"THE FIRST EPISTLE TO TIMOTHY" The Work And Qualifications Of Deacons (3:8-13) by Mark Copeland


The Work And Qualifications Of Deacons (3:8-13)


1. Having described the work and qualifications of those who serve as
   'bishops' (1Ti 3:1-7), he does the same for 'deacons' - 1Ti 3:8-13

2. The word 'deacon' comes from the Greek word diakonos...
   a. Lit., it means "one who executes the commands of another,
      especially of a master" - Thayer
   b. In the NT, it is variously translated as:
      1) 'minister' - e.g., Ro 13:4; 1Ti 4:6
      2) 'servant' - e.g., Jn 12:26; Ro 16:1
      3) 'deacon' - e.g., 1Ti 3:8,12; Php 1:1
   c. It is evidently used in our text in a technical sense, a position
      or service performed by duly qualified individuals

3. Paul says those deacons who serve well "obtain for themselves a good
   standing and great boldness in the faith" - 1Ti 3:13
   a. What exactly was the 'work' of a deacon in the New Testament
   b. How did the required 'qualifications' prepare them for this work?

[Consider first...]


      1. The actual reference to deacons in the New Testament is very
         a. Paul's salutation to the church in Philippi - Php 1:1
         b. Their qualifications as found in our text - 1Ti 3:8-13
      2. A congregation that was completely and scripturally organized
         - e.g., Php 1:1
         a. Contained a plurality of qualified men serving as bishops
            (elders, pastors)
         b. They were assisted by qualified men serving as deacons

      1. It is generally supposed they were servants to assist the
         elders in temporal matters
         a. "Their office seemed to have been to look after the temporal
            matters of the church, and especially to care for the poor
            and the widows." - B. W. Johnson
         b. "The word here evidently denotes those who had charge of the
            temporal affairs of the church, the poor, etc." - Barnes
         c. "...the character of their qualifications makes it clear
            that they were to be appointed as dispensers of alms, who
            should come into close personal relations with the poor."
            - ISBE
      2. Many believe the first mention of deacons or their prototype is
         found in Ac 6:1-6
         a. Though the seven selected are not so named
         b. Their service allowed the apostles to focus on spiritual
      3. It was not the work of deacons to preach per se
         a. "No qualifications are mentioned, implying that they were to
            be preachers of the gospel." - Barnes
         b. "It is not the work of deacons to preach, although some
            deacons may be preachers also. (cf. Ac 6:5; 8:4,5; 21:8)"
            - H. E. Phillips (Scriptural Elders And Deacons)

[The work of deacons "is to administer to the physical needs of the
church" (Phillips).  It is an important work that requires qualified


      1. Reverent (grave, serious, men of dignity) - 1Ti 3:8
      2. Holding the mystery of the faith with a pure conscience - 1 Ti 3:9
         a. 'Mystery' means that which had been concealed or hidden, but
            was now revealed - cf. Ro 16:25-26; Ep 3:3-5
         b. 'The faith' refers to that which is believed, i.e., the
            gospel - cf. Jude 3
         c. 'With a pure conscience' - without hypocrisy - cf. 1Ti 1:19
         d. A deacon "should hold firmly the great doctrines of the
            Christian religion which had been so long concealed from
            people, but which were now revealed. The reason is obvious.
            Though not a preacher, yet his influence and example would
            be great, and a man who held material error ought not to be
            in office." - Barnes
      3. Tested (proved), being found blameless - 1Ti 3:10
         a. Before being officially appointed as 'deacons' let them show
            themselves to be servants who are dependable, trustworthy
         b. Note the qualification "of good reputation" - cf. Ac 6:3
      4. Husband of one wife - 1Ti 3:12
      5. Ruling children and house well - 1Ti 3:12
         a. Must have children
         b. Must have them under control - cf. 1Ti 3:4

      1. Not double-tongued - 1Ti 3:8
         a. "Speaking one thing to one person, and another thing to
            another, on the same subject." - Clarke
         b. "This is hypocrisy and deceit. This word might also be
            translated liars." - ibid.
      2. Not given to much wine (not addicted to much wine) - 1Ti 3:8
         a. "It may be remarked here, that this qualification was
            everywhere regarded as necessary for a minister of
            religion." - Barnes
         b. "Even the pagan priests, on entering a temple, did not drink
            wine. Bloomfield." - ibid.
         c. The use of wine, and of strong drinks of all kinds, was
            absolutely prohibited to the Jewish ministers of every rank
            when they were about to engage in the service of God; Lev 10:9." - ibid.
         d. "Why should it then be anymore proper for a Christian
            minister to drink wine than for a Jewish or a pagan priest?
            Shall a minister of the gospel be less holy than they?"
            - ibid.
      3. Not greedy for money (greedy of filthy lucre, fond of sordid
         gain) - 1Ti 3:8
         a. "Men who are covetous and unscrupulous as to modes of
            getting money are not to be chosen." - B. W. Johnson
         b. "The special reason why this qualification was important in
            the deacon was, that he would be entrusted with the funds of
            the church, and might be tempted to appropriate them to his
            own use instead of the charitable purposes for which they
            were designed; see this illustrated in the case of Judas,
            Jn 12:6." - Barnes

      1. The Greek word gune can mean either:
         a. "a woman of any age, whether a virgin, or married, or a
            widow" - Thayer
         b. "a wife; of a betrothed woman" - ibid.
      2. There is a diversity of views as to what Paul has reference
         a. The wives of deacons (and perhaps also wives of elders)
            - e.g., Barnes, Gill
         b. Women who serve as 'deaconesses'- e.g., Chrysostom, JFB
         c. Women in general - e.g., Clarke
      3. Those who believe it refers to female deacons (deaconesses)
         note the following:
         a. Phoebe is called a 'servant' (the female form of diakonos)
            of the church - Ro 16:1-2
         b. The post-apostolic church makes reference to 'deaconesses',
            who ministered to other women at baptisms, the widows, etc.
            - Apostolic Constitutions, ca 390 A.D.
      4. My own observations:
         a. NT evidence is not sufficient to require deaconesses
         b. NT evidence is not sufficient to condemn deaconesses,
            provided their service does not violate limitations placed
            on women elsewhere - cf. 1Ti 2:11-12; 1Co 14:34-37
         c. Many churches have women who serve in unofficial capacities,
            just as they do men
      5. Whether the wives of deacons, deaconesses, or women in general,
         they should be:
         a. Reverent (grave, dignified, serious) - 1Ti 3:11; cf. 3:8
            (of deacons)
         b. Not slanderers (not malicious gossips) - 1Ti 3:11; cf. 5:13
            (of young widows)
         c. Temperate (sober) - 1Ti 3:11; cf. 3:2 (of elders)
         d. Faithful in all things - 1Ti 3:11; cf. 5:10 (of elderly


1. Those who serve well as deacons will be greatly blessed, for they
   will obtain...
   a. 'a good standing' - highly regarded by the Lord, cf. Mt 20:25-28
   b. 'great boldness in the faith' - confidence or assurance, cf. 1Jn 4:17

2. Thus the work of deacons should not be lightly regarded...
   a. By those who would be asked to so serve
   b. By those who are served by them

In the words of Paul, we should "esteem them highly in love for the
work's sake" (1Th 5:13), and if called to serve, to do so with
reverence and humility...

Executable Outlines, Copyright © Mark A. Copeland, 2016

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Guardian Angels by Eric Lyons, M.Min.


Guardian Angels

by Eric Lyons, M.Min.

Though Scripture never uses the term “guardian angel,” millions of Bible believers through the centuries have professed their conviction in such a classification of angels. In the third century A.D., Origen wrote that “each one of us, even to the ‘least’ who are in the church of God” has “a good angel, an angel of the LORD, who guides, warns and governs” (p. 128). More than a century later, Jerome declared that “the worth of souls is so great that from birth each one has an angel assigned to him for his protection” (p. 209). Around that same time, Chrysostom, in his Homily on Colossians 1:15-18, remarked: “For each believer hath an Angel; since even from the beginning, every one of those that were approved had his Angel.... [T]here is a demon present also” (p. 273). In the centuries to follow, the Catholic Church popularized the concept of guardian angels even more. In 1615, for example, Pope Paul V officially added “Feast of the Guardian Angels” to the Roman calendar (“Feast...,” 2010). Later, “Guardian Angels” Catholic churches began to arise across America, from Rochester, New York to Chaska, Minnesota.

There is no doubt that millions of people around the world have been captivated by the thought of guardian angels. Though many people who identify themselves as Christians believe in the existence of this special class of angels, the only thing that ultimately matters about this subject or any other is, “What does God’s Word have to say on the matter?”



The English word “angel” is translated from the Greek angelos and the Hebrew malawk, and literally means “messenger” (“Angel,” 1988). Sometimes in Scripture “angel” is used in reference to human messengers. For example, on one occasion the Old Testament prophet Haggai was called “the Lord’s malawk” (i.e., “messenger,” 1:13). On another occasion, when God spoke through the prophet Malachi, He prophesied of the coming of John the Baptizer, the forerunner of Christ, saying, “Behold, I send My messenger (Hebrew malawk), and he will prepare the way before Me” (3:1). Hundreds of years later, when the apostle Matthew recorded Jesus’ quotation of this scripture, he used the Greek term angelos (11:10). John the Baptizer was the angelos of God (i.e., not a heavenly being, but God’s human messenger).

Most of the time, however, the terms malawk and angelos refer to created (Psalm 148:2,5; Colossians 1:16), celestial beings who perform a variety of duties for the Creator of heaven and Earth. They are strong (Matthew 28:2), swift (Daniel 9:20-23), breathtaking (Daniel 8), ministering (Hebrews 1:14) messengers (Luke 1:26), who are concerned about the salvation of man (Luke 15:10). God’s faithful angels have done everything from ministering to the Son of God following His 40-day fast (Matthew 4:11) to contending with the devil (Jude 9), and they will play a major role at the end of time when Jesus returns to judge the world (Matthew 13:41; 25:31-32; 2 Thessalonians 1:7).

Guardian Angel

Since the term “guardian” has as its most basic meaning “one that guards” (see “Guardian,” 2010), there is a sense in which the Bible speaks very clearly on the subject: God has used angelic beings to “guard” a variety of people and places in the past. As early as Genesis chapter three, after the fall of man, God “placed cherubim [“winged angelic beings”—see “Cherubim,” 1986] at the east of the garden of Eden, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life” (3:24, emp. added). Approximately 2,000 years later, two angels struck blind a group of Sodomites and guardedLot and his household from harm (Genesis 19:9-11). When Nebuchadnezzar cast Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego into the fiery furnace, “God sent His angel and delivered His servants” (Daniel 3:28), thus guarding the three Hebrews from the furnace’s consuming flames. During the reign of Darius the Mede, God sent His angel to guard Daniel in a den of lions (Daniel 6:21-22). Centuries later, after the establishment of the church, God sent an angel to release Peter from prison, guarding and guiding him safely out of the prison (Acts 12:1-10). Without a doubt, Almighty God has used His marvelous angelic creation in the past to serve as a kind of guardian for His people.

Consider, however, the way in which the term “guardian angel” is most often used in the 21st century. Merriam-Webster defines “guardian angel” as “an angel believed to have special care of a particular individual” (2010, emp. added). According to Encyclopedia.com, a “guardian angel” is “a spirit that is believed to watch over and protect a person or place” (2010, emp. added). Popularly speaking, if a person googles the phrase “My guardian angel saved/helped,” he will discover thousands of articles or posts where people avow that their personal guardian angels have saved them from certain death, or helped them escape some serious calamity.

Although religionists have defined guardian angels in a variety of ways in the past (cf. Origen, Jerome, Chrysostom), since Catholics claim these angels “are a development of Catholic doctrine and piety based on Scripture” (see “Feast...,” 2010), it is appropriate to consider how they define these angels. According to AmericanCatholic.org, a guardian angel is “an angel assigned to guide and nurture each human being” (“Feast...,” emp. added). In the 47th volume of the Twentieth Century Encyclopedia of Catholicism, Pie-Raymond Regamey summarized Catholicism’s teachings on the matter, particularly regarding who has a guardian angel:
Whatever school of philosophy we may follow, an understanding of the work of the guardian angel...in its place in the whole order of creation, implies that every man has the benefit of his aid, not only the faithful, and has it from the first moment of independent life, from birth.... The worst sinners have this faithful and kindly friend (1960, 47:92-93).


Although God certainly “makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45), no passage of Scripture teaches that every person who has ever lived, whether good or evil, had/has a guardian angel assigned to him from birth. No Bible verse suggests that every man, even “the worst sinners” (Regamey, p. 93), “has an angel assigned to him for his protection” (Jerome, p. 209) and “the benefit of his aid” (Regamey, p. 92). Are we to think that Pharaoh and Herod had guardian angels when they butchered myriads of innocent children (Exodus 1:15-22; Matthew 2:16-18)? [The Bible says nothing about giving any wicked Pharaoh a guardian angel, but God did harden Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 9:12,34; 10:1,20,27; 11:10; 14:8; cf. Butt and Miller) and send “angels of destruction” against him and his fellow Egyptians (Psalm 78:49, emp. added). Likewise, Scripture is silent regarding Herod’s protective angel. However, “an angel of the LORD” did warn Joseph in a dream, saying, “Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him” (Matthew 2:13).] And what about the wicked Jezebel, who “massacred the prophets of the LORD” (1 Kings 18:4), or the multi-million-man-murderer Hitler? Are we to think that God provided each of them with a special angel to “benefit” and “aid” him/her? The very thought is absurd, not to mention foreign to Scripture.

Are we to believe that God allows the wicked to have guardian angels, but He does not hear (to respond to) their prayers? Throughout the Old and New Testaments, Bible writers repeatedly stressed that rebellious, sinful individuals should not expect to have God answer their prayers in a positive way. “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much” (James 5:16, emp. added), because “the eyes of the LORD are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayers; but the face of the LORD is against those who do evil” (1 Peter 3:12, emp. added; cf. Psalm 34:16; Proverbs 15:29). The psalmist testified: “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear” (66:18). The prophet Isaiah wrote: “Behold, the LORD’S hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; nor His ear heavy, that it cannot hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; and your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear” (Isaiah 59:1-2, emp. added). In light of the fact that God will not even hear (to respond to) the rebellious, how could one ever conclude that “the worst sinners” have a “faithful” guardian angel (Regamey, p. 93)?


The Bible clearly teaches that God has worked all manner of miracles in the past, and has the potential to work them at any moment (e.g., at any second Jesus could miraculously “descend from heaven with a shout with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise”—1 Thessalonians 4:16). Wondrous miracles wrought by God and His messengers spatter the biblical text. God miraculously created the Universe and everything in it (Genesis 1). He sent ten plagues upon the Egyptians (Exodus 7-12), parted the Red Sea (Exodus 14), and caused water to come from a rock twice during Israel’s 40 years of wandering in the wilderness (Exodus 17; Numbers 20). In the days of Elijah and Elisha, as well as in the first century, God occasionally raised the dead (1 Kings 17:17-24; 2 Kings 4:8-37; Acts 20:7-12). During the time of Christ, God worked all manner of miracles, displaying His infinite power—over nature, disease, demon, and death. God also used angels occasionally in the past to work a variety of wonders: from striking Lot’s attackers with blindness to setting Peter free from prison (Genesis 19:9-11; Acts 12:7,10). Thus, every Bible-believing Christian must acknowledge that God has worked an array of miracles in the past, and has the power and potential to work them at any time. However, simply because God has the ability to work miracles at any moment, and simply because He has used angels to work a variety of miracles in the past, does not mean that He has chosen to work miraculously in this present age.

The fact of the matter is, the kinds of verifiable miracles recorded in Scripture are not occurring in this day and age. Neither man nor angel has been miraculously restoring shriveled hands in the midst of their enemies (Luke 6:6-10) or supernaturally reattaching severed ears (Luke 22:51). God has chosen to use neither preacher nor “guardian angel” to miraculously cure congenital blindness (John 9:1-7). What’s more, no one today is being raised from the dead (John 11:43). Once again, this is not a “God-power” issueit is a “God-purpose” issue. God has chosen to cease working miracles (i.e., He has chosen to stop working outside His laws of nature) during this time period because the purpose of miracles has been fulfilled.

Unlike magicians, who perform amusing tricks for entertainment purposes, Scripture teaches that miracles happened in Bible times for a very specific purpose: to confirm the Word. Before the New Testament was written, when the apostles and prophets were preaching the Gospel, Mark 16:20 indicates that God worked with them by “confirming the word through the accompanying of signs.” The message that the first-century apostles and prophets preached could be shown to be true by the various miracles that God worked through them (Hebrews 2:3-4). When a God-inspired speaker stepped forward to declare God’s Word, God confirmed His Word by having the speaker perform a miracle to show that he was from God (cf. Exodus 5-12; Acts 8:5-12). The miracle showed the hearers that God was behind the speaker’s remarks. Miracles authenticated the spoken word as being God’s Word (cf. John 3:2). Like the essential scaffolding on the sides of incomplete apartment buildings, miracles were once necessary to “complete” (confirm) the revelations of God. However, as with the scaffolding that is needless (and, in fact, is very out of place) on a finished apartment building, once God’s Word was completely revealed and confirmed (cf. 2 Peter 1:3), miracles became unnecessary. [For a thorough study of God’s cessation of miracles in modern times, see Dave Miller’s 2003 article titled, “Modern-Day Miracles, Tongue-Speaking, and Holy Spirit Baptism: A Refutation.”]

Although many guardian-angel advocates insist that their alleged angels have performed various miraculous feats, neither earthly reality nor the heavenly Scriptures confirm their stories. The kinds of verifiable miracles Jesus, the apostles, and the prophets, and even various angels have worked (e.g., Genesis 19:11; Daniel 3:19-29), are not being duplicated today. Furthermore, the Scriptures insist that those things that were incomplete and partial (miraculous gifts) would be replaced by the total and complete (i.e., the fully revealed Word of God; 1 Corinthians 13:8-10; James 1:25; see Miller, 2003).


To say that God has not chosen to work miraculously today is not equivalent to denying God’s activity on Earth. From Genesis through Revelation, the Bible clearly teaches God works providentially (through natural means) in the lives of His people. The LORD was with Joseph during his enslavement in Potiphar’s house (Genesis 39:2,3), his imprisonment (39:20,23), and his role as a powerful ruler in Egypt (45:5-9). Though it was Joseph’s brothers who had sold him into slavery and Pharaoh who had appointed him second in command of all of Egypt, Joseph understood that, ultimately, God was behind it all. By working providentially (within natural laws) in the life of Joseph, “God...made” him “lord of all Egypt” (Genesis 45:9, emp. added).

God’s providential care for His people did not stop with Joseph, Esther, or Elijah (1 Kings 18:41-46). God continues to care for (1 Peter 5:7), help (Hebrews 13:5-6; 1 Corinthians 10:13), and discipline His children (Hebrews 12:3-11). God answers the prayers of the humble-hearted, working providentially in the lives of His people (Matthew 6:25-33). As Paul proclaimed: “We know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). Simply because God is not working miraculously through man or angel to give sight to the blind, raise the dead, etc., does not mean that God is inactive in the affairs of mankind (see Jackson, n.d.).

God is not passively sitting on the sidelines while the wicked “god of this age” (i.e., Satan; 2 Corinthians 4:4) and his rebellious angels work “in the sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 2:2; Matthew 25:41; Revelation 12:7,9). If “the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5:8), attempting to trick and deceive mankind (Ephesians 6:11; 1 Timothy 3:7), rest assured that God’s good angelic creation also plays an important role on Earth, even during this non-miraculous age. The New Testament does not specifically detail how God uses angels in His providential care of the world and His people, but one thing is certain: He does use them.

Not only are angels merely interested in the salvation of men (Luke 15:10) and involved in the spiritual realm transporting the souls of the dead into paradise (Luke 16:22), they also work in God’s overall providential care of His people as “ministering spirits.” In the context of exalting Christ above God’s angelic heavenly hosts, the writer of Hebrews rhetorically asked: “But to which of the angels has He ever said: ‘Sit at My right hand, till I make Your enemies Your footstool’? Are they not all ministering spirits sent forth to minister for those who will inherit salvation?” (1:13-14, emp. added). Although far inferior to Christ, angels are special celestial beings whom God uses to “minister” (Greek diakonian) or “serve” (RSV, NIV) His people. What’s more, considering the present tense form of the participle “being sent forth,” God’s people have every reason to believe that God is continually sending out His angels “as human needs correspond to His divine will” (Jackson, 2000; Dods, 2002, 4:258). Even though no particulars are given in this passage, we can rightly conclude that God uses angels to positively affect the lives of His people. Angels are actively working as God’s ministering spirits. Still, there is no evidence in Scripture that each child of God, much less every heathen, has his or her own guardian angel, and especially not one who is performing miraculous feats on his or her behalf.


Psalm 34:7

In the midst of a beautiful passage of Scripture in which the psalmist repeatedly acknowledges and extols the LORD for His wondrous care, guidance, and protection, he testifies that “[t]he angel of the LORD encamps all around those who fear Him, and delivers them” (34:7). Was the psalmist here referring to man’s guardian angel? Was he teaching the doctrine of guardian angels as modern religionists often define the term?

First of all, as is frequently the case in the Old Testament, the expression “the angel of the LORD ” in this passage likely refers to the preincarnate Christ (cf. Genesis 16:11-13; Judges 13:3-23; Exodus 23:20-21; 1 Corinthians 10:1-4; see Myers, 1978, pp. 59-79; see also Quertermous, 2002, pp. 200-220). It is God, not created angelic beings (Psalm 34:7), Whom the Bible states time and again that man is to “fear” and worship (Psalm 33:18; 67:7; 85:9; Ecclesiastes 12:13). Thus, if it is the case that the eternal Word (John 1:1-5) is meant in this passage, then Psalm 34:7 obviously is not referring to one or more “guardian angels” (as the term is popularly defined in the 21st century). Today, Jesus certainly dwells with His church (Matthew 18:20; 28:20) and strengthens those who fear Him (Philippians 4:13), but He is not what most people are referring to when they speak of their “guardian angel.”

Second, even if “the angel of the LORD” in this passage does not refer to the preincarnate Christ (which is difficult to imagine given that man is to “fear Him”), “guardian angel” advocates still cannot find proof of their doctrine here. This verse does not teach that eachperson on the planet has an angel assigned to him to deliver him from harm. Rather, one angel (“the angel of the LORD”) looks after a plurality of God’s faithful children (as is evident by the use of the plural pronouns “those” and “them”).

Psalm 91:9-13

In Psalm 91, the inspired poet says of the one who puts his trust in God,
Because you have made the LORD, who is my refuge, even the Most High, your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, nor shall any plague come near your dwelling; for He shall give His angels charge over you, to keep you in all your ways. In their hands they shall bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone. You shall tread upon the lion and the cobra, the young lion and the serpent you shall trample underfoot (9-13).
This passage, which Satan once misapplied when tempting Jesus (Matthew 4:6; Luke 4:10-11), certainly is encouraging to the faithful child of God. It describes in general terms God’s protection of His people under the Old Law; but it does not say that each child of God (and certainly not every person who has ever lived) has his own “guardian angel.” The psalmist noted that God would give a plurality of angels the responsibility of keeping one that trusts in him. During the age of miracles, this certainly could have included God using His angels to work various supernatural feats (e.g., striking the enemies of righteousness with blindness in Genesis 19:11). Though the age of genuine biblical miracles has ended (see Miller, 2003), this scripture can still be comforting to the Christian in the same manner in which Hebrews 1:14 is: God sends forth His angels to minister to the saints, providentially taking care of His people.

One other important detail to remember when reading the psalms (including especially Psalm 91) is the inspired penmen’s use of figures of speech, particularly hyperbolism. As in Psalm 58:3, where the psalmist intentionally exaggerated the wickedness of mankind by referring to them as going “astray as soon as they are born, speaking lies,” in Psalm 91, the writer hyperbolically stresses God’s protection of His people. Not that God is incapable of keeping his people from harm, but as Travis Quertermous noted, to press the psalmist’s reference to treading upon snakes and lions literally “would be an obvious absurdity, not to mention forcing a contradiction with other Bible passages wherein God’s faithful saints suffered great persecution. It must be remembered that the Psalms are poetry and thus abound with figurative language. It is a terrible exegetical blunder to unduly literalize it” (2002, p. 261).

Acts 12:15

After God sent an angel miraculously to release and guide him from prison, Peter traveled to the house of Mary, John Mark’s mother, where “many were gathered together praying” (Acts 12:11). When he arrived at the door of the gate and knocked, a girl named Rhoda “recognized Peter’s voice,” and “because of her gladness she did not open the gate, but ran in and announced that Peter stood before the gate” (12:14). What was the group’s response? They said to Rhoda, “You are beside yourself!” When she insisted, they said, “It is his angel” (12:15, emp. added).

Does this passage prove, as some believe, that “humans have guardian angels” (“Angels...,” n.d.)? As “[i]nteresting as this passage is,” Peter Davids rightly concluded, “it simply witnesses to the beliefs of the Christians in that house. The author of Acts reports rather than endorses their views” (Kaiser, et al., 1996, p. 527, emp. added). As Lenksi remarked, Luke, the inspired writer of Acts, “does not state a Scriptural doctrine but only the superstitious ideas of those who were alarmed by Rhoda’s report” (Lenski, 1943, p. 692). Even the scholarly J.W. McGarvey, who endorsed to some extent the idea of “guardian angels” (1875, p. 157), admitted in his commentary on Acts that those meeting at Mary’s house “undoubtedly had allusion to the popular superstition of their day, that a man’s guardian angel sometimes assumed his form” (1872, p. 139). [NOTE: It is also possible, as the studious Guy. N. Woods remarked, that those in Mary’s house, “[c]ertain...that he [Peter—EL] did not escape death at the hands of the murderous Herod...simply understood that his spirit, separated from his body” and “had come to them” (1991, 106[9]:18).]

An angel of God most certainly worked a great miracle in Judea on this occasion. For the second time, Luke records that an angel set Peter free from prison (cf. Acts 5:19). No Bible-believing Christian would ever deny such wondrous acts that God worked through His angelic creation, nor should any child of God ever deny that He is working providentially through them today (Hebrews 1:14). But, nothing in Acts 12 indicates that God has given each person (or even each Christian) a “guardian angel” to protect him from harm. Furthermore, a lesson can be learned from this text regarding Who should receive the glory for the extraordinary works God’s angels perform. When Peter finally spoke to those gathered at Mary’s house, he “declared to them how the LORD had brought him out of the prison” (Acts 12:17, emp. added). Notice that nothing is said here about Peter giving a discourse about a “guardian angel.” And he certainly did not rename Jesus’ church “the church of the Guardian Angels,” or insist on starting a yearly feast in honor of guardian angels (cf. Roman Catholic’s “Feast of the Guardian Angels”). Luke simply records that Peter wanted his brethren to know what “the LORD” had done. Given that even God’s good angelic creation will not accept worship from mankind, but insist that they are fellow servants (Revelation 19:10; 22:9), it is wise for Christians simply to acknowledge God for His wonderful care in our lives, even if such help is being carried out by His faithful angelic servants.

Matthew 18:10

More than any other passage of Scripture, guardian-angel advocates point to Matthew 18:10 as their “proof” of guardian angels. On page 88 of his otherwise helpful book, A Study of Angels (1978), Edward P. Myers succinctly stated: “Children have guardian angels.” He then referenced only “Matthew 18:10” as the Bible passage that supposedly proves the doctrine. Though Peter Davids questioned the doctrine and popular definition of guardian angels, he noted: “Matthew [18:10—EL] makes the only clear reference to ‘guardian’ angels” (Kaiser, et al., 1996, p. 527). And, according to AmericanCatholic.org, “Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:10 best support the belief [of guardian angels—EL]” (“Feast...,” 2010).

So what exactly did Jesus say in Matthew 18:10? In the midst of warning His disciples not to offend “little ones who believe in Me” (18:1-9), Jesus taught them to “[t]ake heed that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that in heaven their angels always see the face of My Father who is in heaven” (18:10, emp. added). Since Jesus spoke of “their angels,” allegedly He was implying that children (or “believers”—18:6) have “guardian angels.”

Matthew 18:10 certainly indicates that there is a special relationship between God’s heavenly host and “these little ones.” And, “[i]n some sense...the angels do belong to the ‘little ones’ under discussion” (Quertermous, 2002, p. 263). One needs to keep in mind, however, that angels were by no means the main emphasis of Jesus’ lesson. In context,

Jesus was speaking to those who were filled with ambition and desire for prominence which leads to a total disregard for children of the poor and deprived of society. Thus Christ’s intent was to let those of ambitious bent know that the high lofty angels of glory are always concerned with the welfare of the young children, as well as the humble hearted poor of society (Turner, 1989, p. 76, emp. added).

Certainly, if the angels of God are concerned about the welfare of children and the humble-hearted, as well as those who are young in the faith (cf. 18:6—“little ones who believe”), Jesus’ apostles needed to be as well (and less concerned about “who...is greatest in the kingdom of heaven”—18:1). This is the lesson to be learned from Matthew 18:1-14, and not the popular doctrine that each person has an angel on Earth guiding and guarding him from harm.

But, even if one were to ignore the overall context of Matthew 18 in an attempt to force the popular “guardian-angel” slant on verse 10, still the plural possessive pronoun “their” angels scarcely supports the idea that God assigns one angel for each and every child or believer on Earth. As R.C.H. Lenski noted, God “often assigns individual angels for special duties” (1943 p. 692; cf. Hebrews 1:14), but that does not mean that each person has his or her own angel. Furthermore, “It should be observed that these angels are in heaven, not upon earth providing human protection” constantly (Chouinard, 1997, p. 326, emp. added). If they are in heaven, they are not continuously guarding “their people” on Earth, as angels are not omnipresent, and must go from place to place (e.g., Daniel 9:20-23).

Finally, although AmericanCatholic.org insists that “Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:10 best support the belief [of guardian angels—EL],” even they were forced to admit: “The concept of an angel assigned to guide and nurture each human being is a development of Catholic doctrine and piety based on Scripture but not directly drawn from it” (“Feast...,” 2010). Such an admission speaks volumes about the soundness of the guardian-angel doctrine.


Rather than be infatuated with whether or not each person on Earth (or each Christian) has his or her own guardian angel; rather than conjure up all sorts of reasons why we might like the idea of a guardian angel; rather than celebrate a “Feast of the Guardian Angels” or call ourselves “Guardian Angels Churches,” etc., Christians simply need to accept by faith what the Bible unequivocally does say about these spiritual servants of God (Revelation 19:10): they are interested in our activities and well-being (Luke 15:10; 1 Corinthians 11:10), and are continually working on our behalf “as human needs correspond to His divine will” (Jackson, 2000).

Discovering that the Bible writers were silent regarding whether each human or believer has his or her own special guardian angel should not be a disheartening revelation. For, as Travis Quertermous concluded, the Bible “promises not the protection of a single angel, but many of them” (2002, p. 261, emp. added; cf. 2 Kings 6:16-17). Should it not be “much more comforting to know that God sends many angels to look out for me rather than just one when such is in harmony with His will (cf. Heb. 1:14)” (Quertermous, p. 261)?

Finally, although there certainly is a time and place to acknowledge and discuss the wonderful works that the angels of God are performing (keeping in mind that few particulars are given in Scripture), more than anything, God’s people need to focus and meditate on God’s greatness, and not the wonderful ways of God’s angelic creation. They exist in the spiritual realm because God made them (Psalm 148:1-5). They minister to us because God sends them (Hebrews 1:14). They will have a part in the Second Coming because God will bring them (Matthew 13:40-43,49-51; 25:31-32). As thankful as we should be for what angels have done throughout history for God’s people, we should be driven to our knees in thanksgiving for Who God is and what He has done and continues to do for His people.


“Angel” (1988), The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary (Electronic Database: Biblesoft).

“Angels in the Bible” (no date), http://www.maryourmother.net/Angels.html.

Butt, Kyle and Dave Miller (2003), “Who Hardened Pharaoh’s Heart?” http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/2259.

“Cherubim” (1986), Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Electronic Database: Biblesoft).

Chouinard, Larry (1997), Matthew (Joplin, MO: College Press).

Chrysostom, Homilies on Colossians, http://books.google.com/books?id=djswAAAAYAAJ& pg=PA273&lpg=PA273&dq=” each+believer+hath+an+Angel;+since+even+from”&source= bl&ots=kVE64upVV1&sig=ou5fktnwP5uSP9vWgyemHJkUuFY&hl= en&ei=bKnaTOTPG4Kr8AaB5PTaCA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct= result&resnum=1&ved= 0CBcQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=”each believer hath an Angel; since even from”&f=false.

Dods, Marcus (2002), The Expositor’s Greek New Testament, ed. W.  Robertson Nicoll (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson).

“Feast of the Guardian Angels” (2010), http://www.americancatholic.org/Features/Saints/saint.aspx?id=1156.

“Guardian” (2010), Merriam-Webster, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/guardian.

“Guardian Angel” (2010), Encyclopedia.com, http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O999-guardianangel.html.

“Guardian Angel” (2010), Merriam-Webster, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/guardian%20angel.

Jackson, Wayne (no date), “A Study of the Providence of God,” http://www.apologeticspress.org/rr/reprints/Study-of-Providence.pdf.

Jackson, Wayne (2000), “Do Angels Minister to Christians Today?” http://www.christiancourier.com/articles/172-do-angels-minister-to-christians-today.

Jerome, Commentary on Matthew, http://books.google.com/books?id=j0UmWBivNJgC&pg= PA15&lpg=PA15&dq=jerome+commentary+on+matthew&source= bl&ots=0vzUuT2HyM&sig=C5MgMyDyiXrLf7mTg2M1D8Oc1TI&hl= en&ei=d0rITKGsFsKBlAetnun3Ag&sa=X&oi=book_ result&ct=result&resnum=6&ved=0CC8Q6AEwBQ#v= snippet&q=angel&f=false.

Kaiser, Walter C. Jr., Peter H. Davids, F.F. Bruce, and Manfred T. Brauch (1996), Hard Sayings of the Bible (Downers Grove, IL InterVarsity Press).

Lenski, R.C.H. (1943), The Interpretation of St. Matthew Gospel (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg).

McGarvey, J.W. (1872), A Commentary on Acts of Apostles (Lexington, KY: Transylvania Press).

McGarvey, J.W. (1875), Commentary on Matthew and Mark (Delight, AR: Gospel Light).

Miller, Dave (2003), “Modern Day Miracles, Tongue-Speaking and Holy Spirit Baptism—A Refutation,” Reason & Revelation, 23[3]:17-23, March, http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/2569.

Myers, Edward P. (1978), A Study of Angels (West Monroe, LA: Howard Book House).

Origen, Homilies on Numbers, http://books.google.com/books?id=P4pPyRXeWkUC&pg= PA94&dq=Origen+has+an+angel+by+his+side&hl= en&ei=0FXITN7oD4et8AaqkqiBBg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum= 7&ved=0CE0Q6AEwBg#v=onepage&q=has%20an%20angel&f=false.

Quertermous, Travis (2002), The Hosts of Heaven: A Biblical Study of Angels (Henderson, TN: Hester Publications).

Regamey, Pie-Raymond (1960), What is an Angel? in Twentieth Century Encyclopedia of Catholicism (New York: Hawthorn Books).

Turner, J.J. (1989), Systematic Theology (Montgomery, AL: Alabama Christian School of Religion).

Woods, Guy N. (1991), Firm Foundation, 106[9]:18-19, September.

God's Providence and the Problem of Evil by Kyle Butt, M.Div.


God's Providence and the Problem of Evil

by Kyle Butt, M.Div.

In 2008, best-selling author and agnostic professor Bart Ehrman wrote a book titled God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer(2008). In the book, Ehrman presented his case for how the biblical answer to the problem of evil is insufficient. His analysis is incorrect and lacking in many ways, but the title of his book brings us to a crucial question regarding evil—why would Erhman and a bulk of the unbelieving world seek such an answer from the Bible? Why put forth so much effort attempting to refute the biblical answer to suffering?
In truth, the “problem of evil” argument is built on the foundation of what the Bible says about God. As it is historically set out, the “problem of evil” contends that the three premises (1) God is all-loving; (2) God is all-powerful; and (3) evil exists, cannot all be true. Where did these three premises originate? The third, that evil exists, is a matter of personal experience and knowledge that virtually all humans can know intuitively. But the first two premises, that God is all-loving and all-powerful, are distinctly set forth in the Bible as attributes of God. Without the biblical insistence that God is all-powerful and all-loving, there would be no “problem of evil.” With that in mind, it would be unfair and dishonest for the skeptic to demand that the Christian answer the problem of evil without reference to the Bible. Yet, that is precisely what Ehrman and others expect. They attempt to discredit the biblical answers to the problem of evil. These attacks against the Bible’s answer have been unsuccessful (Warren, 1972; Miller, 2015). In fact, one of the most impressive responses to evil is the biblical understanding of God’s work through providence. For the purposes of this discussion, we will define providence as the way God orchestrates His will through natural laws. This idea is contrasted with God’s miraculous intervention in human affairs. A miracle, such as Jesus walking on water or God’s empowering Moses to put his hand into his cloak and it become leprous, is a recognizable overriding of certain natural laws. God’s providence, on the other hand, is seen in cases where God works through natural laws to accomplish His will.
To illustrate this difference, let us consider specific examples. In 2 Kings 19, the story is told of Sennacherib’s campaign against the land of Judah. The evil king and his Assyrian army encircled Jerusalem and were confident that they would soon crush the city. That did not happen, because one night an “angel of the Lord went out, and killed in the camp of the Assyrians one hundred and eighty-five thousand; and when the people arose early in the morning, there were the corpses—all dead” (2 Kings 19:35). This episode is a clear example of God miraculously intervening in human affairs. On a different occasion, the prophet Micaiah warned Ahab, the king of Israel, that he would be destroyed if he attacked Ramoth Gilead. Ahab ignored the warning from God’s prophet and attacked the city anyway. In the course of the events, “a certain man drew a bow at random, and struck the king of Israel between the joints of his armor” (1 Kings 22:34). Ahab died of his wound exactly as God had foretold. Ahab’s death, however, came about through what we would call natural events, not miraculous ones.
Another contrast between providential and miraculous involvement can be seen in the lives of Mary and Hannah. In the New Testament narrative of Jesus’ birth, the Bible states that Mary would miraculously conceive Jesus even though she was a virgin (Matthew 1:18-25). In contrast, we read about the birth of Samuel to Hannah. She prayed earnestly for a son and God answered her prayer. Hannah’s conception and birth of Samuel, however, were not miraculous but came about through her union with her husband Elkanah (1 Samuel 1:19-20; see Jackson, “A Study of Divine Providence”).  Samuel’s birth provides an excellent illustration of God’s providence.
Throughout the course of human history God has worked His will through miraculous and providential means. In many eras of history He has used both at the same time, but in some instances and epochs, He has worked primarily through providence with very little or no recognizable miraculous activity. It is important to understand this truth, since it is often affirmed that if God has worked miracles in the past to aid his people, then He “should” be doing the same today. For instance, Bart Ehrman demands, “If he [God] could do miracles for his people throughout the Bible, where is he today when your son is killed in a car accident, or your husband gets multiple sclerosis, or civil war is unleashed in Iraq, or the Iranians decide to pursue their nuclear ambitions?” (p. 274). This idea is well-illustrated on Marshall Brain’s Web site whywontgodhealamputees.com (2014). According to Brain, the fact that God does not miraculously regrow limbs proves that He is imaginary. In chapter 5 of his material, he says, “Nothing happens when we pray for amputated limbs. God never regenerates lost limbs through prayer…. Does God answer prayers? If so, then how do we explain this disconnection between God and amputees?” (2014).
Notice that Brain and Ehrman insist that if God is capable of miracles, then we should be seeing them now. But why must that be the case? Could it be that an all-knowing God has very good reasons why He is not at work in the same miraculous ways He worked in the past? In addition, the same Bible that tells us about God’s miracles also lays out a very strong case for God’s working through providential means. To demand that God must operate in the way that we insist He operate is more than slightly presumptuous, especially in light of the fact that He has given us ample information about other ways He works.
This play by unbelievers is more clearly seen in the proverbial story of the atheistic professor who stands before a class of freshmen and dares God to strike him dead. When nothing happens, the professor glibly comments, “I thought not,” and assumes he has made his point. Could it be possible that there are good reasons God does not strike the professor dead? Certainly. Maybe God knows the man will repent in the future. Maybe He knows that this professor will find a cure for cancer, and although he will lose his soul, he will save many lives. The possibilities are virtually endless.
Ehrman and other unbelievers challenge Christians to produce modern miracles as evidence that God intervenes in the world today. They do so, however, refusing to recognize two important truths. First, even during the ages of human history when God performed miracles, He did not intervene to stop all suffering. People still got sick, had accidents, broke bones, suffered emotionally, and died. It is as if the skeptic insists that the Bible paints a picture of a God who swooped in miraculously to stop all suffering. Such was never the case. Miracles were isolated events designed to confirm the validity of the message of certain divine messengers (Miller, 2003). The Bible has never presented them as a wholesale answer to the problem of pain and suffering. Second, to insist that God must use miracles today discounts the pervasive biblical theme of providence. Throughout history, one of God’s primary modes of operation has been to providentially work through natural laws. To deny that this is the case is to turn a deaf ear to a massive amount of biblical testimony.


When many people think about God working through miracles, they have a picture in mind of a God Who periodically interrupts the regular flow of things and tinkers with the laws that are usually in place. They see God as an intruder into the natural order that He initially set up and that He leaves alone for a large portion of time. It is as if God has created a cosmic aquarium filled with fish, rocks, hiding areas, and a water filtering system. He sits outside the system watching patiently until He is needed, dipping His hand into the system to add something here or take something away there. The problem with this view is that it pictures a system that somehow works independently of God. In this system it is thought that if God does not miraculously intervene, then the system still works fine.
The Bible provides a picture of God’s activity in the world that is much different from this model. Instead of a self-sustaining system that God created at the beginning and primarily has left to its own devices, Scripture teaches that the entire system constantly relies on God. The writer of Hebrews explains that God appointed Jesus Christ as the heir of all things and that He is presently “upholding all things by the word of His power” (Hebrews 1:2-3). It is not that at one time (but not now) He created and upheld the world, but that He is at present still upholding “all things.” Paul confirmed this idea in Colossians when he spoke of Jesus, saying “All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist” (Colossians 1:16-17). Notice that not only was Jesus active in the Creation, but the created world continues to “consist” in Him. It is important to recognize that God originally designed a world of natural laws that would be ideal for Him to providentially use throughout the course of human history. His use of these laws to bring about His purposes is not an interruption of the regular flow of things, since the regular flow of things constantly depends on His power to sustain it. As Richard Bube wrote in his book The Human Quest:
The natural order exists only because God is constantly active in upholding it. God does not use natural processes as if they existed without him. God does not take advantage of natural laws to accomplish his will as if the laws existed without him. We see immediately why the question “Can God intervene in a world ruled by orderly laws?” is meaningless. There is no world ruled by orderly laws except that one constantly maintained in existence by the activity of God (1971, p. 28).
It is because of this fact that scholar John Walton defines providence as “the way God acts through all so-called natural processes, whether in creation, nature, or history” (2001, p. 101). His addition of the adjective “so-called” highlights the fact that the laws of “nature” are perpetually dependant on the supernatural God. In the term providence, then, we see God’s perpetual upholding of the entire Universe.


The general providence of God upholds all nature. The way the term providence is usually applied, however, refers to God’s coordination of events in order to bring about specific desired outcomes. This has been referred to as God’s special providence. It often is spoken of in the Bible as it is seen in the lives of those who follow him (May, 2014, p. 14). We see the difference between general and specific providence when we compare Matthew 5:45, which says that God “makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust,” with Romans 8:28: “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” In one sense, all life comes from God and the fact that anyone can take a breath is a providential blessing. In another sense, God has promised that all the events in the lives of those who love Him will be orchestrated in a way that they will work together for the ultimate good.
It is important to recognize what the Bible does not say about God’s providence. There is an idea that if a person is a faithful child of God, then God will make sure that he or she is always prosperous, has a wonderful spouse, is blessed with children, and lives a life of comfort and ease. That is not what the Bible says. In fact, the Bible is clear that those who love and follow God often experience serious hardships and trials. Paul told Timothy that “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Timothy 3:12). James told his readers to “count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience” (James 1:2-3). Peter told his readers who were suffering governmental persecution not to “think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings” (1 Peter 4:12-13). Even the Lord was disciplined in obedience by the things which He suffered (Hebrews 5:8). God does not promise that everything that happens to those who love Him will be good. Instead, He promises that they will work together so that the end result is good.



The name of God is never mentioned in the book of Esther. For that reason, some have questioned its inspiration and place in the canon. A close analysis of the book, however, shows that it meets the criteria for inspiration. The fact that it does not use God’s name is significant, because the events that happen in the book provide some of the clearest examples of special providence in all of Scripture.
Let us briefly summarize the story. Esther is a Jew who lives in Shushan, the capital of the Persian Empire. She is orphaned, so her cousin Mordecai raises her as if she were his. In the course of events, the Persian king Ahasuerus dismisses his wife and begins the process of looking for another. Esther is among the young women that Ahasuerus assembles at his palace. She surpasses the others in talent and beauty and becomes the new queen. Mordecai warns her not to reveal that she is a Jew. On one occasion, when Mordecai sat in the king’s gate, he uncovered a plot to kill the king. Those involved were found guilty and the event was written in the history book that Ahasuerus kept.
During this time, the wicked general Haman began to advance in station and status with the king. He hated Mordecai because the Jew would not bow to him. Instead of killing Mordecai, Haman tricked the king into issuing a decree that all the Jews should be killed. Esther courageously pleaded with the king to save the Jews. Ultimately, Haman’s plot was discovered, he was hanged, and the Jewish people were delivered from destruction. The most interesting aspect of the book of Esther is the underlying working of God through “natural” processes throughout the events taking place.
For instance, of all the young women in the entire kingdom that Ahasuerus could have picked, he chose the Jewess Esther. Her cousin Mordecai was in the perfect place to discover a plot against the king’s life, and his deed was written down in the history book. The entry, however, went unnoticed for many days until one “fortuitous” night the king could not sleep. Due to his insomnia, he ordered that the history book be read, and it just so happened that Mordecai’s discovery was the chosen text. While the king was deciding what to do to honor Mordecai, Haman entered his presence hoping to request that the king hang Mordecai. Instead, Haman was instructed to parade the Jew through the streets as one whom the king chose to honor. Haman was later hanged on the very gallows that he had built to hang Mordecai.
The number of perfectly aligned events that brought about the Jews’ salvation were not coincidences. As John Walton noted, “If we truly understand Esther, it is not saying that there is no God at work, but neither is it saying that there is no circumstance. Instead, it insists that God works through the circumstance…. The only way to understand how God works is to see circumstance as one of his agents” (p. 104). One of the most familiar passages in the text is found in a statement that Mordecai made to Esther. He admonished her to have the courage to go to the king, even knowing that she might die. And he said, “who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14). Notice that Mordecai’s statement implies that the circumstances that led to Esther being the queen could have been arranged intentionally and purposefully for her to save the Jews.
It is at this point that we need to consider an important aspect of special providence. God performed miracles in a way that, to the honest observer, left no room for doubt. Anyone who observed a miracle performed by Jesus or another empowered spokesperson from God, if the person was dealing honestly with the situation, could be sure that God’s power was directly responsible for the event. When considering providence, however, God’s work is often not clear until after the events take place, and even then it is difficult to put a finger on exactly how and where God was active. Mordecai’s sentiment of “who knows” captures this facet of providence well. We see this idea in the New Testament as well. When Paul wrote to his friend Philemon, he mentioned that he had come in contact with one of Philemon’s former slaves. This slave, Onesimus, had run away from Philemon and become a Christian during his time away. Paul was sending him back, and he wrote to Philemon, “perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you may receive him forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother” (Philemon 15-16).
Paul’s use of the word “perhaps” echoesMordecai’s use of “who knows.” Both writers were acknowledging that God works through natural, providential means. But they were also conceding that the circumstances under discussion could only be viewed with some uncertainty when trying to determine exactly what parts of their lives and the lives of others were related to God’s activity. As May correctly wrote, “Miracles are clearly from God. Providence is always ‘perhaps,’ except when God in Scripture tells us He is working behind the scenes” (p. 69).


The life and times of Joseph, son of Israel, consume the bulk of Genesis chapters 37-50. His story provides another clear example of God’s providence in action. Joseph’s dad favored him above his other brothers, because he was the son of Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel. This favoritism led Jacob to treat him better than his brothers, which fueled their jealousy and hatred toward the young man. In addition, Joseph had dreams in which his brothers, Jacob, and Leah bowed down to him. This infuriated his siblings all the more.
On one occasion, Joseph was sent to check on his brothers as they tended their father’s flocks. They conspired against him, captured him, and sold him to a band of slave traders. The traders sold him into Egypt. In Egypt, Joseph spent many years in slavery and in prison, but through a series of remarkable events, became the second most prominent man in all the land. Due to a massive famine, his brothers journeyed to Egypt to buy food. There they bowed to Joseph just as he had seen in his dreams. Eventually, Joseph revealed himself to his brothers and brought his family to live in Egypt. When his father died, his brothers feared that Joseph might seek revenge on them. They came to him, begging for his forgiveness. He calmed them and said, “[D]o not be afraid, for am I in the place of God? But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive” (Genesis 50:19-20).
As we read through the events of Joseph’s life, we see many people who were not trying to help Joseph, nor were they attempting to obey God. His brothers sold him into slavery. Slave traders cruelly sold him into Egypt. His first master’s wife lied about him. His master, Potiphar, then threw him into prison. And the chief butler forgot about him for two years before bringing his name up to Pharaoh. Obviously, the people in Joseph’s life could not see the hand of God, nor were they complicit in God’s plan to elevate Joseph. In addition, many of the events were unjust, wrong, and painful to Joseph. God, however, orchestrated these events in Joseph’s life so that eventually they turned out “for good.” This is the nature of providence.


A study of divine providence naturally leads to questions about human free will. If God orchestrates events to bring about desired outcomes, does He force people to act in certain ways? Does He override human free will in order to work providentially? The stories of Esther, Philemon, and Joseph provide us with the answer. God used the choices that the people in the stories freely made, and worked His providence through those choices. At no time did God in the past, or will God in the present or future, override a person’s free will.
If God works His providence through the decisions that various people freely choose, that must mean He knows what they will choose. Some have argued that if God knows what a person chooses, then that person is not free to choose, since he or she is “stuck” choosing what God knows he/she will choose (see Barker, 2008, p. 127). The flaw in this argument hinges on the difference between knowledge and cause. Just because a person may have knowledge of an event does not mean that he caused the event or that the person who makes the choice is somehow constrained by this knowledge. A brief thought experiment makes this point clear. Suppose, hypothetically, you knew that a friend of yours drank coffee yesterday morning. Now suppose you could go back in time and watch him choose to drink coffee instead of milk. Did your knowledge that he would choose coffee somehow force his decision? Not at all. He could have chosen coffee because he liked the taste or wanted the caffeine. The fact that you knew what he would do does not mean he was forced to do it or that your knowledge somehow caused it. Similarly, God knows what every person will do. Using that knowledge, He can arrange events to accomplish His ends through natural circumstances.


One of the primary reasons to study providence is to assimilate the idea into an overall answer that helps explain how a loving, all-powerful God can allow those He loves to suffer. What does knowledge of providence offer the sufferer? First, an understanding of providence assures us that God will never allow any person to suffer or be tempted beyond his/her ability to deal with the suffering. Paul explained this to the Corinthian church when he wrote, “No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make a way of escape, that you may be able to bear it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).
When we suffer, there are times we may feel that we simply cannot endure the pain and sorrow that is crushing us. During such periods of trials and troubles, we must remember that God is still in control of the Universe, and He has solemnly promised us that He will never allow us to suffer or be tempted more than we are able to withstand. While it may seem to us that we cannot hold up under the trials we experience, if God is all-knowing, and if God can providentially arrange the events of human lives to accomplish His ultimate desire, then we can know that He will provide the strength that we need to not only endure, but even to grow through our struggles. The strength He provides may not come in the form or way that we expect. It may come through what others do for us. It may come through something we read in God’s Word. It may come through an inspiring story that we read in a book that a friend happened to lend us. Or it may come through a person coming into our lives that is suffering worse than we are and needs our help, channeling our attention from our own pain to constructive ways to help others with theirs.
Second, an understanding of divine providence can help the sufferer understand that God can arrange events so that suffering can have meaning and purpose, even though it is not inherently good. One excellent biblical example is seen in the life of Paul. Paul’s life after his conversion to Christianity was eventful to say the least. He took three lengthy missionary journeys, during which he was often in peril. He explained to the church in Corinth that he had been beaten three times, shipwrecked three times, stoned, whipped by the Jews five times, and spent a night and day in the ocean (2 Corinthians 11:22-33). Paul often found himself trying to escape legal authorities that were attempting to imprison or kill him.
On one occasion, Paul was lowered over the city wall of Damascus in a basket to escape being captured by the governor of the city (2 Corinthians 11:32-33). Paul’s efforts to avoid capture, however, were not always successful. Once, He was imprisoned and held by the prestigious palace guard. Without an understanding of providence, this situation would seem to the average observer to have a negative effect on Paul and his preaching of the Gospel. Why did Paul have to suffer by being thrown in prison? Why did the church have to suffer through their concern for the apostle? Why did his relatives have to endure the mental anguish of knowing he was imprisoned unjustly? Such questions are legion. Paul provides us with some insight into his situation in the letter he wrote to the church in Philippi. He told them, “But I want you to know, brethren, that the things which have happened to me have actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel, so that it has become evident to the whole palace guard, and to all the rest, that my chains are in Christ” (Philippians 1:12-13). Notice Paul’s use of the word “actually.” The implication is that at first, it would not seem like prison would help the cause of Christ and the furtherance of the Gospel. It turns out, however, that even though Paul had been unjustly imprisoned and punished with evil intent, God providentially arranged the events so that the Gospel message spread.


God created the world and upholdsit by the word of His power. He designed the natural laws that He perpetually sustains in a way that He can work through them to bring about His desired goals. Throughout human history, He has worked both providentially and miraculously. The fact that He used miracles in the past, however, does not mean that He still, or must, use them today in order to accomplish His ultimate will. The Bible provides extensive material on how God has providentially worked in the past, and how He has promised to continue this activity in the present and future. An understanding of God’s providence provides a vital aspect of the Christian’s overall answer to suffering in the world. Furthermore, the concept of providence can help those who suffer find meaning and comfort through their suffering.


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Brain, Marshall (2014), “Why Won’t God Heal Amputees?” http://why wontgodhealamputees.com/.
Bube, Richard (1971), The Human Quest (Waco, TX: Word).
Ehrman, Bart (2008), God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer (New York: HarperOne).
Jackson, Wayne (no date), “A Study of Divine Providence,” https://www.christiancourier.com/articles/
May, Cecil Jr. (2014), Providence: The Silent Sovereignty of God (Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate).
Miller, Dave (2003), “Modern-Day Miracles, Tongue-Speaking, and Holy Spirit Baptism: A Refutation,” Apologetics Press, https://www.apologeticspress.org/APContent.aspx?category=11&article=264& topic=293.
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