Providence and the Working of God

What is providence? There is much debate these days about what it is, how it operates, and even with a few, if it exists at all. What are we to make of it? Is it still an active force in God’s dealings with His people? Are we to be deistic, having a God who has left the world to wind down as if it were a clock? Are we to be charismatic, embracing a God who continually reveals truth and works miracles? Or, regarding God’s work of providence is there a biblical middle ground allowing us to see God as one who actually works into the system, yet not so as to suspend the natural way of things?

To begin with, the Greek word for providence, pronoia, has in its various forms a basic meaning of “the foreknowledge that allows someone to make appropriate provisions.” While in biblical usage the actual word always refers to human foresight and planning (noun form: Acts 24:2; Rom. 13:14; verb form: Rom. 12:17; 2 Cor. 8:21; I Tim. 5:8), there is certainly an application of the content of the word to God’s “pro-visions.” His plan, after all, has not yet come to its conclusion. He has promised to be with us to the end of this world (Matt. 28:20; Heb. 13:5b). At the very least, God would be expected to exercise a supervisory role over His Creation project. Any idea of disinterest is certainly ruled out by the cross (Jn. 3:16). Clearly, God has not abandoned what He gave so much to bring about (I Jn. 5:13-15).

Divine superintendence over the creation and assistance to His people are, therefore, a certainty in the Christian Era. This combination of management and aid is what we speak of when we apply the word providence to the work of God today. God’s foreknowledge allowed Him to provide for the needs of His great salvation project; His omnipresence allows Him to continue to do so. Paul’s words in Romans 8:28-30 put the matter in perspective; God is active in His creation in ways that are appropriate for His plan of salvation. He has provided within the context of the creation (Matt. 5:45) and He will provide as needed for the success of His kingdom (Eph. 3:20). This ongoing care refutes Deism’s “wind up the clock and leave it” notion, but this refutation does not therefore imply either the hyper-charismatic “find me a parking place, I’m in a hurry” triviality.

To clarify and put in perspective the relationship between the supernatural and the providential, a look at the work of the Holy Spirit is useful. The initial work of the Holy Spirit was to reveal and confirm the word (Jn. 14:26; 16:13-14; I Cor. 2:6-16; Heb. 2:3-4; Mk. 16:20). This work was to have a definite duration, a time of completion or perfection (I Cor. 13:8-13; Eph.4:11-16). The initial work of the Holy Spirit brought about “the faith,” the completed revelation from Christ as a “once for all” system of faith (Jude 3).

The initial work of the Spirit began on Pentecost. The giving of the Spirit had been promised by Jesus (Jn. 7:39; 14:26; 16:13-14). This promise was fulfilled (Acts 2:33; 2:1-21; cf. Joel 2:28-32). The Holy Spirit was given to believers (Acts 2:38; 5:32), Apostles first (Acts 1:1:26-2:4, 43). The miraculous powers of the Holy Spirit were administered by the Apostles (Acts 8:18; II Tim. 1:6; Rom. 1:11). The Apostolic Office served as foundational in the building up of the church (Eph. 2:20-22; cf. 4:11-12).

This miraculous era managed by Apostles came to an end (cf. I Cor. 13:8-10; Eph. 4:13), but the foundation of that age remains as the same foundation for the church today (Eph. 2:20-24; I Cor. 3:11). While the miraculous work was coming to a close (I Cor. 13:9-10), the abiding work of the fully revealed word (Eph. 4:13; Jn. 14:26; 16:13) began coming to the forefront (Jude 3). Confusion can be avoided by realizing that in the time the Bible was being written, both the initial and the abiding aspects of the Spirit’s work were going on at the same time.

The abiding work of the Holy Spirit is actually superior to the initial miraculous work of the early church. The temporary work of the Holy Spirit, because of its rather spectacular nature, has caused many to see that era as superior to our time. This cannot be so, however; the end result of the miraculous activity would of necessity be superior to the means used to achieve its goal (cf. Heb. 1-4).

Some have also thought that miracles are an abiding part of the Christian age. However, the Bible also disproves this, as do our own observations. What we see with our own eyes confirms that nothing purported to be going on today compares to the quality of the true biblical miracles of the first century. “Healings” are questionable and incomplete. No one today walks into a hospital and leads everyone out completely healed. People ravaged by cerebral palsy and quadriplegics with severed spinal cords are not “cured” by the so-called faith healers; the miraculous power of God, when it is truly applied, knows no such limitations (cf. Matt. 8:16; 9:35; 14:14; Mk. 6:33; Lk. 4:40; Acts 5:16). Those who profess to be led by the Spirit contradict each other and the Bible. Where, therefore, do we find truth?

Working on the implications of the conclusions just developed, we can begin to define the borders within which we are to find a present day definition for providence. We have seen that God working counter to or in suspension of the “natural” laws of the creation is not to be expected today—not because He cannot, but because He does not. We also see that God working within the nature of the system of creation is to be expected—not because He has limited power, but because He chooses to limit the expressions of His power (cf. Jn. 20:29; Heb. 11:1). The issue is not one of whether God works, but how He works.

Joseph is a wonderful ancient example of our developed understanding of contemporary providence. God was at work behind the scenes to bring Jacob, the father of the nation of Israel, to Egypt, even as had been predicted (Gen. 45:7; 50:15-21; cf. Gen. 15:12-16). Another instructive Old Covenant example can be seen in the book of Esther. The name of God is not found in the book, but God’s providential hand is present everywhere (Esth. 4:14). With Joseph and with Esther, God was at work to further His plan for the coming Christ. He did not work by suspending or overruling natural laws. He did, however, work.

The New Testament, as we would expect, adds clearer light toward developing a better understanding of the nature of providence. One example from John shows us that prayer is answered when it is in keeping with God’s will (Jn. 14:13; I Jn. 3:22; 5:14; cf. Eph. 3:20). God is therefore clearly active in the Messianic Age to advance His will. Christians can be assured that God is working behind the scenes to promote His cause. Prayers are answered. Help is given.

Additionally, intercession is provided by the Holy Spirit when we do not know how to articulate the thoughts of our heart. We need not worry, God understands (Rom. 8:26-27). We also see that the Father has managed and guided His plan and will continue to do so. All things work together for the sake of God’s plan of salvation (Rom. 8:28).

But how exactly does providence work? How does God do it? We do not know! We do, however, know that providence does work because God works it. While Scripture shows God’s contemporary work is not miraculous and that the time of miracles in the first-century served its purpose (I Cor. 13:8b-10; Eph. 4:11-13; Jn. 14:26), we can know with assurance that God has not ceased working for His people.

That brings us to one of the most interesting considerations associated with contemporary providence: we cannot know just exactly when it is dispensed. We might, due to its “within the system” nature, attribute its actions to natural phenomenon, or vice versa (cf. Jas. 5:16-18; Lk. 13:1-5). God uses His supernatural ability to effect what might otherwise be just natural occurrences. Not to worry though, our ignorance of the particulars need not bring us to dismay. As stated, we can know that God is at work (Heb. 13:5-6). Our God is alive, and He is the helper of all who serve Him! There will be no miraculous voices in the night, we will not walk on water or raise the dead, but God will be with us in our studies of His word and in all our work on His behalf. We will not experience Calvinistic enlightenment, but we will be benefited as we pray for understanding. We are not totally depraved, but we are all adversely affected by our sins and need all the help we can get to be the best that we can be. We must exercise personal responsibility (Jas. 2:14-26; II Tim. 2:15), but we are not alone (Matt. 28:20). God is with us!


Jesus, Enough Already!

Have you ever considered that Jesus was the most exasperating man who ever lived? Yes, you read me correctly; He was the most exasperating man who ever lived. He never let up. He totally, uncompromisingly, relentlessly expected excellence. He was untiringly committed to the Father’s will (Jn. 4:34).

Who would want a Savior like that? I mean, really, isn’t that all just a bit much, especially knowing we are all a bunch of sinful mortals? Indeed, who would want a Jesus like that?

I would, that’s who! I don’t want Jesus to compromise truth. An enabler wouldn’t be useful to me. A “lets-all-just-get-along” Jesus is of no use as a model of true holiness (Rom. 8:29). Yes, I need a Savior who will lovingly, caringly, nurture me in nothing but righteousness.

We all need patience, not a pass, but patience. Games and spins that indulge us may appear to be godly, but they are not—we all know that! I want a compassionate Savior (Matt. 9:36-38), but He needs to look me in the eye and tell me the truth (Mk. 12:14; Jn.14:2).

 Please don’t get me wrong; I desperately need all the grace I can get (Lk. 17:10). The compelling character of Jesus is heavily dependent on grace; but grace without holiness is not attractive, it is ungodly (Rom. 11:22).

My challenge for us all is to read about Jesus every day. The exasperating, merciful, righteous, and loving Jesus we discover is just what we need to inspire us to eagerly reach for Christ-likeness. Yes, though we need all the love we can get, we desperately need an exasperating Savior!


Unhurried Urgency

            When we look at Jesus and see how He did evangelism, we cannot doubt the urgency He associated with the responsibility. However, at the same time, we must acknowledge that urgency looked different on Him than it often looks on us.  Many times when we do “urgent,” we come off looking panicked, running around in a frenzy trying to dart about in many different directions all at once. Jesus, on the other hand, does not appear harried or rushed, rather, He is always in control, never panicked.

            In fact, there are times when we would never classify His lifestyle as appearing to be driven by urgency.  He sleeps through a seemingly perfect one-on-one teaching opportunity while He and His disciples were alone on a boat (Matt. 8:23-27).  We might be prone to think “If He had crammed in just one more lesson maybe the disciples would not have been so confused about the kingdom.

            By way of appearance, doesn’t He spend way too much time eating meals with people when He could have using time more effectively (Matt 9:9-13, Luke 19:4-10)? You know what they say, “It’s hard to get any effective teaching done in groups.” Or, if it’s groups you want, what about the time when He delayed going to the Feast of Booths?  Those great crowds gathered for that particular feast only once a year. Wouldn’t it have been better to have arrived early and stayed late (John 7:2-9)?

            Jesus did, of course, know what He was doing. He just pursued urgency differently. He never missed an opportunity to tell people what they needed to know so they could take the next step on their eternal journey.  He invited the woman at the well, though He was tired and hungry (John 4:5-26).  He told Simon the Pharisee things he didn’t want to hear. He did this while reclining at the table, instead of waiting for a more socially acceptable moment (Luke 7:36-50).  He taught and fed 5000 after hearing His cousin John had been killed (Matt. 14:13-21).  He said and did what was needed when it was needed. He did not a frantically careening about trying to make up for lost time; He redeemed time.

            With this in mind let’s all commit to living our lives more urgently, truly making the most of every opportunity. If we will do this, when we get to heaven’s gates we will not be anxious about what we have left undone. However, we need “Jesus urgency.” We don’t need to be scurrying about, just consistently living the values and priorities of the Christ.

            “Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity“ Col. 4:5).



•          Revelation thirteen continues the presentation of the main players in the    drama of Revelation by introducing both the Roman Empire and those who promote emperor worship.

•          The sea beast represents the Roman Empire (vv. 1-10).

•          John mentions the beast and then a leopard, a bear, and a lion (vv. 1-2).

•          Daniel had a similar vision, but in reverse order (Dan. 7:3-7).

•          Daniel saw the succession of world empires from Babylon to Persia to Greece to Rome.

•          John saw Rome first, and then the three preceding empires whose strength Rome had absorbed.

•          Daniel saw from Babylon forward to Rome; John saw from Rome backward to Babylon.

•          The sea beast, Rome, had ten horns and seven heads (v.1).

•          Note that Satan was described as a dragon that looked just like the sea beast we have just identified as Rome (12:3).

•          Satan is the force behind Rome—the ten horns represent kings that will join with Rome to defeat the church (17:12); the seven heads represent both the    hills on which Rome was built and key Roman emperors (17:9-10).

•          Particular attention is given to one of the heads, emperors, which seemed to have been killed, yet lived again—a false or counterfeit resurrection (vv. 3-9).

•          The symbolism here draws from what is called the Nero Redivivus Myth—a popular myth that developed in Rome after Nero’s death to the effect that Nero was alive and living with Rome’s enemies the Parthians. Further, it was said by the Romans that Domitian, due to similar shocking behavior, was bloody Nero back from the dead.

•          Therefore, I see the supposed resurrected head as being Domitian as he revived and expanded the persecutions of Nero.

•          In connection with this coming fierce persecution of the church, the saints are given a solemn warning (vv. 9-10).

•          Captivity and punishment are not to be resisted by force of arms (v. 10; cf. Jer. 15:2; 43:11; Matt. 26:52).

•          Next is the land beast, representing those who enforce emperor worship (vv. 1-17).

•          The power of the emperor is behind this beast (vv. 11-12).

•          They seem to have power, but it is a deception (vv. 13-14).

•          It is Domitian they serve (v. 14).

•          They killed those who did not worship Domitian (v. 15).

•          They give a sign to those who comply with emperor worship that allows them to buy and sell; those who refuse are cut off from such activities (vv. 16-17).

•          The number of the dreaded emperor who brings such persecution is 666 (v. 18).

•          Letters had numerical values in ancient times.

•          A coin minted in the first century had the inscription NRON KSR, the Hebrew spelling of Nero Caesar—N=50, R=200, O=6, N=50, K=100, S=60, R=200, for a total of 666.

•          John was a Jew and many of the early converts to the church in Asia were Jews who were well versed in such apocalyptic matters.

•          Domitian is pictured as Nero come back to life—the interpretation of 666 as Nero seems too appropriate for it to be mere coincidence.

•          Revelation seventeen symbolically supplies more information as to the character and identity of the enemy.

•          Rome is here likened to a Great Harlot, corrupter of kings/kingdoms, drunk with the blood of the martyrs, and reigning over a vast empire (vv. 2, 6, 15, 18).

•          She is the archetypical “scarlet woman” (v. 3).

•          She had grown rich through her abominations (v. 4).

•          In fact, she was the “mother of all abominations” (v. 5).

•          She was the primary force behind the murder of the martyrs (v. 7).

•          She represents an immoral sense of prideful greed that drove the Roman Empire.

•          The beast itself is the Satan-empowered Roman Empire.

•          Directing this empire would be one particular emperor who was as one who had come back from the dead (vv. 8-11).

•          The seven heads of the beast represent the seven hills upon which the city of Rome was built as well as seven kings or emperors that ruled over Rome—and a dreaded eighth that was as though one of the seven had come back     from the dead (vv. 9-11).

•          Here, as in 13:18, the reader is told to be especially wise in the interpretation.

•          In 13:18 there was the number 666 that we identified as adding up to Nero.

•          Here in 17:9-11, we are looking for a particular emperor—the emperor of the persecution.

•          Beginning with Augustus, the first actual emperor of Rome, the first eleven emperors are:

Augustus              31 BC – AD 14

Tiberius                14 – 37

Gaius (Caligula)  37 – 41

Claudius                41 – 54

Nero                       54 – 68

Galba                      68 – 69

Otho                        69

Vitilius                    69

Vespasian              69 -79

Titus                        79 – 81

Domitian                81- 96

•          As you will recall, in chapter thirteen where we found the other symbolism in need of special attention, there was a tie in with Daniel chapter seven.

•          Here we will also find a link to Daniel seven.

•          As in chapter thirteen, Revelation will be looking back through history, Daniel chapter seven, however, looked ahead through time (cf. Dan. 7:3-6; Rev. 13:1-2).

•          Daniel, in dealing with the same persecution as Revelation, saw ten emperors and then an eleventh—the persecutor (Dan. 7:7-8, 20-24).

•          John, on the other hand, saw seven emperors and then an eight—the persecutor (Rev. 17:10-11).

•          But Daniel, looking forward, saw that three of the kings were removed, which would leave seven and an eighth, just like John saw in Revelation seventeen.

•          History records that Domitian was in Rome through a civil war that saw Galba, Otho, and Vitilius all briefly rise up only to fall before they could gain control of the empire.

•          Domitian was actually proclaimed emperor at that time in the place of his      father Vespasian who was laying siege to Jerusalem, accompanied by Titus, Dometian’s older brother. Vespasian returned to Rome immediately to take   his place as emperor.

•          So the book of Revelation has discounted the three emperors that were removed and looks at the five (Augustus—Nero), the one who was emperor     at the writing of Revelation (Vespasian), the one who would come, but only   reign for a short time (Titus), and then the eighth (Domitian) who was like one of the seven (Nero) come back from the dead.

•          History and the Bible fit perfectly in a very intricate revelation of truth!

•          Therefore, I believe that the Book of Revelation was written in the latter part of Vespasian’s reign, about 78 or 79, just before Titus would come to rule for a short time, thus, just about four years before the persecutor, Domitian, would reign.

•          The ten horns are ten client kings within the Roman Empire—kings allowed to reign as long as they would be subject to Rome. Their hatred against Rome will eventually be part of Rome’s undoing (vv. 12, 16-17).

•          The cause of Christ will prevail (v. 14).

•          Rome ruled over vast numbers of people, but she was no match for the Lord  (vv. 15-17).

•          The Harlot, the malevolent spirit that characterized Rome, was ruler over earthly kings, but not over the King of kings (vv. 18, 14).



         God intends for Christians to be humble, “… do nothing through faction or vainglory” (Philippians 2:3a).  With this in mind, revealing questions are in order. Are we attempting to do anything to show our superiority of intellect or for the sake of recognition? Are we doing things with the ambition to exalt self by showing we have more talent than others? Is there a minister, elder, deacon or bible school teacher who ever pridefully seeks to “show what they’ve got”? Do we find ourselves preferring secular accomplishments over how well we can serve God and others? Do we serve to glorify God or to keep some of that glory for ourselves?

         What can we do to help prevent inappropriate motives and actions? As we serve God, we need to be sure we are doing a large number of our deeds in private rather than in public (cf. Matt. 6:1-18). If everyone knows about almost every work we are doing for God, we probably have a problem with pride. Are we driven to air our good works?

         No matter what our position, we should first see ourselves as servants of Christ and of others. We must remember that all our talents, intellect, even our existence are things we owe to God—leaving no room for pride. Recognizing we are sinners and that we will never be saved on the basis merit, we should be humble, “… each counting others better than himself” (Phil. 2:3b).

         Good things such as secular accomplishments, Christian service, and an increase in our knowledge of the word can all lead to pride. Jesus, however, shows us the way. Paul said Jesus was God, thus equal with God. Jesus chose not to retain His prerogatives (Phil. 2:6-7). Though He had the right to everything, He gave it all up to share our lowly condition (Phil. 2:8).

         The example of Jesus shows that humility results in the highest kind of exaltation. Jesus was the best illustration of His own teaching “He that humbles himself shall be exalted” (Luke 14:11, 18:14).


If You Love Me, You Will Keep My Commandments

            In John 14:15 Jesus make a very direct, easily understood statement. The KJV and NKJV capture the thought in John 14:23. “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.”

            Jesus built His church (Matt. 16:18; Heb. 12:22-23). He is the One the church is to obey (Matt. 28:20). Why then do we so commonly ignore Him in this most fundamental aspect of Christian response?

            Jesus is smart, hardly a revelation, yet a truth we can all too easily ignore. If the church is to address successfully the business of the Christ, it must love the Christ. If we love Him well, we will follow Him faithfully and zealously; if we do not love Him sufficiently, we will not. Simple, isn’t it.

            This love of Christ is to control us; it is the key to victorious service (II Cor. 5:14-15; cf. Gal. 2:20). Whatever the particular item of service might be, it is the heartfelt love of Jesus that will insure its pursuit. All the well-defined lists of doctrine and all the acknowledged biblical patterns will not, in themselves, bring us to obedience; love is the key.

            How do we come to have this love? What is the practical plan for developing this all-important key to service? We need no rocket scientist or brain surgeon; the answer is within clear sight of us all.

            We will come to love Jesus in the acceptable, substantive biblical way as we get to know Him. To know Him is to love Him. Where do we find our most direct encounter with the Christ? It is in the Gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, almost 48% of the New Testament, is the place where we see Jesus “in the flesh” (Jn. 1:14; 14:7-9).

            Yes, we must also come to know the mind of Christ as it is expressed to the church in the Epistles. The love of Christ would allow no other choice. Nevertheless, it is in the Gospels where we see Him in the form of His most personal appearance. The key is to loving Jesus is obvious. The Gospels must be read. Their picture of Jesus must be the source of our ongoing meditation and application (II Cor. 3:18). If we never tire of hearing the “old, old story,” we will never be far from the four books of “good news.”

            We have, at times, given our first look to bare doctrine, or to programs   and methods devised by men. Some have even said that Acts chapter two is the “hub of the Bible,” as thought the beginning of the church is more significant than its Builder (Heb. 3:3). We need to look first to the Christ (Col. 3:1-3). It is to Him we must go before our focus can be clear elsewhere (Matt. 11:28-30; cf. I Cor. 11:1).

            I purpose a prescription for increasing our love to Jesus. Read a Gospel a week, taken in daily doses. Read, marvel, meditate, and be captivated by Jesus. As we grow in love for Him, we will grow in our keeping of His commandments. As Philip told Nathanael, “Come and see” (Jn. 1:46).


The Tulip Poplar

A Lesson Learned in Youth

The day was a scorcher; my hometown isn’t called “Hot-lanta” without reason. Rickey Jones, no relation, was wedged a few branches up in a large tulip poplar. “Edwin,” he said groggily, “I don’t ever want to grow up.” “What are you talking about,” I said in my own midday stupor?

Then Rickey said one of the most profound things I’ve ever heard. “Because when people grow up they act stupid.” I carefully collected myself in the face of such weighty thinking. It hit me for the first time with the full force of this profound reality. The grownups I knew had evidently gone through some sort of change when they stopped being children.

My peers in the just-before-teen range were different. It wasn’t just about our not knowing as much or how we lacked in life skills, there was something more significant. We were still holding on to something special.

This was one of those life-changing moments! I made a promise to myself in classic Peter Pan style, “I’m not going to grow up.”

I know some of you who know me are snickering and thinking, “That’s one promise he kept.” I’ll admit adult ways are sometimes not my favorite things. I still believe Rickey made good sense.