December 18, 2017

Providence in the Incarnation of Christ (2)

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).

Part 1 recounted the providential context of the birth of Christ in history (politics, commerce, language) and then began discussing providential arrangements of specific circumstances including matters concerning John’s conception and birth and the conception of Jesus.

The Ordering of the Census (Luke 2:1–6)

God used a pagan emperor’s issuing of a census that inconvenienced a massive population in order to bring one special couple to a birthplace prophesied seven centuries earlier (Micah 5:2). Why did God not simply direct Joseph to take Mary down to Bethlehem for the birth, along with all the other revelation and direction He gave through dreams and angels? Why did God instead employ the free act of Caesar Augustus’s census to relocate them?

The census decree magnifies God’s providence in human affairs and decisions. Dreams and angelic appearances can be fabricated. Again, think of the suspicions that would naturally arise were Joseph to have claimed that God told him to go to Bethlehem for the birth of this child that was supposed to be the prophesied Messiah. (“Another dream, eh? To go to Bethlehem? My, my, wasn’t that a coincidence.”) The key events of the Incarnation were supernaturally revealed and guided, but the Scripture-fulfilling details of its outworking were left to divine providence working mysteriously through the free acts of men, in order to preserve the integrity of the event. That way, no one could accuse Joseph of fabricating a “messiah” by simply moving to Bethlehem for the birth and alleging its fulfillment of Micah 5:2. The providential means employed to accomplish these events transcended human contrivance. “A mere Galilean peasant travels to Bethlehem ostensibly at the decree of the Roman emperor. Actually, it is in fulfillment of the divine King’s plan.”[1]

The Birth of Jesus (Luke 2:6–7)

God’s providences come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes they take the form of God’s extra touches — exquisite but ultimately “unnecessary” brushstrokes to the overall canvas that give pleasure to the sovereign Artisan and evoke in the careful observer a deepened admiration for His skill. Because there was no room in the inn, Mary was compelled to lay the Bread of Life in a feeding trough in a town named “House of Bread” (Bethlehem).

The Shepherds (Luke 2:8–20)

The divinely ordained presence of shepherds at the birth of the Lamb of God (John 1:29) who would Himself become God’s Good Shepherd (John 10) over His people Israel (Ezek. 34:22–25; 37:24; Isa. 40:11) is not without significance. Indeed, these “shepherds watched the flocks destined for sacrificial services” in the temple nearby[2] — the very sacrifices that Christ came to fulfill. They became the first evangelists to spread abroad the good news relayed to them about the birth and identity of the long–awaited Messiah.

Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:25–38)

Often the presence of providence is wrapped in the subtlest details of the sacred text. God promised Simeon that he would see the promised Messiah before he died and then providentially led him “by the Spirit” into the temple at the very moment of the Child’s dedication. Likewise, the subtly described arrival of godly Anna, “coming in that instant,” was also providentially timed.

The Magi (Matt. 2:1–12)

Elements of providence connected with the Magi include a number of factors: the providential preservation of the knowledge of God’s prophecy in their distant Gentile society; the appearance of the star at the appropriate place and time to bring the Magi to the Christ-child; the fact that the star did not lead them directly to Bethlehem but allowed them to go first to Jerusalem, which resulted in a public announcement of the event and the citation of the prophecy of Micah in the court of Herod; the dream warning them not to return to Herod so as to gain time and protection for the Child.

Herod’s Massacre of the Infants (Matt. 2:13–23)

Sometimes what does not happen is as providentially significant as what does happen. Since Herod was so bent on destroying the Child, why did he not send spies after the Magi to report His location, rather than trusting the Magi to return? Providence. Not only did the sad and gruesome massacre of the infants in Bethlehem fulfill prophecy, but it also led to the holy family’s flight into and return from Egypt in providential fulfillment of another prophecy. And note the eloquent statement of providential control over the wrath of man: Herod put to death all the male children (Matt. 2:16), but when Herod was dead, an angel of the Lord instructed Joseph to return, “for they are dead that sought the young child’s life” (Matt. 2:19–20).

Drawing Conclusions

What ramifications does God’s providential rule over nations and empires have for modern national and international circumstances? If God superintended all the affairs of politics and commerce, culture and philosophy in preparation for His Son’s first coming into the world, we can be sure He is overseeing the preparation for His Son’s second coming into the world. What personal lessons and applications can you draw from such examples of God’s providence over the broadest aspects of “secular” society?

Embedded in the incarnation narrative is an astounding assertion. Luke 1:37 is immortalized in the words: “For with God nothing shall be impossible.” But the verse more literally reads, “For with God every saying is not impossible” — or as we would say, “with God no saying is impossible.” Luke 1:37, then, is not so much a general assertion of God’s omnipotence (that He can do anything). It is more specific than that. It is an assurance that He is fully able to and intent on performing every “saying” — every prophecy and promise He has ever uttered. If God has said it, He can and will do it — no matter how improbable it may seem or how impossible it may sound. Remember the context — the biological impossibility of the virgin birth! This angelic testimony to God’s trustworthiness is timeless because God’s character is unchanging. The assurance of Luke 1:37 is just as applicable today to His “sayings” to you in the Bible.

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. Walter L. Liefeld, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary vol. 8 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), p. 843. — P&D Note: footnotes in this section will differ in numbering from the original due to breaking the article into two parts. []
  2. Edersheim, p. 187. []

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