Acts 15:36 - 16:40

Power to Direct Our Path

2000, J.W. Carter
Scripture quotes from KJV

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Chapter 15 records the "Jerusalem Conference," an emergency meeting of Paul, Barnabas, and the church in Jerusalem that was held to determine a doctrinal position concerning one simple question: should Gentiles be required to follow Mosaic Law in order to be Christians? The Jerusalem church agreed with Paul and Barnabas that God had demonstrated through the salvation experiences of the Gentiles that salvation is given by faith alone, coming from God’s grace rather than man’s works of the law. Though the church held that Gentile Christians should refrain from some of the behaviors that are most repulsive to Jewish sensibilities, it is otherwise inappropriate to place upon them the yoke of burden produced by their legalism, a burden that the Jews cannot bear themselves.

The conference came shortly after Paul and Barnabas’ return from their first missionary journey. Shortly after returning to Antioch of Syria, Paul embarks on his second missionary journey.

Acts 15:36.

And some days after Paul said unto Barnabas, Let us go again and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the Lord, and see how they do.

Paul did not forget the churches that he had a part in starting on his missionary journey with Barnabas. So what did Paul desire to do? He wanted to go back to visit those Christians to see how they were getting along. This is certainly a reasonable desire. They developed relationships and friendships on that journey that would last all of their lives. Unlike travel today when we stay in motels and hotels, Paul and Barnabas stayed in the homes of those they visited. It is in these homes that the greatest missionary work is done. Even today when missionaries travel, they often stay in people’s homes where they develop relationships that last, relationships that serve to maintain or strengthen the decisions for Christ that may have been originally made.

Acts 15:37-41.

And Barnabas determined to take with them John, whose surname was Mark. 38But Paul thought not good to take him with them, who departed from them from Pamphylia, and went not with them to the work. 39And the contention was so sharp between them, that they departed asunder one from the other: and so Barnabas took Mark, and sailed unto Cyprus; 40And Paul chose Silas, and departed, being recommended by the brethren unto the grace of God. 41And he went through Syria and Cilicia, confirming the churches.

When Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch of Syria, several members of the Jerusalem church came with them to affirm the decision that was made there. We will see here that of these, Silas and John Mark remained in Antioch when the other Jerusalem members returned home. When Paul told Barnabas of his desire to retrace the steps of the first missionary journey, Barnabas agreed and wanted to take John Mark with them again. What was Paul’s response to Barnabas’ suggestion? Paul did not want to take John Mark because of their experience on that first journey when John Mark traveled with them to the island of Cyprus, and as soon as they arrived back at the mainland, John Mark went back home to Jerusalem. Apparently Barnabas and John Mark had been talking about this (quite reasonable since that journey was a large part of their shared experience).

What was the consequence of Paul’s unwillingness to take John Mark, and Barnabas’ desire to take him? The two of them argued and parted ways. Sometimes it is refreshing to be reminded that all of the people that God calls to serve Him are just that: people. Though the Holy Spirit resides in us, He does not eradicate our personality and make robots of us. However, the freedom we have in Christ also enables us to express that personality in ways that may not be best for the Kingdom of God. Paul seems to have been a very impatient and demanding person, having little tolerance for any lack of perfection when it came to ministry. Barnabas, was quite different, tending to be an advocate for the sensibilities of people. Here Barnabas found himself defending John Mark to Paul much in the same way he defended Paul (then as Saul) to the Jerusalem church when he was first converted. As a result of the conflict, two pairs of missionaries left Antioch: Paul left with Silas, and Barnabas left with John Mark. In addition, Luke, the writer of the Acts of the Apostles, went with Paul and Silas. Consequently their journey is documented and that of Barnabas and John Mark is not.

It is interesting to note that there was a second result of their conflict. Paul had desired to return to the churches that they started on their first journey. However, due to the argument, Barnabas took John Mark to Cyprus, retracing their steps. This left Paul and Silas to embark on a different route, this one along the mainland toward the North. Paul’s original desire was to retrace the first Journey, to repeat his prior experience. It is common for people who have an opportunity to go on a mission trip to want to go back. However, the entire world needs to hear the gospel, and it is more productive in the kingdom work to keep going to new places. Paul wanted to return to the old places, but because of the split that took place between himself and Barnabas, he ended up going to new places. When we yield ourselves to God’s purpose in our lives, God may have to get past our own desires in order to exercise His own. God had another purpose for Paul, and when the Holy Spirit took control, Paul was led to go places he had not originally intended to go to himself.

Acts 16:1-3.

Then came he to Derbe and Lystra: and, behold, a certain disciple was there, named Timotheus, the son of a certain woman, which was a Jewess, and believed; but his father was a Greek: 2Which was well reported of by the brethren that were at Lystra and Iconium. 3Him would Paul have to go forth with him; and took and circumcised him because of the Jews which were in those quarters: for they knew all that his father was a Greek.

Paul and Barnabas went in opposite directions, enabling Paul and Silas to travel North to Tarsus and on through the region of Cilicia to Derbe and Lystra where Paul and Barnabas had been part of the church starts there. In Lystra they met Timothy, a young man who had become a leader in the church there. His mother was a Christian Jew, and his father was a Greek. How would such a marriage effect Jewish sensibilities? According to the Mosaic Law, such a marriage was forbidden. Imagine how Timothy’s mother must have been blessed by the unconditional Christian love she received by the church. It is no wonder that Timothy was so dedicated to the faith.

Apparently Timothy desired to continue on the journey with Paul and Silas, and Paul agreed to this. However, what did Paul ask Timothy to do prior to his coming with him? Paul asked that Timothy would be circumcised. Does this not seem to be contrary to the decision of the Jerusalem council? Why would, or could, Paul demand such a thing? Remember that the council did prescribe some behaviors that would be expected from Christians, including actions that were repulsive to their sensibilities. The key here is to understand that Paul was concerned with the sensibilities of those to whom He would be going to take the gospel to. Though it is not necessary for Timothy to become circumcised and follow the Mosaic Law in order to be a Christian, it would be useful for him to be circumcised before leaving on this ministry so that his Gentile status would not be an initial stumbling block to those to whom they would try to win for Christ.

What are some of the things that we might change in our lives that, though not necessary for obedience to Christ, might be expedient to the gospel? As the Jerusalem Conference asked Christians to refrain from sexual impurity and the eating of meat that was sacrificed to idols, Christian leaders will often refrain from behavior that could be a stumbling block to those that they are trying to win for Christ. Such things might include abstinence from drinking alcoholic beverages, dressing in less casual clothes, etc.

Acts 16:1-5.

And as they went through the cities, they delivered them the decrees for to keep, that were ordained of the apostles and elders which were at Jerusalem. 5And so were the churches established in the faith, and increased in number daily.

Paul, Silas, and Timothy left Lystra and traveled to Iconium and Antioch, and on their way, they continued to inform the churches of the decision that was "handed down" by the Jerusalem conference. The churches that they visited were strengthened in the faith, and grew in numbers as a result of the revival that their visits inspired.

Paul experienced persecution on his first trip through this area. Why is there no record of persecution on this second journey? Paul did not start out on this trip with the expressed purpose of starting new churches, but rather to simply visit those that he had started on the first journey. Consequently, he was not interacting with the unbelieving Jews who hated him. Paul had no plans on repeating the persecution of the first journey. He simply wanted to enjoy meeting old friends and encouraging the growth of the churches.

It is very easy for us to get into the same mentality in our Christian walk. We may have experienced mountain-top and valley experiences in our past, and given an opportunity to again walk among the mountain-tops, we are ready to go. We enjoy the sharing of God’s love that is experienced there. However, as profitable as such an experience might seem, this may not be God’s plan for us. Many Christians maintain that peaceful existence by living out their Christian faith within the walls of the church, preferring to be keepers of the aquarium rather than fishers of men. The believers are edified, but those members of the community that are lost are not able to share in that experience of Christian love. The missionary purpose is lost. As wonderful as Paul’s experiences on his journey from Antioch through Tarsus, Derbe, and Lystra may sound, the missionary purpose is lost.

Acts 16:6-8.

Now when they had gone throughout Phrygia and the region of Galatia, and were forbidden of the Holy Ghost to preach the word in Asia, 7After they were come to Mysia, they assayed to go into Bithynia: but the Spirit suffered them not. 8And they passing by Mysia came down to Troas.

The traveling missionaries left Antioch of Pisidia, presumably intending on returning to the South, retracing backwards the first missionary journey. However, something was happening on their way. They were not finding opportunity to preach the word. Sensitive to the Holy Spirit, they found that God’s purpose did not include their retracing their steps, but rather turned to the Northwest from Antioch of Pisidia. As they traveled, they sought the leadership of God and found themselves moving out of that comfort zone they had planned for themselves and ended up in Troas, about 300 miles (about two-weeks journey) from Antioch, on the shore of the Aegean Sea, across the strait from Macedonia, now modern Greece.

Acts 16:9-10.

And a vision appeared to Paul in the night; There stood a man of Macedonia, and prayed him, saying, Come over into Macedonia, and help us. 10And after he had seen the vision, immediately we endeavoured to go into Macedonia, assuredly gathering that the Lord had called us for to preach the gospel unto them.

It appears that their journey across Asia must have seemed rather pointless. They came out with expectations of great victories for Christ, as had been experienced on the first journey, and they had spent at least two weeks wandering toward Troas and did not even have opportunity to preach the word. Arriving at Troas, Paul was given direction by the Holy Spirit. In a vision Paul sees a man from Macedonia begging for help, clearly identifying for him the direction he is now to take. How long did Paul wait before he decided to go into Macedonia? As soon as Paul understood God’s will, they made plans to leave, and did so at the first opportunity. What would have happened if they had waited? God would have used them, certainly, in the same way, but many of the circumstances they encountered would have changed. This is reminiscent of Philip’s call to the desert road in Gaza. Philip left a successful ministry immediately when God gave him the command to go. If Philip had waited, he would not have met the Ethiopian eunich to whom God had sent him (Acts 8:26).

It is interesting to observe a word in verse 10. The present pronoun, "we" is used for the first time in the book of Acts. This clearly implies that the writer of the account is giving a first-person report of the events. This first-person report will continue through much of the remainder of the text. Paul’s writings refer to events that were shared with Luke, and they are included in these first-person reports, leading scholars to attribute this book to Luke. The similarity of grammar and vocabulary with the third gospel causes scholars to, consequently, attribute that gospel to Luke also. It is these comparisons of text, content, grammar, etc, that help us to understand some of the background and authorship of the New Testament writings.

Acts 16:11-15.

Therefore loosing from Troas, we came with a straight course to Samothracia, and the next day to Neapolis; 12And from thence to Philippi, which is the chief city of that part of Macedonia, and a colony: and we were in that city abiding certain days. 13And on the sabbath we went out of the city by a river side, where prayer was wont to be made; and we sat down, and spake unto the women which resorted thither. 14And a certain woman named Lydia, a seller of purple, of the city of Thyatira, which worshipped God, heard us: whose heart the Lord opened, that she attended unto the things which were spoken of Paul. 15And when she was baptized, and her household, she besought us, saying, If ye have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house, and abide there. And she constrained us.

Samothrace is an island in the Aegean Sea between Troas in Asia and Neapolis in Macedonia. Philippi is a few miles inland from Neapolis. The entire trip was about 100 miles, probably requiring a couple of days. They waited in Philippi for the Sabbath. Why? Taken back out of their comfort zone, it was now time to start planting churches again. Paul was adamant that the gospel should be taken to the Jews before it is taken to the Gentiles. Paul would go to the Synagogue to preach the gospel. However, Philippi did not have a large Jewish presence, and there was no synagogue, so he looked for a "place of prayer" where Jews would gather for the Sabbath prayers. There Paul met Lydia. She was from Thyatira (in the region of Lydia), a merchant in purple cloth that was produced in that region, and a Jewess. The phrase "worshiper of God" is an idiom that specifically refers to a Jew.

So, true to form, Paul first went to the Jewish community. There, Lydia and her household were saved and were baptized. Paul, Silas, Timothy, and Luke stayed with her in her home at her request.

Acts 16:16-18.

And it came to pass, as we went to prayer, a certain damsel possessed with a spirit of divination met us, which brought her masters much gain by soothsaying: 17The same followed Paul and us, and cried, saying, These men are the servants of the most high God, which show unto us the way of salvation. 18And this did she many days. But Paul, being grieved, turned and said to the spirit, I command thee in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her. And he came out the same hour.

Paul and Silas continued in Philippi preaching and teaching, building a congregation there that would soon be one of the larger first-century congregations. They met a slave girl who was possessed with a demon. Her master was making money by using her to tell people’s fortunes. This demon had control of her, and through her, had control over her master. Paul’s heart went out to the plight of this girl, and after she had kept up her behavior for several days, Paul simply commanded the demon to come out of her in the Name of Jesus Christ. This would leave her freed from this vexing spirit, but useless to her master.

Acts 16:19-24.

And when her masters saw that the hope of their gains was gone, they caught Paul and Silas, and drew them into the marketplace unto the rulers, 20And brought them to the magistrates, saying, These men, being Jews, do exceedingly trouble our city, 21And teach customs, which are not lawful for us to receive, neither to observe, being Romans. 22And the multitude rose up together against them: and the magistrates rent off their clothes, and commanded to beat them. 23And when they had laid many stripes upon them, they cast them into prison, charging the jailor to keep them safely: 24Who, having received such a charge, thrust them into the inner prison, and made their feet fast in the stocks.

What had Paul and Silas done wrong to receive such harsh treatment by the Macedonian authorities? As usual, the charge brought against them had little or nothing to do with the true complaint. However, they were Jews in Macedonia, foreigners with different customs. Because of this they were easy targets of bigotry, a curse that would return to the Jewish community even through today. Consequently, it did not take much for the Macedonians to charge them with disloyalty to the Roman government. Such charges could escalate quickly to treason, punished by death. That’s a pretty high price to pay for casting a demon out of a slave girl.

Acts 16:25.

And at midnight Paul and Silas prayed, and sang praises unto God: and the prisoners heard them.

Paul and Silas had been whipped, beaten, placed in chains, and placed in a prison cell that was located deep in the prison. The inner prison is the most secure, and the most isolated. It would be the worst location in the prison that anyone could be placed in. Paul had been imprisoned before, and Silas probably had not. This stop was not in Paul’s plans, as he had intended only on visiting existing churches until he felt God’s lead to get back out on the mission field. Silas could have been quite frightened. Both were recovering from the beating. So, what were they doing at midnight when most would be either wallowing in their grief or asleep from exhaustion? They were singing praises to God. They did not forget that the source of their strength was Jesus.

Many Christian churches are beginning to add praise songs to their worship. Traditions die hard, and such change is quite controversial in many congregations. There is a spontaneity of worship that is evident in much praise music that is not evident in a lot of hymns. This is because praise songs tend to be simple, and scriptural. Such songs can easily come to mind in times when we wish to worship. This is what was taking place in the prison cell. Paul and Silas were singing songs of praise. Certainly, these are songs that are sung to God, but they also brought them comfort. The other prisoners heard them and must have thought that they were insane. The guard certainly knew that there was something quite different about these prisoners. They demonstrated a different kind of confidence, courage and strength than he had ever seen before. After listening to their prayers and singing, the prison guard started to become curious.

Acts 16:26-30.

And suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken: and immediately all the doors were opened, and every one’s bands were loosed. 27And the keeper of the prison awaking out of his sleep, and seeing the prison doors open, he drew out his sword, and would have killed himself, supposing that the prisoners had been fled. 28But Paul cried with a loud voice, saying, Do thyself no harm: for we are all here. 29Then he called for a light, and sprang in, and came trembling, and fell down before Paul and Silas, 30And brought them out, and said, Sirs, what must I do to be saved?

It was midnight. What would the inner part of the prison look like at midnight? It would be dark with maybe a few oil lamps burning at the guard’s station. The guard would not be able to see the prisoners, nor would he particularly be interested in seeing them anyway. However, a violent earthquake struck, not an uncommon phenomena in this region. However, this earthquake had a strange effect on the prison. What was it? All of the doors came ajar and everyone was loosed from their chains. Note that Paul and Silas were not the only prisoners set free. It appears that all of the prisoners were set free. What was the guard’s response to this disaster? He was about to kill himself. Why? It would be easier to die quickly by his own sword than it would be to face brutal Roman execution, an execution that would be certain if any of his prisoners escaped.

What the prisoner heard next would have been astonishing. Those two men he was listening to called out to him in the darkness telling him not to harm himself. How did they know he was about to do this? Furthermore, what were the prisoners still here? The earthquake had destroyed the prison, making it likely that most of the prisoners would be gone. On hearing the voice of Paul, he obtained some lamps and went into the ward of cells where he found all of the prisoners there.

This Paul was different, all right. He had saved his life by keeping all of the prisoners there. He had heard the singing and prayers of Paul and Silas, and desired to have whatever it was that they had. What happened next is quite amazing. The prison security was restored, and the guard took Paul and Silas outside to privately ask them "How can I be saved."

Acts 16:31-34.

And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house. 32And they spake unto him the word of the Lord, and to all that were in his house. 33And he took them the same hour of the night, and washed their stripes; and was baptized, he and all his, straightway. 34And when he had brought them into his house, he set meat before them, and rejoiced, believing in God with all his house.

Paul and Silas proclaimed the gospel to the guard who took them to his own home so that his family could hear this. The jailer showed compassion on Paul and Silas, washing their wounds, cleaning them up and feeding them, showing an apology for the way they had been treated. So, instead of spending the night in prison, Paul and Silas spent a good part of it in the home of the jailer where they had the privilege of baptizing his family. Before morning, the jailer took Paul and Silas back to prison. However, at this point he could go to his superiors and tell them how Paul and Silas had shown such integrity and courage during the disaster.

Acts 16:31-34.

And when it was day, the magistrates sent the serjeants, saying, Let those men go. 36And the keeper of the prison told this saying to Paul, The magistrates have sent to let you go: now therefore depart, and go in peace. 37But Paul said unto them, They have beaten us openly uncondemned, being Romans, and have cast us into prison; and now do they thrust us out privily? nay verily; but let them come themselves and fetch us out. 38And the serjeants told these words unto the magistrates: and they feared, when they heard that they were Romans. 39And they came and besought them, and brought them out, and desired them to depart out of the city. 40And they went out of the prison, and entered into the house of Lydia: and when they had seen the brethren, they comforted them, and departed.

In Chapter 16 of the Acts of the Apostles, we see the beginning of Paul’s second missionary journey. Intending to retrace the steps of the first missionary journey, his plans are altered by his disagreement with Barnabas. Forced to trace his steps backwards, he heads North and starts the planned visits. However, his attempt at sticking to his plan was again diverted by the Holy Sprit who finally convinced Paul that he was being called back to the church planting business, and relents after receiving a vision from God that would lead him in the direction that God desired.

It may be comforting to see that it took a vision from God to steer Paul back onto the path that God desired for him. As Christians mature in the faith they seek to follow God in obedience, and search for His will in their lives. We can find God’s will as we listen to the Holy Spirit as He helps us to discern what we read in scripture, what we sense in prayer, the testimony and advice from other Christians, the circumstances that surround us, etc. We would sometimes like a vision like Paul received. However, it would be better that we were more sensitive to the Holy Spirit so that would not be necessary. God has a plan for every person, as each person is given unique gifts, interests, talents, and abilities that can be used in God’s kingdom.

As we seek to be obedient, we will find opportunities to witness in a variety of circumstances. When called upon to serve God, we should respond immediately before the opportunity passes. Then we will not miss the opportunity for service and the joy that comes from serving.