Next Paul and Silas traveled through the area of Phrygia and Galatia, because the Holy Spirit had prevented them from preaching the word in the province of Asia at that time. Then coming to the borders of Mysia, they headed north for the province of Bithynia," but again the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them to go there. So instead, they went on through Mysia to the seaport of Troas. -- Acts 16: 6-8 (NLT)
There are no wasted words in the Word of God. The Bible tells us that ALL Scripture is useful to teach us what is true and make us realize what is wrong in our lives. So whether it is those introductory lines in the opening of the Pauline letters or this seemingly innocuous historical record of why Paul and Silas chose where to go in the middle of the Book of Acts -- there is always something God is trying to teach us if we are open to being taught. The backdrop for the key verses is the beginning of the second missionary journey for the Apostle Paul. About five years have passed since the first missionary journey and Paul begins by visiting some of the churches he had established to strengthen them; namely in Syria and Cilicia. He then arrives in Derbe and Lystra where he meets Timothy, who would become very dear to him. Having just had John Mark and Barnabas leave, God provides Paul with Timothy. God always has the plan.
But we also have a plan and it is not always in step with what God wants us to do. Therein lies so many of the problems we face in our daily walk with the Lord. It was at this point that Paul desires to travel to Ephesus, which was a city of grand importance in Paul's day. Having just had great success in strengthening the exiting churches he had visited and having found a suitable replacement for Barnabas; Paul was undoubtedly ready to continue spreading the Gospel into the most visible and needed areas there was. But God had other plans. Ephesus would wait. Ephesus could wait. We do not know why God prevented Paul from going to Ephesus at this time. Perhaps the city was not ready to receive the Gospel. Perhaps certain people were not in Ephesus yet that needed to hear it. Perhaps the places Paul would visit now before getting to Ephesus were in more dire need. We do not know and Paul did not know. What we do know is contained in the key verses. Paul is prompted by the Holy Spirit to not go on with his current plan. Paul obeys and devises a secondary plan of going to Bithynia but again the Holy Spirit says no. Instead he ends up in Troas and eventually the missionary team switches from the continent of Asia to Europe.
We too are often faced with God saying no to our plans. Maybe the plans we had made great sense to us -- as I am sure going to Ephesus made great sense to Paul. But God has a Troas waiting for us that He wants us to go to. There is something beyond our small plans that God has designed in His grand plan. Here could be what God had planned that Paul could not see:
So instead, they went on through Mysia to the seaport of Troas. That night Paul had a vision: A man from Macedonia in northern Greece was standing there, pleading with him, "Come over to Macedonia and help us!" So we decided to leave for Macedonia at once, having concluded that God was calling us to preach the Good News there. -- Acts 16: 8-10 (NLT)
Did you notice what changed in the tenth verse? The personal pronouns switch from "they" to "we" indicating that Paul met someone pretty important in Troas who joined his little team; namely Luke. We surmise this because Luke is the author of the Book of Acts, as well as one of the Gospel writers. God knew that Luke would be pivotal in His grand plan of the construction of the New Testament. If Paul disobeys the prompting of the Holy Spirit, he never travels to Troas at that time and never meets his doctor Luke, who joins his missionary journey. Who knows what becomes of the Book of Acts under that set of circumstances. God had a larger plan that included Paul meeting up with Luke and Luke was not in Ephesus.
Likewise, God has a larger plan that involves us. It is not about us -- it is always about Him. The part we play may not be the part we would have wanted or designed for ourselves. It may not be as important as we like. It may not be as noticeable as we would have desired. It may not draw the praise of men which we crave. But there is a Luke out there somewhere that God has in store for us. There are pieces in play that we cannot see; only God can. What He always requires of us is our obedience and our faith. We trust God because:
And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. -- Romans 8: 28 (NLT)
If our plans say go west but God says go east, which should we follow? Even in the midst of heartache and pain we must believe that God is working that pain together to make us stronger and better for our future and for the kingdom of God. That is promise of Romans 8:28 -- in all things! So here are some lessons from this pivotal moment in the missionary journeys of Paul that we may have overlooked until today.
The first lesson is that we always need to open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. That may sound easy enough but so often we can become clouded in our perception of God because of a myriad of distractions. Besides fighting our flesh and the enemy, we live in a world that runs contrary to the plans of God yet so many times we can fall prey to guidance from the world. We can seek out advice from worldly sources, find worldly excuses and use worldly remedies instead of reflecting to the Spirit of the Living God who is inside of us. Doctors will tell us that the best form of medicine is preventative in nature. That means that it is designed to prevent illness from occurring to begin with. Eating a healthy diet can lead to better overall health and a less likelihood of illness for example. The Holy Spirit also practices preventative medicine beloved. Paul did meet Luke in Troas but who knows what dangers may have awaited him in Ephesus had he decided to go forward with his plans? Only God knows for sure. It is the same way for us in our walk today. The Holy Spirit should be what guides us through the dangers of this life. God is not going to lead us off a cliff, yet so often we can direct our lives towards the cliff and seek out confirmation from God that our perilous direction is somehow within His will. We stay in relationships God has said "no" to. We seek out jobs or promotions that God has said "no" to. We get Ephesus stuck in our mind as our goal and stubbornly try to find God in that decision instead of seeking His true will. Maybe Ephesus makes all the worldly sense to us. Maybe it is full of human wisdom. To Paul it certainly made sense. Ephesus was one of the greatest seaports of the ancient world. It was a center of travel and commerce. It was the place that probably gave Paul the greatest chance to reach the greatest number of people; which leads us to lesson number two"
It is not always about the numbers. We live in a statistically driven, numbers focused society. That obsession has seeped into the church unfortunately as well. Modern church growth schemes focus more on the growth in terms of numbers of bodies and less in terms of actual spiritual growth. Instead of focusing on the uncompromised Gospel as a way to reach lost sinners in order to build the kingdom; we see marketing designs built to attract as many people as possible to a watered down gospel in an effort to build the church. This however, was the model of the church when it first started:
All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord's Supper), and to prayer. A deep sense of awe came over them all, and the apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders. And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need. They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord's Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity-- all the while praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people. And each day the Lord added to their fellowship those who were being saved. -- Acts 2: 42-47 (NLT)
The believers focused on the Word, fellowship and prayer and God added to their numbers those who were being saved. Today we see too much of the church focusing on adding to the numbers at the expense of people actually being saved. In our own walk or in the church plans we may have designs to reach as many as possible for Christ but God may have someone down in Troas waiting to hear from us. Someone that is going to need to hear from us. Always remember the one is just as important to God as the ninety-nine. He has the plan.
Thirdly, the second plan filled with human wisdom may not be any better than the first. We see in the case of Paul that after he obeys the promptings to not go to Asia, he recalculates his route to head north to Bithynia. That choice however was no more God-driven than the first! The Spirit again stops him and says "not this way." Paul obeys again and finally ends up in Troas, where God intended for him to go. Sometimes in our lives we too can fall prey to the thinking that because we obeyed once, we must now be walking in the will of God. The Lord is not going to text message us our direction. I wish He would! The reality is that we need to be seeking it. We need to be listening gently to that still small voice inside of us that wants to show us where Troas is. Where Luke is waiting for us. We may say to ourselves that because God doesn't want me in this ministry (Ephesus) that He must want me in this other one (Bithynia). I listened to God about not pursuing this relationship (Ephesus) so therefore my obedience must have led me to this new one (Bithynia). I didn't get that promotion I had prayed for (Ephesus) so that must mean God wants me to pursue this other opportunity (Bithynia). The key verses teach us that the answer is not necessarily. One plan or goal filled with human wisdom is not more God's will than another plan or goal filled with human wisdom. In the spirit of preventive medicine, correctly avoiding one bad decision does not entitle us to make another. We have to be constantly open to the promptings of the Spirit of God to reach the Troas He has for us.
Lastly, we must realize that we may not be privy to all that is going on behind the scenes. We live in a society where we want to see the results of our decisions immediately. We live in a microwave world where we do not want to wait. It is not our responsibility to see the fruit of our effort only to plant where God says to plant.
I planted the seed in your hearts, and Apollos watered it, but it was God who made it grow. It's not important who does the planting, or who does the watering. What's important is that God makes the seed grow. The one who plants and the one who waters work together with the same purpose. And both will be rewarded for their own hard work. For we are both God's workers. And you are God's field. You are God's building. -- 1Corinthians 3: 6-9 (NLT)
Until we see them in glory, we may not know how our efforts have impacted those we meet. What does this have to do with the key verses? Had Paul not listened to the promptings of the Holy Spirit and gone ahead to Ephesus, what happens to all the people he met between this point in time and the time he finally did reach Ephesus, at the end of the second missionary journey? In Philippi we see the conversion of Lydia -- who would go on to influence the start of the Church at Philippi. We see the deliverance of the slave girl possessed by a demon -- which events would lead us to the conversion of the jailer and his entire family. Paul then moves on to teach at Thessalonica, Berea and make his first visit to Corinth. He starts writing his letters during the year and a half he spent at Corinth; including First and Second Thessalonians. How many lives did Paul touch in all of these areas by simply listening for and obeying the promptings of the Holy Spirit? How many churches started, lives altered and souls saved? Realize that at the time Paul had designs to go to Ephesus, he could not have foreseen any of this. Not Lydia, Luke, the jailer -- none of it. He had to forego his plans and his vision for what truly matters -- God's plan and vision. Trusting that God would give the increase.
So it still is for us today as
well. God is the grand writer of this story. The fact that He has written in
any part for me absolutely blows my mind. I do not want to take the pen from
the hand of God and think that I know a better story for myself -- I don't. No
matter how much sense Ephesus might make in my life at this time, I must be
sensitive to the fact that it might not be God's time. There might be a Troas
out there instead. Somewhere I had never even heard of. Somewhere I had never
even considered. There may be a Luke at Troas waiting for me. Maybe waiting to
hear the Word; planting the seed. Maybe it is for reinforcement or discipleship;
watering the seed. God as always gives the increase. I just have to have faith,
be obedient, and listen to the Holy Spirit inside of me.
Reverend Anthony Wade - July 7, 2012