When this text was read three years ago, it made the Democrats in the room squirm. As I write this time around, it makes the Republicans in the room restless. But since the idea of liberal democracy as it was invented in eighteenth-century America would have been completely unthinkable even to the urbane, well-educated apostle Paul, it is helpful to remember the historical context of this letter. When Paul speaks of “kings and all who are in high positions,” he is speaking of authorities whose power was unchecked and whose authority was questioned only at the risk of severe punishment, even death. In other words, Paul is speaking of the power and authority of empire.
So, we may lose the subtle subversiveness of the little preposition in verse 1. Paul is urging Timothy, and by extension us, to pray for these authorities, and not to them. Thus, even as he urges our prayers so we might “lead a peaceful and quiet life” (verse 2), he is fully aware these prayers subtly subvert the Roman cult of the emperor, or any cult of political power which aspires to something more than “a peaceful and quiet life” for itself and its citizens. This understated defiance of empire is intensified by verse 3 where Paul identifies God (and not Caesar) as “our Savior.” The reign of God in Christ compels us to pray for all in authority, while at the same time our praying for them calls into the question all the idolatries that arise from the exercise of this authority. And as much as the founding fathers tried to keep the monarchy out of the government, liberal democracy is no less immune to such idols.
Paul is urging Timothy, and by extension us, to pray for these authorities, and not to them.
Which is why this reading pairs so provocatively with the first reading assigned for this day, Amos 8:4-7, addressed to those “...who trample on the needy and bring the poor of the land to an end” (8:4). Part of the reason we pray for those in authority is so their governing may escape the judgment of God as pronounced by this prophet who was among the first in a long tradition of Hebrew prophets to preach a higher justice before kings, often at the risk of their own lives. This gives us and our hearers a fuller picture of the biblical witness regarding political authority and the will of God, which is perhaps brought to its fullest expression in the Gospel text (Luke 16:1-15): “No servant can serve two masters...” (16:13).
Paul is the one who reminds us of the ultimate telos for why our “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people.” It is because God “desires all people to be saved” (verse 4, emphasis mine). For this purpose, the “one God” gave us “one mediator” in the one human being “Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all” (verses 5-6). Note Paul’s interesting use of what would be more typically “Markan” language in that last clause. It is enough to make one wonder if Paul had just gotten his hands on a copy of Mark’s Gospel for his travel reading.
Be that as it may (or not), here is where Paul’s urging turns to gospel. We pray for all people because we recognize we are all fallible in our humanity, and we pray so we may all come to a fuller “knowledge of the truth” (verse 4). This truth is always broader than our knowledge of it and always cuts against any politics which would try to wield it for its own purposes. This truth also cuts against any allegiance that would corner us into going all or nothing for one party over another. Which means part of the joy of the great homecoming on the last day, when the only authority left in Heaven and on Earth will be the love supreme of Jesus Christ Himself, will be our surprise that God has saved both Republicans and Democrats alike.
Craft of Preaching-Check out our previous articles on this text.
Concordia Theology -Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching I Timothy 2:1-15.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach I Timothy 2:1-8.