(A message from the Grace Singles Conference, December 30, 2002)
An old joke describes how hostile Indians once surrounded the Lone Ranger and his faithful Indian companion Tonto. “It looks like we’re really in for it this time, Tonto!” said the Lone Ranger. To which Tonto replied, “What do you mean `we,’ Kemo-sabi?”
I think of this joke every time I read II Corinthians 2:11:
“Lest Satan should get an advantage of us: for we are not ignorant of his devices.”
Whenever I read this verse, I feel like asking, “What do you mean `we’, Paul?” Most Christians are terribly ignorant of Satan’s devices, especially the specific device being used by Satan in the context here.
The Corinthians had failed to excommunicate a fornicator from their midst (I Cor. 5:1,2), evidently feeling proud of the liberty to sin they thought they enjoyed under grace. Paul’s words in the first Corinthian epistle so shamed them that they proceeded to put the man out of the assembly—but then another problem arose. After the fornicator repented, they refused to let him back in! Thus the specific Satanic device that Paul is warning us about in this context is extremism. First they were too permissive, then they were too strict!
Examples of extremism in Christianity abound. The Corinthians were too carnal, but the Galatians were too legalistic. Some husbands fail to accept their God-given role as head of the home, while others take headship too far and become abusive tyrants. Some fathers discipline their children too little, some too much.
Extremism even affects our Bible study. Some Christians don’t take the Bible literally, but others take it too literally, refusing to allow God the right to use figures of speech, as when the Lord said, “This is my body” (Matt. 26:26). Some believers don’t rightly divide the Word at all, while our Acts 28 brethren divide it too much. Finally, some of our grace brethren seem to be saying that God is not intervening in our lives today, but this too is taking things too far.
As dispensationalists we know that God will not part the Red Sea for us, feed us with manna from heaven, or preserve us alive and unharmed in a burning fiery furnace, as He did in time past. But, while God no longer intervenes in our lives in this overt manner, He is still active behind the scenes, as He was in the Book of Esther.
God’s name is not even mentioned in Esther, but His providential work in the background is unmistakable. In Esther 3, a wicked man named Haman rose to a position of power in the kingdom of Persia (3:1). When a Jew named Mordecai refused to bow to him (v. 2), Haman was enraged, and determined to slay all the Jews (v. 5,6). He convinced the king to send out a letter to the remote corners of the kingdom, ordering the extermination of all Jews on an appointed day (v. 13).
What was God to do? The answer is, He had already done something about this. God had worked providentially in Chapters 1 and 2 to oust the former queen and replace her with Mordecai’s cousin Esther. As we can now look back and clearly see, God had worked in advance to place a Jewess in a position of influence so that she might be firmly in place in the palace, ready to oppose this perilous threat before it even materialized. God had not caused the king’s drunkenness (Esther 1:10), nor the former queen’s disobedience to her husband that led to her divorce (1:12), but He was able to work with their sin to bring about His purposes (cf. Ps. 76:10).
The only question was: would Esther use her influence to save her people? When Mordecai begged her to intervene (Esther 4:7,8), she explained that to do so would endanger her own life (v. 9-11). Her cousin then responded to this excuse with a remarkable statement of faith:
“…if thou altogether holdest thy peace at this time, then shall there enlargement and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place…” (v. 14).
Mordecai is so confident in God’s ability to work behind the scenes, he tells her that God will somehow manage to save Israel with or without her. But then he waxes philosophical and says,
“…who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (v. 14).
Mordecai thought he saw the hand of God in Esther’s ascension to the throne, but he couldn’t be sure, for God was not speaking audibly to those dispersed Jews at that time.
And this is precisely our situation today. As God works in the background rather than the foreground of our lives, we too think we see God’s hand at work in a given circumstance, but we can’t be sure, for God is not speaking audibly to us either. But there is something that Paul says in the Book of Philemon that assures us that He is at work amongst us just as surely, and in the same manner, as He was in the days of Esther.
The Book of Philemon concerns a slave named Onesimus who ran away from a Christian slave-owner named Philemon, only to meet up with the Apostle Paul and get saved (Philemon 10-12). As Paul returned this slave to his master, he too waxes philosophical and writes to Philemon:
“For perhaps he [Onesimus] therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him for ever” (Philemon 15).
Like Mordecai, Paul thought he saw the hand of God in the events surrounding Onesimus, but he couldn’t be sure. But these words of the apostle of grace, which so remind us of the words of Mordecai, teach us that God is working today under grace in the same way that He worked in Mordecai’s day.
Now we must pause here to emphasize that God did not make Onesimus run away, for this was a sin (Col. 3:22), and God never causes any man to sin. But we know from the Old Testament story of Joseph that God is able to work with the sins of men to accomplish His purposes. Joseph’s brethren envied him, hated him, and sold him into slavery (Gen. 37:4,8,11,28), but God was able to work with these sins to save Abraham’s seed from the famine that He had foreseen (Gen. 41:29,30; 50:20).
We cannot understand how God is able to work this way any more than we can understand how God worked when He made Joseph a type of Christ. Joseph and the people around him simply lived their lives, making innumerable free choices and adult decisions. Yet through it all God worked to create well over a hundred types of Christ. How did God accomplish this? We don’t know. But whenever God touches man, there is an element of mystery involved that we cannot explain. For instance, we cannot explain how Christ could be fully God and fully man, yet we believe this to be so. Neither can we understand how the Bible was written by men, but also by God, yet we believe this too to be the case. Nor can we explain how the men surrounding Joseph made decisions based on their own selfish interests, yet their countless decisions combined to make Joseph a type of Christ in so many ways.
In much the same way, God considers believers today to be adult sons (Gal. 4:7), and as such expects us to make intelligent decisions based on His Word as we react to the decisions of those about us and the circumstances that present themselves in our lives. Yet somehow God is able to work through it all to accomplish His purposes. We can see this illustrated in the way that God accomplishes His most basic of purposes today, His will that all men be saved (I Tim. 2:4).
Our understanding of God’s providential working today vitally affects our understanding of how God gets the gospel to men who want to hear and believe it. Romans 1:19,20 declare that unbelievers are “without excuse” as to knowing about the existence of God, but this knowledge is not enough to save them. However, when a benighted soul in a primitive land responds favorably to the witness of Creation, God then works providentially to get the gospel to him. A missionary just starting out makes a free choice as to his field of service, but God has worked through him to get the gospel to the far-away man who wants to hear and believe it. Since there aren’t enough missionaries to reach all men, God cannot leave all this to chance.
We know that this is how God worked in Old Testament times because of Psalm 25:12,14:
“What man is he that feareth the Lord? Him shall He teach in the way that He shall choose.”
“The secret of the Lord is with them that fear Him; and He will shew them His covenant.”
Here David explains how in his day, if a man feared the Lord, God would show him His covenant—and the covenant was the means of salvation in that day.
We know that this is also how God works today from the example of Onesimus. Did you ever wonder why this slave ran away from a believing master? Evidently Philemon had not shared Christ with Onesimus so God worked with the slave’s disobedience to get him to someone who would.
This explanation of God’s providential working in our day is the only one that leaves the unbeliever who never hears the gospel “without excuse” at the Great White Throne of judgment. God will simply remind him that he and all other men heard the witness of the stars, for “there is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard” (Ps. 19:1-3). The unbeliever will then have only himself to blame for rejecting this testimony, the acceptance of which would have initiated a sequence of events on God’s part that would have brought him the gospel.
God’s providential work in getting the gospel to would-be believers proves that His direct involvement in our lives did not cease once the transition to the dispensation of Grace was complete. While other examples of God’s intervention in even Paul’s latest epistles might be viewed as the last examples of a transitional period, the need to get the gospel to willing souls is a need that has continued throughout the dispensation. We can only conclude from this that if the need for God’s intervention continues throughout the dispensation, then the providential means by which God gets the gospel to men must also be continuing to function throughout our dispensation.
But, if God is working behind the scenes today, how can we be sure what He is doing in any given circumstance in our life? The answer is, we cannot. If even Paul couldn’t be sure of what God was doing in Philemon 15, surely we cannot. What then should we do? We can only determine to be faithful to the revealed will of God in any given situation, as did Paul.
And what happens if we don’t? Then “enlargement and deliverance” shall arise “from another place.” But, like Mordecai, we should ask ourselves in any given situation, “Who knows whether I am come to this situation for such a time as this?” It is a blessed truth that, while God would delight to use us, He doesn’t need us. But He needs somebody. Why not determine to be the person that God can use to bring salvation and a knowledge of the truth to those who so desperately need it? God providentially places all of us in positions where we can be used of Him. The only question is, as it was with Esther, will we use our position of influence to serve Him? While Esther feared for her life, we just fear that people won’t like us! God help us to have the spiritual fortitude to overcome our fears and live for Him.