How should we pray for unbelievers? 1 Timothy 2:1–2 helps answer this question. Let’s get the context first and then look at the content of this passage.
1 Timothy 2:1–2 (ESV)
(1) 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.
Taken at surface level, 1 Timothy 2:1–2 is understood to give a general command to pray for all people and civil leaders. The surrounding context, however, helps us see that Paul had in mind a prayer for the salvation of all. How do we figure this out?
Notice what Paul says before 1 Timothy 2:1–2.
Paul had just charged Timothy to command the false teachers to stop promoting false doctrine (1 Tim 1:3–7). They did not promote “the stewardship from God that is by faith” (1 Tim 1:4), which we can understand to be the content of the gospel and God’s program for the present age (cf. 1 Tim 1:15).
Paul then clarified how to use the law “in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God” (1 Tim 1:11). Filling in the details of the gospel “with which [he] had been entrusted” (1 Tim 1:11), Paul brought the gospel’s key premise to the fore: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim 1:15). Paul closes this section by reiterating to Timothy that he was to fulfill his charge along these lines (1 Tim 1:18–20).
Coming to the command to pray, Paul transitions to a series of topics pertinent to the church (1 Tim ; cf. 2:1, “first of all”), but he does so with the previous context in mind (cf. 1 Tim 2:1; notice the “then” that refers back to 1 Tim 1:1–20). In other words, with the gospel in mind, Paul gives the command to pray. It is not just a generic prayer for all people, but in context, a prayer for their salvation.
Examining the context further, notice also what Paul says after 1 Timothy 2:1–2.
Paul gives three reasons in 1 Tim 2:3–7 as to why the church in Ephesus was to pray for all people, and these reasons all involve salvation in some way, implying salvation is the aim of the prayer for all people in 1 Tim 2:1–2. They were to pray for all people because (1) it would please God to do so because He desires the salvation of all (1 Tim 2:3–4), (2) Jesus died for the salvation of all (1 Tim 2:6; cf. 1:15), and (3) Paul’s mission was to give the gospel so that all might be saved, which is the mission of the church today (1 Tim 2:7; cf. Matt 28:18–20).
To summarize thus far, the surrounding context of 1 Timothy 2:1–2 indicates that these two verses command us to pray for the salvation of unbelievers.
This brings us to the content of 1 Timothy 2:1-2 itself. How does this passage tell us how to go about praying for the salvation of all people. Let’s remind ourselves of Paul’s command: “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people” (1 Tim 2:1 – ESV).
Various terms for prayer indicate indicate how we can specifically pray for the salvation of others: supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings. Two points can be made here. First, this passage and others show us that these terms can overlap and emphasize prayer in general. Paul couples “prayers and supplications” elsewhere in other general passages on prayer (1 Tim 5:5; Eph 6:18). “Prayer” and “thanksgiving” are found in Col 4:2–3. Paul gives prayer as the remedy for anxiety in Phil 4:6 and mentions that we should give “prayer and supplication with thanksgiving” to God, which uses three of the same terms as our passage in 1 Timothy 2:1. The larger point in 1 Timothy 2:1 is simply this: however you pray for unbelievers, pray. Second, we can see how to better pray for the lost by the differences between the terms as well.
- Supplications: This is an act of prayer for a specific need (e.g., Luke 1:13).
- Prayers: This is simply a general term for prayer (cf. Acts 16:13, 16).
- Intercessions: The cognate verb for this term is used of the Spirit and Christ who intercede for us before the Father (Rom 8:27, 34), which could imply an intercession is a request to a superior that recognizes the answer is out of our hands and in the hands of the one to whom the request is made.
- Thanksgivings: This focuses on giving God thanks.
Let’s put our terms together and see how we can better pray for unbelievers: we should regularly spend time in prayer (prayers) for the salvation of all by asking God to grant our requests (intercessions) to save the people for whom we specifically pray (supplications). And, when He saves them, we should give Him thanks (thanksgivings).
Many miss the salvation emphasis in Paul’s command and see 1 Timothy 2:1–2 as a general command to pray for our civil leaders. While we should certainly pray for these men and women, the grammar and context indicate that we pray for them with respect to their role as it concerns God’s desire for the salvation of all.
The grammar of 1 Tim 2:1-2 shows us that we should pray for the salvation of all men as well, not just kings and governors. The phrase “for kings . . .” continues immediately after “all people” (1 Tim 2:1–2). Since all people include kings and authorities, we can conclude that Paul is giving a parenthetical comment and focusing on a subset of people. In context, we pray for kings and authorities along the lines of how we pray for all people – we should pray for their salvation.
As their role affects society at large, however, Paul does indicate in a couple of ways how we can specifically pray for these leaders so that all people might be saved. First, pray that the leaders themselves would be saved and that they would lead in such a way that our lives could be lived in peace and quiet. The peace and quiet does not refer to the decibel level of our personal households but for peace and tranquility within society as a whole. A peaceful society allows for the spread of the gospel. A hostile society leads to persecution and keeps us from proclaiming God’s Word as much as we would like. Second, pray that we would live in this peaceful society in such a way that our lives are marked by godliness and dignity. Godliness is part and parcel with the gospel, so much so that Paul refers to the gospel as “the mystery of godliness” (1 Tim 3:16). The presence of godliness in our lives assures us of our eternal life now and promises eternal life is to come (1 Tim 4:7–8), is based upon the sound teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Tim 6:3), is a means of eternal reward (1 Tim 6:7), and is something we must pursue (1 Tim 6:11). It is a tangible expression of the gospel in our lives. Dignity carries some overlap with godliness. Pastors must manage their house “with all dignity” (1 Tim 3:4). Paul uses “dignified” (a word related to “dignity”) as a headword to summarize the requirements of deacons and their wives in 1 Tim 3:8 and 1 Tim 3:11. It is a broad term indicating “a manner or mode of behavior that indicates one is above what is ordinary and therefore worthy of special respect.”*
Putting these requests together, we should pray that we would continue to live in a society where we can freely interact with unbelievers, and as we interact with them, we should pray that we would live godly lives so others will not reject the gospel.
Summarizing 1 Tim 2:1-2, pray for all men to be saved. Along with this request, pray for the leaders of the land to govern peacefully so that we can freely share that gospel that is being lived out in our lives.
* BDAG, s.v., “σεμνότης”