Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Praise of God’s Glory – Ephesians 1:12

In Proverbs 17:6 we are told, “Children’s children are the crown of old men; and the glory of children are their fathers.”  There is a reciprocal glory when fathers bless their children and children bless their fathers.  This is of course a proverb, which means that it does not depict a universal reality, but is meant to portray the way things ought to be and the way God designed them to be.  God made fathers and children so that they would bless each other.  It is not always the case.  But when you have a godly father who brings up his children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, and you have children who respect and honor their father, both the father and the child reap the benefits.  A crown is placed on the head of the father and glory is given to the children.

And I want to emphasize that it must go both ways.  Today on Father’s Day, there are many homes where the children’s hearts are sad because their father never really demonstrated to them that he loved them.  Perhaps work was more important to him than his family.  Perhaps he was enslaved to terrible habits.  Whether through absence or negligence or whatever, they are not the glory of their children.  On the other hand, today there are many homes where the hearts of the fathers are sad because one of their children decided that they knew what was best and like the prodigal son take their journey into a far country and waste their lives on riotous living.  Such children are not the crown of their fathers, unless it be a crown of thorns.  But when the love of a wise and godly father finds receptive and listening hearts in his sons and daughters, then the father is praised by his children and the children are praised by their father.

Now I begin this way today, not only because it is Father’s Day, but because it is pertinent to our text.  Here, we read, “That we should be to the praise of his glory, who first trusted in Christ” (12). The apostle has been exulting in the fact that God has predestined those whom he has chosen in Christ to the adoption of children (5), and that, as children, they are predestined to an inheritance in Christ (11).  For Paul, it was a most amazing thing to find himself belonging to God as a son belongs to his father.  You see, he didn’t embrace some vague notion of the “universal fatherhood of God.”  Though God may be spoken of as the father of all in the sense that he is the creator of all, that is not what has taken the apostle by surprise.  Paul knew that because of sin, we are all alienated from God, separated from his fellowship, and from his saving blessing and life.  Because of our rebellion, God does not look upon us as children but as enemies.  And you know what?  By nature, we consider God to be our enemy as well.  There is therefore no reason for us to expect God to bless us at all.  And then by grace we find ourselves seeing our sin, repenting of our sin, turning in faith to Christ and understanding that not only are all our sins forgiven but that we have been received into the very family of God as his sons and daughters.  And then to hear that we have an inheritance undefiled, incorruptible, and that fades not away – that is truly amazing.

If you belong to Christ, if you are “in him” as the apostle speaks in this epistle, then you are a son or a daughter of God Almighty.  You have been given the greatest privilege and honor that could ever be given in this world or the next.  All the gold and silver and power and comforts and popularity of this world are nothing and less than nothing compared with your exalted status as a child of God.  Your father is your glory.  He is the best Father, and any good earthly father is going to look to your heavenly Father as his model. 

But as the proverb puts it, it is not just that the father is the glory of his children.  It is also that children are the crown of their fathers.  A good son or daughter puts, as it were, a crown upon the head of their worthy parent.  They do this in many ways.  They do it by verbal praise.  They do it by living lives that reflect upon their upbringing.  In the same way, the text before us is telling us that as God’s sons and daughters, we are to put a crown upon the head of God our infinitely worthy Father.  He has bestowed upon us such glory, and now it is incumbent upon us that we give glory to him: “that we should be to the praise of his glory.”

There are three questions I want to ask of our text this morning.  First, what does this mean for us?  What does it mean to be to the praise of God’s glory?  Second, why should we exult in this, as the apostle does?  Why is this good news?  For a lot of people, the requirement to glorify God is a distraction from something much more important: seeking glory for themselves and advancing the goals of personal ambition.  I want to argue that seeking personal fulfillment and not putting God’s kingdom first is actually counterproductive and ultimately suicidal.  Finally, and I want to consider how we put this into practice.  It’s one thing to know that this means; it is another to put it into daily practice.

First of all, what does it mean that we should be to the praise of his glory?  There are at least two ways by which we praise God.  We praise God by being trophies of his grace and by being proclaimers of his grace.

We praise God by being trophies of his grace.  A trophy is a mute symbol to the victories of its owner.  In the same way, just the fact that we are saved and the way in which God saved us glorifies God.  Before we even open our lips to praise God, God is praised by his work for us and in us.  A parent doesn’t have to wait until their children can talk or until they graduate and go off to conquer the world before their children praise them.  An infant in his mother’s arms gives the most eloquent praise to his or her parents.  Even so, God’s work for us in redeeming us and changing us and making us like his Son is a testimony to the glory of his grace.  No matter what you think you have accomplished for God, it is what God has done for you that brings him the most praise.

To see that this is what Paul means, note the connection between this verse and the previous ones.  That we should be . . .” implies purpose.  The reason why God did something was so that the elect would be to the praise of his glory.  But what did God do for this purpose?  The answer: everything that he has done in saving us is done to the praise of his glory.

Remember that this is not actually the first time Paul says this.  He said it first in verse 6, now in verse 12, and finally in verse 14.  As we noted before, this phrase “to the praise of his glory” (or something similar) is Paul’s refrain that also points to the subdivision of this doxology into praise for the Father (4-6), praise for the Son (7-12), and praise for the Holy Spirit (13-14).  This phrase therefore points back to the glory of the Triune God in accomplishing salvation for his people.  God the Father chose a people before the foundation of the world purely on the basis of grace and predestined them to become his children.  This points to the glory of God the Father in planning salvation for us.  God the Son then came to accomplish the redemption planned in the covenant of redemption, and gives to us the forgiveness of sin according to the riches of his grace.  In him we are enlightened and in him we have obtained an inheritance.  All this points to the glory of God the Son in accomplishing salvation for us.  And then God the Holy Spirit seals the work of the Father and Son in the hearts of believers by giving them an earnest of the inheritance.  All this point to the glory of God the Spirit in applying salvation to us.

One of the things that ought to stand out to us, especially in our day when the image of the Self is so important, is that verses 3-14 are not about what we have done to save ourselves.  There is not one word of that in all these verses.  Rather, these verses are all about what God has done to save us.  The Actor throughout this hymn of praise is God and God alone.  We are the objects of his saving work.  And therefore when it is all said and done, just the very fact of our salvation is a testament to the grace and power and love and mercy of God.  Even if I were mute and paralyzed for eternity, if I am saved then I am praising God.  We will stand forever as trophies of God’s amazing grace.

And I think it is important for us to realize this.  It bothers me the way some people talk about their salvation.  It’s almost as if God couldn’t quite pull it through and they helped him across the finish line.  May such sentiments be far from us!  As J. I. Packer so eloquently put it, “salvation, first and last, whole and entire, past, present, and future, is of the Lord, to whom be glory for ever; amen.”

This ties into the second way in which we are to the praise of his glory.  We not only praise God by being trophies of his grace but also by being proclaimers of his grace.  The connection between this point and the previous one is that we will never properly proclaim the glories of God’s grace until we understand that God alone is at the bottom of our salvation.  However, God is not only glorified in giving grace, he is also glorified when he is seen to be glorious.  And anyone who truly tastes and sees that God is good will not want to remain quiet about it.  They will want to give glory to the God who saved them.  And they will do this with their words and they will do it with their works.  They will not only want to sing of God’s amazing grace they will want to demonstrate it with their lives.  They will want to live lives that point away from themselves and point toward the God of grace.

We now come to our second question: Why is this good news?  Why should we be thrilled at the prospect of being to the glory of God’s grace?  It is very important that we see why, because we can never truly consciously live for God’s glory when we don’t think it’s worth it, or if the pursuit of our own glory is closer to our hearts.  I want to give two reasons why we should pursue God’s glory and not our own: one from human nature and one from Scripture.

First of all, experience proves that the human spirit is only properly fulfilled when it is a part of something bigger than itself.  For example, people naturally want to be part of a cause that’s bigger than themselves, and the bigger the better.  People who are patriots are so because they believe that their country is a cause worth living for and dying for.  Love of country is a cause that is bigger than the individual citizen and it can often spark incredible devotion in the patriot.  Or people are attracted to various social justice issues.  Whether you are religious or not, it doesn’t matter; people want to be a part of something that matters, something that is bigger than themselves.  You even see this phenomenon displayed in sports.  It’s ironic that the irreligious will deride Christians for singing praise to God and then they will go to a football stadium and yell like crazy people for their team until their lungs gives out.

However, neither one’s country, nor one’s favorite social justice issue, nor one’s favorite sport’s team is big enough to fill our hearts.  One of the reasons is that no matter what issue or cause we devote ourselves to, no cause is truly universal.  Every country has boundaries.  No social justice issue benefits everyone.  No sports team is universally loved and admired.  The kingdom of God is the only truly universal cause.  Only the kingdom of God will one day cover the earth as the waters covers the seas.  Only the kingdom of God will one day encompass heaven and earth.  Therefore, only the cause of God and truth can truly bring fulfillment to our hearts.

In the same way, we want to experience greatness.  We want to be in the presence of greatness.  Why do we want to stand before mountains?  What draws us to look through telescopes and behold the magnitude of the universe?  Because again we are looking at something bigger than ourselves.  It’s why we want to be in the presence of our human idols. 

But again, God is the only one who is truly great.  Everything else is finite; only God is infinite.  And therefore, God is the only one who can truly satisfy our desire for greatness.  Greatness is not found in ourselves; it is found in God.  If you are looking for glory, you won’t be satisfied by seeking it in yourself or in your accomplishments. 

I think this is what the Preacher in Ecclesiastes is getting at, when he wrote that God has put eternity into man’s heart (Eccl. 3:11).  We want to get beyond the limits of the here-and-now.  We want to experience greatness beyond what we are or have experienced.  There are faint echoes of this in the greatness of our world and the universe and even in our own nature.  But only God can give what our spirits long for.  And therefore we should seek the glory of God, not our own.

But if nature testifies to this fact, Scripture does so even more clearly.  The Bible teaches that God made man for his glory, not our own.  When we pursue our private glory instead of God’s glory, we are committing spiritual suicide; we are killing lasting and satisfying joy for a cheap imitation.  God has told us what to do: we are to seek him.  We are idiots if we do otherwise.

This is, in fact, all over the Bible.  For example, in Isaiah 43:6-7, we read: “I will say to the north, Give up; and to the south, Keep not back: bring my sons from afar, and my daughters from the ends of the earth; even everyone that is called by my name: for I have created him for my glory, I have formed him; yea, I have made him.”  Here, God denotes the Israelites as his children.  He makes it clear that he will never forsake them.  Even if they are scattered to the ends of the earth, he will gather them home.  But what was true of God’s old covenant people is even more true of the new covenant people of God.  Every believer in Christ is called by God’s name, and as such are created for his glory.  As God’s new creation, we have been formed for his glory, not our own. 

A few chapters later, God speaking through the prophet says, “For mine own sake, even for mine own sake, will I do it: for how should my name be polluted: and I will note give my glory unto another” (48:11).  Therefore, if we are seeking our glory in this world instead of the glory of God, if we are trying to make ourselves instead of God the object of praise, then we are pitting ourselves against God.  He has made us for his glory.  If we are trying to capture that glory for ourselves, we are at cross-purposes with God: he will not give his glory to another.  You cannot steal the glory of God and get away with it.  It is a futile exercise.

In fact, God’s glory is not only the purpose behind the salvation of his elect, it is the purpose behind all that he has done.  The apostle Paul writes in Rom. 11:36, “For of him, and through him, and to him are all things: to whom be glory forever.  Amen.”  To God are all things.  God is the origin and creator of everything in the universe and he is the one who holds it together.  And he does it all that he might receive the glory.  Proverbs 16:4 concurs: “The LORD hath made all things for himself: yea, even the wicked for the day of evil.”  God has made all things for himself in the sense that they are meant to give him glory.  “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament sheweth his handiwork” (Ps. 19:1).  “Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created” (Rev. 4:11).

This is the purpose behind all true religion.  The Scripture teaches that what differentiates between true and false religion is this principle: those who seek the honor of God in sincerity have true religion; those who seek their own glory deceive themselves (cf. Jn. 5:44; Mt 5:16: Rom. 4:20; 1 Cor. 6:20).  It is why the Lord’s Prayer begins the way it does: “Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” 

Now it may seem strange to us that God is out to magnify himself.  We may think, as C. S. Lewis once did, that the commands in Scripture calling us to praise God sound like a vain woman seeking compliments.  And it would not only be strange but wrong if we were the ones calling others to worship us.  But what is wrong and selfish and evil in us is right and loving and holy in God.  In fact, if God did not do this he would be wicked.  As John Piper puts it, God is not an idolater: he has no other gods before him.  It is wrong in us because no human being can be the foundation of your joy.  Only God can be that.  And therefore, only he can be the proper and ultimate object of your praise.

And it is not selfish for God to do this.  When God points us to himself as the supreme object worthy of our love and affection and praise and delight, he is acting not only for his glory but for our joy.  When we learn to live unto the praise of his glory, we are investing in the God who is an infinite treasure of grace and love and joy.  Those who honor him he will honor; not by making them into little gods but by granting them access to the fellowship of the Triune God.

The ultimate reason why this is good news lies in the infinite greatness of God and the discontinuity between God and men.  God is awesomely transcendent.  The reason why so many people don’t see the need to seek the glory of God is that the god they believe in is not really that great.  He is not much different from themselves.  If you get bored with God, you are not going to be to the praise of his glory.  But if you have seen the glory of God, you are not going to be able to do anything else.  You praise what you love and admire.  God is infinitely worthy of our love and admiration and therefore infinitely worthy of our worship and our praise.

Now that brings us to our final question.  How do we in fact live to the praise of his glory?  Suppose we know in some sense what this means and why we should do it.  How do we make this practical?  To see the answer to this question, let’s look at the text again.  The key is in the last part of the verse.

Note that Paul says that those who live to the praise of God’s glory are those “who first trusted in Christ.”  The word “first trusted” means “to hope before.”  It’s the word for “hope” with a prefix that is translated here as “first” and in other translations as “before,” or something similar.  However, you cannot really separate hope and faith.  Faith is the substance of things hoped for” (Heb. 11:1).  Those who trust in Christ as precisely those who hope in him.  And thus, those who live for the praise of God’s glory are those who hope in Christ. 

Some commentators think that Paul is referring to believing Jews in verse 12 (we who first hoped in Christ) and to the believing Gentiles at Ephesus in verse 13 (in whom ye also trusted).  This seems to best explain the meaning of hoping or trusting “before” others.  The Jewish believers preceded their Gentile brethren in matter of time in terms of believing on Jesus.  However, since Paul applies to his Gentile readers in verse 13 what he has just said in verse 12, it is clear that this is a universal truth that applies to all believers everywhere.  All who trust in Christ will live for his praise.

Two things are worth pointing out here.  First, we are taught in these words that no one can truly live to the praise of God’s glory on their own.  We need Christ, we need to be connected to him and his grace and power and the way we do this is by trusting in him, by placing our faith in him. 

Second, it is only when we hope in Christ and not in ourselves that we will be able to live in a way that points others to him and to the glory of his grace.  We are living contradictions when we point others to Christ and yet are living for ourselves.  This is what is behind Peter’s famous instruction: “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear” (1 Pet. 3:15).  We will never be pointing away from ourselves to God until we have placed our hopes in him.

And as those who hope in him, we live aware of the riches that we have in Christ so that we don’t become distracted by the cheap pleasures of a world in rebellion against God.  This is, in the end, the evidence that you are living a life that echoes the glory of God and not your own.  What are you hoping in?  Whatever we see as glorious, in that we will hope.  Paul writes to the Colossians that it is Christ in us that is the hope of glory (Col. 1:27).  In Christ, we have one in whom we can hope and not be ashamed (cf. Rom. 5).  May all our eyes be opened to see his glory so that our hope will be in him, and him alone.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Counsel of God's Will – Ephesians 1:11

In verse 5, the apostle says that God the Father “predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will.”  Now, in verse 11, the apostle says almost the same thing.  Here, he says that in Christ “we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the council of his own will.”   These verses are linked by the twin ideas of God’s family and God’s purpose.  In verse 5, the apostle praises God that he has predestined us to become sons and daughters of God.  But now that we are in his family, we have a glorious inheritance from our Father.  Thus verse 11.  And underneath our acceptance into the family of God and our inheritance in the family of God is God’s good purpose in predestining us to these wonderful gifts.

However, Paul is not being redundant here.  Verse 5 answers the question, “How did I get to become a child of God?”  The ultimate answer lies in God.  We are in his family because he predestined us to be there.  All the glory belongs to God, not to us.  But now that we are in the family of God, another question arises.  How can I be sure that I will remain in the family of God and inherit eternal life in the age to come?  Will I persevere to the end?  Or will I lose my faith and my salvation?  Having begun well, will I finish well?  Will I, as the apostle Peter put it, have an abundant entrance “into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 1:11)?   

The answer to that question lies in the verse before us.  God’s purpose doesn’t just get us into the family of God, it also ensures that all who become sons and daughters of God will inevitably enter into their glorious inheritance in the age to come.  God has predestined not only that we believe and obtain the power to become the sons and daughters of God (Jn. 1:12), but also that we inherit the blessing that he has reserved for his children.  All whom God predestinates to this blessing will obtain it.  For when God speaks a promise, he brings it to pass; when he purposes to do something, he will do it (cf. Isa. 46:11). 

In other words, the apostle’s words here imply the doctrine of the preservation of the saints; or, as some like to put it, the eternal security of the believer.  I say “the preservation of the saints” because at the bottom of our security is not our fickle faith but the firm and unshakable purpose of God that preserves us in faith.  That is not to say that faith is not important.  It is not only important but it is necessary.  Only those who endure to the end will be saved, as our Lord put it in the Olivet Discourse (Mt. 24:13).  However, what keeps the embers of the saint’s faith from dying out is the power and grace of God.  Peter put it this way: he says that God has “begotten us . . . to an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you, who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Pet. 1:3-5).  Note what Peter says: it is God’s power that keeps us through faith.  We are not kept without faith.  But we are kept by God’s power.  The salvation of the believer is secure.

Our Lord put it this way: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me [there is faith and obedience]: and I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.  My Father, which gave them [to] me, is greater than all [there is the power of God]; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand” (Jn. 10:27-29).  Yes, the saints will persevere in faith and holiness.  What keeps the believer in faith and holiness is the grace and undefeatable power of God for him or her. 

However, Paul is so solicitous that we should be confident in the fact that all the elect of God will inherit eternal life, he adds, “being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the council of his own will.”  In other words, it is not just heaven and eternal life that God has predestined the saint to enjoy.  In addition, he works all things after the council of his own will.  Paul’s argument is that the believer can have unshakable confidence that he or she will reach heaven and enter into the joy of the Lord with eternal life because there is nothing in heaven or on earth that can possibly jeopardize their inheritance.  And the reason why nothing can jeopardize their security is because God works all things after the council of his own will.  “All things” here really means “all things.”  There is nothing that can happen to the saint that falls outside the purpose and plan of God.

We need to be careful that we don’t soften the apostle’s words here.  Paul does not allow the possibility that there are some things that take God by surprise.  He is saying that all that happens in this universe happens according to the plan of God.  God is never taken by surprise.  He doesn’t have to improvise.  He is not playing chess with the world.  He works all things after the council of his will.  God’s purpose is all-encompassing.  Listen to the way the prophet Isaiah puts it: “Remember the former things of old: for I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure:’” (Isa. 46:9-10).  What does God do?  He declares the end from the beginning.  He knows the future perfectly.  Why?  Because he is a good guesser?  No!  God’s omniscience is grounded in God’s sovereignty: he knows the future perfectly because his counsel will stand and he will do all his pleasure.  God’s knowing of the future is not based on my counsel or your counsel or the counsel of any other human being.  It is solely determined by his counsel.  Contrast this with ourselves.  You and I can’t know the future because we can neither understand nor control all the variables involved in just our own lives.  But God both understands and controls all the variables.  As one theologian has put it, there is not a maverick molecule in the universe. 

We are thus faced with the Biblical principle that God’s eternal plan and providence both sovereign and all encompassing.  It is this that afforded the apostle such comfort and became for him the foundation of his praise.  Now what about you and me?  How is this principle supposed to work out in our lives?  What conclusions are we allowed to take from God’s over-arching sovereignty and how are we to apply it to our lives?  What are we to know about this so that it too becomes a matter of blessing and praise in our own lives?

I think the best thing to do here is to work this out through Biblical examples.  The first example I want to consider with you is that of Joseph, whose history is recorded for us in Genesis 37-50.  A brief sketch of Joseph’s history is as follows.  Joseph was the oldest son of Rachel, Jacob’s favorite wife.  Jacob unfortunately showed favoritism towards Joseph and this invited the jealously of his other brothers.  What added to the volatility of the situation was the fact that Joseph had several dreams which he unwisely related to his brothers and father.  These dreams indicated that one day Joseph would be in a position of power over his brethren, and they further resented him for this.  Over time, their jealousy turned to hate and their hate to rage until, when they had the opportunity, they sold him into slavery.  To cover up for their foul deed, they lied to Jacob and made it appear that Joseph had been attacked and killed by an animal.

Joseph was then sold to Potiphar, “an officer of Pharaoh’s, and captain of the guard” (Gen. 37:36).  However, we are told that God blessed Joseph even in this low position, to the point that Potiphar entrusted all that he had to Joseph, making him the chief steward of his household (Gen. 39:2-6).  It seemed that Joseph’s luck was turning, when his master’s wife “cast her eyes upon Joseph” (Gen. 39:7), seeking to tempt him to sin with her.  Joseph steadfastly refused; but instead of being rewarded for his godliness (cf. 39:9), he was framed by Potiphar’s wife and, in a sad irony, accused of raping her.  This enraged Potiphar who had Joseph thrown into prison (39:20).

So Joseph had gone from being hated by his brothers to being sold into slavery, and now thrown into prison.  Now Joseph had done nothing wrong.  In fact, in comparison with his brothers (cf. 35:22; 38:1-26), Joseph was the only honorable man among them.  At this point, he could have become angry with God.  Why did he deserve any of this?  Why was God doing this to him?  Or perhaps he could have reasoned that God didn’t want him to endure this but didn’t have the power to stop it.  Either God wasn’t good or God wasn’t powerful enough.  But we know Joseph didn’t think this way.  We know that he continued to trust in God.  Why did he do this?

What happened next is that Pharaoh threw a couple of his servants into the prison with Joseph, where they both had dreams (40:1-23).  In those days, before the Bible was completed, God often spoke to people in dreams (I believe he still does this today, but we should be careful that we do not value dreams over the written word of God.  See Acts 10.)  Joseph was able to accurately interpret their dreams.  This was significant because after several more years, Pharaoh himself had a dream which obviously had some importance but which he was not able to discern (Gen. 41).  At this point, one of Pharaoh’s servants remembered Joseph, at which point Pharaoh had Joseph taken out of prison, and he was given the opportunity to interpret Pharaoh’s dream, which he did.  In fact, the king was so impressed by the young Hebrew’s ability and wisdom that he elevated him to second in command over all Egypt.

The dreams had been about seven years of plenty followed by seven years of drought.  This foresight allowed the Egyptians, under Joseph’s leadership, to prepare for the drought by storing up food.  It also brought Joseph into contact with his brothers once again, who came to Egypt to buy grain for food.  Eventually, Joseph’s entire family traveled into Egypt and settled there, and would remain there for four hundred years until the Exodus.

Now when their father Jacob died, Joseph’s brothers, now in Egypt and under Joseph’s rule, figured that Joseph would get his revenge.  And so they sent a messenger to beg his forgiveness.  Here is how Joseph responded to them and it is the key to how he endured all the misery that led up to his prosperity: “Fear not: for am I in the place of God?  But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive” (Gen. 50:19-20).  Do you hear what Joseph is saying?  He is not saying that God made a good situation out of a bad one.  He is actually saying that God intended for Joseph to be sold into slavery.  “God meant it unto good.”  They meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.  Moreover, we do not do justice to Joseph’s meaning here if we say that God simply foresaw what Joseph’s brothers would do.  That is not the same as meaning or intending for something to happen.  God planned it and it happened.

That of course does not take away the culpability of his brothers.  Because they meant it for evil, they were certainly guilty of a foul sin.  Here we have the mystery of providence: God freely planned this event for good, while Joseph’s brothers freely planned the same event for evil. 

However, we can now see why Joseph didn’t get angry with his brothers and didn’t let bitterness fester in his heart against God or his family.  Joseph recognized that God was moving and acting according to his good plan in all that happened.  God planned his slavery and his imprisonment because it was through this route that God would set Joseph over all Egypt.  Joseph recognized that God’s plan is good even when we do not or cannot understand what God is doing. 

In the same way, there are a lot of things that can happen to us to make us doubt or question God’s love and care of us.  We may not be sold into slavery or thrown into prison, but things can happen to all of us that can be crushing and bring us to the point of despair.  In those moments, we need to remember what Joseph believed: that God means it for our good, whatever men may intend or events may threaten.  God works all things after the counsel of his own will, and God’s plan for his children is good.  It is one which will bring them into an eternal inheritance of never-ending joy.

Another example of this principle we find in the life of Job.  Like Joseph, Job was a godly man, and is introduced to us in the very first verse of the book that bears his name as “a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job: and that man was perfect and upright, and one that feared God and eschewed evil.”  This man was fantastically wealthy, with 7000 sheep, 3000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen, and 500 donkeys.  He also had what is often lacking among the rich: a wonderful and loving family, which included 10 children.  Job had everything going for him.

Everything was going for him, that is, until the day “when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan came also among them” (Job 1:6).  He came as he always does, as the accuser of the brethren.  And there he accused Job of having an empty and hypocritical faith.  Satan dared God to take away Job’s wealth, saying that if Job lost his wealth, his godliness would disappear along with it.  Sadly, this has proved all too true in far too many cases.  Satan bet that this was true of Job as well.

In order to show Satan that he was wrong about Job, God allowed Satan to take away Job’s wealth and his children.  In a few short moments, Job was hit with news of tragedy after tragedy, and the hurt was infinitely multiplied when he learned that all his children were killed in a freak accident.  I cannot imagine the pain that Job must have been feeling at that moment.
What did Job do?  What would you have done?  I dare say that many of us would be tempted to shake our fist at heaven and berate God.  Or to do what Job’s wife would later counsel him to do: to curse God and die (Job 2:9).  Instead, we are told that “Job arose, and rent his mantle, and shaved his head, and fell down upon the ground, and worshipped, and said, ‘Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.  In all this Job sinned not, nor charged God foolishly” (Job 1:20-22).

Now the first thing I want to note here is that the theology of Job is correct: “In all this Job sinned not, nor charged God foolishly.”  Which is exactly the opposite of what most theologians today would say.  When tragedy strikes, we are often told that God had nothing to do with it.  That is not what Job claimed.  “The LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away.”  He’s referring to the loss of all his children and all his wealth.  God gave these things to him and God took them away.  Yes, we know that Satan was immediately responsible for these tragic acts.  And his malice was evil and wicked.  He will pay for his crimes in the lake of fire forever.  Nevertheless, Job was not saying a lie when he ascribed his losses to God.  Job knew that God works all things after the counsel of his own will, the good and the bad.  Job knew that Satan could not move a muscle without God’s permission.  He is on a leash and God is holding the leash.

That does not mean that God willed Job’s tragedy in the sense of delighting in it.  In fact, we are told in the next chapter that God complains to Satan that “thou movedst me against him, to destroy him without cause” (2:3).  (Note here that God is ascribing Job’s tragedy to God!)  God hated what was happening to Job.  Nevertheless it is right to say that God willed it in the sense that he allowed it for his wise and ultimately good reasons.  And Job obviously knew that.

Unfortunately, Satan was not finished with Job.  He was still not convinced that Job’s piety was real: “And Satan answered the LORD, and said, ‘Skin for skin, yea, all that a man hath will he give for his life.  But put forth thine hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse thee to thy face’” (Job 2:4-5).  In other words, Satan is saying that if Job loses his health, he will also lose his religion.  (Again, what about us?  If you lost your health tomorrow, would you lose your faith?)

Job didn’t.  Amazingly.  When Satan “smote Job with sore boils from the sole of his foot unto his crown” (2:7), we are told that Job still retained his integrity.  And when his wife pushed him to shake his fist at God and commit suicide (ver. 9), we are told that Job responded, “Thou speakest as one of the foolish women speaketh.  What?  Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?” (ver. 10).  Once again, we are told that “in all this Job did not sin with his lips” (10).   

Job’s theology was essentially correct.  In fact, at the very end of the narrative, we are told by God himself that Job was right.  In contrast with Job’s three “friends,” God says, “ye have not spoken of me the thing which is right, like my servant Job” (42:8).  And it is clear that it was Job’s theology of God’s sovereignty over all things is the one thing that kept him from apostasy.  It kept him hoping when all hope seemed lost.  It is what stands behind verses like 13:15: “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him.”  And, “Behold, I go forward, but he is not there; and backward, but I cannot perceive him: one the left hand, where he doth work, but I cannot behold him: he hideth himself on the right hand, that I cannot see him: but he knoweth the way that I take: when he hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold” (23:8-10).  Job knew and understood that this trial was ultimately from God and because of that he could be sure that God was going to use it for his good.

In the same way, we ought to join Job in knowing that our lives, from beginning to end, lie in the hands of a wise and kind God, even when we are going through periods of massive difficulty and hardship.  As one preacher put it long ago, God is too wise to err, and too good to be unkind.  He will work all things, the good and the bad, for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28).  He will take “our light affliction, which is but for a moment” and work “for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor. 4:17).

For our last example, I want us to consider what King David says about himself in Psalm 139.  How encompassing is God’s plan and providence?  David answers this question in this psalm when he talks about the omniscience (ver. 1-6) and omnipresence of God (ver. 7-12).  Such is God’s knowledge of us that he knows what we are going to think before we even think it (2).  Such is his presence that “if I ascend into heaven, thou are there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou are there” (8).  The upshot of this is that we cannot hide from God, not even in our thoughts! 

But David goes further.  He next contemplates the providence of God over his life, beginning at his birth: “13. For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.  14. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.  Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. 15.  My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.  16. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them” (ESV). 

Hear what David is saying.  All the days of our lives are written in God’s book before we are even born.  The fact that they are written in God’s book indicates that every aspect of our lives are comprehended in the plan of God.  There is not a day nor a detail that God is not working out according to his plan.  He is working all things according to the counsel of his own will. 

What makes this knowledge a blessing lies in the fact that the one who so thoroughly knows us is God, who loves his people with an undying, never-ending love.  So David goes on to say: “How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!  How vast is the sum of them!  If I would count them, they are more than the sand.  I awake, and I am still with you” (17-18, ESV).  David stands amazed that God not only thinks of him but that he never stops thinking of him.  And God’s thoughts are precious thoughts when they involve his children.  He is always solicitous for their good and well-being.

At this point, I do want to add a word of caution.  We have to be careful that we keep the balance of Scripture when discussing this principle.  A lot of confusion had happened because of a lack of faithful care when handling such doctrines.  Yes, God works all things after the counsel of his own will.  Yes, God’s plan encompasses all things.  Yes, God’s purposes have never been, and never will be, defeated.  But we should not reason from this that it follows that it doesn’t matter how we live or what we do.  Fatalism is never taught in Scripture.  This is a mystery, and you can ruin it by inserting unbiblical propositions to fill in the holes of what we cannot understand.  This is why I think the framers of the London Confession were wise when expounding the decrees of God.  Their statement is Biblically balanced: “God hath decreed in himself, from all eternity, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, feely and unchangeably, all things, whatsoever comes to pass; yet so as thereby is God neither the author of sin nor hath any fellowship with any therein; nor is violence offered to the will of the creature, nor yet is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established; in which appears his wisdom in disposing all things, and power and faithfulness in accomplishing his decree.”[1]  If you say that you cannot see how both the statement and its caveats can be simultaneously true; well, that is because we are talking about God here.  Though we don’t want to violate reason neither do we want to arrogate our reason above the revelation of God in the Bible.  We have to learn to be humble when we think and talk about the ways and works of the infinite God.

In concluding, I want to end by pointing out that of course the greatest example of this principle in all of Scripture is found in the death of our Lord upon the cross.  I have dealt with this recently, so I will only remind you of it.  The cross was no accident.  It happened according to the plan of God.  The fact that it happened according to God’s eternal purpose did not lessen the crime of those who nailed him to the cross.  Neither did the freely chosen actions of wicked men lessen the fact that Christ was the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.  The apostle Peter put it best: “Ye men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know: him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain” (Acts 2:22-23).

Thank God for the cross.  Those who put him to death meant it for evil.  But God meant it for eternal good.  Though the wicked men who nailed Jesus to the cross thought they were proving that Jesus was a sinner, what they didn’t realize is that in a very real sense upon the cross our Lord became a sinner – not from sins of his own, but because in God’s plan he bore the guilt of our sins upon himself.  This was the great exchange: he took our sin so that we might have his righteousness.  All who believe on him are forgiven of all their sins, are given the right to become sons and daughters of God, and are given a place in God’s eternal inheritance.

And being forgiven, we can live life here with fearless faith, knowing that our loving Father hold the future for our good and his glory.  If we truly believe this, our lives will be characterized by courage, not cowardice; by faith, not fear; by joyful contentment, instead of envious contention.  May God make it so in us.  Amen.

[1] The 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, Chapter 3, para. 1.

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