We ought to pray for everyone because God loves everyone and wants everyone to come to salvation; and we ought to pray especially for persons in power because of their influence on all the rest of us.
Once upon a time I knew a boy who was 10 years old, and I saw him make a conscious, intentional, public decision to be a Christian. People sometimes question how much a child understands about religious rituals and experiences. From what happened to that boy, I will insist that a thoughtful child may get as much as a typical adult. Indeed, perhaps even more, because a child’s mind is not so cluttered with the minutiae that crowd out eternal realities.
This boy’s religious experience was so important to him that he wanted everyone else to have what he had found, so they would know the joy he now knew. So, every evening, before falling asleep, he would kneel at his bedside and pray for his four older sisters and their husbands, that they would become Christians. He spoke the name of each of these persons before God.
That was a good practice. Prayers ought to be as specific as possible. We shouldn’t have too many lazy generalities in our prayers; instead, whenever possible we should name names and places and issues and concerns. So, the boy did a good thing in listing those family members by name.
But then he did what seems like a typically childish thing. After praying for these specific names, every evening he concluded his prayer this way: “And please, God, save all the people in Iowa, in the United States, and in the whole, wide world. Amen.”
It was a sweeping, childish prayer, and as the boy became a man and looked back on those early days, he was embarrassed by the memory of those simple, broad-stroke prayers.
But when I think about our scripture lesson of the day, I conclude that perhaps the boy wasn’t so simple after all. Listen to the advice the revered apostle gave to the young preacher, Timothy: “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone.”
Did you get that? Everyone! The apostle is quite insistent. He doesn’t simply say to pray for people, but he lists four different words: supplications, prayers, intercessions, thanksgivings. And for whom? For everyone.
This isn’t very discriminating. The prayer isn’t limited to good people, religious people or deserving people; it doesn’t favor those with a certain level of education or those with a certain intensity of need. We’re asked simply to pray for everyone.
Why? Why everyone? The apostle gives the answer a sentence or two later. Listen: “This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” We should pray for everyone because God wants us to. God has extraordinary wonders in store for every human being, and God wants everyone (get that word again, everyone) to get the full benefit of the divine plan. God is exceedingly generous, good beyond all our imagining, and God doesn’t want any of his blessings to go to waste or any of humans to miss out on the blessings. See what the apostle said: “God ... desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”
So, it’s really very simple. I should pray for everyone because God cares about everyone and God has salvation and truth enough for everyone, and it would be a shame for this salvation and this truth to go to waste.
I’m sure this idea was difficult for some persons in the first century to grasp. For instance, it must have been hard for a devout Jew who had come to know Christ as Lord to see uncircumcised Gentiles joining the church. A Jew worked hard to get hold of the faith in Judaism that eventually led him to Jesus Christ. He knew the laws of God and tried to fulfill them. Most Gentiles, on the other hand, were a rather lawless breed, morally careless and intellectually speculative. If I had been a Jew in that world, I would have found it easy to pray primarily for the salvation of my own people, and if any Gentiles slipped in by chance — well, all right, but I wouldn’t go out looking for them.
Come to think of it, I don’t need to tell you that the same basic mood still exists today. Most of us find it easier to pray for our kind of people. Sometimes, as a matter of fact, churches aren’t that welcoming to people who aren’t their kind. I hate to say it, but sometimes people who dress differently, talk differently, or come from a different racial, economic, or intellectual background aren’t welcomed with much enthusiasm. Someone quickly answers, “But pastor, why don’t those people go to a church where they would be more at home?” Well, just perhaps God wants them in a church that’s different so the folks in that church will be prepared for heaven, where we’ll all be in the same church, no matter what our economics, our culture, our race, or our IQ might be. So, it’s very good for us to associate here on earth with different kinds of Christians, else we’ll never know how to handle such differences when we get to heaven.
But the apostle gives some other counsel in this text that is also interesting. He says that we should pray for “everyone,” but then he continues, “for kings and for all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” Although we ought to pray for everyone, some people ought to have special prayer: kings and persons in high positions.
Is this because such persons are more deserving than the rest of us? Does the Bible favor people who have power? In truth, quite the opposite. If the Bible shows any favoritism at all, it is for those who are without power — like the poor, the orphan, the widow, the alien, and the outcast. But we should pray for kings and other people “in high positions” — persons in public office, and perhaps also those people who, because of their money, their social status or their prestige are able to influence what goes on in government. Why? Because kings (and presidents, prime ministers, governors, mayors, and congressional leaders) have the power to provide us with a quiet and peaceable world, where we can live, the apostle says, “in all godliness and dignity.”
Some church and denominational bodies include a section in their service prayers where they pray by name for their national and regional leaders. In recent years, as I have realized increasingly how complicated our world is and how difficult it is to govern justly and fairly, I have tried to pray daily for our president and for other key officials. As a Christian, I not only am obliged to vote; I am also obliged to pray for persons in office. And I should pray for those persons whether they belong to my own political persuasion. I pray for such persons, not because I agree with them, but because — as the apostle says — these persons are responsible for providing a peaceable world in which to live. I should pray for them to seek and to understand the will of God.
We often forget how practical the Bible is. When the apostle told the early Christians — and by extension, tells us still — that we should pray for those who rule over us, he wasn’t just being religious, he was being very pragmatic. People in political power make the decisions that determine whether we will have war or peace and the decisions that play a large part in how much prosperity or poverty our world will have. If those leaders are wise and unselfish, they can make a huge difference in the daily happiness of the average citizen. As the apostle put it, they can provide a world where you and I can lead “quiet and peaceable” lives “in all godliness and dignity.” When we pray for such persons, we are not only helping them, but we’re also helping to make a better way of life for ourselves and for everyone else.
Well, as I said at the outset, I once knew a boy — a boy just 10 or 11 years old — who became a Christian and who, because of that, began to pray for everyone else to become Christians, too. He started with his own family (that’s always a good place to begin, because our family is our primary responsibility), and then childlike enthusiasm took over, and he prayed for everyone — everyone! — to come to the knowledge of God.
It was a childish prayer, perhaps immature as he phrased it. But it was altogether biblical, and as wise as the ancient apostle. Why pray for everyone? Because God loves everyone and wants everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. And pray especially for people in power, because of their ability to make life better — or worse — for the rest of us.
It’s quite simple. So simple that a 10- or 11-year-old may get it better than a sophisticated adult.