Paul & Silas visit the churches

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Timothy joins Paul and Silas at Lystra (Acts 16:1-5)

This chapter of the book of Acts covers the first part of what is now referred to as Paul’s second missionary journey. His original purpose was to return, this time with Silas, to the cities and towns that he went to on his first journey with Barnabas. Paul and Barnabas had strongly disagreed over taking John-Mark with them on this new journey, because he had deserted them as soon as they landed at Perga in the region of Pamphylia (in what is now known as Turkey) on their first journey. (Acts 13:13)

So, Barnabas took John-Mark to Cyprus whilst Paul took Silas with him to Cilicia, Pamphylia, Pisidia and intended to continue into what was at that time called "Asia" (in which both Troas and Ephesus could be found). This second journey was an altogether longer affair, although it didn’t start off that way. Paul and Silas obeyed the Holy Spirit but, as they went, He laid on their hearts something altogether bigger that was revealed only a stage at a time, as the two men listened to God. This can happen to us, too. When we obey God in what seems a very small thing, we often find that He responds to our willingness by opening up bigger tasks and greater opportunities.

The trip began in reverse order to the first journey, heading overland to Tarsus (Paul’s home town) then on to Derbe and Lystra. Here Paul met Timothy and wanted to take him along on the journey. However, because he was a Jew (through his mother’s line), Paul insisted that Timothy should first be circumcised. Timothy's father was a Greek and, presumably, had said at his birth that he should not be circumcised on the eighth day as was the norm under the law of Moses. Timothy and his mother, Eunice, were from Lystra. Eunice had probably heard Paul's preaching when he was there during his first missionary journey (Acts 14:6-18). Timothy was, to the Jews, a half-breed like a Samaritan. Paul was not saying that, in order for Timothy to become a Christian, he had to be circumcised. (The "Council of Jerusalem" had just confirmed that being circumcised was not a necessary prerequisite to becoming a Christian, as we saw in chapter fifteen.) Part of Paul’s purpose on this journey was to convey the news of this decision to the Gentiles, in order to prevent the heresy that "certain people" (that is, Jews from Jerusalem) were trying to enforce on the new believers. Paul was saying that Timothy, who was already a believer in Christ, should be circumcised in order to identify with the Jewish people to whom Paul always preached initially on arriving at a new town or city. Sometimes we need to go the "extra mile" in order not to put any unnecessary obstacles in the paths of those to whom we are bringing good news.

Timothy was well regarded by the believers at Lystra and Paul was excited to take him along with them. It proved to be the start of a strong relationship between Timothy and Paul that would last for the remainder of Paul’s life. He wrote at least two letters to Timothy, counselling and instructing him on how to act as a young pastor, serving people in those early church congregations. That teaching is as relevant to us today as it was to Timothy then. What about our Christian lives? Could people say the same things about us as they said about Timothy? We need to ensure that our Christian walk is upright and blameless and, when it is not, we should re-evaluate it and correct the things that are wrong.

The results of the encouragement and teaching brought by Paul, Silas and Timothy soon became evident through the way in which the various churches along their route were strengthened in faith and grew in numbers; not weekly, as people came to church on a Sunday (the first day of the week), but daily, as the profound changes in the lives of the new believers became obvious to all. God never planned for churches to be ruled by a separate class of people known as "clergy", who alone would be responsible for preaching the good news and inviting people to become Christians. On the contrary, the message about Christ was spread by ordinary believers in their homes, at work or at leisure, because others saw the changes that had taken place in their lives and wanted to share in what they had. Surely that is Jesus’ plan for the church today. If we wait for people to turn up at our church on a Sunday in order to hear the good news about Jesus, we shall probably never see a spiritual revival close up. If we try to constrain the Holy Spirit within the narrow confines of our own expectations, He will simply go and work elsewhere! We need only look to these chapters in Acts to understand that we have to follow Him rather than expecting Him to follow us!

Paul has a vision about Macedonia (Acts 16:6-10)

Paul and his companions travelled through the regions of Phrygia and Galatia but were then barred by the Holy Spirit from continuing into Asia. Luke doesn't say precisely how they received this message. It may have been through a prophet, a vision, an inner conviction, or some other circumstance. God leads us in all sorts of different ways: sometimes through circumstances, sometimes through conversations with other people, sometimes through something that we read in the Bible or in a combination of all these things. When seeking to know God's will for us, the following points can be helpful:

  1. Make sure that your plan is in harmony with God's word;
  2. Ask mature Christians for advice;
  3. Check your motives: are you seeking to do what you want or what you think God wants?
  4. Pray for God to "open and close doors" as He desires (that is, through circumstances and events in your life).

Paul tried to cross over into Bithynia, but the Holy Spirit would not let them cross (Acts 16:6-8) The Holy Spirit’s job is to guide us as we go through our lives as Christians. Jesus' disciples came to realise and understand that Jesus was God: the very person and presence of God somehow incorporated into a human being, but also in a human body. As such, He could only be in one place at one time. The Holy Spirit is also the very person and presence of God, but able to be with each one of us at all times. As such, He knows everything that there is to know. He knows when we need help and is always available to guide us, prompt our thinking and put us in touch with others who need help at the precise moment that we need it.

It is no great surprise, therefore, to read in the next few verses about Paul’s vision of a man from Macedonia asking for help. Neither is it a surprise to learn of Paul’s response to that plea. (Acts 16:9-10) It is really important that we learn to recognise the Holy Spirit's presence in our lives and to listen to His voice. If we don’t, then we may miss hearing one of the most important calls in our lives. If Paul had not listened to where the Holy Spirit asked him to go, then the whole of Greece and the Balkan Peninsula would never have heard the good news about Jesus, let alone the rest of the world!

Lydia is converted in Philippi (Acts 16:11-15)

Paul and his companions were already in the sea port of Troas, so it was simple enough to find a boat that would take them from there to Macedonia – the area of land that lies directly to the North of Greece. In the words of Dr Luke:

"From Troas, we put out to sea and sailed straight for Samothrace. The next day we went on to Neapolis and, from there, we travelled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district of Macedonia. We stayed there several days." (Acts 16:11-12)

Philippi just happened to be the crossroads of all the Roman roads that led from Italy to the Eastern parts of their Empire. It was a very important location and a centre of exchange for information from all four corners of the world. When Paul, Silas and Timothy arrived with their travelling companions, it would not have taken long for the word to have got out to every city in the empire. Philippi was the key city in the region of Macedonia (in what is now part of northern Greece) and had become something of a centre for retired Roman soldiers. Paul founded a church there during this visit (AD 50-51) and later wrote a letter to them, probably from a prison in Rome (AD 61). This is what we know in our "New Testament" as the book of Philippians. It is a personal, tender letter, showing Paul's deep love for and friendship with the believers there. In it, he thanked them for a gift that they had sent and alerted them to an impending visit by Timothy and Epaphroditus, urging the church to clear up any disunity before their arrival and encouraging the believers not to give in to persecution.

When Paul and his companions first arrived in a city, their first and principal objective was to make contact with the Jewish population. Where a synagogue had been built, they could simply turn up there but, if no such building existed, a common practice was to meet for prayer outside the city, often by water. So, on the Sabbath Day at Philippi, they ventured outside and met up with Jewish believers who had gone there to pray. They spent time with them and began to share their good news. (Acts 16:13-15)

Lydia was one of those who listened to them, gave her life there and then to the Lord Jesus and became a believer. She wasn’t alone. In many societies today, the focus is primarily on individuals whereas, in the time when Dr Luke was writing, people were identified more by households and families than as individuals. When someone like the centurion, Cornelius, became a believer, it was common for the whole household to change allegiance together. Everyone would be baptised as a sign that they had changed and were now following after the example and teaching of a new Lord.

Although our own society may be far more individualistic, when we are born again and in covenant with our loving, heavenly Father, we can expect Him to be working through His Holy Spirit in the lives of our entire, extended family - parents, children and relatives - every bit as much as in our own. They may live very differently to us and show little interest in "spiritual things" but we can pray for them with particular love, knowledge and concern. Indeed, we may be the only person praying for them! It's a big responsibility because they will know us better than many others and will see our hearts more clearly than most. But, by the very same token, they will also see where God is genuinely changing us and re-creating us in the image of His own Son.

Reading "between the lines", Lydia must have held a significant position in her community. She is described as a "dealer in purple cloth". At that time, purple was a colour reserved for use only by the aristocracy. To manage a business that dealt more or less exclusively with the rich and wealthy says much about Lydia's own acumen and abilities. She was also a "worshipper of God", indicating that she was almost certainly someone of high moral standing and of generous disposition. This is borne out by the fact that she immediately persuades Paul and his friends to stay with her in her own home. Hospitality was a strong obligation in the society of that day, but is still a really important part of being a believer for us too. "Continue to love each other with true brotherly love. Don't forget to be kind to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it!" (Hebrews 13:1-2)

Two more conversions (Acts 16:16-40)

Luke highlights the stories of three individuals who became believers through Paul's ministry in Philippi: Lydia, the influential businesswoman we have just discussed (Acts 16:14); the demon-possessed slave girl (Acts 16:16-18); and the jailer (Acts 16:27-30). The gospel was affecting all stratas of society, just as it should today.

Inscribed on the arches outside the city of Philippi was a prohibition against bringing an unrecognised religion into the city. This was another reason why the prayer meeting where Paul and Silas found Lydia was being held outside the city, beside the river. Lydia’s conversion happened outside the city where the prayer meeting was being held in accordance with the local law. On their way to the meeting, Paul & Silas met someone else. We don't know her name and she is simply described as a servant - but one with a very particular ability: she "had a spirit that enabled her to foretell the future by supernatural means". (Acts 16:16)

On the face of it, what this girl was saying about Paul and Silas was absolutely true and, initially, Paul simply ignored her. However, she apparently took to following Paul and Silas around, acting as a kind of "town crier". Paul recognised that the girl was under the control of an evil spirit and it is likely that many others in Philippi would also have been aware of this. Paul was apparently annoyed by her persistent attention and possibly concerned that the message about the kingdom of God was becoming linked in peoples' minds with the enemy (Satan) and his agenda, so he decides to put a stop to it. (He may also have been motivated by a compassion for the girl herself.) One command was all that was required. He ordered the spirit to come out of the girl in the name of Jesus Christ and, instantly, it left her.

There is a lesson here for us today. The lies of Satan do not mix with the truth of Jesus Christ. If we let the messengers of the enemy announce the good that God will do, it will eventually be attributed to Satan. There needs to be a clear divide between Satan and Jesus. Like Paul, we can use the "name" of Jesus as our authority over Satan. He has no defence against it and must obey. In this context, the "name" of Jesus doesn't simply refer to the name by which Jesus was known. In ancient times, people were given names specifically for their meaning. Names were used, not simply as a convenient label to identify a person, but to convey something much deeper about that person's character or attributes. "Jesus" means "Saviour" and His name was only fully understood after His death and resurrection. People then realised that Jesus had died on behalf of the whole human race and God had demonstrated His acceptance of this sacrifice by raising Jesus from death. Jesus can save and deliver every human being from death and from all the power of the Evil One - Satan. He is, essentially, a saviour. That is His "name" or character. When Paul commanded the evil spirit to leave "in the name of Jesus", the spirit had no choice but to comply.

Paul later reinforced this message when he wrote about it in his letter to the Philippians. (Philippians 2:9-11) Similarly, the apostle James wrote: "You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that — and shudder!" (James 2:19) Let us not make light of our authority "in the name of Jesus". Paul knew it; Satan himself knows it, but we also need to know our position in Jesus when we use his "name". The seven sons of the leader of a synagogue invoked the name of "Jesus" as a sort of magic charm, but they suffered dire consequences because they didn't really understand what they were doing. (Acts 19:13-16)

The girl's deliverance was great for her and restored some calm and peace for many others - not least Paul and Silas and their companions - but it led to a bigger problem. This poor, demon-possessed slave girl had been abused by her owners, who were exploiting her ability for the purpose of making large amounts of money for themselves. When they saw that their income had dried up, they dragged Paul and Silas before the local court and accused them of flouting the law by preaching an unauthorized religion. In those days, legal proceedings were not the ordered and measured processes with which we may be familiar. Paul and Silas were judged to be guilty on the spot and ordered to be beaten with rods - no ordinary beating! They were then thrown into prison. (Acts 16:20-24)

How might we have reacted to such unjust treatment? How did Paul & Silas react? It is when things get really bad that we need to be able to praise God. Just because we are in a difficult position does not mean that God has either forgotten us or is incapable of helping us. In fact, it is when we are in just such a position that God is most able to help is. When we are most conscious of our weakness, or of great danger, then - and often only then - can God's strength in us be perfected! (2 Corinthians 12:9)

Paul and Silas knew this and, even though they were in the inner prison with their feet clamped tight in the stocks, they rejoiced and sang praises to God. We need to understand the lesson that comes from this passage. Not only did God respond to their praise, but His response affected every person in that prison. When God responds to our praises in a difficult situation, His response will affect others beyond our own immediate need. As they see how God responds for us, we may finally have that opportunity to lead them to the Lord, explaining that they too can discover God's goodness for themselves. There in the prison, the jailer wanted to know how he and his entire family could have what Paul and Silas so obviously had. Paul and Silas were able to share with him the good news about Jesus and he and his entire household turned to God in faith.

This conversion had immediate, practical consequences too. The jailer showed his change of heart by washing their wounds, feeding them and rejoicing with them, especially when the judges ordered Paul and Silas to be released. However, Paul was not going to let their mistreatment be glossed over quite so easily. (Acts 16:37-40) The two of them had been beaten and incarcerated without trial but they were Roman citizens. This meant that what the judges had done to them was doubly wrong. Roman citizenship carried with it certain privileges and when they realised that Paul and Silas were citizens of Rome, they were seriously alarmed because it was illegal for them to have a Roman citizen whipped. In addition, every citizen had the right to a fair trial - which Paul and Silas had not been given. Consequently, Paul made the judges themselves come to escort them out of prison to make the point that their treatment had not been just. Paul and Silas then took their time and visited Lydia before eventually leaving Philippi and continuing on their way.

Because Philippi was at the centre of the trade routes from the Middle East to Rome, South into Greece and North along the Black Sea coasts, it is extremely probable that news of what had happened in Philippi would have spread far and wide in no time at all. People would have been talking about "the Way" and how this "Jesus" could change peoples' lives. Today, when we are faced with trials and tribulations, let us not give in to them but, rather, face them with confidence knowing that: "all things work together for good to them that love God and are called according to His purpose." (Romans 8:28) Then we shall be able to praise God as we see Him do amazing things in our lives.


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