God's Sovereign Timing

We all know Romans 8:28-29. However, when we are in the midst of a great trial it is often hard to see what good can come of it and to trust God that He knows what He is doing.

When new trials come, it helps to look back and see what God has done for us and others in the past. Here I would like to look at examples of God's sovereign control and planning. I am going to focus on God's calling of Paul to be the first missionary because we have lots of details of what God did.

Note: Most of this discussion assumes you already know the stories I am talking about. As always, read the Bible references, whether you know the stories or not.

Outline of events of God's calling Paul to the Ministry.
This timeline is to help you visualize the interaction of events. The numbers correspond to the points below. This is not drawn to scale. Click on the image to get a second window.

  1. God prepares Paul
    • Long before Paul had even heard of Jesus, God was preparing him for the ministry he would have one day.
    • Acts 22:3 - Paul was taught by Gamaliel (Acts 5:34 a well respected 'doctor of the law')
      1. Paul learned the Old Testament very well; probably also rhetoric and reasoning.
      2. Paul's understanding of the Old Testament gave him a great foundation for preaching the gospel. In his letters, we can see that Paul often built his arguments starting on the foundation of the Old Testament.
      3. God gave Paul this preparation so he would be able to lay much of the doctrinal foundation of the New Testament.
      4. God gives knowledge so that we can use it for Him, not just so we can show how smart we are.
    • Acts 22:25-28 He was a Jew and a Roman citizen.
      1. Although being a Roman helped Paul throughout his ministry, it was of most importance at the end of his ministry, because it allowed him to get to Rome.
      2. Roman citizenship was a privilege (the captain had to pay a lot of money to gain it) — God gives privileges for a reason.
  2. Paul persecutes the church:
    • Acts 22:4-5 - As a Pharisee (Philippians 3:5-6), Paul began a severe persecution of the Church, even killing some Christians.
    • Acts 8:3-4; Acts 11:19-21 Even as Paul tried to extinguish the Church, God was using him to spread the Gospel.
      1. Paul was not even saved and God was using him.
      2. God uses evil for good.
      3. This is not: God makes the best of bad situations, but, God allows evil and has already planned to use it for good.
    • Throughout this study, we will see that God was weaving a very complex plan, achieving many good things from one bad event.
      1. Paul's persecution spread the Gospel.
      2. God was going to call Paul to be a missionary to the Gentiles.
        • As the Christians flee from Paul they begin the first steps in opening the door to witnessing to non-Jews (Acts 11:20)
        • Paul's persecution of Christian's began to open the door to preaching to the Gentiles — Paul's mission in life.
        • It also started Barnabas on a tour that would eventually unite him with Paul on Paul's first missionary tour.
      3. Finally, it founded the Church at Antioch (Acts 11:19,20). Antioch was Paul's sending church for his missionary journeys.
  3. Stephen is killed - A pointless death?
    • Stephen was a young Christian who showed great promise.
      1. Acts 6:5 — He was chosen as one of the first 7 deacons in the Church.
      2. Acts 6:8-10 He was also a gifted and bold preacher.
    • However, Stephen's life took a terrifying turn.
      1. Acts 6:9-11 — He was falsely accused of blasphemy and brought before the Council.
      2. Acts 7 — Stephen boldly preached to the Council. Stephen defended the accusation of blasphemy, and he could have stopped there, but he launched straight in to preaching the Gospel. The Council already hated Christians. Stephen knew that, but he was a bold preacher.
      3. Acts 7:54-60 — Because of Stephen's bold witness, he was killed. Even as he died he had a powerful witness.
      4. Acts 7:59; Acts 8:1 — Paul was there for Stephen's stoning and probably heard Stephen's speech too.
    • From the church's prospective this was tragedy: A young man serving God was murdered before he has had a chance to fulfill his potential.
    • We would have been likely to ask God what He was doing, but God had a plan.
    • Stephen's short ministry likely had a profound impact on Paul and others. It is possible that Stephen's powerful sermon and amazing testimony as he died planted the seeds that would come to maturity on the road to Damascus for Paul (Acts 9:3-9).
  4. Ananias's obedience:
    • Acts 9:10-17
      1. God's plan did not make a lot of sense to Ananias, and he was genuinely afraid of Paul.
      2. What would have happened to God's plan if Ananias had not obeyed? God's plans are not fragile, but Ananias would have missed the privilege to be a part of them.
      3. This is the only thing we ever hear about Ananias. His one claim to fame is that he obeyed God when it didn't make sense and wasn't safe. As a result he had an indirect influence on the hundreds that Paul led to the Lord.
      4. God uses us. Our obedience is part of God's plan. This means obedience - even when it doesn't make sense or is scary.
    • Acts 9:15-16 God had a plan for Paul's life. He was to preach to the Gentiles (15), kings(16), and Israel (6). We will see that plan continue to develop through the rest of this study.
    • Galatians 1:23-24 — Again God doesn't have just one good thing planned, but many.
      1. God saved Paul and called him to a great ministry.
      2. God gave the Church relief from the persecution.
      3. And God was glorified in all of it.
        • This is very important! We need to remember that God must get the glory in all He does.
        • Certainly He deserves the glory, for who could have expected that God would turn the leading Christian-hater into the leading missionary in one fell swoop!
        • God took a seemingly bad situation and turned it 180° around into a good situation.
  5. God protects Paul:
    • Acts 9:23, 25, 29, 30 — Twice God allows news of the plot to kill Paul to come early enough for him to escape.
    • Once God told Paul in a vision (Acts 22:17-18).
    • The other time it is likely that the Christians just happened to hear about it.
    • Acts 23:16-22 — Again much later in Paul's ministry, God allowed the right person to just happen to hear about some threat to Paul's life.
    • God is in the details. God's plans do not just cover the really big things, they also extend to the smallest details.
  6. Barnabas reaches out to Paul:
    • Acts 9:26-27 — The Christians in Jerusalem had good reason to be afraid of Paul. When he left Jerusalem not that long ago he was imprisoning and killing every Christian he could find.
    • Of course they could not see the big picture. They could not see that God was preparing to use Paul in a big way.
    • Barnabas could not see the really big picture, but he was willing to step out in courage, just like Ananias, and befriend Paul.
    • We don't see God giving Barnabas any special command, like Ananias got. Barnabas just saw that someone needed to reach out to Paul and he was willing to do it.
    • Like Barnabas, we too need to be willing to reach out to the scary people.
    • Barnabas also did not know that he would be Paul's partner on the first missionary journey. God is already preparing for a long friendship between Paul and Barnabas.
    • Acts 9:28-29 — Paul also is courageous. He launches right out preaching to his fellow Jews, already fulfilling part of his calling (See: Acts 9:15).
  7. Paul studies for the ministry:
    • Galatians 1:15-18 — Sometime at some point during this time Paul disappears for 3 years.
    • Paul had received a commission from God to go and preach. We see that right away he was on fire to preach the Gospel. However, Paul realized that he needed some time to prepare for this calling.
    • Sometimes preparation is part of God's plan. We can get anxious and want to charge out with what God has given us to do, but we need to remember to wait on God's timing. (See: Joshua)
  8. God's dealings with Cornelius:
    • We are going to shift away from Paul for a while and look at some other lives God was working in during this time.
    • Acts 10:1-6 — God had been working in Cornelius' life for a very long time.
      • Now, after years of working in his life, God is going to bring it all together.
      • God's plans sometimes take a long time.
    • Note also that God's rewards are sometimes long in coming.
      • Cornelius had given to God for a long time. He had tried to serve God the best he could.
      • Now, after many years, God is going to bless him. He is going to bless him in a really big way.
      • Had you asked Cornelius sometime after this if the waiting was worth it he would have said, "Absolutely!"
    • You see, Cornelius was on the outside looking in.
      • As a Gentile the Old Testament did not offer much hope to him.
      • Also, as a Roman soldier, the Jews who worshiped the same God were not going to be very accepting of him.
      • God is getting ready to change all of that.
  9. God leads Peter to the right place:
    • God has sent Cornelius to Joppa to look for Peter. It is worth following how Peter got to Joppa.
      1. Acts 9:32-34 — As Peter is traveling, preaching the gospel he comes upon a man named Aeneas, who has been bed ridden for 8 years. God enables Peter to heal Aeneas.
      2. Acts 9:35 — The fame of the healing brought many to Christ.
      3. Acts 9:36-37 — Dorcas dies. Again, this is an apparent tragedy as someone who is serving God dies prematurely.
      4. Acts 9:38-42 — Again, God is weaving a beautifully complex plan.
      • Peter's fame from healing Aeneas, not only brought many to Christ, but also ...
      • the news also spread to Joppa, where Dorcas lived.
      • Now Dorcas' death gives the Christians a reason to call for Peter.
      • God brings it all together and Dorcas is resurrected.
      • Acts 9:42 — Again God is glorified and many are saved.
      • Acts 9:43 — Not only that, but now Peter is in the right place for Cornelius to find him.
    • Now it is likely that Peter did not see half of what God was doing or how all of this fit together.
    • God is controlling and directing so many things, that we often don't see all of it, even as we look back on what has happened.
  10. Peter preaches to the Gentiles:
    • Acts 10:17 God's timing is perfect
      • God brought Peter to Joppa.
      • Peter is hungry, but there is nothing in the fridge to munch on so he goes up to the roof to wait for lunch to be made.
      • God makes use of Peter's hunger in a vision, letting Peter know that it is OK to preach to the Gentiles.
      • Just as Peter is trying to sort all of this out Cornelius' messengers arrive at the door.
      • So many separate events from two totally disconnected groups, but God brings it all together with perfect timing.
    • Now the stage is set for God to do some really spectacular things.
      1. Up to this point the Gospel has only really been preached to the Jews and maybe some Samaritans.
      2. God has called Paul to preach to the Gentiles, but that is not yet acceptable to the Church as a whole.
      3. While Saul was preparing for the ministry, God is opening the door to this ministry through Peter.
      4. It is likely that Peter knew nothing of Paul's call to this ministry. And Paul has no idea of what God is doing for him in Peter's life.
      5. However, both were being obedient to God, and He was working out the details.
      6. God works through our obedience. As we are obedient we can trust that God is controlling the big picture.
  11. Barnabas sees God's work expand
    • Acts 11:19-21 — The ripples of Paul's persecution are still spreading out and the gospel is beginning to spill out beyond just the Jews.
    • Acts 11:22-26 — Now God begins to work in Barnabas and prepare him for missionary work.
      1. Barnabas sees God's work among people who are not traditional Jews.
      2. Barnabas begins to minster to them.
      3. Also, he moves to Antioch, the church that will become Paul and Barnebas's sending church.
  12. God brings Barnabas and Paul together again
    • Acts 11:25-26 — God re-unites Barnabas and Paul
    • It has been at least 3 years now since Paul's conversion and calling.
    • The whole time God has been preparing and putting things in place. Now He is drawing it all together. Paul & Barnabas are together in Antioch.
  13. Paul and Barnabas serve God where they are at
    • Acts 11:26-30 Paul and Barnabas are serving God together where they are at.
    • This is an important pattern we see in the Christian life. God calls those who are already serving Him to bigger things.
    • The next step for them is a small mission to Jerusalem.
  14. Peter waits for deliverance
    • Acts 12:1-4 — We catch up with Peter and find that he is in prison now. It appears that Herod plans to kill Peter.
    • Acts 12:4-6 Peter had to wait until the very last minute for God to deliver him. He was in prison for a while (maybe about a week). The whole time the Christians were praying for him, but it was not until the night before the trial that God delivered him.
    • Acts 12:24-25 Paul and Barnabas were in Jerusalem to wittiness Peter's miraculous release from prison.
      1. Do you think Paul remembered this when he was singing in the Philippian prison?
      2. Also while in Jerusalem they pick up John Mark, the last member of the first missionary group.
  15. God calls Paul and Barnabas to missions
    • Acts 13:1-3 After continued obedience, God calls Paul and Barnabas to be missionaries
      1. We need to be faithful in the small things before God entrusts us with bigger things. Luke 16:10-12
      2. Before this point Paul had served God faithfully, but it is not until now that Paul gets into his full calling. From this point on we see Paul working with a passion for what he is doing and never looking back.
      3. We are sometimes afraid of what God may call us to do, if we allow Him, but we can learn from Paul that true fulfillment is in serving God all the way.
    • According to one Bible reference this is about 11 years after Jesus appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus.
    • God had all of this planned out long before He started. The timing and waiting were all part of His plan.
  16. Paul Gets to Rome
    • Romans 1:9-13 — Paul had wanted to go to Rome for a long time
    • Acts 23:11 — God promised that he would get to Rome.
    • Acts 24:27; Acts 25:21; Acts 27:27; Acts 28:11 — It took a long time for Paul to get there, and it was not at all how Paul had planned it, but God kept His promise.
    • Acts 23:33-25; Acts 24:24-25; Acts 25:4; Acts 26:1; Acts 27:1 — In the in between time, Paul had a chance to preach to many of the kings and leaders of that part of the world.
    • Paul spent the rest of his life under arrest, was that really a good thing?
      • Philippians 1:12-13 — Paul thought so.
      • His calling in life continued to be carried out even in the most unusually and difficult circumstances.

Paul was not special. We can see the same thing in others.

  1. Esther 4:10-14 — Obedience is a privilege.
    • Esther had shot from nothing to Queen of the most powerful kingdom in the world.
    • Now she had the chance to use that to save her people, but she had to risk everything (including her life) to do it.
    • Mordecai reminders Esther that there are consequences for not doing what God has called you to.
    • Most importantly he reminds her that God's plans are not dependent on mans' obedience. We have the privilege to obey and be part of God's plans, but God's plans will continue with or without us.
  2. 1 Samuel 13:5-14 — Waiting on God and making my own way
    • 1 Samuel 13:5-7 — Saul was in a tight spot. The Philistines have come out en-mass and the Israelites are scared.
    • 1 Samuel 13:8 — Samuel had said he would come and sacrifice before the battle, but Samuel was late and his army was deserting him.
    • 1 Samuel 13:9 — Saul had to do something. So he decides to make the sacrifice himself.
    • 1 Samuel 13:10-14 — Just as the sacrifice is over Samuel shows up. Saul tries to justify what he did, but Samuel tells him that because of this his line would not keep the thrown.
    • What was Saul supposed to do, he was in trouble and things were getting worse by the minute.
      • First, God had given commandments about how sacrifices are to be done. No matter what the situational justification is we are always to keep God's commands.
      • Second, this was to teach Saul to wait on the Lord. Had he waited just a little longer Samuel would have arrived and God would have blessed.
  3. These are all Bible characters, maybe God only did great things back in Bible times.
    • Romans 8:28-29 — We still have His promises today, and God has not changed.
    • There are many post-cannon examples of God turning evil to good.
      • Near the end of the Roman empire a teenager was captured and taken away as a slave. He lived a miserable life as a shepherd. However, through that God began to work in his heart and eventually called him to be a missionary to heathen Ireland. Through the tragedy of war and slavery, God took a boy who cared nothing for God and made the great missionary we now call St. Patrick.
      • Recently the movie End of the Spear was released. It is the story of how 5 young missionaries were martyred trying to reach the Huaorani Indians in South America. Not only did God use that to eventually bring His word to the Huaorani, but the story of that event is credited with helping to spark the modern missionary movement.
  4. When trials come, we can know that, just like for Paul God will work them all out for good. We may not see the final good, but God is faithful and we can trust Him.