Dice in the Prayer Meeting: Making Tough Decisions with God’s Help

Acts 1:21-26

May 3, 1998 | Ray Pritchard

4 … 9 … 30 … 34 … 48 … 8. Do you know what those numbers mean? Frank and Shirley Capaci of Streamwood know because those numbers won them $104 million this week in the largest lottery in American history. On Tuesday and Wednesday millions of people in 20 states (including Indiana and Wisconsin) rushed to buy tickets for the Powerball jackpot that reached an estimated $195 million. The Capacis won “only” $104 million because they decided to take their money in a lump sum instead of having the larger amount paid out annually over the next 25 years (After taxes the Capacis will actually receive about $67 million). The winning ticket was purchased at 1:38 PM on Wednesday and cost only $1.

Before you run out and purchase a lottery ticket in hopes of making a few million the easy way, it’s important to remember that the money the Capacis won came directly from the millions of people who bought the other lottery tickets. Although many people spent only a few dollars on the lottery but it’s also true that too many people spent hundreds and thousands of dollars they could ill afford to lose. That’s the nature of gambling—many lose so that a fortunate few can win.

The Old Testament Lottery

Let me ask a second question. Do you know where the term “lottery” comes from? The dictionaries talk about the Middle English and the Middle Dutch and they say that the first use of the word “lottery” in English comes from about the year 1550. If you trace it back far enough, you discover that lottery comes from the ancient practice of casting lots, which goes all the way to the Old Testament. A lottery refers to the act of making a choice based on the outcome of a random event. We find in the Old Testament that lots often used to make important decisions, such as apportioning the land among the twelve tribes (Joshua 14:2) and choosing temple servants during the days of the kings (1 Chronicle 24:5). One of the most significant lotteries took place on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:7-10) when the High Priest would choose two goats—one to be sacrificed as a sin offering, the other to be released into the wilderness as a scapegoat. The High Priest cast lots in order to determine which goat was sacrificed and which one released.

No one really knows how the casting of lots worked. Some people think it involved the two stones on the breastplate of the High Priest—the Urim and the Thummin(Exodus 28:30). It might have involved colored stones placed in a jar and shaken, each stone representing either a yes or no answer. The first stone to fall out was considered to be the will of God.

Ole Blue Eyes

That may seem rather superstitious to us, but the book of Proverbs has an important word for us to consider. “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord” (Proverbs 16:33). Note the phrase “its every decision.” This means that nothing in life happens by chance, not even which stone falls out of the jar first. Even the random events of life come under God’s divine control.

Christians find enormous assurance in the that everything that happens fits into God’s plan and that nothing happens by accident. Most of you know that Frank Sinatra died recently. He of course loved Las Vegas, loved to sing there with the Rat Pack in the 60s, and loved to gamble. In the days since his death I’ve watched a number of retrospectives on his life and they all seem to include footage of him singing a song called “Luck, be a lady tonight,” which might be called the gambler’s prayer. When Sinatra sang the song, he liked to shake imaginary dice and then roll them on the imaginary craps table, almost like a worshipper paying homage to his imaginary deity. But if Solomon is correct, there is no such thing as luck or fate or chance. Even the numbers on the dice come under his direct control. Said another way, if Solomon is right, Sinatra is wrong—and I’m betting on Solomon.

The New Testament contains only two clear examples of casting lots. First, the soldiers around the cross cast lots to divide Christ’s garments (Matthew 27:35). If you ever go visit the Holy Land, you will see a spot near the Antonia Fortress called “the Pavement.” There you will find preserved actual stones from the Roman occupation of Israel, stones that are etched with a gambling game the soldiers played to pass the time. Some people think that this was the game they played to decide who got which part of his clothes.

The second example of casting lots—and the last one in the New Testament—is found in our text–Acts 1:21-26. It takes place during the 10-day period between the Ascension and the Day of Pentecost. The Apostle Peter has just told the disciples that the betrayal of Judas had been predicted in the Old Testament. Now he turns to the matter of replacing him:

Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.” So they proposed two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. Then they prayed, ‘‘Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs.” Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles. (Acts 1:21-26)

This passage contains many useful lessons for us to consider. It also gives us a fascinating glimpse into the life of the early church. There are three “firsts” in these verses: A) the first church business meeting, B) the first recorded public prayer in the book of Acts, and C) the first election of church leaders. In just six verses we find the speech, the nomination, the prayer, the election, and the installation. From this passage we gain valuable insight into making tough decisions with God’s help.

I. The Need 21-22

The story begins with Peter’s insistence that a replacement be chosen for Judas. Some have wondered why Judas needed to be replaced. I think there are two reasons: 1) Christ himself had chosen 12 apostles and had promised that they would one day sit on 12 thrones judging the twelve tribes Israel (Matthew 19:28). With Judas defecting, that left a vacancy that needed filling. 2) Peter had just quoted Psalm 109:8 (in Acts 1:20) showing that the Bible itself predicted that someone would replace Judas.

Although Judas had proven himself and unworthy man, the office itself was noble. Judas abused his trust and had died in disgrace, which left a hole in the ranks of the Christian movement. Therefore, the position must be filled in order for God’s work to go forward properly.

Peter then lists three qualifications for a true apostle: 1) He must have been with Christ from the very beginning of his ministry. This meant he couldn’t be a novice or a recent convert. 2) He must be known to the apostles. This meant they were unlikely to be fooled again. 3) He must be a witness to the resurrection. This was essential because the resurrection is the heart of the Christian faith.

Let me make two important applications at this point: 1) No one today could be an apostle in the New Testament sense because no one could meet these three qualifications. This has become important recently because certain Christian leaders—I’m thinking of one in particular—have claimed to be “apostles” of the church. Such a claim has no basis in fact and may reflect an inordinate desire for preeminence in the body of Christ. 2) Our faith rests on the eyewitness testimony of men who knew Jesus Christ intimately, and publicly declared what they saw and heard (cf. 1 John 1:1-4 and 2 Peter 1:16). Christianity is true because it is based on the true facts of history. Take away the facts about Jesus and we are left with myth and legend and a Jesus who is no more real than Santa Claus. That’s why it was crucial that the apostle chosen to replace Judas must be someone who could stand up and say, “I was there. I saw it with my own eyes and heard it with my own ears. I know Jesus rose from the dead.”

II. The Nomination 23

Then there is the nomination in verse 23. Two men are put forward. One man has three names: Joseph called Barabbas (also known as Justus). Other than this mention, we know absolutely nothing about him. Then there a man named Matthias. We don’t know anything else about him either. Even though he is chosen to replace Judas, his name is never mentioned again.

The early church historian Eusebius says that these men were both part of the 70 whom Jesus sent out two by two (Luke 10:1-17). That makes sense and may well be true but we can’t be sure. We only know that these two men met the three requirements Peter laid down. Were there others who were also qualified but not put forward? Answer: We don’t know.

In light of what took place later, it seems that these two men were both excellent choices. Both were apparently well known and well respected. Both had good records as loyal followers of Christ. Both seem to have been men who were above reproach. I think it’s fair to say that either would have made a good apostle.

That raises a critical question. What do you do when both men on the ballot are good men but you can only vote for one? We face questions like that all the time, don’t we? You’re thinking about buying a new house, but which one and how much should you pay? Or you’ve been offered a good job but you’re happy where you are but you wouldn’t mind changing either. What do you do then? Or you’ve applied to three colleges and been accepted by two. How do you choose between them?

Remember, the choice between Joseph and Matthias is the choice between two good men. There was no obvious reason to favor one over the other. It’s easy to make a decision when one option is clearly better than the other. But what do you do when you have two good, two betters, or perhaps even two best choices? How do you determine God’s will then?

III. The Prayer 24-25

The answer is, you do what the disciples did. You pray and ask God to help you. This is the first recorded prayer in the history of the Christian church. I note that it is short and to-the-point. Only 28 words in English—21 containing only one syllable. I also note that they weren’t praying to change God’s will but to know God’s will. That’s an important distinction, isn’t it? Sometimes we pray in order to convince God to do what we want him to do—we’re trying to talk him into doing what we want done. This prayer is just the opposite. They basically say, “Lord you know the hearts of everyone and you know who you want for the job. Show us who you’ve already chosen to replace Judas.” I love this prayer because it serves as a model for every prayer we pray. It’s based on the First Rule of the Spiritual Life—He’s God and we’re not. So often we pray, “Lord, here’s my agenda. Please bless it” when we ought to pray, “Lord, show me your agenda so I can do it.”

During the Civil War someone asked President Lincoln, “Do you think God is on our side?” “I do not know,” he replied, “I haven’t thought about that. But I am very anxious to know whether we are on his side.” It’s one thing for God to be on your side, it’s something else for you to be in his side. There are really only two prayers in the universe: “My will be done” or “Thy will be done.” A few days ago I heard a man from this church share a dramatic story of how God rescued him from the depths of alcoholism and drug abuse. He went from closing million-dollar deals to losing his marriage, his fortune, and his self-respect. When he hit bottom, he was drinking a quart of vodka a day. The turnaround began when he started attending Alcoholics Anonymous and following the famous AA twelve-step program. The man said that in his mind the key to recovery is Step 3—I surrendered my life and will to the care of God as I understood him. He commented that many people read that and say, “Hey, that’s easy to do.” But it’s not. It’s the ultimate step of personal surrender. It means doing something that doesn’t come easily to any of us—giving up control of our lives to the God who made us.

A few days ago another man in our church confessed to struggling over a deep disappointment in his life. “You’ve got to let go of it,” I told him. “I know that, Pastor Ray,” he said, “but everyday I go to work and hear people tell me I’ve got to take charge of my life, look out for number one, and stay in control at all times. Then I come to church and hear that I’ve got to let go. It’s not easy to do that.” No it isn’t, but for that very reason it’s absolutely necessary.

If life is like driving a car, for many of us becoming a Christian means pulling the car over and letting Jesus Christ join us on the passenger side while we stay behind the wheel. Then we wonder why we keep bumping into things all the time and running into the ditch. It’s because we aren’t so hot behind the wheel. What a difference it makes when we yield control of our life to the Lord Jesus Christ. When he drives, we can sit in the passenger seat without fear, knowing that he will steer the car safely to its appointed destination. I think some of us are struggling today because we’ve never really surrendered our wills to God. Until you do, you’ll never be happy and you’ll never be free.

IV. The Lottery 26

Finally, we come to the lottery in verse 26. “Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles.” They probably wrote both names on pieces of parchment, put them in a jar, shook it up, and waited for one name to fall out. When they did that, the name of Matthias came out first. From that moment on the disciples recognized him as the 12th apostle replacing Judas Iscariot.

Over the centuries some Bible commentators have wondered whether or not this was a legitimate election. Some people argue that casting lots was inappropriate because it belonged to the Old Testament (true, but irrelevant). It’s true that we have no further record of casting lots in New Testament—which may or may not be significant. Others note that Matthias is never mentioned again (true, but most of the apostles are never mentioned again). Some people say that the Apostle Paul took the place of Judas (not true—1 Corinthians 15:5 makes it clear that he considered himself an apostle but not one of “the twelve.”) There is nothing in the text to suggest that Peter and the disciples made a mistake. What happened was simple and biblical. They had a vacancy, Peter made a speech, the people nominated two men, Peter prayed, they rolled the dice, and Matthias was chosen as an apostle. I believe Matthias was just as much an apostle as Peter or James or John.

And I also believe there was nothing wrong or unethical about casting lots. We do a similar thing every time we vote on new elders. We put forward worthy men, we ask for God’s guidance, we vote, and we trust God to speak through the united voice of the congregation.

Six Steps to Take

What do we learn from this passage about how to make a tough decision? Here are six steps you need to take when you’ve got to choose and you don’t know which way to go.

1. Seek godly counsel.

2. Search the Scriptures

3. List your options

4. Pray for God’s guidance

5. Make the best decision you can

6. Move on and leave the results with God

If you do the first four, when the time comes to make the decision, you can do what you think is best and then just move on down the road, trusting God to take care of the results. In essence this is what Proverbs 3:6 means when it says that God will direct your paths. If you trust him with your decisions, he will lead you step by step exactly where he wants you to go. If may not be easy or painless, and you’ll go through days of uncertainly and nights of doubt, but in the end, the God who make his will known in Acts 1 will make his will known to you.

But what is you make a decision and you later conclude you made a mistake? My answer is this: If your heart is set on obeying God and your will is surrendered to him, that can’t happen. One footnote to that: Your decisions may not always work out the way you want—or expect—and sometimes they will blow up in your face. But a bad (or even negative) result doesn’t necessarily mean you made a mistake. Many “good” decisions often have “bad” results, humanly speaking—even decisions made in the will of God. Those “bad” results are simply part of God’s plan for your life—part of his step-by-step training process to make you like Jesus.

Let me leave you with this final thought. Everything in this passage is based on the fact that Jesus Christ is alive today. That’s why the disciples could pray to him with confidence, knowing that he would answer. That’s why they could trust him to make the decision for them. As the Head of the Church, he can be trusted to make the right choice.

What he did for them, he’ll also do for you and me. If you will ever dare to let go and let the Lord Jesus take control, he’ll lead you from where you are today exactly where he wants you to be tomorrow. Are you willing to let go of your own agenda and let him lead the way? Or do you still think you’ve got to be in the driver’s seat of life?

Millions of people this week put their trust in the random turning of lottery balls, but we know better, don’t we? A few days ago I heard Erwin Lutzer say, “Arrows shot at random hit targets appointed by God.” How true. We could paraphrase Proverbs 16:33 this way: “Life is like a roll of the dice, but God is in charge of how the numbers come up.”

Be encouraged, child of God. The Lord Jesus watches over you day and night. Put your trust in Jesus and let him take care of how the numbers come up for you.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?