Acts 16: Challenges, Messages, and the Will of God

Application

Acts 16 records the first leg of Paul’s second missionary journey. After parting from Barnabas and taking his leave from Antioch, Paul and company headed by land to Derbe and Lystra, on their way to revisit the churches they had established during his first expedition. While on the way, three things happened that I think noteworthy.

The first is that the team met Timothy. Timothy’s story is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, we learn here that he was the son of a Jewess and a Greek. In other words, he was neither Jew or Gentile. He was of mixed descent, and if you will remember the spite with which Samaritans were viewed because they had mixed blood, you can begin to imagine how Timothy must have felt in this world. The Jews hated him because he was Gentile, and the Gentiles hated him because he was Jew. Such a life must have been lonely and hard. Second, we can assume from comments made elsewhere in the Bible that Timothy was exceptionally young. In an era when age was directly related to the amount of respect one received in the family and community, Timothy was just a kid. And yet we read in verse 2 that he had a good reputation and all the brothers in both Lystra (his hometown) and Iconium spoke well of him. This is certainly impressive. And third, if we look ahead through Timothy’s life, we learn that he became a trusted and valued companion of Paul and eventually ended up becoming the pastor of the church at Ephesus. Two books of the Bible were addressed specifically to him, and six of Paul’s letters carry his name as well. Clearly, despite all that Timothy had going against him (e.g., unsaved father, mixed heritage, cultural ostracism, and youth), he nevertheless managed to become an upstanding and effective member of God’s family.

What do you have going against you? We all have reasons why we can’t do something amazing for God. Timothy shows us, though, that those are all merely invalid excuses for us to not let God do something amazing through us. Why not put all those excuses aside and get to work for God?

A second noteworthy thing that I see is what happened in verses 4 and 5. Here, we’re told that, as they went, Paul and co. conveyed the decision which had been made in Jerusalem regarding the circumcision of Gentile believers (i.e., that they didn’t have to be circumcised) and the directives that accompanied it: that they were “to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality” (Acts 15:29 NIV). Now, for most of us, these directives seem a little bit irrelevant. I don’t know too many people who eat food sacrificed to idols or blood, etc. But in those days, these things were all integral parts of the pagan religions that most Gentiles practiced. The directive from Jerusalem, then, was that Gentile believers must abandon all of the things that had made them pagan in the past. It would be akin, therefore, to us telling people today that they needed to stop drinking, gambling, swearing, and looking at pornography and having sex outside of marriage. Can you imagine how well these directives would go over? But wait! Verse five starts off with the word “so,” indicating that what was to come was a direct result of Paul and co. communicating these directives. And what was to come? “The churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers.” Two essential things! The churches were strengthened by the realization that their lives were supposed to be dramatically different than they had been before the gospel. And they actually grew in numbers because they unapologetically told the people around them the same thing!

How often do we and our churches think that, to be effective in communicating the gospel message, we have to look a lot like the rest of the world? And how often do we believe that, to grow our churches, we have to tiptoe around “sensitive” subjects so that we don’t risk offending those who are involved with sinful behaviors and lifestyles? We think that we’re supposed to do anything but these things if the church is to be successful in this day and age, and still the North American Church is in catastrophic decline. You know, not only did Paul, Silas, and co. do exactly the opposite of what we would expect, but they saw success – tremendous success – in doing so. Perhaps we should rethink our ministry paradigms and realign ourselves with Acts 16:4-5.

And a final thing that I would point out about Acts 16 is what happens in verses 6-10. Here, we discover that Paul and his companions were prevented by the Holy Spirit from entering into Asia and Bithynia only to be compelled by the same Spirit to cross the Aegean Sea into Macedonia – completely uncharted territory for the church – to preach the gospel. Notice that we don’t see that the Spirit used visions or audible voices from God to bar the way. Since there would have been no visas or customs agents involved, I like to think the Spirit used godly people along the way to stand up and say, “Whoa. Wait a second.” And even when this advice was contrary to what Paul and co. had planned and, I dare say, wanted to do, they stopped and listened, believing that the Spirit which indwells all believers can choose to speak through those believers it indwells. Notice also that, when something completely different was involved, the Spirit did go out of its way to make itself absolutely clear. To call the expedition to Macedonia, a place where no believers had ever been before, the Spirit sent a vision which was almost impossible to misunderstand.

How many times have believers missed God’s will for their lives because they assumed that God wanted them to do what they wanted or intended to do? And how many times have believers gotten off on the wrong path because they thought God might want them to get off there? When trying to discern the will of the Lord, I would suggest that it is imperative to listen to fellow believers and wait for absolute clarity from the Holy Spirit before embarking on something new.

Acts 16 holds a lot of great stuff. Far more than we’ve discussed here. But I really do think that these three things are particularly noteworthy for us today. We must not count ourselves (or anyone else) out from accomplishing God’s will simply because we have things going against us. We must not compromise our lives or the gospel message in the name of “being relevant” or anything else; radical repentance and moral purity are essential parts of the gospel and must, therefore, be essential parts of our lives. And when seeking God’s will, we absolutely must pay attention to the Spirit-filled believers that God puts along our way and never jump into something dramatically different without having an undeniably clear message from the Lord. How would our churches – indeed, how would we ourselves – be affected if we actually put these things into practice!

 

Notes

  • (1-3) I wonder what kind of a situation Timothy came out of. Luke tells us his mother was a Jewess and believer, and his father was a Greek. Greek here would have been used more of the secular worldview and mindset than of nationality or ethnic background. Later, we read that it was his mother and grandmother who conveyed to him the faith. So what was his dad up to?
  • (1-3) It’s also important to realize that Timothy would have been outcast from both Jewish and Gentile communities because of his mixed blood. Indeed, if it hadn’t been for the Church, he probably would have lived a pretty lonely life.
  • (4-5) The decisions reached in Jerusalem in chapter 15 indicated that the Gentile believers would not have to be circumcised, but did outline a number of things from which they would have to abstain. In other words, they involved a list of things people should and shouldn’t do. Rules. And yet we’re told that the churches were strengthened because of them and even grew daily in numbers! Maybe the key to growing the church isn’t telling people what they want to hear after all! (And yes, that was sarcasm.)
  • (6-10) I wonder how it was that the Spirit kept Paul and co. from going through Asia and Bithynia. Was it a vision? A strong sense that this wasn’t the way to go? Or could it have been that the Spirit simply put a number of people and circumstances in place to block the way? Wouldn’t it be great if people would listen to the Spirit, even when it means not doing the things they think are important and/or want to do?
  • (9-10) Wouldn’t it be great if people would listen to the Spirit, even when it means doing things they hadn’t planned on and/or didn’t want to do?
  • (11) Suddenly, the perspective of the account changes from third-person to first, indicating that Luke joined the expedition at some point between verse 6 and here.
  • (13-15) Although women were generally a marginalized segment of the population, we learn here that Paul and co. specifically preached to them. And at least one of them, a successful businesswoman (rare in those days) named Lydia believed. Her decision demonstrates that the gospel is for everyone from the least of these marginalized people to the greatest of these successful people.
  • (15) I love how Lydia put Paul and co. over the barrel here. If they counted her salvation true, she expected them to join her. This is called real faith.
  • (17) I suspect that this was probably more of a taunting thing than anything else.
  • (19) This would be a classic worldly paradigm. These people didn’t care about the girl’s best interests; only the profit potential that she represented. Further, they thought that they were in control of the demon, when in reality, everything that they had was built on it.
  • (20) Never forget that the world is not afraid to manufacture charges to level against people that challenge their worldview and/or lifestyle.
  • (28) This is quite a change from when Peter was led out of the prison by an angel.
  • (34) Keep in mind that this wasn’t some girly man. This was a hardened Roman prison guard. He was a man in every sense of the word!
  • (37) At first, it might seem that Paul was being ornery. But I really think that this move was designed to vindicate Paul and Silas in the eyes of the community and the world. By coming down and personally escorting them out of jail, the officials were compelled to recognize that they – no Paul and Silas – had been the ones acting inappropriately. This saved the face of the gospel for Lydia and all who had heard it and made clear that the false charges and public outcry were out of line.
  • (40) Isn’t this what meetings of the church are supposed to do: encourage the believers?
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