This question comes from a Grand Rapids area reader who is concerned about the meaning of I Timothy 2:1-4. He would like an explanation in connection with the fact that this passage is rather frequently appealed to for the support of the rather common custom of praying—usually in public prayers—for the president and his cabinet.
Those who possess the bound volumes of ourStandard Bearer and who check in the index will discover that this is one of the passages about which questions have been raised many times over the years. Questions have been raised both in connection with this matter of praying for those in authority and in connection with the fact that the text tells us that God “will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.” In the latter connection this passage has more than once been brought up by those who seek support for the idea of a well-meant offer of salvation and grace to all who hear the gospel. It is well, therefore, that we get the passage before us, first of all. It reads as follows: “I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior; Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.”
In the first place, we may note that the text undoubtedly has in view public prayers in the gatherings of the congregation. The exhortation is that supplications, prayers, intercessions, giving of thanks, be made forall men. And then the emphasis is laid especially on the fact that such prayers shall be made for kings and for all that are in authority. We ought to notice that the text does not say the king, nor does it speak of our government. This is the usual application that is made of this text. We pray for our president, for ourcongress, for our governor, etc. But this is not the point. The text is speaking of that class of men which is in authority. It does not have in view certain individual rulers whatsoever, whether those rulers are the rulers of our country or the rulers of another country. It does not have in view individuals whatsoever, but simply classes of men. And that particular class of men we may not systematically exclude from our prayers, as though they are per se excluded from salvation. This is the first significant fact that we should note in connection with this question. Those who wish to apply this passage individually must then pray not only for our president, but for the prime minister of Canada, the president of Mexico, the prime minister of the Netherlands, and also the premier of Russia, and the ruler of Red China. But the simple fact is that the text does not have in view individual rulers, but rulers as a class.
In the second place, the prayer which the apostle has in mind is a prayer for their salvation. In the light of vss. 3 and 4, this is the only possible explanation. As is plain from the word “for” in vs. 3, a reason is given in these two verses why such prayers should be made. And that reason is that it is pleasing to the Lord to pray for men that are in authority because He wills that all men be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. While our questioner is not particularly concerned about that aspect of the text, I must point out that “all men” cannot possibly refer to every individual man, but refers to all classes, or kinds, of men. And I am supported in this interpretation by many a Reformed commentator, including Calvin. The point, therefore, is that God wills that all kinds of men, all classes of men, be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. He wills not only that servants and slaves, but also masters and free men, not only subjects but also kings and rulers shall be saved. The purpose of the exhortation is therefore that the church in its intercessions and prayers and giving of thanks for the salvation of all men (all classes of men) shall not exclude kings and those who are in authority, but also remember them. Here we have the second significant point in connection with the question raised. This prayer is not a prayer for some kind of blessing of God upon rulers and governors in their capacity as rulers. It is not a prayer for God’s blessing upon some king or president or governor, so that he may be able to rule wisely and well. This has nothing to do with the text. In fact, the text does not speak here at all of these kings and those who are in authority from the point of view of their ruling and governing. And once again, let me remind you that if this is the intention of the text, then we must not pray merely for our own president and our own governor, but also for the ruler of a foreign nation and even of an enemy nation. For example, that would have implied such a prayer for Hitler in World War II as well as for our own government. No one would have wanted to accept such a consequence. But I repeat: this is not the point of the text at all. The text has to do only with a prayer for the salvation of all classes of men, kings and those who are in authority not excluded.
In this connection, in the third place, we may notice that the text speaks of the fruit of such prayers: “that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.” We must be careful to understand that this does not mean that the fruit of such prayers of the church will be that no war comes, or that political peace shall be established. Nor does the text mean that the church shall be preserved from persecution on the part of the ungodly world-power. Both Scripture and history teach the contrary. The church does not escape the sword of persecution. Besides, such an interpretation would be in conflict with the expression “in all godliness and honesty.” The text refers to a quiet and peaceable life on the part of the congregation as such. Quietness and peaceableness would characterize life in the church, and the name of the church would be honorable among those who are outside the church. This must undoubtedly be understood in the light of the peculiar attitude which the church, or many in the church, assumed over against the rulers and those in authority at that time. We must remember that the latter were the persecutors of the saints in those days. They were the enemies of the church of Christ. And the danger was not at all imaginary that there would be those in the congregation who would allow themselves to be tempted to be bitter and to be opposed to kings and those in authority, as though kings and those in authority were per se enemies of Christ, and as though as a class they were necessarily opposed to the cause of Christ, and therefore were excluded from salvation. In such circumstances, an attitude of contempt and of rebellion and revolution would very easily come to manifestation. And if such an attitude were present in the church, this would be precisely the opposite of a quiet and peaceable life. Besides it would be the opposite of a life in all godliness and honesty, and would tend to bring the church of Jesus Christ into disrepute in the world, and would thus bring reproach upon the Name of Christ Himself. Hence, instead of this wrong attitude, the apostle exhorts the church that supplications, prayers, intercessions, giving of thanks, be made also for kings and those in authority. For it is God’s will that all men, that is, all classes of men, inclusive of kings and those in authority, be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.
Thus, briefly, I would explain this passage. As usual, if there is some point that is still not clear to my questioner, he is welcome to write in again.