A Study of the Doctrine of Providence Pt 24 Providence in the Church

Sermon Tone Analysis
View more →
Faith in God’s providence, instead of repressing our energies, excites us to diligence. We labor as if all depended upon us, and then fall back upon the Lord with the calm faith that depends upon him. —C.H. Spurgeon
Much of our study of providence has been examining God’s working in the lives of OT saints. Even much of our study on the incarnation and the crucifixion we spent examining the connection of OT prophecies to the NT fulfillment in Jesus.
One might be tempted to ask the question, does God still work through providential means today in the church age? Is providence still God’s modus operandi, His primary method of operation?

What does the Bible Say?

To answer our question we are going to survey the book of Acts and draw out timeless principles concerning God’s providence. What can we learn of God’s providential working in the early church from the book of Acts?

1. God may intervene directly in the affairs of His church and in the individual lives of His people (Acts 5:1-11; cf. I Corinthians 11:30)

2. God is free to alter circumstances in ways that are humanly impossible (Acts 5:17-24)

3. God may preserve or deliver His people through aid even from our enemies (Acts 5:33-40)

4. God may choose not to intervene even in behalf of His choicest servants (Acts 7:54-60)

Volunteer to read:
Acts 7:54–60 ESV
54 Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. 55 But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” 57 But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. 58 Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
So far we have talked about examples of dramatic deliverance, but God does not always choose to intervene. God allowed Stephen to be martyred. But martyrdom is no less providential than deliverance, and the martyrdom of Stephen was as providentially superintended by God as was the martyrdom of His own Son.
Such details are part of the outworking of God’s all-wise and always good purposes. Remember, God both exercises and withholds His sustaining, preserving providence.
Do you know the names Roger Youderian, Ed McCulley, Nate Saint, Jim Elliott, and Pete Fleming? Jan. 8, 1956 deep jungles of Ecuador lost their lives as missionaries.
Could God have directed them differently? Could God have protected them? Did they commit some act of indiscretion that put them outside the realm of God’s protective providence? Is that even possible? What, then, is the explanation for this “tragedy?”
Have you every head this statement, “the safest place to be is in the center of God’s will”? Given our current point on providence do you agree with that statement?
A veteran missionary to Colombia, South America, modified that statement as follows: “The most fulfilling, joyful, and peaceful place to be is in the center of God’s will, but it is not necessarily the safest.”
It seems to me that the Bible is full of examples of God’s people often—not occasionally—being placed in unsafe, uncomfortable, and dangerous situations … Most prayers in Scripture focus not on the personal safety and benefit of the believer but on the power, majesty, testimony, and victory of God over his—and our—enemies … The Lord calls us to obedience in spite of the ‘costs’—not to personal comfort and safety!
God’s perfect will may not be the “safest” place by any normal human definition—but it is the place of supreme peace and confidence in His providential oversight over all our circumstances.

5. God is capable of working in people we would never expect, even through events that seem to us tragic, senseless, and counterproductive to the cause of Christ (Acts 7:58-8:3)

We already read the account of Stephen being stoned in Acts 7.
Acts 8:1–3 ESV
1 And Saul approved of his execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. 2 Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. 3 But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.
Imagine you are reading Acts for the first time. What are your initial thoughts about Saul after you read this account?
Do you think any of the early church believers were praying for Saul (except that God would zap him)?
Acts 7:60 ESV
60 And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
Did any believers suspect God might be working in that man’s self-righteous, hostile, gospel-hating heart?
Think about the last person on this planet you might expect to come to Christ and be used mightily of God.
We have no idea what God might be doing in the hearts and lives of people around you—often in people you might least expect.

6. God uses persecution and affliction to accomplish His purposes for and through us (Acts 8:3-4)

Acts 8:3–4 ESV
3 But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison. 4 Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.
Historically, persecution has been the wind of God's providence to scatter His people and, with them, the seed of the Word.
Nothing in the text indicates that the disciples had been ignoring the commission; quite the contrary.
“What is plain is that the devil (who lurks behind all persecution of the church) over-reached himself. His attack had the opposite effect to what he intended. Instead of smothering the gospel, persecution succeeded only in spreading it.”

7. God may direct us to minister in unpromising places and unlikely situations, with apparently minimal potential, for His own purposes (Acts 8:26-40)

Acts 8:26 ESV
26 Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a desert place.
God providentially directed Philip to to go where? desert place! Where was Philip currently?
Acts 8:5–6 ESV
5 Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. 6 And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip, when they heard him and saw the signs that he did.
Acts 8:25 ESV
25 Now when they had testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel to many villages of the Samaritans.
Do you think Philip might have had reason to object to God’s leading? Why go into such a sparsely populated area when God was using him in such great ways in Samaria? But Philip was obedient to the leading of God.
Acts 8:27 ESV
27 And he rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship
Whom did Philip meet? An Ethiopian. What was his occupation? He served as royal treasurer in the court of the queen of Ethiopia. Why is this significant? Think of the exponential extension of the gospel well into the African continent through this single “coincidental” meeting out in the middle of nowhere.
By the way did Philip understand or know about the potential future reach of his humble act of obedience to God’s leading? Do you think Philip will be rewarded by Jesus far beyond his imagination one day? Phillip before the bema seat: “I just shared the gospel with one guy in the middle of the wilderness” Jesus’ reply: “Yes, but I used that act of obedience to reach a nation. Well done good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of the Lord.”
Acts 8:28 ESV
28 and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah.
So the Spirit of God led Philip and the Spirit of God had directed the Ethiopian to a very particular passage of Scripture. Do you know where the Ethiopian was reading? It was in Isaiah.
Acts 8:29–31 ESV
29 And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.” 30 So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.
Acts 8:32–33 ESV
32 Now the passage of the Scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opens not his mouth. 33 In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.”
The fact that the Ethiopian was reading Isaiah 53 is wonderfully providential! But it is not only where he was reading but what he was reading that really causes God’s providence to shine! What version of the OT is the Ethiopian reading? Not the Hebrew OT! He most certainly would not have been able to read Hebrew. He was reading the Septuagint—the Green translation of the Hebrew OT. The Greek text in vv. 32-33 is identical to the LXX. It is slightly different from the Hebrew text. (Does that fact teach us anything about the version arguments that plague modern churches?)
How did the Ethiopian obtain a copy of the LXX? God directed people to translate and disperse the OT even to the continent of Africa! How long was this providential meeting of Philip and the Ethiopian prepared for ahead of time by God? Decades, even centuries, in the making!

8. God may intervene in the lives and affairs of people in spectacular, unexpected, extraordinary ways if He chooses (Acts 9:1-8)

Acts 9:4–6 ESV
4 And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” 5 And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”
God is free and fully able to break into time and space to intervene in people’s lives. On the road to Damascus was not the first time He had ever done so, nor would it be the last.
Olive Fleming Liefeld: 201-202

9. God can intervene in humanly hopeless, dangerous, and even life-threatening situations (Acts 12:1-19)

Acts 12:1–2 ESV
1 About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. 2 He killed James the brother of John with the sword,
Acts 12:3 ESV
3 and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. This was during the days of Unleavened Bread.
How much hope (humanly speaking) does Peter have in prison? What just happened to James?
Acts 12:4 ESV
4 And when he had seized him, he put him in prison, delivering him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending after the Passover to bring him out to the people.
Not looking too good for Peter.
Acts 12:5 ESV
5 So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church.
What do you think the church was praying about for Peter? Do you think they were praying for deliverance? The text does not say.
Earlier in Acts 4 the believers were threatened with persecution because they were preaching the gospel.
Acts 4:21 ESV
21 And when they had further threatened them, they let them go, finding no way to punish them, because of the people, for all were praising God for what had happened.
Did the church pray then for deliverance from persecution or death?
Acts 4:29 ESV
29 And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness,
No they prayed for boldness!
Acts 12:5 ESV
5 So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church.
Most likely, because James was just executed for his faith, the church is praying for Peter to have boldness to meet his end well.
Acts 12:7 ESV
7 And behold, an angel of the Lord stood next to him, and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him, saying, “Get up quickly.” And the chains fell off his hands.
God providentially allowed James to be killed for His faith. But here God intervened providentially to spare Peter’s life.

10. God can use human disagreements as the catalyst for diversifying the ministry and more effectively accomplishing His purposes (Acts 15:36-41)

Volunteer to read:
Acts 15:36–41 ESV
36 And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.” 37 Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. 38 But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. 39 And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, 40 but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. 41 And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.
How would you describe the conflict between Paul and Barnabas in this passage?
Acts 15:39 ESV
39 And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus,
“Sharp disagreement”- we get our English word “paroxysm” (a fit, convulsion, or sudden violent emotion or reaction). It is a strong word that graphically portrays Paul and Barnabas as being provoked with one another and arguing heatedly over (don’t miss this) a very spiritual subject—namely, who should, and should not, accompany them on their next missionary journey.
Adding to the argument was how Barnabas and John Mark were related.
Colossians 4:10 ESV
10 Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you, and Mark the cousin of Barnabas (concerning whom you have received instructions—if he comes to you, welcome him),
Anyone every been in a sharp disagreement involving family members? How ugly can those get?
How do we typically view the spirituality of men like Barnabas and Paul? How does this disagreement make us feel or think about them?
Shocking- we do not expect to see such behavior in normally Spirit-filled men.
Encouraging- it removes them from the pedestals we erect for them in our imagination and reminds us that they were no less human than we are and, therefore, no more spiritual than we can be by the grace of God.
Another lesson- this disagreement may have closed the working partnership of Paul and Barnabas, but it did not end their friendship. They did not go off shaking their firsts at one another. They agreed to disagree and continued praying for one another.
1 Corinthians 9:6 ESV
6 Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living?
Colossians 4:10 ESV
10 Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you, and Mark the cousin of Barnabas (concerning whom you have received instructions—if he comes to you, welcome him),
The point is not who was right (Scripture makes no comment to that end). The point is that what Satan sought to incite and inflame for the purpose of division, God turned to His purpose of multiplication. In other words, the event was providentially overruled for good. Because of this argument, the missionary work was doubled. Again, it is not disagreement that hinders God’s use of us, but ill will.

11. God may close the door on seemingly logical or needful ministries, only to redirect later into the paths of His choosing (Acts 16:6-10)

Acts 16:6–10 ESV
6 And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. 7 And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them. 8 So, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. 9 And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.
The when is as intrinsically a part of God’s will as the what and the where.

12. God may allow us to suffer wrongfully in order to bring us into contact with certain sinners (Acts 16:16-34)

First, God barred Paul and Silas’s attempts to enter Asia and Bithynia. The He clearly directed them to go to Macedonia. And where did they end up? In jail! Did God make a mistake?
Acts 16:30–31 ESV
30 Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”

13. God is in sovereign control of the elements; natural disasters are His tools to share His purposes (Acts 27-28)

Nahum 1:3 ESV
3 The Lord is slow to anger and great in power, and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty. His way is in whirlwind and storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet.
Consider some of the providential effects of the storm recorded at the end of Acts:
Paul’s faith and ministry were magnified before the other prisoners and soldiers onboard the ship
Paul’s life was preserved
God created an unusual opportunity to display His goodness and mercy to all
Paul was able to minister to people he would never have met otherwise—the Malta islanders and eve a government official named Publius.
John Wesley- 208
John Paton 208-209

14. God preserves the life of His servants till their work is done (Acts 9:20-25; 9:26-30; 14:1-6; 14:19-20; 21:30-32; 23:12-22; 25:1-6; 27:39-44; 28:1-5)

Luke records seven specific and distinct attempts on Paul’s life by the Jews, two “natural” but very real threats to Paul’s life.
2 Corinthians 11:23 ESV
23 Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death.
Psalm 68:20 ESV
20 Our God is a God of salvation, and to God, the Lord, belong deliverances from death.
John Paton- 211

A Look in the Mirror

Does God’s providence, sketched in the record of the early church, have any relevant application to our life and ministry today?
Read selection- 212
Related Media
See more
Related Sermons
See more