There is in this passage that which puzzles many (vv.1–5) and that which pains us all (vv.6–10). That which puzzles many is that after it has been made so clear that the Jewish rite of circumcision is not required for salvation, we see the apostle circumcising the young protege Timothy for ministry. And that which pains us all is that the apostle goes some great length of travel being forbidden by the Holy Spirit to enter Asia with the gospel. After all, it would seem that to spread the gospel there is a good thing, but God’s Spirit forbids it. In both of these things we have plainly put the crucible of God’s sovereignty.
Webster’s 1828 dictionary defined crucible as “A chemical vessel or melting pot, made of earth, and so tempered and baked, as to endure extreme heat without melting. It is used for melting ores, metals, &c.” Developing from this Webster adds this helpful definition today: “a place or situation in which concentrated forces interact to cause or influence change or development.” An example sentence given is: “His character was formed in the crucible of war.” So, here we have the apostle and the church being formed in the crucible of sovereignty by that which may puzzle us and that which may pain us.
Yet, God means for his church to flourish, and to do so, the church must go through the crucible of His sovereignty, to effectively do so. This crucible at first may puzzle us (vv.1–5), but it is our task here to go with the apostle to the ends for which this crucible was designed, the joy of the church and her leaders. Keep in mind that this whole setting from vv.1–10 leads exactly to the planting of that church in Philippi known for the joy it will bring Paul and has brought the church down through our present day. Now, in these first five verses we see the development, and we make it our task to solve the puzzle per se. Why would Luke write of the apostle circumcise Timothy just after we read the matter caused such controversy? We see in v. 1 the obvious reason was that he was not circumsised due to his father being a Greek, and apparently unbeliever. Nonetheless, his mother was a believer (v.1) and he apparently is as well (v.2). So reputable a believer was Timothy that he apparently takes the place of Mark (cf. 15:36–41) in regards to a young man that would be helpful to the apostle. But the obstacle in the way is that of the Jews in the places where he was going and their knowledge of Timothy being uncircumcised (v.3). They would be going there to deliver the very instructions of the decisions at the council concerning circumcision not being required and that grace alone is what saves (v.4). Having done this, the result was that the church was strengthened in the faith and flourished (v.5). Now, Galatians 2 indicates that the apostle refused to circumcise another leader named Titus, similar to Timothy in his pastoral gift. Yet, the puzzle is that God has here used the apostle doing the opposite with Timothy. Why? We get a clue from 1 Corinthians 9:19–23 where the apostle states that did these kind of things so as to win the weak. The principle then is that God has ordained that through ministry people may be won by identifying with them in their scruples. Paul would never let the scruples of a member in the church become law in the church (E.g. Titus in Galatians not being circumcised), but when it involves evangelizing people, he condescended by God’s pleasure to the Jews in order to win them and give no offense. The principle is further illustrated in wisdom as we read things like don’t answer a fool according to his folly, followed by the very opposite command to answer a fool according to his folly. Or we read in Galatians to bear another’s burden, while being told in the same section to let each bear his own burden. The point is that there are circumstances that dictate in wisdom a completely opposite application. God has sovereignly ordained things this way that if we are so strict on the matter and think no further than an artificial intelligent robot we cannot live the Christian life. God’s sovereignly has ordained actions by his servants for the strengthening and flourishing of his church that on the surface seem contradictory but are entirely lawful and right in the given circumstance. So, the puzzle of sovereignty is solved when we see in this instance mercy triumphs over judgment. God sovereignly directs his servants this way so that His Son might receive the most honor. The later missionary Hudson Taylor did similar in evangelizing China, dressing in their garb, cutting his hair like them; he certainly was not setting a standard on how to be saved, but in wisdom acting in such a way in adiaphorous matters to win the Chinese. But there is a second matter. God sovereignly controls the flow of the gospel in the world so that His people for whom Christ died may receive at the most proper time the most help.
In vv.6–10 we observe God sovereignly paining the apostle with restrictions by the Holy Spirit. it is clearly stated that Paul’s desire to speak the word in Asia is stopped by the Apostle at this time (v.6). It does not mean of course that God did not want the Asians to be saved, but at this time it was restricted. Why? God is sovereign over who gets saved and when. They did the same in v.7 and again are stopped by the same Spirit, called the Spirit of Jesus. What do they do? They carry on to what they can do next and go down to Troas. I am told the entire journey is about 500 miles; this distance receiving God’s “no” as he has sovereignly meted out! They are in the crucible of sovereignty not only puzzled, but pained! And what happens? Paul has a vision of a man in Macedonia who is calling for help (v.9). It was clear to Paul that this meant to go to Macedonia, because God was given the open door to do so. This was confirmed as we see in the verses that follow (v.10ff).
In our contemporary times John Stott had noted that Livingstone tried to go to China and God sent him to Africa instead. William Carey planned to go to Polynesia in the South Seas, but God guided him to India. Judson went to India first, but was driven on to Burma. Pierson says in light of this that we “need to trust him for guidance and rejoice equally in his restraints and constraints.” He goes on to state that God’s sovereignty is not only negative but positive. This is the clue to how we might deal with the pain of God’s sovereignty. We must see that where God has forbidden something by his sovereign rule, he has done so not to prevent the gospel from going to those who need it most at the time, but to actually ensure it goes to those who need it most at the time. In the former point we see that we learn something of God’s mercy, but here by the Cross and its intention in history we see God’s justice. Christ died for his people, and therefore God will rule all of history and every point of history to ensure his elect in every place and the proper time will both hear the gospel so as to receive the gospel. Mastricht wrote, “The gospel is not announced to all to believe at the same time everywhere, nor is it obligatory to God to do so. But as a gracious action, he brings it at the right time to a person or peoples, so they may hear it, believe it (with living faith), and then conclude that Christ indeed died for them, but not before this.” The pain of sovereignty is resolved when we see that Christ is ruling the nations in such a way as to bring the good news at the proper time and savingly to all for whom he died for. He is just and will not allow any for whom he died to suffer in eternity, but will see to it, even if it takes opposing his own servants by His Spirit, to make sure the gospel goes with rifle aim to their places and to their persons. In the crucible of God’s sovereignty, the church is therefore made strong and flourishes, in a way that there can be no human boasting as to its success. God rules the methods of the missionary to the weak, and the might of the gospel against the strong. The whole church including its leaders are in this crucible so as to shape the growing Kingdom of God into a strong and flourishing work of the Lord for the sake of His Name in all the earth. We look forward to the kingdoms of this world becoming the Kingdom of our God and His Christ, and we can be sure that will be the case, because of the crucible of sovereignty. Amen.