Solomon Stoddard, was a very well-known and influential pastor in the 17th and 18th century. How influential was he? Suffice it to say that his fellow Puritan clergy referred to him as “Pope Stoddard.” He was the pastor of the Northampton Congregational Church for 60 years. After 58 years of solo pastoring he discerned he needed an assistant and the congregation, at his suggestion, they hired his grandson, Jonathan Edwards to help him out. Stoddard had mentored a lot of young men who went into the ministry over his sixty year tenure. He was a well-respected mentor. But “the Pope” had certain rules he expected the young ministers he trained to follow if they were going to gain his respect. And one of those rules was that any preacher worth his salt would not preach from a manuscript or from notes. This was problematic for Edwards who was in the habit of writing out his sermons. Edwards did not want to offend his grandfather, nor did he feel he could give up his manuscript. So he started writing his sermons in tiny little booklets that he could hide in his hand.
I know how he must have felt. I too work much better with a manuscript than I do extemporaneously. It is helpful for me for a couple of reasons. First, it helps me work through what I want to say and how I want to say it. And second, it keeps me on track.
One of the challenges in preparing a sermon is that you only have so much time to preach. As the saying goes, “The mind can only take what the butt can endure.” The same is true with posts. I try to keep my posts to a reasonable length and keep series to 2-3 parts. While I was preparing this series of posts it became apparent that it was not all going to get done in two or three, at least not in the way I was pursuing it. But this truth—that we have free will, that we are responsible for our decisions, and that God is sovereign—which God laid on my heart to address, is so important and so often avoided, misunderstood, or misrepresented, that I felt that I would be doing a disservice by going lighter instead of deeper.
I started this series looking at Genesis 50:15-21. From that text I pointed out three things:
That we have free will, the freedom to choose what we want or desire. We saw this in that Joseph’s brothers knew it was their choice to sell their brother into slavery. No one made them do it. They did it. They did it because they wanted to do it.
That we are held responsible by God for our decisions. Joseph’s brothers knew that what they did was wrong and that God had the right to hold them to account for what they did.
These we looked at in parts 1 and 2. In this and the following post I want to look specifically at verse 20, You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. Joseph does not deny that his brothers’ choices were malicious, but he has come to see what they did from a different perspective: God used their choices, freely made and evil though they were, to be the means God used to bring him to Egypt so that he could save many lives, including theirs.
Now, to be perfectly honest, most Christians do not have a problem with the fact that we have free will and that God holds us responsible for our choices. They are widely affirmed throughout the Church. The real rub comes with this third truth, that God is sovereign. What I want to give a picture of what it means that God is sovereign and then share some thoughts on why it is necessary.
288 times God says of Himself or is addressed as Sovereign Lord in the Bible. What does that mean, that God is sovereign? It means that God has the right, the authority, and the power to do whatever He wants in and with His creation. Psalms 115:3 says (NASEC) Our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases. The NLT translates it he does as he wishes. Let’s take a look at a few passages of Scripture that unpack what it means that God is in the heavens and He does as He pleases.
Let’s start by looking at Isaiah 40:12-14 (NIV)
Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, or with the breadth of his hand marked off the heavens? Who has held the dust of the earth in a basket, or weighed the mountains on the scales and the hills in a balance? Who can fathom the Spirit of the LORD, or instruct the LORD as his counselor? Whom did the LORD consult to enlighten him, and who taught him the right way? Who was it that taught him knowledge, or showed him the path of understanding?
God has the right to rule and act as He wishes because He created everything. And as vast and mysterious as the universe is, it is not complicated to Him. He can cup the oceans in His hand, the mountains are like dust to Him. No one taught Him how to create. No one taught Him how to rule. All of the universe is His, and therefore He has the sovereign right to do with it what He pleases.
Isaiah 40:22-26 (NIV),
He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in. He brings princes to naught and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing. No sooner are they planted, no sooner are they sown, no sooner do they take root in the ground, than he blows on them and they wither, and a whirlwind sweeps them away like chaff.
“To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one and calls forth each of them by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.
When Isaiah says that He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, he means that God’s throne is of a higher authority than anyone else’s. By His authority, human rulers come and go. All He has to do to remove a ruler is to blow on them. His authority is so vast that even the stars submit to Him. The human eye can see about 3000 stars. With the technology we have, we know that the Milky Way Galaxy contains about 400 billion stars; and that we are one galaxy among hundreds of billions of galaxies. But to God all that space is something He spreads out like a canopy, He knows each any every star by name, and not one of them has ever gone missing! God can do as He wishes because He possesses the highest authority.
Isaiah 43:10-13 (NIV),
“You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor will there be one after me. I, even I, am the LORD, and apart from me there is no savior. I have revealed and saved and proclaimed—I, and not some foreign god among you. You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “that I am God. Yes, and from ancient days I am he. No one can deliver out of my hand. When I act, who can reverse it?”
God declares that there is no power that can overrule His actions. God is not one of many gods in some pantheon or heavenly court. He does not have to ask permission or get a majority vote of the heavenly assembly. He is alone in His authority and power. Therefore salvation is only found in Him. Judgment is only found in Him. No one can deliver out of His hand, when He acts none has the power or authority to challenge or reverse it.
God the right to do whatever He pleases because He is its sole Creator. He has the authority to do whatever He pleases because His authority is higher than every other authority or power in the universe. He has the power to do whatever He pleases because there is no power that can undo what He has done.
God’s sovereignty extends over every aspect of His creation, and that unapologetically us. This is what Joseph declared to his brothers. Joseph’s brothers made their decision to sell him as a slave. But all that was orchestrated by God to bring Joseph to Egypt to that God could bless the world through Joseph; proving His love, faithfulness, and sovereignty to His people and to the world.