MESSAGE FOR MARCH 13, 2011 FROM ACTS 16:1-10
This week, we move into chapter 16 of the book of Acts. As we study Acts, we mustn’t forget that the entire book is basically a record of the expansion of the gospel as it is spread within Jerusalem and then to Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth. Luke’s main intent in many chapters—at least in those chapters recording Paul’s missionary journeys--is to record the spread of the gospel. As we meet Paul today, he is on the first leg of his second missionary journey. He is visiting some of the churches he planted during his first missionary journey and we pick up the story in 16:1. Luke writes, “1 Paul came also to Derbe and to Lystra. A disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek. 2 He was well spoken of by the brothers at Lystra and Iconium. 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. 4 As they went on their way through the cities, they delivered to them for observance the decisions that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem. 5 So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily. 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. 8 So, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. 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.” 10 And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.”
Acts has been used by many missionaries as a handbook for spreading the gospel—especially in areas where the gospel has never had a hearing. In its pages are found many of the necessary elements to faithfully take the gospel to the unreached. In this particular text I see three of those elements and they are applicable not only to missionaries, but to all of us who are called to be faithful in giving out the gospel. The first element necessary for the expansion of the gospel from this text is: A dependence upon God to provide direction by whatever means he deems best. As we said last week, Paul had made plans for this missionary trip to visit the churches he had planted, but God expanded greatly on those plans. This morning, we want to examine the means by which God altered Paul’s steps as he moved him in a much different direction than he expected.
In Paul there was a willingness to depend upon God to change his course when it is was different from the one he plotted and we should respond to God’s intervention in our lives as he did. Part of the grace of God in Paul that allowed him to be so fruitful as a church planter was his willingness to trust God to direct him, instead of relying on his own fallen and limited understanding of what he was to do. He was an unsurpassed missions strategist and in texts like this one, we discover that the first rule in his strategy was—“go where God tells you.” We see three instances of overt, course-changing direction God gave to Paul that caused him to radically alter his original plans. The first is in verse six. “And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.” So they had wanted to go through what was then called Asia, perhaps to cut through over to Ephesus, the second largest city in the Roman empire. In a way that Luke does not disclose, the Holy Spirit forbade them to go. In other words, the Holy Spirit stopped them in their tracks, re-directed them and they walked in the direction of Bythinia. This wasn’t the Holy Spirit suggesting an alternate route or giving them another possible option. This was the Holy Spirit saying, “You are not to go there—stop—go here, instead!”
The second instance of guidance is in verse six and is very similar “And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bythinia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them. 8 So, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. ” Again, Paul and the team were moving into Bythinia to the North, toward the Black Sea but once again, God stops them. Luke uses this term for the Holy Spirit—“the Spirit of Jesus” and that may mean that this was some sort of prophetic word from Silas who was a prophet—as if Jesus was speaking through Silas (or, Paul for that matter). We can’t know for sure, but the end result is the same—God says “No” to the direction Paul was headed and Paul promptly complies. Paul wasn’t foolish enough to refuse a directive from the Lord of the Universe. Imagine the arrogance we display when the Holy Spirit prompts us to share our faith or do something else and we say, “No, I don’t think so—I’d rather not. If I do that, then this or this or that might happen so, no—Holy Spirit—I think I know best here.” Many of us do that all the time.
One of the most profound displays of grace in most of our lives is that the Spirit even bothers to prompt us to share our faith when we have “vetoed” him so often. It’s only the grace of God that keeps any of us from the permanent silence of the Holy Spirit. Jesus has every right to say to a North American church afraid of even mild persecution, “You know, I’m going to build my church in China or the Sudan or South Korea—they’ll do what I say—they will suffer for me there..” And in many ways, he’s already done that—the base of Christian mission increasingly is no longer the United States—that is rapidly moving to the East—Africa and Asia. David Wells is right when he says that “the Holy Spirit rests lightly on the American church.” And one reason why is because—instead of us wanting to hear and respond to the Spirit when he prompts us to “talk to that person about Jesus,” we typically tell him—“I won’t—I won’t stick my neck out for you—I won’t risk my reputation for you.” One of the reasons the Holy Spirit is so active in Paul is because when he directs, Paul obeys. In Acts 5:32, Paul says God gives the Holy Spirit to those who obey him. In that context, he is speaking of salvation, but it also extends to our daily life. Why would God give his Spirit in power to a group of people who are not even listening for the divine promptings of the Spirit, much less doing the sometimes radical things he tells us to do at times?
A third instance of God’s guidance is in verse nine in Paul’s vision of which Luke writes, “a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him [Paul] and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us. And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.” This time, it’s not the direct prompting of the Spirit; it’s a vision. Again, as we read the narrative, Paul is more than willing to change his plans to move into Bythinia in order to follow God’s leading into Macedonia. Why didn’t the Holy Spirit just tell him—“Paul, go into Macedonia?” Why the need for this dramatic appeal by a desperate man speaking of the need of Paul’s help in Macedonia? There may be several reasons, but one of them is in our next point. That is: a second necessary element for the expansion of the gospel is a heart of compassion for the lost that translates into sacrificial action. One reason I think the Spirit did this summoning through this vision of a lost man is because it highlights the importance of the human element in sharing the gospel. This mission wasn’t just a matter of Paul dispassionately following God’s orders and delivering the gospel in blind obedience to nameless, faceless people who he saw only as the targets of his ministry. It had a strongly personal element. It’s true that we should never evangelize only, or even primarily for the sake of the lost person. In Isaiah 43:25, God says, “25 “I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.” Our primary goal in evangelism and in all things is the glory of God. Many frustrated missionaries have left the field because they went out ONLY because they wanted to help those poor, lost people. When they got there they discovered to their horror that after they had made all these sacrifices for these people and learned the language—these people didn’t want to hear what they had to say and even persecuted them. They leave the field because they were motivated only by human need and that is not Biblucal.
But, you can minister BOTH for God’s glory and to help people—they can run on the same track. Psalm 79:9 says, “Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of your name; deliver us, and atone for our sins, for your name’s sake!” There is the dual motivation of God’s glory and the sinners need for help with the atonement of their sins. Paul was not some sort of missionary robot who cared nothing for the people to whom he ministered and God shows us that in this vision. The Spirit shows him a man—a person in need of help, urging them to come to Macedonia. God used the need for help of a Gentile nation—as represented by this man, to compel Paul to change his course. This shows us that God wants us to care about, and be moved to obedience to him, in part because the people around us are so needful of the kind of help the gospel can bring. The two great commandments are “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength” AND “Love your neighbor as yourself. That tells us that we should be motivated to share the gospel and send out missionaries and support them not only because God is glorified when a sinner repents, but also because we care deeply about the lost people themselves.
As in everything, the ultimate model for us here is Jesus. In Luke 7:34 we read that he was a “friend of sinners.” Jesus loved sinners—he had compassion on them. Matthew tells us in 9:36, “36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Jesus understood the horrific plight of sinners. In this life, they wander around looking for a “pasture” that will satisfy their starving souls, but without a shepherd to lead them, they are destined to either starve or be eaten by wolves. That drove Jesus to compassion for them as it should us. In Luke 13:34, Jesus looks out over Jerusalem and laments, “34 O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” Jesus compares his love for these lost, deceived people to the maternal love of a hen for her helpless chicks. If we don’t have compassion for lost people—even for people like those in Jerusalem who have rejected the gospel—then we are not much like Jesus.
I recently read the biography of George Whitefield—the great evangelist of the Great Awakening and was amazed at how often in his evangelistic sermons he would utterly collapse in tears for the lost—sobbing uncontrollably. We mustn’t miss the fact that the Spirit uses a man calling for help to re-direct Paul off his intended course and walk another 300 miles to Macedonia. God uses that kind of vision in part to reveal his compassion for lost people and set an example for us. If our focus is on compassion, is it compassionate to tell the sinner of the wrath to come apart from Christ? Absolutely!—there’s no compassion in not telling the sinner the whole truth—it’s cruel and misleading. But most of them will not take heed of God’s wrath, unless it comes from a messenger who they know is warning them because of his/her deep concern for them. No one spoke more of hell than Jesus and we must not water that message down. But this same Jesus said, 16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” When Jesus looked out over a group of sinners, he saw a flock of sheep without a shepherd and viewed them with compassion. Paul has the heart of God for sinners so when he sees a man calling for help, Luke says, “…immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. It’s not only the Great Commission that calls us into the mission fields or to witness to our neighbor. God also calls us by allowing us to see—as Jesus did--the crushing need of sinners on whom he has great compassion.
For many people, perhaps the biggest reason they don’t take the risks to share their faith is because, at the end of the day—the lost person, (who is created in God’s image and is part of the world God loved so much he sent his Son to die) doesn’t matter to them. Too often, we don’t really care if they go to everlasting torment at the hand of a holy, just God—we’ve got our robe of righteousness—let them get theirs from someone else. Too often, instead of seeing sheep without a shepherd, we see people who disgust us because they wear their sin on their sleeve. When we look at them that way, we don’t have the heart of Jesus. We must ask ourselves, “Do I have the heart of Jesus as it relates to sinners? Am I willing to get close to them and befriend them and love them for the sake of Christ and for the sake of their souls?” Jesus died to save sinners and he expects no less of us. We must die to our prejudices and bigotry aimed at people who love their sin. We must die to the desire to stay in our comfort zones where there is no risk of humiliation. We must die to the great value we place on what others think about us. We can do that by God’s grace as we increasingly get our identity—not from what others think of us, or how we look, or how much money we have, but from Christ and his work on the cross for us.
We see a powerful example of this compassion in Paul earlier in this chapter. Look for his love for sinners in verses one through three. “1 Paul came also to Derbe and to Lystra. A disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek. 2 He was well spoken of by the brothers at Lystra and Iconium. 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.” We mentioned this last week, but it’s worth looking at again in this context. Paul hears about a man who was well spoken of by the church, not only in his home church in Lystra, but also in Iconium, about 20 miles away. Paul needs additional laborers, so he hears about this man’s sterling reputation and determines that he should accompany him on his mission. The problem is—Paul is going to be moving into areas where there are Jews living among the Gentiles and will be visiting some synagogues, but Timothy is an uncircumcised Jew. Because his mother was a Jew—the Jews would have viewed Timothy as a Jew.
We know from chapter 15 that, although circumcision was not necessary for salvation, it was nonetheless a very important part of Jewish culture and heritage. So much so, that if a Jewish evangelist like Paul came into town explaining how Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, but was accompanied by an uncircumcised Jew, that would have caused unnecessary confusion and alienation. It would have provided an unnecessary stumbling block to those he was trying to reach. Darrell Bock, in his commentary puts it nicely. He says, “…what is seen here is Paul’s cultural sensitivity. Instead of making Timothy a sideshow to the gospel in terms of whether he was a Jew or not, Paul permitted circumcision so that the gospel would remain the main topic. [This is] “…a sign of discernment and leadership. Not every issue is worth starting a war over when it comes to the gospel and the ethnic unity of the church.” This is an example of what Paul says in First Corinthians in 9:20, “20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law.” This is why he had Timothy circumcised—to win Jews for Christ. This tells us that we must not only understand the Bible, we must also understand the culture of the lost person or group before we open our mouths. What will speak to them meaningfully? What will get in the way of the message and if you find anything, circumcise it out.
Paul was under no legal obligation to have Timothy circumcised, but because of the way an uncircumcised Jew would have been perceived by his audience, he does it. He bends over backwards to reach these Jews and he allows their perceptions (right or wrong) to influence how he ministers. These Jews were WRONG on circumcision, but he chooses not to get hung up on that so he can get a better hearing for the gospel. He’s not held hostage to their wrong perception in the sense that he changes the content of his gospel message, but he refuses to let something like circumcision interfere with the gospel. If you haven’t understood the person or persons to whom you are presenting the gospel and their culturally-shaped perceptions before you tell them about Jesus, you are not loving people very well. The reason is because you are preaching the gospel to them in a way that is not targeted to them and you have not worked hard at ministering to them in ways that will be meaningful to THEM. It’s because Paul loves these people that he bends his approach (not his message) to fit within their cultural context. Paul had a heart of compassion for the lost and that translated into sacrificial action.
The perception of the audience is critical—that’s the programming or filter they bring to your message that dictates how they understand it. And that leads to our final element essential for the expansion of the gospel. A third and final necessary element for the spread of the gospel is: messengers with a sincere faith and a virtuous life that earn them a good reputation. We said that we shouldn’t get our identity from our reputation among others. But that does NOT mean our reputations are irrelevant to reaching lost people. The book of Acts teaches just the opposite. The latest example of this is Timothy. This man who is mentioned in Paul’s epistles far more than the 12 apostles and who has a tremendous impact for Christ—we’re introduced to him here in Acts 16 and his primary qualification for working with Paul according to this text was…his reputation. “1 Paul came also to Derbe and to Lystra. A disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek. 2 He was well spoken of by the brothers at Lystra and Iconium. 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.”
Here’s another form of direction God gives to Paul. In addition to visions and Holy Spirit prohibitions, God directs Paul here on the choice of his assistant through the good reports of the church. A good reputation both inside and outside the church is absolutely essential if you are to be an effective messenger for Christ. As you read through the qualifications for elders in First Timothy chapter three and Titus chapter one, a man’s reputation is central to his qualifications. The first qualification in both lists is—“he must be above reproach.” That is all about his reputation. That is—this man must be a person whose public and personal life has no glaring weaknesses that would cause him to be disrespected. It’s probably no accident that the last qualification in First Timothy for the elder is, “Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.” The point is that this man’s observable behavior must be respectable and marked by integrity. Then Paul says something very powerful. He says that if that is not the case, he will fall into disgrace and that is a trap of the devil intended to bring disfavor on the church. In other words, one of the ways Satan disgraces the church is by deceiving it into thinking people with poor reputations with the world are qualified for leadership when their in fact, he knows they are not. He tries to trap the church by influencing them to put these men into positions of authority. Then, after they are in—he--who knows their weaknesses, will tempt them in their weak areas and create a scandal around them that will bring disgrace to the church as the world looks on and says, “I knew that guy was a womanizer”—why would a church put HIM into leadership?
If the church doesn’t know how important it is for its public leaders to have good reputations in the world, Satan surely does. And he loves it when we in the church fall for his deception and put a person into leadership who he knows the world sees as a bum and bring the church into disrepute. Again, notice that these men must be “well thought of by outsiders.” That includes the public perception, not just the reality. If there is something about you or your approach to ministry that causes the sinner to doubt that you care about them, you will not be well thought of and are not qualified. The gospel has power to save, but people must hear the message in order to be saved and the world will simply not hear the message from someone who, because of their lifestyle or lack of love they do not respect. Timothy was well spoken of and Paul knew something that we must remember today and that is—in many ways, a major component of the message is the life of the person who is speaking it.
The rest of Acts confirms this. When the apostles tell the church to choose seven men to feed the Grecian widows they say, “…pick out from among you seven men of good repute…” That’s listed before the need to be “full of the Spirit and of wisdom.” Luke makes note of this characteristic with Cornelius who he describes as “an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation…” Ananias who came to Saul after his conversion is described by Paul in chapter 22 as “…a devout man according to the law, well-spoken of by all the Jews who live there.” Luke would not mention this quality so frequently if it weren’t so crucial in spreading the gospel.
Many elements are necessary for the gospel to spread, one is: a dependence upon God to provide direction by whatever means he deems best. Are we willing to repent of our arrogant grieving of the Holy Spirit through our serial disobedience to speak the truth of Christ to others? Second, we must have a heart of compassion for the lost that translates into sacrificial action. Do we care about people who, apart from the saving work of Christ, will spend an eternity in torment under the wrath of God? Do we care about the people Jesus cares so deeply for that he died for them? If not, we must repent of our sin. Finally, the gospel spreads through messengers with a sincere faith and a virtuous life that earn them a good reputation. Are we well thought of by the people in the church and our neighbors in the world? On a human level, one of the biggest obstacles many people have to overcome in order to trust Christ is—the Christians they have met who have acted horribly. Is there any reasonable person in the Twin Ports who—thinking of you--would say, “I would never go to Mount of Olives because so and so goes there and that guy is a crook—that lady is vicious gossip.” That is not a valid excuse to reject the gospel, but the church is called to be light and salt so as to exalt Christ and reflect his beauty—not be stumbling block who will turn others away from the gospel. May God give us the grace to be who God wants us to be so that we may be used to spread his gospel for his glory and our joy.
Oh God, we confess our lack and our sin in every point here. Take us to the cross where your Son died, not only to pay the penalty for our sin, but also to deliver us from the power of sin. Oh, God—take us to the cross and wash us of stains from our refusal to trust you to guide us—for our arrogant need to always be the one in control. Wash us by the blood of Christ from the sin of not caring about the people you sent your Son to die for. Cleanse us by the blood of Jesus for our all too frequent hypocritical behavior, which bruises our credibility as a messenger of the gospel. God, through the cross, set us free from needing to be in control-show us why we do that and help us to see how the cross liberates us to live above that and trust in Christ to direct us. God, through the cross give us a heart of compassion—cause us to die to the sinful flesh that cares nothing about anyone beyond ourselves. Finally, through the cross, let us live in such gratitude for Christ and his work for us, that we would want to live with a great reputation for your glory and the advancement of your message through us. In Jesus name, Amen.
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