The Effective Ambassador

Scripture quotations, unless otherwise noted,
are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright 1946,
1952, 1971 by the Division of Christian Education of the National
Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and are used by

[Suppose] you had been on the coast, either one—West or East—or
anywhere for that matter, swimming at the seashore and suddenly
found yourself knocked down by the waves, and suddenly you’re
in trouble. Do you remember how that happens—a big wave comes
and knocks you down, and you go in over your head? You begin to
flail and thrash around and gasp for breath and you’re afraid
and everything is out of perspective. There isn’t a great deal
that matters to you at that particular point—in terms of world
politics or the economy or anything else—except getting your
feet and getting your breath back again.

Sometimes it happens very suddenly, unexpectedly. Other times it’s
sort of a gradual thing, and you’re overtaken without your
realizing what’s happened. You know, life is like that. Sometimes
we’re going along and suddenly we’re knocked down in the
surf of life by some circumstance that is totally unexpected. And
we begin spiritually to flail around: everything is out of focus,
we’re gasping for breath, we don’t understand, we’re
panicked. A great deal doesn’t matter to us that ordinarily

Sometimes we get knocked down like that gradually, sometimes very
suddenly. It may be some tragedy. It may be a physical illness that
hits us overnight (and none of us knows whenever that may happen).
It may be that we flunk an exam; it may be that there’s a relationship
that breaks up; it may be that we have family troubles (difficulty
with children or in our marriage); it may be that our finances are
in very difficult shape and what we anticipated we could do, we
couldn’t do. It could be any one of a hundred things that we
flail around.

It may be that there are some of us here this morning and some of
us who are listening who are in that situation in life at this very
moment. If you’re not in that situation at the moment, be thankful
for it, but the time will sooner or later come when the surf of
life will knock you down, and the important thing is to try to find
out how we can regain our footing and regain our spiritual breath.
The only sure footing we have in the Word of God is related to God
himself: the awareness of and the confidence of the providential
sovereignty of God. It’s the theme that runs through the whole
of Scripture—through the Old Testament and into the New Testament—the
fact that God our Creator has a loving purpose of good for each
of us, and that nothing happens in your life and mine by accident.
I would suggest this morning—and I want to elaborate on this
theme from the Word of God—that that’s the only way to
get our feet back on terra firma; that’s the only way to catch
our spiritual breath with the swirling surf all around us in life.
But as we lay hold of that, we regain confidence and comfort and
peace and joy. There is no other way.

This is a theme that runs, as I say, from Genesis to Revelation.
Joseph knew it. You remember the story of Joseph—literally
sold down the river by his brothers. He was in all kinds of difficulty
for standing for righteousness’ sake and so on. He had every
reason for bitterness (legitimately!) and for all kinds of hostility,
but in that classic statement in Genesis 50:20 when his brothers
finally are discovering who he is and they fear for their lives,
he says to them not to worry. He says, “You meant it to me
for evil, but God meant it for me for good.” And all during
those years that was the anchor that held Joseph. That was the sure
ground that he had in the swirling surf of life.

We find it reflected in Daniel and his three friends Shadrach, Meshach
and Abednego. In Daniel 3:17-18, you remember, it’s put to
them (right to the wall, literally) by Nebuchadnezzar as to whether
they’re going to bow down and worship, and the alternative
is the fiery furnace. And they say to him, “Look, we don’t
know what God’s plan is, but we believe in his providential
sovereignty.” They didn’t put it in those words, but that’s
obviously what was behind what they said. And they said, “If
God delivers us, fine. If he doesn’t, that’s fine. But
in any case, we’re not bowing down, so go ahead and do what
you please.” That’s what kept them in that situation.

And then there was David—David, who was God’s anointed
but who was having a terrible time because Saul was out to kill
him. And David had a lot of friends who wanted to help God out.
Numbers of them said, “We’ll take care of him for you.
You don’t even have to get your hands dirty. The blood won’t
be on your hands.” Joab at one point said, “Look, just
one throw of the spear and that’s it, and we’ll take care
of the whole thing.” And he no doubt gave very plausible reasons
to David (since David had already been anointed) why this might
be appropriate. But David, knowing God’s providence and his
care and his love, says in 1 Samuel 26:11, “God forbid that
I should touch the Lord’s anointed.” And David didn’t
try to do God’s work for him, even though there was a lot about
it that must have been swirling surf.

This morning I’d like to think with you about how this principle
operated in Paul’s life and to see something of its implications
for us personally, because the beauty and the power and the strength
of the Word of God is that these things were written for our example,
upon whom the end of the ages have come. And all of these things
can minister strength and grace and power and love to us. And that’s
why the Bible is a living book, and applicable at every time in
history and in every culture and in every situation. And the passage
and incident from which I’d like us to think this thing through
is Paul’s letter to the Philippians 1:12-26, realizing that
Paul here is writing from an imprisonment. He’s not writing
from the local Holiday Inn; he is chained to a Roman soldier on
a rotating basis. You think you’ve got problems with your roommate?
Imagine if he was chained to you and you couldn’t get away,
and there was a rotation. Imagine what that would do to you—not
just after two days, but after two weeks, two months. This is the
situation Paul is writing from. Realize that as we read verses 12-26.
Paul writes to the Philippians and says:

I want you to know, brethren, that what has happened to me has really
served to advance the gospel, so that it becomes known throughout
the whole Praetorian guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment
is for Christ; and most of the brethren have been made confident
in the Lord because of my imprisonment, and are much more bold to
speak the word of God without fear.

Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from
good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here
for the defense of the gospel; the former proclaim Christ out of
partisanship, not sincerely, but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment.
What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth,
Christ is proclaimed; and in that I rejoice.

Yes, and I shall rejoice. For I know that through your prayers and
the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my
deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I shall
not be at all ashamed but that with full courage now as always Christ
will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to
me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If it is to be life in
the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose
I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to
depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain
in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this,
I know that I shall remain and continue with you all, for your progress
and joy in your faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to
glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.

Paul is amazing. He was able in that situation to see the providential,
loving sovereignty of God in his past, in his present and in his
future, which was completely unknown. Imagine all that went into
that statement, that amazing statement in verse 12:

I want you to know, brethren, that what has happened to me has really
served to advance the gospel.

Do you remember everything that had preceded this? This whole incident
really began when Paul was falsely accused in Jerusalem in Acts
21:29. He was sent to jail on what we would call a “bum rap”
today. He was accused by the Jews of taking a Gentile into the temple
because they had seen Trophimus the Ephesian with him. That was
not the case, but nevertheless there was such an uproar he was put
into what we call today “protective custody.” He was then
held for two years.

We’ve got problems today in our prisons with people who are
unable to make bail, who languish in Cook County Jail here and in
other prisons across the country for months and months and months
without having come to trial, even though they may ultimately be
declared innocent. That was Paul’s problem for two years. He
was kept also by two people, one of whom thought he was going to
get some money: Felix, according to Acts 24:26. (That’s not
an unknown problem in our time either.) And the other one who took
over from him, Festus, according to Acts 24:27 held him for political
reasons because he wanted to appease the Jews. And so Paul, unjustly
put in prison in the first place and then held wrongly for financial
and political reasons, ultimately appeals to Caesar because they
decide they’re going to send him back from Caesarea, where
they sent him for protective custody, to Jerusalem. And he knew
that was a hanging jury, so he said, “Nothing doing. I’m
a Roman citizen.” He appealed to Caesar.

And then on the way, he’s almost shipwrecked. You read Acts
27 and all that was involved in that—nobody would listen to
him, the ship almost went down, they finally got with it and listened
to him. God gave him a vision, and Paul said, “I believe God
that it shall be even as it was told me” [v.25]. And then he
comes to Rome, and here he is in jail, originally (probably) in
prison and later under his own lodging, but chained on a rotating
basis to this prisoner [sic], awaiting trial under an uncertain,
corrupt King Nero. [It] certainly didn’t give you a great deal
of confidence in the system when you think about Nero and all that
went on under that whole set-up. And it’s out of that context
that Paul says, “I want you to know, brethren, that what has
happened to me has really served to advance the gospel.” Paul
saw the hand of God in his past and he saw that nothing had happened
to him by accident and that God had a purpose in it.

I wonder this morning if you have recognized that fact about your
past? Everyone of us has things in our past that we wonder about—things
in our past that we think if we had been doing it we might do differently.
But it’s God who has brought us through the past, and we need
to recognize that. God is the one who put you in the family you’re
in. He’s the one who has given you the abilities you have and
the disabilities you have. He is the one who has allowed struggles
of various kinds to come into your life, be they relational (in
family or marriage or with roommates or friends), financial, academic
or physical. He has been the one who has allowed this, and he has
been at work uniquely in your life. Do you ever thank God for his
providential, sovereign, loving care in your life and all that has
gone into it at this point? This is what kept Paul going and kept
him from being overwhelmed in the surf of life.

Or are you, by any chance, consumed with second-guessing? “If
only I had said this or done that, or somebody hadn’t done
this or done that, the whole thing might have been different.”
Do you ever drive yourself wild with second-guessing in life? It’s
a futile experience and one that as Christians we needn’t go
through and shouldn’t go through, because it indicates a lack
of trust. Are we fighting against our background? Do you wish you
were somebody else other than what you are, or do you wish you were
doing something else other than what you’re doing? You may
find yourself fighting against God if you fail to realize, as Paul
did here, that the whole of your past has had the hand of God in
it, and it’s useless to be worried about the past.

God is concerned about the present and our relationship with him
from here on in—even with failure in the past. You didn’t
take God by surprise when that happened, and God loves you and me,
and he has a purpose for good in all of the providential, sovereign
working of his will in all of the details of our lives that have
brought us to this very moment. Paul, despite everything that could
have made him bitter and frustrated, says in the light of that astonishing
background, “I want you to know, brethren, that what has happened
to me has really served to advance the gospel.”

I want us to see very clearly this morning that accepting the providential
sovereignty of God as a basic principle of life in which we can
rejoice and be thankful does not mean that we are totally passive.
It does not mean acceptance of what the Muslims call kismet—the
blind, inexorable outworking of faith. It does not mean that we
have no freedom, but it does mean that our God is a loving Father
and that he works in our lives for good. We are to be active where
that is required, but we are to accept that which we cannot control
as coming from the hand of God. Notice that Paul is very active
even though obviously this principle has worked itself into the
marrow of his bones, and that’s why he was able to respond
and write like this from Rome.

Paul acted where he could. Do you remember when he was thrown into
prison in Philippi? Again, falsely accused. Paul and Silas sang
at midnight, the jailer was converted, and boy—they had a great
time, you know? And then when the magistrate discovered [Paul] was
a Roman citizen they were really shaken, and they said, “Oh,
we’re very sorry. We made a bad mistake, you know. Please pardon
us. Feel free to slip out of town. Goodbye!” And as you read
through Acts 16:37ff., you find that Paul says, “Nothing doing.
You’ve violated my rights as a Roman citizen. You come down
here personally and get us out of jail and escort us out of town,”
because Paul wanted it clear to them and everybody else in the Roman
Empire that it was not against the law to preach the gospel. Paul
didn’t just sort of say, “Oh, well—OK, we’ll
just sort of accept that, you know, and we’ll sneak out of
town, and maybe we can get out before dawn,” and so forth and
so on. He made a scene, if you like, for the glory of God. He accepted
the fact that he was in jail, he and Silas sang, there was somebody
converted, there was great blessing; but he was very active because
he knew what the law was and that it had been violated. And he always
had in mind the furtherance of the gospel.

Likewise, in Acts 25, when they wanted to send him down to a hanging
jury, from Caesarea to Jerusalem, Paul knew that that was not right,
and so he exercised his right and appealed to Caesar. He didn’t
just say, “Well, whatever happens I take as God’s will.”
He wasn’t totally passive. There were things over which he
had some control and for which he took responsibility. And I want
us to be very clear this morning that realizing this tremendous
truth of the providential sovereignty of God doesn’t mean that
we are passive in life. And likewise, when you read the account
of the shipwreck in Acts 27:31ff., Paul didn’t just say, “Well,
I wonder how that’s all going to turn out. Let’s just
sort of see how things are.” He practically took command of
the ship, and he gave them instructions as to what to do and how
to operate. And they survived. He acted when he could to change
the situation. But when he couldn’t change things, he accepted

Now that’s exactly, I think, the principle that should apply
to us in our lives. There may be things in your life right now that
you’re expecting God to do that he’s never promised to
do. He wants you to move and change them. There may be temptations
you’re facing and you think, Well, I wonder why God allows
this. You know, “Lord, get me out of it.” And the Lord
may be saying to you, “Look, you’re the one who walks
right into the jaws of the temptation. You’re the one who’s
responsible with the strength that I give you to avoid them.”
First Corinthians 10:13 says:

No temptation has taken us but such as is common to man, but God
is faithful who will with the temptation always provide the way
of escape, and he will not allow us to be tempted above what we
are able.

But that’s the kind of thing that takes us unawares—some
of us. We walk into relationships, we walk into situations, which
we know are going to send us down the tube. And then we say, “God,
why don’t you do something?” God has never promised to
do that, and we are to be active in overcoming.

Some of us are seeking guidance. I hope you’re seeking it actively
and not just saying, “Well, Lord, I’m waiting for the
writing on the ceiling.” Get all the information you can about
all kinds of things. Tell the Lord every day that you’re prepared
to do or to go anywhere or do anything that he wants you to do to
get all the information you can, because it’s information and
contact—this kind of thing—that God often uses as he brings
to your mind the principles of the Word of God and relates them
to the information that you have. Don’t just be totally passive
and wait for some kind of “liver shiver” that will be
some divine “spiritual morse code” that will give you
guidance in the situations of life. God will lead and direct, but
he expects you to be active.

[Take] the whole question of a job and money (finances), interpersonal
relationships—“Lord, please, why can’t you solve
the problems we’ve got in our marriage or with our children
or between people that I know”—and so forth and so on.
Somebody at work, maybe. God may be saying to you, “Look, I’m
working in your life. I’ve allowed these things to happen for
a purpose; it hasn’t happened by accident. But I expect you
to do something. You’re the one who should take an initiative
and ask forgiveness. You’re the one who should forgive unilaterally,
if necessary (if you’ve been wronged), even apart from the
other person, and through you I will minister love and grace and
power.” It may be that God wants us to take action in some
area of life to get us out of the surf, in addition to realizing
that nothing has happened in our lives by accident.

Paul, then, saw the tremendous truth of the loving, providential
sovereignty of God in the whole of his life and the paths at the
time he was writing. But that did not cause him to be passive about
the situations of life in which he had some responsibility and was
able to do something. And the same can be true of us. Thank God
for your past this morning, if you never have, and realize that
all of it has come from the hand of God with the purpose of love.

But then, Paul saw the providential sovereignty of God in his present
situation as well, and he says in verse 13 [and following], “The
way that this thing has really advanced the gospel is that it has
become known throughout the whole Praetorian guard and to all of
the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ, and most of the brethren
have been made confident in the Lord because of my imprisonment
and are much more bold to speak the word of God without fear.”

Paul was amazing. He never missed opportunities. He didn’t
throw up his hands and say, “Well, what can I do in this kind
of situation? I’ve got a very limited audience.” He realized
that God had a purpose in this. And you can almost picture the situation
as various guards would come and literally get plugged into Paul—chained
to him—how, after a period of time, Paul would get talking
with them and would say, “By the way, are you interested in
spiritual things?” And obviously they would get the message.

Undoubtedly, many came to Paul with great curiosity because they
had heard of who he was, and the thing that was amazing about this
man was that he wasn’t in jail for insurrection or for stealing
or for murder. He was there for religious reasons, and this was
an amazing thing to them. And no doubt his faith was notorious and
famous. People apparently were allowed to come and visit Paul, and
he no doubt talked to them and taught them the Scripture, and the
guards were listening to this whole thing. And often, you know,
there’s a bank shot that way. You may not be able to speak
to somebody directly, but in the third person you can often see
flapping ears and people drinking up everything you’re saying,
even though you’re directing it to another person. No doubt
all of that was part of Paul’s approach and ministry here.
And the fact of the matter was that through this crack Roman legion
of ten thousand people, the Word of God had spread, and Paul says
it’s not only the Praetorian guards but all the rest. Tradition
has it that this Praetorian guard, as it was a crack unit, was shifted
throughout the whole Roman Empire and that the gospel was first
brought to Great Britain through men who were converted in this
Praetorian guard—possibly through the life and witness of Paul.

And [Paul] said, “The second thing is the brethren have gained
confidence in the Lord because of my imprisonment.” It’s
amazing. Rather than being an occasion for giving up the ghost (because
they were looking for the great apostle Paul to come and do all
the work), Paul’s example, number one, was a real encouragement
to the believers, no doubt in the way that he was praising God for
all of his providential, sovereign care. And also these brethren
no doubt came to the realization that their trust had to be in God
rather than in Paul.

Whenever you have special meetings in your church, or you go into
any kind of Christian activity like that, where is your trust and
confidence? Is it inherently in the people involved whom you invite,
no doubt after great prayer, or is ultimately your confidence in
God himself, that he will do something? If it’s in people,
you’ll be in difficulty. In a situation like this, it’s
not possible for the one to whom we’re looking to be there.
And you’ll be disappointed very often because people in whom
you have confidence sometimes don’t come through. But if your
confidence is in God you won’t be disappointed, even though
there may be all kinds of changes in the situation.

One of the great comforts to me personally, both in running conferences
and also when I am invited to speak at a conference, is that God,
if he has to, will speak through Balaam’s ass. And I often
feel, I must say, very much like Balaam’s equestrian friend
when I stand up to speak—when I am trusting God that over and
beyond that, he will speak in power. And so these brethren gained
confidence. And this was in the prison.

Do you see in your own life this morning that God can and will do
something through you uniquely if you’re willing to make yourself
available to him? Or do you think primarily in terms of your being
a set-up for other people that God will work through? Now very often
we’re in a situation—I’ve been in it many times—in
which we’re arranging things for others to come, through whom
God will minister. But God will also work through you personally
in situations if you will allow him to do it. Paul saw the working
of God in his present situation; he saw that the Word of God, the
gospel, had become known to the whole Praetorian guard (with all
of the implications of that), and he saw and was encouraged by the
way the brethren took confidence in the Lord (rather than in Paul)
and actively communicated the gospel.

Have you recognized the providential sovereignty of God in your
immediate circumstances? Maybe you’re going through something
right now that is really bothering you. You don’t understand.
You don’t see quite how it all fits together. You’re heading
down one road and there are blocks in that road, and God seems to
be doing and saying something else. Take courage and heart: ask
God to show you what he’s doing in your life in the immediate
present. Maybe there are dimensions of blessing that you have overlooked,
but even if you can’t see them as clearly as Paul saw them
here, realize that in the light of the whole of the Word of God
and all of God’s revelation to us in his Word and in the face
of Jesus Christ that he is working in your present situation. And
if you are willing to allow him to do it, he will work in and through

Now let me make a couple of observations as to why it was that Paul
was used of God, even in prison or when he was restricted like this,
and we may get a clue in our own situation as to how—though
our situation and circumstances may be quite adverse at the moment—God
may nevertheless work in and through our lives for blessing. In
the first place, Paul wasn’t wallowing in self pity. He wasn’t
saying, “Why me?” You know, Paul would have had all kinds
of possibilities—here’s the great apostle, the man who
had a great public ministry, and God allows him to get stuck in
a situation where he’s sent to one other person and allows
this to go on month after month after month. And you can imagine
Paul thinking in that situation, “Lord, you know, I had such
a great ministry going, you know, and I had such visions for public
meetings here in Rome, and I want to get over to Spain, and all
this. And Lord, look at this! Look at this guy that’s plugged
into me here. How can I—talk about a ball and chain!—how
can I possibly have any kind of a significant ministry in this kind
of situation?” Paul didn’t wallow in self-pity, saying,
“Why me? Why couldn’t it be somebody else?” He took
it as from God and made the best of it.

Paul, in the second place, didn’t think God had forgotten him.
Do you ever think that? Maybe you’re going through that now
and wondering, Well, I wonder if the Lord really knows my situation
and my problem. It’s that feeling that God has deserted us.
It can really bother us in a prison situation. Paul didn’t
feel that. He knew that God knew all about him, and as a matter
of fact, he took his current situation as the appointment of God.
In verse 16 he says, “They know,” and they must have gotten
it from him, “that I am put here for the defense of the gospel.”
Paul says, “Not only did it not happen by accident, but it’s
part of [God’s] design that I am put here for the defense of
the gospel.” And he was not at all feeling that God had forgotten

Do you feel God has forgotten you? Remind yourself this morning,
as our Lord says in Matthew 10, the very hairs of your head are
numbered. He knows all about the decision you’ve got to make
in a couple of days; he knows the agony of heart through which you’re
going, if that’s your situation. He knows all about it and
he hasn’t made a mistake. He’s set you in situations for
a particular purpose.

The third reason that Paul was used of God is to be part of the
“now” generation. You know, we hear a lot about the “now”
generation. And Paul, in verse 20, says, “It is my eager expectation
and hope that I shall not be at all ashamed, but that with full
courage now, as always, Christ will be honored in my body.”
You know, Paul could have said, “Well, Lord, I guess this prison
experience is sort of going to be an interlude in my ministry and
I can sort of coast here and forget the whole thing.” By no
means! Paul realized that God’s will, as I’ve said on
other occasions, is not some package out in the future that we blindly
grope after, having felt like it was let down out of heaven on a
string. It is more like a scroll that unrolls every day. And God
had a will and a plan and a purpose for Paul today and tomorrow
and the next day and the day after that.

And God has a plan and purpose for you today. The only day that
you and I have to live for Jesus Christ is today. I hope particularly
those of you who are students aren’t sort of putting that projection
off—“when I get out.” All kinds of things: “I’m
going to live the Christian life and have a quiet time and be nice
to my family and friends and so forth and so on, but right now I’m
just caught in the rat race of survival and getting through.”
Don’t kid yourself! The Christian life is not some great, successful
exploit out in the future. It’s merely the succession of an
accumulation of successful days of living for Jesus Christ. And
it’s only what you and I put into today for Jesus Christ that
will determine the quality content of our Christian lives. It’s
not some great amorphous blob, as I’ve said, out in the future.

Paul was part of the “now” generation. He didn’t
wallow in self pity. He didn’t say, “God, you must have
forgotten me.” He realized God had a purpose for him, even
in the midst of his difficulties, for blessing, and he wanted to
see that will worked out in his life. How about you and me today,
even though we may be in the middle of the surf? Paul was amazingly
preserved from bitterness even when there were those who preached
the gospel, he says in verse 15, “from envy and rivalry, but
others from good will.

The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the
defense of the gospel; the former proclaim Christ out of partisanship,
not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in imprisonment. What then?
Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ
is proclaimed; and in that I rejoice.”

Paul was an amazingly magnanimous man, and, in my own judgment,
this doesn’t refer here to the Judaizing teachers, because
their teaching was false. But apparently people preached the gospel
even though their motives were impure, and maybe they did it a little
different way than Paul did. But Paul was thankful that the gospel
was preached. That was his only concern. He wasn’t concerned
about his evangelistic association or his organization or his personal
reputation even though, no doubt, many of these people did this
in an attempt to increase Paul’s frustration. Paul was glad
that the gospel was preached. That’s an attitude of magnanimity
you and I need to get hold of.

You know, we’re great at criticizing other people sometimes
and kind of a reverse of this principle. I often think of D. L.
Moody’s statement when people complain about the way somebody
or something was doing something—that they would do differently
if they were doing it. D. L. Moody would reply to such people and
say, “Well, I like the way I’m doing something better
than the way you’re doing nothing.” And there’s a
great deal of truth in that. And if and when people criticize you—ultimately,
down the road—for the way you do it, or the music is too fast
or slow or what or what, you know (and there are all kinds of things
that can get people shook up: fleas on elephants that they’re
great at picking out), be comforted by that and don’t be disturbed.
And if people go off and do it a different way, recognize Paul’s
attitude here and don’t allow yourself to be overwhelmed by
jealousy or concern or bitterness in that realm, either. Paul saw
the power of God in his present.

And then, finally, Paul saw the providential sovereignty of God
in his future. Paul’s future was uncertain. Nero was totally
unpredictable. [Paul] didn’t know what was going to happen
to him. He had a kind of a hunch, a conviction, that he was going
to come through the situation, and in fact he did. But he says,
“I know that whatever happens through your prayers and the
help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance.”
He wasn’t at that point talking about being freed from jail
but for his good. But then he says he’s in a great tension
because he wants now, as always, to have Christ honored in his body,
whether by life or by death. He says, “To me to live is Christ,
to die is gain.” And then he goes on to say, “If it’s
life in the flesh, that’s further and fruitful labor for me;
and if it’s death, that’s fine—I’m in the presence
of Christ” [v.20-23]. Paul, incidentally, wasn’t looking
to death as a cop-out, but rather he saw death as the fulfillment
of the ministry that God has given him. Paul has confidence in God
for the future. It was totally uncertain, but Paul was obviously
at peace.

Now, your future and mine are uncertain. Many of you don’t
know where you’re going to be and what God wants you to do.
Many of you don’t know how you’re going to get the money
to finish school, perhaps. Some of us have difficulties and problems
we don’t know the outcome of, and we’re concerned about
it. And if we’ve seen the providential sovereignty of God at
work in our past, [if] we are aware of his presence and power in
the immediate present, then we can relax so far as the future is
concerned and thank God that though we don’t know what the
future holds, we can rest secure knowing that the same God of love
who gave himself in Jesus Christ to die for us has got a purpose
of blessing and good for us in the future.

What about the future haunts you today? There has never been more
uncertainty in the world at large about the future than now. There
are no safe places in the world—politically, physically, economically.
Yet our lives are in God’s hands, and we can be confident,
trusting him to unfold it as we are active in working out his purposes
in our lives. God grant, then, that for each of us this morning
we’ll be able to thank God for all that’s gone into our
past, including those things that may have really given us bitterness
and second thoughts. But he’ll give us the vision to see his
presence and power and providence at work in our immediate situation
and that as we have the butterflies about the future (and it’s
unknown), we can relax and trust God, who has demonstrated his love
for us, that what he does in the future and what he allows will
be according to his loving will. And nothing in the future, as it
hasn’t in the past or in the present, will happen by accident.
And we can rest with confidence in that.

Shall we pray?

Grant, Lord, that whatever this means for each of us in our own
personal experience this morning may be illumined to us by the Holy
Spirit, and that the same joy and power and effectiveness that came
to Paul through the realization of that in his situation may be
ours as well, for your glory and our profit. We ask with thanksgiving
in Jesus’ name. Amen.