Reflections on providence

Several weeks back, our pastor, in his Sunday evening preaching through Acts, reached Acts 18:18–28 in which Paul returns to Antioch following his second missionary journey and in which we are introduced to Apollos. The main theme of that particular sermon was the providence of God.

I have heard and read a lot about the mystery of God’s providence over the years, but I honestly came away from that sermon helped in this regard as never before. From those verses, our pastor highlighted several important principles about providence.

Defining providence

Providence, simply put, is the teaching that God rules all things for his purposes. Nothing happens outside of his purpose and plan. As a result, all of creation is dependent on him.

Because Paul affirmed the providence of God (see Acts 17:24–28), he planned. He was no hyper-Calvinist. He behaved as a rational and therefore responsible human being who made decisions as a free moral agent. At the same time, his high view of God constantly informed him that all of his plans were subject to God’s ultimate will. He would heartily have affirmed James’ insistence on living deo volente (James 4:13–16).

Corinthian providence

The text from which our pastor preached opens with these words: “After this, Paul stayed many days longer” (v. 18). The phrase “after this” is refers to the events in the section immediately preceding it. There, while ministering in Corinth, Paul had experienced at least two distinct providences.

First, he had received a vision from God encouraging him to remain in Corinth and to continue preaching. Obviously, he had grown discouraged and fearful, and was perhaps contemplating moving on to another place of ministry. The Lord, however, instructed him to stay and gave him the promise that many elect were in Corinth.

Second, some eighteen months later, a group of religious Jews dragged Paul before Gallio, the Roman proconsul, in an attempt to get him to outlaw Christian preaching. Gallio recognised Christianity as a legitimate religion and so refused to outlaw it. In doing so, he set precedent throughout the Empire for Christian preaching to continue unhindered by law. It was an act of providence.

Recognising these two encounters as acts of providence, Paul “stayed many days longer” in Corinth.

Ephesian providence

Eventually, it was necessary for Paul to leave. He was determined to return to his sending church in Antioch for furlough and he had also made what appears to be a Nazirite vow. The precise reason for this vow is not revealed, but in accordance with Numbers 6, he was required, upon completion of the vow, to shave his hair and offer it on the altar in Jerusalem. (While the ESV omits this particular phrase in v. 21, the NKJV records Paul as saying, “I must by all means keep this coming feast in Jerusalem.”)

Arriving in Ephesus, Paul went to the synagogue to preach. His preaching met with some favour, for the Jews asked him to stay and continue his ministry. “He declined,” however, explaining that he must go to Jerusalem, but that he would return to them “if God wills.” He then left for Ephesus and Jerusalem and later commenced his third missionary journey.

Meanwhile, God had other plans for Ephesus. A Jewish preacher named Apollos arrived in town, and, with some help from Aquila and Priscilla, powerfully ministered God’s Word there. After ministering for a time in Ephesus, Apollos moved on to Corinth and strengthened the church there.

Lessons in providence

From this overview of the text, several lessons helpful were drawn regarding divine providence.

First, we learn that Paul did not take providence as authoritative. Earlier in Acts (16:6), Paul had wanted to go to Ephesus but the Spirit had prevented him from doing so. Now, when a door of opportunity eventually opened, he refused it. We don’t know all the reasons for this, but we see clearly that Paul didn’t read providence as one might read tea leaves.

Second, we learn that God’s providence operates according to God’s schedule. It may strike you as strange that God closed the door to Ephesus in Acts 16 but then later opened it in Acts 18. What was happening there? Again, the answer is not explicitly stated, but our pastor hinted at one possible reason.

Asia Minor, the province in which Ephesus was located, was the hub of devotion to Rome. In fact, the seven churches to which Revelation was written were all located in Asia Minor, and it is clear from Revelation 2–3 that the temptation to emperor worship was a problem in those churches.

When Paul arrived in Corinth, he was dragged before the proconsul by the Jews in an attempt to have the proconsul outlaw Christianity. In the Roman Empire, only certain religions were considered legal. Judaism was one, and if the Jews could persuade Gallio to outlaw Christianity, it would have created an additional hindrance to the gospel. Gallio, however, refused to outlaw Christianity.

Had Paul arrived in Asia Minor in Acts 16, and had the Jews there similarly sought to secure a ban on Christian evangelism, it is far more likely that a proconsul in that region would have outlawed Christianity, given its obvious aversion to emperor worship. Gallio, however, proved less willing than an authority in Asia Minor might have been. The result is that when Paul later came to Asia Minor (chapter 19), he already had political precedence for the free proclamation of the gospel. Had he first gone to Asia Minor, things may well have turned out quite differently.

The principle is simply this: When we are confused at the mysterious providence of God, let us remember that he knows what he is doing and that he orchestrates all things in his time for his ultimate glory.

Third, we learn that providence doesn’t require us to know everything that God is doing. In vv. 22–23, we read, “When he had landed at Caesarea, he went up and greeted the church, and then went down to Antioch. After spending some time there, he departed and went from one place to the next through the region of Galatia and Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples.” William Barclay helps us to see the significance of this when he writes,

We may see very clearly here how much we do not know about Paul. Acts 18:23–19:1 describe a journey of no less than 1,500 miles and it is dismissed with barely a reference. There are untold tales of heroism of Paul which we will never know.1

There can be no doubt that Paul continued his ministry during this journey. No doubt, he evangelised a lot of people and strengthened a lot of churches. But God determined that the details of this ministry are unimportant for us to know. It’s not that they are unimportant to him in the eternal scheme of things, but we don’t always need to know what he is doing everywhere all the time. That is in the realm of his providence. Our task is to be faithful with the ministry that he has given to us and to allow him to work out the details of his kingdom elsewhere.

Finally, we learn that, in his providence, God is dependent on no one man to accomplish his work. We are rightly thankful for the great and gifted ministers of the word with whom we are so familiar in our day, but let us remember that God will accomplish his purposes with or without them.

We might be tempted to think that Paul leaving Ephesus must have created a gaping void until he returned there in Acts 19, but the text will not substantiate that. Instead, we are immediately introduced in Paul’s absence to Apollos. Paul moved on, but God had other servants to continue the work.

God uses and moves his servants as he sees fit. Kingdom work is dependent on no one man. God will send Paul here and Apollos there. Ultimately, the servant of God realises that while Paul may plant, and Apollos may water, it is God who gives the increase (1 Corinthians 3:5–7).

  1. William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles: The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1955), 150.

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