The practice of casting lots was a way of determining the selection or outcome of something. It is similar, in a sense, to flipping a coin (though a coin is limited to only one of two possible outcomes). The casting of lots shows up 70 times in the Old Testament, and 7 in the New Testament. It is used in different ways at times with some uses being a way to divide things or determine duties, a way to determine who is at fault, or a way to determine the choice of God.
As an example, let’s take a look at Acts 1:24-26 where Peter is leading the exhortation and requirements for the replacement of Judas:
And they prayed and said, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all men, show which one of these two You have chosen to occupy this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” And they drew lots for them, and the lot fell to Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.
It is clear that Peter’s understanding of the drawing of lots here is that it is ultimately the a tool to know the decision of God directly for who should take Judas’ place. Their understanding, due to the how the lots fell, was that God chose Matthias.
Is this how God wants us to operate for decisions? What this just a special circumstance? Were the disciples disappointing God by using lots to make the decision?
As far as I am aware, the New Testament does not instruct us to use lots. Some people think interpret this to mean we should not use lots because of this. However, the Bible also does not condone the practice either. And if we base what we should do or not do based only on what the New Testament specifically instructs, we will have to severely limit the things we can do (might as well sell your vehicles and stop traveling on airplanes, as the NT does not instruct us to drive or fly!). The example earlier of Acts 1:24-26 does not mention anything about the practice of lots, other than the fact that Luke included it in his writing as the way they chose Matthias, and Peter’s understanding in his prayer that God would use the method to decide.
Proverbs even has some positive things to say about lots:
The lot is cast into the lap, But its every decision is from the Lord. – Proverbs 16:33
The cast lot puts an end to strife And decides between the mighty ones. – Proverbs 18:18
Consulting the Scholars
I currently have three commentaries on Acts. Here is what they say about Acts 1:24-26 that give some good insights on the topic, as this instance of using lots is the last to be found in the Bible:
In David G. Peterson’s “The Acts of The Apostles“, he states:
The fact that they cast lots must be understood in the light of their confidence that the Lord knew the hearts of the candidates and had already made his choice. This was not a democratic election, with people casting votes. It was a traditional way of determining God’s will in Judaism. Here, specifically, it was a way of deciding between two equally qualified candidates, given the belief that ‘the lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord’ (Pr. 16:33). Even the fall of the dice is in the hands of the sovereign Lord. In this context, the lot fell to Matthias, and that was taken to be the Lord’s choice, so he was added to the eleven apostles. It is important to observe that there are no further examples of such decision making in the NT. As those who were about to enjoy the benefits of the New Covenant, the apostles were using a practice that was sanctioned by God but belonged to the old era. It took place before Pentecost, when the Spirit was poured out in a way that signified a new kind of relationship between God and his people. From Luke’s later emphasis on the Spirit’s role in giving wisdom, guidance, and direction, it would appear that the apostolic example on this occasion is not to be followed by Christians today. Rather, we are to recognize and respond to the mind of the Spirit among the people of God, in ways that will be explored in connection with 5:3, 9; 13:1-2; 15:28; 16:6-10, and other passages.
John Calvin in his commentary entitled “Acts” wrote:
This is the reason why they cast lots: they wanted it to be known that Matthias was God’s choice. The pastors were chosen by the church, but the apostles were called by God. Hence Paul declares that he was an apostle sent “not from men nor by man” (Gal. 1:1). Since this was a position of such distinction, it was appropriate that the final decision about a replacement for Judas should be left to God. Also, Christ had personally appointed the other apostles, and if Matthias had been chosen only by men, he would not have had the same authority as the others. So the disciples submitted to God those whom they thought to be the best, and God then chose the one he knew to be the most suitable. By the way the lot fell, God declared for Matthias.
But was it not very irresponsible of the apostles, and quite out of order, to entrust such an important matter to a lottery? How could they be sure about it? My answer is that the Holy Spirit moved them to act as they did. Although Luke does not actually say this, he implies it because he does not accuse the apostles of irresponsibility but instead dhows that the election was lawful and approved by God. As I said, the Holy Spirit directed everything they did.
John Stott, in his “The Message of Acts” commentary, states the following after describing the qualifications needed for the one who would replace Judas:
This is why I cannot agree with Campbell Morgan who (following others) wrote: “The election of Matthias was wrong…. He was a good man, but the wrong man for this position…. I am not prepared to omit Paul from the twelve, believing that he was God’s man for the filling of the gap.” But Luke gives no hint at all that a mistake was made, in spite of the fact that Paul was obviously his hero. Besides, Paul did not have the fuller qualification which Peter laid down.
Then they prayed to Jesus as Lord, calling him (literally) everybody’s ‘heart-knower’, a word Luke later uses of God, and asked him to show them which of the two he had already chosen. Then they drew lots, a method of discerning God’s will which was sanctioned in the Old Testament, but which does not appear to have been used after the Spirit had come.
My conclusion on this topic, at this time, is that I don’t know for certain. I see it used many times in the Bible, Proverbs speaks well of the practice, and there is nothing condoning it. However, it is not a practice we use today, so I wonder why that is. The commentators provide reasonable ideas as to why it is no longer used. But again, there is nothing in the NT suggesting the cessation of the practice.
What do you think?