John 15:7 “If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatsoever ye will, and it shall be done unto you.”
A parent in New York whose child is missing in the Haiti disaster said this on the Today Show Monday morning, “We need people to get there and we need them to get there fast. Time is working against us,” Crispinelli said. “We’re U.S. citizens. We achieve miracles. We need a miracle now and we need it today.”
One Chinese news publication wrote this, “Though five days have passed since the massive earthquake in Haiti, it seems miracles do happen as international rescue teams continue to pull people alive from the rubble.”
A European news agency wrote this short story…
Thank you Jesus, thank you, is a prayer of thanks and hope uttered from a woman rescued from the rubble in Haiti.
It is a prayer of thanks, a sign of hope. So too was the rescue of a nine year old, Olon Remi from the ruins of her home.
From the remains of a luxury hotel in Haiti’s capital rescue workers toiled in hope. From the wreckage they pulled the co-owner out alive, she had spent more than a hundred hours buried under the wreckage. The relief, the thanks from those watching was spontaneous as clapping burst out.
From under a collapsed university building a 29-year-old woman who had survived since the quake struck was saved. It took 30 hours to rescue her.
Survivors gathered in small groups across the capital on Sunday to pray and give thanks. Their churches have been destroyed but not their faith.
The congregations were scattered, gathering where they could, many of them homeless. As they worshipped in their own way the rescue mission continues. 43 international teams have so far pulled 70 people alive from the rubble. Everyone is united in hope that the miraculous stories will continue and the number saved will rise.
It doesn’t matter if a person is religious or not – lots of folks are looking for miracles.
From Joel Osteen to the late Oral Roberts, countless denominational preachers have urged their audiences to “Expect a miracle today.”
Men entertain a number of different ideas about how God works today.
Some people believe in God in the sense that they think there is a god or some higher power responsible for creation in some way. But, they don’t believe in a higher power when it comes to authority in their lives. Nor do they think this higher power intervenes in any way in the affairs of this world. For instance, these people don’t believe in the Bible view of creation, but they may believe that a higher power used evolution to create the world. The notion of atonement, or even the need for it, isn’t something they believe or profess.
This belief is wrong on many fronts, but basically it’s false because it contradicts the Word of God. Of course, it makes no sense on quite a few other issues. For example, why would God create the world, and then be “hands off” on all the affairs of this world? This belief also denies the love and care of God toward mankind.
From that viewpoint we go to another one that is almost extreme in the opposite direction – namely, the belief that almost everything is a miracle from God. Pentecostalism and other false doctrines that are akin to it take the position that every favorable result is a miracle. If somebody recovers from an illness, it’s a miracle. If somebody finds a good job, it’s a miracle. If the bills can somehow be paid this month, it’s a miracle.
More and more this is the prevailing view among religious people who profess Christianity. But these people completely overlook the facts of why God used miracles in the past. They fail to recognize the purpose of miracles in Old Testament or first century apostolic times.
In the Genesis record we see the miracle of creation. From that moment forward miracles were part of the revelation of God. God made his redemptive plans known by way of miracles. Since God’s Word is now revealed in its completeness, the need for miracles has ended. When you examine God’s miracles recorded in the scripture you clearly see they were intended to produce faith. But here’s what God’s Word says is true today.
John 20:30, 31 “Many other signs therefore did Jesus in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book: but these are written, that ye may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye may have life in his name.”
Rom. 10:17 “So belief cometh of hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.”
Today, the scriptures produce faith. These people openly deny God’s Word by their false belief that miracles happen today. In fact, many people claim their faith because of the miracles they claim that have happened in their life. That’s not the only thing they deny though. They also deny the very methods of miracles in the past. Without an apostle laying hands on you, bestowing the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit, you couldn’t perform miracles.
According to Acts 8 that’s exactly what Simon the magician knew and understood. That’s why he offered the apostles money. He wanted that power.
Some of the people of the charismatic movement may acknowledge that men can’t perform miracles, but they cling to the belief that God performs miracles today. But, again, they deny the scriptures.
1Cor. 13:8-13 “Love never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall be done away; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall be done away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part; but when that which is perfect is come, that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I felt as a child, I thought as a child: now that I am become a man, I have put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know fully even as also I was fully known. But now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
Eph. 4:8-16 “Wherefore he saith, When he ascended on high, he led captivity captive, And gave gifts unto men. Now this, He ascended, what is it but that he also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He that descended is the same also that ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things. And he gave some to be apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, unto the work of ministering, unto the building up of the body of Christ: till we all attain unto the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a fullgrown man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ: that we may be no longer children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, in craftiness, after the wiles of error; but speaking truth in love, we may grow up in all things into him, who is the head, even Christ; from whom all the body fitly framed and knit together through that which every joint supplieth, according to the working in due measure of each several part, maketh the increase of the body unto the building up of itself in love.”
The Biblical perspective of how God works in the world today is to recognize that He operates providentially through natural laws. God brings about spiritual results through His spiritual laws revealed in His Word. He uses natural laws to accomplish his will in this world.
Our world is preserved because God put into motion the natural laws that govern earth. God designed our world. He created the natural order of how things work. That’s certainly not in keeping with those who declare that God has no part in what happens in this life. And it contrasts those who claim that everything is a miracle from God.
Now the question that most often comes up is this, “Then does God hear prayer – and answer prayer?” We’ll let the Bible speak.
John 15:7 “If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatsoever ye will, and it shall be done unto you.”
James 5:16 “Confess therefore your sins one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The supplication of a righteous man availeth much in its working.”
1Pet. 3:12 “For the eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous, And his ears unto their supplication: But the face of the Lord is upon them that do evil.”
1John 5:14, 15 “And this is the boldness which we have toward him, that, if we ask anything according to his will, he heareth us: and if we know that he heareth us whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions which we have asked of him.”
Now, before folks can go off on a half-baked idea that whatever we pray for will be given to us by God it’s important to point out just two proofs that this isn’t the meaning.
One, Paul prayed that his thorn in the flesh would be taken away. Three times he prayed, each time praying that God’s Will be done. God did NOT give Paul what he wanted and Paul readily accepted.
Two, Christ prayed in the Garden that the cup might pass from Him. The cup He referred to was that He would have to be separated from God for the first and only time. Never before had Christ experienced separation from God, but for 3 hours the earth was dark as God turned His back on His Only Son. It was the bitterest cup of all. THAT was the cup Christ wanted removed. And as worthy as that prayer was, Christ prayed that God’s Will be done, not His own! There was no way for mankind to be redeemed except for Christ bearing the sins of mankind. By doing that, it was necessary that God look away!
Our prayers are answered today providentially. God hears us. He answers us. But in all prayers, God’s Will trumps our own. James instructs us how we ought to pray.
James 4:13-15 “Come now, ye that say, To-day or to-morrow we will go into this city, and spend a year there, and trade, and get gain: whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. What is your life? For ye are a vapor, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away. For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall both live, and do this or that.”
There are some important factors that we need to realize when it comes to God’s providence.
We need to always remember that God doesn’t providentially behave in any way that contradicts His natural law or His revealed Will in the scriptures. He’s holy and righteous so all of His actions are consistent that His character. One illustration of this is the fact that God doesn’t tempt man.
James 1:13, 14 “Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God; for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempteth no man: but each man is tempted, when he is drawn away by his own lust, and enticed.”
Based on this passage we can’t conclude that God ever causes men to do something sinful. Now consider this verse…
Rom. 9:17 “For the scripture saith unto Pharaoh, For this very purpose did I raise thee up, that I might show in thee my power, and that my name might be published abroad in all the earth.”
God “raised up Pharaoh” has to mean that God didn’t raise him up so he could sin. God raised him up for the exact reasons stated – so God’s power could be demonstrated and so God’s name might be broadcast through all the earth. Pharaoh was his own man. God simply used Pharaoh’s character and behavior to serve His divine purposes.
The providential working of God is always in cooperation with what God’s Word reveals. Perhaps the most important example of this is how the scriptures instruct men to be saved. That means God doesn’t providentially provide men some other method where they can be saved. There’s only one way to be saved and that’s how God has shown us in His Word. God won’t override what He has revealed.
Another important fact about providence is that God’s providence never overrides the free will of men. In spite of what Calvin believed and taught, God gives men the power of choice. We’re not so depraved that God has taken that from us.
Matt. 23:37 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, that killeth the prophets, and stoneth them that are sent unto her! how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!”
John 5:39, 40 “Ye search the scriptures, because ye think that in them ye have eternal life; and these are they which bear witness of me; and ye will not come to me, that ye may have life.”
Rev. 22:17 “And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And he that heareth, let him say, Come. And he that is athirst, let him come: he that will, let him take the water of life freely.”
God doesn’t coerce men to do anything, but He can and does use people to accomplish His Will. You see it throughout scripture. For instance, the Chaldeans were a violent people. They were nasty and mean, intent on conquering people and places that didn’t belong to them. God used them to punish His own people. God didn’t make the Chaldeans nasty, but He did allow their nastiness to serve His purposes.
Pharaoh was another example. The Bible tells us that Pharaoh hardened his heart. God didn’t harden it. Pharaoh did that to himself. God used Pharaoh’s rebellious and hard heart to display His power and blessings for the Hebrews.
We can’t get caught up in the notion that God directs men outside of their own free will. He does not. He does use men for His divine purposes. He’ll use evil men or good men. Men decide their character and behavior. God providentially uses men as it suits His divine Will.
There is a distinction between providential and miraculous. A miracle is where God works on a level that is above natural law. Providence is when God uses natural law for His purposes. In a miracle, the Lord works directly. In providence, God works indirectly.
Mary conceived a child having never experienced sex. According to the scriptures she was a virgin. This was a fulfillment of prophecy. It was a miracle. It was supernatural. It was a direct operation of God in her life. Contrast that with the story of Hannah in 1 Samuel chapter 1. She was barren, but she prayed to the Lord that she might have a son. She promised to give him to God, if God would allow her to conceive. According to the scriptures, she and her husband were intimate – the Old Testament terminology says her husband “knew her” – and she became pregnant. A son was born, but it was not a miracle. It was providence though because God used the natural laws of human reproduction to answer her prayer, and Samuel was born.
Another example contrasting miraculous with providential is found in the story of Hezekiah in Isaiah chapter 36. The king of Assyria came against all the fortified cities of Judah and conquered them. Hezekiah was imprisoned and sought God for deliverance. Through the prophet Isaiah God promised to deal with the situation. Here’s what happened…
In a single night, the messenger of Jehovah went out and killed a hundred and fourscore and five thousand in the camp of the Assyrians. When the men arose early in the morning they saw all the dead bodies – so says Isaiah 37:36. It was miraculous.
Sennacherib, the pagan king who had overthrown the cities of Judah, went back home. God made a proclamation that this king would go home and “I will cause him to fall by the sword in his own land.” And so it happened. The king went home and while he was worshipping his false god, his sons killed him with a sword. That was providence.
Over in Matthew chapter 8 we see Christ and His disciples caught in a bad storm on the Sea of Galilee. Scripture says the Lord “rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a great calm.” Christ controlled the weather miraculously.
Centuries earlier Israel suffered a drought for three and a half years. God caused that drought. Elijah prayed for rain and God sent rain. How? First, a small cloud appeared over the Mediterranean Sea. It was off in the distance and appeared to be the size of a man’s hand. The skies grew darker and darker. The winds kicked up and before long there was a great rain. Guess what? That’s how rain always came to the land of Palestine. God was providentially directing the rain. That rain occurred through natural laws brought about by God’s Will, and the result of Elijah’s prayer.
Remember, in providence God works indirectly – behind the scenes. Here’s an interesting truth about providence. We know God works by providence, as we’ve proven with just a few Bible illustrations. But, when it comes to providence we’re not able to point to some specific event or circumstance and confidently affirm that it’s God’s work. The fact is there’s no way to know. People have subjective feelings about it, but we can’t base things on how we feel about something. That’s never been an acceptable standard, or an authority for our lives.
In other words, people might say, “I know this is God’s providence.” But there’s absolutely no possible to know. It may be God’s providence at work. It may not be. It’s like prayer. We’re confident that God hears our prayers and that He’ll answer our prayers. The scriptures tell us so. But subjective declarations that specific events or circumstances are the result of prayer don’t prove anything.
Yes, God works in the lives of people, sometimes even when we’re unaware of it. According to 2 Cor 5:7 we walk by faith, not by sight. We can’t prove any of these things because providence is God working indirectly, behind the scenes. God’s providence works in cooperation with the natural laws that God Himself established. In spite of 2 Cor. 5:7 it’s interesting how many religious people want to walk based on something they can see, or feel.
There are quite a few incredible stories where we see God’s providence – and we’re able to see them because the scriptures reveal them. For instance, consider the story of Joseph and his brothers. God used Joseph to preserve the Hebrews. Were any of these people aware of what God was doing through providence? It wouldn’t seem so. Joseph certainly knew nothing of it when he was younger and being mistreated by his brothers. We can look back and see it though.
Perhaps the most famous story of providence is the story of Esther. That famous verse in Esther 4:14 is well-known by most Christians, “who knoweth whether thou art not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” Mordecai asked that question of Esther.
In Philemon, a book we’re fixing to study in our chapter studies, Onesimus was a runaway slave. He had made his way to Rome when he came in contact with the apostle Paul who converted him to the Truth. At some point, Paul sends him home and urges Philemon, his master, to receive him as a brother. Paul makes a statement in verse 15, “For perhaps he was therefore parted from thee for a season, that thou shouldest have him forever…”
Paul saw the possibility that God’s providence may have been at work in the life of Onesmimus. He ran away an unbeliever. He returned as a Christian brother.
The Bible reveals some facts about the scope of God’s providence. The Hebrew writer declares that the Savior is “upholding all things by the word of his power” (Heb 1:3). That simply means God is operating the entire universe under the direction of the natural laws that He established.
God controls all the forces of nature in exactly the same way. According to the Genesis record God maintains the seasons. He covers the heavens with clouds, prepares rain for the earth and makes grass grow on the mountains. None of that is miraculous, but it’s all based on God’s natural laws. In the same way He controls the stars and planets. Weather and all the other forces of nature are not miraculous, but providential.
God influences the animal kingdom in the same manner. According to Christ in the Sermon on the Mount, God cares for the animals that don’t sow or reap or gather into barns. We see God using providence when Abraham was offering Isaac. You remember that ram caught in the thicket? Nothing miraculous about that, but God provided that ram through providence.
According to scripture God sets up rulers and takes them down – again, all done providentially by God. It’s just one reason why Christians should not vote. We’ve no way to know what God’s plan might be to work providentially in this world. Additionally, Christians aren’t to be encumbered with worries of the affairs of this world, but providence is chief among the reasons why Christians are not involved in the political affairs of this world – no matter where we live, or what government rules over us.
Do Christians have some special provision provided by God’s providence? I believe the scriptures prove we do. According to Matthew 5:45 God sends rain on the just and unjust. The book of Job proves that material gain isn’t an accurate measurement of our fidelity to God. But the gospel does give us proof that God cares for His children providentially.
We can’t read the story of the early disciples without seeing God’s hand at work providentially. It was true with the great apostle Paul. Over in Acts 20 Paul was on his 3rd missionary journey. In Romans he mentioned that continually he made requests of God that he might be blessed to visit the brethren at Rome. Near the end of the letter he urges the brethren to join together with him in that prayer. We find Paul returning to Jerusalem where he’s arrested in Acts 21. In the night God tells him that he must bear witness in Rome. God’s visit was miraculous, but Paul going to Rome wasn’t. It was providential.
To save him from the Jewish mob, the Roman leaders took Paul to Caesarea by night and he’s put into prison for 2 years. Finally, Paul exercises his Roman citizenship and appeals to Caesar. It’s now early autumn in the year 60. He’s put on a ship to Rome. Enroute he’s shipwrecked and everybody is fearful that they’ll die. In the night an angel appears to Paul and makes this promise, “thou must stand before Caesar.” The following spring Paul and his company arrive in Rome – prayers from earlier years finally answered.
To me one of the most powerful illustrations of God’s providence is found at the cross. Christ prayed, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Christ wasn’t praying for miraculous forgiveness. There was no miraculous forgiveness. But at Pentecost these people Christ prayed for were indeed given the opportunity for redemption and forgiveness. Peter preached the Gospel story and thousands obeyed. It was God’s providential answer to the prayer of His Son – many who stood at the foot of the cross were indeed forgiven!
1Cor. 10:13 “There hath no temptation taken you but such as man can bear: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation make also the way of escape, that ye may be able to endure it.”
Such passages encourage us, but we need to understand that nothing miraculous is at work here. There is simply no way to fully know or understand all the ways that God’s providence helps us.
Just this week I’ve heard one businessperson declare how God had laid something on his heart. Another person seeking a job declared how God had “told” her a specific direction to take. And of course, whenever disasters like the earthquake in Haiti happen, we hear story after story of what men call “miracles.” I also heard one man who declares to be a Christian question why God allowed this earthquake to happen. Such declarations prove that most people have no concept of how God works in the world today.
It’s urgent that every Christian properly understands that God does not work using miracles today. It’s not that He can’t. It’s that He won’t. There is no need. The Word is fully revealed, so the purpose of miracles is now no longer needed. God won’t employ them again.
But when God built the world He incorporated natural laws. He now does His work by means of these natural laws. When it comes to mankind, God doesn’t compel or coerce men to behave in certain ways. He will use the behaviors of men – the behaviors they choose for themselves – to help fulfill His own purposes.
Pray to God always. When we’re fearful for our health, we pray. Pray before the doctor renders a diagnosis. We never know what providential work might be the answer to the prayers of the faithful.
When we’re sorrowful because we’ve lost somebody we love, pray for comfort. How are Christians comforted? Men often pray that God will comfort those who sorrow “as only You can.” How does that happen? By God’s Word. By God’s promise of a life after this one. And we pray that God’s providence might work to help us through our sorrows and problems. There’s no miraculous comforting happening.
I’ll leave you with two things about God’s providence.
– It should compel us to pray more.
– It should also compel us to thank God more.
This article was adapted from a sermon delivered at Fossil Creek on Wednesday night, January 20, 2010.