Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 18, 2022
1 Timothy 2:1-7 Commentary
Paul packs this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson with “all’s.” In fact, he uses a form of the Greek word panta no less than five times in its seven verses. But while the apostle loads this text with “all,” nearly every use of the word carries with it both some mystery and the seed of controversy. So while the RCL omits what are arguably the most controversial parts of 1 Timothy 2, there’s plenty of mystery to be explored in its selected verses.
With all those “all’s” to choose from, preachers might begin with what’s perhaps the most controversial of all its “all’s”: verse 4’s God “wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” After all, while it’s perhaps this text’s most mysterious all of its “all’s,” it informs the rest of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson.
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s preachers will study, interpret and proclaim verse 4’s God “wants all men to be saved” through their own faith and theological tradition’s lens. But a few themes cross ideological lines. Paul uses a form of the English word “save” twice in the space of just a few words. So whatever else preachers may want to say about verse 4, it’s hard to overlook its emphasis on God’s desire for people’s salvation. It defines God as the Savior who wishes to save. 1 Timothy 2’s God is passionate about rescuing people from the various messes we’ve made of ourselves, each other, and God’s creation.
Of course, the apostle doesn’t define here exactly what it means to be “saved.” Nor does he, as A.K.M. Adam notes, define what the opposite of salvation is. Yet as Adam writes, “It suffices that we know God longs to rescue us from undesirable circumstances. We need no more know those circumstances exactly than we need to know exactly what married life would be like when we venture upon it, or to know exactly how miserable we would be to betray our beloved.”
Paul also embeds a sense of human depravity in God’s desire that all people be saved. He insists that all people need to be rescued, protected, or delivered. We’ve made such a mess of things that we need Someone to extricate not just individuals, but also relationships, structures, and even the whole creation from it.
What’s more, verse 4 reminds its readers that the object of God’s desire for salvation is not just individuals or even just a handful of people. However small or large we define the apostle’s “all,” there is a wideness in it. Given the proximity of Paul’s reference to his pre-conversion self as the “worst” of sinners (1:15), it’s hard to, for example, somehow claim that the people whom God wishes to save are just nice folks.
There is, on top of all that, a sense of longing in the apostle’s assertion of God’s wanting for all people to be saved. Paul doesn’t describe an Unmoved Mover or emotionless God here. Verse 4’s God somehow grieves God’s children’s rebellion against God. One can hardly hear Paul’s description of God’s longing without thinking about Luke’s Prodigal Father standing on his front porch desperately scanning the horizon for signs of his wayward son’s return to him.
Verse 5 makes it explicit just who it is that rescues “all” people (panton). It’s the “one mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ, who gave himself as a ransom for all men.” There is, in other words, only one person who can rescue us from the messes we’ve made – Jesus the Christ.
So while Christians debate the scope of the “all” that God longs to save, Paul leaves no room for debate about through whom that salvation comes. He doesn’t say that there is any number of mediators between God and God’s people. The apostle insists there is only one mediator: “the man Christ Jesus” (6). Anyone God rescues God does so through the self-surrendering, self-sacrificing work of Jesus the Christ.
Paul’s use of ransom (antylitron) is an example of one of the Bible’s many descriptions of what Jesus Christ did on Calvary’s cross in order to rescue his adopted siblings. It points to the way he surrendered his whole person to the evil one in exchange for the life of his adopted brothers and sisters. Jesus the Christ traded his life for the lives of those whom the evil one had held hostage.
Paul’s assertion of God’s desire to rescue all people through Jesus Christ informs his desire that “requests, prayers, intercession, and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all in authority” (1-2). Christians sometimes think he’s calling Christians to a general prayer for everyone’s well-being. We may also think of this as a call to Christians to pray that God will equip all in authority to properly exercise their authority.
That’s certainly one theme of God’s dearly beloved people’s prayers for all people. However, this Lesson’s emphasis on God’s longing for people’s salvation suggests that our prayers for people include pleas for their rescue from the power of Satan, sin, and death. Christians’ prayers also include prayers of thanksgiving when anyone, but perhaps especially those in authority, receives God’s grace with his or her faith in Jesus Christ.
While Jesus’ friends think of prayer in a variety of ways, preachers might explore with our hearers how often we think of prayer as pleasing (apodekton) God our Savior. Paul insists that the God who longs to rescue everyone finds God’s adopted sons and daughters’ prayers on behalf of people to be welcome, pleasant, and acceptable.
However, the link between “prayers for kings and all those in authority” and “we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” may be more mysterious than Christians sometimes assume. Paul connects the phrases with the Greek conjunction hina that we generally translate as “so that.” So Christians sometimes assume that the apostle is claiming that when God says “yes” to our prayers for those in authority, they’ll lead in such a way that God’s people will be able to live peaceful and godly lives in all godliness and holiness.
But what if Paul is inviting us to pray for our leaders because such prayer is an essential part of what it means to live a peaceful and quiet life in all godliness and holiness? God’s dearly beloved people tend to pray only for people whom we like, as well as pray that God will change the people we don’t like. What, then, if prayer for all people is “good and pleases God our Savior” in part because it’s an essential component of Christian discipleship?
Paul closes this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson with a reminder of why God appointed him to be a “herald and an apostle” (7). He recognizes that God has called him to announce that, among other things, “there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ, who gave himself as a ransom for all men.” The apostle understands that God has called him to both proclaim and be an ambassador of the news that God has established a bridge between fallen humanity and the Holy God – Jesus the Christ.
But even there Paul alludes to the wideness of his “audience” that echoes the wideness of the people whom God desires to be saved. He, after all, refers to himself as “a teacher of the true faith to the Gentiles” (7). Paul doesn’t just speak the gospel to the Jews. He also, perhaps, in fact, especially proclaims God’s grace to non-Jews. There is, after all, as Christians sometimes sing, “a wideness in God’s mercy.”
Few American short story writers had and wielded more power to shock their readers than Flannery O’Connor. Few of O’Connor’s short stories shocked and unsettled her readers more than A Good Man Is Hard to Find.
Grandma’s family members have been murdered in cold blood by a group of serial killers that’s led by Misfit. She tries to convince Misfit to pray, perhaps in hopes he’ll spare her life. “’If you would pray,’ the old lady said, ‘Jesus would help you.’ ‘That’s right,’ the Misfit said. ‘Well, then, why don’t you pray?’ she asked, trembling with delight suddenly. ‘I don’t want no help,’ he said. ‘I’m doing all right by myself’.”
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