(NOTE: To listen to an audio sermon on this topic, click here).
The sovereignty of God can be a deep and thorny issue to ponder. Most people (at least in Christian circles) joyfully concur with the sovereignty of God over the good things that happen in life. Regardless of their theological bend, most Christians are content to see God's hand at work when they get a raise at work, or a new house, or an unexpected inheritance. But what about if they lose their job, lose their spouse, or lose their health? Is God still sovereign....even over the bad things of life?
For the sovereignty of God to truly have any meaning, then God must be sovereign over all things. Indeed, the very word “sovereignty” suggests a power that is without limits. For example, when America is spoken of as a “sovereign” nation this typically means that we answer to no other countries. We are a “stand alone” power, if you will. But if we actually forfeit sections of our sovereignty to other entities (the United Nations for example), then we are not truly a sovereign nation anymore. If the claim is made that we are sovereign over all matters, except military. Then we aren't really sovereign at all, for “sovereignty” is an all-encompassing word. Sovereignty is either absolute, or it is non-existent. Partial sovereignty isn't sovereignty. Another word must be found to describe this condition, for sovereign power is absolute power. And sovereign power is what God possesses. He is either sovereign over everything. Or He isn't sovereign over anything.
One area in Scripture where this is taught is in the life of Job. Most are familiar with the sufferings of Job, who seemingly had it all, then lost it all in one catastrophic day. Job 1 gives an account of God and Satan conversing about Job and why it is that he worships God as he does. Satan suggests that it is due to God's “hedge of protection” that He has blessed Job with and that if this were removed Job would “curse you to your face.” Of course God allows Satan to inflict horrendous blows upon Job's life. He loses his livelihood, his servants, his children, and eventually his health. The moral of the story is that Job is faithful through it all and eventually has the blessings restored. But an even deeper moral to the story is that God is sovereign over whatever comes to pass. Both good and evil.
An often forgotten aspect of the Job account is that it was actually God, not Satan, who suggested Job as a candidate for suffering to begin with. “The LORD said to Satan, 'Have you considered My servant Job? For there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, fearing God and turning away from evil.'” Job 1:8 NASB) God remains in complete control through the entire ordeal. Satan unleashes havoc on Job's life, but he does nothing without God's permission. And though you may not recognize this truth, Job certainly did. When his wife derisively suggested that he “curse God and die” (Job 2:9); Job responds by saying: “Shall we indeed accept good from God and not evil?” While different English translations may say “adversity” or “trouble” instead of evil; the point remains the same. Job sees God's sovereignty ordaining all the events of his life. Both good and bad.
Another passage that shows God's sovereignty over good and evil can be seen in the martyrdom of Stephen. The gripping account of this early church martyr's violent death is well known to most Christians. In an incredible, Spirit-inspired sermon, Stephen rebukes the Jews for their rejection of Christ and suffers a violent death as a result. While Stephen may have been speaking to the Jewish “authorities” make no mistake, his death was not truly an “execution” but rather a murder. There was no trial. There was simply mob justice (or rather injustice) that led to the stoning of Stephen. But where was God while these events transpired? And why did He not intervene? The text tells us that God was watching it all; and even allowed Stephen a glimpse of what He was up to. “But being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” (Acts 7:55-56) The Lord was there. The Lord was watching. The Lord had the power to prevent the death. And the Lord did not. Why? Because Stephen's death was ordained by God for a greater good that those at the time could have scarcely conceived.
God used Stephen's death to fulfill His purpose to begin the global “gospelization” of the world. You might say, “That's not how I would have done it!” Maybe not. But that IS how God did it! And it is fascinating to see God's hand at work when you trace the line back to Jesus's final commission to His disciples. In Acts 1:8 Jesus told His disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.” As a side note, please notice that Jesus wasn't asking them to be His witnesses. He wasn't giving an “invitation” as it were. He TOLD them. You WILL BE my witnesses. And they were. This is the type of authority one speaks with when He is truly sovereign. All things would go down in accordance with God's perfect plan. The disciples would be His witnesses in Jerusalem, and then fan out to greater Judea, Samaria, and even the remotest parts of the earth. The text tells us this plainly. “And on that day a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Some devout men buried Stephen, and made loud lamentation over him. But Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house, and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison. Therefore, those who had been scattered went about preaching the word.” (Acts 8:1-4)
The early Christians were not only the Lord's witnesses.....they were the Lord's witnesses in exactly the way the Lord said they would be. They fanned out, starting in Jerusalem and took the gospel to Judea, Samaria, and beyond. And as an amazing piece of dramatic foreshadowing, the text also throws out a name for us to consider: Saul. This angry, young Pharisee who hated Christians began to ravage the church. And in so doing he simply throws gasoline on the gospel fire even further. And the church continues to spread. With utmost fascination, we see God using Saul to spread the gospel even before Saul was a Christian. God's sovereignty is sometimes funny that way. Of course once Saul of Tarsus became Paul the Apostle, his gospel work increased. And it increased with a new found vigor that comes from a regenerate heart on fire for the Lord. As Saul, he was spreading the gospel inadvertently while trying to stamp it out. Post-Damascus, Paul is spreading the gospel with gusto. Now, for him, “to live is Christ and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21) But God was in control both times. When Saul hated Christ and when Paul loved Christ. God still reigned and ordained all things for his good.
Eventually the text further elaborates on how Stephen's death was God's catalyst to spread the gospel. “So then those who were scattered because of the persecution that occurred in connection with Stephen made their way to Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except to Jews alone. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord.” (Acts 11:19-21 NASB) And once again we see the words of Christ fulfilled:“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations.” (Matt. 28:19) From the murder of Stephen on, the gospel marches forth; from Nation to Nation; to both Jew and Gentile.
Now back to Stephen. After he saw the Lord and then began getting pelted with rocks, notice what he says. Clearly, its time to pray. But what would you expect him to pray? What would you have prayed? Perhaps a heartfelt prayer for deliverance. God save me from these violent men who seek to kill him! God spare my life that I might live for you! These would not have been bad prayers. They would not have been wrong or sinful prayers. But they would not have been prayers in accordance with God's will at the time and Stephen didn't pray them. He simply said, “Lord receive my spirit.” Stephen was dying. He knew he was dying. And he wanted to die. And who could blame him! If your options are a sin-cursed world with rocks cracking your skull, or the presence of Jesus and the glory of God; what would you wish for? Stephen saw Jesus and wanted to be with him. And Jesus received him by way of a violent death; that would be used to spark the early church to fulfill it's missions mandate.
And in the life and death of Stephen; just as the life of Job – we see a sovereign God at work bringing about his perfect purpose through both good and bad events. Through the righteous deeds of the saints and the wicked deeds of the reprobate. While all sinners are indeed accountable to God for their evil; God's hand reigns as the most powerful entity in the universe as he orchestrates what He wants to come to pass. You might balk at such a high level of sovereignty. You might answer by saying, “If God is so sovereign, then why am I to blame for my sin? After all, who resists His will?” Of course this very question was asked in Romans 9, where the Holy Spirit inspired answer is given. “Who are you, O man, to answer back to God.” (v. 20) Regardless of whether you like it or not, the ultimate answer to the sovereignty of God is that in many ways it is beyond our comprehension and all we know of it is what God has graciously allowed us to know. And we really have no grounds for accusation if there is any aspect of it disturbing or confusing to us. Rather than point the finger, we should bow the knee and confess, “Your ways are above our ways!”
God ordained the murder of Stephen as a means to spread the gospel. And this early martyrdom and the ensuing missions movement led to YOU hearing the gospel. As a 21st century citizen, you would not have benefited from gospel grace had the gospel not left Jerusalem, gone to Judea, Samaria, and beyond. If you are a Christian, you owe it completely to the grace of God. The grace that saved you. The grace that brought the gospel to you. And yes even the grace, that killed Stephen; and what's more..... the grace that killed Jesus. Evil acts ordained by God for a greater good. Bow the knee and be amazed at His ways, which truly are “past finding out.”
In closing, consider the following prayer from the Apostles as it pertained to the evil act of killing God's son; and ask yourself: Who was really in control? I leave the verse for your perusal without further comment. Peace.
“For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur.” (Acts 4:27-28 NASB)