It was once taken for granted in the United States that crises and important occasions were marked by prayer. From 1789, when George Washington began the custom of setting aside days for national thanksgiving, to 1953, when Dwight Eisenhower opened his inauguration with a prayer he had written himself (and there are many more examples), the country has been blessed with a rich history of its political leaders prayerfully declaring their dependance upon God.
As grateful as we ought to be for this history, even as we are right to desire that kind of leadership, our first concern as the Church is actually not that our nation’s leaders would pray. Our first concern and commitment is that we should pray for them! That’s the prescription and pattern we see in 1 Timothy 2:1–8, where God has given us a foundational framework for all the church’s public theology: Deliberate dependence upon God through prayer for civic leaders and for the Church in society.
In this letter, the apostle Paul tells us that there is a right way for the church to behave as the pillar and buttress of truth in the world. He has written to instruct his pastoral apprentice, Timothy, how to put the church in order for its mission. And the first instruction he shares, in the first verse of chapter two is, “first of all…I urge prayers… for them!” “Timothy,” Paul’s saying, “I’m writing to equip you to put the church in order so that she might serve her purpose as the pillar and buttress of the truth.” And “First things first. . . pray!”
In times of cultural crisis our default focus is on what leaders are responsible to do for us. Our instinct is to appeal they are responsible to do. This is a great privilege we have as citizens of this nation. We have the freedom, responsibility, and right to use our voice and vote to call leaders to do fulfill God-given duties. But in our anxiety to resolve the chaos and corruption in our culture we forget that first priority God gave His Church. And it is actually the most potent strategy we have to be the pillar and buttress of truth in our culture: Prayer for them.
Friends, there is no question that we live in a cultural moment that can be characterized as a revolution. This revolution is ideological, moral, social, and political, and it is hostile to anything resembling biblical Christian faith.
Nevertheless, we are called to pray for them. If this seems like well–intentioned but naïve advice from an ancient pastor who has no idea what lay ahead, it may help us to get a glimpse of the darkening of culture in which Timothy was called to lead the church.
But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. (2 Tim 3:1–5)
I can’t think of a better summary of our current culture. This was written nearly two thousand years ago, but Paul could be describing headlines from tomorrow’s newspaper, or whatever’s trending on social media right now.
This imperative to pray first was delivered in a culture dominated by the love of self and of money; the culture of a proud, arrogant, abusive people who were rebellious toward authority and the family. In Timothy’s world, public defamation was commonplace. The passions of the public ran rampant, and betrayal and brutality were acceptable means of ambition. The orthodoxy of the culture was to indulge in whatever passion pleased you. And contemporary religion was a powerless, sham.
That’s the last-days culture Timothy and the church are called to dwell and fulfill its mission in until Jesus’s return. It is into that brutal, self-worshipping, tribalized culture of unleashed passions that God’s spokesman says First…pray.
A couple of years ago, Dr. Lillback took a group of us from Westminster to meet with a senator in Washington, D.C. Now, I am an immigrant to the United States. I was born in Scotland, grew up in Canada, and became a citizen 12 years ago. So, as we walked through the magnificent halls of power in Washington I thought, “What an amazing thing that someone like me should be able to walk these great halls.” Then I remembered that I’d been invited there, and that as a citizen, I, in a sense, belonged there. And then it occurred to me what an infinitely more amazing truth it is that, because of Jesus, a sinner like me should have right of free access to the throne of God in the halls of all authority in heaven and on earth!
You see, as Christians, before we are citizens of any earthly nation, we are, by God’s grace, first the people of God. As subjects of Christ’s kingdom and citizens of heaven, our greatest privilege and our source of real power is the access we have, not first to our congressional representative, or to the media, or to the voting booth, but the access we have been freely given to the throne room of the LORD God Almighty…through prayer!
There are two important categories for this primary strategy for public theology as Christians: first, the priority of prayer for Them, and second, the priority of prayer for Us.
Priority 1: Prayer for Them
The first thing to note is that by listing all those different words for prayer— "supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings”—Paul is covering all biblically prescribed types of prayer. Paul is saying that, all kinds of Scripturally prescribed prayer are to be made for all kinds of people. Here’s what that means in the context
of this passage: all people of all different tribes and groups! Just take a quick look at the logic of the passage. In verse 3 and 4, God our Savior desires all people to be saved. In verse 5, he stresses that there is one God and one mediator; Christ Jesus, who, in verse 6, gave himself as the ransom for all. This comes to a head in verse 7, where he defends the fact that he was appointed a preacher, particularly… to the Gentiles.
The significance of this statement might slip past us today, when at this stage of church history, the Church is made up predominantly of gentiles. But at that time the gentiles were them—outsiders of different religions, ethnicities, and languages whose culture and politics were antagonistic to the Christian faith. One of the pressing
problems the New Testament Church faced was a corrupted doctrine of God’s plan for salvation. False teachers had spun a false narrative that God was only concerned with saving people from one nation: Israel. They taught that there was only one nation, one kind of people, one tribe, as it were, that God was pleased to save and that saying that God has sovereignly chosen his people out from all kinds of people groups, Gentiles as well as Jews. It doesn’t matter what the tribe is, this chosen people’s unity comes from the one God who they all must be reconciled to and worship, and in the one mediator they must all come through.
The apostle is laying for us the amazing gospel ground for access to God’s presence. We are not reconciled to God because of any of our own works of righteousness, our ethnicity, or our social standing. In fact, our sin has alienated each and every one of us from God, making us His enemies who deserved nothing but his wrath!
But God, out of His love, sent his Son to stand in the breach, to mediate between the holy God and sinners. By God’s desire, design, and decree, Christ Jesus, the sinless Son of God, mediates a restored relationship between God and us. He reveals God to us so that we can know God, as the sinless substitutionary sacrifice, on the cross, for the sins of everyone who would ever believe in him. And Christ Jesus is now raised and exalted in heaven and serves as the High Priest who represents believers in the throne room of God. There, Christ himself mediates believers’ prayers to God and prays for us.
Now, you might be thinking, “I’ve heard about that. Thanks for the theology lesson. Why does that matter?”
It matters because, if our desires and designs are aligned with God’s, if our vision for our nation is aligned with God’s, our first priority, then, must be to
pray for all people. Not just our people! When the pundits from the other party are screaming at you 24/7; when their policies make your blood boil; when fear rises, you despair that all you’ve built, or hoped for, and what you hold dear is about to be destroyed, it’s easy to forget that God desires to save multitudes of them.
At the same time, the results of the political process and arguments about good government and the issues at stake in our cultural revolution really do matter. Even more often than we know, biblical truths are at stake in these conflicts. Principled stands need to be taken, leaders need to lead, but followers of Christ cannot forget that what we deal with in this earthly sphere is temporary. It will pass away. Neither can we forget that all people will enter eternity. We will all stand before the one God, either as reconciled to him through his one mediator, or to spend eternity under his righteous wrath.
One of the ways we know that our vision for public theology is aligned with God’s is that we have a heart for the eternal good of all people. This must include the people whose policies and practices we vote against and even vigorously disagree with. It means that we must have a heart for the salvation of those who even perpetrate legislative wickedness!
This brings to mind Augustine’s words as he considered the Church’s posture toward those who have chosen to be her enemies: “But let this city bear in mind, that among her enemies lie hid those who are destined to be fellow-citizens, that she may not think it a fruitless labor to bear what they inflict as enemies until they become confessors of the faith.”
Here’s how Jesus put it in his seminar on the constitution of His Kingdom: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” (Matt. 5:43–45a, emphasis mine) This is
the fuel for Paul’s advice to Timothy in a darkening cultural context. Paul tells him to remember God’s purpose for people, even those people, and he directs him, the
way Christ did, to prioritize prayer.
Does this sound like a bit of a stretch? Or like a message better saved for a missions conference? Or is this, perhaps, just too difficult to apply in our current hyper-politicized context? No, our public leaders are exactly the kind of people the apostle has in mind when he commands prayer for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions.
The first group of people he applies this first priority to are people in the high places of authority. “Kings and all who are in high positions” is basically covering any of the rulers and government officials that exist at any level. The Bible tells us that, in His providence, God has put rulers and governors in place to promote and protect the public good, and to punish evil and wrongdoing.
It should be all the more striking to us that this letter was not written to a man living in a democracy or republic. Caesar, his governors, and their downstream appointees were not people Timothy’s congregation has had the privilege of voting in or out of office. Paul allows no caveat for corruption or worthiness. He tells the church to pray for Caesar and his appointees! And by telling us to pray for all who are in high positions, it means we don’t get to omit any of them from those prayers, or simply focus our prayers only on officials who share our values or even our faith.
Significantly for us at Westminster, it was the leaders of the protestant Reformation who restored this kind of prayer to the life and liturgy of the Church during the Reformation. This scriptural priority and pattern had been neglected by the church prior to the biblical revitalization movement we call the Reformation. Here are a couple of examples of what revitalized prayer for government leaders looked like amongst the Reformers,
Almighty, eternal, merciful God and Father, … You have also commanded us through your Holy Spirit to pray for all rulers and all people [1 Tim. 2:1–2], so we ask you from the heart … that you will enlighten the hearts of our emperor, all princes and lords, and especially our rulers, an honorable council, with knowledge of your holy gospel, so that they may acknowledge you for their only right overlord and may rule us, the work of your hand and sheep of your pasture, according to your will. And may you grant all people to come to the knowledge of your truth.
Or praying that our “very merciful father,"
…may be pleased to have pity [1 Tim. 2a] on all kings, princes, lords, and all whom He has constituted in rank and authority by giving them the sword to punish the wicked and defend the good; that of His goodness He may have mercy on them, giving them His Holy Spirit so that they may carry out their office in a holy way, to the honor and glory of our Lord and the benefit of their subjects.
From our heart we ask:
Enlighten their hearts with the knowledge of the gospel. Enable them to carry out their stewardship in a holy way For our good, according to your will, and for your glory.
That’s what renewal of the priority of prayer for governing authorities looked like as God revitalized his Church through the Reformation. Imagine what might be achieved for the cause of Christ in our nation if, when it came to governing authorities, we talked to God for them half as much as we talk about them? What if, when we read that notification, or watch that report, or glimpse that headline that frightens or enrages us, our first reflex is to pray…?
Can I suggest a takeaway at this point? Prayerfully choose a public figure serving in office or aspiring for office—perhaps even a leader or candidate who you react strongly against—and write their name on the inside leaf of your Bible, your prayer journal, or just on piece of paper, and choose, for their eternal good and the good of those they aspire to govern, to stand in the breach for them. To pray a specific prayer for them from the heart.
Priority 2: Prayer for Us
Alongside this public theology imperative of prayer for them is another integral imperative: Prayer for us—prayer for the Christ’s church, its life, and its mission.
Earlier, I mentioned President Eisenhower and his inauguration prayer. In fact, Eisenhower’s entire presidency was marked by prayer. It was Ike who started the National Prayer breakfast, and he was known to begin each of his cabinet meetings with prayer. This habit also sustained him in his leadership of the allied forces in Europe during the Second World War. In 1952 Eisenhower said,
“Do you think I could have fought my way through this war, ordered thousands of fellows to their deaths, if I could not have got down on my knees and talked to God and begged him to support me and make me feel that what I was doing was right for myself and the world…I could not live a day of my life without God.”
The Second World War is a famous example of government doing precisely what God intended it for, using its power to protect its citizens and promote justice, human dignity, and liberty. Eisenhower declared that, even with all of the power at his disposal, he depended on divine wisdom and strength. In no uncertain terms, 1 Timothy 2 assures the church that this dependence is always necessary. For governing authorities to do what God has put them in place to do they need God’s intervention.
The end of verse 2 defines for us what God uses government for, and what he holds government responsible to provide: liberty and peace to be godly in our worship, walk, and witness. A little further along, in 1 Timothy 3:15, Paul tells us that the Church’s role in a culture is to be the pillar and buttress of the Truth revealed in God’s Word. The conclusion is clear: the church upholds God’s truth in society by our worship, our walk, and our witness. This verse tells us to aspire to do that in a peaceable, dignified way, in a way that conforms to the character of God, i.e. godliness. That should be our ambition, as God’s people, in our neighborhoods in our nation, to witness to the Truth by walking, worshipping, and witnessing in godliness.
Verse two also tells us to ask God to give us liberty to fulfill that ambition through the administration of the authorities he has providentially appointed. There are two reasons that’s important. First, liberty to worship and walk with God in godliness is not merely a political issue. It’s God’s design for the earthly governments he appoints. Since the Garden of Eden, it has been a target in the spiritual conflict beneath all struggles over divine and human authority. Liberty to worship and witness regularly come under attack because of attempts by human authorities to usurp God’s authority, rather than serve the place and purpose God appointed them to serve. Abraham Kuyper wrote:
“If once the curtain were pulled back, and the spiritual world behind it came into view, it would expose to our spiritual vision a struggle so intense, so convulsive, sweeping everything within its range, that its fiercest battle fought on earth would seem, by comparison, a mere game. Not here, but up there—that is where the real conflict is engaged. Our earthly struggle drones in its backlash.”
It is critical for the Christian to understand that this command to all people to worship and walk with the one God in true godliness is not merely a political issue in this moment of one nation’s history. It is the spiritual conflict behind all history that engulfs every nation and every people. So, our freedom to worship and witness publicly in godliness can only be preserved through earthly authorities as almighty God gives them the will, wisdom, and power to preserve it. This is why, at the end of verse 2, we are instructed to ask God to give us that liberty, through them.
The second reason it’s important to ask God to give us liberty through the authorities is because—perhaps unlike any other time in our nation’s history—the liberty of the church to worship, walk, and witness in godliness and peace is under concerted, strategic, and overt assault. This is an assault on freedom to walk in godliness as a family, to nurture Christian children in godliness, and to bear witness to the truth of God, as found in the Scriptures, without being “canceled” or publicly maligned. It’s an assault on freedom to walk in godliness in your places of employment, without having to bow to the corporate social agenda to remain employed.
Let me be unashamedly specific. In this moment in this nation, the Church must ask God to continue to provide us freedom to walk, worship, and witness in godliness. The second half of verse 2 calls us to enter the throne room of the universe and ask God to give us government that will lead and legislate in such a way that God’s people will be free to be godly in its life and mission.
Can I suggest a second takeaway? Make it part of your regular prayer life to go into the throne room of the universe and ask this from God: That He will give us government to lead and legislate in such a way that God’s people will be free to do God’s will in our worship, our walk, and our witness.
Foundationally and finally Christians retain freedom of religion as citizens by exercising the freedom we have to approach the throne of almighty God!
Some years ago, I read an essay by the great voice for the Christian worldview, Charles Colson, who had once served on the president’s staff in the White House. In this essay, Colson warned Christians against the belief that the only thing they needed to fix the nation’s ills was access to the Oval Office. Culture warrior that he was, Colson described how access to the Oval Office is designed to overawe visitors so that, by the time you sit down with the President you are too intimidated to ask for what you really want.
But, incredibly, this isn’t the case with the Christian’s access to the throne of God! Through the death and resurrection of the one mediator, the Lord Jesus Christ, who at this very moment intercedes with God for his people, we can come boldly and freely before the throne of the one God, the LORD God Almighty, and cry “Father, give us this day, and in this generation, freedom to live godly lives, with godly worship, and godly witness for your glory, and their eternal good!”
How do we make our voice known in the real halls of cosmic power where we make an eternal impact? First of all… pray!
Pray for them, and for us!