November 2, 2012

Sovereignty & Politics

by Nathan Busenitz

This is a continuation of yesterday’s post, regarding Prayer & Politics.

Uncle_SamFirst Timothy 2:1–7 gives believers three reasons why they should pray for their secular leaders. Today, we will consider the first of those three reasons.

1.  Prayer reminds us to place our confidence in God.

When we pray for our governmental leaders, we are reminded that God is in control. He is on His throne. He is sovereign over all. And we can trust Him.

In 1 Timothy 2:1–2a,  Paul writes: “First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority . . . .”

Several observations immediately jump out from those verses:

The fact that Paul places this emphasis “first of all” indicates that he considers it to be a priority. That is why he urges believers to do this.

You’ll notice also that there are four different words used to describe the types of prayers that believers are to offer: entreaties, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings. When we consider all four together, we quickly see that the nature of our prayers—on behalf of all people in a general sense, and on behalf of governmental leaders in particular—ought to include specific requests, earnest supplication, and a sincere heart of gratitude. Our prayers ought to be characterized by thanksgiving, not complaining.

At the beginning of verse 2, Paul specifies the object of these prayers: “For kings and all who are in authority.”

Stop and think about that statement for just a moment within its historical context. By the time Paul wrote this letter, he had endured a great amount of persecution for the sake of the gospel. He had been unjustly arrested, imprisoned, and beaten by Jewish religious authorities and by local magistrates in various Roman cities; he had recently been imprisoned by the Roman procurator Felix, and then by his successor Festus. He had been sent to Rome and placed under house arrest there for two years—even though he had not done anything against the law.

As he writes this letter, none other than Nero sits enthroned as the Roman emperor. This is the same Nero who will blame Christians for a devastating fire in Rome not long after Paul penned these words. Using the fire as an excuse, Nero will brutally persecute the church; in the process, he will have Paul arrested a second time, thrown into a putrid dungeon, and eventually beheaded. And this is the guy Paul instructs Timothy to pray for!

If anyone understood what it is like to minister in a wicked society that was ruled by unjust and ungodly men—a civilization characterized by rampant corruption and ungodly values from the imperial level to the local level—it was Paul. Nonetheless, he urges Timothy and the other believers in Ephesus to pray for their secular leaders.

How can he do that?

It is because Paul rests in the fact that there is a Supreme Authority who is higher than any governmental authority, political leader, or national institution.

In fact, in 1 Timothy 1:17, just a few verses before this section, Paul reminded Timothy about who really is in charge: “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.”

That word for King, there in verse 17, is a singular form of the same word Paul uses for kings in 2:2. Paul’s use of those terms highlights an important theological point. There is the King—definite article, capital K—and then there are all the other lowercase kings. Human rulers, emperors, dictators, despots, monarchs, presidents, governors, senators, mayors—whatever the political office—they all derive their position of authority from the King. And when we pray to the King we acknowledge the fact that He reigns over every other ruler or authority figure.

As Daniel exclaimed in Daniel 2:20–21: “Let the name of God be blessed forever and ever, For wisdom and power belong to Him. It is He who changes the times and the epochs; He removes kings and establishes kings.”

When we pray, we verbally acknowledge the fact that God is sovereign over the kingdoms of this world, including the somewhat complex electoral college system of a Democratic Republic like the United States of America. He has everything under His perfect control.

Paul reiterates this same truth at the end of this epistle. In 1 Timothy 6:15–16, the apostle says of God, “He who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see. To Him be honor and eternal dominion! Amen.”

When we pray, we are reminded that God is in control.

It is important to note, of course, that the sincerity of our prayers and the thankfulness of our hearts in offering those prayers is not conditioned on how well our leaders perform, or on the policy decisions they make, or on whether or not we like their personalities. Rather, our thanksgiving reflects the fact that we are filled with gratitude for God’s sovereign control over the circumstances of our life, including the political affairs of our nation. As a result of affirming in our own hearts that God is sovereign, we recognize that we don’t need to grow worried or become anxious.

Remember what Paul told the Philippians in a letter he wrote just a couple years before his epistle to Timothy. In Philippians 4:6–7, Paul penned these familiar words: “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Significantly, three of the terms Paul uses in Philippians 4:6–7 – “prayer,” “supplication,” and “thanksgiving” – are all found in 1 Timothy 2:1. In essence, Paul has taken his command in Philippians 4:6–7 and applied it for Timothy to governmental authorities. What a helpful reminder that is, at least for me, in the midst of this current election.

Are there reasons to be anxious about what will happen at the polls on Tuesday? Moral principles and biblical standards are being assaulted like never before; huge financial challenges threaten our economy; foreign enemies would like nothing more than to annihilate us and our allies with a nuclear attack; and then there are a host of other political hot button issues — from nationalized health care and illegal immigration to rising fuel costs and questions about governmental involvement in the private sector.

But Paul says to be anxious for nothing.

In light of everything that is going on, how can we do that? It is only possible when we get on our knees and cast our cares upon the Lord, resting in the fact that our God is on His throne.

That is certainly a compelling reason to pray for our secular leaders—to remind ourselves that there is a King above every human ruler including those in our government. And He has everything under control, as He works all things together for His glory and the good of those who love Him.

(In our next installment, we will consider a second reason to pray for those in authority over us.)

Nathan Busenitz

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Nathan serves on the pastoral staff of Grace Church and teaches theology at The Master's Seminary in Los Angeles.