This is Part 2 of a 4-part series looking at issues of freedom and authority from 1 Timothy 2:1–7 (read part 1). This passage teaches us about God and humanity, and so it teaches us to live as humans among humans and human authorities.
The first thing that we need to know is that God rules over all humans (1 Timothy 2:1–2).
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. (1 Timothy 2:1–2)
Paul is here continuing what he had said in chapter 1 as he wrote to Timothy, his protégé in Ephesus. Timothy’s task was to deal with false teachers. These false teachers cared about endless argument, but not on-the-ground moral living (1:4–6; 4:7; 6:4–5, 20). They promoted a spirituality that denied the goodness of God’s creation (4:1–3). Against these false teachers, Paul wants Timothy to ensure that prayer was happening amongst the Christians in Ephesus. What kind of prayer? Not only prayer for individual concerns, or for the Christian church or mission (though these are also good things to pray for). Rather, here Paul urges prayer for “all humanity”. And Paul is not just talking about a generic vague idea of humanity, but humanity in concrete human form, which involves regular life, day by day, ordered under human authorities. Paul is talking about governments: people who rule, and the people who help them to rule. And this matters for us, too.
Why should we pray for “all humanity” and especially for the human authorities? Because God is the authority over all authorities! He is “the king of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, [to whom] be honour and glory forever” (1:17). So when we pray for authorities, we are acknowledging that God is the ultimate authority.
This should be profoundly comforting for us. God is not an alternative or enemy to human authorities. Rather, he is the Lord over them. He’s even the Lord over the ones that aren’t so great. In the ancient Roman Empire, most of the authorities weren’t particularly friendly to Christians. Sometimes they were downright hostile. They were often harsh or corrupt or incompetent. The same is true today, isn’t it? In fact, in many parts of the world, sometimes it’s even hard to work out what the legitimate authority is. And even for us in Australia, when our own governments are still broadly sympathetic to Jesus, and generally do a good job, they’re definitely not perfect, and sometimes they’re hostile.
So what’s our response to authority? One response we could have is to treat the government as the enemy, full stop, and treat God as some alternative regime that we live under instead of the government. But that’s not what Paul is saying. He’s saying: pray to the Lord of the government.
The word for intercession is literally “petition”. A petition is an entreaty made to a political ruler to get them to do something for you. And Paul is saying we should petition God, first and foremost! I’ve certainly felt the frustration in our household over the slow vaccine rollout. What we naturally want to do first and foremost is to make our voice heard. We want to write a petition to the Prime Minister! And that may be a helpful thing to do. But what should our first reaction be? To send a petition to the King of Kings—the Lord of the Prime Minister and the Premier. Because God can do something about it far more than they can. The most important petitions we ever make are the petitions to God, asking him to intervene and to direct the minds and hearts of our governments. He is Lord and he cares.
By the way, that is why praying for our world, especially including the authorities, is so central in the Anglican prayer book, which in turn is soaked in Scripture.
What is the reason for praying for these authorities? It’s so we can live as rightly ordered human beings, that is, so we can lead a “peaceful and quiet life”. These words aren’t describing some kind of farmstay or retirement plan! These are words of civil peace, submission to authority, and right ordering of our lives. This is about living as humans among other humans.
That doesn’t mean that we can never criticise the government. It doesn’t mean we must obey the governments always, absolutely, even when they tell us to disobey God’s direct word. But it does mean that as Christians, our heart and desire and goal is not anarchy, or absolute “freedom” as an ideal goal or a right beyond all else. Our goal is just being able to do right and living peaceably for the sake of the good of others.
That includes, fundamentally, the freedom to be able to worship God rightly and live godly lives. That is our prayer to God, and our goal as God’s people.
So this passage doesn’t tell us exactly what to do, but it tells us what our normal and regular attitude should be. Normally, obedience to the government is not the enemy of our Christian freedom. Rather, it is the ordinary means for our Christian freedom. Furthermore, Christian freedom is not an absolute freedom to do whatever we want. Rather, it is a freedom specifically to live for God and to love our neighbour. Part of that, of course, is taking part in the political process when we can: being informed, making our voice heard, voting, and more. But most fundamentally, before all of that, we need to pray to the one who knows and cares, and to remember that God is Lord of all. This is because we are humans under God, living among humans who are also under God, whether they recognise it or not.
However, there is a deeper reason to live as humans among humans and to pray for humans. We’ll look at that in the next post.