Changing with the Challenges

Posted: February 10, 2019 in Acts, Uncategorized

Acts 16:1-10, “Changing with the Challenges”

Anything worth doing will have its challenges. For those who want to become medical doctors, they must prepare for 11-15 years’ worth of education, and many sleepless nights. For those wishing to become Navy SEALs, they need to endure not only the normal rigorous military training, but an additional intense 24-week school, including what is known as “Hell Week,” preparing for pain, torture, struggle, and life/death situations. And though other pursuits are less intense, similar statements of endurance and sacrifice could be said of any vocation, sport, etc. If you want to get it done right – if you want to succeed, you will need to put up with the challenges.

The Christian life is no different. Whether one is in full-time ministry or not is irrelevant. Those in the pew face their own share of challenges just as much as those in the pulpit. There are days when everything hits on all cylinders, going great – and then there are days (and seasons!) when it seems that everything is hitting the brakes & we don’t know what to do.

How do we respond to those challenges? Every situation is going to be a bit different, and there is no catch-all solution to every problem – but there are still some things that are the same. Take our attitudes, for instance. For all the differences that exist in our challenges, one thing that is constant is the fact that we are the ones facing them. We have to personally deal with them on some level, and our attitudes make a huge difference in how we experience them. Think about it from another perspective: with all due respect to the dental profession, few people like going to the dentist. How do we respond? We can either kick in our heels, complain, and fear everything – or we can relax and try to make the best of it. Our attitudes make all the difference.

It’s the same way with the challenges we face in our faith. What do we do when we have to deal with difficult people and seemingly impossible situations? What do we do when it seems like our prayers are hitting the ceiling? We can either get mad, frustrated, and try to push our way through – or we can relax and trust Jesus to show us the way. The former might feel more natural, but the latter is far better!

To a large extent, this was what Paul experienced as he got started on his 2nd missionary journey. He had his own challenges to face, and his attitude went a long way to getting him on the other side. Paul had the choice of digging in his heels & pushing his own way – or, he could tame his ego, walk in humility, and see the work of God. 

Remember what got us to this point. Paul, Barnabas, and the other Christians had just experienced a tremendous vindication over the group of false teachers known as the Judaizers. Whereas the Judaizers claimed that Gentiles must be circumcised and keep the law of Moses in addition to coming to faith in Christ (making salvation a “Jesus +,” which is not the good news at all!), Paul taught the biblical gospel. Paul and Barnabas held fast to the teaching that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus alone (Jesus + nothing!). Because the Judaizers had come to Antioch of Syria claiming authority from Jerusalem, the debate was taken back to Jerusalem to get the opinion of the apostles and elders there. Although the issue was carefully examined, the church leadership sided with Paul. Both the testimony of the Scriptures and the testimony of what God had already done among the Gentiles was proof that God had not called them to legalism.

The issue decided, the apostles and elders in Jerusalem wrote a decree detailing the freedom of Gentile Christians. They were not to live as lawless pagans, but neither did they need to become circumcised Jews. With that, there was much rejoicing! Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch to local ministry, all until God began stirring Paul’s heart for the mission field once again. He and Barnabas made plans to leave…all until the point that they came to a sharp disagreement over personnel. Barnabas wanted to give his cousin John Mark another shot at the field; Paul did not. In the end, the two men went their different ways, and Silas of Jerusalem was Paul’s new travelling partner. Together, they went forth on land through Syria and Cilicia.

It’s been often said, “Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be broken,” – Paul knew what it meant to be flexible. He could have bucked up in his pride, but he didn’t, and Christianity as a whole can be grateful as a result! Our own stubborn pride can create stumbling blocks for our witnessing, and create barriers between us and God. God will guide us, but we need to humble ourselves enough to listen to Him.

Pride is the enemy of the Great Commission, but humility serves the gospel of Christ. Humble yourself during challenges of faith, and watch Jesus move!

Acts 16:1–10

  • Challenged by the culture (1-5)

1 Then he came to Derbe and Lystra. And behold, a certain disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a certain Jewish woman who believed, but his father was Greek. 2 He was well spoken of by the brethren who were at Lystra and Iconium.

  1. Remember that when Paul and Barnabas decided to go different directions, they each were still planning to visit the churches they visited/planted during the 1st missionary journey. Barnabas and John Mark went to the island of Cyprus, going the original direction of the journey; Paul and Silas went backwards. Acts 15:41 tells us that Paul and Silas went by land through “Syria and Cilicia,” most likely passing through Paul’s hometown of Tarsus, but from there it was a relatively quick journey to what was originally the furthest-most cities on the previous trip: “Derbe and Lystra.” What’s notable about Lystra is that this was the city where Paul was nearly stoned to death, after the unbelieving Jews stirred up the city when Paul and Barnabas refused to be worshipped as gods (Acts 14:19-20). We’d understand if Paul might have been hesitant to return to the town, but it was apparently a priority for him, as it was one of the first places he went.
    1. Question: Was Paul foolhardy, and looking for trouble? Of course not. Paul simply had no reason to fear. Although we don’t read of a supernatural revelation from the Holy Spirit to Paul about this journey, it was no doubt bathed in prayer, and Paul had no warning from the Spirit not to go to Lystra. (And the Spirit did speak up on other occasions, as we’ll soon see!) God had called Paul on this journey, and the purpose was to visit the churches that were established. There was a church in Lystra, so naturally, it was on Paul’s list.
    2. We need not fear the things God has called us to do. That’s not to say that God will always call us to safe, easy things – even some of Paul’s missionary duties put him directly in harm’s way. Other brothers and sisters in Christ are called by God to witness to people who would persecute, harm, and even kill them. Sometimes, God calls us to truly dangerous Even so, we have no reason to fear. What God calls us to, God equips us for. The Holy Spirit gives strength to those who will be martyred – God gives the peace that passes understanding in our times of need. As Paul himself said (in the context of his suffering), “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” (Phil 4:13). Jesus’ grace is sufficient, and because it is, we can walk in faith instead of fear. We can step boldly where others fear to tread – not because of anything we can do, but because of everything Christ does for us.
  2. It was a good thing Paul went to Lystra, because that is where he found the young man he would later consider to be his son in the faith: Timothy. Luke provides only a brief introduction to Timothy at this point, writing that he was the son of a believing Jewish mother and a Greek father. (There’s no indication about his father’s faith in Christ.) Elsewhere from Paul’s writings, we know that Timothy’s mother was Eunice, and his grandmother was Lois, and both were strong believers in Christ (2 Tim 1:5). His father is unnamed, and considering nothing is said of him at all, it is probable that he was already dead. Considering that Timothy was already a “disciple” by the time Paul and Silas arrived in Lystra, when did Timothy get saved? It’s unknown, but there are only two possibilities: (1) it was during Paul’s 1st visit, or (2) as a result of the witness of his mother and/or grandmother. Either way, Timothy started out as a strong follower of Jesus, and remained that way the entirety of his life. He would go on to be one of Paul’s most faithful students and friends, become a leader at the church in Ephesus, and (according to legend) later martyred there.
  3. Two things are noted about Timothy at this point: First, he was half-Jewish, on his mother’s side. Second, he had a good reputation among Christians in two cities (Lystra and Iconium). That means that Timothy was already serving the Lord on some level prior to Paul’s arrival, which would make him a natural fit for the mission team. It also meant that there were some real challenges awaiting him, if he did join…

3 Paul wanted to have him go on with him. And he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in that region, for they all knew that his father was Greek.

  1. To Paul, there was no doubt in his mind that Timothy would be extremely valuable in the ministry, but there was also a legitimate problem: he was a potential distraction from the gospel. Though technically Timothy had the freedom to remain uncircumcised, having a Jewish mother culturally meant that he was considered Jewish. While he remained among Gentiles in Gentile-heavy towns, this wasn’t a problem. After all, his father was Greek & everyone knew it, so no one pressed the issue about his Jewishness. But remember how Paul operated: he always went first to the local synagogues and preached the gospel to the Jews. And in these other cities, they might not be so understanding once they learned of Timothy’s parentage (which was a common way to be introduced). It was one thing for Paul to refrain from circumcising Gentiles; it was quite another to do so for Jews. This would have been a terrible hindrance to the ministry. Not only would it have called Timothy’s own testimony into question (potentially being a “bad” Jew although a faithful Christian), but it would have also fueled the rumors that surrounded Paul. Paul would constantly face challenges from the Judaizers, and these things eventually followed him to Jerusalem when a mob erupted at the temple at even the weakest suggestion that Paul had brought Gentiles to the temple (which he hadn’t – Acts 21:27-29). The last thing Paul needed was to hand his accusers any ammunition against him.
  2. So what did Paul do? He personally took care of the problem, and circumcised Timothy himself. Putting aside the painful nature of the act, don’t miss how big of a deal this was. Remember that Paul had just returned from Jerusalem where he won a victory against the Judaizers, with the specific judgment being that Gentiles (of which Timothy was half) did not need to get circumcised. Paul had argued vehemently that circumcision was unnecessary for Gentiles, and in fact, held the line regarding another one of his young students, Titus (Gal 2:3). Was Paul being inconsistent? He was being culturally appropriate to the circumstances. Gentiles wouldn’t care that Timothy was uncircumcised, but Jews would. If they knew Timothy was born of a Jewish mother, then they would consider him a disobedient Jew in violation of their holy covenant with God. Remember that not even Paul abandoned his Jewish culture; he simply saw the fulfillment of it in Jesus as the Messiah. But in the end, the gospel was paramount. This was not a battle to try to fight all over again; this was something Paul & Timothy both could humble themselves before & rectify. As Paul later wrote to the Corinthians: 1 Corinthians 9:19–22, “(19) For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; (20) and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; (21) to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law; (22) to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.” In this case, it wasn’t about Paul or Timothy being “right;” it was about how best they would be able to share the good news of Jesus.
  3. Question: Did Timothy have the freedom to remain uncircumcised? Did Paul have the freedom to try to argue the point? Yes. Was it worth it, if it set up a stumbling block to the gospel? No. Freedom is wonderful! Flaunting it is not. [Romans 14:1-18] Paul’s point to the Romans is that they had freedom on all kinds of things. Whether the meat they ate was slaughtered according to kosher regulations, or not – whether they met on Saturday for the Sabbath or not – none of those things affected one’s salvation, so each person could be convinced in his/her own mind. But there are two problems that could develop: (1) Christians might become judgmental of one another, and that sort of judgment doesn’t belong to us, but to God. (2) Other Christians might inadvertently cause another brother/sister to stumble in sin, by parading his/her freedom in front of the other. It isn’t worth it. Put it in modern terms: one Christian feels a freedom to drink alcohol, while another doesn’t. One of the worst things the 1st Christian could do would be to start guzzling beer in front of the 2nd Christian who is convinced it’s a sin. A massive stumbling block has just been put in the way. What would make it worse? If the 1st Christian did that same thing in front of a non-believer, who was (despite his/her lack of belief) was still convinced it was sinful. That person now has a major stumbling block from ever hearing the gospel from the Christian. Paul makes the same point to the Corinthians, when writing about eating meat sacrificed to idols: 1 Corinthians 10:31–33, “(31) Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. (32) Give no offense, either to the Jews or to the Greeks or to the church of God, (33) just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved.” The bottom line: our freedom does not trump the Great Commission. The freedom we experience in the gospel does not outdo the need to share the gospel with others. If our freedom is challenged when we still have a chance to share Jesus, then by all means we humble ourselves, because Jesus needs to be known!
  4. With this first challenge down, now what? Paul still had a mission ahead, so the group pressed on…

4 And as they went through the cities, they delivered to them the decrees to keep, which were determined by the apostles and elders at Jerusalem.

  1. Remember that this was part of Paul’s original plan: they were supposed to go back through the cities and visit the churches to see how everyone was doing. And they didn’t go empty-handed! They were able to take with them the letter that was written “by the apostles and elders at Jerusalem,” safeguarding them from the dangerous doctrine of the Judaizers. And it was necessary they do so. Although Luke doesn’t write of the Judaizers until Paul and Barnabas returned to Jerusalem after the 1st missionary journey, Paul’s letter to the Galatians deals with the issue in-depth, acknowledging their own personal experience with it. Apparently the Judaizers hadn’t just gone to Antioch, but had quickly spread to other churches as well. The Jerusalem letter would have gone a long way to reaffirming the gospel of grace preached by Paul and Barnabas (which is the gospel of the grace of Jesus alone!).
  2. Some criticize Paul for delivering a letter saying no circumcision was necessary, in light of the fact that he just got done circumcising Timothy, but we have to keep in mind there were two different situations going on. These churches were full of Gentiles who were being pressured to become Jews; Timothy was a Jew (or at least seen as one), and Paul did what was necessary to remove any obstacles to Timothy’s witness. There’s no hypocrisy or contradiction; Paul preached and practiced grace alone!

5 So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and increased in number daily.

  1. Whatever it was that Paul and the others in the group did, it worked! The good news of the Jerusalem decree was delivered, and the better news of the gospel of Jesus went forward. Note that the existing churches were not just “strengthened,” but “increased.” Like an athlete in training, the churches grew stronger, more firm in the faith, able to hold fast against unbiblical teaching (such as the Judaizers). More than that, they grew in number. These people who had come to faith were continuing to bring other people to faith, and no doubt Paul, Silas, and Timothy helped in the effort. After all, they hadn’t just come as letter carriers; they were evangelists. Everywhere Paul went, he searched for opportunities to tell people about Jesus, and it wouldn’t have mattered if it was his first time to visit a city, or if he had been there often.
  2. Strong churches aren’t necessarily measured in size (although these churches increased on a daily basis); strong churches share Jesus. The number of people in a building is not an indication on a congregation’s faithfulness to doctrine – after all, even cults can gather large groups together. A better indication of a church’s health & strength is its commitment to the gospel! Is Jesus preached? Is He known and witnessed by the people in the congregation? [Healthy sheep reproduce]
  3. So this was what Paul and Silas had originally set out to do. Was it over? Was it “mission accomplished”? Not quite. They weren’t content simply revisiting the places Paul had previously been; there were other cities where the gospel had not yet gone. Those people needed Jesus, too…and Paul, Silas, and Timothy were the ones to tell them! However, they had a few problems getting started…
  • Challenged by the Spirit (6-10)

6 Now when they had gone through Phrygia and the region of Galatia, they were forbidden by the Holy Spirit to preach the word in Asia. 7 After they had come to Mysia, they tried to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit did not permit them.

  1. Although it seems almost surreal, the missionary group faced active interference by the Holy Spirit. They tried to go west into Asia (the region; not the continent – the entire area in which Paul was at the time is modern-day Turkey), but the Holy Spirit forbade them from preaching in Asia. Likewise, they tried to go north into Bithynia, and the Spirit didn’t let them go there, either. How did the missionaries know the Holy Spirit was preventing them in these things? Luke doesn’t say, but apparently there was no doubt about it. God the Spirit either put up direct blocks to their travel, or put a heaviness upon them in prayer, or perhaps even gave them direct revelation (though undescribed by Luke). However God did it, He made His will known. There were certain places He did not want Paul going at the time.
  2. Question: Would Paul always be forbidding from preaching the gospel in Asia? Ephesus was in Asia, and not only did Paul briefly touch there on this particular journey while heading back to Antioch (Acts 18:19), but he returned there on his 3rd missionary journey, spending between 2-3 years there (Acts 19:1-10). God the Spirit did want Paul to preach in Asia…just not yet. Paul’s desire to preach the word in Asia (and Bithynia) was good, because anywhere we go is filled with people who need to know Jesus. It’s just that God had a particular plan in mind for Paul, and the Holy Spirit was directing him to what it was. The challenge for Paul was not getting in the way.
    1. Have you ever gotten in the way of what the Spirit wants to do? Maybe like Paul, you wanted to do something good, but it seemed that God wasn’t opening the door, so you forced your way through. (Some men have done this entering the ministry! They really wanted to be pastors, but they hadn’t received a pastoral calling from God. In the end, they were miserable & they quickly burned out.) In other cases, perhaps you weren’t necessarily in blatant sin, but were perhaps so consumed with what you wanted, you were blind to what God was doing through someone else. Either way, it has the same basic effect as sin: we’re putting our will in the place of God’s will.
    2. Never forget that God is God, and we’re not! If God the Holy Spirit wants to forbid us from doing something (even something that seems good to us), He has every right to do so. He is the sovereign King – He is the all-knowing Lord. He knows the end from the beginning, and He knows how He can best use us for His glory. If He wants to prevent us from going in one direction, it means He has another direction in mind for us to go. In other words, God still has a plan for us. When God puts up a blockade for us, it doesn’t mean He doesn’t want us (as if He didn’t pick us for the soccer or kickball team in school); it means He wants to use us differently. Why not let the God who formed you and created you determine for you how best He wants to use you? His plans are always going to be better than ours, guaranteed!
  3. BTW – In verse 7, some manuscripts say “the Spirit,” while other older texts say “the Spirit of Jesus.” Is there a difference? God the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Jesus. After all, Jesus is God. Calling the Holy Spirit “the Spirit of Jesus” simply affirms the unity of the Trinity.

8 So passing by Mysia, they came down to Troas. 9 And a vision appeared to Paul in the night. A man of Macedonia stood and pleaded with him, saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”

  1. Earlier, Paul experienced active interference by the Spirit. This time, he received active instruction from the Spirit! God gave him a dream of an unnamed “man of Macedonia” who “pleaded” with him to come preach the gospel. What an answer to prayer! Paul had been looking for a place to preach, earnestly desiring to share Jesus with people, and now he had crystal-clear direction. It was time to head over to Macedonia.
  2. Question: Does God still speak to us through dreams and visions? There’s nothing in the Scripture that would indicate otherwise. It is seen in the Old Testament: Joseph famously had two dreams that caused his brothers to get jealous and sell him into slavery (Gen 37). Likewise Daniel had a night vision explaining Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Dan 2), and a dream of his own about future empires (Dan 7). It is seen in the New Testament: Peter had his rooftop vision in Joppa showing him how God cleansed what was once unclean (Acts 10), and Paul had this event here. It is even spoken of in prophecy as a sign of the church age & the end times (Peter quoting Joel in Acts 2). There are enough Biblical examples to know that God can and sometimes does speak through dreams and visions. The key is not falling under the false assumption that every dream or vision is of God. Sometimes a dream is just a dream – sometimes we’ve got an overactive imagination, or we’ve eaten a weird food before bedtime, or we’re hallucinating during an illness. How can we know the difference between a dream/vision given by God & a vision brought on by bad eggs? Test it. As John wrote: “test the spirits, whether they are from God,” (1 Jn 4:1). Paul wrote something similar of prophecy: to let it be tested/judged (1 Cor 14:29). Whatever it is you experience in a dream or vision, hold it up to the clearly revealed word of God in the Scripture, and see how it matches up. In Paul’s case, he was actively seeking God for answers on where to preach the gospel, and it came as no surprise when God answered him.
  3. Note when God the Spirit gave Paul this vision: when Paul was actively engaged in ministry. It’s not like Paul was twiddling his thumbs binging on Netflix while half-heartedly praying that God might use him and direct him. On the contrary, Paul was in the field & active! There are times that we remain still and wait upon the Lord, but waiting upon His direction doesn’t mean that we’re hermits. We don’t lock ourselves away in a tower and do nothing. If you don’t know what the Lord wants you to do in the future, get busy doing what you know the Lord wants you to do now. Maybe you’re praying about a short-term mission trip (or even perhaps a long-term change to the mission field!) – while you wait for direction from the Holy Spirit, there is a mission field right outside our doors. Go share the gospel with your neighbor before you share Jesus overseas. Maybe you’re praying about a possible career change – in the meantime, be the best worker you can be right where you are. Be mindful of what God has given you now, instead of daydreaming about where He might take you in the future. The point? Look around and see what God has currently entrusted to you. Take care of those things first, knowing that the Holy Spirit will guide you along the way.

10 Now after he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go to Macedonia, concluding that the Lord had called us to preach the gospel to them.

  1. There was immediate obedience, and no wonder why. After being challenged by the Spirit so many times in his previous directions, surely Paul and the others were overjoyed to know God’s clear will for them. They were told where to go, and they didn’t have to be told twice! (Immediate obedience is always the best obedience!)
  2. FYI: note the move to the 1st person plural pronoun “” The author Luke includes himself. Apparently, Luke lived in Troas, and this was when he met Paul. Luke doesn’t write of the meeting, but just like Paul and Timothy hit it off, so did he and Luke. Luke was now part of the growing missionary group, and a much needed one as well, considering his occupation as a medical doctor. (BTW – Anyone can be used in the Great Commission! God needs preachers, but He wants more than preachers. God wants doctors, plumbers, teachers, accountants, laborers…you name it, God can use it!)

Conclusion:

Do you face challenges in your faith? Paul did. Although Paul saw a valuable future preacher in Timothy, he also saw a terrible stumbling block in Timothy’s lack of circumcision. Later, Paul was expressly forbidden from preaching the gospel in areas he wanted to go. Were either of these things wrong? No. Remaining free from circumcision would have been a grand expression of Timothy’s liberty, and was arguably the right thing to do. Likewise, sharing the gospel with anyone anywhere is the right thing to do. Both of these things were challenged…and they were challenged for the right reasons.

  1. Paul and Timothy needed their sole focus to be the gospel; not arguments and distractions.
  2. Paul needed to share the gospel where the Holy Spirit could use him best.

It’s not that what Paul wanted was wrong; it’s just that the Spirit wanted something better!

So what did Paul do? How did he handle it? Through humility.

  1. Paul did not push his “right” not to circumcise Timothy; both he and Timothy humbled themselves for the sake of the gospel.
  2. Paul did not force his will where the Holy Spirit prohibited him. Instead, he remained proactive until God gave him clear direction.

Either one of those things could have been sacrificed to Paul’s ego; Paul put it aside. He humbled himself before Jesus as Lord, and let Jesus be the One to guide him. And Jesus did! Again, pride is the enemy of the Great Commission, but humility is used to spread the gospel.

How often have we let our pride get in the way of the things God is doing? We’ve dug in our heels trying to force our will, rather than seeking God’s will. It’s not that the Holy Spirit won’t guide into the things He desires for us; oftentimes, we don’t know His will because we’re not truly listening. We want what we want, and it doesn’t always match up to what He wants.

Humble yourself! When you’re challenged, don’t buck up; get low to Jesus. Maybe your prayers aren’t being answered because of unconfessed sin in your life…humble yourself and repent. Maybe they aren’t being answered because God is trying to direct you…humble yourself and listen. Maybe you’ve got some difficult conversations to have with some difficult people. Don’t rehearse the argument and get riled up; go into it with humility, seeking what is best for the glory of God and the gospel. Let Jesus be Lord, and do what it takes for Him to be known.

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