Giving Thanks For Bad Guys

4 rulersThe Reading
“First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, 2  for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. 3 This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, 4  who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 5 For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time. 7  For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle ( I am telling the truth, I am not lying) as a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth. 8 Therefore I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and dissension.” (1 Tim. 2:1-8 NASB)

Even the Emperor
In these 8 verses, Paul gives his “first of all” statement of pastoral advice for Timothy as he remains in Ephesus (1:3). Paul urges Timothy that “petitions and thanksgivings” be made on behalf of “all men”, specifically, “all who are in authority”. This narrowing in (from all men to authorities) is strategic because rulers would probably be the last people believers would think to pray for, not to mention give thanks for. This is pointed and invasive. For Paul, Timothy, and the believers they were exhorting, this meant Roman rulers, even the Emperor himself.

Too Bad For Mercy?
Why was this so important to Paul that he made it “first of all”? Perhaps one reason is because Paul himself was previously an unbeliever, commissioned with authority to throw believers in prison, even “forcing them to blaspheme” (Acts 26:10-11). Paul was an evil ruler. Just eight verses before Paul’s bold call to pray and give thanks for Nero, he states, “I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor. Yet I was shown mercy” (1:13). And the purpose of this great and long-suffering mercy: “So that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.” (1:16). Paul was not outside the reach of God’s mercy. And even in the midst of Paul’s “ignorance and unbelief” (1:13), we hear the prayerful last words of his first victim, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” (Acts 7:60). Paul became living proof that this was the kind of prayer God accepted.

Before we consider how believers should pray for an evil ruler, one word in this passage stands out: “thanksgivings”. How are we thankful for an ungodly leader? How can these Ephesian believers be thankful for a leader like Nero? What about being thankful for a Hitler? I suppose many would simply refuse to consider this. To ponder this question would be to radically reevaluate our presuppositions about government, rulers, and ultimately, God Himself. As Daniel said, “He removes kings and establishes kings” (Dan. 2:21). In light of this truth (God’s control over authorities), I think a way we become thankful for wicked rulers is through beholding God’s purposes in establishing and preserving them. God has a purpose for “all things” (Eph. 1:11) and therefore I believe there is a goodness of God to be seen and savored in wicked rulers.

In confounding wisdom, Jesus had to “suffer many things” (Mt. 16:21) from the ungodly authorities God had given authority to (Jn. 19:10-11). Likewise, our Father is sovereignly ordering history and its rulers to display “Christ’s afflictions” in Christ’s body (Col. 1:24) ♦. We, the church, are “destined” (1 Thess. 3:3) to “suffer according to the will of God” (1 Pet. 4:19) at the hands of wicked men. And though we are given up “as sheep to be slaughtered” (Rom. 8:36), we “consider it all joy” (James 1:2) and “glory in our sufferings” (Rom. 5:3) because we know at least one facet of God’s purpose in our trials: the perfecting of our faith (James 1:3-4) and strengthening of our hope (Rom. 5:3-4).

Scripture does not provide us with a step-by-step guide to this kind of thanksgiving, but simply beckons us to obey. Let us give thanks: “Lord, thank You that You have created _________. Thank You that you have a purpose for installing ungodly rulers. Thank You that your desire is to save them and to display Your mercy in them like You did with Paul, the foremost of sinners. Thank You for sustaining his heartbeat as a witness to me of Your continuing mercy. Thank You for preserving and giving authority to _________.”

So That
“So that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.” (1 Tim. 2:2b)

This phrase is very important to the passage at hand because in it we have the purpose statement. Paul is saying that the reason we pray and give thanks for people (and specifically rulers) is so that we may live in quietness. Said another way, Paul is seeking to alleviate whatever is the opposite of “a tranquil and quiet life”, and the way he sees that happening is through entreaties, prayers, supplications, and thanksgivings.

Basically, I think you can interpret this phrase in two ways:
1. You pray (for rulers) so that political policy becomes peaceful.
2. You pray (in general) so that you become peaceful.

While the language has often been assumed to be about prayer as a means for political peace (first interpretation), I believe the second interpretation makes more sense for three reasons:

1. This would better explain how “thanksgivings” would lead to “a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity”. Though thanksgiving is joined with supplication in verse 1, thanksgiving itself is unrelated to getting something. Thanksgiving is not a means. Thanksgiving changes you. It’s not like Paul is saying, “Give thanks for Nero so that there is no more persecution.” That doesn’t make sense.

2. This phrase, “quiet life” also pops up in 1 Thess. 4:11 (same Greek root), “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you”. For the Thessalonian believers, “a quiet life” was a command from Paul, something that was to become their “ambition” to obey. If Paul is similarly wanting to produce this “quiet life” in the Ephesian believers, wouldn’t this phrase relate to personal, rather than societal transformation?

3. Paul’s summary statement in vs. 8. “Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing” (NIV). This is the biggest reason why I would argue for the second interpretation. Through vs. 8, we see that Paul is trying to alleviate a problem in the church: anger and dispute. Paul is wanting prayer, not wrath. And when you live in an evil age such as this, one of the most common forms of anger to be overcome is politically charged anger. Therefore, I think that living “a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity” is directly in line with Paul’s purpose in vs. 8, the overcoming of anger and dispute in the church. To show how connected these thoughts really are, let me put vs. 2b right in the middle of vs. 8:  “Therefore I want the men in every place to pray, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and dissension.”

Regardless of which interpretation was intended, one thing is clear, Paul’s biggest goal is not societal transformation, justice issues, or the ending of persecution, his biggest goal is godliness in the church. Paul’s greatest goal as an apostle is to see the church more like God.

Our Savior
“This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all…” (2:3-6)

Having just considered Paul’s desire to see the church live in “godliness” (vs. 2b), he then reminds us that God is “our Savior”. And He not only lives to save us, He is “the Savior of all men” (4:10), desiring “all men” to be saved. This word, “all” is intentionally repeated three times (vss. 1, 4, 6), hammering in the truth that “God does not show favoritism” (Acts 10:34), “for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call on Him; for ‘Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved'” (Rom. 10:12-13), even Nero or Hitler.

This is the truth of God that should saturate all our prayers and thanksgivings. We are to pray according to the will of God (1 Jn. 5:14) “who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth”. And what is this truth that we pray all men would come to? One God and one Mediator who gave Himself. We pray for the proclamation of this truth to run swiftly to all men (especially rulers), that they might “receive the love of the truth so as to be saved” (2 Thess. 2:10).

The biggest question is this: Do you desire all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth? God does. Are you like God?

About a year and a half ago, I had a dream about the President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. I was invited to visit his house where I saw my sister, Anna, sitting in his living room (I think of Anna the prophetess, who “never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying” cf. Lk. 2:36-38). I learned that Anna had spent some time with him that day. As Ahmadinejad was about to walk out the front door to go somewhere, he looked back at my sister with a serious look on his face and said, “Anna, what you said to me earlier about the Cross and my debt… I will be thinking about these things…” That was my dream.

Jesus said that we would be brought “before kings and governors for My sake – It will lead to an opportunity for your testimony” (Lk. 21:12-13). Paul himself was set apart for such a mission: “he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel” (Acts 9:15, cf. Acts 25-26). Why not today? Oh that we would all pray for kings and those in authority to receive a solemn witness of the gospel of God, who is patient and longsuffering, “not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). Paul’s life is a living example of what our Savior wants to do for those we are so quick to curse.

“Christians are called thus to continue through history the ministry of Christ, looking up to the Father as those who share his Sonship, accepting the Father’s disposition of events as the form in which their mission is to be accomplished…” -Lesslie Newbigin, “The Mission Of The Triune God”, Pg. 19

2 thoughts on “Giving Thanks For Bad Guys

  1. Good. You might also be interested in a little more context regarding praying “for” evil emperors which I thought about after our conversation. When the Romans invaded a new territory they would include the local god in their Pantheon of gods AND require that the local residents burn a pinch of incense to the Emperor (who was considered divine). The Jews could not and would not do this as it was considered idolatry. The Romans gave the Jews an exception, however the exception was only allowed because the Jews said although they would not pray “to” the emperor they would pray “for” the emperor on a daily basis.

  2. Jono, that is really insightful. Where do we find that this exemption from Emperor-worship was replaced with “daily prayer” for the Emperor? In some cursory research, I read that the Jews, as a nation, would “sacrifice twice a day sacrifices for the welfare of the Emperor and the Roman people”. Where did you learn that they prayed daily for the Emperor?

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