Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Gospel-Advancing Prayer

It is impossible to think about how to be the church and do church life without also considering our need to pray.  Just a quick glance at the letters of the Apostle Paul clearly indicates our need to rely on and express dependence on God for everything.  So we pray.  This idea is no less true in the letter of 1 Timothy.  In fact, he gives it even more prominence here.

As we have seen thus far in our 1 Timothy series, Paul has been clear that he is deeply concerned about the advance of the gospel, and he talks about protecting, promoting, proclaiming, and preserving the gospel.  So what is the first thing he urges Timothy and the church at Ephesus to do to keep the gospel progressing?  He urges them to pray.  Here:

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, (2) for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.  (3) This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, (4) who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.  (5) For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, (6) who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.  (7) For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.  (8) I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling. (1 Timothy 2.1-8, ESV)

We cannot gather together as Christians in a self-absorbed way without stopping the progress of the gospel dead in its tracks—and the way to avoid being self-absorbed is to humbly pray.  What are some specific ways we can advance the glory of God and His gospel in our worship gatherings?  It begins with gospel-advancing prayer.

1. We advance the gospel by valuing the priority of our prayer. (1 Timothy 2.1-4)

Immediately after challenging Timothy to fight the good fight of faith, he urges him and the Christian brothers and sisters there to pray.  He shows how the two ideas are connected by starting with “then” or “therefore,” which means that this urging towards prayer flows from the need to get the gospel out to everyone.  We see how he exhorts them to value prayer as a priority in a couple of ways.  First, among all the topics he could launch into, he starts with prayer, and even says, I urge you “first of all” (v. 1).  Even if he did not mean to specifically imply valuing prayer by that term, in which case it could be understood as, “of first priority,” the mere fact that he comes to that topic first shows that he is valuing prayer in making it a priority in the order of topics in his letter.

We also see the way he urges them to value prayer as a priority in the way he describes it.  He says that this kind of prayer is good and acceptable before God (v. 3), since it focuses the church on the mission before them: that of advancing the good news of Jesus.  As a result of making it a priority, they would see their own attitudes change and could see their cultural circumstances become potentially peaceable and more conducive to the gospel (v. 2), and many more might be saved (v. 4).  Clearly, we are to value the priority of prayer.

2. We advance the gospel by remembering the purpose of our prayer. (vv. 5-7)

Paul then reminds them why they are to pray, and in the process essentially lays out the gospel in one sentence: We needed a mediator between us and God, and only one Person could fill that role, the one who is fully God and fully man, Jesus (v. 5).  It is because of His sacrifice in our place that we can have life (v. 6).  And Paul was convinced that his role was to proclaim that gracious gospel to the nations (v. 7).

We know that Paul is still on the topic of prayer since he will again mention prayer specifically in verse 8.  So here in the middle (between verses 1 and 8) he clarifies for his first century readers, and us, that the reason we pray in this way is ultimately to be involved in the progress of the gospel.  That may not be the purpose behind every instance of prayer, but in this context it is exactly what Paul was saying.  We should remember the purpose of our prayer.

3. We advance the gospel by maintaining the purity of our prayer. (v. 8)

Some Bible translations group verse 8 with what follows after it, and some place it with what came before.  I think both are somewhat correct, since it concludes the prior thought, and then acts as a transition sentence into the next.  It seems obvious, however, that at the very least he is concluding these thoughts on prayer, since he explicitly mentions prayer in verses 1 and 8, like bookends around his thoughts.

That being the case, in verse 8 I think Paul is challenging specifically the men to step it up and lead in gospel-advancing prayer.  He will address women in a moment, but for now his attention is on the men, who he speaks to as if they were failing in their leadership in prayer.  Paul uses the term “in every place” elsewhere to refer to public worship, and that seems to be consistent here.  If so, he is calling out the men who were either failing to pray, or were failing to pray with purity in their motives.  He specifically mentions praying with “holy” hands.  The issue is holiness, not whether you lift your hands in prayer.  How do we know that?  Because he says as much in the next phrase: Pray with “holy hands without anger or quarreling.”  In other words, pray in a holy way.  We must maintain clean hands, so to speak, and pure hearts, in our prayer.

After introducing the gospel, of all of the specific topics Paul could have addressed in the church first, he begins with gospel-advancing prayer that is prioritized, purposeful, and pure.  Maybe we should too.

[This is part of a larger series on 1 Timothy called The Community of Truth.]