January 16, 2018

Providence in the Incarnation of Christ (1)

Layton Talbert

The following is an excerpt from the book, Not by Chance: Learning to Trust a Sovereign God (Greenville, S.C.: BJU Press, 2001).

Pieces of a jigsaw puzzle make little sense by themselves. Each by itself is unfinished, incomplete. Each raises questions that can be answered only as it is fitted into its proper connection to the other pieces. As you begin interlocking the many individual fragments, the picture gradually becomes clearer. Because God is God and we are finite, some pieces to the puzzle He has purposely withheld, retaining their secrets in His hand. But He has granted enough of the puzzle for us to form very definite and clear ideas about the nature and working of His providence. You can see many different parts to this puzzle pieced together in the events and lives recorded in the Bible. But God saved the crowning works of His providence for the incarnation and ministry of His beloved Son.

God providentially “set the stage” for the entrance of His Son into the world. Nothing was overlooked, no expense was spared. But the preparation for this grand drama was not the work of a few weeks or months or years. God’s preparation for the “fulness of time” (Gal. 4:4) was literally centuries (and in the broader sense, millennia) in the making. This divine casting and staging encompassed social, political, religious, and even philosophical elements; it ranged from individual to international preparations; and it included both broadly circumstantial and intimately personal issues. Some of these details are explicitly outlined in Scripture. Others are discovered only as we look at the textbook of history.

What Does History Reveal?

History is the illustrated encyclopedia of God’s providence. Upon its pages the observant eye can trace the outline of the invisible hand of God. “To the believer the ‘amazing coincidences’ of history are but manifestations of God’s intervention for His omniscient, benevolent purposes.”[1]

Providence in Politics

The groundwork for the dominance of a single, amalgamating political influence had been laid with each successive world empire over the centuries: Assyrian, Babylonian, Medo-Persian, Greek, and Roman. By and large, each empire extended the borders of the previous one and expanded the number of provinces and peoples brought under its influence. The unprecedented size of the Roman Empire was, therefore, centuries in the making, and God clearly had an eye to this end throughout the millennium preceding the birth of Christ. Rome at peace (Pax Romana, the period during which Christ was born) provided ideal circumstances for the spread of the message of God’s coming into the world.

Providence in Commerce

In order to transport troops and transfer information more efficiently, the Roman Empire devised an unprecedented system of communication and transportation. That is the human side. The divine side is that God (through the free choices of men ignorant of Him and His purposes) directed the building of this system in order to facilitate the movement of His armies and ambassadors for the communication of His message.[2] The Romans constructed a brilliantly engineered network of roads, some of which survive to this day, which made accessible the farthest reaches of the known and conquered world. The Romans also put into place an efficient postal system, which eventually expedited the spread of God’s correspondence to man through the revelation of the New Testament.

Providence in Language

Asingle universal language throughout the empire was the enduring legacy of Alexander the Great’s conquest three centuries before the birth of Christ. The introduction and establishment of Greek as the common language throughout the known world likewise enormously facilitated the widespread and rapid communication of the gospel. But providence also made use of that linguistic unity in another respect.

God’s Old Testament revelation was given in Hebrew — a language essentially limited to one important but very small nation. With the introduction and establishment of Greek as the lingua franca came another vital preparatory work on the part of God — the translation of God’s Hebrew Old Testament revelation into a universally accessible language: Greek. This translation (called the Septuagint), produced over a period of about a century (250–150 B.C.), introduced the self-revelation of God to the world at large. It became the Bible of Christ and the apostles, the Bible of the writers of the New Testament, and the Old Testament of the early church.

Why was this significant? “The Septuagint had, in the providence of God, a great and honorable part to play in preparing the world for the Gospel.”[3] It is not too much to say that “Greek Judaism, with the Septuagint, ploughed the furrows for the gospel seed in the Western world.”[4] Because of its ubiquitous presence throughout the known world, the Septuagint “paved the way for later Christian missions” as “the Christian missionaries were able to discover a ready point of contact wherever there had already spread a knowledge of the Old Testament.”[5]

What Does the Bible Say?

We’ve taken a brief survey of what the history books have to say about God’s providence in preparing the world for His Son. Let’s now turn our attention to evidences more directly mentioned in the Scriptural accounts of the Incarnation. Notice the implications of providence at work in the narration of the crucial events leading up to the birth of Messiah.

The Timing of Zacharias’s Lot (Luke 1:9)

The burning of the incense was an unusual honor that few priests enjoyed since their duties were assigned by lot. In fact, “the offering of incense was considered the highest duty and could be exercised only once in a lifetime.”[6] Zacharias might have been selected by lot early in his life and never again have had opportunity to perform for that ministry. But by the choice of Providence, “for the first, and for the last time in life the lot had marked him for incensing” at this particular time.[7] As we learn from the study of Esther, God providentially governs the “chances” of lots and their timing. The timing and location of the angelic announcement to Zacharias at the temple guaranteed a public announcement and widespread anticipation of the coming of Messiah’s forerunner and, hence, of the coming of Messiah.

The Conception and Birth of John (Luke 1:5–7, 24–25, 57–66)

How long before the angel’s temple appearance to Zacharias do you suppose this godly old couple had given up praying for a child? Not only had Elisabeth been barren all her life, but also “they both were now well stricken in years” (Luke 1:7). They obviously had long since ceased praying for a child. Did their prayers fail or, more importantly, had God failed to answer their prayer? Absolutely not. The answer, however, did not come in the timing they had hoped or in the way they had anticipated, but far beyond all their expectation. It is a happy “coincidence” that Zacharias means “the LORD remembers.” Even his name was providentially appropriate. Zacharias may have forgotten the prayers he had offered in his early manhood, but God did not.

The Conception of Jesus (Matt. 1:18–25; Luke 1:26–38)

The timing of this event was crucial. It came after the betrothal so that it would not disqualify her for betrothal, but before the marriage so that the Child was clearly not Joseph’s (Matt. 1:18). Has it ever occurred to you that God could have forewarned Joseph (by angel or dream), just as He had informed Mary ahead of time, that the birth of this child was coming? Instead, God permitted Joseph to discover Mary’s pregnancy on his own before explaining it to him. Think of the pain to Joseph, who had no reasonable alternative but to suspect a devastating immoral betrayal. But think also of the pain to poor, pure Mary, who was naturally suspected, by the very one whom she would never betray, of having done something she would never do.

Why did God do it this way? Why could He not have told Mary and Joseph ahead of time? This arrangement was essential in order to providentially preserve the validity of the event and the unclouded identity of the Child. The announcement to Mary was obviously necessary to prepare her for what was about to happen to her, and why and how. At the same time, it was essential for Joseph to have no previous knowledge of Mary’s pregnancy whatsoever. Imagine the suspicion that would have been easily aroused if both Mary and Joseph had prior knowledge of this. (“So, you both had a dream that God was sending this child? Right. How convenient.”) Moreover, it was necessary for Joseph to decide to keep the matter quiet rather than drawing the attention of a public accusation and shame beyond all repair of the event’s credibility.

To be continued tomorrow…

Dr. Layton Talbert is a Frontline Contributing Editor and a member of the faculty at Bob Jones Memorial Seminary in Greenville, South Carolina.

(Originally published in FrontLine • November/December 2001. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

  1. Edward Panosian, The Providence of God in History (Greenville, S.C.: Bob Jones University Press, 1996), p. 13. []
  2. “God worked out the framework of the Roman Empire so that it was a prepared world for a prepared revelation. . . . 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” (Panosian, pp. 14–15). []
  3. F. F. Bruce, The Books and the Parchments (Old Tappan, N.J.: Fleming H. Revell, 1963), p. 162. []
  4. Adolf Deissmann, New Light on the New Testament (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1908), p. 95. []
  5. Alfred Rahlfs, “History of the Septuagint Text” in Septuaginta (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft Stuttgart, 1979), LVII. []
  6. J. W. Shephard, The Christ of the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1946), p. i. []
  7. Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), p. 137. []

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