Meditating on the Will of God: 1: Starting Thoughts
Col 1:1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God
We start a new series but one that is not delineated by following a set pattern as we usually do, working through a paragraph or chapter or book. The very phrase ‘the will of God’ has produced books and discussion galore and so now, I propose to simply throw a stone on the lake and watch the ripples. We’ll start from one random point and see where our meanderings take us.
How easily we read words of Scripture and pass them by with such little thought! How much we take for granted the words we read, thinking we understand them. Before we have got to the end of this first verse of Paul’s to the Colossians, we have one of these times – “by the will of God”. Paul says he is an apostle “by the will of God”. What does that actually mean?
For a start it must mean that he is an apostle because God wanted him to be one. The moment we say that we find ourselves with the question, “Why?” Is it, as some would say, that He takes us as a piece of clay and like a Potter forms us into what He wants us to be? Yes, I am aware that that is the picture that the Lord Himself brings to Jeremiah: “Then the word of the LORD came to me: “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter does?” declares the LORD. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.” (Jer 18:5,6) Indeed we find Isaiah declaring, “Yet, O LORD, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.” (Isa 64:8). It is clear in both those sets of verses that God moulds us and reshapes us, but is that all there is to it?
We need to go back to the Lord’s word to Jeremiah in the Potter’s house and follow through, seeing what He went on to say:
- “If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned.
- And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it.” (Jer 18:7-10)
Now this is quite strange at first sight because here we have two instances of nations or kingdoms making choices, deciding how they will respond. In the first instance the Lord declares His intentions (His will?) and then the nation repents, so the Lord steps back and does not bring the judgment He spoke of. That is exactly what we see in the story of Jonah going to Nineveh and Nineveh repenting and the Lord ‘relenting’ and not destroying them. In the second instance above, we find a nation that God is intending to bless and build up, but they turn away from Him, and so He reconsiders.
In both cases we have a) God stating His intentions, b) the nation choosing a course of action (the former to repent, the latter to turn away) and c) God reconsidering His course of action in respect of them. Now this is the ‘moulding of the clay’, surely, that the Lord is talking about, the interaction between God and man that brings about change.
So we come back to our original question: why did the Lord choose Paul? Did God choose Paul because He knew He could MAKE Paul do what He wanted him to do, or did He choose Him because He knew how He could mould him in the years to come?
In each of these questions we are gently treading around that tricky area that has so often brought divisions among Christians, considerations about the sovereignty of God. If we may briefly mention him in passing – for he needs a study to himself – the Pharaoh confronted by Moses is an illustration of a man who God could not mould into a pliable, conforming believer (yes, there is a lot more to the story and we’ll look at it separately), but in fact when you look at every person in the Bible who rejected God and died for it, we see people who God did NOT make conform to Himself. God’s intent is always for a person’s salvation but Scripture, we suggest, is very clear that it is a matter of an individual’s free will, their ability to choose the path they take.
God’s intention is always clear: “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” (Ezek 18:23) Now you could possibly, from that verse, suggest that God goes on to MAKE the sinner repent, but the verse that follows challenges that sort of ‘sovereignty’: “But if a righteous man turns from his righteousness and commits sin and does the same detestable things the wicked man does, will he live? None of the righteous things he has done will be remembered. Because of the unfaithfulness he is guilty of and because of the sins he has committed, he will die.” (Ezek 18:24) To suggest that God MAKES a righteous man turn and become a sinner denigrates God and all the Biblical descriptions of Him, that He is love, He is good, He is righteous, and so on.
There are those who would seek to take the apostle Paul’s stance and say, “Who are you, O man, to question God?” (Rom 9:19-) and we will consider that in days to come, but we are not challenging God’s sovereignty, we are challenging those who would abuse (quite inadvertently) the descriptions of God that we have already mentioned. It is more a question of understanding language and that should always be a part of Bible study. We would also go on to say that it is all about ‘knowing’ and we will justify this in the days to come.
God knew all about Paul, He knew everything there was to know about him, including his potential, including the way he would act and react in the face of the circumstances before him, and He knew what He could do with him and what He could achieve through him, despite his faults and failings, and all this without violating his free will, his ability, as a human being made in the image of God, to make choices.
And if that was true of Paul, it is surely true of you and me. If at some point we surrendered our lives to Jesus, now we are ‘in the process’ where God is leading and we follow. He expresses His will and we have the ability to choose or reject it. Rejecting it means we come to a standstill; receiving it means we move on in the blessing of God and achieve all the things He has on His heart for us. This is what this is all about; these are the sorts of things we will consider more fully in these studies.