October 23, 2017

The Providence of God in History

Edward M. Panosian

Frontline ♦ July/August 1997

“Providence” is a beautiful word. God is providentially ordering the steps of His children and providing for their needs. This word “providence’ probably has more meaning to us in this generation of video than it has had before.

Linguistically the root of the word “providence” is two simple words: one is “before,” or “for,” or in “behalf of”; and the other is “to see.” God pro videos; that is, God provides because He knows the way we take. Before we call, He answers. He sees what we need and therefore supplies. God uses the circumstances of the time to accomplish His purpose. He is not taken by surprise at what comes to pass.

Christians need to remember that God is intervening and ordering the affairs of men and nations for His benevolent purpose. To the believer the “amazing coincidences” of history are but manifestations of God’s divine intervention for His omniscient, benevolent purposes.

It is probably demonstrable that just about all we need to know of the workings of God in this world is that God is great and God is good. We teach little children these facts about God at table. But if you analyze them, there is not much else you really need to know. God is great in all his ways. He is omnipotent: nothing is too hard for Him. And He is good. His greatness without His goodness produces fear, and His goodness without His greatness is weakness. Neither satisfies alone, but His goodness with His greatness provides hope and faith.

Add to that knowledge another little phrase — Hagar’s word in the wilderness — “Thou God seest me” (Gen. 16:13). That phrase tells me that He enables me to be the object of His goodness and to he securely safe within His greatness. “Thou God seest me” is both a warning and a comfort. It is both sobering and ennobling.

Providence over World Powers

Who was responsible for the decree that went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should he registered for purposes of taxation? Was that Caesar’s business or was it God’s business? The answer is both. It was God’s business, and it was Caesar’s business. Caesar was totally oblivious to God’s having anything to do with it.

What does the Lord say? “Nebuchadnezzar, my servant.” Wicked, idolatrous, heathen, proud Nebuchadnezzar — God’s servant? It required a very profitable “field trip” before Nebuchadnezzar understood that (Dan. 4:28-37). But when he came back and was restored, his testimony was that those who walk in pride God is able to abase. Long before he knew it, Nebuchadnezzar was God’s servant. So must the believer look at every man who raises himself up in opposition to God. He is God’s servant. Even the wrath of man will praise God (Ps. 76:10). Jeremiah says in the fifty-first chapter: ‘Babylon hath been a golden cup in the Lord’s” hand” (v. 7). The events of the past are but manifestations of the omniscient, the omnipotent, the benevolent hand of a sovereign God.

Providence in the Incarnation

An example or God’s providence is the preparation of the world for the coming of Christ. God worked out the framework of the Roman Empire so that it was a prepared world for a prepared revelation. “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in times past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son” (Heb. 1:1, 2). God spoke directly to our first parents in the Garden. God then spoke through prophets to His people. Then He spoke through His Son, and now He speaks through His written Word. The apex of human achievement since the Flood was the century of Rome’s transition from republic to empire. Under Rome there was one world, one language, one road system, one rule, one citizenship.

It was an empire of cities. Do you know that after the fall of Rome, there was not to be a Europe of cities for some eleven centuries? What is the significance of cities? Rapid communication of new ideas among great numbers of people. Great numbers heard a new message — the gospel of Jesus Christ — at one time.

The preparation of the Roman world for the coming of Christ involved natural circumstances through which God was working out His omnipotent will. Augustus Caesar would have denied it if anyone had suggested to him that he was merely fulfilling Micah 5:2 — “But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel.” There is a God in Heaven ruling over all. What we read in history is not a series of unique and accidental circumstances.

Providence and Persecution

We sometimes say that God rescues His people. God saves them from destruction by the turning of the tide, sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively. But it is no less true that when God does not deliver His people, He is still at work for their good. God has a purpose in His granting as well as in His withholding. It is not only when God wonderfully redeems His people from destruction that He is operating for their good. “Why do the righteous suffer?” has probably been asked more often than “Why are the righteous preserved?”

The history of persecution in the Christian church is a part of the providence of God. Fur three centuries Roman emperors persecuted Christians. The preservation of that infant church through such wicked efforts as men could devise is an evidence of God’s providence. All the labors of beast and bestial men,” as one historian put it, were employed to destroy the Christians. The efforts to stamp out the “Nazarene sect” served rather to purify the church. No false believers (“goats”) mixed with the sheep during the time of persecution. It strengthened the faithful, and all the weapons aimed at destroying the church served to prosper it. The church is never stronger in the world than when it is at war with the world system. This is the principle of Exodus 1:12, “But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew” (cf. Acts 8:1-41.

Providence and Ecclesiastical Corruption

God’s purpose was accomplished and man’s purpose was frustrated until finally, in the fourth century, it became popular to be a Christian. This was actually a great loss for the church. When nobody could be a martyr anymore, men sought the self-martyrdom of monasticism. Monasticism was an externalizing of what is supposed to be a spiritual principle: “I die daily.” Death to self and life to the will of God are spiritual concepts. Roman Catholicism externalized spiritual concepts, substituting the visible for the invisible, imposing rules rather than coming under the rule of God. Monasticism was a counterfeiting of the truth. Satan’s primary weapon is to counterfeit the works of God. Satan does not meet truth in open contest. He subtly counterfeits; he infiltrates; he makes error seem palatable. It is the error, in the mixture of truth and error, that is fatal. Yet God preserved His own through the dark period when Roman Catholicism was dominant.

Providence and the Crusades

The Crusades may be considered as a wonderful providence of God. Nominal Christians of the West came to the assistance of nominal Christians of the East against the incursions of Islam. The Crusades were launched against the Turks (the Muslims), who were thought of as hated infidels and blasphemers. So in an effort to win the region for Christianity, the western Europeans came to the East where a superior culture had been preserved, and in doing so, brought back to the West the fruits of the classical culture.

The West had been feudalized and barbarized. In the East, Constantinople — with the introduction of Muslim medicine, science, art and mathematics — shone as a jewel of civilization. The Crusaders who retreated to the West after their futile mission took with them experiences and samples of goods, just as an overseas traveler brings home in his suitcase little things that he has picked up along the way. Such souvenirs included packets of a strange powder called cinnamon, and other spices. Spices were a precious novelty in a feudal economy in which the only means of preserving food was either drying, root cellaring or salting. No matter which meat people ate, it all tasted like salt. The introduction of spices in the West seems such a simple thing, but a crusader’s coming back home with a pinch of nutmeg in his tunic was nearly as significant as Columbus’s discovery of a New World.

The Crusaders never permanently rescued the Holy Land or retarded Muslim advance; they never liberated Constantinople — they plundered it. But they wrought a revolution. Just as the Roman emperors merely helped to strengthen Christianity centuries earlier, so also the Crusaders accomplished God’s purpose in opening up the learning of the East to the West. That resurgence of ancient learning served as a foundation for the Reformation.

Crusaders brought with them the Greek language, the language of the New Testament. What had prevailed in the West? Why in part had the Western church become corrupt with traditions? The official language of the West was Latin, the language of law and government, not the language of revelation of either the Old or the New Testament, not the language of philosophy and religion. Greek was the language of philosophy and religion. As an example of the difference between the languages, there is no word in Latin that corresponds to “repent.” Repentance is a change of heart attitude. Greek is a language of thought. Latin is a language of action. The Latin term for repentance translates into “do penance.” It is easy to see that the deficiencies of language contributed to theological perversion in the Middle Ages

Providence in the Renaissance

Again, natural means were supernaturally employed in this instance. Now that the Scriptures were recoverable in the original languages, there was a concern to compare the received text with the original. The researchers saw discrepancies. It is significant that in Erasmus’s publication in 1516 of the New Testament in Greek, he presented parallel columns to contrast it with the received Vulgate (the Latin). The contrasts were illuminating to those who read it. Just as much as the Greek New Testament became a tool that Tyndale used in translating the Bible into English and that Luther used in translating it into German, it also had the effect of pointing out the corruptions of the Latin text. Now that this “new learning” was restored to the West, it produced a revival of learning — the Renaissance — and it in turn ushered in the Reformation.

Providence and the Reformation

Consider the providence of God in the matter of movable-type printing. The Chinese had used movable type for centuries before it was introduced to the West; and it was introduced to the West just before the Reformers of the sixteenth century were born. Wycliffe’s New Testament in the fourteenth century did not produce the Reformation_ God’s sovereign timing arranged that movable-type printing be introduced at just about the time God was ready to do a special work for man. So quickly were Luther’s pamphlets set in type, printed, duplicated, sold and dispersed throughout the realm, that Luther said it was as if angels were his couriers. Wycliffe had no such opportunity, but Wycliffe was no less faithful. John Huss was burned for having said and taught the same thing that Luther eventually taught for twenty-five years until he died a natural death.

Luther’s natural death was itself a miracle of God’s providence. The year of Luther’s death was the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Edict of Worms, which had declared him an outlaw and had authorized anybody to put him to death with the promise of reward from the emperor. Though that ban was never lifted, Luther died peacefully. Luther knew that it was not in men to destroy the instrument that God intends to use again, and it is not in men to preserve the instrument with whom God is finished.

Providence over the Nations

The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 is an example of God’s providence. It has now been over nine hundred years since England was last invaded successfully. There has been no absence of attempts to invade England in those years; but England embraced the Reformation, however imperfectly, and that nation is blessed whose God is the Lord.

That nation will be chastened who departs from the Lord. Consider what happened in France in the eighteenth century. In the sixteenth century France rejected the Reformation. France had once grudgingly tolerated Protestantism as evidenced by the Edict of Nantes, issued in 1598, granting limited religious and civil liberties. With the revocation of the edict in 1685, France sealed her decline. France has been a third-rate power ever since, known for philosophical radicalism and moral declension. France rejected the Reformation eventually and suffered a bloody revolution. It has been said that while in England tears were flowing down the coal-blackened cheeks of miners in the fields as the gospel was proclaimed by the Wesley brothers and Whitefield, rivers of blood were flowing in the streets of Paris from the feet of Madame Guillotine. To paraphrase Galatians 6:7, “God is not mocked; whatsoever a nation soweth, that shall it also reap.”

The hand of God directed many aspects of imperialism in the British Empire of the last two centuries. Imperialism, though it is not thought of with admiration today, was a blessed process by which God proclaimed the gospel to the world. Because England lost the Hundred Years’ War with France in the fifteenth century, she sought empire elsewhere than in Europe. and eventually Queen Victoria could boast that the sun never set on the British Empire. But what did this mean for the proclamation of the gospel? Missionaries went under the auspices of Britain where they had not been able to tread for centuries before. God was working out His purpose, and He gave the fruits of Western civilization — including the gospel — to many peoples.

Conclusion

An understanding of how God has worked on behalf of His people in the past assures us of His direction in the affairs of men present and future. In history we find evidences of how God benevolently cares for His own. May God, who is great and good in all His ways, who withholds no good thing and gives nothing but good, give us the confidence that “thou God seest us.”


Adapted from The Providence of God in History 1996 Bob Jones University Press. Reproduced by permission. All rights reserved. The booklet is available from BJU Press.

(Originally published in FrontLine • July/August 1997. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

Comments

  1. E. WAYNE THOMPSON says:

    I have been aware of the providence of God in my life ever since I became aware of my salvation when I was 14. I am now 90 and have traveled many places in the World and experienced many dangers as a missionary evangelist. It is so peaceful experiencing His Providence. as we obey His commission. Also in God’s Providence God has brought many mentors into my life to impart wisdom that I desperately needed.

  2. Matthew Recker says:

    Thank you Dr. Thompson for your comment. I will always have the very highest regard for you and am thankful for God continuing to show His providential love to you!


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