CHAPTER 23. —THE APOSTOLIC ERA
In the interval between the return from Babylonish captivity and the appearing of Christ, there were many ways of providence. The eleventh chapter of Daniel’s book is a prophetic sketch of the principal of them, the most striking perhaps being those relating to the faithful class of the Maccabean era, who are spoken of (verse 33) as “they that understand among the people,” of whom it is also said,
“They shall fall, to try them, and to purge, and to make them white, even to the time of the end.”
The falling in the case is defined as “falling by the sword, and by flame, and by captivity, and by spoil many days,” so that we have here a case of calamity divinely permitted to faithful men for the accomplishment of certain moral results with reference to God’s ultimate purpose with them in the time of the end. This is a principle of very frequent illustration throughout the scriptures. It is condensed into the saying—
“Whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom He receiveth.”
As this chastening is by means of evil it follows that circumstances of an utterly vexatious and apparently fortuitous character may be of God, though His voice and hand may be unmanifest, and worse—hid in storm. We shall not in all things be able to read present experience aright till we can look upon it from the serene atmosphere of the kingdom of God.
But our purpose is not to linger in the interval from the Babylonish captivity to Christ, in which we would find only an oft-read lesson, already illustrated at sufficient length. We propose in this chapter rather to glance at the case of Christ, in certain features of it that afford striking indication of the fact that events human on their surface may be divine in a very special sense. The case of Christ is so largely miraculous in every way that it may not seem to come at all into the category of providential operation. It does not come so much within that category as other cases: nevertheless, there is more of the providential in it than might at first be supposed possible.
The first point is the place of his birth—Bethlehem. This had been foretold (Micah 5: 2). It was a point upon which all were agreed in their discussions as to whether Jesus were the Christ or no.
“Hath not the scripture said that Christ cometh . . . out of the town of Bethlehem?” (John 7: 42).
This seemed to require that Jesus should be born of parents resident in Bethlehem. But when the time for the fulfilment of the prophecy came, both Joseph the husband of Mary, and Mary the mother of Jesus, lived at Nazareth (Luke 1: 26; 2: 4). Here was a position of things calling for divine interposition. It is the form that this interposition took that constitutes the illustration of the ways of providence in the case. There was no miracle or open act. A measure of the authorities sufficed to bring matters into harmony with the necessities of the prophecy. “In those days, there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled,” with a view to a taxation which was first carried into effect when Cyrenius was governor of Syria. The issue of this decree necessitated a visit to Bethlehem on the part of Joseph, “because he was of the house and lineage of David” (Luke 2: 4), to be enrolled with Mary, who for the same reason required to accompany him, though not at all in a condition favourable for travelling (verse 5). Arrived in Bethlehem,
“So it was that while they were there, the days were accomplished that Mary should be delivered: and she brought forth her first born son.”
Joseph and Mary were brought there for a short time only. A few days one way or the other would have caused a misfit; but the watchfulness of providence secured their presence in Bethlehem just at the right time, so that the scripture was fulfilled, and the angels were able to announce to the shepherds on Bethlehem’s plains:
“Unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Saviour which is Christ the Lord.”
In due course, the child Jesus, having been circumcised, was taken to Jerusalem and presented in the temple according to the Law of Moses. And here it may be advantageous to glance at a point of difficulty made much of by foes of the Bible. Luke says that his parents then returned into Galilee to their own city, Nazareth (2: 39). Matthew seems to intimate that they went at once from Bethlehem to Egypt, going to Nazareth afterwards (Matthew 2: 1-14). No explanation of this discrepancy is apparent on the face of the narratives: but the two accounts are not irreconcilable if we suppose they refer to two visits to Bethlehem about the same time. This supposition is necessitated by the narratives themselves, for while Luke’s narrative applies to the circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus, it is evident that Matthew refers to a stage later on. (1) Because Christ had been born some time when the wise men arrived at Jerusalem: how long before does not appear, but it must have been a considerable time, for his birth had occurred before they started on their journey “from the east.”
(2) Because Herod, in issuing the decree for the destruction of the babyhood of Bethlehem, thought it necessary to allow a margin of two years, to cover the time of the Lord’s birth “according to the time he had diligently enquired of the wise men” (Matthew 2: 16).
In the state of facts it is easily conceivable that after the incidents recorded by Luke—and therefore after Joseph’s and Mary’s return to Nazareth—Joseph and Mary were called back again to Bethlehem in connection with perhaps the incompleted business of the enrolling, and while there the second time, received the visit of the wise men, and the divine direction which led them to depart to Egypt, where they remained till the death of Herod, on which they came again to Nazareth. This possible state of the case (and the narratives themselves involve something of the sort) would admit of both accounts being consistent one with another. The histories of the Bible are all of that concise and fragmentary character that easily admits of occasional appearances of discrepancy which the investigation of loving candour will dispel.
There was something providential in the part performed by John the Baptist in preparing for the work of Christ. We read that “John did no miracle” (John 10: 41), and yet he was the messenger of the Lord of Hosts, sent before His face to level mountainous obstructions, and fill the hollows, and smooth the rough places for the effective (initial) manifestation of the glory of the Lord. The mission expressed by these figures of speech was to create a situation of things, and a state of mind among the people of Judea, favourable to the Lord’s obtaining on short notice that public attention, and that clustering around Him of right-minded disciples which His work—His short work—required. How was this done? Not by miracle, but by the effect of John’s preaching upon the minds of the people. This effect was the combined result of the manner of the preacher, the nature of his preaching, and the locality of its occurrence. Attracted by the appearance of a weird, stern, dogmatic, abstemious, strange-looking young man on the banks of the Jordan,
“All Jerusalem and Judea went out to be baptised of him, confessing their sins.” They “mused in their hearts whether he was the Christ or no” (Luke 3: 15).
John strove to put them right on this point. He told them he was not the Christ, but was sent to prepare the way before Him (John 1: 20, 27), and that the Christ was actually in the land, but unmanifested—unknown to John himself, who was awaiting the promised identification of the Spirit, for which Christ was waiting (verses 31-33). Such teaching for three years and a half naturally collected the right sort of men about John—the God-fearing of the house of Israel—and that state of eager curiosity on their part, which made the Lord’s introduction to them easy and effective. The moment arrived when Jesus stepped from the crowd to be baptised like the others (Luke 3: 21). His baptism accomplished, the visible effusion of the spirit accompanied by an audible voice from heaven, proclaimed Him the Son of God, and riveted on Him the attention of the people prepared, to whom John said,
“This is He of whom I spoke.”
“Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world.”
Thus was a great work of God accomplished by means which, while having the miraculous at their foundation, were largely compounded of natural circumstances providentially regulated.
The maintenance of Christ during His mortal life illustrates the same principle. He was not allowed to use the miraculous power bestowed upon Him, for the provision of His personal wants, though He fed a crowd of 5,000 persons with a few loaves and fishes. Yet He had to live. He was a poor man. His own account of Himself was—
“The foxes have holes, the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man hath not where to lay His head” (Luke 9: 58).
How was He provided for? The providence of God was visible in the raising up of friends “who ministered unto Him of their substance” (Luke 8: 3). It is the principle observable in the case of Paul, who writes to the Philippians,
“Ye sent once and again unto my necessity.”
These manifestations are human in their form but divine in their origination, though not obviously so. Yet the persons made use of do not act mechanically. They do the work of God: at the same time, their work will be rewarded as, in a proximate sense their own work, as it is written:
“God is not unrighteous to forget your work of faith and labour of love which ye have shown towards His name, in that ye have ministered to the saints, and do minister; and we desire that everyone of you do show the same diligence to the full assurance of hope unto the end” (Hebrews 6: 10).
But the circumstances in the life of Christ which above all others illustrated the operations of providence—(the performance of a work of God by means which seemed so intensely human as to leave no place for the hand of God)—was His crucifixion. This we know in many ways was a matter of divine pre-arrangement and accomplishment. We have first the prophetic foreshadowing of it in all the forms of the law, particularly in the slaying of animals in connection with approaches to God; pointing to the fact, apart from the reason of the fact, that in man’s position of alienation God could not be acceptably approached without the shedding of blood. Next, we have the clear intimations by the prophets that God would put Jesus to grief; that He would “make His soul an offering for sin” (Isaiah 53: 10); that the Messiah would be cut off in the act of making reconciliation for iniquity, and the bringing in of everlasting righteousness (Daniel 9: 24, 26). Lastly, we have the express declaration of the apostles, speaking by the Spirit, that He was given up to die “by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2: 23); that thus,
“Those things which God had shown by the mouth of all His prophets, that Christ should suffer He had so fulfilled” (Acts 3: 18);
That the combination against Him of Jews and Gentiles, was (unknown to them),
“To do whatsoever God had determined before to be done” (Acts 4: 28).
Jesus himself testifies that He had received commandment from the Father to lay down His life (John 10: 18). Paul, alluding to this feature of the case, says that He (Jesus) was “obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2: 8). And he makes the act the Father’s act in saying,
“He that spared not His own son, but DELIVERED HIM UP FOR US ALL, how shall he not also with Him freely give us all things?” (Romans 8: 32):
“God hath set Him forth to be a propitiation through faith in His blood” (Romans 3: 25).
The breaking of bread brings the whole idea to a focus. Jesus asks us to recognise in the emblems the memorials of His body given for His brethren.
In view of these unmistakable facts and testimonies, the lesson yielded on the ways of providence is to be learnt in the contemplation of the perfectly natural manner, to all appearance, in which the death of Christ came about. His teaching stirred up the anger of the ruling class among the Jews (Matthew 23:13). They laid traps for Him that they might hand Him over to the Roman authorities (Luke 20: 20).
“They began to urge Him vehemently, and to provoke Him to speak of many things, laying wait for Him and seeking to catch something out of His mouth that they might accuse Him” (Luke 11: 53).
They sought to destroy Him but could not find what they might do, for all the people were very attentive to hear Him (Luke 19: 48). At last, a faithless disciple, in the absence of the multitude, put Him in the power of His enemies for thirty pieces of silver, by showing them His whereabouts in the quiet of night. He was apprehended by torchlight by a band of legal rowdies, and led away as a prisoner. He was arraigned before the Jewish council, and then brought before the Roman governor and accused of treason on the ground of His doctrine that—
“He Himself is Christ a King” (Luke 23: 2).
On this ground He was condemned (John 19: 12-13), and His accusation was officially affixed to His cross. He died a victim of Jewish malice and Gentile power.
It was all a perfectly natural transaction on the face of it, and yet God was in it as we have seen. No more signal illustration exists in the whole course of the scriptures, of the fact that the work of God may be done by perfectly natural agents, who yet do their own will and give effect to their own wicked aims. Judas is not shielded from the enormity of his crime by the fact that he was an accessory to one of the highest works of God on earth. The solemn words of Jesus remain in their unabated force:
“Good were it for that man if he had not been born.”
The Jews have not enjoyed any exemption from the effects of their blasphemous opposition to the Son of God from the circumstance that they were instruments in the execution of a divine work. His blood has been none the less on them and on their children. It was from no desire to do the work of God that they gave effect to their envious antagonism to an holy one. Therefore they reaped as they sowed. Cooped up within the walls of the very city that resounded with their hellish yells of repudiation of Christ, they had to swelter and seethe in the horrors of famine, anarchy, and civil war, and behold the awful spectacle of a ring of crosses round the doomed city, placed outside the walls by the Romans who would have released Christ, holding aloft the transfixed and writhing forms of Jewish prisoners who had sought in vain to fine refuge in the Roman camp from the horrors of the siege. And from that day to this, they have wandered,
Outcasts from God, and scattered wide
Through every nation under heaven;
Blaspheming Him they crucified;
Unsaved, unpitying, unforgiven.
Branded like Cain they bear their load
Abhorred of men and curs’d of God.
The lesson of the case is the lesson of all the cases we have had under review. God may and does in many cases—(in all cases standing related to His work and purpose)—work unseen and unfelt behind natural circumstances, and by human action accomplishes ends of His own which men have no intention of bringing about; and the idea of bringing them about they would repudiate with the utmost scorn if suggested to them; that at the same time there is no interference with the free volition and moral results of human action; that He holds men responsible for what they intend and aim at accomplishing, and judges these intentions without any reference to the actual results that may come out of their action in the operation of His providence.. The effect of this doctrine, where sincerely believed, must be to lead men to keep watch over their hearts in the inception and effectuation of their thoughts; and in all things to commit their way to God in the confidence of that direction of their steps which has been promised in all the complexities of human life.
The apostolic age furnishes several exemplifications of the ways of providence with the brief notice of which we must leave the domain of scripture narrative, and reserve to the last a general and finishing summary of the whole. Pentecost stands first and most prominent. The outpouring of the Spirit on the apostles “not many days hence” was promised by Christ before His departure. Its object was not merely to comfort and instruct the disciples, but to “convince the world” of the things of Christ, and to bear witness to His resurrection. To accomplish this effectually, the concourse of many people, from various parts of the world, was necessary. Behold the condition secured by the natural operation of the feast of Pentecost. “Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven,” were brought to Jerusalem by the recurrence of that feast; and at such a moment just ten days after the ascension of Jesus, the overpowering effusion and manifestation of the Spirit exhibited a convincing testimony for Christ before assembled thousands of the right type, who afterwards, on their return home to all points of the compass, took with them far and wide the seeds of “repentance towards God and faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ.” A similar result was afterwards produced in another way by the great persecution which arose about Stephen, when the believers, in thousands, were, “all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles” (Acts 8: 1), and when they who were so scattered, “travelled as far as Phenice, and Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word; . . . and the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed and turned unto the Lord” (Acts 11: 19-21). The persecution was a providential diffusion of the word, though doubtless very unwelcome to the brethren. Many unwelcome circumstances may transpire in our own experience which, in a way perhaps not visible at the time, accomplishes the work of God.
The providence of God is further seen in the preparation of such a man as Paul against the time when he was needed as a servant of Christ. Jesus said to Ananias, of Damascus, “He is a chosen vessel unto Me” (Acts 9: 15), and Paul himself alludes to his having been set apart from childhood (Galatians 1: 15); could, therefore, we have been witnesses of Paul’s early days, we should have seen nothing manifestly divine in them. We should have seen an ardent, energetic, earnest young student of the law of Moses distinguishing himself by his zeal and industry, but not exhibiting anything in his life or surroundings that would have struck the observer as out of common. We should have seen a young man on whom Christ’s eyes were fixed; but we should not have known it. A study of the leading circumstances of his apostolic career will yield the same result. It will show that the framework of his natural life was divinely moulded with a view to the work he had to do as a witness of Christ’s resurrection throughout the Roman habitable.
John’s banishment to the solitude of Patmos we must rank among the same class of circumstances. It came upon him as an evil, and apparently only as an evil. It would be very unacceptable to an ardent lover of God and man, like John; but it provided the suitable occasion for Christ’s last communication to His brethren—the Apocalypse, so wonderfully opened to our understanding by another agency in these latter days.
The emphasis laid on the naturalness of the circumstances exhibited to view in these chapters on the ways of providence, has a tendency in some cases which it may be desirable to correct in a similar book to this on “Miracles, Signs and Wonders.” That tendency, which some have felt, may be expressed by the question, “If all these circumstances are so obviously natural, what evidence exists that they have a divine element in them at all?” There is a powerful answer to this question, which it will be the business of another effort to make manifest. The object of these chapters, now drawing to a close, has been to illustrate a phase of divine operation at work in our own day, for the purpose of enabling us to recognise the hand of God in our lives, and in the affairs of the nations. The absence of visible token and audible message has a tendency to close our eyes to the fact that God works, though the age of the open vision is not resumed. This closing of the eye is apt to weaken the hand and discourage the heart. Hence, the profitableness of a line of study which enables us to see, despite popular exaggerations and misrepresentations, that there is such a thing as providence, and that we have only to come into harmony with the Worker of it, as revealed to us in the scriptures of truth, to get the benefit of that direction of our steps during these days of evil, which will guide us at the last into the presence of His glory, with exceeding joy, at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all His saints.
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