sovereignly choosing those whom he will save. In other words, as hard as it is for us to accept it, the Bible says that God chooses to save some, and not others. That’s what the Bible says, very clearly—for example, in Romans 9.18, Paul says, So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. And this is by no means the only place we see this truth; it’s all over the Bible. So is God’s electing will, or design, contrary to his own desire? Would God really will something he doesn’t want?
The problem is that no matter how we try to “fudge the numbers,” this antinomy exists all throughout the Bible: on the one hand we see that God desires all people to be saved, and yet on the other hand, he sovereignly wills not to save all people. So we could have a couple of possible reactions to this antinomy. The first would be to simply go with one and explain the other away, saying, “When God says he has mercy on whom he will and hardens whom he will, he doesn’t really mean it.” This seems awfully presumptuous on our part, to speak on God’s behalf and say what he did or didn’t mean when he said something.
The second reaction is to say that when Paul says “all people,” he means all kinds of people: all nations, all creeds. This is certainly true, and there are multiple passages in the Bible when an author uses “all people” in exactly this way (Paul will do it himself just a couple of verses later). But it still doesn’t solve the problem, because the Bible says that God doesn’t merely people groups, but individuals within those people groups.
The third reaction is the one I’d like to argue for: and that is to say that in the Bible, God says some things that look like contradictions, but that aren’t…and we, with our limited human minds, are unable at this point to understand it. (In other words, if God says it, I believe it…even if it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.) And once we accept to accept what the Bible says as truth, no matter how hard it is to understand, we discover that we actually are able to understand more than we imagine.
The fundamental issue here is whether or not God could desire two opposite things at the same time. And we find that that issue is actually one we understand quite well; we do it all the time. Think of parents who discipline their children. On the one hand, no good parent wants to punish their kids. (There is a word for parents who enjoy handing out punishment; they are abusive parents.) If we’re good parents, we don’t want to do it. It’s unpleasant—we don’t like to see our kids cry, no matter what they’ve done; we don’t enjoy doling out punishment. We don’t want to do it.
On the other hand, we definitely want our kids to grow in maturity and holiness. We know that if we don’t punish our kids, they’re going to grow up to be reckless and uncivilized; they’ll be a danger to themselves and to others; and they’ll (in all likelihood) be hardened to the gospel, just as they’re hardened to everything else. So in that respect, we do want to discipline them; not because we enjoy it, but because that discipline will produce something we want even more. In other words, when we want two different things at once, the more important desire will win the day. So we all understand how it’s possible to want something in one way that we don’t want in the other.
The Bible affirms very strongly, and in no uncertain terms, that God, in his sovereign wisdom, does not decide to save everyone. But the Bible affirms just as strongly that God does indeed love all. He doesn’t just love his children; he so loved the world that he gave his only Son. In other words, he wants something in one way that he doesn’t want in another. It is not his will to save everyone, as hard as that can be for us to imagine, for his greatest desire is that his glory be seen by the world—he wants the world to see him in all his attributes: not just his love, but also his power and justice and hatred of sin. But that does nothing to change the fact that there is in God this desire that ALL people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.
Now, what’s Paul’s point in telling us this? Timothy knows his doctrine; he knows that God chooses to save some and not others. So it may be tempting for Timothy to implicitly teach his church to pray mainly for the elect. And those kinds of prayers would teach his church to (quite unconsciously) pre-identify those whom they think are elect. In other words, as they are going about Ephesus, they would not bother speaking to certain types of people, because of COURSE this person can’t be elect! Of course he’s not one of us. If you teach the doctrine of election while neglecting to remember God’s love, you end up with a very exclusive Christianity, which seeks to share the gospel only with people who are “like us.”
But this kind of prayer would not be good and pleasing in the sight of God, because it wouldn’t reflect God’s own heart. He wants the church’s mission to be always front and center in our minds. He wants the scope of our prayers to be global. Now, why is this the case? Why does God want the scope of our mission, and our prayers, to be global?
3) Christ: The Mediator and Ransom for All (v. 5-6)
The answer Paul gives is surprising (v. 5): For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. This is a slight restatement of what he’s already said, but it’s much more specific. God desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth, FOR there is one God… In other words, God’s uniqueness is at the heart of his global mission.
John Stott is very helpful in helping us understand what God’s uniqueness has to do with his mission. The Bible presents us with a profoundly monotheistic worldview (meaning there is only one God). But Greeks at the time held to a polytheistic worldview, with a multiplicity of gods (as Hindus today do). So imagine the Bible presented us with a polytheistic worldview. If there is a multiplicity of gods, and if they are to be “gods” in the proper sense of the term, they will exact or demand allegiance in some form or another from human beings.
So the gods would have to decide what to do about that. They would have to share out their allegiances, like human rulers share the power over different parts of the world’s population (not everyone is under the authority to the President of France, but only those of us who live in a French territory). Either that, or the gods would fight one another for the allegiance of everyone.
This is not the case with the God of the Bible. The God of the Bible claims to be the only God; all other “gods” are fictional imaginings of the human mind, and thus have zero claim on our allegiance. The only being who can claim to deserve allegiance is God himself. And therefore, God is jealous for our allegiance.
In Isaiah 42.8, God says, I am the Lord; that is my name; my glory I give to no other. Now at first glance this sounds petty: if a human being were to say something like this, it would be sinful pride. But we have to realize that something which would be sinful for us are not sinful when God does them. It’s not sinful for God, first of all, because it’s right—no one else deserves his glory! He’d be unjust if he shared it! But secondly, it’s not sinful for God to be jealous for our allegiance because that jealousy is proof that he loves us.
Our neighbors have twin babies; they’re almost two. If they’re thirsty, but their parents just respond, “Well, figure it out,” those kids are in trouble. At a certain point they’ll just go looking for something wet, wherever they can get it—even if that means getting it out of the dog’s water dish, or out of the toilet. But because our neighbors love their babies, they’ll teach them to get a stool and get a cup and get water out of the faucet, where it’s clean.
God said in Isaiah 45.22, Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. This is proof of his love for us—he’s telling us where to get clean water! “You’re trying to save yourselves, but there’s only one who can actually save you! So stop running after false hope! Come to me! I am your only way of salvation!” And to emphasize this point, when it was finally time to set in motion the means by which he would save humanity, God gave us one mediator—one Savior, Jesus Christ. God’s uniqueness is at the heart of his mission, so the means of his mission is also single: we come to God through our mediator, Jesus Christ.
In order to give Christ to us as a mediator, there was a fundamental problem he had to overcome. Even a divine mediator can’t bring something imperfect and bring it into the presence of perfection—light and darkness can’t exist in the same room; the light, by its very nature, must chase away the darkness. So Christ became our mediator by giving himself as a ransom for all. In other words, the gap between man and God could not be bridged. Man owed God a debt for sin, a debt we could not pay; and God owed man a judgment of wrath, a judgment he didn’t want to inflict on his children. So he sent his Son, who became a man (cf. the MAN Jesus Christ); only a sinless human being could represent human beings before God; and only God himself could absorb his own wrath—no other being could withstand the weight of God’s wrath against sin. Christ paid our ransom at the proper time, showing us by his sacrifice just how much the Father loves us.
Now there’s another tough question here, essentially the same as before: how did Christ give himself as a ransom “for all?” It is certainly possible to affirm that “all” here means “all kinds of people” and not literally all people. This is, in fact, what we believe the Bible teaches: that Christ did not literally die for everyone, because that would require God to punish sin twice: once by punishing Christ for the sin of humanity, and once by punishing those who reject the gospel for the same sins Christ died for. And because God is just, he does not exact judgment twice for the same offenses. But again, Paul’s point in saying what he says in this passage is not to talk about the implications of definite atonement. His point is to underline the global scope of our mission.
This is why Paul says what he says in v. 7: For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth. Paul was appointed a preacher and an apostle, not only to the Jews, God’s chosen people, but to the Gentiles, people who were considered by many to be outside of the scope of God’s saving plans.
Everything he’s saying here, he’s saying it to explain why we must not merely pray for ourselves, or for the church, but for everyone. The church’s mission is not limited to those who believe, or who they imagine might believe. Our mission is to go and make disciples of all nations; and so our prayers must be directed to God on behalf of all people, in all nations; the gospel, faithfully preached and defended, must be preached to all people, in all nations; and our love, which reflects God’s own love, should be directed to all people, in all nations.
4) Our Prayers for All
So as we close let’s take a step back and examine ourselves today. How do we, as Christians, deal with people outside the church? Ask yourself, Am I more likely to pray for one type of person rather than another? Am I more likely to pray for myself (or brothers and sisters) rather than for those outside the church?
And does our prayer life extend to our day-to-day interactions? Are there people—or types of people—or nationalities—or age groups—or social classes—whom we avoid? Are there people whom we prioritize? Are we more likely to speak to one type of person rather than another? Imagine you had a camera on you, livestreaming 24/7 to the world. You can talk a good talk and even rigorously obey the rules the Bible gives. But would those watching your life instinctively say that the way you live reflects God’s love for all? Would they say that the way I act, the things I say, the people I say them to, the people I pray for, reflect God’s desire that all people be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth? Is not just our language, but our character, our behavior, global in scope? And do we genuinely love all people…even those who will never become Christians? If we only love those we imagine might become Christians one day, it is not love, but advertising—it’s simply trying to sell a product. It’s not love.
Brothers and sisters, our mission is not merely for the church. The way we act when we come together is not merely for us. We are a church plant, and we desire to plant other churches, because the mission God has given us is centrifugal in nature: it is meant to drive us outward. So this is how we should undertake everything we do—even those times when we focus on ourselves, for us, are meant to equip us for our mission of going out into the world to spread the gospel—not as an end in itself, but as the means by which God has shown the whole world his love for the whole world. God desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. Do we?