Many churches have given up on praying for others. The more contemporary the worship, the more likely it seems that prayers of intercession will be missing.
By contrast the Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy: “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may live a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 1.2-4).
In the first instance, notice that for Paul praying for others is a primary feature of Christian worship. “First of all”, he wrote (2 Tim 1.1). It couldn’t be clearer. “The first thing I want you to do is pray” (The Message). As the context makes clear, Paul was writing not about personal prayer in the privacy of our homes, but about corporate prayer when the church is comes together (see 2.8,9). Praying for others is to be a regular part of Sunday worship.
Secondly, Paul expected Christian worship to include all sorts of prayers for others. In addition to prayers of thanksgiving there are to be “supplications, prayers, intercessions” (1 Tim 2.1 NRSV). Attempts have been made to distinguish between the various kinds of prayers here, but it is generally agreed that Paul was piling up synonyms for praying for others, and not least for people outside the church. We should pray “for everyone” (1 Tim 2.1). Why? Because God’s love encompasses everybody. As Paul says: “God desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2.4); “Christ Jesus… gave himself a ransom for all” (2.5,6a). God doesn’t simply love his church – he loves his world. And so should we!
Yet strangely some wish to limit the scope of our prayers. Paul, it is suggested, was not encouraging prayer for people’s general well-being. Rather his sole concern was to see people saved. To quote one popular commentator:
The church’s prayer for all people is an essential aspect of its participation in the Great Commission. It is prayer that seek 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 governments finds its ultimate purpose too in the accomplishment of God’s plan for salvation.
I find it difficult to believe that Paul would have wanted his words to have been interpreted in such a narrow way. Of course, he wanted to everyone saved, but this was not his initial focus. Paul belonged to the Jewish Diaspora, which for centuries had taken seriously the Lord’s instructions to Jeremiah for the exiles of his day to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and to pray to the Lord on its behalf” (Jer 29.7). Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount taught his disciples “to love your enemies and to pray for them” (Matt 5.44). To love is to pray. “Love”, commented Dick France, “is not just a sentimental feeling, but an earnest desire for their good”. The intensity of our praying reveals the intensity of our loving.
Thirdly, Paul urged specific prayer “for kings and all who are in high positions” (1 Tim 2.2). Amazingly, when Paul was writing those words to Timothy Nero was on the throne. Far from being a Christian, Nero was anti-Christian. Indeed, he ended up persecuting and torturing Christians for their faith. Yet Paul enjoined prayer for him and for all others in positions of responsibility. In today’s terms that means we need to pray for the leaders of our nation and of the world; for the CEOs of global corporations and for UN officials; for leaders of industry, NHS managers and decision-makers in education; for local government councilors and officials. For all who in one way or another have power to influence our lives.
Fourthly, leading on from prayers for those “in high position”, Paul urged Timothy to pray that “we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity” (1 Tim 2.2). I like the suggestion of Robert Yarborough that Paul wanted “prayers at Ephesus to aim for social, political, and economic stability conducive to everyone’s well-being, that of Christians included”. He went on:
The international refugee situation that has persisted in the absence of such stability has been a tragic feature of the twenty-first century world. The desirability of social order in any century, Paul’s and Timothy’s included, needs no belabouring at the present time, when chaos and genocide make headlines with staggering frequency. People regularly risk their very lives to flee conditions under which ‘peaceful and quiet life’ has become impossible; the spectre of death in a leaky refugee boat is less feared than the insanity of disorder, insecurity, deprivation, and sometimes lethal intimidation.
By contrast some attribute to Paul a much narrower focus on the benefits of peace for the Christian community. “Peaceful conditions facilitate the spread of the gospel” wrote John Stott. Similarly, Philip Towner: “What is sought is the best conditions for expanding God’s kingdom, not simply a peaceful life”. But this runs counter to Paul’s concern “for everyone”. Certainly, the thrust of Paul’s instructions for prayer is that we should pray first and foremost for others, and not just for ourselves.
To return where we began. Prayers of intercession should not be an optional extra. In praying for others, we are not simply obeying the command of Scripture, we are also reflecting the love of Christ.