Divine Providence in Service of Divine Decrees

Tom Nettles
| Acts 15:36 – 16:15 | December 26, 2017

I. Doubling the Missionary Outreach

A. Paul and Barnabas decide to revisit the churches. They did not look on their ministry as one-and-done evangelism. Their call included a ministry of transformation of the entire life morally and alteration of the worldview intellectually. Paul identified his call as “a preacher, an apostle, and a teacher of the Gentiles” (2 Timothy 1:11). His letters are filled with a blending of doctrinal instruction, moral exhortation, and intellectual reorientation. The permanence and increase of a church’s witness to the glory of God depends on this continual redemption of all the faculties of life, individually and corporately. They determined, therefore, to “visit the brethren.”

B. Barnabas wants to take John Mark with them. Paul “kept insisting that they should not take him along who had deserted them.” After the first stage of the first missionary journey, John Mark had left the team to return to Jerusalem (Acts 13:5, 13). He clearly was shaken by the events at Cyprus, was not prepared either for the opposition to the gospel or for the vigor of Paul’s retort to Elymas. John Mark, probably the young man of Mark 14:51, 52, needed more time to learn, to brace himself for opposition, and overcome his tendency to flee conflict. Paul knew this tendency in certain personalities and had to encourage Timothy along these lines also (2 Timothy 1:6-8).

C. Paul and Barnabas sharply disagree over the suitability of John Mark for another missionary trip.

  1. Barnabas was a generous-hearted person and had encouraged Saul the persecutor when others sought to avoid him. (Acts 4:36, 37; 11:22-26). In addition, John Mark was his nephew (Colossians 4:10). Mark certainly had expressed sorrow over his recent failure, given a statement of renewed purpose, and saw the expansion of the gospel as his highest goal. Nothing could please his uncle Barnabas more, and Barnabas was doing nothing to squelch this renewed sense of call and willingness to suffer for the glory of Christ. He was convinced Mark would be helpful and effective.
  2. Paul knew that the cities they were to revisit might have newly invigorated opposition in light of the hostility they encountered on the first visit. In light of the mission of teaching and encouragement, he did not want to risk having a case of fear on his hands in the group seeking to provide strength in witness, warning against defection, and encouragement to endure affliction. This visit could not be a testing ground for the stickability of John Mark.

D. Paul and Barnabas select new partners and part ways.

  1. Barnabas took Mark and went to Cyprus, where Paul and Barnabas initially had gone to preach. John Mark was with them, and had traveled with them from their landing in Salamis across the island to Paphos. They preached in the “synagogues of the Jews.” Also, they had encountered Sergius Paulus, who wanted to hear the gospel, and Elymas, an opponent. Possibly churches had been established on the island during this visit. Barnabas wanted to return to strengthen them along with Mark who had been with them on that occasion. Perhaps he wanted Mark to face the precise place and situation that had discouraged him earlier, and also wanted him to experience the satisfaction of seeing the perseverance of these converts to the gospel. We do know that Barnabas’s careful stewardship of Mark’s gifts bore fruit, for later Paul himself wrote to Timothy, “Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for ministry” (2 Timothy 4:11). He wrote this even at a time when he was experiencing abandonment from others who had been companions (4:10, 16).
  2. Paul took Silas. Silas was a prominently gifted man from the Jerusalem church who accompanied Paul and Barnabas to Antioch to deliver the decision of the Jerusalem council. He was a prophet (15:32) and had preached a lengthy message there. Prophets in the New Testament received special revelation from the Holy Spirit in order to teach with authority in the churches. All churches needed to have revealed truth as the full implications of the work and words of Christ were being brought to maturity and the prophets fulfilled that need (See Ephesians 2:20; 3:5; 4:11; 1 Corinthians 12:10, 28; 14:1, 3, 6, 22, 24, 25, 29-32). Silas had been confirmed in the Spirit and in the eyes of the church as a prophet and was commissioned by the church at Antioch to go on this second missionary tour with Paul.

 

II. Experiencing the fruit of Maturing Faith. Paul and Silas

A. Paul selected Timothy to go with him and Silas. This actually was the third trip to Lystra (Acts 14:8, 21).

  1. A young disciple named Timothy was there. His mother and grandmother had also become believers (2 Timothy 1:5), and even prior to that, they had taught the Sacred writings to Timothy (2 Timothy 3:15).
  2. Timothy had been active in ministry already in Lystra and was well spoken of by the Christians there. In addition, he had traveled to Iconium, where a large church had been founded earlier by Paul and Barnabas (Acts 14:1-5), to teach and strengthen them. They had benefited from his work among them and reported his ministry with high commendation.
  3. His father was a Greek, evidently not a believer, and Timothy was uncircumcised. It is ironic that Paul circumcised Timothy on the very trip where he is reporting about the decision of the Jerusalem council. This had nothing, however, to do with an acceptance into the community of believers; it was only done so that Timothy might minister unhindered by ceremonial prejudice in the synagogues to which Paul and Silas would go (Acts 17:1, 2).

B. They Strengthened the churches. Verse 41 of the last chapter gives this summary anticipating the brief narrative of these visits. The monumental decision made at Jerusalem concerning the affirmation of justification by faith alone by their denying the necessity of any fulfillment of the ceremonial law on the part of the Gentiles was relayed to all the churches (verse 4). The churches were being strengthened and also increasing in number.

 

III. Clear Divine Leadership – An unusual narrative brings to the surface a reality that always is operative in God’s execution of his decrees in the world. We catch a glimpse of the purposeful direction given to the work of the gospel.

A. Their efforts to go to Asia were forbidden by the Holy Spirit.

B. Their efforts to go into Bithynia were forbidden by the Spirit of Jesus.

C. In Troas, Paul saw a vision of a man from Macedonia.

  1. In Troas, Luke joined the evangelistic team. At this point Luke’s recording of the events uses the pronoun “we.” Luke has become a part of the team.
  2. It seems that Paul alone received the vision of the man saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” None doubted, however, Paul’s special place in this entire enterprise or suspected that he would mistake the nature and content of a vision given by the Lord.

D. The entire book of Acts could be written in terms of the particular, pervasive, and meticulous providence in every event. Nothing is outside the purposeful operation of God in accordance with his decree (Ephesians 1:11.) We are given some narratives in which the guidance of the Spirit is so clearly stated that we cannot mistake the determining power of his will. The coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, the healing of the lame man in chapter 3, Peter’s doctrinal confession of 4:28, the judgment of Ananias and Sapphira in chapter 5, the opening of the prison doors in 5:19, the work and witness of Stephen in 6:8-10, the special insight of Peter in 8:20-23, the preaching of Philip to the Ethiopian eunuch in 8:26, the conversion of Saul in 9:3-6, the vision of Peter in 10:11-16 as well as other events. Other events are described simply by reciting the immanent human factors of which they consist. Though Luke discusses the division between Paul and Barnabas only in terms of their strong disagreement, we must not think that God was remote from this event or that his decree failed to take it into account. He was just as present and operative there as he was in the vision given to Paul to go into Macedonia.

 

IV. The Conversion of Lydia. Though Paul was told to go to Macedonia, he was not told to which city he should go. Following his instinctual wisdom about where to go to seek to begin the work in Europe, he went to Philippi, “a leading city of the district of Macedonia.” Though not given this precise instruction, Paul acted upon his confidence in the providence of God in these matters. We see a striking example of this in Paul’s determination to go to Jerusalem in 21:12-14.

A. They set out to sea from Troas, the most western port in Asia on the Aegean Sea. The trip, relatively speaking, was short and apparently peaceful. They landed first at Samothrace and then on to Neapolis. From there they traveled overland a few miles to Philippi. They intended to stay n that city for some days.

B. With no synagogue in the city, they went on the Sabbath day to the river expecting to find a place of prayer. It is possible that “place of prayer” would be synonymous with synagogue, but it does not appear that there were sufficient men for the normal pattern of worship to be followed—particularly the sermon—or for the normal organized life of the synagogue to be followed. Some things, however, such as the recitation of the Shema, prayers, and reading of the law and prophets could be done. When Paul, Silas, Luke, and Timothy came, a service including preaching could be enjoyed.

  1. Lydia was one of the women there. Her home town was Thyatira and she probably had moved there for the business advantages she would have as a seller of purple. Thyatira was in the country of Lydia where Smyrna and Ephesus were located. It is possible that Lydia was not her real name but an identification that stuck with her because of her relocation to Macedonia. Sir William Ramsay speculates that she might have been Euodia or Syntyche mentioned in Philippians 4:2.
  2. The Lord opened Lydia’s heart.
  • Lydia is described as a worshipper of God. Though a Gentile, she had received the Old Testament revelation about God as true and was herself looking for the coming of a redeemer for the worshippers of Yahweh. She would have been glad for a learned exposition of the word of God.
  • With Paul present, preaching was prominent on this Sabbath. As he normally did, Paul would have started with a text of Scripture and proceeded quickly to show that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ (See Acts 13:16-23).
  • In this process, “the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul.” Paul would say in Romans 10:17 “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” Peter, in writing of the life of believers said, “Having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever, . . . . now this is the word which by the gospel was preached to you” (1 Peter 1:23-25). James joins the chorus, “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth” (James 1:18). Again, we see briefly into the decrees of God in that the “Lord opened her heart.” So we find by synthesis of various accounts and order: ordination to eternal life, hearing the word, the divine action of opening the sinner’s heart, and the sinner’s joyful reception of the message, and then baptism.
  • This woman of Thyatira wanted the other members of her house hold, perhaps employees or relatives, to hear this message. They to believed and then she and her household were baptized. There is not New Testament that household baptisms ever included infants but only those who were instructed (see 16:32-34; 1 Corinthians 1:16; 16:15).
  1. Lydia convinced them to use her house as a basis of their work in Philippi. Expressing both the joy and confidence of true faith and having identified her life with Jesus through baptism, she now wanted the workers in the gospel to have easy access to the city and to be cared for in such a way that they would not be distracted from their gospel labors (cf verse 40).