1 Timothy 2:4 – An Exegesis (by Allen E. Kurschner)
“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. (3) This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, (4) who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (5) For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, (6) who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. (7) For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle ( I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth. ” – 1Tim 2:1-7
I need to say a few words about how Arminians approach this text before I provide an exegesis. Next to 2 Peter 3:9, 1 Timothy 2:4 is by far the most cited verse that Arminians use against Calvinists. The intention behind quoting, “who desires all people to be saved,” is to throw water on any idea that God has elected individuals to be saved, and to deny a particular intention in the atonement, as well as deny any notion that God has a special salvific love for his children.
Arminians start with the human-centered assumption that if God does not love all people undifferentiated, then he would be unjust to love some more than others. The Calvinist begins with the Biblical principle that because man is unworthy of grace and deserving only of death, God in his holiness, wisdom, and freedom chooses to love and elect any creature he desires. I often ask Arminians whether God is just to destroy all the people in the world. The answer is usually “yes.” Then I ask, if so, can God be merciful and choose to elect some to be saved? Here is where they balk.
Why do they commit this inconsistency? Arminians believe that “grace” is only grace if it’s given to all people. Yes, I know what you are thinking, “But that defeats the very meaning of grace.” Exactly, grace is undeserved. If God in his freedom chooses to give one person electing grace, he is not required to give someone else this same grace. “But that’s not fair!” someone may object. That’s right, it’s not fair—it’s called grace. We don’t want God to be fair. We want him to be merciful. If God were fair with us, we would all get our just due: to perish eternally in our sins.
Two Wills of God? (Piper)
I also need to note how some Reformed theologians have attempted to reconcile this verse. One thinker, John Piper, whom I respect, has made an appeal to a theological principle that God has two basic wills: “what God would like to see happen and what he actually does will to happen.” [The Pleasure of God, Revised and Expanded, Appendix: “Are There Two Wills in God? Divine Election and God’s Desire for All to Be Saved” p. 317].
This concept of “two wills” is nothing new of course in Reformed thinking, which Piper notes. And I do agree that it is essential to distinguish between different aspects of God’s will in his decrees, laws, character, etc. But there are important disagreements in how God’s will is understood in particular texts. It is paramount that we first allow the immediate context to have priority before we choose to interact with the theological principle of God’s “two wills.”
Concerning 1 Timothy 2:4, Piper says, “It is possible that careful exegesis of 1 Timothy 2:4 would lead us to believe that God’s willing “all men to be saved” does not refer to every individual person in the world, but rather to all sorts of persons, since the “all men” in verse 1 may well mean groups like “kings and all who are in authority” (v. 2). [p. 314, emphasis his. He notes John Gill affirming this interpretation.]
This is my understanding of the text as well, and the exegesis in which I will defend below. However, he continues by saying something uncharacteristic, “Nevertheless, the case for this limitation on God’s universal saving will has never been convincing to Arminians and likely will not become convincing, especially since Ezekiel 18:23, 18:32, and 33:11 are even less tolerant of restriction. Therefore, as a hearty believer in unconditional, individual election, I rejoice to affirm that God does not delight in the perishing of the impenitent and that he has compassion on all people. My aim is to show that this is not double talk [p. 315].
A couple of comments are necessary. The impression that I am given is that though Piper has first admitted that for him 1 Timothy 2:4 has the possible meaning that God desires “all sorts of persons” and not every individual in the world to be saved, he says that this exegetical argument will not be “convincing to Arminians,” therefore he feels the need to appeal to another argument (i.e. “two wills”).
He then says, “Nevertheless, I will try to make a credible case that while the Arminian pillar texts [1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9, and Ezekiel 18:23] may indeed be pillars for universal love, they are not weapons against unconditional election” (p. 315). But I have to disagree that these particular texts teach God’s universal love. Often it is Arminians who lump these three verses together to mean this; yet, each of these verses are addressing different subjects. 1 Timothy 2:4 concerns God’s desire that those in authority are not excluded from his saving grace; 2 Peter 3:9 notes that God is not willing that his people perish; Ezekiel 18:23 informs us that God is not diabolical in that he takes pleasure in the death of the wicked in itself. None of these three texts are intended to teach a universal love or desire to save every single individual.
I agree with Piper that in many Biblical instances, “what God would like to see happen and what he actually does will to happen,” but this conclusion should be justified by the priority of the context in question. And in the 1 Timothy 2:4 passage there is no basis to apply such a principle because the context and exegesis is sufficient to learn Paul’s meaning. Further, whether or not an argument is convincing to an Arminian is irrelevant. God is glorified when his truth is upheld, regardless of anyone being convinced of the truth, which I am sure Piper would agree. If Arminians cannot accept the exegesis of Scripture, there is no reason to concede to their interpretation and then try to appeal to something outside of the text in the hopes that they will affirm our theology. It is also important to note that the refusal to agree with Calvinistic interpretation is not so much an intellectual issue, as it is a matter of the heart.
Exegesis of 1 Timothy 2:4
The context has already been touched on above, but let me give it flesh. Arminians are fond of citing only part of verse 4, “who desires all people to be saved.” The default meaning for them is “every single individual on this planet.” I often hear them say, “all means all.” Well of course it does, but the question is “all of what?” This is where context must determine what “all” is referring to. So let us examine it by looking at the couple of verses that precede verse 4,
(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. (3) This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, (4) who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
We could work backwards from verse 4 to 1, or forward from verse 1 to 4; either way, it is all connected. But let us work backwards to see the flow of Paul’s thinking. Notice verse 4 begins with “who”; the antecedent is obviously “God” in verse 3, which begins by saying that there is something good and pleasing to our God. What is “This” that Paul is referring to? Here we need to view verses 1 and 2 together as a unit. Paul is urging Timothy the importance of prayers and other spiritual disciplines to be made for all kinds of classes of people.
Paul gives the key statement by noting that the regal class of kings and the higher social class of those in authority should be included in prayer and other disciplines. Why does Paul urge this command? So we may, “lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” Is Paul simply urging them to pray that the authority ruling powers will be mollified? No! Paul has something more eternally hoped for than temporal appeasement from the oppression of rulers; he would like to see them be saved. Hence, Paul immediately follows up by saying, “ (3) This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, (4) who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” Paul has in mind that God does not intend to save only one particular social class of people, but all social classes, including kings and those in authority. To read “all people” as “every single person in the world” is not warranted by the context and reveals a reading of one’s tradition and false notions into Paul’s important message to Timothy.
Arminians have wrongly interpreted this verse from a horizontal perspective. That is, they have read into this text the idea that all individuals in the world are in view. But Paul is giving us a vertical point of view of particular social classes. Therefore it is correct to say that Paul is speaking of all “kinds” or “sorts” of people, i.e., it is God’s desire that the social class of those in higher authority are not excluded from his saving grace.
In addition, if we are to grasp the full force of the meaning behind Paul’s statement “all people” in verse 4, it is necessary to briefly look at the historical context behind 1Timothy. Paul is writing Timothy who is in Ephesus and urging him to stay and fulfill teaching and ministerial duties (1 Tim. 1:2). Try to imagine yourself as a Jewish convert being commanded to pray for, not just kings and those in authority, but Gentile kings and those in authority. This command obviously affects Gentile and Jewish listeners differently, but for the latter it would have been much more shocking to be exhorted to pray for not just heathens, but heathen authorities! God wants “all people” to be saved, those of the social class of kings and those in authority, which included Gentile authorities.
Another point that requires attention are the couple of verses that follow verse 4. It reads, “(5) For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, (6) who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.”
In verse 5, Paul uses the important connecting word “For” to give us the causal reason for what came before it. Paul is introducing sacrificial language in which he ties together the mediation of Christ with his atonement. And in verse 6, once again, we find the word “all” in which Christ gave himself as a ransom. It would be absurd to state that Christ gave himself as a ransom for every single person on this planet, for if he did, every individual would be saved, not to mention that God would have no basis to judge any man for his sins (Cf. Matt. 20:28).
Incidentally, it would be silly to read the following verses that contain the phrase “all people” or “all” with it meaning “every single individual on the planet” (Col. 3:11, Gal. 3:28, Mark 13:13, Acts 21:28, Acts 22:15). Others could be cited, but this sampling demonstrates clearly that it is an exegetical fallacy to use the default meaning “every single individual on the planet” when approaching these texts. Context is king.
Finally, it is key that we recognize that Paul in verse 7 connects his Gentile mission to the second use of “all” found in verse 6. This is often overlooked in many treatments of this text. Paul says in verse 7, “For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle ( I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.” In the clearest of terms, Paul is affirming that God has included the Gentiles in his plan of salvation by Christ giving himself as a ransom for “all” not just for the Jews; hence, the reason he immediately follows by saying, “For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle…of the Gentiles.” Given this context, we can begin to appreciate the ethnic dynamics of the Pauline gospel message.
In summary, Paul uses “all people” in verse 4 to refer to all social classes (in this case, inclusion of kings and those in authority); then in his second use of “all” in verse 6 he refers to all ethnic classes (in this case, inclusion of Gentiles). With these contextual and historical dimensions of the text, we can value why it is essential that we are careful not to import our 21st century modern American cultural assumptions back into a 2,000-year-old Jewish letter. It is imperative that we listen to the historical context, as well as the immediate context to learn its intended meaning, rather than force our preconceived ideas of what we think the text should mean.
My friends, I ask you. Have you prayed for your authorities today? Or do you keep your prayers limited to only your social group? Have you prayed for other ethnic groups, or only your own? Heed the command of the apostle Paul and pray for them, for he says that this is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior.
Allen E. Kurschner
(Alan E. Kurschner holds an M.A. in biblical languages (Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary) and is currently working on his Ph.D. in Greek linguistics. He teaches Greek at the Center for Learning Biblical Greek: www.centerforlearningbiblicalgreek.com)