Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine nor strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.Luke 1:8-17, ESV
Rolling the Dice…
At first glance, the scene that Luke depicts may seem to be highlighting a few insignificant details along the way to fill space or to add a bit of historical color to the story. For example, what does the ancient practice of casting lots have to do with the story of God’s Christ? What is a “lot” anyway? Casting lots was an ancient Jewish practice of seeking God’s will where someone would use sticks or stones with special markings or symbols and throw the “lots” into a small area. The lots would be read and the will of God thereby determined. Although the comparison isn’t apples to apples, the closest thing to casing lots that we would recognize today is probably dice. One major problem with associating lots to dice is that our perception of dice is usually tied to “chance” or “dumb luck”. These pious Jewish men were not the sort that gambled their way through life. The Jewish practice of casting lots was not seen in their eyes as being an arbitrary way of learning God’s will through “chance” or “dumb luck” at all.
Providence isn’t Christianese for Chance…
A first-century Jewish priest would have been completely comfortable associating the will of God with the casting of lots because he found that practice throughout the Old Testament Scriptures. For example, Proverbs 16:33 says, “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.” When these pious Jewish priests cast lots to choose which of them would enter into the Temple to burn the incense for the congregational worship, they knew God was providentially guiding them. They didn’t see chance and chaos around every corner. They saw providence and guidance in all things.
God the good Creator of all things, in His infinite power and wisdom does uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures and things,1 from the greatest even to the least,2 by His most wise and holy providence, to the end for the which they were created, according unto His infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of His own will; to the praise of the glory of His wisdom, power, justice, infinite goodness, and mercy.1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, Chapter 5.1
This opening scene in the Gospel According to Luke illustrates God’s providence in at least two ways. First, God’s providential guidance is seen at work in the disappointing circumstances of life. Zechariah and Elizabeth wanted to have children but were simply unable despite years of patient prayer. Second, God’s providence is seen in the small act of casting lots that placed Zechariah in exactly the right place at the right time. Gabriel appeared to Zechariah to announce God’s gracious news of a special child who would be the Messiah’s forerunner. That conversation was completely private, but when Zechariah exited the Temple, there were many people to be witnesses to the story of this priest’s vision. God is directing history toward His goal for our good and for His glory.
God is Still Orchestrating History…
Sometimes providence is a Christian teaching that gets misunderstood and then avoided. I find this doctrine to be supremely helpful in my own Christian life, and I think there are far too many people who are missing a blessing they desperately need. Where are you right now? What season of life? Are you struggling, thriving, waiting, or procrastinating? Fear not, thou child of the King. God has not forgotten you or left you alone. The Good Lord is at work in your life. God directs His children toward His good goal for their lives, but that goal is sometimes at the end of a difficult path. Keep walking by faith.
Good stuff. Really helpful.
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