THE PECULIAR PROVIDENCE OF GOD
Dr. Charles Franklin DeVane, Jr., Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
January 19, 2014
Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.” But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child's life are dead.” And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene.
— Matthew 2:13-23, ESV
A children’s Sunday School teacher asked her kids to draw a picture from the story of Christ’s birth. By the end of class time there were several drawings of the baby Jesus, Joseph and Mary, angels, stars, shepherds, and wise men. One boy drew a rather odd picture, a kind of crude rendering of a Boing 747 airplane. When asked by the teacher what the airplane had to do with the young Messiah, he responded, “This is the flight to Egypt.”
Perhaps he captured a glimpse of the big picture after all. Far above the earth there is someone and something hovering over every event in the life of Jesus, over the lives of Joseph and Mary, and over all human life. But that someone and something is not a pilot and an airplane. That someone, of course, is God; and, the something that governs and guides our lives is called providence.
An excellent academic definition of providence would be: “God is continually involved with all created things in such as way that He keeps them existing and maintaining the properties with which He created them; cooperates with created things in every action, directing their distinctive properties to cause them to act as they do; and, directs them to fulfill His purposes (Wayne Grudem).” If you’d rather have a biblical explanation, refer to Ephesians 1:11, which reads, “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.” By providence, we mean that God ordains, controls, and directs all things that happen to all people, allowing for human freedoms and responsibilities, for His own glory and the good of His chosen ones.
Providence is a peculiar biblical doctrine and perhaps the most difficult to understand. It blends the sovereignty of God and the free choices of His creatures. It bends to the will of God but does not negate the fact that humans have a will, too. It shows God’s involvement in all of the good and all of the bad things that happen in human history, while holding all of us accountable for the part we play in the ongoing and ever changing dramas of life. And at the end of the day, the doctrine of providence gives us a billion reasons to love, trust, and obey God.
Matthew 2:13-23 reveals what happens to Jesus in the aftermath of His birth in a manger, brief settlement in a Bethlehem house, and the visit from the Magi. It indeed includes the “flight to Egypt,” a thrilling sort of second exodus. It reveals the murderous plot carried out by an ungodly king. Then, it closes with a real estate transaction completed by Joseph and Mary. Each brief scene is a piece of a puzzle that puts together for us the big picture of the peculiar providence of God.
God’s Providence is Often Plain
Often it is easy to believe that God is in control. Often it is easy for God’s people to do what God tells them to do. Often God’s providence is plain.
God told Joseph, in the special and spectacular revelation of a dream, to take Mary and Jesus and lay low in Egypt until another dream would tell him their short time on the lam was done. God has never spoken to me in a dream like that, but if He ever did, and it was plainly a message from God, I would plainly do whatever He said. So, Joseph and Mary and Jesus took a flight (not a literal one) to Egypt and joined the substantial Jewish community that existed there for a season.
Where did they get the money to go and live on while they were there? In the providence of God, an entourage of eastern magicians has just laid a small fortune on them in the very valuable and marketable currencies of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (ref. Matthew 2:1-12). When God guides, God provides. This is a cliché, but it is also a truth.
And, if there are any reservations about this being God’s will, let it be known that the events which transpired are perfectly consistent with the inspired, infallible, inerrant word of God. Hosea 11:1 is a prophecy that harkened back to the exodus of God’s people, Israel, out of Egypt and into the promised land. It also beckoned forward to a time when the Messiah would sojourn in Egypt for a season then return to the land of Israel to accomplish the salvation of God’s people. Joseph did what he was told, trusting in the providence of God, so Jesus could live, and die, and rise again.
God’s providence in the life of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus is plain to see. It makes for a good story, or Sunday School drawing, or a single sermon on the delightful providence of God. But, sometimes the providence of God does not seem so delightful, nor feel exciting, nor is it easy to see. Sometimes we are blinded to providence because of pain.
God’s Providence Allows for Pain
Sometimes it is hard to believe that God is in control. Sometimes it is hard for God’s people to do what God tells them to do. Sometimes God’s providence brings pain.
Not long after the Magi returned to their posh eastern homes, not long after Jesus slept safe in His new apartment in Egypt, Herod the Great could not sleep. His attempt to trick the Magi into telling Him the exact whereabouts of Jesus had failed. Herod feared this so-called, prophetically-predicted Messiah would grow up and cut into his fortune and fame. His initial aim was to find Jesus quickly and kill Him quietly.
When he realized the Magi had double-crossed him, and not realizing that Jesus has been taken safely into Egypt, Herod carried out an abominable massacre. He sent henchmen to Bethlehem to murder every male child two years of age and under, figuring one of them would be Jesus. Bethlehem was a very small village, so it is likely that only about twenty baby boys were slain. This is no small tragedy, which sadly fulfilled yet another Old Testament prophecy about Christ (ref. Jeremiah 31:15).
Where was God in Bethlehem, Judea two thousand years ago, when those twenty boys were murdered? Where was God in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012, when twenty kids plus six teachers were killed? Why does God allow the Herods and the Hitlers and the serial killers of the world to exist? Where was God when your loved one died, when your trusted husband or wife left, when the child you raised in church told you he was an atheist, when someone else’s dishonesty cost you a job? Where is God and His providence when their is pain?
If I said God was not there, I would be liar or an infidel. If I said God was there but could not do anything about it, I would be a poor preacher and theologian of a anemic God. If I said God was there and caused such bad things to happen for some greater good, I might be overreaching by speaking in fatalistic or hyper-Calvinistic terms. Let me just say that God was there, that God wept like at the grave of Lazarus, and that the tragic thing that happened was part of the perfect providence of God.
In such cases God’s providence is not plain to see, clouded as it is by pain. But the pain is not caused by God, but by the apex of God’s creation, human beings, which He indubitably endowed with the freedom to make choices, many of which are wrong, some of which are tragic.
Let me say a brief word to all of you who have been hurt and feel like God has let you down. I know how you feel. God could have prevented that death, that divorce, that loss of health or income or esteem, yet He allowed it to take place. God does not stop tragedies. He redeems them. But only if you are one of His people, by grace through faith in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ, whose life ended in the most horrific betrayal and injustice and tragedy of all.
God’s providence is a complex equation that factors in the sovereignty, or absolute control, of God with man’s freedom of choice. God’s providence provides for a God who cannot do anything wrong to oversee a race of people who, apart from common and saving grace, cannot do anything right. God’s providence is something you often can and sometimes cannot see. And God’s providence is something you want, very much, in your life.
God’s Providence Requires our Participation
Always, God is in control. Always, God’s people should do what God tells them to do. Always, God’s providence brings glory to God and good things to God’s people.
Let’s get back to Joseph and look very carefully at how he picks a place for him, Mary, and Jesus to live. Special revelation is involved again, and for the third time within a short time in his life, Joseph gets a message from God through an angelic dream. Common sense is involved, for Joseph figures out that if Herod the Great wanted to kill Jesus, his heir and oldest son Archelaus would want to kill him, too. So he avoids the perils of Judea for the safer, rural confines of Galilee. Scripture is involved, too, for settling in their home town of Nazareth would be very fitting for a Messiah who is prophesied to have humble, almost anonymous roots, which a carpenter’s life in such a small town could afford. So, in the providence of God, and with Joseph’s full participation, Jesus grows up in Nazareth.
This is the way to live the Christian life, under the providence of God. If God ever comes to you in a dream, get up, put on your Nikes, and “just do it.” Chances are He won’t, but that does not leave you without a witness or guidance. God has given you a brain, please use it. And fill your mind and heart with Holy Scripture in daily readings and weekly worship, so that the word of God can guide your God-given brain and help you to make good decisions, decisions that glorify God and do good for others.
I’m going to gather with the church on Sunday and publicly worship God, because in His providence He has told me to and enabled me to come. I’m not going to go out an intentionally murder someone or commit adultery this week, since God in His providence and in His word has told me not to do such things. As a matter of fact, I’m not going to do anything but worship and obey God and try to help other people, because that’s what God’s people do. I will succeed and I will fail. I will gain some reward and I will find some forgiveness. And like Jackson Browne’s Pretender, “When the morning light comes streaming in, I’ll get up and do it again.”
This is life lived in the providence of God. It was Joseph’s life. It is a joyous and peaceful life, in spite of the storms. And it is a life that lasts, under the providence of God, forever.
Dr. Charles F. "Chuck" DeVane, Jr., is the Pastor of Lake Hamilton Baptist Church in Hot Springs, Arkansas. His weekly sermon article, "The Gospel Truth," has been published in newspapers in Arkansas and Georgia. Dr. DeVane is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and has served in the pastorate for over 20 years. Contact Pastor Chuck at PastorChuck@lakehamiltonbaptistchurch.org