Reformed Perspectives Magazine, Volume 6, Number 21, July 28 to August 3, 2004

Men, Lift Up Holy Hands!
a Sermon on 1Timothy 2:8
by Scott Lindsay

1 Timothy 2:8 I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing.
This morning we are continuing in our study of Paul's letter to Timothy, picking up at verse 8 of chapter 2 and, pretty much, staying with verse 8 of chapter 2 for the duration. Now, if you are sort of new to our church, or visiting for the first time, it might be helpful for you to know that our approach to the Bible is an expository approach - which simply means that our usual practice here is to work our way through books of the Bible, trying to read them in the way that they were intended to be read. That involves systematically going through a book, taking a certain number of verses at a time, and trying to understand what those verses mean in context . Sometimes that means we look at 10 verses, and other weeks we look at 2 verses. This week we are looking at ONE verse because there are occasions when you need to take the time to unpack very small portions of the Bible and this is one of those occasions. In addition, and because we are dealing with such a small portion, we will also be taking some time this morning to do a little "set up", so that we are better prepared to hear some things Paul will be saying later on in this passage.

Now, if you remember, Paul, in this letter, has as his overall goal, a desire to promote the good order and functioning of the church . He approaches that in several ways - starting out by addressing false teachers and their teaching - which we've already seen. After promoting the order of the church by addressing that issue, he moves on to the section we are currently in where he is addressing the Ephesians, through Timothy, on the matter of how they are to conduct themselves when they are gathered together - which has obvious connections to the whole issue of order and function in a church.

Now, in dealing with this, Paul has already talked about the fact that their time together should include prayer and not just prayer for themselves and their own concerns, but all kinds of prayers , for all kinds of people - including people that would be last on your prayer list - like those in civil government. Last week we saw some of Paul's theological justification for their engaging in such expansive and sweeping prayers - such justification being based upon the nature of the Gospel - that it is more inclusive than you want to believe and yet, at the same time, more exclusive than you are comfortable admitting.

This morning - after having looked at the fact that we need to pray, and the content of our prayers , and the breadth of our prayers and the theological justification behind such breadth we will look at who is or ought to be involved in this praying - namely the men. And so, since the passage itself targets and singles out men in particular, that is what I will be doing this morning through the message. However , while I will be speaking primarily to the men, that doesn't mean the ladies can relax, for several reasons:

1) For starters, although Paul directs his comments to the men in the congregation, for reasons which we will soon see, much of what he has to say is equally applicable to the women of the church.

2) Secondly, some of you ladies are married and so what I have to say this morning to the men to whom you are married should be of great interest and concern to you as well since it has to do with this one with whom you have become "one flesh".

3) Thirdly, those of you who are NOT married, may one day BE married and so it should be of great interest to you as one day you may have to make a decision as to what kind of man you might want to marry.

4) Fourthly, those of you who are NOT married and perhaps have no desire to be married - which is great - should still pay close attention since you have no less a responsibility to your brothers in Christ, to encourage them as to what kinds of men they ought and ought not to be.

5) And finally, I don't want the ladies to get too comfortable because, if you just read ahead to the next couple verses, you'll see that it's YOUR turn next week....

So, let's pray and read the text, and then we'll continue with this morning's study...

Now, before we look at 1 Timothy 2:8 itself I want to make, as I said in the introduction, a few pre-liminary comments which will set up not only the passage before us this morning, but actually the next several passages which we will explore over the next number of weeks.....

Firstly, we are, at this stage in Paul's letter, about to embark on an extended look at the matter of men and women and their roles and relationships in the church. This subject is not one that is easy to discuss, especially in this day and age. It is often a highly emotional issue. It is an issue into which people invariably drag a lot of excess baggage - and not necessarily with wrong intention. The reality is that we ALL carry the imprint of our past, our upbringing, into this, and indeed, every discussion. For some people, that imprint has been largely a good one in this area of men and women and how they relate. But for others, the imprint has been horrible. And then for some, well, the truth is you don't know what to think of it just yet. But, regardless of your experience, we have to talk about these matters because God wants us to talk about them.

Further, when we talk about them, we have to do so in terms that are larger than your personal experience because experience , while a helpful thing sometimes, is not the measure of all things , and it is certainly NOT the measure of truth.

Secondly, it seems, as Philip Jensen observes, that there is a trend in some part of the protestant church that says, "I am not ashamed of the Gospel" and "I am not ashamed of Jesus", but "I am embarrassed and terribly ashamed of the Apostle Paul." As if what Paul wrote was somehow less inspired than the other parts of Scripture. As if every other part of the Bible is authoritative but when we get to Paul we are free to either accept what he says or ignore it, it really doesn't matter. But you cannot do that. You cannot dismiss the Apostle Paul any more than you can dismiss the words of Jesus.

Let me say the same thing in another way, because this is too important to miss: If you come to the Bible with the attitude that says, "I am willing to believe what it says, or act upon what it says until it says something hard, something awkward, or something I personally don't like or disagree with or which goes against what the rest of society believes " — It you come to the Bible with THAT sort of perspective then you are already in trouble, even before you start. Because if that is your perspective then you are showing by means of that perspective that you do not understand what it is you are dealing with here. You cannot come to the bible with "fill-in-the-blank" escape clauses. If you do not regard the whole Bible as authoritative for your life then nothing I have to say to you this, or any morning will be of any use to you.

Thirdly, in our study of these matters related to men and women we will, indeed must , take the Scriptures as our ultimate reference point. To be sure, there are all sorts of interesting psychological, biological, historical, archaeological and sociological bits of information which one might bring to bear on this issue. And I would be the first one to allow that these fields of study can shed some helpful light on certain things. However, these perspectives are not determinative nor are they authoritative . And none of them individually nor all of them together have the right or authority to dislodge a single truth found in Scripture.

Fourthly - as important as your attitude when you approach the Bible is your methodology - the specific way in which you handle the Bible as you study it. The fact is, there are evangelical Christians who come down on both sides of the issue regarding men and women and how they relate. What separates them, at least some of them, is not a conviction about the authority of the Bible. People in both camps believe the Bible is authoritative. However, that belief, as noble and right as it is, does not guarantee that you will interpret the passages IN the Bible without error.

And so it is that when the Bible teachers and scholars critique each other's views on this matter, the focus of their discussion is on the way in which the other person handled the Bible , in order to arrive at a particular interpretation.

Now, the fancy word for this process of bible interpretation is "hermeneutics". The "hermeneutic" or methodology you employ in studying the Bible is very , very important. It must be one that helps to make sense of the Scriptures. It must be one that understands the Bible as a God-breathed, authoritative document. It must be one that does not distort the natural meanings of human language. It must be one that does not import foreign ideas and unlikely meanings into a passage of Scripture. And, perhaps most important of all, it must be CONSISTENT.

And it is perhaps in this area of consistency that some of the most frequent problems occur. Certain scholars will handle the Bible a particular way and then suddenly, in the course of their studies, they will come across a passage that, through their normal , usual approach, yields an interpretation they are uncomfortable with. So what do they do? They take an altogether different approach, employing all sorts of what I call "hermeneutical gymnastics" to reach a conclusion in a way which stretches the limits of credibility and integrity. And they do all of this because they simply refuse to believe that a passage just might mean what it appears to mean.

Fifth and final preliminary comment - One of the things you will notice as you read the Scriptures is that the Bible makes gender distinctions . That is, the Bible does not treat men and women as creatures that are identical in every way. You may want the Bible to do that, you may wish the Bible did that, but it doesn't do that. The Bible says that men are men and women are women and that these roles are not negotiable or interchangeable . And then, right along side of that, the Bible also says that men and women are, as regards their worth and value and significance, equal in the eyes of God. And so you see in the Bible that there is both equality and difference.

Now, the fact that individual persons can have equal worth and different roles is clear in the Scriptures. One has to look no further than the Trinity - to the fact that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are of equal worth. One is not more DIVINE than the other. One is not more Holy than the other. And yet, the Bible makes it clear that their equal worth does not translate into identical roles. There is a definite pattern of relating between the different persons of the Trinity. There are roles that each has, that are not interchangeable. And yet, we do not de-value one over against the other because of it. God the Son died on the cross, but we don't think less of the Holy Spirit because his role in salvation is different.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus says to God, "My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done." Here is a portrait of Jesus, submitting , humbling himself before God the Father. Yet we do not love him less, we do not honor him less, we do not respect him less in his divinity. In fact, we love him more. We honor him more because it was in the giving up of himself, the abdication of his rights, that he so clearly showed the awesome holiness of his love.

And that same reality of equal worth and different roles/functions that characterizes God himself - in Trinity - that same reality is built into the very fabric of God's creation. In short, As He Himself is , so He creates . Thus, it is only fitting that that which is characteristic of God himself is also characteristic of those who bear the image of God - the men and women he has created. In the Garden of Eden the man and the woman image God. Individually they image God, yes, but they also image Him together - both, in the fact that they are, mysteriously, "one flesh" and also in their complementarity - the fact that they are two persons of equal worth and significance - but with different roles and functions - just as in the Trinity.

Now this line of thinking will be pursued in greater depth in a few weeks time, but It felt it was important to at least get some initial things said in this area because Paul, in this letter as well as other letters, does make some distinctions between men and women. Again, not a distinction of worth or value, but a distinction nonetheless : A distinction of patterns and roles and structure and order.....

Now, at this point, I have some bad news and some good news for you. The bad news is that everything I have said so far this morning is only the introduction to the main message and passage. The good news , however, is that in this particular sermon, the main message is actually shorter than the introduction. So, you may think we are just getting started when, in fact, we're over halfway. So, take heart. (Read 1 Tim 2:8 again)

The first thing worth pointing out here is this phrase "I want" by the apostle Paul. When Paul says, "I want", it is not the case that what he is making here is merely a suggestion, or that this is just wishful thinking on Paul's part. He is, in the language of one writer, "expressing an apostolic demand in the language of personal desire". In other words, when Paul says, "I want men to....pray" it is a command . He takes the same approach in 1 Timothy 5:14, and in Titus 3:8, using the same Greek word but in both cases it is clear that what he is saying is more than a suggestion.

The next thing to notice is that Paul is here addressing the MEN, in particular. Again, the word Paul chooses here is important. Paul does not say, "I want people to pray..." he says, "I want men to pray...."

The word used here is one which means men, as opposed to women; as distinct from women. Now we don't need to read more into this than is there. Paul is not saying he doesn't want the women to pray. He IS saying he wants the men to pray. There is a reason that he is singling the men out here. We'll see why in just a moment.

The next thing to notice is the word translated as "everywhere" which could also be rendered "in every place". The significance of this phrase is greatly enhanced when you remember that the early church did not have a centralized building to which they could all come each week, but rather there seems to have been a series of homes or "house-churches" in which the Christians, scattered throughout the city, would gather. And so, when Paul says he wants men "everywhere" or "in every place" to pray, he is saying he wants the men to be active and involved in each of these places - these house-churches. To be sure, the women, as well, were to be involved and were involved - VERY involved - but Paul wants to make sure that the MEN also were involved, especially in prayer, in each and every place.

That brings us to the next phrase in the verse, "I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer ...." Now, unfortunately, the way the NIV has rendered this verse, you would think that the main point here is the lifting up of the hands with the words "in prayer" almost appearing as an afterthought. But the lifting up of the hands is not the main point. To be sure, the Bible does say some things about our posture in prayer. You can be standing, kneeling, laid flat out on the ground, eyes open, eyes closed, hands up, hands down, looking upward, looking downward — all of those things are biblical and right and acceptable. There is no posture that is expressly more biblical than others. If you stand, well fine then, stand. If you kneel, well, that's okay too. If you fold hands, great. If you hold your hands up, hold your hands up. I don't think it matters a great deal. All of those things are decidedly secondary to Paul's main concern - and that is that prayer is happening and that the men are involved in it.

Indeed, if there is any huge concern for "posture" here, it is not so much with one's external posture but rather with one's internal posture - the disposition of the men's hearts as they are praying. Paul says he wants the men to lift up "holy hands" without anger or disputing . The words about anger and disputing help to define what he means by "holy hands". He means hands that have not recently been waving before another person's face in the form of a clinched fist, hands that have not been pointing accusing and hateful fingers at a brother or sister - or worse - hands that have not been recently used to actually physically fight with, or hurt, another person. Paul doesn't want that sort of hypocrisy going on. He's not looking for the men to engage in prayer for the sake of good form . He wants it to be real.

You have to keep in mind the larger context of this letter. Remember that we have already looked at the matter of false teachers and their teaching. And, you see, one of the sad consequences of these false teachers' "ministry" in Ephesus would have been to create confusion amongst the believers - as they pushed their strange, speculative doctrines. The confusion would have bred doubts and divisions and quarreling and factions and anger and fighting - particularly among the men because of their role in the church.

And fighting , you see, is a very MALE way of doing things. Women do it too, of course, but men much more frequently and much more programmatically. Men resort to fighting, violence and warfare much more quickly than women. Pick up any history book and you will see that men have a great capacity for losing their tempers, for "solving" their problems by anger, by pushing and shoving in order to get their way. That, often, is exactly how men are. It's not right , it's not godly , but it's what often happens. And it is this particular expression of un-holiness and un-godliness that Paul wants the men in Ephesus to avoid because Paul knows there is a connection between fighting and quarreling and prayer, or the lack thereof. You see the same sort of ideas in James 4:1-3. Anger and disputing keep us from praying, they actually hinder our prayers and drain us physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

But why the MEN? Why is Paul singling out the men at this point, and ON this point? I'm going to give you two reasons why I think he does this. One is theological and the other is pastoral.

The theological reason is related to some things I said earlier, in the introduction - the fact that Paul makes distinctions between men and women - and this because God makes and made distinctions between men and women, from the very beginning. Not distinctions of significance or value or worth, but distinctions of pattern and order and function, just as in the members of the Trinity. Which is why, for example, in the arena of MARRIAGE Paul can talk at one point, in Ephesians 5, about "submitting to one another" and about husbands loving their wives "as Christ loved the Church" and of the need for godly husbands to "give themselves up" for their wives, pouring themselves out, laying their life on the line for their wives, sacrificing themselves, as it were, for the sake of their wives.

And yet, even as he says these things and so affirms the value and worth of the man and the woman - even as he says these things he also speaks of wives submitting to husbands and of husbands being the head of their wives as Christ is head of the Church . And in doing this he makes a distinction between the man and the woman. Again, not a distinction of worth or value, but a distinction nonetheless.

And this distinction that we see between husbands and wives - this "household" distinction - as described in Ephesians - is important because in Paul's letters there is a very close connection between the household which is one's family and "God's household" - which is the Church, the congregation, the people of God - this is how he describes the church in 1 Tim 3:15. And the pattern of relating in the ONE household (the family) is the pattern of relating in the OTHER household (the congregation).

This is why, as we'll see later on in 1 Timothy 3:4-5, when Paul is giving out the qualifications for those who would be elders in the church he ties the two "households" together:
1 Timothy 3:4-5 He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God's church?)
The relationships between the household that is the family and the household that is the church is so strong that incompetence in the one (the family) is a sure warning of incompetence in the other (the church). Again, in 1 Timothy 5:1-2 you see the same sort of pattern (read this). Notice Paul's language here: treat older men as FATHERS, younger men as BROTHERS, older women as MOTHERS, younger women as SISTERS. The two households, again, are closely related. The pattern of relating in the one is the pattern of relating in the other .

And so, the theological reason for why Paul singles out the men in the area of prayer is simply because in the household of God, just as in their own households, the men are to take the initiative, to lead the way, to set the example for their families - both the family at home and the family that is the church . That doesn't mean they will be the only ones praying, but it does mean they should be the FIRST ones praying, not in a temporal sense, but in terms of pattern and example and initiative.

Now the PASTORAL reason for this command, I believe, is a sobering one. Maybe it has something to do with the tendency that men have toward independence, to isolate ourselves and act as if we are self-sufficient. To pray goes against all of that because it is such an admission of inability and weakness and vulnerability and need and dependence. Maybe it has something to do with that.

But a more solid pastoral reason, perhaps, is something a little more obvious and it is simply this: the noticeable absence of men in so many of our churches . The fact is, the men are all too often simply not leading the way. To be sure, the men are often physically present - they show up in our churches - but that is often all that they do - show up. Often there is a serious and inexcusable lack of spiritual initiative when it comes to men - in the home, for sure - but also in the church . They will have great energy and initiative for other things - for work and personal projects and interests - and those things are okay - but there is seemingly little energy or initiative for spiritual matters, in both their family household and in the household of God.

All too often it is the case that when you look at the work being done in churches you find that it is the women, the faithful godly women in many congregations that carry the burden of so many things, and often alone. And I don't point these things out to suggest, in any way, that the women in our churches should stop what they are doing, or be less faithful - heaven forbid! Rather, the point being made here is simply to ask: Where are the men?

You see, the pastoral reason Paul highlights this matter of the men praying, instead of fighting and disputing, is because when it came to that sort of spiritual leadership and spiritual initiative, the men were missing in action . They were missing in action in their own homes, and they were certainly missing in action in the household of God.

Over the years I have had a number of occasions now to hear the concerns of Christian wives as they talk of how they long for the day when their husband will take some initiative in the area of spiritual leadership in their home. And when you follow along that track for a while, what this almost always means is that the husbands will not initiate family prayers or devotions, they will not initiate prayers with their wives, they will not take any serious step toward teaching their children the Christian faith, and on and on. Is any of this sounding familiar? It is to ME. And as it is in the private home, so it goes in the household of God.

But why is this so hard for us as men? I suspect it has something to do, perhaps a lot to do, with the fact that deep down in side we know what taking the initiative will mean - it will mean seriously engaging with God - through the Word and prayer - and that sort of thing always has consequences - we're going to have to own up to some things, we're going to have to humble ourselves, we're going to have to re-think a lot of decisions we've made and perhaps admit we were wrong - maybe a lot of the time. In short, we know the price tag on this one is big. And so, maybe out of fear, or pride, or unbelief - or perhaps all three - we resist taking the initiative.

But men I'm telling you - not as an expert but as a struggling practitioner - you can trust God with this one too. And in the end, the grace and growth and blessing that will come - as we take the initiative in both of the households to which we belong - all of those good things will be worth facing up to our fear and pride and unbelief.

We have to set the pace.
We have to lead the way.
But none of that will happen, until we begin to pray

Scott Lindsay is pastor at South Baton Rouge Presbyterian Church .