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.