B. Regarding Appropriate Prayer in the Church (2:1–7)
1 I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone—2 for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. 3 This is good, and pleases God our Savior, 4 who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. 5 For there is one God and one mediator between God and human beings, Christ Jesus, himself human, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all people. This has now been witnessed to at the proper time. 7 And for this purpose I was appointed a herald and an apostle—I am telling the truth, I am not lying—and a true and faithful teacher of the Gentiles.
From this point on in the letter, a number of specific issues will receive attention. The context throughout will continue to be that of false teaching and opposition to the Pauline mission. As Paul treats matters related to the worship gathering, the organization of leaders, and instructs concerning various groups, the presence of opponents and their teaching activities will often still be felt, and the latter will come up for specific treatment in several places (4:1–5; 6:3–10, 20–21). But we will see that the local culture is also exerting pressure on community life in a way that causes Paul to intervene forcefully.
He begins with the matter of prayer in the church. In treating this text two misconceptions are typically encountered. The first is one that persists in many quarters of the church today. Paying attention to the broad introduction to this topic, the text has often been understood to lay down for the church a broad commission to pray for all people and for government leaders without really stipulating what direction such prayer ought to take. But the real concern, as close attention to the argument will show, is for the prayer that supports the church’s universal mission to the world. That is, Paul urges Timothy to instruct the Ephesian church to reengage in an activity it had apparently been neglecting—prayer in support of Paul’s own mandate to take the gospel to the whole world.
The second misconception was introduced by Martin Dibelius 1 and is still at work in the scholarship of many who have exercised more caution and balance. 2 Dibelius saw this text as introducing the new shape that Christian existence took following the departure of the apostles and as a result of the disappointment over the delay of Christ’s return. In his estimation, prayer for all and for those in authority sought the goal of the quiet and peaceful life—that is, a Christian existence characterized by outward behavior conforming to secular notions of “good citizenship.” As the logic goes, with the delay of Christ’s return, the church came to the conclusion that it was bound to be around for some time to come, and the only way to ensure its longevity in a hostile world was to adopt an approach to living in the world that would be acceptable to the world. This interpretation claims to explain best the use of numerous Hellenistic ethical terms in these letters and what is thought to be the author’s endorsement of a life for Christians that seeks little more than the goal of respectability (for which see the rest of the commentary). The point here is that Dibelius ignored the way in which the reference to the quiet and peaceful life is set within the instruction about prayer and the theology that backs it up.
A better way of understanding the instructions to pray in this passage is to place them within the dialogue evident in Romans 13 (and 1 Peter 2). There Paul lays down a theology of the church-world dialectical reality in which the church is to find itself in a position of missiological service to society. Past interpretations of that text that argue that Paul was basically urging a quietistic, “low profile” approach to Christian living in society must be revised in light of Paul’s subversive use of the cultural features of benefaction and good works and the very real presence of missionary motivation surrounding the instructions. 3 In our text with its specific evangelistic focus, it may be argued that the church’s commitment to acknowledge the secular power structure and society’s expectations is to be expressed in its prayer for salvation and effective political leadership.
In this section, close attention must be paid to the way Paul develops his argument. The whole of 2:1–7 is a coherent unit of thought. Both the overall structure of the argument and the controlling thematic use of the term “all” determine the soteriological-missiological thrust of the prayer enjoined in vv. 1–2.
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The structure of the text yields four basic points. First, Paul commands that prayer be given for all people and for those in authority. What seems puzzling is that the purpose of prayer for all people is left implicit. As we will see below, the purpose clause in v. 2b explains the subsequent prayer focus on those in authority. But the greater interest emerges as the passage unfolds. Second, Paul sets out God’s will concerning salvation, and this in fact determines the thrust of the prayer and of the whole section. The concern is for salvation. But, third, this statement of God’s will is surprising enough, or important enough, to call for its own justification. For this Paul draws on traditional theological concepts and christological materials that demonstrate God’s universal salvific will. Fourth and finally, Paul relates the prayer for the salvation of all to himself and his mission to the Gentiles.
Sharpening the soteriological point of the passage is the repeated use of the term “all.” The term occurs six times in ways that clearly underline the universal scope of the discussion. In vv. 1–2 it is “all people” and “all who are in authority” who are to be prayed for, and the outcome of prayer for government is to be a life lived in “all godliness and holiness.” In v. 4 God’s will is that “all people be saved,” which then resonates with the declaration in vv. 5b–6a that “the human being, Christ Jesus gave himself for ‘all’.”
The theological interests and the universal theme reveal that the prayer practice Paul sought to reinstate in Ephesus had the evangelistic mission to the Gentiles as its target. What is less clear is why this had to be urged. Probably the speculative views of the false teachers or the general atmosphere surrounding the approach to the faith they promoted fostered either some sort of elitism or indifference to those outside the church. The evidence of an excessively realized view of salvation (see Introduction C.2.b.) might have heightened the church’s sense of separation from the world, and it is worth noting that the similar situation in Corinth apparently spawned similar separationist tendencies (1 Cor 5:9–10).
1–2 Following the brief detour in 1:19b–20, Paul signals his returns to the parenetic mode he had resumed at 1:18 (“then, therefore”). 4 To do this he employs his typical command verb, “I urge” (Rom 12:1; 1 Cor 1:10; 2 Cor 10:1), to issue instructions in a personal and collegial tone that are nevertheless to be understood as bearing full authority and so to be carried out. 5 If the church has discerned the mandate character of this letter, it understands that Timothy’s task is to ensure that these instructions be implemented.
The “first” thing to be addressed (either in sequence or priority of importance) 6 is the church’s prayer practice, and its “first-mention” placement in the letter indicates the importance in Paul’s mind. The instruction identifies two interrelated objects of prayer: “everyone” and “kings and all those in authority.” The nature of their interrelationship is crucial to an understanding of the passage, and this needs to be teased out from the logic and flow of the argument.
Four terms for prayer combine to express the subject of the passive infinitive “to be made” that supplies the content of the exhortation. 7 Rather than understand the four terms as descriptive of a systematic liturgy of prayer, the thought is one of completeness—every dimension and action of prayer being focused on the need at hand. Three of the terms are widely used by Paul and occur together in Phil 4:6. The variety evident in the English translations shows the range of meaning covered by the terms, and there is a good degree of overlap.
“Prayers” translates the most generic term for communicating petitions or requests for intercession to God, 9 and includes all aspects of prayer from petition to thanksgiving. But this general coverage does not make the term a reference to a general prayer request (“petitions” being the more specific). These first two terms sometimes occurred together (e.g. 5:5; Eph 6:18; Phil 4:6), and probably do so here with the intention of describing prayer activity in the fullest way possible. 10
“Intercession” (pl.; 4:5) is limited to this NT letter. It referred originally to formal petitions made among people and usually directed to one of higher rank, and gradually took its place within the church’s prayer vocabulary. 11
“Thanksgiving” (pl.; 4:3, 4) refers to prayers that express thankfulness to God. Paul’s letters to churches reveal how fundamental thanksgiving was to his practice. 12 Within the church’s holistic practice of prayer, thanksgiving not only bolstered confidence by focusing reflection on God’s past responsiveness to petition, but also was an expression of confidence in anticipation of God’s future response (Phil 1:3 [cf.1:6]; 4:6; Col 3:17).
This multi-faceted prayer is first of all to be made “for everyone.” As noted, the term “all” is intentionally universal in thrust (cf. vv. 2, 4, 6; 4:10), and probably calculated to counter a tendency towards insular thinking in the Ephesian church brought on by an elitist outlook or theology. 13 While in the NT this universalism is possibly most graphically expressed in this passage, Paul was also pushing forcefully in this direction in other contexts (Rom 15:11; 1 Cor 9:22; 2 Cor 5:19; cf. Acts 1:8). The purpose of this first prong of the prayer effort, delayed until vv. 3–4, will link it with the Gentile mission (cf. v. 7). Opposition to Paul’s authority placed this mission in jeopardy, and enlisting the Ephesian church’s active support in this way was designed to ensure the uninterrupted progress of the gospel.
Verse 2 adds a second parallel 14 prayer object—“for kings and all those in authority”—and follows it up immediately with a statement of its purpose. Generally, Paul has in mind all those who would fit into the structure of civic or government authority (cf. Rom 13:1; 1 Pet 2:13), whose office would be filled at the pleasure of the emperor. The term “king” had wide usage at this time throughout the Hellenistic world for certain local rulers (e.g. various of those in the Herodian line, Mark 6:14; Acts 12:1; 25:13; the ruler of the Nabateans, 2 Cor 11:32). 15 But its first reference for those in Asia Minor in the first century, where the imperial cult was the fastest growing religion, would have been to the emperor. The plural reference to “kings” would signify successive reigns of emperors 16 (i.e. pray for the current emperor). Nevertheless, prayer for the local or regional representatives of imperial power is also included in the broad addition “and for all those in authority.” The breadth of the command takes in all kinds of officials. The key term in the phrase “in authority” indicates those in a position of status and corresponds to those holding various imperial appointments throughout the empire. 17
Where did this sense of responsibility originate? The precedent for the practice of God’s people praying for pagan rulers goes back to Israel’s exile experience. In this context we find the prophetic instruction to display loyalty to the surrounding power structure: “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer 29:7; cf. Ezra 6:9–10; 1 Macc 7:33). 18 This could perhaps be dismissed as an expedient measure designed to help the displaced Jewish people make the best of temporary difficulties. But lying behind the prophetic instruction and evident in the prophetic and Wisdom writings 19 was a developing theological (and eschatological) awareness that with the exile the lines of Israel’s religious world were being redrawn. YHWH now accomplished his will through pagan leaders whom he called his “ministers” and “servants” (Jer 25:9; Isa 45:1; cf. Isa 5:26–29; 7:18–20; 8:7–8; 13:4–5). In exile Israel’s vision had to expand to encompass all the nations, and it is chiefly in the body of literature that emerges from and after this experience that God’s universal redemptive intentions become increasingly clear. It was a logical (and theological) step for Paul to interpret the church’s prayer responsibility on the basis of the prophetic instruction, because he knew the very existence of the church was linked to the universal promises that came to expression in writings of those times. Also stemming from this development was the awareness of an extensive obligation to serve society (Titus 3:1–2; Rom 13:1–7; 1 Pet 2:13–17). 20 Within this setting, prayer “for kings and all those in authority” cannot be severed from Paul’s conception of Christian existence as witness and service in the world.
The purpose statement given to explain this prayer seems also at first blush to be an expedient designed to ease the various pressures the church might experience in a hostile society. It divides into two parts. The first part depicts an ideal set of circumstances or environment in which the church might live: “that we might live peaceful and quiet lives.” The second part describes the observable manner in which such a life is to be lived: “in all godliness and holiness.” The two parts must be seen as a whole, but for convenience we shall consider each part separately.
Paul characterizes a “life” 21 that is observable, lived among people in society in a way that registers. 22 The two terms (“quiet and peaceful”) 23 that initially describe this life express the Hellenistic ideal (conveyed variously) of a tranquil life free from the hassles of a turbulent society. 24 It is obvious enough that Paul envisions the State, with God’s help, as being capable of ensuring the conditions that would make such a life possible.
The next phrase, “in all godliness and holiness,” describes this life’s character and observable shape. The language Paul uses gains its effectiveness by its currency in Hellenistic ethics and by the Christian interpretation he gives it. Many modern commentators have emphasized the former element of the language and ignored the latter, resulting in the conclusion that the writer was endorsing an ethic that conformed to the Hellenistic ideal of respectability. Yet when the theological reshaping of these concepts is taken into account, it becomes clear that Paul had other aims—namely, to express the theology of a dynamic Christian ethics by means of the language of the day. This technique would of course ensure intelligibility. But Paul almost certainly intended also to reinvent the language and subvert alternative claims about the nature and source of godliness associated with the politics and religious cults in the empire.
“Godliness” (“piety”) is a crucial concept in the letters to coworkers. 25 It serves to describe the whole of Christian existence as the vibrant interplay between the knowledge of God and the observable life that emerges from this knowledge (see Excursus below). As Paul understands it, the potential to live this life characterized by the integration of knowledge and behavior (faith and deeds) is linked to the appearance of Christ in human history (Titus 2:11–12). What should not be confused here are the ideal circumstances for life sought in prayer for the State (“the quiet and peaceful life”) and the authentic Christianity called for. “Godliness” as authentic Christian existence is expected in all situations, tranquil or turbulent (2 Tim 3:12). Prayer for the tranquil setting is prayer for an ideal set of social circumstances in which Christians might give unfettered expression to their faith in observable living. This distinction allows us to place the second prayer (for leaders) into the missiological grid of the passage: the church is to pray for the salvation of “all,” and it participates in that mission by making God present in society in its genuine expression of the new life for all to see.
The second term in the phrase is better translated “respectability” (“holiness”, TNIV), for it conveys the ideas of “seriousness” and “appropriateness” 26 by which respectability was measured. Although not lacking an inward origin, it focuses more on behavior that is deemed acceptable by other people. Together the pair of terms (“godliness and respectability”) describes Christian existence as a holistic experience of new life produced by faith in God and lived out observably in human society. While not denying the degree to which the testimony of Christ might antagonize unbelievers (2 Tim 3:12), the language Paul chooses and the emphasis on observable respectability describe the Christian life as a life of engagement in society that is worthy of respect. It is a life that truly communicates the realities of faith in Christ in a language understood by all, while it also challenges secular notions about the source of such qualities.
Paul’s choice of this current ethical language was designed with communication of the gospel in mind. Far from compromising the uniqueness of the gospel and its claims, by employing the common terminology Paul established the relevance and challenge of his message for the culture. The language of “godliness” (eusebeia), among other crucial theological terms which all have their place in Paul’s lexicon (“epiphany,” “savior,” “God,” “Lord”), was so closely linked to the Artemis cult in Ephesus that his choice of this term to define the essence of Christian existence would directly confront the cultural story (see Excursus below). The point would be clear: authentic eusebeia was neither to be found nor expressed in association with Artemis, but only by faith in Christ.
2 See discussions in see Towner, Goal, 9–16, 201–205; R. M. Kidd, Wealth and Beneficence in the Pastoral Epistles (SBLDS 122; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1990).
3 For Romans, see 12:20 (and P. H. Towner, “Romans 13:1–7 and Paul’s Missiological Perspective: A Call to Political Quietism or Transformation?” in Romans and the People of God: Essays in Honor of Gordon D. Fee on the Occasion of His 65th Birthday, eds., S. K. Soderlund, N. T. Wright [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999], 149–69; idem, Goal, 202–203); for the parallel text 1 Pet 2:13–17, see 2:11–12.
4 This is the sense of the conjunction οὖν, namely, to make the turn to parenesis/exhortation after there has been a break (see 2:8; 3:2; 5:14; 2 Tim 1:8; 2:1). Otherwise, there is no sense of 2:1–2 forming a logical conclusion to the preceding passage.
5 See discussion at 1:3.
6 Gk. πρῶτον (3:10; 5:4; 2 Tim 1:5; 2:6; see discussion at 1:15–16); either to be taken as a superlative (“first” in importance), or simply as an indication of the “first” in a series of items (typical of Greek letters, see Spicq, 356). There is no way to be sure which nuance Paul intends, but often the first item mentioned is of greatest importance or urgency.
7 Gk. ποιεῖσθαι is probably passive (TNIV; NRSV; BDF §392.4), taking the subsequent accusative nouns as subject. A middle voice meaning is possible (see Phil 1:4; Luke 5:33; BDAG s.v. δέησις and ποιέω; see Marshall, 419), but there is little difference in meaning.
10 Maintaining a rigid distinction between δέησις (“petition”) as a specific request (or the request made by an individual) or and προσευχή (“prayer”) as a general request (or one made communally by the congregation) is not possible in light of such texts as Phil 4:6 and 1 Tim 5:5. But cf. Oberlinner, 66; U. Schoenborn, EDNT 1:287.
11 Gk. ἔντευξις; for formal petitions to people of rank, see Josephus, Antiquities 16.12; 2 Macc 4:8; Philo, Legation to Gaius 276.2; in reference to prayer, see the later Shepherd of Hermas, Mandates 5.1.6; 10.3.2–3; 10.11.9. See further, Spicq, TLNT 2:6–10; O. Bauernfeind, TDNT 8:238–45; MM 218.
12 Gk. εὐχαριστία; note Paul’s use of the verb in describing his thanksgiving to God (Rom 1:8; 1 Cor 1:4; Phil 1:3; etc.); for the noun in the same sense, 1 Cor 14:16; 2 Cor 4:15; 9:11; Phil 4:6; Col 2:7; 4:2; 1 Thess 3:9. Spicq, TLNT 2:9.
13 Given a too fully realized eschatology (understanding the present experience of salvation to be fuller than it actually is) a number of factors (such as are more evident in the Corinthian situation) could persuade the church to view itself as a closed society; see Towner, Goal, 33–42. There is no basis for the view that a Gnostic disregard for the State (v. 2) was specifically being addressed (W. Schmithals, “The Corpus Paulinum and Gnosis,” in A. H. B. Logan, A. J. M. Wedderburn, eds., The New Testament and Gnosis [Edinburgh: T and T Clark, 1983], 117).
15 Gk. βασιλεύς; see also Josephus, Antiquities 17.188; 18.273; Jewish Wars 2.20. Spicq, TLNT 1:264–65.
16 As in Josephus, Jewish Wars 3.351; 4.596; 5.563. In light of Josephus, it is unlikely that the plural “kings” is a specific reflection of the later situation in which there were co-emperors in Rome (i.e. post c.e. 137).
17 Gk. καὶ πάντων τῶν ἐν ὑπεροχῇ ὄντων (for ὑπεροχή as “excellence”, 1 Cor 2:1; 2 Macc 5:13; as “position of authority,” 2 Macc 3:11; Polybius 5.41.3; Josephus, Antiquities 9.3); cf. the similar language of Rom 13:1 (πᾶσα ψυχὴ ἐξουσίαις ὑπερεχούσαις ὑποτασσέσθω) where the parallel term for “authority” is ὑπερέχω (1 Pet 2:13). See MM 653–54; G. Delling, TDNT 8:523–24.
18 See also Bar 1:10–13; Epistle of Aristeas 44–45; Josephus, Jewish Wars 2.197, 409; Philo, Legation to Gaius 157, 317; E. Schürer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (Rev. Ed. by G. Vermes, F. Millar, M. Goodman; Edinburgh: T and T Clark, 1973–79), 2:311–13; H.-W. Bartsch, Die Anfänge urchristlicher Rechtsbildungen: Studien zu den Pastoralbriefen (Hamburg: Reich, 1965), 34–39; Johnson, 195–96; Marshall, 421–22.
23 Gk. ἤρεμον καὶ ἡσύχιον; the adj. ἤρεμος occurs only here in the NT and is rare in Greek literature (LSJ, s.v); the adj. ἡσύχιος occurs elsewhere in the NT only at 1 Pet 3:3, but the related verb and noun occur in 1 Thess 4:11 and 2 Thess 3:12, respectively, where Paul encourages pursuit of the same ambition of leading the quiet life.
24 For the sentiment, see BDAG, s.v., for its occurrence in the closely similar statement “living a quiet and calm life” (ἤρεμον καὶ γαληνὸν τὸν βίον διαγότων); see also Josephus, Antiquities 13.407; Philo, Life of Moses 2.235.
26 Gk. σεμνότης. This word group, also significant within Greek ethics, has an important role in developing a view of Christian existence in 1 Timothy and Titus. For the noun, σεμνότης, see 1 Tim 2:2; 3:4; Titus 2:7 (not used elsewhere in the NT); for the adjective, σεμνός, see 1 Tim 3:8, 11; Titus 2:2 (elsewhere in NT only at Phil 4:8). The word group envisages a particular deportment (translated by a wide range of English terms) of seriousness, dignity, respectability, and holiness.