The Providence of God

Session 5

Bethlehem Baptist Church

So what we’re going to do is begin with general statements about God’s providence over the nations — general statements about God’s providence. Then we’ll move to specific statements about God’s providence over particular nations. And then I want to look at some larger portions of Scripture, rather than just isolated texts. And we’ll wind up, I hope, on the impact upon missions today of God’s providence over the nations.

So, what we’ll do first is look at some individual texts. And I’ll pause here and there and see if you have any questions about these, but they’re pretty straightforward and let them have their effect upon your worldview. Because you will never read this in the newspaper. These are more important truths than are ever reported in the newspaper or on television, and yet you’ll never hear these. It shows how tremendously skewed reality is in the way it’s presented for most Americans. And since most Americans don’t absorb the Bible from any source, they are constantly inundated by a skewed source of reality in education and media and entertainment.

God’s Providence over Nations in General

He makes nations great, and he destroys them;
    he enlarges nations, and leads them away. (Job 12:23)

This is a theme we’re going to see over and over again: God being the one who brings nations into being, makes them great or large, and then removes them — takes them away. God does that.

God Manages Affairs

For kingship belongs to the Lord,
    and he rules over the nations. (Psalm 22:28)

So the nations are not running willy-nilly outside the control of God; he’s managing affairs.

The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing;
    he frustrates the plans of the peoples. (Psalm 33:10)

So, if you see a big council taking place and counsel coming from that council. And it looks bleak and foreboding for the advance of the gospel — like in Kazakhstan, a major law being passed that 40 percent of foreigners’ foreign income will be paid to Kazakhstan’s government. And you say, “Oh, dear.” Well, God can nullify that when it ceases to have its appointed effect. He can just nullify that anytime he wants. Or if you see the Supreme Court send down a decision that seems to be unjustly restrictive upon certain speaking or acting, don’t say, “Oh, dear, poor God; he took a setback.” God can nullify anything he chooses to nullify in the council of the nations, and when their plans are formed, he can frustrate the plan.

How many times have we seen actions performed by nations that looked awful to us? I mean, for example — a real obvious and easy example — is the communization, the secularization of China, for forty-plus years. We are thinking, “Oh, the missionaries are gone; we can’t spread the gospel.” And not only is the gospel growing spectacularly with the equivalent of two-and-a-half Pentecosts a day during those forty to fifty years, but the old resistant religion is wiped out by communism, so that when the doors begin to reopen, it’s a new enemy, and it’s an enemy very, very susceptible to meaning and hope among young people.

So, what’s God doing for forty years of shutting things down, and, “Oh, it looks like this is a setback”? It was no more a setback than three days in the grave were a setback for Jesus. And the same thing can be said of other kinds of developments.

Reign and Watch

God reigns over the nations;
    God sits on his holy throne. (Psalm 47:8)

So, he reigns over the nations.

[He] rules by his might forever,
    whose eyes keep watch on the nations —
        let not the rebellious exalt themselves. (Psalm 66:7)

So, he’s keeping watch on the nations. Nothing is happening in a corner to God. He’s not tending to an election in Canada or a decision about whether Canada becomes two nations. He’s not tending to that, and then realizing, “Oh, I let something slip in South Africa.” He’s watching over all of them. God is omnipresent and omniscient.

Not Just Israel

Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,
    for you judge the peoples with equity
    and guide the nations upon earth. (Psalm 67:4)

That’s a remarkable statement, especially when you realize how godless many of the nations are, and how many choices they make which are anti-God choices and anti-gospel choices. He guides the nations on the earth. And this is said in a context back then, when only one nation was anything close to approximating a godly nation. This is plural here; it’s not just Israel that he guides; it’s the nations of the earth: Eden, Moab, Assyrian, Egypt, Ethiopia, the nations of the North.

God Will Do It

The horse is made ready for the day of battle,
    but the victory belongs to the Lord. (Proverbs 21:31)

If you’re reading in Ezekiel right now or really anywhere in the prophets, just circle in your mind, if not with a pencil, all the occurrences of “I shall” or “I will” when God is the I. I looked up the occurrences of “I will bring” on my computer Bible program today. There were about more than ninety in the Bible. And I just jumped from one to the other.

  • I will bring a nation here
  • I will bring my people
  • I will bring devastation
  • I will bring triumph
  • I will bring
  • I, I, I

Sometimes you read a difficult book like Ezekiel, with its strange visions, and you scratch your head and you say, “I can’t get this book. Half of this book is a closed book to me. I don’t understand.” That’s OK; it is to most people. You’ve got to study hard and poke around in commentaries and look up words in dictionaries and try to get some background, which you mainly don’t have time to do.

But you shouldn’t miss the forest for the trees when you read a book like Ezekiel. The forest is: God is amazingly at work in judgment and salvation. And let the supremacy and the dominance of the providence of God have an effect on you. I’ll show you, before we’re done, some typical biblical ways of telling history, talking history, that are so different.

I put Proverbs 21:31 in here as a kind of summary of all those dozens and dozens (I’m tempted to say hundreds and hundreds) of battles in Old Testament history where God plainly says, “I did it. I did it. I gave them into your hand.” And the reason is because Proverbs, which is a book speaking about general wisdom says, “In all battles the horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the Lord.” So, if we go to war here, or we go to war there, or if there’s a battle here or a battle there, it is fitting that there be precautions and preparations made, but in the end, God decides who wins. God decides who wins.

Princes to Nothing

Do you not know? Do you not hear?
    Has it not been told you from the beginning?
    Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
    and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
    and spreads them like a tent to dwell in;
who brings princes to nothing,
    and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness.

Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
    scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when he blows on them, and they wither,
    and the tempest carries them off like stubble. (Isaiah 40:21–24)

He’s talking about judges and rulers. Isaiah is one of those books that attempts to give you a feel for the transcendent majesty of God over this earth. I want you to feel right now that you’re not going to get this message from the place where you get most of your input in this world. And it is the most important message. You never hear this on television. Never does the news say, “God blew the Prime Minister of Israel away.” The won’t say it. They won’t say it. Ever. And I don’t say that out of any particular political standpoint, because this week, someone in our church’s 35-year-old son died in his sleep. And God blew him away. And I’ll say that about every death in this church, and every political ruler who dies, and the fact that God establishes Yitzhak Rabin for a season for his purposes and then removes him. We need to know because that is a massive truth. Nobody else can tell you that but the Bible.

Even What’s Dry Can Flourish

This is now coming right out of a parable, or an allegory, in Ezekiel where a high tree is pictured as a proud ruler.

And all the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord; I bring low the high tree, and make high the low tree, dry up the green tree, and make the dry tree flourish. I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it. (Ezekiel 17:24)

Those are amazing and glorious statements that the high he makes low, and the low he makes high, and the dry he can make moist and green, the green he can make dry. So, God can look on a situation, America or England or Germany, he can look at Europe right now, which is a dry tree. I was talking to a missionary in Lincoln on Sunday after I preached on suffering as a means of world evangelization, and the 36-year veteran missionary, who spent most of those years in Ecuador. When he retired, he and his wife said, “Send us to Spain in our retirement for a few years. We’d like to see what God is doing there and where a lot of these Spanish-speaking people originated.” They spent two years there and he said, “Spain is a dry tree.” Two thousand years of Roman Catholicism. Maybe 50,000 people who would think of themselves as born-again. Half of those are gypsies because there’s an amazing people movement among gypsies in Europe. So, in a land like Spain, the whole of Spain, maybe 25,000 evangelical believers. That’s a dry tree.

Now the way to think about that is not “Well, I guess that’s the way it will be till Jesus comes” or “I guess God’s done with Spain” or something like that. The way to think about things like that is: God can make a dry tree flourish. Now I know he’s talking about rulers here: that he can raise up rulers and make them prosper, and he can take down rulers. But the same principle applies: the biblical principle that God is in the business of reversing things to get people to know, “I am the Lord.”

Who He Is

That’s another phrase that occurs repeatedly throughout the Bible: “They shall know that I am the Lord.” And I wonder, What in the world does that mean? Because that’s clearly God’s motivation all through Ezekiel. He does everything he does, both in judgment and in salvation, that people would know that he’s the Lord. See, whenever you see all caps in your Bible, it’s the word YHWH; it’s the tetragrammaton in Hebrew YHWH, translated Jehovah in some places. We don’t know just how to say it. The Jews never did say it. They said Adonai instead, because they didn’t want to take the name of YHWH or whatever this pronunciation should be in vain. But this is the name of God in the Old Testament. It occurs about 2,600 times in the Hebrew Old Testament. And it’s the name that God said to Moses: “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:14). And that’s the verb to be, and this is built on the verb be. And this name is built on that.

So here’s my interpretation of “that they might know that I am Yahweh.” There’s no verb in those sentences either, by the way; it’s just: “that they might know I, Yahweh.” I think he means “that they might know that I am the one who is, the absolute one who does all these things.” The shear is-ness of God is not known in the world.

This made me feel very, very glad that we have a mission statement now that says: We exist as a church to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples. Now, that’s a very broad and big mission statement. It doesn’t get down to the specifics of the gospel yet. But our mission statement is that we could spread a passion for the supremacy of God. And when I read a book like Ezekiel with its occurrences of, “that they might know that I, Yahweh.” “That they might know that I, Yahweh, I am the one who is; I am the one who is absolute; I have no beginning; I have no ending; I am not in process; nobody made me the way I am; I am absolutely over all things and I take and I give and I dry and I moisten, and I do all things because I am God.”

God wants to be known that way in the world. And he isn’t known that way in America — certainly not outside the church, and in large measure not inside the church. And so, we should be thankful when we read the book of Ezekiel that God has given the master-planning team a statement like that.

Appointed for a Time

Blessed be the name of God forever and ever,
    to whom belong wisdom and might.
He changes times and seasons;
    he removes kings and sets up kings;
he gives wisdom to the wise
    and knowledge to those who have understanding. (Daniel 2:20–21)

Daniel is at a time in history when mega changes are in the offering for the people of Israel and nations are rising: Babylon, Assyria, Persia, other nations are on the way. And as he is given to see the big picture he says, “God reigns over all of this.” He removes kings. He’s going to take Nebuchadnezzar out of the way. He’s going to take Artaxerxes out of the way. He’s going to take Cyrus out of the way. He’s going to take Darius out of the way. He’s going to put up the Seleucids. He’s going to put up some Caesar that will do a thing and set up things for the Messiah to come. God is totally reigning here. He establishes kings.

If you live long enough — and those of you who are getting old now are the ones who have the authoritative word to say about this. If you go back and try to remember what it was like in the forties, and then the fifties, and then the sixties, and then the seventies, and then the eighties, and now the nineties, you know times change. There are ethos changes, moods change, openness changes. There’s just a different kind of thing in the world that governs so much that you can’t quite get your hand on what it is in our day.

And Daniel says that God’s doing that. God’s got that under control. God knows why country and western music is the most popular music in America. There’s a purpose for that. I read an essay by a guy in Nashville who had done a lot of thinking about why Nashville exists as the capital of a lot of things. And he had some amazing ideas (I can’t tell you what they all are) of why God has ordained country and western music to take America; just take it. It’s over for every other music just about. The president himself says that’s his music. So you decide. You think that through.

He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place. (Acts 17:26)

He determine their appointed times. How long did he give the USSR? Seventy-one or 72 years. And the boundaries of the habitation: the space and the time, limitations of nations — God is reigning. How long will he give America? No guarantees whatsoever.

God’s Providence over Nations in Particular

Now, that’s enough for generalities. Let’s do some specifics from the Old Testament.

And the Lord raised up an adversary against Solomon, Hadad the Edomite. He was of the royal house in Edom. (1 Kings 11:14)

God also raised up as an adversary to him, Rezon the son of Eliada, who had fled from his master Hadadezer king of Zobah. (2 Kings 11:23)

Now the point here is: as Solomon’s reign became embattled and many adversaries came against him like Hadad and Rezon, the writer of 1 Kings wants you to know where they come from. The Lord raised up and raised up. Now, how did he do that? How does God so work that a person named Hadad becomes an enemy of the Lord’s anointed? How does that happen? Well, I don’t know for sure. I don’t know how it all works. But he does it. Let’s get that fixed in our minds because we’re going to see a lot of that: God has the right and the authority as the Creator of the universe in this world to so work. And you can leave it unexplained; you don’t have to explain it in detail. He so works that this happens: that Hadad and Rezon become adversaries of King Solomon.

House of Jeroboam

Go, tell Jeroboam, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: “Because I exalted you from among the people . . . (1 Kings 14:7)

Alright, I exalted you. God put him up.

. . . and tore the kingdom away from the house of David and gave it to you . . . (1 Kings 14:8)

So, God ripped the kingdom away from the Southern tribes and split the kingdom.

. . . and yet you have not been like my servant David, who kept my commandments and followed me with all his heart, doing only that which was right in my eyes, but you have done evil above all who were before you and have gone and made for yourself other gods and metal images, provoking me to anger, and have cast me behind your back, therefore behold, I will bring harm upon the house of Jeroboam . . . (1 Kings 14:8–10)

God’s going to do this. Calamity — meaning, all kinds of opposition, death — God’s doing it. God’s bringing calamity on the house of Jeroboam.

. . . and will cut off from Jeroboam every male, both bond and free in Israel, and will burn up the house of Jeroboam, as a man burns up dung until it is all gone. (1 Kings 14:10)

So, as you looked at the intrigue around the house of Jeroboam and saw him coming down, if you had the eyes of faith, you would see the hand of God.

Mercy in Terror

Let me say a word about Lamentations to encourage you. Lamentations is a bleak book in that it describes the abject terror and horror of Jerusalem under siege. Children are being boiled and eaten by their starving parents. It’s a book that is simply full of terror, terror, terror on every hand. Except that in the middle of it — and I think very strategically positioned by the inspired writer, Jeremiah — is a word of incredible hope about how the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. Never — even when people are boiling their children.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
    his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning. (Lamentations 3:22–23)

I mean, it’s the position of those verses that blows us away. The truth of them in themselves is dumbfounding: that God’s mercies are new every morning of our lives to meet every crisis. But the position of those verses in the middle of this horrible book is what should cause us to wonder, How can you say that?

The other thing that’s encouraging about this book — let me mention two. These words, this is in that same chapter just a little later in 3:37–38.

Who has spoken and it came to pass,
    unless the Lord has commanded it?

Now in this book, those are fighting words. I heard a testimony just the other day of a professor in this city who said, “This vision of God is grotesque and blasphemous.” This is referring to the commander’s who came against Jerusalem and devastated it. Who is there who commanded? What corporal or general or colonel says charge, and it comes to pass unless the Lord has commanded it? And the answer is: nobody. Nobody speaks and has it come to pass unless the Lord has commanded it.

Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
    that good and bad come? (Lamentations 3:38)

Another way to translate those would be benefit and calamity. So, Jeremiah, though he wept rivers of tears for his people — as we ought to do for all sin and pain in the world. See, this is not a contradiction. You don’t come to the conclusion that God rules the tragedies of the world and then say, “Oh, well, they’re all God’s will, so we’ll just say ‘praise God anyhow’” — not if you look at the way the biblical spokesman responded, and were commanded to respond. God commands them to weep. Jeremiah wept, and yet he couldn’t bring himself to say, “God took a vacation during Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of Babylon.” He could not bring himself to say that Yahweh, the Maker of the universe fell asleep, or was working on something in China at the time, or any other thing that you might think of that would distract the sovereign God from managing affairs in Israel, the apple of his eye. God had predicted this judgment for centuries and threatened it to come to pass. And he brought it to pass.

Here’s the last thing I want to say about Lamentations, just to set you to thinking. I wrote, about thirteen years ago, a little one-page article for the Standard on Lamentations. Because for the first time, I was making my way through it slowly in Hebrew. I’m not very good in Hebrew. I can’t read Hebrew without a lot of help. But if I get the help, I can plod along. And I realized that Lamentations is an acrostic: all the paragraphs of Lamentations begin with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Now, I don’t have the specifics to give you, but if you want to read it, you can probably just get a study Bible and look in the notes, and they’ll tell you what I’m saying.

Now, here’s the implication of that: Here you have the most painful book in the Bible — that is, the book that is most fraught with emotion, most rending of heart, the book where it feels like if you should ever just pour out your heart, uninhibited by anything, it would be here — and he takes all that emotion and all that pain and forces it into the narrow channel of an acrostic. And he says aleph — what of my pain can I put under aleph? Bet — what can I put under bet? Gimel — what can I put under gimel? Dalet — what can I put under dalet? A, B, C, D. And he starts the paragraph with that word beginning with that letter. Isn’t that an amazing thing that there are reasons in our lives, after we have wept our eyes out long enough, to begin to put our pain into form?

This is where hymns come from. You read hymns: “Sanctify to us our deepest distress.” “Like a River Glorious.” So many hymns are born of pain, and you wonder, How did the author take the hours necessary to come up with a rhyme scheme that isn’t hokey? And with a rhythm that doesn’t sound too repetitive? And it’s rich when there’s so much pain in it? And the answer is: time elapses, the heaving gives way to breathing, the tears dry up behind the eyes, and yet the pain is there to be dealt with. And one way to deal with it is to capture it in form, and give it to the world as Jeremiah did in Lamentations.

Measure of Restraint

Behold, the eyes of the Lord God are upon the sinful kingdom,
    and I will destroy it from the surface of the ground,
    except that I will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob,”
    declares the Lord. (Amos 9:8)

There’s a measure; there’s a restraint. God doesn’t give way to the enemy. When he says, “I will destroy it,” he means that the Assyrians are coming. “I’m going to use the Assyrians. I’m going to use Cyrus as my rod.” And yet they are not so out of my control that I cannot keep it from being totally destroyed.

Nothing Too Hard for God

Behold, I am the Lord, the God of all flesh. Is anything too hard for me? Therefore, thus says the Lord: Behold, I am giving this city into the hands of the Chaldeans and into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and he shall capture it. (see Jeremiah 32:28)

So, there were ten thousand little pieces that fit into that plan and schemes of the Babylonians. But when all is said and done, God says, “I did it.”

Stir the Nations

Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I am against you, O Tyre, and will bring up many nations against you, as the sea brings up its waves. (Ezekiel 26:3)

So, God has the authority to go to this nation and somehow stir them up to come against Tyre. This nation, this nation and bring them all against Tyre.

Proud Brought Low

Thus says the Lord God concerning Edom:
    We have heard a report from the Lord,
        and a messenger has been sent among the nations:
“Rise up! Let us rise against her for battle!”
Behold, I will make you small among the nations;
    you shall be utterly despised.
The pride of your heart has deceived you,
    you who live in the clefts of the rock,
    in your lofty dwelling,
who say in your heart,
    “Who will bring me down to the ground?”
Though you soar aloft like the eagle,
    though your nest is set among the stars,
    from there I will bring you down,
    declares the Lord. (Obadiah 1–4)

Years ago, I remember reading through the Prophets. I think I was still in college. And I said, “Now, what can I look for in the Prophets? Because there’s so much I don’t understand. What do I understand?” And I decided I would look for all the reasons, I would always circle the reasons that judgment is coming. And it’s amazing how many times pride, the lifting up of a nation and the boasting of a ruler is the reason.

One Forming Light

Now here is a pagan ruler and God calls him my anointed. This guy does not know God in a saving way.

Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus,
    whose right hand I have grasped,
to subdue nations before him
    and to loose the belts of kings,
to open doors before him
    that gates may not be closed:
“I will go before you
    and level the exalted places,
I will break in pieces the doors of bronze
    and cut through the bars of iron,
I will give you the treasures of darkness
    and the hoards in secret places,
that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
    the God of Israel, who call you by your name.
For the sake of my servant Jacob,
    and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name,
    I name you, though you do not know me.
I am the LORD, and there is no other,
    besides me there is no God;
    I equip you, though you do not know me,
that people may know, from the rising of the sun.
    and from the west, that there is none besides me;
    I am the LORD, and there is no other. (Isaiah 45:1–6)

This is prediction; this is prophetic prediction. This is why a lot of people date this half of Isaiah as late. Because you divide it in half at chapter 40 and you call the second half deutero-Isaiah and date it two hundred years later so that you don’t have to reckon with the fact that Cyrus, who lived two hundred years later, was named two hundred years earlier. I mean, there are other linguistic reasons that are used as an argument too, and there are evangelicals who think this. I haven’t been persuaded that Isaiah is written by Isaiah and then a person two hundred years later and then joined together and put under the name of Isaiah.” And my main argument for laypeople, who can’t go back and read Hebrew is to go to the New Testament and look up the places where Isaiah is quoted by Jesus. Ad he’s quoted by Jesus in John 12. And the quotation is from deuteron-Isaiah, the second half of Isaiah, and it says, “Isaiah, the prophet said.” So you’ve got a mega moral problem in the life of Jesus, I think, if you say, “Well, Isaiah didn’t say it; the person who lived two hundred years later said it, and then it got united to Isaiah as prophecy and now he’s called Isaiah, but it really was another person, and Jesus was just going along with the way others thought.”

I form light and create darkness;
    I make well-being and create calamity;
    I am the Lord, who does all these things. (Isaiah 45:7)

That’s the same thing we saw from Lamentations 3.

This is the last text on this unit before we look at some particular stories. Here’s the end of history in Revelation. We won’t go into the details of who the beast is and all of that. Revelation is another one of those books where you scratch your head, and you’re not sure what everything refers to. And I think it’s a little bit dangerous to try to want to know what everything refers to in precision because every generation has assigned these people to somebody different, and I have no confidence that the people who definitely say the beast is someone in particular actually know what they’re talking about. Is it Napoleon? Is it Mussolini? Or is it Hitler? Or is it Reagan? Or the Pope? It’s a guess. But what you can learn from Revelation is that God reigns and will bring this history to a stunning climax of victory for the gospel.

And the ten horns that you saw are ten kings who have not yet received royal power, but they are to receive authority as kings for one hour, together with the beast. These are of one mind, and they hand over their power and authority to the beast. They will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful.”

And the angel said to me, “The waters that you saw, where the prostitute is seated, are peoples and multitudes and nations and languages. And the ten horns that you saw, they and the beast will hate the prostitute. They will make her desolate and naked, and devour her flesh and burn her up with fire, for God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose by being of one mind and handing over their royal power to the beast, until the words of God are fulfilled. (Revelation 17:12–17)

So, whether we can identify at this juncture in history who this final antichrist figure is going to be or was, in a historical sense, and is yet to be, one thing we know: he’s on a leash. And it’s very tight. You don’t have to be able to explain how so much evil can be in the control of God here, but if you’re going to believe Scripture, I think you need to believe it. God has put in their hearts to execute his purpose by having a common purpose and giving their kingdom to the beast. This is evil; we’re talking evil here. God is in control of it, and yet, in such a way that they, these kings, are accountable for it, and will be judged justly.

Providential Advent

Let’s go to the birth of Jesus. This has for years and years amazed me so much that I wrote an advent poem about it years ago, and I’ll read it to you here in minutes — a shorter one, if that one was a long one because they get longer as time goes by. The birth of Jesus in Bethlehem was a fulfillment of prophecy. Micah 5:2 says:

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
    who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me     one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old,     from ancient days. (Micah 5:1–2)

Alright, now here we are about five hundred years before the birth of Jesus. And the prophet says that Bethlehem will be the place from which a ruler in Israel, the Messiah, will go forth. So, God has committed himself to Bethlehem. Bethlehem is going to be the place. So why does he choose a virgin in Nazareth? This complicates matters. Why not a virgin in Bethlehem, where the house of David is mainly? Here’s the story.

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. (Luke 2:1)

Caesar lives in Rome. And he doesn’t know anything about virgins in Nazareth. He doesn’t know anything about what he’s doing here. Most rulers do not know what they’re doing. They are doing things that God wants done, and they don’t have a clue. And that’s true with much of your life. God is wonderfully causing you to do things that in a year or two or five, you will see the point of them. So he’s making a decree that a census be taken in all the inhabited earth.

Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. (Luke 2:2–3)

So the stipulation of this decree is not that you can just go down to City Hall in Nazareth and sign up; you’ve got to go to your own city.

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David . . . (Luke 2:4)

Now, that was necessary for fulfillment of prophecy as well. That’s not my point here but we could make a point out of that. He chose a husband for this particular virgin who happened to be of the right lineage.

. . . to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. (Luke 2:5–6)

Now that was convenient because had she had, like my wife, Noël, who averaged on every one of our boys ten days to three weeks late, well, there goes prophecy right out the window. Micah’s prophecy aborts, so she doesn’t give birth, namely while they’re there. So, God’s got to take care of that little detail also. So, he’s managing details in Rome and he’s managing details in the womb to fulfill his prophecy that this baby is going to be born in Bethlehem.

Well, that’s very roundabout. I mean, far simpler would have been for God to simply say, “Alright, I’ve got a prophecy; I’ve given my word: the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem. The fullness of time is at hand. I will go down and choose a virgin.” Well, of course, God has been preparing this virgin from before the foundation of the world so that her heart is right. But let’s just say he’s looking around. And he could have done that for Rebecca down there in Bethlehem. And he could have arranged for a man named Isaac to marry or get engaged to her in Bethlehem, and then an angel comes and says, “You’re going to have a baby and you will call his name Jesus and he’ll be the ruler of his people and stay right there by all means because I’m going to fulfill my prophecies.” But God, I think with a twinkle in his eye, chooses Nazareth. And then he says, “Now this should be interesting; how should I do this? How about a global census? That would be a good way to demonstrate my power.” And so he goes to Rome and he says, however he does it to Caesar Augustus, “Make a census and do these stipulations and we’ll get Mary from Nazareth down to Bethlehem, so the prophecy can be fulfilled.”

But now, the question still remains: Why Nazareth? Mathew 2:23 gives a clue. When they’re deciding where to live, they go back to Nazareth after the other events to fulfill some other prophecies, like going down into Egypt.

And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene.

God had other prophecies in mind when he chose a girl in Nazareth to have a baby in Bethlehem. I’d love to take time with you to talk about where in the Old Testament this is found. That sentence is not in the Old Testament: “he would be called a Nazarene.” There are two, I think, very good explanations for why this is a fulfillment of prophecy, but I don’t want to go into that; I just want to close by reading you this poem. And we’ll close on an encouraging note about missions since we’re sort of still in missions week. But this is one of my shorter Advent poems from eight or ten years ago.

Why did He choose a northern maid
From Nazareth, who had to trade
Her Galilee for Judah just
To get Messiah where He must
Be born? A strange and roundabout
Procedure for a God, no doubt,
Who values His efficiency
And rules the world from sea to sea!
Why not a girl from Bethlehem?
Well half the girls in town would stem
From David’s line. And carpenters
Aplenty there could bear the slurs
And gossip on a virgin got
with child, who blushed and said she’d not
Once kissed her man this whole year past.
Why not? Because God’s power is vast,
And in one little virgin birth
His sovereign joy and mighty mirth
In saving us from evil bent
Could never, never rest content.
Instead He turned and set His sight
To spangle Rome with all His might;
And took a girl from Galilee
To magnify His sovereignty.
And made the Roman king conspire
With God, to serve a purpose higher
Than he or any in the realm
Could see — a stroke to overwhelm
A few with faith and cause their heart
To know the truth, at least in part,
That, though God loves efficiency
And rules the world from sea to sea,
He does not go from here to there
By shortest routes to save His fare.
He’d rather start in Galilee,
Then pass a law in Rome, you see,
To get the child down south at length,
And magnify His sovereign strength.
God rules the flukes of history
To see that Micah’s prophecy
Comes true. Why did He choose a maid
From Nazareth? Perhaps she prayed
That endless mercy might abound
And take the longer way around.
The mighty mercy we adore
As we light advent candle four.

I really don’t think God loves efficiency. I really think that God — I’m tempted to say — never goes from point A to point B on a straight line in your life and mine. Never. Maybe there are exceptions. But after 49 years of watching God lead me, and after reading the Bible, I’m tempted to conclude: God never goes on a straight line from point A to B. It’s always through the detour of this, that, that, back, up, round. Where is B? Boom — you arrive at B ten years later then you’d planned. And you say, “What was all that about? And it’s about wisdom; it’s about the wisdom of God who is not nearly as much in a hurry as you are to get your job done, to get your family fixed, to get the world evangelized. God has his purposes and his timings that are so different than ours.

Let me close with a story from this book right here, called Catch the Vision 2000 by Bill and Amy Stearns. And this is to show you why all of you who care about missions, as I hope you all do, should be encouraged. This is a story called “The Uzbek-Korean Connection.” And I want you to see how God moves nations around to get the gospel to where he wants it to be.

Thousands of Koreans fled what is now North Korea in the 1930s as the Japanese invaded. Many of these settled around Vladivostok.

Now I had to get out my encyclopedia today to see where Vladivostok was. Vladivostok is right there next to Japan on the far-eastern little lip of Russia. So, they crossed over that little Sea of Japan and thousands of them moved from Japan over to Vladivostok, Russia in the 1930s.

When Stalin in the late ’30s and early ’40s began developing Vladivostok as a weapons manufacturing center, he deemed the Koreans a security risk. So he relocated them in five areas around the Soviet Union. One of those areas was Tashkent, hub of the staunchly Muslim people called the Uzbeks. Twenty million strong, the Uzbeks had for hundreds of years violently resisted any Western efforts to introduce Christianity.

As the Koreans settled around Tashkent [moved by “missionary strategist” Joseph Stalin, unbeknownst to him], the Uzbeks welcomed their industry and kindness. Within a few decades, the Koreans were included in nearly every facet of Uzbek cultural life.

Now notice, that’s just a little blip on God’s screen, but decades feels like a long time. Right?

As usual in God’s orchestration of global events, he had planted within the relocated Koreans strong pockets of believers. Little did Stalin suspect that these Koreans would not only begin enjoying a wildfire revival among their own people, they would also begin bringing their Muslim, Uzbek, and Kazak friends to Christ.

The first public sign of the Korean revival and its breakthrough effects on the Uzbeks and Kazaks came on June 2, 1990, when in the first open-air Christian meeting in the history of Soviet Central Asia, a young Korean from America preached to a swelling crowd in the streets of Alma-Ata, capital of Kazakhstan.

Now, add this in: somehow a Korean moved to America. He’s a second-generation Korean, now called of God to go preach to Koreans in and around Tashkent in Uzbekistan in 1990. So, God was getting that person into position decades before this happened too.

The village elder had been one of the first in the crowd to confess to his fellow Muslims that, as the kind trustworthy Koreans were saying, Isa [Jesus] is the way the truth and the life. Joseph Stalin — imagine! Who could have thought? Later you learn a little more about God’s odd orchestration of his emissaries among the dispossessed North Koreans. One million Koreans in northern China in what Koreans called the Song area are experiencing revival. About 100,000 are now believers.

But be encouraged that as time goes by and it looks like the land is fallow and little is being sown and little is being harvested, God is at work in ways that you would never imagine. This really, brothers and sisters, is the only thing that keeps me going in my times of ministry. Because we have not seen in my fifteen years here nearly the kind of harvesting that I would like to see; I haven’t seen it in my life. And if we’re to see two thousand by 2000 sent and harvested, it’s going to have to look dramatically different than the last five years. And yet, I believe that what God is doing and has done at Bethlehem is a process that will cause us, in five years when God does it, to look back and say, “So that’s what those awful years of transition were in ’93 and ’94 and ’95, when everything seemed to be in flux and up for grabs, and we couldn’t quite get our fingers on who we were going to be in worship, and how were going to do discipleship. So that’s what it was for.