Not every minister of God serves God willingly. God often uses people to carry out His will in the world. Quite often people do not realize that God is using them as His ministers. In their minds, they are pursuing their own desires and answering to no one but themselves. Yet God still uses their rebellion to accomplish His purposes in the world.
The following four examples illustrate the important implications of this truth.
Woe to Assyria, the rod of My anger
And the staff in whose hands is My indignation,
I sent it against a godless nation
And commission it against the people of my fury
To capture booty and to seize plunder,
And to trample them down like mud in the streets.
Yet it does not so intend,
Nor does it plan so in its heart,
But rather it is its purpose to destroy
And to cut off many nations…
So it will be that when the Lord has completed all His work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, He will say, “I will punish the fruit of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria and the pomp of his haughtiness.”
For he has said,
“By the power of my hand and by my wisdom I did this,
For I have understanding;
And I remove the boundaries of the peoples
And plunder the treasures,
And like a mighty man I brought down their inhabitants,
And my hand reached to the riches of the people like a nest,
And as one gathers abandoned eggs, I gathered all the earth;
And there was not one that flapped its wings or opened its beak or chirped.”
Is the axe to boast itself over the one who chops with it?
Is the saw to exalt itself over the one who wields it?
That would be like a club wielding those who lift it,
Or like a rod lifting him who is not wood. – Isaiah 10:5-7; 12-15
Assyria was God’s instrument to punish Israel. God’s authority over Assyria was so complete it could be compared to an axe, a saw, a club, or a rod in the hand of one using these tools. God was using Assyria as His tool to accomplish His will.
Assyria did not know they were serving God’s will, neither did they have any desire to do so. In fact their desire was contrary to God. Their arrogant hearts were set on destruction. Their only intention was to serve their own desires. When God needed to give a violent punishment, He chose a violent people.
The LORD had made everything for its own purpose,
Even the wicked for the day of trouble. – Proverbs 16:4
God’s decision to use Assyria to minister to His will does not mean that He approved of their evil ways. Once He was finished using them for His purpose in Jerusalem, He would punish them for their arrogance. Just as no axe can exalt itself over the one who chops with it, neither would Assyria be able to escape unpunished.
From Isaiah 10 it is seen that God can use wicked, unwilling servants to accomplish His will. Sometimes it is the wickedness of nations that makes them especially fitting for the work that God has in mind. God does not force anyone to act wickedly by controlling their choices, but once those choices are made, God can use their wickedness as an instrument of His wrath.
Therefore thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘Because you have not obeyed My words, behold, I will send and take all the families of the north,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I will send to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, My servant, and will bring them against this land and against its inhabitants and against all these nations round about; and I will utterly destroy them and make them a horror and a hissing, and an everlasting desolation. Moreover, I will take from them the voice of joy and the voice of gladness…
‘Then it will be when seventy years are completed that I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation,’ declares the LORD, ‘for their iniquity, and the land of the Chaldeans; and I will make it an everlasting desolation. – Jeremiah 25.8-10, 12
Here God refers to Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, as “My servant.” Nebuchadnezzar was a prideful, idolatrous, pagan ruler. Though not a willing servant, Nebuchadnezzar was a servant of God nonetheless. Notice the phrases “I will send”, “I will utterly destroy” and “I will take.” He was a servant of God in the sense that God was using Nebuchadnezzar to accomplish His purposes.
Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians would then be punished for their wickedness. Later in Jeremiah (especially chapters 50-51), God identifies the nations He would use to punish the Babylonians. These too could be described as “unwilling servants.”
Cyrus, King of the Medes
It is I who says of Cyrus, ‘He is My shepherd!
And he will perform all My desire.’
And he declares of Jerusalem, ‘She will be built,’
And of the temple, ‘Your foundation will be laid.’
Thus says the LORD to Cyrus His anointed,
Whom I have taken by the right hand,
To subdue nations before him
And to loose the loins of kings;
To open doors before him so that gates will not be shut;
I will go before you and make the rough places smooth;
I will shatter the doors of bronze and cut through their iron bars.
I will give you the treasures of darkness
And hidden wealth of secret places,
So that you may know that it is I,
The LORD, the God of Israel, who calls you by your name.
For the sake of Jacob My servant,
And Israel My chosen one,
I have also called you by your name;
I have given you a title of honor
Though you have not known Me.
I am the LORD, and there is no other;
Besides Me there is no God.
I will gird you, though you have not known Me;
That men may know from the rising to the setting of the sun
That there is no one besides Me.
I am the LORD, and there is no other. – Isaiah 44.28-45.6
Here Cyrus is referred to as “My shepherd” and “His anointed.” Just as God had used the Assyrians and the Babylonians to accomplish His purposes, so also He would use Cyrus.
Yet God said of Cyrus, “you have no known me.” Cyrus was a pagan authority, who did not willingly serve God. He did not even know God. Yet He was still used by God as His minister.
Finally, notice the purpose to which God would use Cyrus. Cyrus would act as God’s shepherd “For the sake of Jacob My servant and Israel My chosen one.” God would see to it that the beneficiaries of Cyrus’ reign would be His children.
The Old Testament continually illustrates the theme of God’s sovereignty over the governing authorities. The authorities were established by God and served God (though unwillingly) to accomplish God’s purposes. The purposes to which God used these unwilling servants were to inflict fear and punishment on those who were evil, and to bring about good for the faithful children of God. God did not allow them to rule violently for nothing; their violence served God’s purposes in the world. Once God used them for their purpose, they were held accountable for their sins.
This brings us to the unwilling servants of God which are described in the New Testament.
All Other Governing Authorities
Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have the praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. – Romans 12.17-13.6
Christians are forbidden from acting as ministers of vengeance. To the contrary, Christians are to repay their enemies with good, while leaving vengeance to God to execute through his appointed ministers. Just as in the Old Testament, God still uses the governing authorities as his instrument by which He executes vengeance on evildoers.
Paul draws a distinction between Christians and the governing authorities, and a distinction between the Christians’ response towards evildoers and the response of God towards evildoers through His established ministers. He has forbidden Christians from doing the very thing He has established the governing authorities to do. Even though the governing authorities do not serve God willingly, He still uses them to accomplish His purposes.
Throughout Scripture God frequently uses the wicked as His ministers to punish evildoers and to bring good to His children. God often established rulers and nations of which He did not approve to accomplish His purposes. In spite of using them as His instruments, He continually held wicked rulers responsible for their sin, and would punish them for their evil. God has promised that He uses these governors for the good of His children. Christians should therefore learn to trust God to work out His plans in spite of the wickedness of the rulers He may use as His ministers to bring about these plans.