1st Timothy 2:4 is another verse some use to say that God's will is that all men be saved. But is that what it really says? Let us allow God's written word be the final arbiter. And as in our last study, we must go back a few verses before the passage in question.
1st Timothy 2:1-4 (NKJV)--1 Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, 2 for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. 3 For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
Again, the questions:
- Who was this written to?
- Why was it written?
- What was the idea being expressed?
That said, let us examine the passage in question. And as we do, we will see a slight (but very important) distinction between the word translated here as "desires" and the word translated other places as referring to God's "will." In biblical Greek, there are words and other grammatical tools we do not have in English. There are ever-so-slight variations in the meanings of certain words (e.g., saw, looked, glanced, spotted...). That is why the process of translation is one which is very long, very tedious, and should NEVER be undertaken with any intentions other than to glorify God, and never entered into lightly.
First, there is the word "desires" as in God the Father, who desires all men to be saved..." This is the Greek word "thelo." This is a bit of a sticky wicket (as they would say across the pond), for it has various meanings. It can mean "to intend, to purpose" or even "will" (not the noun "will" but the verb, the future tense of "to be"). However, if we use that meaning, then God is a liar, for then it would read, God the Father, who intends all men to be saved... I dare say none of us believe in universal salvation, which would be implied by that statement.
However, there is another, more common meaning: "to desire, to wish; to love; to take delight in, have pleasure." This meaning fits better, because God would indeed "desire" all men knowing the truth. Thus, "desire" is the better fit here, because it is in the present tense. God the Father, who desires (wishes) all men be saved... It is the word used by Christ in Matthew 23:37, when He weeps over Jerusalem--"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted (thelo) to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing (thelo)!" In other words, "O Jerusalem, how I wanted (thelo) to gather your children together...but you did not want it (thelo)!"
Alas, this is where the hair must be split. For even though God desires or wants something, is it necessarily His "will" (the noun form of the word "will") to act upon that desire? No. It is not God's will to save every man. Because if you notice, in the phrase God the Father...desires all men to be saved, the word "saved" is in the passive voice. In other words, Paul is not saying that God desires to save all men--only that He desires they be saved. If He wanted to save all men, they would be saved.
Consider this: If it is God's will to save all men--ALL men--then would He not defeat His own purpose by creating men whose sole purpose was to become the object of His wrath, that He may show His wrath by pouring it out upon them? Would He not also confuse His purpose by blinding people's eyes so they would not know the truth? What about if He destroyed entire nations who did not know the truth--would He not be contradicting Himself if it was His to save them? And if it is His will that all men come to repentance, would He not subordinate that will if He made it impossible for people to return to the truth once they found it? I believe we would all answer in the affirmative to these questions. So then from the Scriptures let us examine these and see if it is indeed His will that "all men be saved."
1) Would He not defeat His own purpose by creating men whose sole purpose was to become the object of His wrath, that He may show His wrath by pouring it out upon them?
Romans 9:17-18, 22--For the Scripture says to the Pharaoh, For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth. Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens...What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? If God's will is that all men be saved, then He has turned against Himself by creating Pharaoh for the sole purpose of destroying him. And Paul is then claiming that God actually hardens people's hearts so they will not know the truth.
2) Would He not also confuse His purpose by blinding people's eyes so they would not know the truth?
Romans 1:24-28--Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness...Therefore God also gave them up to vile passions...Therefore God also gave them over to a debased mind.
Matthew 13:10-13--And the disciples came and said to Him, "Why do You speak to them in parables?" He answered and said to them, "Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given...Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand."
If God's will is that all men know the truth, shouldn't Jesus have opened up and explained the truth to these men? If that is indeed His will, then He has confused it by keeping the truth from them. What about nations that never knew YHVH? Would He destroy them, or lead them into truth?
3) What about if He destroyed entire nations who did not know the truth--would He not be contradicting Himself if it was His to save them?
Numbers 21:3--And the LORD listened to the voice of Israel and delivered up the Canaanites, and they utterly destroyed them and their cities. Of course we have Moses being commanded to annihilate the Amalekites, David and Samson told to wipe out the Philistines; Joshua to utterly destroy the inhabitants of Jericho--all these being ordered to not leave anything living. If God's will is that all men be saved, then why these orders?
4) And if it is His will that all men come to repentance, would He not subordinate that will if He made it impossible for people to return to the truth once they found it?
Hebrews 6:4-6--For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened...if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance. Why? After all, isn't it God's will that all men come to repentance? Why would He then make it impossible for that person to be renewed to repentance?
We know that God's word does not contradict itself. So we must reconcile the idea that God wants all men to be saved, but will not save all men. How do we bring these two together? We let Scripture interpret Scripture. See, here's the thing: There is a difference between thelo (want, desire, take delight in) and the word translated "will" (as in "Thy will be done"), which is thelhema--"what one wishes or has determined shall be done." It implies a desire that causes one to take action. There is an excellent illustration of the difference in Matthew 21:28-31--"But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, 'Son, go, work today in my vineyard.' He answered and said, 'I will not,' (ou thelo) but afterward he regretted it and went. Then he came to the second and said likewise. And he answered and said, 'I go, sir,' but he did not go. Which of the two did the will (thelema) of his father?" What we see here is the first son said "ou thelo" ("I do not want to"), but went. He did the "thelema" (desire of the father that something shall be done).
Another example is John 1:12-13--But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will (thelema) of the flesh, nor of the will (thelema) of man, but [the will] of God.
Then there is a third Greek word, boulomai. It means, "to will deliberately, have a purpose, be minded." Basically, "I want it to happen, and I am going to do whatever it takes to make it happen." And oh, irony of ironies. Guess where we find this word? 2nd Peter 3:9, and to render this properly, we have to change the order of a couple words--The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, willing not that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. God has determined, He has purposed, and He will do whatever is necessary so that not one of His chosen ones should perish until they come to know the Lord Jesus Christ before He returns.
It is also used by James in his epistle. James 4:4--Whoever therefore wants (Boulomai) to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Whoever wants so badly to be friends with the world that they will do whatever it takes to enjoy those fleshly pleasures--they have made themselves God's enemy.
In this letter to his young protege, Paul is telling Timothy that God wants all men to be saved and to know Him. But he is not saying that God will save all men and show Himself to all men. God will not open the eyes of every single human so they will know the truth. For God has created, based on His own Boulomai, some vessels prepared for destruction--that is, designed with the specific purpose of being the object of His wrath (see again Romans 9).
Let me finish up with this illustration: suppose a judge is sitting on the bench. Before him is a man who robbed a bank to buy his son some new shoes. The man has a wife, a couple kids. And in his compassion he desires to let the man go free. But he is bound by an immutable law that says crimes must be punished. So he must sentence the man to prison. Because even though his heart wants to pardon the man, he is bound by his even deeper desire to uphold justice, and to show himself just, and to show those who don't break the law the consequences of breaking the law. This may be a human illustration, but I think it comes pretty close in terms of describing this matter. God, in His compassionate heart, wants all men to know Him.
But in order to show Himself just, and to show forth His wrath, and to show the vessels of mercy the consequences of being God's enemy, He allows many to go into perdition and destruction. He wishes He could save them all. But then how would any know of His Divine justice and His divine wrath? Therefore, He must let many go to destruction, and even cause some to go to destruction. It's a hard truth, but truth none the less.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.