Light in a Dark Providence
1. the proposition
· All things come to us by the hand of God
“The interpretation of Providence is not always easy if one looks at the whole problem. There are always glib interpreters, like Job’s miserable comforters, who know how to fit the cap to others with complete satisfaction to themselves. Our problem is to be able to see the hand of God in a world of law and order when things go against us. Paul was able to get sweet out of bitter. It is easier to see the good after it has come out of the ill. But it would be a dreary world if one could not believe that God cares for his people and overrules the evils of life for the progress of man and of men.” A. T. Robertson, Paul’s Joy in Christ
Some years earlier Paul had written to the church in Rome, the city from where he penned his letter to the church at Philippi. In that earlier letter he declared to the saints “that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God”. Here in our text he proclaims the same proposition but from the perspective of immediate personal experience, both for himself and his readers.
Q27: What do you understand by the providence of God?
A27: The almighty, everywhere-present power of God, whereby, as it were by His hand, He still upholds heaven and earth with all creatures, and so governs them that herbs and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, meat and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, indeed, all things come not by chance, but by His fatherly hand. Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 10
Paul had experienced all these things and had consistently given praise to his Heavenly Father in his circumstances and for his circumstances.
2. the situation
· The missionary extraordinaire is in prison
Epaphroditus had been sent with a care package for the missionary – But I have received everything in full, and I have an abundance. I am fully supplied, having received from Epaphroditus what you provided–a fragrant offering, a welcome sacrifice, pleasing to God. Php_4:18 HCSB – and in the process had nearly lost his life because of illness. After his recovery Paul sent him back to Philippi with the letter written to them.
Paul’s imprisonment concerned the saints on a personal as well as a professional level. Not only did they love him, at the beginning of Paul’s ministry they were the only church to provide financial support Php_4:15-16, indicating their interest in and commitment to world missions. Now they have a huge problem – the missionary on whom they depended the most heavily is out of circulation, perhaps permanently. How could this possibly be what God had in mind?? It makes absolutely no sense at all.
How many events in our experience fit that category? The Twin Towers. The Great Tsunami. The crews of space shuttles Challenger and Columbia. Ryan White, the hemophiliac poster child for AIDS in the early 80’s. Jim Eliot and his four companions in Ecuador. God couldn’t have wanted young people, poor people, people by the hundreds of thousands (230,000), smart and highly trained people to lose so much in so little time. Surely God didn’t intend for the progress of the Gospel toward the Huaorani people in Ecuador to end.
During this time of “dark providence” not everyone responded in the same way.
3. the reaction
· the fearful v.14b
In v. 14 Paul indicates that most, or the majority, of the brethren proclaimed the Word fearlessly. However, clearly not all did so; some who had just as great a reason to witness for Christ kept quiet in the face of Paul’s persecution. Perhaps, as John Calvin says, they saw only “a dreadful spectacle, and such as might tend rather to dishearten, see[ing] nothing but the cruelty and rage of the persecutors” and unable to “see at the same time the hand of the Lord”. At best their focus was on their own personal safety which motivated them to acquiesce to the constraints of men rather than boldly proclaim the truth.
Perhaps, though, their motives were more self-serving:
“There was a minority of brethren who exercised caution because of Paul’s activity for Christ. They wished no responsibility for his conduct if things went against him. There are always these shirkers who practice absenteeism from church in times of struggle, these cowards in a crisis who slink away till danger is past. They come in for the shouting after victory is won. In case of disaster they are ready to say, ‘We told you so.'” A. T. Robertson, Paul’s Joy in Christ
We must remember that ( 2Co_2:15-16 ) “…to God we are the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. To some we are a scent of death leading to death, but to others, a scent of life leading to life.” We should expect opposition, we should expect difficulties, we must not allow fear of man to cause us to shirk our duty. Even the hard providences are still providences from the hand of God.
· the selfish vv.15-16
Apparently some were not above using Paul’s hard circumstances to their own advantage. They were jealous of his influence among the people and the credit he was receiving for the spread of the Gospel, they questioned his loyalties. They were determined to press their own cause to the disadvantage of Paul, seeking to gain followers of themselves rather than Christ. It was their goal to steal the affections of those who might be influenced by Paul and, by doing so, themselves become the “big fish in the little pond”.
To compound the sinfulness of their motives, it was their desire not only to take away from Paul but also to add to his miseries. They imagined by their actions they would cause further anguish for Paul when he heard of the progress of those who wished him ill.
“They valued success, not as a triumph over paganism, but as a triumph over Paul. It would make them feel good if they could make his sufferings in prison more acute by reason of jealousy which might arise in his heart.” Kenneth Wuest, Word Studies, in loco
The irony of this situation is that Paul could see the light of God’s face in the midst of his dark providence. He could see beyond the immediate circumstances, beyond his own personal hardships, and discern what God was accomplishing in spite of evil motives.
· the faithful vv.12, 14, 17
Most of the brethren including Paul himself were bold in speaking the word without fear. It is important to observe what it was that gave the brethren such boldness: “having become confident by my chains” (v.14). Two things worked in concert to accomplish this end. First, Paul’s removal from active leadership within the church caused the brethren to trust more fully in God, seeking strength from Him and receiving great confidence in return.
Second, in addition to Paul’s circumstances, his reaction to his circumstances greatly encouraged the brethren, adding to their confidence. As John Calvin says, “By this instance we are taught that the tortures of the saints, endured by them in behalf of the gospel, are a ground of confidence to us.” If Paul can speak the truth of the Gospel plainly and endure his hardship as from the Lord and with patience, then we certainly can do our part to promote the cause of the Gospel.
“Whether Paul was able to address the soldiers in large companies in formal sermons we do not know, but he was able to make skilful use of conversation. These rough and ready men of affairs saw the steady joy of Paul the prisoner. They watched him day by day, and his buoyant optimism caught their fancy. Jesus is the secret of Paul’s life of joy. Thus the contagion of Paul’s love for Jesus spread to ‘all the rest’ (v.13)”. A. T. Robertson, Paul’s Joy in Christ
Most telling is Paul’s response to the behavior of those who were determined to cause Paul grief. In verse 18 Paul muses over what he should think about his circumstances and how he should respond. Here we see the overflow of a heart captivated by Christ – my circumstances, my advantage or disadvantage, my hardship is unimportant; what matters is that “Christ is being proclaimed, and in this I rejoice.” NET
Motives matter and so does correct doctrine; no one was more clear on that than the Apostle Paul. His response here should not be construed so as to legitimize the preaching of the Gospel for wrong reasons. But Paul has such a heart for the Gospel and its spread that in comparison his personal circumstances don’t matter; he will endure anything so long as it will further the spread of the Gospel.
4. the application
When we experience those dark providences of God, what should we do, how should we respond?
· examination of self
There’s a children’s song with a powerful message for all of us:
Work on your attitudes, the way you know you should.
Put away those selfish thoughts, think only on good.
Check all your motives, make sure they pass the test.
Then the Lord will help you to do your very best.
Is this particular circumstance one in which God has placed me to teach me a lesson about myself? Is there an area of my life that needs to change and this is how God is showing me that? Is that true of us as a church body? Are we behaving corporately in a way displeasing to God?
· contemplation of God
This is a time to meditate much on and contemplate the character of God. What lesson does God expect me to learn about him in this circumstance? How can I, like the Apostle, experience joy in the midst of my hardships? What do I know about God that will give me confidence and endurance? Can we see the light of His face shining on us in our adversity?
Q28: What does it profit us to know that God created and by His providence upholds all things?
A28: That we may be patient in adversity, thankful in prosperity, and for what is future have good confidence in our faithful God and Father, that no creature shall separate us from His love, since all creatures are so in His hand, that without His will they cannot so much as move. Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 10
· discernment of God’s fingerprints
How is God using this dark providence for the advancement of the Gospel? That must be our foremost concern – without regard to personal well-being or advantage, how will this particular circumstance be used by God to bring people to himself through a saving knowledge of Christ? Nearly as important is determining the part in proclaiming Christ by word and deed which is ours.
“…in the fact that the great truth is held up that Christ died for people, we can always find abundant occasion for joy. Mingled as it may be with error, it may be nevertheless the means of saving souls, and though we should rejoice more if the truth were preached without any admixture of error, yet still the very fact that Christ is made known lays the foundation for gratitude and rejoicing.” Barnes Notes, Philippians 1:18
Finally, what is the picture of Christ that onlookers and brethren see in us? Is it an accurate representation that is visible, one of us enduring dark providences patiently and with a heart for others as our Lord did? Our precious Savior endured the darkest providence of all – his Father’s just wrath poured out on him for our sin so that he might provide deliverance for us. Throughout that circumstance he never lost confidence in his Father and he even prayed for his executioners’ forgiveness as he hung there on the cross. May we be faithful ambassadors as we speak for him.