Let's pray for others
Examining prayer in light of Paul's instructions in his letter to Timothy - Paul Beasley-Murray continues his series
Many Baptist churches have given up on praying for others. The more contemporary the worship, the more likely it seems that prayers of intercession will be missing. By contrast the Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy: “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may live a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim 1.2-4).
In the first instance, notice that for Paul praying for others is a primary feature of Christian worship. “First of all”, he wrote (2 Tim 1.1). It couldn’t be clearer. “The first thing I want you to do is pray” (The Message). As the context makes clear, Paul was writing not about personal prayer in the privacy of our homes, but about corporate prayer when the church comes together (see 2.8,9). Praying for others is to be a regular part of Sunday worship.
Secondly, Paul expected Christian worship to include all sorts of prayers for others. In addition to prayers of thanksgiving there are to be “supplications, prayers, intercessions” (1 Tim 2.1 NRSV). Attempts have been made to distinguish between the various kinds of prayers here, but it is generally agreed that Paul was piling up synonyms for praying for others, and not least for people outside the church. We should pray “for everyone” (1 Tim 2.1). Why? Because God's love encompasses everybody. As Paul says: “God desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2.4); “Christ Jesus… gave himself a ransom for all” (2.5,6a). God doesn’t simply love his church - he loves his world. And so should we!
Yet strangely some wish to limit the scope of our prayers. Paul, it is suggested, was not encouraging prayer for people’s general well-being. Rather his sole concern was to see people saved. To quote one popular commentator (Philip Towner):
“The church’s prayer for all people is an essential aspect of its participation in the Great Commission. It is prayer that seeks the gospel’s penetration into all parts of the world and every aspect of life. The closely related prayer for those whom God has placed in charge of governments finds its ultimate purpose too in the accomplishment of God’s plan for salvation”.
I find it difficult to believe that Paul would have wanted his words to have been interpreted in such a narrow way. Of course, he wanted to everyone saved, but this was not his initial focus. Paul belonged to the Jewish Diaspora, which for centuries had taken seriously the Lord’s instructions to Jeremiah for the exiles of his day to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and to pray to the Lord on its behalf” (Jer 29.7). Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount taught his disciples “to love your enemies and to pray for them” (Matt 5.44). By implication to love is to pray.
Thirdly, Paul urged specific prayer “for kings and all who are in high positions” (1 Tim 2.2). Amazingly, when Paul was writing those words to Timothy Nero was on the throne. Far from being a Christian, Nero was anti-Christian. Indeed, he ended up persecuting and torturing Christians for their faith. Yet Paul enjoined prayer for him and for all others in positions of responsibility. In today’s terms that means we need to pray for the leaders of our nation and of the world; for the CEOs of global corporations and for UN officials; for leaders of industry, NHS managers and decision-makers in education; for local government councillors and officials. For all who in one way or another have power to influence our lives.
Fourthly, leading on from prayers for those “in high position”, Paul urged Timothy to pray that “we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity” (1 Tim 2.2). I like the suggestion of Robert Yarborough that Paul wanted “prayers at Ephesus to aim for social, political, and economic stability conducive to everyone’s well-being, that of Christians included”. He went on:
“The international refugee situation that has persisted in the absence of such stability has been a tragic feature of the twenty-first century world. The desirability of social order in any century, Paul’s and Timothy’s included, needs no belabouring at the present time, when chaos and genocide make headlines with staggering frequency. People regularly risk their very lives to flee conditions under which ‘peaceful and quiet life’ has become impossible; the spectre of death in a leaky refugee boat is less feared than the insanity of disorder, insecurity, deprivation, and sometimes lethal intimidation.”
By contrast some attribute to Paul a much narrower focus on the benefits of peace for the Christian community. “Peaceful conditions facilitate the spread of the gospel” wrote John Stott. Similarly, Philip Towner: “What is sought is the best conditions for expanding God’s kingdom, not simply a peaceful life”. But this runs counter to Paul’s concern “for everyone”. Certainly, the thrust of Paul’s instructions for prayer is that we should pray first and foremost for others, and not just for ourselves.
To return where we began. Prayers of intercession should not be an optional extra. In praying for others, we are not simply obeying the command of Scripture, we are also reflecting the love of Christ.
Questions for reflection
1 To what extent does the intensity of our praying reveal the intensity of our loving?
2 “Pray thankfully (1 Tim 2.1). Pray briefly… avoid long, drawn out details. Pray clearly… use words and ideas people will know. Pray specifically … ask God to do definite things. Pray expectantly… something’s going to happen. Pray humbly… you do not have all the answers (2 Chron 7.14). Pray boldly… that is our privilege (1 John 5.14). Avoid using prayers to teach people points you think they need to know”. How do you respond to these instructions taken from an Anglican training course?
Paul Beasley-Murray was ordained in 1970. He was Minister of Altrincham Baptist Church (1973 to 1986), Principal of Spurgeon’s College (1986 to 1992) and Senior Minister of Central Baptist Church, Chelmsford (1993 to 2014).
Image | Gabriella Clare Marino | Unsplash
He writes Church Matters, a weekly blog of resources for churches and ministers.
This is the second in a new series on Timothy. The first was entitled "Let's worship God". A further two reflections will be reproduced in The Baptist Times. Access his full series on Timothy here.
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