Commentary on 1 Timothy 2:1-7
The passage in 1 Timothy 2:1-7 consists of two units.
First, the author requests prayer for those in leadership positions. Second, the author makes the theological statement that there is only one God, and that Jesus Christ is a mediator and saved humans through his atoning death.
1 Timothy 2:1 starts with the words “first of all” (NRSV), but the attentive reader will notice that no “second” or “third” follows afterwards. The Greek word proton, then, does not enumerate items of an argument, but rather emphasizes the subsequent argument. A more appropriate translation, therefore, would be “above all” or “the most important thing is that … ” It introduces an appeal to be persistent in prayer.
The author employs four partially equivalent Greek words for prayer, each of which conveys a different nuance: the term deesis indicates an appeal for a particular need; proseuche is a general word for prayer that frequently occurs in petitions; enteuxis captures an urgent and bold request; finally, eucharistia denotes an expressions of gratitude.1 Similar lists of prayers requests occur in other Pauline and Deutero-Pauline letters, for example in Ephesians 6:18; Philippians 4:6, and 1 Timothy 5:5.
Thus, the author of First Timothy solicits all imaginable forms of prayer. They are to be spoken “for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions” (2:1-2). Why are the latter specifically mentioned here? The immediate reason might be the hope that Christians “may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” In the first century CE as today, much of that was determined by religious tolerance and political stability guaranteed by those in leadership positions. Yet there was certainly one more reason why the author of our letter mentioned rulers in this context.
When understood against the backdrop of the Roman Emperor cult of the late first century CE, these words take on a new meaning. Established in 510 BCE, Rome had been a republic governed by two consuls who were elected to their positions. This system was in effect for half a millennium, but was then changed in two significant ways: First, starting with the rule of Julius Caesar, the republic was replaced by the Imperial system; this means that one emperor would rule from now on. And second, Rome gradually introduced the apotheosis of the emperor.
After his assassination in 27 BCE, Julius Caesar was soon proclaimed divine and accepted among the gods of the state, officially allowing for the initiation of his worship. Later in the first century CE, this type of Emperor Cult gradually developed in the whole Roman Empire as a unifying and politically stabilizing force. However, it gave rise to the custom of praying to the divinized Caesars.
In this kind of imperial milieu, the request in 1 Timothy 2:2 to pray “for kings” instead of “to the kings” takes on new meaning. It implies most ostensibly that rulers, like everybody else, depend on the guidance and mercy of God. Furthermore, it indirectly implies that they are not divine but mortal humans.
These reflections explain why a theological statement about the oneness of God follows the request of prayer for those in leadership positions. It explicitly challenges the Roman Emperor Cult as well as the Greco-Roman pantheon through the fundamental claim that “there is one God” (2:5). Similar statements are typical for Pauline and Deutero-Pauline letters (see, e.g., Romans 3:30; 1 Corinthians 8:4-6; Galatians 3:20; Ephesians 4:5, 6).
They hearken to the shema Israel, the ancient Jewish prayer “Hear, O Israel” (Deuteronomy 6:4) that also asks for undivided adherence and devotion to the one God.2 Early Christians were thus asked to worship the God of Israel while rejecting the Roman Emperor Cult. Such challenging words are more than interesting historical insights. Still today, there is a tendency to somehow ‘divinize’ humans; those who are successful in public life, sports, or show business are often celebrated and “worshiped” as “stars.” They, too, need our prayers, as there is only one God who saves us all.
Our passage, therefore, concludes with the concepts of salvation and atonement. God, our Savior, “desires everyone to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (2:4). For Christians, such knowledge refers to the story of Jesus Christ as the Gospels tell it. This is the truth, and therefore the Gospel according to John calls Jesus the “truth” (14:6). The story of Jesus comprises not only the events of his life, but also his crucifixion. Yet how can the death of Jesus have saving significance?
The words of 1 Timothy 2:6 state that Jesus “gave himself a ransom for all.” In a similar fashion, Mark writes that “ … the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). A phrase like this articulates salvation through Jesus Christ as redemption, which can be seen as a sub-category of atonement. It assumes that humans carry a debt that cannot simply be canceled but must be paid in full. How, then, can they achieve redemption?
“If necessary, somebody else has to make the payment. Therefore, this interpretive category conveys the vicarious surrender of life for others … Ransom and redemption are mercantile terms. They typically refer to money paid for the release of slaves or captives. Considering that a large percentage of the population in the ancient Greco-Roman world was slaves, this soteriological concept was intelligible to many. Its imagery must have strongly resonated with those at the bottom of society.”3
1 Timothy 2:6, therefore, depicts the death of Jesus Christ in atonement categories; yet its imagery does not deploy sacrificial rituals from the temple cult. Instead, it draws on secular motifs: the death on the cross is understood as an event of existential exchange that provides new life for humanity. God appointed the apostle Paul to proclaim this good news to the Gentiles, and it is still at the heart of the Christian proclamation throughout the world.
1 Cf. Knight, G. W., The Pastoral Epistles: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, Mich./Carlisle, England: W.B. Eerdmans/Paternoster Press, 1992), page 114.
2 Cf. Johnson, L. T., The First and Second Letters to Timothy: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2008), page 191.
3 Eberhart, C. A., The Sacrifice of Jesus: Understanding Atonement Biblically (Facets, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), page 129-30.