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When you think of the Apostle Paul, what comes to mind? Is it his bold proclamation and defense of the gospel or is it his prayers? Timothy received his first letter from Paul after Paul’s first Roman imprisonment (AD 62–64) during the reign of Nero. Nero was a ruthless leader with a murderous heart. According to Tacitus, under Nero, Christians were “covered with the skins of beasts [and] torn by dogs . . . nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.”
This backdrop is significant because of what Paul communicates to Timothy (1 Tim. 2:1–2). Imagine praying for Nero rather than against him. We can imagine praying imprecatory prayers against our enemies, but it is countercultural to pray for the welfare of enemies—especially rulers who stand opposed to God’s kingdom. John Calvin explains the rationale of Paul’s words to Timothy, stating that Christians “may have thought that they should not pray for people who used all their energies and money to oppose Christ’s kingdom. For Christians, the one thing that mattered was that Christ’s kingdom should be extended.”
Paul was urging Timothy to establish the pattern for the Christian community to pray for kings and all who are in high positions. The four nouns used in this text (supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings) provide for us a holistic view of prayer. In other words, Paul was discouraging shallow, nonspecific prayers that are often common when Christians are not intentional in their prayer lives. He was exhorting Timothy to engage in genuine and intentional prayer for all people—including wicked rulers.
As we apply Paul’s words to our own context, it becomes apparent that no matter what political party is in power, we are called to pray for our leaders. Whoever is elected to a leadership position in our city, state, or nation must be viewed as one appointed by the sovereign hand of God (Rom. 13). No elected official, civic leader, or king comes to a place of authority apart from God’s meticulous providence.
Paul’s exhortation to Timothy regarding prayer was an intentional call to pray for the salvation of rulers. Such a commitment to evangelistic prayer pleases our God, who desires all types of people to be saved. The grace of God is extended to people across geographic boundaries, in all socioeconomic classes, and—as we see in the ministry of Paul—beyond the Jewish bloodline. Salvation is not dependent on positions of power, age, gender, or ethnicity (Gal. 3:28).
Paul urged Timothy to pray for rulers so that the church might enjoy the freedom necessary to do the work of the church. He encouraged Timothy to pray for rulers so that “we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Tim. 2:2). The calling of the church involves preaching the gospel, making disciples, baptizing followers of Jesus, and teaching the church to know God through holy Scripture (Matt. 28:18–20). The Christian life involves tireless hours of joyful service, but it becomes burdensome when wicked rulers restrict Christians from obeying Christ.
When darkness covers the land and wicked rulers oppose the kingdom of Christ, following in Jesus’ footsteps becomes a life-threatening pursuit. Such danger is no reason to give up, for we have been warned by Christ that such persecution is commonplace for those who follow in His footsteps, and we must pray for our enemies (Matt. 5:44; Luke 9:44). Paul is not calling the church to become passive pushovers. Praying boldly for leaders is God’s plan for His church in the warfare of the Christian life (Eph. 6:18).
John Knox provides an example worthy of imitation. When summoned to stand before the Roman Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots for boldly opposing her leadership in his preaching, Knox stood unflinchingly on the authority of God’s Word. Knox was known not only for his preaching but also for his praying. He once prayed, “Give me Scotland, or I die.” It is even reputed that later the queen said, “I fear the prayers of John Knox more than all the assembled armies of Europe.”
May the Lord be pleased with how we pray for rulers, and may the rulers fear our prayers—even more, may they fear the God to whom we pray.