Providence in Christ’s Death
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Providence in Christ’s Death

Acts 2:23, Acts 4:28  (ID: 3058)

Jesus’ death was an act of great injustice, but the Bible tells us that it also happened according to the plan and purpose of God. In this message, Alistair Begg examines the crucifixion in light of the doctrine of providence from the perspective of God the Father, the Lord Jesus, and the human participants. Although it is a mystery that we cannot fully understand, the injustice of the crucifixion accomplished God’s plan to demonstrate the breadth of His love by redeeming sinners.

Series Containing This Sermon

Intended for Good

A Study on God’s Providential Care Selected Scriptures Series ID: 27501

Sermon Transcript: Print

Now I want just to read a couple of short passages from the Acts of the Apostles, from Acts chapter 2, first of all, and then we’ll jump forward to Acts chapter 4. Acts chapter 2, and we just take a piece of Peter’s sermon in verse 22:

“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. For David says concerning him, ‘I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken; therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; my flesh also will dwell in hope. For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption. You have made known to me the [path] of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’”[1]

And then he goes on to say, “And clearly the fulfillment of this could not be in David, but it pointed beyond David and to its fulfillment in the Lord Jesus Christ.”[2] Because he says in verse 34, “David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”’ [Therefore,] let all the house of Israel … know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”[3]

And then in chapter 4, after the healing of the beggar and all that transpires, Peter and John are freed from jail. And 4:23:

“When they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them. And when they”—that is, their friends who’d been praying for them—“heard it, they lifted their voices together to God and said, ‘Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit’”—and now he’s quoting from Psalm 2, previously from Psalm 16—“‘“Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against his Anointed”—for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel.’”[4]

So in other words, he’s saying that the fulfillment of Psalm 2—the kings of the earth and the rulers gathering together—finds its fulfillment, at least in this instance, in the activity and the actions of Herod and Pontius Pilate, who, along with the gentiles and the peoples of Israel—now we pick it up at verse 28—they did “to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” All right? They did “whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness.”[5]

It’s interesting. They don’t say, “And now please don’t let them go to jail anymore. Please don’t let us have any more animosity or any more persecution or anything like this.” That’s not their prayer. Their prayer is that God will enable his servants, despite what they have just been through, to speak the Word of God with even greater boldness in light of all that is to come.

Well, just let’s pause for a moment.

Father, please help us with this as we think along this line tonight, that we might have clarity in our thinking, that we might have humility in our responding, and that we might have charity in our dealings with one another, especially when we delve into difficult matters where there might be the potential for disagreement. Hear our prayer, O God, for Christ’s sake. Amen.

Divine Predestination and Human Free Will

Now, I think we would be agreed, wouldn’t we, that Simon Peter was not by any means a straight-A student in the school of Christ. It’s perhaps not fair to single him out, but there’s a sense in which he just asks for it. He’s just like a naughty boy in school in many ways. He was always putting up his hand, always saying, “I have the answer, I have the answer, I have the answer.” And many times he did, but he was often good at getting it for a moment and then falling back dreadfully. His life was sort of bursts of enthusiasm followed by periods of chronic inertia—and that from the very get-go, when he manages to come up with the right answer to the question “Who do you say that I am?” and he says, “Well, you are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And then, within a matter of moments, he’s banished to the bottom of the class, where he’s told, “Get behind me, Satan! Because you don’t have in mind the things of God.”[6]

And then, when Jesus is engaging in the foot washing, he declares to Jesus, “You will never wash my feet.” There’s a pretty striking thing to say. “You shall never wash my feet.” This is John chapter 13. And Jesus says to him, he says, “Well, let me tell you something: If I don’t, then you will have no share with me at all. There’s no way that you will be included in my plans.” “Oh, well, then,” he says, “just don’t wash my feet, but also wash my hands, and also my head.”[7]

“Jesus, you should know that if everybody deserts you—particularly some of these fellas, my friends here—if they all if they all leave you, you can count on me, right to the very end. I am your main man. I will be with you, all the way through.”[8] And then the rooster crowed, and the eyes of Jesus and Peter met one another, and immediately, while he was still denying Jesus, he went out and wept bitterly.[9]

Now, I begin in that way as a backdrop for consideration of what we then have in this Pentecostal sermon. Because when you realize that the person who is declaring these words is the person that I’ve just given that brief biographical outline for and not one that is particularly commendable… And yet here we have the fulfillment of what Jesus had told these followers of his that we’ve looked at before and we needn’t rehearse again: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all … truth,”[10] and “When the helper comes, whom I will send to you”—this is in the Upper Room Discourse, in John 15 and 16—“when the Helper, whom I will send to you, comes, then you will be in a position not only to understand but also to declare.”[11]

And so, here we are, right in the very first sermon with reference to Jesus, and what do we discover? Well, the observation of Howard Marshall is in half a sentence: what we discover is “the paradox of divine predestination and human freewill in its strongest form.” “Divine predestination and human freewill in its strongest form,”[12] not separated by a chapter, not separated by a book, not even separated by a verse: “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.”

Now, Peter, in explaining this, surely is the beneficiary of the wonderful Bible study that was provided by Jesus that is recorded for us at the end of Luke’s Gospel—which, again, we do not need to turn to. But you remember, on that occasion, Jesus actually begins to unfold the story of redemptive history throughout the Bible for those disconsolate disciples. And once he has done that, it is then time for him to send them on their way.

And at the end of Luke chapter 24, he said to them, “‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ … He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and [he] said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead’”—in other words, it was the eternal plan of God that was being executed in time—“‘and that repentance [and] forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all [the] nations, beginning from Jerusalem.’” Now he says, “‘You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.’” Then “he led them out as far as Bethany.”[13] Then and only then. For them to go prior to that, without the instruction that he had given and without the promise of the Holy Spirit which was then poured out upon them, would have been absolutely devastating.

And so, it is right for us, when we take a doctrine such as the doctrine of providence, into which we dipped last Sunday evening (which is in some ways a difficult doctrine; it’s a biblical doctrine, it’s a helpful doctrine)—one of the things that we’ve been teaching one another to ask with something that is difficult like that is: How does this actually play out in the life of Jesus? Because if we’re trying to teach a biblical principle, a biblical truth, and when we come to it in the life and ministry of Jesus, it doesn’t work, then somewhere along the line we have ourselves gone wrong in what we’re doing. Because it will always work, it will always fit in relationship to Jesus.

In the cross, God pardons those who believe in Christ, even though they have sinned and deserve only his condemnation.

Calvin, in a quite wonderful sentence, in introducing this says, “We must not follow the lead of many clever types who when they talk of God’s providence engage in circumlocutions and in obscure and tedious speculations”—so that as soon as the issue is raised, we have “circumlocutions,” which is even hard to say and difficult to spell, and we have “tedious and obscure speculations.” Of that there is absolutely no doubt. And it is no part of mine to add to that body of work but rather to seek to help us to come to terms with what this means. Says Calvin, we must look to Jesus Christ, “for he is the true mirror”—meer-ror, as opposed to meer—“he is the true mirror in which we are to contemplate God’s providence.” So in other words, when we look at Jesus, then we have the opportunity really to come to terms with his providence.

Now, as I was working on this material, the thing that I found the hardest was to try somehow or another to create or discover an outline that would enable me not to be guilty of the very circumlocutions that Calvin warns against. And I was greatly helped not by finding a sermon by John [Flavel] but by discovering three statements by John [Flavel] which I now use as the headings for the balance of our study this evening.[14]

Justice and Mercy

First of all, in respect of God, the death of Christ was justice and mercy. All right? So we’re going to deal with it in respect of God, in respect of Jesus, in respect of man. That’s how [Flavel] dealt with it—the grave divine of the Scottish Reformation. So, when we look at this in relationship to God, we see it in terms both of justice and of mercy.

Now, here in Acts chapter 2, remember: Saul of Tarsus at this point is still Saul of Tarsus. He’s not Paul. We’re only in Acts chapter 2. And therefore, in Acts chapter 2, we don’t have a fully developed doctrine of the atonement, of what is actually happening in the death of Jesus. We’re going to have to wait until Paul writes Romans to provide for us, for example, 4:25, where he says of Jesus, he “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” We know that because we’ve learned to read the Bible backwards. But there is even in Acts chapter 2 already an understanding that through Jesus’ death, the purpose of God was being worked out. Right? As Peter preaches here and as the people listen, they are making the discovery that here in the death of Jesus, the purpose of God is being worked out.

Now, we have not been taken into the behind-the-scenes with the Bible study of Luke chapter 24. So it’s purely speculation on our part to wonder—and I think it is a safe bet, if I might use such terminology—to imagine that Jesus, in providing his disconsolate followers with the story of redemption, settled in Isaiah chapter 53 as one of the high points along the way. As I say, it is speculative. And if, then, he settled in Isaiah 53 and he quoted to them, “Who has believed our report, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? He grew up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground. He had no form or comeliness” and everything,[15] and he said to them, “This is me, you know; this is all about me”—but then he would have had to deal with verse 10, which reads,

Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
 he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt.

In other words, he has to say to his disciples, “The reason that I died was because it was the set plan and purpose of my heavenly Father,” thereby making clear that the death of Jesus is not something that was contrived in time in order to correct a defect in a system, but rather from eternity, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit entered, as theologians say, into a covenant of redemption with one another so that the Father would send the Son, the Son would go and die in the place of sinners, and the Holy Spirit would then bring that truth home in all of its fullness to men and women.

The bottom line is that the Son was assigned this work to accomplish redemption, and the Father would glorify him in return. That makes sense of the beginning of the High Priestly Prayer in John 17, as Jesus kneels in prayer—or stands in prayer, we don’t know—and, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that [your] Son may glorify you.”[16] How is he going to glorify him? In his death.

Now, Peter later on, when he writes in his letter, has this buttoned down, where he says in 1 Peter 1:20—and you can read on for yourselves—of Jesus, “He was chosen before the [foundation] of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake.”[17] He says, “I get this now, I really get this: that the death of Christ was purposed from all of eternity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit entering into a covenant of redemption. Oh, how the grace of God amazes me, that God in eternity knew you, formed you, made you, loved you, sought you, saved you! You didn’t do this. He did this. It’s amazing.”

So, Peter’s language here in Acts chapter 2 is absolutely clear, isn’t it? “This Jesus, delivered up according to”—listen to the language—“the definite plan and foreknowledge of God,” or the definite plan and “set purpose”[18] of God. And according to God, it is the explication of his justice and his mercy—both justice and mercy, equally expressed in the cross.

As we rehearse for one another routinely, in the cross God pardons those who believe in Christ, even though they have sinned and deserve only his condemnation. Without that, we would be excluded from his presence forever. And it is here in the cross that he displays and he satisfies his perfect justice by executing the punishment on his own Son, the punishment that our sins deserve. And without that, we would be not only separated from God, but God would not be true to himself. He delivered him up.

“How deep the Father’s love for us, how vast beyond all measure.”[19]

Oh, safe and happy shelter!
Oh, refuge tried and sweet!
Oh, trysting place where heaven’s love
And heaven’s justice meet![20]

A “trysting place” is the place where lovers go to tell each other they love each other. And the cross is the trysting place of God’s love, and in the cross, from the perspective of God, heaven’s love and heaven’s justice meet.

Murder and Cruelty

Secondly, in respect of man, the death of Christ was murder and cruelty. All right? In terms of God: justice and mercy. In terms of man: murder and cruelty.

The fact that the principal cause was the definite plan and foreknowledge of God does not in any way at all relieve the instigators (Jews and others) and the perpetrators (Romans and others)—does not relieve either the instigators or the perpetrators—of their violence, does not free them from their responsibility. And again, this comes so clearly, doesn’t it, in 4:27: “For truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod … Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel.” “They were all here! And this was according to the foreknowledge and counsel of God.”

Now, here’s the question: Did the primary cause of God’s predestinating grace mean that the activity of those who were engaged in the death of Jesus, in the flesh-and-blood reality of it all—in the crown of thorns, in the stripping of him naked, in doing all that they did to him and finally nailing him on a tree—does that allow us then to say, “Well, that sets them free from any kind of culpability at all”? No, clearly it doesn’t. We know that because of the way the Bible presents it. “According to God’s set-forth purpose, according to his mercy and his justice. But in terms of you guys”—and the whole human race is culpable in this—“in terms of you fellas, the perspective is that of murder and of cruelty.”

Flavel, in his wonderful book The Mystery of Providence, which everybody ought to buy a copy of and read—he addresses this in somewhat archaic language, but I’ll try and read it, and I think you’ll get it clearly. He says the foreknowledge and counsel of God, his set purpose and his predetermination, “did no more compel or force their wicked hands to do what they did, than the [sailor] hoisting up his sails, to take the wind to serve his design, compels the wind.”[21] The sailor does not compel the wind. The sailor pulls up the sails, determines the set of the sails, but has no control over the winds at all. But he is actually doing what he’s doing.

So in other words, here we are again at concurrence, in the same way that we saw it in the life of Joseph. Joseph says to his brothers, “Your motivation in this was evil; God’s motivation in this was good. You intended it for evil; God intended it for good.[22] And the fact that God intended it for good, to provide a Savior for those who were impoverished in Egypt, does not in any way alleviate the responsibility of you, the miserable brothers who were jealous, spiteful, hateful, and did exactly what you did.”

You look at the cross and you have the same thing: “You folks intended this for evil, but God intended it for good.” They said, “We will not have this man to reign over us.”[23] They lifted up their voices together against God and said, “No, we’re not going to do this.” And as I say to you, the deeper truth is that the whole human race is culpable in this regard. “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” Oh yes, in every realistic sense, we were.

Obedience and Humility

So in relationship to God the Father, it is justice and mercy. In relationship to man, it is murder and cruelty. And finally, in relationship to Christ himself, it is obedience and humility. Obedience and humility.

You see, it is not that simply the Father delivered up the Son and the Son was a reluctant participant in the process. It is true that God gave the Son, but it is equally true that the Son gave himself. Remember? When Judas comes to betray him in the garden with the soldiers, he’s not hiding behind a tree. He steps forward and says, “Are you looking for someone?”[24] He knows they’re looking for him. When Peter, once again seeking to go to the top of the class, decides to take somebody’s head off and misses and takes their ear off, Jesus says, “Put away your sword. If I wanted it to be another way, I could call twelve legions of angels, and we could be done with this whole program right now.”[25]

Christ suffered at the hands of cruel men in fulfillment of the covenant of redemption and in direct accord with the set purpose and foreknowledge of God.

But no, the Father and the Son take the initiative together in the salvation of sinners. Hence hymnody sets it forward: “My Lord, what love is this, that pays so dearly that I, the guilty one, may go free!”[26] As Augustine said, “The cross is the pulpit from which God preached his love to the world.”[27] And consequently, the men that have the best influence in the church throughout history, when you read their stories, are those who, according to Iain Murray, have been taken with, captivated by, carried away by God’s love for sinners—to the extent, says Murray, that “persuading men of God’s love is the great calling of … Christian ministry.”[28] And we will never persuade men of his love unless we understand the extent of his love. “It was his love for me,” says the hymn writer, “that nailed him to the tree to die in agony for all my sin.”[29]

’Tis mystery all! Th’Immortal dies!
Who can explore [this] strange design?
In vain the firstborn seraph tries
To sound the depth of love divine!

Amazing love! How can it be
That thou, my God, [would] die for me![30]

“You created the universe, and I am part of the ugly crew that said, ‘I don’t want you, I’m not interested in you,’ and you pursued me?”

“Oh, the love that drew salvation’s plan!”[31] Oh, the mystery that Christ suffered nothing by accident, suffered nothing because he was somehow or another powerless to deal with it, but rather, he suffered at the hands of cruel men in fulfillment of the covenant of redemption and in direct accord with the set purpose and foreknowledge of God.

In relationship to God is justice and mercy. In relationship to man, it is murder and cruelty. In relationship to Christ, it is obedience and humility. And loved ones, never forget this—two things to finish: Truths that look contradictory to us are not so in the light of heaven. Truths that are contradictory to us are not so in the light of heaven. And it is not the pastor’s responsibility to explain the unexplainable.

Father, thank you that we can use this as a launching pad for our own further study of the immensity of your grace and your goodness. We bow our tiny little minds before your majesty and your wisdom. It is beyond our ability to fathom. And when we rehearse it in the company of those who do not believe, they tell us straight out, “This is absolute folly. This is foolishness.” It is “foolishness to those who are perishing, but to [those] who are being saved it is the power of God.”[32]

Humble our hearts, Lord. Help us to lose ourself in the immensity of your grace—just in the very inexplicable dimensions of it all to lose ourself in all that your Word makes clear rather than burying ourselves in all that you have chosen to keep within the secrecy of your eternal mind.

Hear us, O God, and help us as we end our time in song, that we might give to you the glory that is due to you alone. And we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

[1] Acts 2:22–28 (ESV).

[2] Acts 2:29–33 (paraphrased).

[3] Acts 2:34–36 (ESV).

[4] Acts 4:23–27 (ESV).

[5] Acts 4:28–29 (ESV).

[6] Matthew 16:15–16, 23 (paraphrased).

[7] John 13:8–9 (paraphrased).

[8] Matthew 26:33, 35 (paraphrased)

[9] See Matthew 26:75; Luke 22:61–62.

[10] John 16:13 (ESV).

[11] John 15:26–27 (paraphrased). See also John 16:12–13.

[12] I. Howard Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles: An Introduction and Commentary, The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1980), 75.

[13] Luke 24:44–50 (ESV).

[14] “Of the Nature and Quality of Christ’s Death,” sermon 26 in The Fountain of Life, in The Whole Works of the Rev. Mr. John Flavel (London: W. Baynes, 1820), 1:321.

[15] Isaiah 53:1–2 (paraphrased).

[16] John 17:1 (ESV).

[17] 1 Peter 1:20 (NIV).

[18] Acts 2:23 (NIV 1984).

[19] Stuart Townend, “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us” (1995).

[20] Elizabeth C. Clephane, “Beneath the Cross of Jesus” (1868).

[21] Flavel, “Christ’s Death,” 1:321.

[22] Genesis 50:20 (paraphrased).

[23] Luke 19:14 (KJV).

[24] John 18:4 (paraphrased).

[25] Matthew 26:52–53 (paraphrased).

[26] Graham Kendrick, “Amazing Love” (1989).

[27] Quoted in Thomas Watson, “Christ’s Priestly Office,” in A Body of Practical Divinity (1692). Paraphrased.

[28] Iain H. Murray, “The Cross: The Pulpit of God’s Love—Part 2,” Banner of Truth 495 (December 2004).

[29] Norman J. Clayton, “It Was His Love for Me (1943).

[30] Charles Wesley, “And Can It Be, That I Should Gain?” (1738).

[31] William R. Newell, “At Calvary” (1895).

[32] 1 Corinthians 1:18 (NIV).

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.