What Shall We Do?
[A sermon preached at the morning service in St George’s-Tron Church, Glasgow, on 31 August 1997, following the announcement of the death in Paris, earlier that day, of Diana, Princess of Wales.]
I urge, then, first of all, that requests, praers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone– for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Saviour, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man, Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men– the testimony given in its proper time. And for this purpose I was appointed a herald and an apostle– I am telling the truth, am not lying– and a teacher of the true faith to the Gentiles.
I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing. —1 Timothy 2.1-8 (NIV)
Infrequently in our lifetime will this nation awaken, as it has done today, with such a universal sense– ill-defined though it may still be this morning– that events have taken place which will touch the heart of all that we are as a people.
In the aftermath we will undoubtedly be engulfed by reports and reflections from the media– in our newspapers and on our television screens– not only today, but doubtless for years and even for decades to come. That has been the case in the United States since the assassination of President Kennedy and of Martin Luther King, and in other countries where events of a similar nature have taken place. It will be the same here. There is no doubt that as Christians we face in these next few days a period in our nation when there will be almost exclusively one topic of conversation, one point of discussion.
It is at such times, of course, that Christian people are meant by God to stand out as different. We are God’s ‘different’ people, his holy society. It is with this in mind that I want to lay aside the message prepared for this morning in our series on the specific prayers of the apostle Paul to draw your attention to the more general instruction and direction that he gives to Timothy in 1 Timothy 2:1-8.
Paul is here speaking to his younger friend about the life of a church set in the midst of pagan society. I do not need to remind you that there are many evidences that our society today is a similarly pagan one. What does the apostle teach us we are to do as different people in such an environment?
What Paul points out is this: in the New Testament period as at all ages of the church– when it has really been the church– Christians are called to have a different view of society and government, and for that matter of royalty, than the view held by others around them– including the view government and royalty may have of themselves.
Christians stand out in the world in which they live precisely because they have a higher loyalty than any other that exists. That is their distinguishing feature. Others have their ultimate loyalties within this word, but the Christian’s chief devotion, his great and paramount allegiance, is not in this world. For Christians are citizens of another nation; they belong to another kingdom and are the subject of another King, the Lord Jesus Christ! And yet the paradox which makes the Christian church and the individual Christian believer so different is this: when those who are in authority are truly exercising their God-given task and role, they will find no more loyal or more faithful subjects on the face of the earth– scour its continents though they may! Throughout church history this has been the testimony of Christians– some of whom have laid down their life in devotion to their Lord and King.
One of the ways in which Paul underlines this is seen in the manner in which Christian people pray for their nation, for those who have authority over them, and for those whom we call, in this world’s terms, ‘royalty’ and ‘nobility’.
I want us, therefore, to draw from what the apostle says here in 1 Timothy 2:1-8 some fundamental lessons and principles which in these next few days will help to hold us in and will guard us as God’s people and as individuals where we work and live. The result will be that our response in these days will be Christianly distinctive from almost every other response which we will hear in the future.
The first thing Paul asks us is obviously:
What Are We To Do?
What can we do? Paul says: ‘I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made…’ We can, and must, pray!
This is such a burden on the apostle that he begins to ransack the vocabulary for prayer, to describe what we are to do as the people of God. He uses several different expressions which are variously employed in the New Testament to indicate the different aspects and facets of prayer, and to teach us what it means to pray.
Requests. First of all, ‘requests’ are to be made; that is to say, requests for specific needs.
We see examples of this in Paul’s own prayers. Remember the way in which he sympathetically worked himself into the situation of those for whom he was concerned in order that he might pray intelligently and and specifically for them, and in a manner that was in accordance with the mind and will of God. This is what he is saying to Timothy: the first thing you need to do is to learn how to make specific requests for those upon whom your prayers are centred.
Prayer. And then he uses a second word: ‘prayer’. This seems to convey the idea of spreading those requests carefully before God. Praying is not simply a matter of knowing what to pray for , but of spreading our concerns and needs before God.– as the apostle himself did, giving us an example. This is what we see in the prayers of the people of God recorded in the Old Testament. Abraham, David, Daniel, Nehemiah– they did not simply bring requests, they spread their requests before God, as though they were setting a table before the Almighty.
Intercession. Thirdly, Paul encourages ‘intercession’, that is specific appeals to God brought by those who recognise that they stand between God and others.
The need for this in our day, and at this particular time, cannot be overemphasised. It would be impossible to impress upon you how significant this exhortation is. Who will stand in the gap in our nation? This is the question that is posed to us today.
Privately and sometimes publicly our lamentation is: ‘We have a lack of moral and spiritual leaders in the nation.’ Further, we greatly bemoan the apparent lack of morality in some of the leaders we do have. But who will stand in the gap and speak with God about the situation?– this is Paul’s concern. Who will be an intercessor? Who will bring the needs, and–yes– the sins of this situation, before the throne of God, and plead with him as Paul says here, for mercy?
Thanksgiving. But then, as though to surprise us, Paul says that all this may be done with thankfulness! This is the amazing thing that characterises the Christian’s prayer: even when engaged in lamentation, the believer is still able to come to God with thanksgiving that there is One who hears and answers the prayers of his people. In his mighty power and authority he is able to do something in the mystery of his will with the prayers that we offer to him!
Do we believe that God is well able to work his sovereign purpose in answer to the pleadings of his children even through such a day as this? He is glad–like a father–to have us, his children, speaking to him, expressing our pain to him, and asking him for things in order that he may show his generosity to us.
And so the apostle Paul says that in relationship to our national life, the instinct of believers should always be… what? To go to God. And to go to God, not as I heard on the radio this morning Mother Teresa and her nuns will do– to pray for the dead. There is nothing we can do for the dead. But rather we go to God to pray for the living, that God may do something in his mercy for them.
Those with whom you work tomorrow or who will sit beside you at school, or around your neighbourhood, or wherever, what will they be saying? What will our newspapers say? And the television? What will the biographers write? For decades to come they will speak. But who will speak to God? Who will pray? The church must learn to pray. That is the first thing we need to grasp today.
But there is a second lesson to learn here:
What Are We To Pray?
You will remember what Paul teaches us in Romans 13. The way in which nations are constituted–democracies, monarchies, and mixed democracy and monarchy, commons and nobility– such as we have here in our country– these are not merely in the hands of men, but in the hands of God. He has ordained the powers that be for the fulfillment of his providential purposes.
Remember that this was the divinely-given teaching of someone speaking in the dark shadow of Nero. Paul was not a man who lived in the best of all possible worlds but one who stood, apparently, on the verge of the worst of all possible epochs. Yet he encourages us to pray that those who have authority over us will fulfill their God-appointed role.
Now this is very important for us. I wonder to what extent the alarm clock of this morning’s tragedy awakens us to the fact that we, as the people of God, have been well-nigh indistinguishable from the world with respect to the words and attitudes we have expressed on the subject of our royalty and our government. But how many of us have gone to God and prayed? Yet this is what Paul is saying: we must learn to pray.
We are to pray that those who have the symbols of authority and those who exercise it in our land may so govern that we may live–notice this– ‘peaceful and quiet lives’. That is, we are to ask that our national life may have integrity and stability about it. And within that context we are to pray this in order that God’s people may live in all godliness and holiness.
Notice what Paul adds– for it is to this that we need to direct out attention today. The apostle was conscious of the fact that even under ungodly rule it is possible to be outstandingly godly. Is that not what has struck us about Christians we have met from countries where the church has been persecuted in recent years? We have been more impressed than we could ever say by an awareness of the godliness that their suffering seems to have wrought in their lives. We do not need a peaceful society in order to be godly men and women; buy says Paul, you should pray for rulers in order that there may be an ongoingly stable society in which you will glorify our Lord Jesus Christ.
But, we are set in that society– for what? The media believes it is set in our society for another. But why has God set the church in society? In order that we may be a company of interceding people who become the divinely-shaped instrument for bringing the message and the grace of salvation to those who are in darkness.
Look at how the apostle implies this in verse three: ‘This is good and pleases God our Saviour who wants all men to be saved’. Here Paul probably means ‘by ‘all’ not every single individual; rather he is saying that God is not wanting only specific sections of society to be saved– the rich distinction from the ignorant. No, no! Our God is a magnanimous God. Salvation does not depend on qualifications which are intellectual, social or financial! It is not received on the basis of status. He desires all sorts of men and women to be saved!! Indeed–wonder of wonders– God wants salvation to go to the very throne-rooms of the societies in which he sets his people down as witness.
You may remember that this was actually Paul’s own calling. Here is what was said about him when he came to faith in Jesus Christ: God had set him apart ‘as a chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings…’ (Acts 9:15). He was called in order to be a witness, in order to stand before kings and tell them about the Saviour Jesus Christ.
Before…kings! When did you last pray, my friends, for members of the Royal Family? Or for our government? Do we need to hang our heads in shame on a day like this because we did not hearken to the exhortation of Scripture to pray for them? And are today’s events not in some measure a wake-up call to us to learn so to pray?
Our society– as commentators of all stripes observe –seems to be hurtling down the same sorry track that the Roman Empire once did, to destruction. Can it be that God is speaking as he spoke in the Old Testament, asking us to stand in the gap? ‘I looked for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it.’
Will the Lord say of us too, ‘but I found none’ (Ezekiel 22:30)? Whom shall God send, and who will go for him in prayer? Who will call upon his name for blessing?
But if Paul tells us what we are to do– to pray; and for whom we are to do so, then he stresses, thirdly:
Why Are We to Intercede?
Why is our prayer so important. Well, it is because– as Paul goes on to say in verses four and five –God wants men and women to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. ‘For’ he continues, ‘there is one God…’ And if we are Christians we also believe, says Paul, that there is only one Mediator between God and sinful men and women. Let us say it without being ashamed of the gospel: There is only one name under heaven by which we can be saved (Acts 4:12). That one Mediator, that sole Name, is our Saviour, the man Christ Jesus.
Why then is the church to pray? We are to do so because we are the only people in society who believe this. We are the only people who have the knowledge of the truth. That may seem arrogant in the eyes of the world, or narrow minded in their estimation. Let it be so! But, you see, if we have a knowledge of such truth, and alone in this universe possess that knowledge, then we are not only responsible to share it; we are responsible to pray it down into the hearts and minds and lives of those who will not or cannot pray for themselves.
This is our God-given responsibility. And it is one which, in a very emphatic way, Paul seems to lay upon us in the words of verse eight: ‘I want men everywhere…’ he says. That it is a very interesting statement, because he uses the Greek word which means men in distinction from women, not the generic term for man or humankind. It is not that he is making a universal statement, ‘women must not pray under any circumstances’. That would be ludicrous. Rather he seems to be emphasising what is to take place in the life of the church as it gathers. There he urges the men folk to pray.
What a word for our times is this! Men seem to have disappeared from the life of prayer in our nation. But God wants the men to pray.
And notice– perhaps even more instructive for us on such a day as this– Paul adds: I want them to pray ‘with holy hands lifted up’. That, of course, is the gesticulation of prayer in the Bible. But notice how he adds a description of the spirit in which this is to be done: ‘without anger or disputing.’
Without anger! No disputing! My friends, what are our newspapers going to be full of tomorrow and during the days to come? What are interviews going to be about? What is the spirit of the age and the times going to be? Anger on the one hand, and disputing on the other! Recrimination of all kinds!
But not so the church of Jesus Christ; not so for us where we live in our families and neighbourhoods, in our places of work or where we take our recreation. No, when these events are the talk of the nation and conversation is characterised by anger and disputation, what should mark the people of God? They are to be distinguished by the fact that they have lifted up holy hands. They have gone to the throne of God’s grace and pleaded with him for gospel grace for the sinner and for gospel power in the corridors of authority in the nation in which we live. That is our calling and our challenge today.
Many years ago I used to attend a prayer meeting in which a very gracious man was notable for the way in which he prayed. When any situation of special need arose his approach was this: he would first, with the simplicity and clarity of spiritual genius, spread the situation before the Lord. But then his prayer would seem to move into a different gear. He had summarised the need in the presence of God; then came the gear shift. It was always signified by these words: ‘But we are coming to Thee about this…’
It is the only thing to do: ‘We are coming to Thee about this.’
How much we need to learn to do that today– to come to the Lord about this! Yes, and not only about this, but about everything the Bible tells us we are to pray for.
What a call foes out on a day like this.– to those who alone have access to this word- to come to Almighty God, and to plead with him for his grace, for his wisdom, for his power, for his mercy! Yes, and we need to pray that in his love he will strengthen us not only for our our prayers but for wise and faithful witness. And thus we will be enabled to point people to another King, and another Kingdom, another citizenship and another city– the one where the Lord Jesus Christ reigns in majesty and in glory, and in which we are his servants in prayer.
Jesus my strength, my hope..
On Thee I cast My care,
With humble confidence look up,
And know Thou hear’st my prayer.
Give me on Thee to wait,
Till I can all things do,
On Thee, almighty to create,
Almighty to renew.
— Charles Wesley
Prayer After the Sermon:
Our Heavenly Father, we bow before you, conscious that we are not of the mighty of the earth, not of the great in this world’s view. But you have placed within our hands a treasure placed nowhere else in the universe, and urged us to pray. We come to you to pray.
We come to you to pray for comfort for those who are bereaved; for help for those who are confused; for the special grace that those who are especially touched by the events of this day will need; for wisdom for those who exercise authority over us.
But most of all we come to pray to you for salvation to come, and that in your perfect wisdom you will use the events of these days to bring that salvation to those who as yet do not knw it.
We bow before you for this, and ask you to hear us, in Jesus’ Name. Amen.
This article was first published in The Banner of Truth (Issue 410: November 1997, p6-13)
Of Further Interest
A Collection Of Puritan Prayers
[A sermon preached at the morning service in St George’s-Tron Church, Glasgow, on 31 August 1997, following the announcement of the death in Paris, earlier that day, of Diana, Princess of Wales.] I urge, then, first of all, that requests, […]