Paul is redirected to Europe

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

August 7, 2016

Acts 16:1-9

 

This week we begin Paul’s second missionary journey.  The sixteenth chapter of Acts is another turning point in this book.  Paul heads into Europe.  The story Luke tells in Acts focuses here on out on Paul and his companions.  Barnabas and Peter and others fall to the side.  This doesn’t mean they stopped their missionary activity, but just that Luke, the author of Acts, centers his story on Paul.  Read Acts 16:1-9.

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I have mentioned many times as we’ve worked through the book we know as “Acts of the Apostles,” that it should be called “The Acts of God through the Apostles.”  The Apostles often don’t act until they are prodded to do so by God.  God’s Spirit is that motivating power.  As I have continued to study the Book of Acts, I have decided that another subtitle could be: “Acts: The beginning of the church’s 2000 year resistance to change.”  Often, the Apostles not only didn’t act until they received a kick in the pants, they also tried to slow down the work of the Spirit.  It’s natural.   We don’t like change and we want to do things our way.  But times change.  People change and so too must the church.  Of course, the gospel doesn’t change.  We still worship the same God, but how we worship, how we share the faith, and how we live out the gospel changes because the culture in which we live changes.  This makes us uncomfortable.  We see this often these days as the church tries to find its voice in this rapidly changing world.   We want to turn back time.  But that’s not an option.

You know, as much as we don’t like change, we like to accumulate stuff.  That’s true in our homes as it is in our churches.  When I was in my first church, I remember working with a group of people going through a bunch of old Christian Education materials.  It was 1990 and there were still those who wanted to hold on to old filmstrips of Bible stories.  We didn’t even have a working filmstrip projector and they were no longer being made.  We also had chalk boards and felt boards still up on the walls, which was being replaced by whiteboards by this time.  Now, could a child still learn on a chalk board or via a filmstrip?  Certainly. Many of us here had learned the gospel stories in such a manner, but new technology was coming along.  VHS tapes and CDs had come into vogue in 1980s.  Now, they’re all part of the past as we learned just last week that the last manufacturer of VHS players is ending production by the end of the month.  Of course, now there are new newer ways to record and even DVDs are becoming out of date.  As Bob Dillon sang back in the 60s, the times are a changing.

Which makes me wonder why Paul decided to have Timothy circumcised.  We just got through the Council of Jerusalem, in which the question of circumcision seemed to be settled for the second time in the Book of Acts.[1] Those who were Gentiles did not have to undergo such surgery in order to become Christians. Paul had been arguing for this change.  He took this as good news, yet here he has one of his assistants go under the knife.  Why?  It seems Paul, in the case of Timothy, compromised.  But why?  From what we might gleam from the text, it appears Paul felt that by having Timothy circumcised, he would be more acceptable to the Jewish population.  Timothy had a Jewish mother, but his father was Greek.  Today, in Judaism, the line generally passes down through the mother, but there is some question about that during the first century.[2]

Having not been circumcised, while claiming to be a Jewish Christian, would have made Timothy suspect to the Jews of Asia and Europe that they were trying to reach with the Gospel.  So while Paul didn’t expect Gentiles to be circumcised, he felt it was a good thing for Timothy.  Paul was willing to compromise this principal for the sake of the gospel.  In Galatians, Paul tells us that circumcision carries no weight with Christ.  However, in his first letter to the Corinthians, he speaks of being all things to all people in order to win them over to Christ.  It appears this is what Paul is doing here by making Timothy more acceptable to the Jews.[3]

Now Paul is traveling with at least two companions: Timothy and Silas.  He may have been traveling with three, for beginning in verse 10, Luke the author of Acts, shifts from the third person plural (they) to the first person plural (we).   Does this mean Luke was along as an eye-witness?  Scholars have argued it both ways and it’s an interesting idea, but doesn’t matter much as to what Luke tells us.[4]

Now let’s go back a few verses.  Starting in verse six, we learn of the paths Paul and company take through Asia.  There seems to be a problem.  Doors are closing. The Holy Spirit hinders their ability to share the gospel.  The Spirit of Jesus, which we assume means the same thing, keeps them from even going into new and fertile territory.  They’ve headed off on this missionary journey but they find themselves unable to do the work they’ve set out to do.  What gives?  How did the Spirit hinder them?  Were they given a bad case of laryngitis?  How did the Spirit keep them from heading to go to Bithynia?  Did the Spirit station an angel by the road with a fiery sword as the Cherubim stood at the east gate to the Eden?[5]  We don’t know, but sometimes God closes doors in front of us in order to redirect our lives.[6]  God, not Paul and friends, is in control.[7]

The third movement of this passage comes in a dream.  Paul must have been frustrated by his inability to do the work to which he felt called.  Then one night he has a vision, I am assume, in sleep.  Ironically, in the darkness, the path forward becomes clear.  Instead of working across Asia, Paul is being called into Europe.  He sees a Macedonian man pleading with his for help.  How he knew he was Macedonian, we don’t know.  Maybe he was waving the Macedonian flag as if he was at the Olympics. Paul now realizes where he is to go and, according to the text, all are in agreement.  In the morning they arrange passage to Europe.

There are several things we can take from this passage and apply to our lives and to our work as Jesus’ ambassadors in the world.  First of all, at times it is necessary to compromise in order to be accepted by others.  Timothy was circumcised.  A few weeks ago, I mentioned Jared Currie in a sermon, who took his family to an eastern island in Indonesia where they are living among tribal people in primitive circumstances.  Going there and building a house with your own hands was a way to enter into that community.  Sometimes it takes such efforts to gain enough trust to share the gospel with others.  What’s important isn’t our own desires, but what is best for the other.  It’s just another way of living out one of Jesus most frequent themes, “if you want to be first, you have to go to the end of the line” and if you want to be great you have to be willing to be a servant.[8]  What are we willing to give up to help spread the gospel?  Are we willing to serve others?

A second theme we see here is how God opens and closes doors, which force our missionaries to strike out for Europe.  Sometimes what we take as misfortunes can be God leading us to a new opportunity.  In a way, as I’ve shared before, this is certainly how I came to be here in Savannah.  When I turned down a call to the Finger Lakes area of New York, I was hurt, disappointed and angry and commented about how felt as if I was a pawn in some chess match God was playing.  I was wisely told that I should get used to it, after all I was a Calvinist.  We, who believe in God’s providential control, are able at times to look back and see God’s hand leading us forward.  Sadly, however, when we look ahead, we’re like these missionaries.  We don’t see the hand, only closed doors.  But there are times those closed doors leads us to open doors where our skills and abilities and insights can be of use.

A final theme, which goes with the second one, is that we must follow God and accept the growth he provides.  For Paul and company, that meant to go to Macedonia, to Europe, at the pleading of the man in the vision.  Where and to whom is God calling us to minister?  Where have we been placed?  We need to look around and see how we can be useful to God’s kingdom.  We should be thankful for those who are here and do what we can to minister in the ways of Christ.  God doesn’t call all churches to be all things to all people.  Paul learned he wasn’t called to spend the rest of his ministry in Asia, but there were other missionaries that were called to go there.  If we are faithful, God will have a place for us to be involved in his ministry.

I’ve probably mentioned it before, for it was one of those lightbulb moments in my life, but when I was a seminary student the leader of World Vision spoke to our class.  Several of the students, conservatives and liberals, tried to pin him down on some of the key theological and social issues of the day.  “What was his thoughts about abortion or liberation theology?” they asked.  Refusing the bait, he insisted his call was to help feed and care for hungry people.  He trusted God would call others to take care of those issues.  There is a wisdom in going in the direction God is calling.  For this man it meant focusing on hunger issues.  In Paul’s case, it meant leaving behind what’s familiar in Asia and heading off to Europe.  What about us?

Three things: Seek God’s direction.  Trust God’s providence.  And don’t let the little things interfere with God’s mission.  Amen.

 

©2016

[1] See Acts 11:18 and 15:19-20.

[2] Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Acts (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 232.

[3] Galatians 5:6, 1 Corinthians 9:19-23.

[4] F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts: The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986 reprint) argues in favor Luke joining up with Paul, Silas and Timothy.  See pages 327-328.  William H. Willimon, Acts: Interpretation, a Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1988) while not discrediting that Luke could have been along, gives two other explanations and then suggests that the use of “we” gives the rest of Acts “a sense of drama and immediacy.”  (See pages 135-136).

[5] Cf, Genesis 3:24.

[6] See Craig Barnes, When God Interrupts (Drower’s Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1976).

[7] Gaventa, 234.

[8] Matthew 19:30, 20;16, 20:27; Mark 9:35, 10:37, 10:44; and Luke 13:30.


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