In my Bible, the heading for 1 Timothy chapter 2 is Instructions on Worship. What was at the top of Paul’s list for worship in Christian churches? Did Paul say “thou shall sing only organ music”? Did he tell Timothy “your sermons shall be relevant and motivational”? No, St. Paul tells young pastor Timothy that when it comes to worship, one thing is to be a priority: I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession, and thanksgiving be made for everyone. Now, I’ll admit that when I was younger, I didn’t really understand why we spent so much of the service in prayer. I often thought that the prayers were the dullest part of the service, it seemed like an awful lot of standing and listening, and very quickly my mind began to wander to thoughts of what was for lunch and my eyes to what the people around me were doing. But wandering thoughts and eyes are not at all what Paul has in mind when he urges us to pray as a congregation. No, he says, first of all, when you gather for worship, pray, he teaches us HOW to pray, WHO to pray for, and the God to WHOM we pray.
The primary reason that we have many different prayers throughout our service is because God wants us to pray for all kinds of people on all kinds of occasions. He wants all of our prayers to be the result of overflowing hearts that have so much to say. Paul uses four words to bring out the wide-ranging nature of Christian prayer: requests, prayers, intercession, thanksgiving. This, Paul says is how we are to pray: with requests – that is, we come to God like a child comes to his father to ask for whatever we need – knowing that we come to him with empty hands and that he fills us with everything we need, be it health, peace or forgiveness. Prayers is a very general term indicating any kind of devotion or praise to God. When we make intercession to God, we are boldly asking God to do something on behalf of others. Interceding is what we do when we see pain and suffering and ask God to give support and relief where we cannot. Finally, Paul says, we offer thanksgiving: this brings our prayer full circle, so that the blessings we receive from God return to him again in the form of gratitude.
Paul’s encouragement is not only a good model for our prayers here, but for our personal prayer life as well. Sometimes we get into a rut of prayer that is centered on us and what we want and need. We pray for ourselves but forget to pray for others. We ask God for stuff but forget to thank him for the stuff he has already given us. One easy way to remember the different elements of God-pleasing prayer is to follow what is called the A-C-T-S model. Adoration. Confession. Thanksgiving. Supplication. Following this simple outline helps us to keep our focus and serves as a reminder to praise God, confess our sins, and offer thanksgiving before we present our list of requests to God. Prayer is a powerful gift from God, and he wants us to take advantage of that power by taking care in HOW we pray.
Just as important as HOW we pray is WHO we pray for. Paul urges: pray for everyone. That’s kind of overwhelming – how can I possibly know what 7 billion people need, how would I ever have the time to intercede to God for every one of them? In fact, this prayer is very simple. We pray that God would carry out his will for all people, a will which Paul spells out: God our Savior…wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. Our prayer can be as simple as the words of the Lord’s Prayer: thy will be done; or as focused as a prayer for a specific person we know who is stumbling in the darkness of unbelief. In both cases, we pray that God would bring everyone to a knowledge of the truth – the two fold truth that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and are justified freely by his grace. (Romans 3:23-24)
Praying for everyone obviously means that we exclude no one. But Paul encourages Christians to specifically pray for kings and all those in authority. I don’t think I am alone if I admit that the leaders of our government haven’t always been at the top of my prayer list. And yet, Paul tells us to make the conscious effort to pray for those whose responsibility it is to govern.
This was no easy thing for those first Christians to do. Those Christians saw their friends and family dragged into coliseums throughout the Roman Empire where they were tortured and sacrificed as entertainment for pagan Roman crowds. Those Christians found themselves targeted for persecution by the Roman government and Roman people who falsely blamed them for all kinds of problems in society. If Christians were persecuted like that today, we would hear about pastors calling down hell fire on civic leaders and issuing widespread calls for rebellion or at the least civil disobedience. But Paul encourages Timothy to do just the opposite: he urges those Christians to pray for the very leaders who hunted them down and tortured them for their Christian faith.
Even though they’re not hunting us down or banning Christianity, it’s not always easy to pray for our nation’s leaders today, is it? It doesn’t seem right to us to ask God to bless leaders who introduce laws and policies that contradict God’s will. We hesitate to pray for politicians who are revealed to be corrupt and immoral in both their public and personal lives. But there is a very good reason for us to pray even for unbelieving, immoral rulers; so that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. History teaches that it is easier for Christians to lead quiet, God-pleasing lives when there is peace than when there is war. Examples abound: think of God’s OT people who had to shed blood as they conquered the Promised Land and then were besieged, starved and killed by their enemies; think of the NT Christians who had to weigh denying Christ versus a horrible, painful death; think of how hard it would have been to live for God during the American Revolution or the civil war. Wars and rebellions – even those undertaken with seemingly righteous motives – can lead Christians to do some terrible, evil things – not the least of which is to question God’s love and power. We pray for the leaders God has placed over us so that we might live peaceful and Godly lives, and at the same time, we pray that God would shine the light of his Gospel into their hearts so that they too might know Christ as their Savior.
Pray for everyone Paul says. Pray especially for your nation and government he urges. Why? Because this is good and pleases God our Savior. There are many good reasons to pray – but the most important one of all is that God wants us to. It pleases God when we bring all our thoughts and concerns and praise and thanks to his throne.
In the end, the power of prayer doesn’t come from how we pray or who we pray for. Prayer is not powerful because we are so eloquent and earnest when we pray – because quite often, we’re not. No, prayer is powerful because of the God we pray to. Paul says that we are to address our prayers to the one true God. When we pray, we pray to the omnipotent Creator of the heavens and the earth. We pray to the God who orders the sun the shine and the rain to fall and numbers the very hairs of our heads. We pray to the God who raises and crushes leaders and nations like pawns on the chessboard of history. When we pray, we stand with our petitions before the throne of the king of Heaven and the Judge of all mankind.
Sometimes we forget that. We forget that when we pray, we aren’t talking to a buddy or texting a friend – we are addressing the one, true, holy God. We forget that when we come into church – we are walking into God’s house. This isn’t a movie or a concert – this is different and much more important. When we come here we stand before God, and the only thing we bring to the table is our sins, and the first thing we do is openly and honestly confess how sinful, how unworthy we are to be here. It is an awesome and awful thing to come before the one, holy God. Throughout Bible history, people were shaken to the core when they witnessed the glory of God. The people of Israel shook with fear when God descended on Sinai with flashes of lightning and rumbles of thunder. Peter, James, and John were shocked and awed when Jesus was transfigured before them. Even the mob in the Garden of Gethsemane fell on their knees when Jesus told them who he was. When we come here to stand before God, it is with all humility and sorrow, because we know our sins and how they have ruined our relationship with Him. Let us never forget that on our own, we cannot pray to God or expect that he will hear us; we cannot even stand in his presence dressed as we are in the tattered rags of our own sinfulness.
That’s what makes the last line of our text so important. Paul writes: There is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men. We cannot come to God on our own, and – this is the good news – we don’t have to. We come in Jesus’ name; as his invited guests. We come dressed in the robes of holiness that Jesus earned for us as our perfect substitute. God answers when we knock because Jesus reestablished our line of communication with his Father by his death which served as the ransom price to redeem us from our sins – symbolized by the tearing of the curtain in the temple the moment he gave his last breath. God hears our prayers because our risen and ascended Savior still stands before him as our mediator. Knowing that, knowing what it cost our Savior to give us access to God, will remove any selfishness or shortsightedness from our prayer life. It will instill in us a sense of awe when we come before God and will cause our prayers to overflow with praise and thanks for all that he has done.
So, what should we do when we gather for worship? Expect to be entertained? Motivated? Moved emotionally? Paul tells us: pray. Pray for everyone – because it is God’s will that all people be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. Pray for our nation’s leaders and government that they too might come to faith and that we may live peaceful and Godly lives. Pray at all times and in all places to our Almighty God in heaven, confident that he has the power to do whatever you ask. Pray, because Jesus lived, died and rose to give you that privilege. It’s in his holy name we pray today and every day. Amen.