First things first
Christians occupy a unique place. We live here yet look there. In the words of a beloved hymn, “I’m but a stranger here, heaven is my home.” That rephrases Paul’s words to the Philippians, “Your citizenship is in heaven.” Jesus says about His disciples, “They are not of the world.” The Spirit speaks of believers who “admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth….longing for a better country – a heavenly one.”
Yet Jesus also says of His disciples, “They are still in the world.” In Luke 16 today, Jesus doesn’t just commend, but commands His followers to operate in the world: “I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves.” Jesus sends out the Twelve and tells them, “Be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” Here originates that well-worn phrase: Christians live “in the world, but not of it.”
Christians use this principle to defend the faith against the charge of disloyalty to the government. On the one hand, Christians lives as strangers on earth, on the other we live as citizens of earthly kingdoms. We do both. Christians serve both kingdoms. We give to Caesar what belongs to him and to God what belongs to Him. In the world, but not of the world!
Thus Paul’s possibly surprising words. He writes to Timothy back in Ephesus: “I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority.” “First of all”?
What may have weighed on Paul’s mind were the legal difficulties that surrounded him everywhere he went, difficulties that popped up in Ephesus. Paul stayed in Ephesus for over two years. The preaching of the Word created many believers and many tensions. Faith in Jesus led many Ephesians to burn their occult objects – horoscopes, books about witchcraft, books for the worship of idols. This created an economic impact. Ephesus stood at the center of Artemis worship. Her enormous temple generated a thriving trade in trinkets and souvenirs. Paul’s preaching cut into profits. The souvenir makers rioted and tried to pressure the government into punishing Paul and the Christians.
Paul left and took Timothy. He later sent Timothy back. These events no doubt played a part in Paul’s thinking. The temple to Artemis remained. The Roman government, a pagan government, still ruled the roost. The Jews still hated Christianity. In Ephesus they “refused to believe and publicly maligned the Way.” These Jewish opponents managed to cause riots and legal problems for Christians all around Asia Minor and Greece.
So Paul says, out of all things he could and would say to Timothy, “Pray for all men and pray for the government.” This is akin to Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in Babylon, recorded in Jeremiah 29. He said: This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”…. This is what the LORD says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.
Notice Jeremiah’s words: “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile.” Be shrewd. If your city prospers, you prosper. Likewise Paul: “Pray for the world, pray for all men, pray for the government that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.”
Note well that Paul distinguishes between praying TO the government and praying FOR the government. We often forget this. In our eagerness to be as shrewd as snakes, to make friends in the world with worldly wealth, we tend to confuse the two. Too often we pray TO the government. Luther says in the Large Catechism this happens when we treat the government as that “from which we expect all good and in which we take refuge in all distress.” The government is not God, and dare not be treated that way. The government is God’s instrument. As he explains the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer – “Give us this day our daily bread” – Luther marvels at how God uses the government to provide for our daily needs. The quiet life the government provides allows for the production of what we need for our bodily life – but it’s all from God, God’s gifts!
So we pray for the government. We pray for its success. We pray that it act in a God-pleasing manner and do God-pleasing things. We can even pray that more Christians end up in government. Yet we know that is the longest of long shots. A true Christian in government is, as Luther says, a rare bird indeed.
Thus, what Paul lived, we live. Paul lived under the tyranny of an emperor like Nero, an emperor who blamed Christians when he burned down Rome. Yet Paul says, “Pray for him.” Paul says pray for pagan governments. Imagine that. Imagine living in a Muslim country where Christianity is, at best, frowned upon. You’re not allowed to build a church. You can’t talk about your faith to others. Yet Paul says, “Pray for them.” Just as Jesus said, “Pray for those who persecute you.”
We find this hard. It’s easy to pray for governments we like. It’s easy to pray when things are going well. It’s also easy for us to pray against the government. Even in our own country, a country with more religious freedom and toleration than almost any other in the history of the world, we find a lot to pray against. But Paul – and Jesus – say nothing about “against.” They say, “Pray for.” And we add, “Especially the godless.” But we make no distinction. Whether the government is godly or not, whether it’s officially Christian or Muslim, or unofficially one or the other, the “all” is inclusive. Thus we act shrewdly in dealing with our own kind. It’s in our best interests.
More vitally, it’s God-pleasing: “This is good, and pleases God our Savior.” What’s good? The prayers we pray for all men and government? The peace and quietness that governments can provide for their people? The lives of godliness and holiness that Christians can live as a result of the worldly peace? Yes. All of it.
It pleases God that we pray for all people and for all in authority. All of them. It pleases God when governments do their job and provide peace, security, and freedom, regardless of the personal faith of those governing. It pleases God when we, as Christians, make use of this peace to be godly and holy.
That’s not to say we can only be godly and holy in peace. The Church father Tertullian famously wrote that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church. In other words, in times of great pressure and persecution the Church has grown by leaps and bounds. Countless are the stories of people being led to death, whose faith in the face of death caused one of their executioners to come to faith in Jesus. And yet, in time of stress, the faith must be kept quite secret and quiet. Closed communion originally meant literally closing the doors. A non-Christian couldn’t be in the building. Today, in a time of peace, closed communion means that communion belongs to those who are one in faith, but anyone can observe our services, anyone can hear the sweet Gospel of “given for you, shed for you, for the forgiveness of your sins.”
When governments provide peace so that Christians can live godly and holy lives, we have ever more open opportunities to let our lights shine before men, so that, as Jesus said, “they might see our good deeds and praise our Father in heaven.”
This is good and God-pleasing, because it keeps everything in its place. The government provides peace and security and well-being – we pray! – so that the Church can do its job. The government bears the sword. The Church bears the Word. God uses the government to give earthly blessings to the world. God uses the Church to give eternal blessings, because He is not just a god of “this world.” He is the God who “wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” This government cannot do, because the government does not stand between us and God as a mediator. Jesus does. Paul calls Him the “one mediator between God and man,” the One “who gave Himself as a ransom for all men.” This is why we dare not look to the government as our God. Government has no way to talk to God on our behalf. But Jesus does. Jesus offers up the wounds in His hands and His sides and shows them to God as the proper payment for the sins we commit.
This is equally inclusive. As much as Paul commanded us to pray for all men and all those in authority, he brings all into this too. “God wants all men to be saved.” Jesus “gave Himself as a ransom for all men.” Governments discriminate routinely, God does not, for, as He said through Isaiah, “My house is a house of prayer for all nations.” When we have governments allowing us to live peaceful lives, we can more easily do the work of the Church, the work to which God called Paul: “I was appointed a herald and an apostle…and a teacher.” Because without heralds, apostles, and teachers, all these men God wants to save cannot be saved. Faith comes from hearing the message about Jesus. They cannot hear without someone preaching to them. They cannot preach unless they are sent. Thus Paul says, “I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing,” so that we might have the peace that allows us to preach Christ crucified and risen from the dead, the atoning sacrifice for a world’s sins.
First things first. We pray for everyone: God sent His Son to die for everyone. We pray for governments to provide peace so that God, through us, can proclaim and grant eternal peace. We pray to the One – and only one – who achieves this peace, the One who by faith removes us from a strange land, who will take us out of this world and to Himself: the man, Christ Jesus. Amen!