Sermon for Sunday, October 23rd, 2022 at First Presbyterian Church at Unionville, NY (BPC)
Old Testament reading:
[Gen 50:15-20 ESV] 15 When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.” 16 So they sent a message to Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this command before he died: 17 ‘Say to Joseph, “Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.”‘ And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. 18 His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, “Behold, we are your servants.” 19 But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? 20 As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.
New Testament reading:
[Rom 8:26-30 ESV] 26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. 28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
[Luk 8:26-39 ESV] 26 Then they sailed to the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27 When Jesus had stepped out on land, there met him a man from the city who had demons. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he had not lived in a house but among the tombs. 28 When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell down before him and said with a loud voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me.” 29 For he had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many a time it had seized him. He was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the desert.) 30 Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Legion,” for many demons had entered him. 31 And they begged him not to command them to depart into the abyss. 32 Now a large herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside, and they begged him to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. 33 Then the demons came out of the man and entered the pigs, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and drowned. 34 When the herdsmen saw what had happened, they fled and told it in the city and in the country. 35 Then people went out to see what had happened, and they came to Jesus and found the man from whom the demons had gone, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind, and they were afraid. 36 And those who had seen it told them how the demon-possessed man had been healed. 37 Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked him to depart from them, for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. 38 The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him, but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39 “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” And he went away, proclaiming throughout the whole city how much Jesus had done for him.
Text for the sermon:
[Jos 8:1-29 ESV] 1 And the LORD said to Joshua, “Do not fear and do not be dismayed. Take all the fighting men with you, and arise, go up to Ai. See, I have given into your hand the king of Ai, and his people, his city, and his land. 2 And you shall do to Ai and its king as you did to Jericho and its king. Only its spoil and its livestock you shall take as plunder for yourselves. Lay an ambush against the city, behind it.” 3 So Joshua and all the fighting men arose to go up to Ai. And Joshua chose 30,000 mighty men of valor and sent them out by night. 4 And he commanded them, “Behold, you shall lie in ambush against the city, behind it. Do not go very far from the city, but all of you remain ready. 5 And I and all the people who are with me will approach the city. And when they come out against us just as before, we shall flee before them. 6 And they will come out after us, until we have drawn them away from the city. For they will say, ‘They are fleeing from us, just as before.’ So we will flee before them. 7 Then you shall rise up from the ambush and seize the city, for the LORD your God will give it into your hand. 8 And as soon as you have taken the city, you shall set the city on fire. You shall do according to the word of the LORD. See, I have commanded you.” 9 So Joshua sent them out. And they went to the place of ambush and lay between Bethel and Ai, to the west of Ai, but Joshua spent that night among the people. 10 Joshua arose early in the morning and mustered the people and went up, he and the elders of Israel, before the people to Ai. 11 And all the fighting men who were with him went up and drew near before the city and encamped on the north side of Ai, with a ravine between them and Ai. 12 He took about 5,000 men and set them in ambush between Bethel and Ai, to the west of the city. 13 So they stationed the forces, the main encampment that was north of the city and its rear guard west of the city. But Joshua spent that night in the valley. 14 And as soon as the king of Ai saw this, he and all his people, the men of the city, hurried and went out early to the appointed place toward the Arabah to meet Israel in battle. But he did not know that there was an ambush against him behind the city. 15 And Joshua and all Israel pretended to be beaten before them and fled in the direction of the wilderness. 16 So all the people who were in the city were called together to pursue them, and as they pursued Joshua they were drawn away from the city. 17 Not a man was left in Ai or Bethel who did not go out after Israel. They left the city open and pursued Israel. 18 Then the LORD said to Joshua, “Stretch out the javelin that is in your hand toward Ai, for I will give it into your hand.” And Joshua stretched out the javelin that was in his hand toward the city. 19 And the men in the ambush rose quickly out of their place, and as soon as he had stretched out his hand, they ran and entered the city and captured it. And they hurried to set the city on fire. 20 So when the men of Ai looked back, behold, the smoke of the city went up to heaven, and they had no power to flee this way or that, for the people who fled to the wilderness turned back against the pursuers. 21 And when Joshua and all Israel saw that the ambush had captured the city, and that the smoke of the city went up, then they turned back and struck down the men of Ai. 22 And the others came out from the city against them, so they were in the midst of Israel, some on this side, and some on that side. And Israel struck them down, until there was left none that survived or escaped. 23 But the king of Ai they took alive, and brought him near to Joshua. 24 When Israel had finished killing all the inhabitants of Ai in the open wilderness where they pursued them, and all of them to the very last had fallen by the edge of the sword, all Israel returned to Ai and struck it down with the edge of the sword. 25 And all who fell that day, both men and women, were 12,000, all the people of Ai. 26 But Joshua did not draw back his hand with which he stretched out the javelin until he had devoted all the inhabitants of Ai to destruction. 27 Only the livestock and the spoil of that city Israel took as their plunder, according to the word of the LORD that he commanded Joshua. 28 So Joshua burned Ai and made it forever a heap of ruins, as it is to this day. 29 And he hanged the king of Ai on a tree until evening. And at sunset Joshua commanded, and they took his body down from the tree and threw it at the entrance of the gate of the city and raised over it a great heap of stones, which stands there to this day.
The title of the sermon today is “God uses evil for good.”
This is an idea that crops here and there, both in the Bible and in life. And so it is worth exploring more in depth.
God uses evil for good.
Before we get to the Biblical examples, it is worthwhile to note an historical example. We’re five month too early for St. Patrick’s day, but the good saint should be mentioned. You may know that before Patrick was a saint, he was a slave. And before he was known as the missionary to Ireland, it is known that he wasn’t Irish at all. Patrick lived somewhere in England or Scotland, near the sea. And at age 16 he was captured by Irish pirates. And for six years he was a slave in Ireland. But the Lord used this for good. In two ways. For one, in his slavery Patrick grew more dependent on the Lord and grew closer to Him in prayer. Then, later after escaping back to England the Lord called him to a very difficult task. Return to Ireland to convert the people. The very people who had enslaved him. All of the time in slavery gave Patrick the advantage of knowing the people and their language and culture, so that by the grace of God, his mission to them would be successful.
The Lord used the evil of slavery for the good of converting many people in Ireland to the faith. The histories of St. Patrick are rather obscure and doubtful. But the Biblical accounts of God using evil for good are solidly historical. And they are plentiful. So I want to look at a number of these instances.
I. The Second Battle of Ai
II. The Story of Joseph
III. Jesus Heals a Man with a Demon
IV. The Death of Jesus Christ
and then more broadly we will see
V. All Things for Good for the People of God
I. The Second Battle of Ai
So then with this account of the Israelite’s Second Battle of Ai, I want to skip over the various details and focus on that single theological point that we’re exploring today.
Good uses evil for good.
Another way to say this is to say:
God takes the evil intentions and evil works of men and turns their results to be good for His people.
Now, you may recall, the First Battle of Ai was a failure. And the reason for its failure was because of the sin of Achan. His evil. Achan had stolen from the treasury of the Lord, and the Lord removed his hand of protection and favor from the people. And consequently the Israelites lost the First Battle of Ai and 36 men died. And the whole nation lamented, thinking perhaps the Lord was not with them after all. So the Lord punished Achan and his family with death but spared the Israelite nation despite their imputed sin and guilt.
So now comes the Second Battle of Ai.
And it is the failure of the first battle that is directly used by God for the success of the second battle.
Evil had brought disaster, but the Lord will turn it for good.
In the First Battle of Ai, the Israelites fled. They retreated. And not in an orderly retreat of military principle, but in abject fear, running away in a losing battle.
So the Lord tells them in the Second Battle to feign the same. To pretend to again run away. And so it will be the very failure of the first battle that is used as a strategy for success in the second.
Of course it is not the retreat itself that wins the battle, but the fact that the retreat makes way for an ambush.
As one band of Israelites retreats, the city is left undefended, and another group of Israelites ambushes it. And the Israelites had a great victory, destroying Ai and killing all of the people there so that they may not pollute the land with their idolatry and evil ways any longer.
The victory, clearly, was the Lord’s. And it was for the good of Israel. Though in their sins, they scarcely deserved anything good, the gracious Lord turned evil to their benefit, and brought about the victory.
Of all places in the Scriptures that exemplify this idea, the most prominent is Genesis 50:20 in the story of Joseph. There too, God turns evil to good.
II. The Story of Joseph
Joseph said to his brother’s “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”
Joseph’s brother had sold him into slavery. Not only is slavery itself an evil, but the selling of one into slavery is evil. And this was even their own brother. Their sin was brought about by the sin of jealously. And they set their minds on evil.
But in the Lord’s will, Joseph became an important person in Egypt, and well-prepared them for the famine ahead. And his store of grain kept his brothers (and many other people) alive. The Lord turned the circumstances, using them for good.
This actually happens twice in Joseph’s story in Genesis. Not only does God bring good out from the evil of Joseph’s brother, but also from the evil of Potiphar’s wife. She desired Joseph, but Joseph quite rightly rejected her advances. So she lied about him and Joseph was sent to prison. But the Lord used this for good. Successfully interpreting the dreams of Pharoah’s chief cup bearer and chief baker who had also been put into the same prison, his abilities later became known to Pharaoh. And then interpreting Pharoah’s dreams, Joseph was given a pace of power in Egypt. And from that place of power, Joseph saved many in his famine preparations.
So the evil of both the brother’s Joseph and of Potiphar’s wife were used in God’s plan for the good of His people. And so Joseph could say “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.”
III. Jesus Heals a Man with a Demon
There is a New Testament example of this principle as well, when Jesus heals a man with a demon.
The evil here was conducted not by a human, but by a demon who possessed a man. In fact, many demons possession him.
The demon (or demons) had ruined his life. He was no longer a functioning member of society, but “wore no clothes” and “lived among the tombs.”
But God used this for good. How? After Jesus casted out the demons, we find that the man not only was healed, but “he went away, proclaiming throughout the whole city how much Jesus had done for him.”
Such could be said for many of the healings of Jesus in the New Testament. Various evils, diseases, both physical and spiritual maladies beset the people. And in many of the cases, when Jesus healed them, they went out and proclaimed his name.
IV. The Death of Jesus Christ
But of all of the Biblical examples of God using evil for good, there is none more important than the death of Jesus Christ on the cross.
There are two places in the books of Acts that particularly well explain this “turnabout.” This change. This grand way in which God turned the evil of man for good.
First, we read from Acts 2:23
[Act 2:23 ESV] 23 this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.
The greatest evil. The pure spotless lamb, the son of God, the very messiah, sent from God was killed by the hands of lawless men. And the apostles must certainly have cried out “Lord, HOW CAN THIS HAPPEN? HOW CAN THIS BE A GOOD THING.”
But note, it was “according the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.”
We then hear in Acts 4:27-28 the following:
[Act 4:27-28 ESV] 27 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, 28 to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.
The death of Jesus Chris was “predestined to take place.”
This great evil, the greatest evil, was in the plan of God from the very beginning.
But, in the greatest turnabout in the Bible, and the greatest turnabout in world history, we find that God turnedGREATEST evil into the GREATEST good.
By the death of Christ, the sins of His people were forgiven.
And then it makes it sense. The Lord Jesus Christ HAD to die. This was in the good plan of God. Not merely permitted to happen, but ordained and predestined.
And this benefits not just the Israelites alive at the time of Joseph or at the time of Joshua, but all of the people of God through all the ages. All who believe in Jesus Christ are saved through his death. That terrible death on the cross, for the salvation of people of God.
And so we are promised in the Scriptures that in fact ALL THINGS are so ordained for the good of God’s people.
V. All Things for Good for the People of God
Though we struggle at times to understand the plan of God, He indeed promises to turn evil to good.
Romans 8:28 – “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
All for us.
Not one thing happens but in the plan of God. Not one thing will escape His notice. Not one thing will be turned for good.
That has got to be hard for many people and at many times, for us to believe. But if it is true with the death of Christ, then it can be true for any other evil that comes upon us.
So what can we make of this teaching for ourselves?
For one, it is great news that Christ’s death promises (and in fact accomplishes) our salvation. That is no simple matter.
Then we must humble admit mystery. We simple do not and can not know how the Lord is working in the difficult circumstances we find ourselves in. One day we may know in heaven, and perhaps then it will all make sense to us. God’s great plan will be understood in a greater way when we are with Him face to face.
So it is that we don’t know the future. But here is what we do know. Because of God’s promise that He is working Good things for us even out of the evil we find in the world, because of that, WE KNOW WHAT TO THINK AND HOW TO BEHAVE IN ALL CIRCUMSTANCES.
The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away. Blessed by the name of the Lord. In all circumstances we are to bless the Lord.
And in all circumstances we are to remain hopeful and even joyful knowing that the Lord is in control and His plan will come to fruition. His plan, for us.
Whether cheerful or depressed, we should rejoice in the Lord.
Whether in riches or in poverty, we should rejoice in the Lord.
Whether free or imprisoned like Paul, we should rejoice in the Lord.
Whether healthy or dealing with a thorn in the flesh, again like Paul, we should rejoice in the Lord.
Paul even says “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”
So even in life and in death, we should rejoice in the Lord.
So let us indeed rejoice in the Lord who will work together all things for our good, and in Jesus Christ win us the victory.