As with most false teaching that has plagued the church of Jesus Christ throughout history, spiritual elitism was included in the package of problems Timothy faced in Ephesus. This particular elitism held that only a select few had true insight into the genealogies of the first five books of the Old Testament (1 Tim. 1:3–7), and it was countered with an appeal to the universality of the gospel, as we have seen in Paul’s instructions to Timothy. Everyone who embraces the good news develops a concern for the well-being of all, knowing that Jesus is the only savior for the world (2:1–7; 1 John 2:2).
Paul’s teaching that prayer should manifest this care for all people (1 Tim. 2:1) is the springboard from which he focuses on how Christian men are to pray in today’s passage. In encouraging men to pray in “every place” (v. 8), the apostle is not setting forth the need to pray in each location that we find ourselves — whether it be our homes, workplaces, cars, and so on. Instead, Paul is focusing his attention specifically on public worship because that is how he uses the phrase “every place” in his other letters (for example, 1 Cor. 1:2).
Public prayer is a solemn duty, and so men must engage in the practice reverently, “lifting holy hands” (1 Tim. 2:8). Although paintings of ancient Christians in the catacombs depict the earliest believers praying in this posture, the raising of hands in itself is not Paul’s focus but the fact that our hands are to be “holy.” The Old Testament is filled with allusions to clean hands as symbolic of godly actions and a pure heart (Ps. 26:6; Isa. 1:15); thus, we are to be about the business of good works with a pure heart if we would have the Lord hear our prayers. Dr. John MacArthur writes, “Hands symbolize the activities of life; thus, ‘holy hands’ represent a holy life” (The MacArthur Bible Commentary, p. 1,782).
The holiness required does not mean that we will be perfect but only that we are repentant (1 John 1:8–9). As such, we cannot rightly take part in public prayer if we are at odds with a brother or sister in the Lord (1 Tim. 2:8). Jesus says we must first repent and attempt to be reconciled with that person if our hands would be clean enough to lift in prayer to Him (Matt. 5:23–24).
Christ promises us that if we forgive others, our heavenly Father will also forgive us, and He warns us that our failure to forgive others means that God will not forgive us (Matt. 6:14–15). Not everyone will accept our attempts at reconciliation, but God expects us to make a good-faith effort to make our relationships with others right. Failing to be reconciled often leads to bitterness, which lies at the root of many discontented lives.