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Whoever coined the phrase "can't see the forest for the trees" could easily have had in mind the local congregation's view of its task in the worldwide church's mission enterprise. "Local" work is certainly important and in need of prayer. Yet sometimes we lose sight of the fact that this work is a part of a larger task that has been set before the worldwide church to accomplish in unison. Today's church is perhaps already fragmented beyond the point of achieving such unity. But wherever cooperation is possible, the original plan to reach all nations calls for the parts to recognize the whole.
When Paul turns to the matter of instructing the church, the subject he first broaches is that of prayer. The instruction, which runs through verse 7, has two parts. First is the command to pray, which is itself twofold. The church is to pray for all people and for kings and those who are in authority. Each aspect of this prayer is directly related to the church's evangelistic mission. Then comes the rationale behind the command: the salvation of all people everywhere is God's will. The subsequent creedlike material demonstrates the universal scope of God's will to save, reflecting on God's nature and Christ's sacrifice. A final personal reference submits the apostle's call to the Gentiles as proof of God's expansive redemptive plan and the church's need to be involved in it.
Isn't it true that people tend to be most concerned for those on the outside when they happen to be outsiders themselves--that once on the inside they tend to forget whence they came? It seems to me that we who have experienced God's grace ought to be all the more concerned for those who have yet to do so. Although we cannot be certain of the reason, the church in which Timothy was ministering apparently had been neglecting to pray widely for the salvation of people in the world. In response, Paul does not lay down a detailed, four-stage program of prayer in asking that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone. Rather, he calls for prayer in a comprehensive sense that attends to all details. In fact, seeing this removes the apparent vagueness from the command to pray for everyone. He does envision a prayer ministry, one that will be attentive to every aspect of the gospel enterprise, from the initial planning and opening of doors for preaching (Col 4:3), to seed-sowing and boldness to preach (Eph 6:19), to thanksgiving for changed lives (1 Thess 1:2). The prayer he has in mind is specifically related to the evangelistic mission. Notice the rationale given in verses 3-4: the will of God our Savior is that all men . . . be saved. This prayer is expansive in scope, reaching to all people, and the repeated occurrence of all throughout the passage reminds the readers to "think big" when they pray this prayer (vv. 1, 2, 4, 6).
Two obvious conclusions may be drawn from this instruction. First, all believers have a necessary part to play in the church's worldwide mission. Second, each local gathering of believers is to participate directly and corporately in this work when coming together for worship. Since Paul mentions this as being a matter of first importance, we ought to give careful thought to the place we give this task within our worship service and other church activities.
A vital aspect of this prayer for the church's mission is prayer for the state. This practice began with the worship of the Diaspora Jews, who were thus to ensure the people's prosperity in a pagan environment (Jer 29:7). Back in the Jews' own land, this prayer was coupled with offering sacrifices for the king, the whole of which came to be an expression of loyalty (Ezra 6:9-10; 1 Macc 7:33).
These two ideas, with a slight twist, seem to have come together in the New Testament church's thinking. On the one hand, the church was to respect state rulers and to submit to the institution of the state. The theological rationale for this obedience was the fact that the state and human government are a part of God's creative will (Rom 13:1; 1 Pet 2:13). But from a more practical standpoint, a submissive posture toward the state would lend the church credibility in the eyes of the world (1 Pet 2:15). The church was to express its submission by paying taxes (Rom 13:7), honoring the ruling authorities (Rom 13:7; 1 Pet 2:17) and praying for kings and all those in authority.
The twist comes in that while the immediate goal of prayer for the state is that it fulfill its God-given function of maintaining an orderly, peaceful environment (v. 2: that we may live peaceful and quiet lives), this goal is meant to serve a higher end. What is sought is the best of conditions for expanding God's kingdom, not simply a peaceful life. The context determines the overriding interest in salvation, from which the meaning of verse 2 must be derived. Furthermore, the description of the manner of Christian living (in all godliness and holiness) contains hints of witness. Godliness is Paul's term in the Pastorals for "genuine Christianity"; it brings together knowledge of and faith in God and the observable response of lifestyle. Holiness (NIV), better translated as "seriousness," suggests a deportment of respectability that is evident to observers. The manner of life here described has the evaluating eye of the observer in mind (1 Tim 3:7; 6:1; Tit 2) and is meant to recommend the gospel to those who look on.
Having issued these instructions, Paul goes on to ground them in the will of God: This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants [wills] all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (vv. 3-4). The reason does indeed suggest that Paul's primary concern here is the church's prayer for the salvation of all people. Come to a knowledge of the truth (v. 4) was a formula that described conversion as a rational decision about the gospel. This statement qualifies how the universality of God's will to save is to be understood. We do not have here grounds for saying that all people will be saved regardless of their disposition toward the gospel. Rather, the emphasis is on access: the gospel is to be preached to all nations. Certain references such as this one reveal that God's will is as broad as his entire plan of redemption and yet can be expressed in terms of specific standards of behavior (compare 1 Thess 4:3, 18; 1 Tim 5:4; Tit 3:8). Of course, unlike the human will, God's is unchanging and accompanied by his imperturbable power which makes its ultimate accomplishment certain.
Because of this belief, ordinarily an appeal to God's will was sufficient grounds in itself for apostolic instructions. But the importance of prayer support for world mission apparently called for further substantiation of God's far-reaching redemptive plan. For this Paul draws on well-known formulations; they may be parts of the early church's hymns or creeds, and the readers would have recognized them immediately.
God's expansive unity (2:5). Verse 5 makes two main points. First, God's desire to reach all with the gospel is a logical corollary of his unity: for there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus (v. 5). In pre-Christian times the Jews employed this "there is one God" formula, which echoes the thought of the Shema (Deut 6:4), to counteract the polytheistic claims of the pagan religions. Paul went a step further and drew on the oneness of God to demonstrate that all have access to God's salvation: the fact that there is one God of both Jews and Gentiles means salvation for the Gentiles too (Rom 3:29-30; Eph 4:4-6).
Second, the reference to the oneness of the mediator pins this universal access to the ministry of Christ. He as mediator stepped between God and sinful humankind to make possible a new relationship between the two parties. What he "mediated" was the new covenant (Jer 31:31-34; Heb 8:6; 9:15; 12:24). The final phrase, the man Christ Jesus, locates his mediating activity in his earthly ministry, which takes Paul on to the next stage of his logic.
But before we go on, what are the implications of Paul's logic? His main point is simply that the existence of only one God implies that the gift of salvation is extended to all. Therefore, the church's participation in the mission enterprise must involve earnest prayer for all people. Yet at the same time there is an exclusiveness implied by Paul's logic. Salvation is linked solely to the one mediator, Christ, and therefore to the gospel about him. The church as the sole guardian of this message (3:15) is the sole means by which God's salvation can be extended to all. Consequently, the church's prayer for the salvation of all people is not optional or subsidiary in the least. It is intrinsic to the church's reason for existing and to the accomplishment of the larger evangelistic goal.
Christ's inclusive sacrifice (2:6). The tradition Paul cites includes next a piece of material that goes back to Jesus' own preaching about himself (Mk 10:45). Its purpose is to clarify the meaning of the ministry of mediation fulfilled by the man Christ Jesus (v. 5). Although it is brief, it nevertheless reflects a deep understanding of the meaning of Christ's death.
First, the change from the original "many" (Mk 10:45) to all stresses that Jesus' sacrifice was inclusive. Paul may have selected this piece of tradition because of this particular emphasis. According to the earliest tradition, the church believed and emphasized that Jesus' death was meant to reach to "all" people (2 Cor 5:14-15).
Second, Jesus' gospel-sacrifice was voluntary; he gave himself. His death, far from being an unexpected, senseless accident, came about because God was in full control of the situation (Jn 10:18; Acts 2:23; 2 Cor 5:19). Christ's death is integral to God's redemptive plan.
Then, this sacrifice amounted to a payment that obtains the release of slaves, or a ransom. Life without God is bondage to sin. Christ paid the price of our release (see also Tit 2:14 commentary).
Fourth, Paul's citation reminds that Jesus died as a representative. The fact that the man stood between God and sinful humans as our mediator reveals the intimate degree of his representation. But the meaning of his mediation is amplified in verse 6. The preposition for ("in behalf of") which precedes all men defines "mediation" as his death for humankind.
Finally, the description also emphasizes the substitutionary nature of his sacrifice. It accomplishes this by adding to the original word for ransom (lytron; Mk 10:45) the preposition anti, which means "in place of." Jesus gave himself not only as our representative but also in our place.
Consequently, the universal scope of God's will to save is also demonstrated by the teaching of Jesus. The church knew this teaching by heart and through continued reflection delved ever deeper into its meaning: a voluntary sacrifice made in behalf of helpless sinners, so effective that it reaches to all.
Paul's extensive mission (2:6-7). The final point to demonstrate the breadth of God's saving will comes not so much from accepted theology as from the early church's common understanding that in giving Christ to the world God began actively to preach the gospel. That is, God actively implemented his will for all to see. The advent of Christ was God's testimony given in its proper time (v. 6). God himself, at the moment of his choice (compare Gal 4:4), initiated the proclamation of the gospel. But as verse 7 proceeds to show, this God-initiated work of proclamation passed into Paul's hands and, just as important, into the church's. Paul's was the universal mission to the Gentiles, which he carried out as God's "herald" and Christ's "sent one" (1:1). The fact that the Gentiles were being reached for Christ was further demonstration of God's will to save all people.
At the last, lest the readers forget the setting out of which the teaching grew, the apostle underlines the veracity of his message (I am telling the truth . . . [I am] a teacher of the true faith to the Gentiles). He knows his claim may well be challenged, just as the true faith had been in that church.
The church's prayer for all people is an essential aspect of its participation in the Great Commission. It is prayer that seeks the gospel's penetration into all parts of the world and every aspect of life. The closely related prayer for those whom God has placed in charge of government finds its ultimate purpose too in the accomplishment of God's plan of salvation. Perhaps it is worth noting that we find Paul praying not for the liberation of the land from Roman rule, but for the responsible administration of that rule. The importance that Paul attached to this facet of our conduct in God's house suggests the need to rethink the place we give to it in all of our gatherings.