Acts 18:24-28

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Luke shifts his focus from Paul in Galatia and Phrygia back to Ephesus, where he had left Aquila and Priscilla. The effect on us as readers is both extending the time frame, and also demonstrating how the church continues to grow and develop regardless of the presence of Paul. Although this was not Luke’s intention, it also serves to set the stage for Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (which we will study from tomorrow).

The main character in this story is Apollos, who is more roundly described than most New Testament minor characters: a Jew, a native of Alexandria, eloquent, and able in the Scriptures. Alexandria was well-known as a centre of learning, with the best library in the known world, and was most likely the location where the Jewish scriptures were translated into Greek (the Septuagint). Luke notes that Apollos was taught the way of the Lord and was zealous in the Spirit, speaking and teaching carefully about Jesus. But there was a problem: he understood only John’s baptism. The implication is that he had not been baptised in the Holy Spirit and fire like the other disciples of Jesus (cf Acts 2:4; 10:44-48).

When he came to Ephesus and began to preach boldly in the synagogue, Priscilla and Aquila took him aside and laid out the way of God accurately. Again we can infer, although it is not explicit, that they explained about being baptised into Jesus. (We will learn further about this in 19:1-7, when Paul discovers a similar problem among a group of Ephesians.) I wish I could have been in that little Bible study group. How amazing it might have been to be in the presence of such wise and learned Bible teachers. I would like to know how Apollos reacted to being instructed by Priscilla and Aquila. Luke leaves it to our imagination.

After some time, Apollos wanted to go to Achaia, the region of which Corinth was the capital. He was urged on by the believers in Ephesus and they wrote a letter to the church in Corinth (presumably, based on reason and Acts 19:1) to receive him. When he arrived there he helped the believers, especially by vigorously refuting the Jews publicly, proving through the scriptures that the Christ is Jesus.

I am encouraged by this passage that being an effective minister of the word doesn’t mean always being perfect. Apollos wasn’t perfect and needed to be corrected. On the other hand, God used him in teaching and speaking accurately and fervently. On the other hand, Priscilla (a woman and wife, no less!) and Aquila are not described in such glowing terms, but rather they are noted simply as tent-makers, and yet they are able to provide careful explanation to a great Bible scholar like Apollos. Whether you are feeling like you have made mistakes and don’t know enough, or like you are not qualified, God can still use you in powerful ways.

Prayer: Thank you, God, for your grace. You can use me, even me, to communicated your power and love to people. Help me to be open to correction like Apollos, and fervent in spirit.

Acts 18:18-23

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This passage is the last section of Paul’s second missionary journey, and also begins the third missionary journey. Before starting this blog, I had read and heard all about Paul’s journeys, the places he went to, and the experiences he had, but personally I feel like I have come to grasp it all much more fully. Before I couldn’t have told you which city was in which region, but now I can visualize the map as a result of having studied in so much depth. I hope it has helped you too! Thank you for reading with me.

As Luke already told us in verse 11, Paul spent a long time in Corinth. But now it is time to say goodbye, probably about 52 AD. He is on his long way home after a few years, accompanied by Priscilla and Aquila. There is no mention of Silas or Timothy going too, but they may have been members of the traveling party. Before sailing out of the province of Achaia, Paul has his head shaved to fulfil a vow. This may have been some kind of version of a Nazirite vow (cf Num 6:1-5); it is likely he made a promise that as long as God kept him safe in Corinth, he wouldn’t cut his hair and this marks the end of the vow period.

The first port in the sea-journey was Ephesus, in the province of Asia, where Paul left his companions, but not before going into the synagogue to dialogue with the Jews. Though asked to stay longer in Ephesus, presumably by the Jews with whom he was talking, Paul declined, but he did say he would come back if it was God’s will (which clearly it was in just the next chapter). Paul sails on, a very long journey to Caesarea, in the province of Judea. He went up and greeted the church, probably indicating the church in Jerusalem, although this is not explicit in the text. Then he went ‘home’ to Antioch, 500km north by land.

Luke does not tell us anything about Paul’s time in Antioch, but we can guess that he preached in the church, visited supporters, and had a rest. The focus of the narrative is Paul’s movements, and the third journey starts here already, in verse 23. We do not hear about any new destinations yet, just a return to the churches Paul had already planted in Galatia and Phrygia (that is, in Derbe, Lystra, Iconium, and Pisidian Antioch) to strengthen the disciples there. We meet Paul again in Ephesus on his third journey in Acts 19:1, but next there is a side-story about Apollos which we will look at in our next reading.

For me the most interesting point in this passage is that Paul declines staying longer in Ephesus at this stage of the journey. I think if I was there, I would dance to the tune of my audience. But Paul is committed to his plan to return to Syria at this time. He is not afraid of missing the opportunity but is confident that if God wants him to come back, he will. I also note that he is as committed to strengthening the disciples in the church, if not more so, than evangelizing those who have not yet heard.

Prayer: God of power and might, heal me of my Fear-Of-Missing-Out. Help me to trust you always, and to be committed to doing your will and seeing your people grow in faith. Give me strength to battle through each leg of my journey, though it may be long and arduous.

What happened on Paul's second missionary journey?

Acts 18:12-17

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This is the last story about Paul in Corinth before he begins his return journey back to Antioch, but it is not really about Paul, who doesn’t even have the opportunity to speak. Luke gives us a time indication by mentioning Gallio as proconsul of Achaia, the province of which Corinth was the capital. Gallio had this position in 51 AD according to extra-biblical records. Being proconsul means that Gallio was the Roman administrator, much as we understand a consul in modern times, except it is a more important position because of the status within the empire.

At some stage during Paul’s time in Corinth, the Jews, united in passion, attacked Paul and led him to the judgment seat. Unpacking these words of Luke, we understand that this was not a physical attack, but that the Jews brought Paul to Gallio’s court. Their accusation is fascinating: “This man is persuading people to worship God!” but it is prefaced by the phrase, “para the law”. Para doesn’t usually mean ‘against’, but is rather ‘beyond’ or ‘beside’ (cf parachurch), and by extension ‘differently’. I find it quite mind-blowing that the Jews were so angry about Paul ‘persuading people to worship God’, in any way, that they brought him to court.

Gallio clearly also thought it was a foolish suit that he wasn’t willing to listen to. If Paul was involved in some unrighteousness or evil he would admit a charge, but to him, this was some inquiry about words, names, and the Jews’ own law. Paul was a Jew, and they were Jews; couldn’t they sort this matter out themselves? Gallio was not willing to be a judge in this context and drove them away.

Sadly, the synagogue leader Sosthenes was beaten up as a result. Why? Early scribes were also confused about this point, and later editions of the text introduce a subject so that the sentence reads “The Greeks seized Sosthenes”. A few other manuscripts tried to correct this assumption and introduced a different subject so that it was “The Jews” who seize Sosthenes. Neither of these help to solve the question of why Sosthenes gets beaten up: why would the Greeks get involved in this? or why would the Jews beat up their own synagogue leader (unless maybe Sosthenes is another name for Crispus, or the next synagogue leader Sosthenes also became a Christian)? Clearly these scribes were trying to solve the mystery according to their own understanding of what may have happened. Commentators also differ strongly, with some asserting that the Jews beat up the converted Sosthenes (cf 1 Cor 1:1), and others that the Greeks beat him up as the leader of this Jewish rabble who would presume to trouble the consul. Nothing of this, writes Luke, concerned Gallio.

Luke’s point is probably simply to draw attention to the fact that it wasn’t Paul that was beaten up this time. This was in fulfillment of God’s promise in verse 10: “no one will lay a hand on you”. There is just a mild suggestion in this context that even Gallio is one of God’s people in this city, in the same way that Cyrus was God’s instrument five hundred years previously. The Jews were not able to convince a Roman official to pronounce the new Christian sect as illegal.

What of this for us? Firstly, we see another example of God fulfilling his promise. Secondly, God can use anyone, even government officials with no interest in our affairs, to promote or protect his will being done. Finally, God’s opponents can be completely blind to even the good that he is doing. Instead of rejoicing that the Gentiles were coming to worship and honor their God, the Jews could see only that they weren’t doing it in the right way (according to their understanding). We should be careful that we are not on the side of the opponents in this matter.

Prayer: Lord God, help me to see the good that you are doing, and to be open to worship that may not look like how things have been done in the past. Thank you that you can use anyone to do your will, and please protect me from those who would seek to harm me.

Acts 18:1-11

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In today’s passage, Paul arrives in Corinth from Athens (a couple of days’ journey, about 90km), where he will stay for 18 months, probably the longest he stayed anywhere without being under arrest. (Next week we will start studies on Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.) For some reason he didn’t wait for Silas and Timothy to join him in Athens before moving on, but it seems they found him easily enough (v5).

Paul meets Aquila and Priscilla in this passage too. They were refugees from Italy after Emperor Claudius expelled all the Jews from Rome. However, Luke notes that Aquila’s native place is actually Pontus, which is north-east of Galatia, quite far from western Italy, Greece or Macedonia. Perhaps Aquila was one of the Jews from Pontus that heard Peter on the Day of Pentecost (cf Acts 2:9), repented and was baptized. In fact, Luke does not actually mention that Aquila and Priscilla are followers of Jesus, but we can infer it from their close relationship with Paul (cf Acts 18:18), their later teaching (Acts 18:26), and Paul’s letters (Rom 16:3; 1 Cor 16:19; 2 Tim 4:19). In this passage, the thing that binds them together is not their faith (either as Jews or as Christians) but their work as tentmakers, literally. It seems that making tents is how Paul supported himself financially.

At the same time as working with his hands, Paul was also continuing to preach. Every Saturday he went to the synagogue to dialogue with both Jews and Gentiles, testifying that the Christ is Jesus. Luke describes him as ‘holding fast’ to the word (v5). Many believed and were baptized, including the leader of the synagogue, Crispus and his whole household. But some resisted and blasphemed (cf Acts 13:45), with the result that Paul shook the dust from his garments and went to the Gentiles, as he had done at Antioch in Pisidia (cf Acts 13:51). Paul acknowledges that he had done his part and the guilt rested on their own heads. Thus he continued his ministry at the house of Titius Justus, a God-fearing Gentile, ironically just next door to the synagogue.

Paul was able to stay teaching the word of God in the city of Corinth for a long time because he received a special vision from the Lord. He told Paul: “Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you, for I have many people in this city”. What an incredible encouragement for Paul! This is only the second time it is recorded in scripture that God spoke directly to Paul, the first being at his conversion and not particularly pleasant (Acts 9:4,6). ‘Do not be afraid’ is one of the most common commands in the Bible, and the reason for it is frequently that ‘I am with you’ (eg Gen 26:24; Is 41:10; 43:5; Jer 1:8; 46:28). Joshua was also told to be courageous, for the Lord was with him (Josh 1:9). The other encouragement is that the Lord has many people in this city, implying that Paul is not alone, there are many people to support him, and also that the Lord envisages a great harvest in Corinth.

Often we need to be reminded of this great truth, that God is with us. In Matthew’s Gospel, “I am with you” is the very last thing that Jesus said to his disciples, right in the context of being sent out for a ministry of teaching and disciple-making. Especially in situations of fear or uncertainty, let us remember also that he is with us and that he has provided like-minded friends for us.

Prayer: Lord God, thank you for your promise to be with me. Help me not to be afraid, especially in times of fear and uncertainty. I am so thankful that I can trust you to be there with me, right in those moments, and also that you have provided others to be with me.

Acts 17:16-34

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This section is one of the most famous parts of Acts. While Paul is waiting for Silas and Timothy in Athens, his spirit is cut, seeing all the idols in the city. He calls them objects of worship, and the Athenians as fearful of demons (a literal translation of deisi-daimon-esterous). I can imagine Paul feeling similarly overwhelmed walking down the street in Thailand or in India. There are shrines everywhere, indicating how religious the people are. The altar Paul describes in 17:23 is inscribed ironically “agnosto theo“, for an unknown god. The Athenians were keen to make sure they had all the bases covered, that there was not a god that was not appeased. How very relatable for those of us who live in Asia.

Having been invited to share in the Areopagus (Ares Hill, an open space used as a court) after demonstrating his intellectual worth through dialogue in the synagogue, and in the marketplace, among Jews, Gentile God-fearers, and Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, Paul takes his opportunity once more to preach the gospel. Luke notes that those who lived in Athens, both locals and immigrants, spent their time speaking and listening to new ideas and they wanted to understand what Paul was teaching.

Paul does not chastise or criticize the Athenians for their forms of worship (even though that may be what he feels like doing). Rather, he fills in the blanks for them, even using their own poetry and beginning from their own starting point. What they are agnostic about, or what they do not know, he proclaims: God made everything and does not live in spirit houses made by hands. God made every race of humanity, their times and lands, so they would seek him and reach out and find him, but not in gold or silver or stone idols. He has overlooked their agnosticism, their ignorance, but now God commands repentance, a changing of minds and attitudes so that they are set towards him. The day of judgment is coming, and the judge has been appointed as faithful, raised from the dead.

It is at this point that Paul starts to lose some of his audience, when he refers to the resurrection. Again, how relatable today! Although some start to mock him, others want to hear more, including an member of the Areopagus and a woman named Damaris, among others, who join him and believe.

There is a huge treasure-house in this passage for how we should speak with unbelievers today. I feel I am unworthy to comment when so much has already been written on this passage, but for what it’s worth, here are some thoughts. First of all, respect people in the place that they are. Secondly, fill in their blanks, the things they don’t know and want to know more about. Thirdly, although in time this takes priority, wait to be asked so that people are listening. In order for this to happen, you may have to prove your credentials beforehand in a smaller audience. Finally, don’t neglect the truth of God’s word, but explain who he is: creator, judge, and giver of life. He deserves the worship of those he has created.

Prayer: Lord God, give me insight into who you are, and also into the thoughts of those who don’t know you. Help me, even though I may be overwhelmed by the differences between us, to see where we have common ground, and to stand there and proclaim your truth.

Acts 17:10-15

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In yesterday’s reading we learned that Paul and Silas were sent away from Thessalonica by the Christians there, to safety in Berea, about 70 km west and therefore probably two days’ journey if they were on foot – although given they started at night, they may have travelled it in one 24 hour period with only brief rests on the way. Is it any surprise they went into the synagogue when they arrived, having just escaped the rabble-rousing Jews in Thessalonica? Probably not, as that would be the community that Paul and Silas recognize as their own in the absence of any church yet established. Luke chooses an interesting verb here: rather than simply ‘they went’ into the synagogue, he writes that they ‘went out’ or ‘departed’ into the synagogue, thus suggesting an exit to a new place; out of persecution and into safety, perhaps?

Certainly, the Berean Jews are described as ‘well-born’, to translate directly. The English versions struggle to represent this word effectively: noble, noble-minded, open-minded, fair-minded, nicer, receptive … Luke compares them positively against the Thessalonian Jews who had rejected Paul (remember that some of them joined him); in contrast, they receive the word eagerly, daily investigating the scriptures regarding the things Paul was saying. As a result, many of the Berean Jews believed, along with influential Greek women and men. I find it fascinating that Luke keeps referring to these prominent and influential women who believe; he had also done the same in his Gospel (cf Lk 8:1-2; 23:49; 24:10; Acts 13:50; 16:13; 17:4). In Luke-Acts there are 22 references to women in general, compared with 11 in Matthew, Mark and John combined.

But the Thessalonian Jews came to know that Paul had gone to Berea proclaiming the word of God and they also went there, shaking up and disturbing the crowds as they had at home. Before anything worse could happen, the Christians immediately sent Paul out east towards the Aegean Sea. It is not clear how far he went initially, but he ends up in Athens, about 250km away, accompanied by Berean brothers. After bringing Paul to Athens, they return back home with instructions that Silas and Timothy, who had stayed in Berea, should come to him quickly. They had probably already spent about a week traveling, and now Paul needs to wait for two weeks before Silas and Timothy would join him (allowing a week’s journey each way). I guess Athens isn’t a bad place to have to spend two weeks waiting for one’s friends, but we will hear more about that tomorrow.

I like the Bereans. It’s a pity we don’t have more information about how their church developed. As an Australian, with our deep culture of flat equality, I’m not sure I believe in this ‘nobility’ stuff, that someone can be ‘born well’ and that makes them a better person and thus better positioned to receive God’s word. But I certainly appreciate their willingness to listen and to test what they were hearing against the Old Testament scriptures. Clearly perceptive and well-educated, they didn’t just believe without thinking, but subjected the message to thorough scrutiny. Then their church was built of both Jews and Gentiles, women and men. Their quick thinking might have saved Paul’s life for one more mission. Larkin (1995) comments: “To be a believer also means to engage our critical faculties in testing the gospel’s truth claims. For postmoderns who will bow to no authority but what they have tested and approved, this is an essential step if faith is to have integrity.”

Prayer: God, give me an open and receptive mind to receive your word, study it, and see how it fits together. Help me to be a good thinker so that I know and do your will. Enable me also to be patient when I need to wait.

Acts 17:1-10

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In today’s passage, Paul and Silas move on from Philippi to Thessalonica. It was likely a three day journey, crossing about 50km each day, with two overnight stops on the way. Unlike Philippi (and probably Amphipolis and Apollonia which are passed over quickly), there was a Jewish synagogue in Thessalonica.

Paul visited the synagogue on three consecutive Saturdays. As a student of Gamaliel, it was only natural that he should have the opportunity to share from the Scriptures with the congregation. The verbs Luke uses are interesting: Paul dialogued, he completely opened [the scriptures], and he put before [them the evidence]. (I have added in square brackets the natural complements of the verbs to make them into sentences where necessary.) What he was so careful to prove from the Old Testament scriptures was that (1) it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise from the dead; and (2) Jesus was this Messiah whom he proclaimed. Some of the Jews, as well as many God-fearing Greeks and prominent women, were persuaded and assigned themselves to join Paul and Silas. It seems a Christian church, made up of both Jews and Gentiles, men and women, was forming here in Thessalonica right in the synagogue itself.

But as other Jews became jealous of the following Paul and Silas were gaining over those few weeks, they brought some bad guys from the market and a crowd developed so that they created a disturbance in the city. When they didn’t find Paul and Silas at Jason’s house to lead them before the people, they dragged before the city officials Jason and some other brothers instead. Accusing Paul and Silas of stirring up the Roman world, they also accused Jason of harboring them. Ironically, it was these accusers themselves who were creating the disturbance, not the accused. Nevertheless, they understood well the implications of Paul’s preaching: against the dogma of Caesar they were indeed proclaiming another king, Jesus. Those who accused Paul and Silas of disturbing the peace thus succeeded in disturbing the peace themselves; those who heard these things, officials and crowd alike, were disturbed. However, the overall impact is clearly not as great on the Thessalonians as it had been on the Philippians. There is no beating, no jailing, no humiliating. A bond is taken from Jason, presumably a kind of promise that he won’t do it again, and they are simply released. Paul and Silas don’t even appear before the crowd or the officials, but are sent away by the new believers to the next town, Berea. It all seems somewhat of an anticlimax, especially after the drama in Philippi. That is because the trouble brewing here is going to bubble over in the next part of the story in Berea – stay tuned!

My favorite part of this story is the way Paul careful explains the scriptures to demonstrate that Jesus is the Messiah, and how the Jews in the synagogue are able to identify what this implies: that there is a King to rival Caesar. This fact turns the world as they know it upside down. How disturbing! Although I am a citizen of a country with a queen, and I live in another monarchy, I am not very diligent in recognizing the monarch. The king on the throne of my heart, my own inner kingdom, is me. Generally, I make the rules and I reap the profits. Acknowledging Jesus as King should turn my little kingdom upside down and make me servant instead of lord. Does it disturb me? If not, I wonder whether I have really understood that he is king.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, I acknowledge that you are my king. Shake me out of my complacency and take your rightful rule over my life! Help me understand how all the scriptures point to you.

Apostle Paul's Second Missionary Journey Large Map
From Philippi, through Amphipolis and Apollonia, to Thessalonica (written below Berea)

Acts 16:25-40 (Part 2)

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Our Philippi story continues today. We had left Paul and Silas, their bodies battered and bruised, their feet bound in stocks, trapped in the inner cell of the city prison. They were arrested for disturbing the peace, which happened as a result of Paul’s delivering an evil spirit from a slave girl and consequent loss of income for her owners. As one does in such horrific situations (!), Paul and Silas are singing hymns and praying, while the other prisoners are listening to them.

Suddenly, a great earthquake shakes the foundations of the prison, all the doors are opened, and everyone’s chains are loosened. (Macedonia is particularly prone to earthquakes and although there is no other historical evidence about an earthquake in 51 AD, it is hardly surprising; an earthquake tracking site I looked at cited 57 earthquakes in the region in the last one year.) The jailer, waking up and seeing the doors open and presuming all the prisoners have escaped, is about to kill himself when Paul stops him, assuring him that they are all still in the prison. The jailer rushes in and falls trembling before Paul and Silas. Although his thought processes are not entirely clear, the jailer seems to recognize that it is not Paul and Silas only who need saving, but himself.

The jailer leads Paul and Silas out of the prison, presumably to his own house (perhaps in the prison compound), where they speak the word of the Lord to all who are there. The jailer washes Paul and Silas’ wounds, and while there is water around, he and his whole family are baptized, right there and then in the middle of the night. They eat a meal, everyone together rejoicing that they have come to faith in God.

Just a brief note here about Luke’s narration: Firstly, in verse 12 it was apparent to us as readers that Luke himself had joined the group. But there is no sense of eyewitness account about the events which took place in Philippi. In fact, I sense a drawing together of different sources regarding the prison scene. Three times it is mentioned that the jailer brought Paul and Silas out (v30, v33, v34), and then in v37 they seem to be back in prison and wanting to be escorted out one more time. It is of course possible that the three ‘bringing’ or ‘taking’ outs were to three different parts of the prison compound, but if you read closely and try to picture it, the order of action is all rather messier than I have described it in the paragraph above. I have no conclusion about this, simply that it indicates to me that Luke is using sources here and hasn’t stitched them up very neatly.

It is a marvelous picture to see the jailer’s entire household come to faith and be baptized in the middle of the night. When day arrives, the jailer receives an order to release Paul and Silas, though it is not clear why. Perhaps they were put in jail for disturbing the peace and now that peace is restored they can go free once more. The order is that they go ‘in peace’. But it seems that Paul does not want peace at this moment. Apparently incensed that they, as Roman citizens, were publicly humiliated and thrown in jail without formal charge and without evidence of any offense, Paul demands that the magistrates come personally and lead them out (despite having already been led out three times by the jailer!).

When the magistrates hear that Paul and Silas are Romans, they are afraid. They could get into trouble from the central government in Rome if it was discovered that they had treated its citizens illegally in this way, punishing and imprisoning them without a fair trial. They come to lead them out, as requested, imploring Paul and Silas to leave the city (presumably in the hope that no further trouble arises there). After a brief visit to Lydia’s house to encourage the brothers there, they do so.

There are a number of small ‘freedom’ miracles in this passage. Firstly, the earthquake sets the prisoners free. Then, despite this opportunity, the prisoners do not escape, which sets the jailer free. The jailer and his family are then set free (i.e. ‘saved’ spiritually when they believe in the Lord Jesus and are baptized. Finally, Paul and Silas are allowed to go free.

Why did Paul refuse to walk free initially? Is it simply his outrage at injustice? If so, why didn’t he express it the day before when it was happening? Was Paul choosing to follow the path of his master, Jesus, who was similarly punished without a fair trial? Is this another example of God’s Spirit arranging human affairs so that the jailer was able to hear and respond to the gospel?

Sometimes, as servants of God, we choose the path of suffering in order to do his will. I am glad that so far in my journey, I have not had to endure beatings and imprisonment. But there are many Christians who have chosen that path, or who have had no choice. As Paul will later write to the church in Philippi, when he is once again in prison: “what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel … because of my chains, most of the brothers have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear … what has happened to me will turn out for my salvation” (Phil 1:12-19). May we similarly have courage and faith in times of testing.

Prayer: Thank you, Jesus, that you work through the suffering of your people. Help me to endure it when it comes, Lord, and not to shrink back or avoid it in fear. If others might come to know and trust you through my suffering, so let it be, I will trust in you.

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Acts 16:13-40 (Part 1)

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There are three linked stories in this passage set in the city of Philippi: the conversion of Lydia; the exorcism of a spirit; and the jailing and release of Paul and Silas. We will need to take two days over the third story as it also has three parts.

Paul and Silas’ Philippi story begins with going outside the gates to the river for prayer on the Sabbath. (This suggests that there was no synagogue in the city and therefore few if any Jews.) There they sat and spoke among the women who had gathered there, and the heart of one was opened by his words: Lydia, a purple-cloth merchant from Thyatira in Asia, where there would have been a larger Jewish population than in Macedonia, who perhaps inspired her fear of God. Lydia came to faith in Jesus and was baptized, along with her whole household – and so we discover she lived in Philippi, not in her native place. She offers hospitality to Paul and Silas, pressing them with entreaty. They acquiesce, and return there after their upcoming prison ordeal also (verse 40).

It is not clear in this passage how long Paul and Silas stayed at Philippi in Lydia’s house. Some time after meeting her, Paul and Silas were on their way back to the prayer-place when they were met by a young girl who had a ‘Python spirit’. The Python was a mythical serpent who guarded the oracle at Delphi (and was slain by the Greek god Apollo). Many cultures have snake spirits, including the giant Naga that we often see in Southeast Asia leading up to or in Buddhist and Hindu temples. My husband personally witnessed a woman possessed by a snake spirit in North India, which made her writhe like a snake across the floor. The spirit that possessed the young girl in this passage enabled her to deliver oracles concerning the future or present, and her owners made a lot of money from this ‘spiritual gift’. When she encountered Paul and Silas, it appears the spirit possessed her so that she repeatedly shouted out their identity as servants of the Most High God proclaiming salvation. To my thinking, that might have been a good testimony – which is maybe why they let it go for many days – but Paul eventually got worn out by it and cast the spirit out of the girl. Most of the translations say something like Paul was ‘annoyed’, but this is not the best translation of the verb, which is connected to labor or toil; it is used only here and in Acts 4:2 in the New Testament, but the Septuagint uses it in Ecc 10:9 to talk about the hard work of removing stones, and another Greek version of the Old Testament even uses it of how God felt about humanity in Gen 6:6. The idea is being broken down by the weight of onslaught; Paul was not just ‘annoyed’.

But though this must have been a merciful release for the poor slave-girl, her owners did not see it in this way, and they are the focus of the next section of the story. They dragged Paul and Silas to the authorities for retribution for having lost their source of income. Their accusation is not directly about the issue at hand, but remarkably alarmist: “These men are agitating our city! And they are Jews!” (Although the situations are not comparable, I can’t help but be reminded of the situation in America right now as those marching for the rights of black human beings are accused of disturbing the peace.) The last sentence of their accusation is particularly strange, as I doubt that Paul and Silas were proclaiming any such customs or practices that were unlawful for Romans. Nevertheless, the crowd, probably already anti-Semitic by the influence of Emperor Claudius who expelled all the Jews from Rome right about this time (about 51 AD), joined together to rise up agains Paul and Silas. It is noteworthy that they are not attacked here for being Christian, but for being Jewish. Accordingly, they are stripped, beaten, thrown into the inner cell of the prison, and put in wooden stocks.

We will have to leave the story there and return to it tomorrow. But what significant points can we draw so far? The first thing I want to note is that, according to the text at hand, Paul and Silas preached to the women outside the city without hesitation. Lydia is honored in Luke’s description, as a wealthy and independent migrant businesswoman, a God-fearer, with no mention of a husband. Her whole household comes to the Lord and her offer of hospitality is embraced. What a fantastic example of a faithful female disciple! Secondly, evil spirits are real and powerful and people make money out of them – still today. I am reminded of a story I heard recently from one of my colleagues about people being extorted money for disposing of dead bodies because of fear of the spirits which hang around the dead; the Christian community was able to raise money to deal with their own dead without fear of the spirits. Still today, thanks be to God, the name of Jesus Christ has power to drive evil spirits out. Do we, like Paul, get sufficiently ‘worn out’ by evil that we take action against it? And are we willing to pay the price? We will see a similar story in Acts 19:23ff.

Prayer: Most High God, I praise you for your power. You reign supreme over every evil spirit. Help me to trust in you, and use me to deliver people from slavery to others, and especially slavery to evil. Give me your Spirit to enable me to endure the suffering that will come from setting others free.

Naga: Thailand's Fearsome Mekong River-Dwelling Guardian Spirits
Naga god for the Facebook plug

Acts 16:1-12

Click here to read the passage, and refer to the map below to follow the geography lesson.

In this short passage we travel a very long way with Paul and his companions. We begin by retracing the steps of the first missionary journey, through Derbe and Lystra, and mentioning Iconium. From there, we move westward, through Phrygia and Galatia, to regions we have not yet heard about in the Book of Acts. Mysia is a long way from Pisidian Antioch, about 400 km, and from there Paul plans, it seems, to go northeast into Bithynia which is the coastal area of the Black Sea. However, they turn southwest instead (that is, the opposite direction from the one planned), and go to Troas, a port city on the Aegean Sea. From there they sail, via the small island of Samothrace where they stop for the night, before going onto Neapolis in the region of Macedonia. They then go onto Philippi, the most important town of that region. And here we will stop, with Paul and his companions, for some time to hear a story or two (in the coming days).

Beyond the geography lesson, we also get two short lessons in sociology. We already know that Paul is traveling with Silas. In Lystra they find a well-attested disciple named Timothy, who will become a feature in Paul’s ministry and writings. Timothy’s mother is a Jewish Christian and his father is Greek – there is no indication here whether his father is a believer but it would seem not, by argument from silence both here and at 2 Tim 1:5. Paul is instantly drawn to Timothy and wants him to accompany them. Matter-of-factly, Luke records that Paul took him to be circumcised. Doesn’t it seem strange that the chapter after the decision that Gentiles don’t need to be circumcised, here is Paul doing that exact thing with his new companion? However, this case is different, because Timothy is not a Gentile, but a Jew by birth. In Paul’s view, he needs to be circumcised for the sake of their witness among the Jewish people. (If you are still feeling confused about this point, here is a very short article by John Piper on the topic.)

My second point under sociology is that it seems Luke, our author, has joined us in the journey at this point (16:10). There is no explanation here, nor anywhere else in the scriptures, about where or how Paul and Luke met. Some scholars have suggested that he was a Macedonian, perhaps from Philippi itself, our destination in today’s reading. That could be why he suddenly shows up at the very time that Paul has a vision of a Macedonian man calling him to come and help in Macedonia. Although the birthplace of Alexander the Great and other Greek kings, by this stage of history Macedonia, as a Roman province, was on the verge of economic and political ruin.

Our final lesson in today’s passage is in the area of theology. Firstly, and most simply, Luke notes that Paul is traveling around the towns he visited earlier with the gospel, delivering the decision about Gentiles that was made at the Jerusalem Council; as a result, the churches are being strengthened in both faith and numbers. Secondly, there is the strange issue in these verses of the missionaries’ journey being guided by the Holy Spirit. But it is not as we would expect (apart from the vision we referred to in the previous passage). Instead of advising Paul where to go, the Spirit seems to be stopping them going where he doesn’t want them to go. So, having gone through Phrygia and Galatia, the Spirit prevents them from speaking the word further in Asia. While trying to go up to Bithynia, the Spirit does not permit them. How this is happening is not clear – but as cross-cultural workers ourselves we may be able to hazard a few guesses. After the vision at Troas, they connect the dots (sumbibazo, the same word used in 9:22 when Paul was drawing the conclusion that Jesus is the Messiah): God doesn’t want us to go north or south, he wants us to keep going west, to Macedonia.

That’s the application for me. We often ask God to open doors (cf Col 4:3) to give us direction. I believe we should also ask him to close them. Many of us are struggling with direction right now, still suffering under restrictions created by the coronavirus. When do we go? Where do we go? How long do we have to stay here? Why doesn’t God open the way? Perhaps we need to look at those closed doors as his guidance for today.

Prayer: God, it is hard when my way is barred. Help me to discern your Spirit leading and guiding me into the places you want me to go. No matter what the situation, or frustrated I might be, help me to be faithful to the calling to proclaim your word and to teach your people how to obey it.

Apostle Paul's Second Missionary Journey Map