by Roger McCay
31 May 2020
Scripture Passage: Acts 15:36-16:12
Link to Audio Version
Pastor and author Tim Keller has said that “Americans are becoming both more secular and more religious at the same time because the ‘mushy middle’ is disappearing and the country is becoming more polarized.” What he means by the “mushy middle” is that those who traditionally have attended church, because it is expected, are now not filling the pews. They are people who have gone their own way.
In our country, there is increasing pressure upon us Christians to shut up and keep our religious beliefs to ourselves. Moral decay has set in as the secularist agenda is advanced. Having done away with the living and true God, any evil can be rationalized as being good. Often, reading the news, seeing the various agendas of evil being pushed upon us in our nation, Isaiah 5:20 comes to mind:
20 Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!
In many ways, it makes perfect sense that the mushy middle is fleeing the house. The hard things the Bible says that come with being a Christian are becoming a more evident reality right here and now in our country. There is a lot of hostility being sent our way. Following Jesus comes at a cost. As such, those not fully committed to Christ have no reason to stay when the going gets hard.
It is enough to make those of us who are Christ’s disciples, and who continue to strive to push forward, according to God’s will, wonder what on earth we should do next. How do we follow the Lord’s will in a world that seems increasingly dark and hostile to us?
Consider that, in the first century, the Christians had a lot more difficult circumstances to deal with than we do today. We can learn from their example, and we can be encouraged. We have the testimony of the Scriptures to help show us the way, which is that we must always keep our eyes upon the Master – the Lord Jesus – who leads us.
I think the book of Acts is a great encouragement to us in our times. As we read it, we see the impossible made possible and the gospel of Jesus Christ explode throughout the known world. This happens despite the moral degradations of the people and their leaders, the resistance and outright violent opposition of other religions, Kings, and authorities at every level. They were up against an Army opposed to the gospel of Jesus Christ and his followers. Yet they overcame it all – sometimes at the cost of their lives.
How did they do it? It’s a simple formula, really. The Lord led; his disciples followed; and the world was changed forever.
But, as we look inwardly at ourselves, we, perhaps, see with a critical eye how weak we are. And, when we look outwardly at the church, we see how imperfect the other disciples of Christ are. But, faithful to the Lord, we keep trying. We keep trying because we really believe in Jesus; we really are his disciples; and we really want to do his will.
So, we make a plan and follow it. We take upon ourselves an agenda and work towards it. We determinedly follow Jesus in one direction certain that is the direction we must go.
In themselves, these things are generally not a problem. But, there can come a point where it is not Christ we are following. It is our own path and our own agenda. Sometimes, with what may seem to us good intentions, we willfully insist on sticking to our own plan, closing ourselves off from the leading of the Lord.
Our passage today helps us to stand back a little bit and see from a bird’s eye view, so to speak, how God can work to change the world despite our failings and trouble and strife. It gives us a picture of how to follow the Lord’s leading and avoid getting stuck upon a path that is not the one he would lead us down.
So, with your Bible and the map included in your bulletin, let us take a look at the journey described in our passage today.
After Paul and Barnabas had been preaching the word in Antioch for a while, Paul got an idea that they should go and visit all the places where they had before “proclaimed the word of the Lord.” It would be a good opportunity to see good friends, and encourage the church in their faith.
Unfortunately, a problem occurred in the form of John Mark—vv. 37-39a:
37 Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. 38 But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. 39 And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other.
What a picture this paints!
Paul and Barnabas, in their first missionary journey together, experienced quite a lot. They travelled hundreds of miles over land and sea, saw hundreds of people come to the Lord, planted quite a few churches, and experienced resistance and violence against their persons. Together, as they did the Lord’s work, they experienced great hardships. But they also, together, experienced great fellowship and worship, as the Lord did wonders through them. Such things bind friends together with powerful bonds.
Yet, here we see them arguing – and the language is clear that it is a heated argument – arguing over taking John Mark along with them on the missionary journey they were planning.
We don’t know exactly why John Mark had quit their last mission (although we looked at the circumstances and fallout a few weeks back when we were looking at Acts 13:13). Yet, whatever the reason, Paul clearly saw that he wasn’t up to the difficulties they would surely face. Mark abandoned them once during hard times; Paul needed someone reliable, and, rightfully, Paul did not see Mark as being that person. Yet, Barnabas was John Mark’s cousin, so he stuck up for him.
As it was, this was a hurdle even their close friendship couldn’t overcome. So, they split ways. Barnabas with Mark went west to the Isle of Cyprus, and Paul took Silas with him northwest by land.
Strife among committed believers can be very painful, particularly when it happens in a church. What happens is that sometimes one believer, or a group of believers, thinks the church should go one way, and another thinks it should go another way.
I even heard of one church that split because one group wanted a fancy cross in the sanctuary and the other wanted a rough wooden cross – true story!
Such divisive arguments can happen in the development of mission statements; the use of church funds; doctrinal positions; the style of worship services they want to have; the type music that is appropriate for worship; how to proceed opening the church back up after a coronavirus pandemic; and even stuff like the proper way to do this or that for this or that function, the type silverware to use, whether ties are required for the men; and so forth.
Terrible things can be said in the heat of such arguments, and these things can lead to hurt and separation. They can also be extremely discouraging to faithful believers.
The thing is, if we encounter such troubles in the church with other believers, how can we ever face and overcome the attacks of Satan that are coming at us fast like flaming darts in the world we live in?
Praise God that we have the testimony of the Scriptures as a comfort. None of us are perfect, and none of us will always get along or even like, in some cases, our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. Sometimes we fail. This is why I am thankful that Luke recorded this argument between Paul and Barnabas.
Kent Hughes has said, “All Christians walk with limps.” And this is quite true. None of us are perfect, and our imperfections can lead to strife in our lives and the lives of our fellow believers. Yet, despite our failures, all disciples of Christ rely on God’s grace. God didn’t save us because we were perfect. He saved us because he loves us.
What is more, despite our failures, God’s purpose is never thwarted. God can even use our failures to bring great advances in his Kingdom. He calls us to continue to follow him through good times and hard times—even when we are the reason for our hard times. We are called to be faithful, and continue to follow Jesus. Because the Lord can use any circumstances to advance his purpose, we must follow his lead.
Having split from Barnabas, Paul, with the approval of the church in Antioch, took Silas with him on his mission to visit churches he and Barnabas had planted in order to encourage them, strengthen them in the faith, and pass along the Jerusalem council’s message. Paul also had the further intent to plant even more churches along the way and beyond in places that had never heard the gospel.
Paul was a driven man – brilliant. It is certain he had worked out in his mind exactly what his next mission would be. Therefore, he went marching forward along that path.
In Acts 15:41 and 16:1-3, you’ll see several places mentioned that are marked on your map (points 1 & 2). They went through Syria and Cilicia to Derbe, Lystra, and Iconium.
As for Lystra, you’ll remember that Paul was stoned and left for dead the first time he was there. This was probably on his mind as he came to the city, along with how together he and Barnabas made it through. Also, how the church there had been established and begun to grow.
There in Lystra, Paul and Silas linked up with Timothy, who was probably a teenager at the time. Timothy was a young man with a good reputation. Paul saw an opportunity to bring this young man along with him to help in their mission and, perhaps, to be trained in his own right as a pastor.
We know from the letters from Paul to Timothy that Timothy, in time, did become a great pastor, and praise God we have those letters. Perhaps if John Mark had been along on the journey, Timothy would have never joined their group. It is impossible to say.
Yet … look at v. 3.
3 Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.
Doesn’t this seem a little odd to you? Didn’t the Jerusalem council just pronounce that it was not needed for Gentiles to be circumcised in order to be a follower of Christ? Paul was even one of the biggest proponents against circumcising Gentiles. Yet, here he is circumcising Timothy, so he could accompany Paul on his missionary journey.
The answer, of course, is in the context. Timothy was already a believer and was commended for it. His circumcision was not for him, but for others.
Even more telling, although his father was a Gentile, his mother was a Jew.The custom of the Jews was that the line of being Jewish was through the mother. He would have been considered a Jew. Hence, if Timothy went into a synagogue with Paul to preach the gospel, his lack of circumcision might be a hindrance to the Jews even giving them the time of day. The Jews took these things really seriously.
So, to avoid such trouble, and not to make himself a stumbling block for the gospel, Timothy submitted to circumcision. I think we can agree that this attests well to the commitment of this young man. He proved his dedication to the gospel mission in blood right up front.
So it was that Paul, Silas, and Timothy set out through Phrygia and Galatia, finding themselves barred from going West into Asia (points 3 & 4 on your map). Verses 6 and 7:
6 And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. 7 And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.
I imagine this was a “Now what?” moment. Paul’s plan had been thwarted—thwarted by the Holy Spirit. What to do now? Keep trying to go into Bithynia, and hope the Lord relents? Pray that the Lord will remove his barrier so Paul could do what he wanted to do? Give up and head back to Antioch? Or keep feeling around the barrier until the open door is found?
Sometimes we run right into barriers, blocking what we think we are supposed to be doing for the Lord. These barriers can take many forms. Sometimes they are painful. Sometimes we try doing something, putting our all into it, and we fail. Perhaps you’ve experienced such barriers, when you’ve made your plan, did your best, but then, got shut down. Perhaps you’ve found yourself asking, “Now what?”
“What do I do now?”
“I invested so much into this plan, this dream, but now it’s all for naught. Now what do I do?”
The “what” is that you continue to press on for Jesus. You persist in seeking his will. That door may be closed, but it does not mean that the Lord is through with you. In fact, he very may well have something bigger and better for you than your own limited plan and vision could imagine. Because the Lord closes doors to advance his purposes, we must follow his lead.
Not only does the Lord close doors, he also opens them—like in our passage today. Here, God slammed shut one door, but he opened another for them to enter.
Look at how Paul approached the situation. He didn’t retreat, but skirted the edge of the barrier until he found the open door. You can even see this on your map visually with point 4. See how the group skirted around the northern edge of Mysia, not going north into Bithynia, but heading west squeezed between them heading to a new place—Troas (point 5).
Notice also that the language goes from using “they” to “we” at this point in v. 10. Luke had joined their missionary party. Think about that. Without God closing doors and opening others, Paul may never have met Luke in Troas. As a result, Luke might never have written his Gospel and this very book of Acts we are studying now.
For that matter, if Paul and Barnabas had not argued and split ways like we saw earlier, all the events leading up to John Mark’s writing his gospel might have been quite different. And we might not have the Gospel of Mark.
It is interesting how these things work out.
Yet, for Paul, it was there at Troas that the door was blown wide open. God had a lot more in mind for this little band of missionaries than they had even begun to imagine. There at Troas (not the place Paul had thought he would be), God revealed to Paul where he wanted him to go. God gave him a vision. Look at v. 9:
9 And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”
There was a call for help, and Paul and his band were tasked to go. So, immediately the next morning, they got on a ship heading that way. They stopped at the island of Samothrace, then sailed on to the port city of Neapolis (point 6 on your map). From there, they made their way to Phillipi, where the Lord had several missions for them (point 7).
Now, some of you might be skeptical about visions or dreams. This is wise. However, don’t automatically discount them. Sometimes they happen as a valid means for the Lord’s direction. Yet, it seems, empirically, that this is rare and not the norm. And, of course, we are told to “test the spirits” (1 John 4:1).
Most of the time, the answer to what action to take or decision you make is not plainly laid out in a vision or dream. It’d be great if it was, but it’s not.
That is why you make a plan and then move forward. You do it in prayer seeking God’s will; praying he will open and shut doors along the way. You have to be flexible, and persistent.
Sometimes what you are supposed to do comes in a gradual awareness. This could be because of a need for preparation: whispers in your heart by the Spirit; his changing your desires; and then the command to go! Sometimes the wait is due to our hardened-hearts, where the Lord spends some time sanctifying us, preparing us to be ready with the right heart to do what he calls us to do.
Then, sometimes, it comes with a beacon and an overpowering sense that God is sending you to do something for him. This could be an action of particular obedience. It could be a whole change of career. Or, it could even be moving to another country to be a missionary, leaving everything behind.
The key is to be open to the Lord’s leading when the door opens, and follow the Lord’s lead no matter the means he uses to lead you. It’s what a disciple of Christ does. We follow Jesus. So, because the Lord opens doors to advance his purposes, we must follow his lead.
The Gospel arriving in Macedonia was a huge event, but with little fanfare. The greatest missionary of all time had stepped foot in Europe for the first time. History shows us the result. The world was forever changed.
In the midst of conflict, trials, and closed and opened doors, disciples of Christ walk the path the Lord has set. As the world stands defiant against the Lord and in opposition to your movement along God’s path, step confidently! Never forget that he can use any circumstance to advance his purposes. Nothing and no-one can stop him!
Because the Lord leads, we must follow.
 R. Kent Hughes, Acts: The Church Afire, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1996), 203.