Properly speaking, Acts 15:36 commences the second missionary journey of the apostle Paul from his sending church in Antioch of Syria. As we saw previously, the launching forth of this missionary endeavour was not without its difficulties and contention. The story of the progress of missions often involves such challenges—and yet God overrules for His glory.
Paul and Barnabas were both passionate about the gospel and were therefore both passionate about the Great Commission. But as we well know, a dispute arose between them over the proper personnel for the venture. Whereas Barnabas wanted John Mark to accompany them, Paul deemed it unwise and, in his estimation, ultimately both unhelpful and even unhealthy. Neither would yield his position, with the result that they parted ways, never (we assume) to work together again in ministry.
But as we also were reminded, out of this sharp contention came two, rather than one, missionary teams: Barnabas with John Mark being one, and Paul with Silas being another.
The church at Antioch commended the team of Paul and Silas and they went forth through the gates of Cilicia back into southern Galatia. They were seemingly reversing the steps that Paul and Barnabas had taken when on their first missionary journey. Though this is the last time that we read of Barnabas and Mark as a missionary team, it certainly is not the last time that we read of Paul and Silas. In fact, the rest of the book of Acts recounts the missionary endeavours of these two men, with special attention given to Paul. This, no doubt, was Luke’s intention.
The book of Acts is the record of the spread of the gospel by the first century church in its first 20-25 years of existence. It is primarily the story of how the gospel broke loose from its Jewish bound wineskins into all the world. And since Paul was the specially chosen vessel through which the nations would receive the gospel (9:15), it is not surprising that Luke would focus on his ministry. This becomes very apparent with the commencement of Acts 16.
This chapter begins with the words “then he,” referring to Paul. He is the central figure that the Holy Spirit used for the furtherance of the gospel. And from where we sit, it is to be greatly appreciated that what took place in this chapter was in many ways the human reason for us having gospel benefits that we enjoy. This is true for South Africa as well as for most of the Western World—and for that matter for most of the rest of the world as well. And so as we begin our study of gospel progress in this momentous time in history (16:1—18:22) we are in for an interesting and I trust an edifying time.
There are several issues that arise in these opening ten verses with reference to missionary strategy, and we will pick up on some of them.
A Missionary’s Commitment: The Need for Faithful Courage
The text opens with Paul returning “to Derbe and Lystra” (v. 1a). This displays a great deal of courage on Paul’s part, for it was in this same region that he had been stoned and left for dead on his earlier missionary journey (Acts 14). Yet his commitment to Christ and to the sheep of the Chief Shepherd would allow him no out. Such spiritual courage is necessary for those who will leave their comfort zones for the cause of the Great Commission. The cause is worth it because the cause is Christ.
I have a pastor friend in another African country who has been arrested for preaching the gospel on at least three occasions. His wife has also been arrested at least once. On each occasion, he has been released with a warning not to preach the gospel again on pain of rearrest. Each time, he has immediately proceeded to preach the gospel, fully aware of the consequences of doing so.
Some years ago, our church sent a missionary to a particularly dangerous field. Before he left, with no hint of false bravado, he told me that he and his wife were quite willing to die for the cause of the gospel. When he and I visited the region to which he was being sent, our guide pointed out a café in which a missionary had been murdered. The reality of death was no idle threat in this instance, and it is not in a great many others. Missionaries, taking their cue from Paul, need to men of great courage.
A Missionary’s Work: The Priority of Mentorship
The second principle—the priority of mentorship—can be seen in v. 1b-3a:
And behold, a certain disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a certain Jewish woman who believed, but his father was Greek. He was well spoken of by the brethren who were at Lystra and Iconium. Paul wanted to have him go on with him.
For those who might be inclined, based on the John Mark quarrel, to see Paul as an old man who had no confidence in youth, let these verses speak to the contrary.
Here we see the beginning of Paul’s personal mentoring of Timothy as he became his handpicked companion to accompany him on his journeys. Out of this relationship Timothy would become Paul’s emissary to various churches and, in fact, would become the pastor-teacher of the church that Paul would plant in Ephesus.
It should be noted, based on the chronology of New Testament books and events, that it can be concluded with some accuracy that Timothy in Acts 16 was between 18 and 20 years old. And yet Paul was willing—even strongly desirous—that this young man accompany him. Paul was wise to plan for the future; he was committed to training a young man to fill his shoes once he had run his race and finished his course. Succession planning is essential for missionary strategy. Let’s take some time to learn what we can of this man we know as Timothy.
The name means “honoured of God,” and the events in his life show indeed that the Lord graced him abundantly. Timothy, in turn, honoured the Lord.
We know from this text that Timothy had been raised in a spiritually split home. The fact that “his mother was a certain Jewish woman” means, at the very least, that she was committed to old covenant Judaism. It may be too much to say that she was a genuine convert from her youth, and perhaps she was only even saved in Timothy’s teen years; however, she was a faithful Jewess.
The contrast between his father and his mother—signified by the strong word “but”—implies that his father was an unbeliever. The tense of the word translated “was” indicates that his father had been a Greek—not in the sense that he had subsequently converted to Christianity, but in the sense that he was dead. Timothy’s mother, Eunice (2 Timothy 1:5) was therefore a widow, though her mother, Lois, was still alive.
In ancient Jewish culture, children traditionally took the religion of their mother, but the fact that Timothy had not been circumcised as a baby suggests that his father was not supportive of Eunice’s Jewish faith. Second Timothy 1:5 and 3:14-15 inform us that both Timothy’s mother and grandmother were committed to the Jewish Scriptures—so much so that they had taught them to him from his “childhood.”1
For whatever reason, contrary to God’s revealed will, this godly woman had married a pagan. No doubt, this mother had her work cut out for her to raise a godly son. Thank God for the gospel—and thank God for gospel preachers like Paul!
It would seem from passages such as 1 Timothy 1:2; 2 Timothy 1:2 and 1 Corinthians 4:17 that Timothy, though nurtured in the faith by his mother and grandmother, may actually have been converted under the preaching ministry of Paul. If so, this must have happened during Paul’s first missionary journey (Acts 14:1-20). This may well have been the time that his mother and grandmother came to appreciate the how the Old Testament Scriptures were able to make them wise to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 3:15).
It must be remembered that it had been perhaps as long as five years since Paul and Barnabas had last been in Lystra. But even if it had only been two, years this was doubtless sufficient time for a dedicated young believer (whom had been blessed with such a well-indoctrinated childhood) to grow in such a way that his character and competency could be detected with promise of more.
We should learn from this not to despise the youth around us. We should also learn to expect much more from young people than we often do. We should be looking at young people and young adults with a view to succession planning. I certainly am!
Verse 2 informs us that young Timothy had a commendable testimony among those who knew him. In keeping with Paul’s later instructions concerning qualifications for elders (1 Timothy 3:2, 7), Timothy was already well on his way towards being a spiritual leader.
We learn here that one’s youthful years are vital in shaping of character. Parents, do all that you can raise those who will one day be leaders in the Lord’s church, whether at home in your local church or in another part of the world.
Note that Paul had a keen eye for potential leaders (v. 3a). In fact, as A. T. Robertson suggests, the phrasing here could be translated “this one, Paul wanted.” “Paul loved him devotedly. It is a glorious discovery to find a real young preacher for Christ’s work.”2
From what follows it is clear that Timothy went with the church’s blessing as well as with the blessing of his mother and grandmother. We should ponder this for a moment.
Consider that they doubtless had been witnesses, or at least aware of, the troubles that Paul had experienced in Lystra on his initial visit. In fact, in 2 Timothy 3:10-11 Paul reminds Timothy of that persecution, and so he was certainly aware of it—perhaps even an eyewitness. In the full awareness of the risk, they seemingly gave their full support to Timothy going forth with such a dangerous man! These were godly women indeed!
Let us learn from this that the cause of Christ calls for sacrifice. It calls for risk taking. It calls for cutting loose of the apron strings. It calls for parents to be willing to give up their children to the Lord Jesus Christ.
As noted above, most commentators are agreed that the particular tense used in the phrase “his father was Greek” indicates that he was probably dead at this point. We don’t know if Timothy had siblings; nevertheless, it was a tremendous sacrifice—particularly in those days—for a widow (and her mother) to say goodbye to her son (and her grandson). Obviously, they trusted God to take care of them. Would we display a similar type of faith?
In summary, Paul chose this young man to be his apprentice, and the rest—quite literally—is history. And it is a very wonderful history, to say the least. Erdman comments, “The whole story is a beautiful commentary upon the value of friendships and companionships in Christian service and particularly in the work on foreign fields.”3
I can think of no better passage that would conclude these observations than the words of Paul regarding Timothy in Philippians 2:19-23:
But I trust in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you shortly, that I also may be encouraged when I know your state. For I have no one like-minded, who will sincerely care for your state. For all seek their own, not the things which are of Christ Jesus. But you know his proven character, that as a son with his father he served with me in the gospel. Therefore I hope to send him at once, as soon as I see how it goes with me.
Here, Paul gives the highest commendation of the character of this young man. May these words be characteristic of all of us, and may we be blessed to export such, over and over again, in the years and decades ahead.
A Missionary’s Wisdom: The Necessity for Contextualisation
In vv. 3b-4, we see a biblical example of something that is frequently spoken of in contemporary mission discussions: contextualisation.
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. 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.
This brief passage is full of interest to one who has been paying attention to the context, especially from 15:1ff. You will recall that false teachers came to Antioch and caused much upheaval by their assertion and insistence that Gentile believers be circumcised if they would truly and fully be saved. Paul and Barnabas were sent to the church in Jerusalem to settle this doctrinal dispute once for all. Even believers were confused about this issue (v. 5). The gospel was at stake, so this was no trivial matter.
After much discussion, the conclusion was reached that salvation has nothing to do with either race or works, but rather with grace alone, through faith, alone in, Christ alone (15:11). The Jerusalem council concluded that a letter should to be sent to the Gentile churches, affirming their acceptance by grace alone and rejecting any suggestion that they had to be circumcised in order to be saved. But the letter also exhorted the Gentile believers to be sensitive to the Jewish culture by which they were surrounded, and therefore they were to restrain certain liberties out of love. As someone has suggested, such a message highlighted the essence of the gospel, which is faith that works by love. Despite that decree, Paul here had Timothy, a grown man, circumcised before embarking on their mission together.
But there is another historical incident that adds further colour to the scene. Paul wrote to the Galatians (before the council of Acts 15) that he had refused to have Titus circumcised because he was so adamant to protect the gospel (Galatians 2:3-5). In light of this, the record here of Paul having Timothy circumcised has left many scratching their heads and accusing Paul of inconsistency. But, as I trust I can show you, there was no inconsistency at all; rather, Paul’s actions were very consistent with the very letter that he was carrying to the churches. As Robertson points out, “Timothy was both Jew and Greek and would continually give offence to the Jews with no advantage to the cause of Gentile freedom. . . . Here was a question of efficient service, not an essential of salvation.”4
The text before us tells us very plainly that everyone knew that Timothy’s father had been a Greek, and therefore it was common knowledge that he uncircumcised. Therein lay the challenge for Paul.
As we have seen, Paul’s first port of call on his mission was the local synagogue. This usually led to trouble. Paul was trying to avoid as much unnecessary trouble as he could. But more so, if Timothy was not circumcised, then he would not be given opportunity to minister in the synagogue and probably neither could Paul. Paul was thus being strategic. He was doing what missiologists refer to as “contextualising the gospel.” He was compromising what he could without giving up what he could not.
Stott captures well the wisdom in Paul’s decision, and even risk, at being labelled inconsistent: “Little minds would have condemned him for inconsistency. But there was a deep consistency in his thoughts and actions. . . . What was unnecessary for acceptance with God was advisable for acceptance by some human beings.”5 And Longnecker adds, “While Paul stoutly resisted any imposition of circumcision and the Jews law upon his Gentile converts, he himself continued to live as an observant Jew and urged his converts to express their Christian faith through the cultural forms they had inherited. . . . As Paul saw it, being a good Christian did not mean being a bad Jew. Rather, it meant being a fulfilled Jew.”6
In fact, Paul’s initial choice of Timothy as a fellow-worker also testifies to his understanding that Jewishness was not his priority. “By accepting the child of such a marriage as a brother Jew, Paul showed how definitely he had broken down all national barriers.”7 Paul was passionate about the gospel for all, not merely for the Jews.
The fact is that good missionaries know what is essential and what is not. They know the difference between what is biblically permissible in a culture and what is not. “As Luther put it, Paul was strong in faith, and soft in love. . . . Or as John Newton once said, . . . ‘Paul was a reed in non-essentials—an iron pillar in essentials.’”8
This, of course, became a part of Paul’s ministry strategy (see 1 Corinthians 9:19-23).
Historically, missionaries have always had to discern what cultural things need to be changed by the gospel, and what can be left unchanged. When Hudson Taylor went to China as a missionary he began to dress like the men to whom he ministered. He grew his hair long and had a ponytail. Other missionaries criticised him, but he was wise to realise that changing his way of thinking might well help him to more effectively reach his audience with the gospel.
A Missionary’s Blessing: The Perpetual Goal
Verse 5 sums up, in a short sentence, the goal of every true missionary: local churches that are strengthened in the faith and growing numerically. “So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and increased in number daily” (v. 5). We could use two words here: confirmation and conversions.
The word translated “strengthened” means “to make firm and solid like the muscles.”9 This description is used elsewhere in Acts of local churches (14:22; 15:30-32; 15:41; 18:23). Paul was not one who was satisfied with a notch on his gospel gun; he was passionate that local churches would grow from strength to strength. He had a pastor’s heart. Such is required of a missionary.
But just what was it that “established” and “strengthened” these churches? Clearly, it had something to do with the message that they brought from Jerusalem (v. 4). “So wise and healthy was the Jerusalem Council’s decision, incorporated in their letter, that wherever its good news went, the churches grew in stability and steadfastness.”10 This message, which conveyed the truth that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, and its expression of Christian fellowship, was good news that encouraged the churches in the Lord. In other words, the message of the gospel was what strengthened them. They were encouraged by the gospel. One can imagine that the message carried by these missionaries resulted in a corporate expression of, “Thank God for the gospel!”
Such is the result of teaching that strengthens believers in objective faith in the gospel. Their subjective faith is encouraged to grow as well. And what results from this?
“With the solution adopted by the Council, those churches, which were mainly Gentile in character, gained new confidence and new boldness in evangelism. The result was ‘daily’ increase.”11
The church here “increased in numbers daily.” What a glorious statement, and one that we too should be praying for and, yes, expecting!
Robertson notes that the tense of this verb is an imperfect active, which implies that “the blessing of God was on the work of Paul, Silas, and Timothy in the form of a continuous revival.”9 That is, the church was continuously growing.
Not only was the church growing in its depth (“strengthened”), but she was also growing in breadth. She was growing better as well as larger. That is the desire of every missionary—or at least it should be.
There is no inherent virtue in remaining small. Smallness is no proof of orthodoxy. Sadly, there are some who deem it to be so. The book of Acts, however, gives the lie to such a conviction. Over and over in this history book of early Christian mission, we read of the church multiplying and increasing in number. In fact, on one occasion we are told that three thousand were saved in one fell swoop (Acts 2:41), and in another place that the number of men who had converted had grown to 5,000 (Acts 4:4). It certainly appears that God is pleased with numerical growth.
Though we certainly recognise that numerical growth lies entirely in the realm of God’s sovereignty, nevertheless we should expect that, over time, the faithful missionary will eventually see fruit that abounds.
As we talk about the “missionary,” we need to keep before us that what is true on the foreign field is equally true at home. That is, the same expectation of both depth and breadth must be here as well as there. And we must keep in mind that what may not be true always in experience in one particular locale will be true in a more corporate way. That is, we should expect growth of the church in a nation as a whole, over time.
But such growth is in a real sense “deliberate” growth. As Longnecker points out, the word “so” “stresses the strengthening and growth of the churches as a result of Paul’s missionary policy and the response of the Jerusalem church to it.”13
A Missionary’s Perseverance: The Mystery of Providence and the Response of Submission
In vv. 6-10 we learn about the missionary and the providence of God.
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. After they had come to Mysia, they tried to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit did not permit them. So passing by Mysia, they came down to Troas. 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.” 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.
Longnecker captures well the gist of this passage when he writes, “Authentic turning points in history are few. But surely among them that of the Macedonian vision ranks high. Because of Paul’s obedience at this point, the gospel went westward; and ultimately Europe and the Western world were evangelized. Christian response to the call of God is never a trivial thing. Indeed, as in this instance, great issues and untold blessings may depend on it.”14
But before going there, first there were some seeming setbacks, some restraints that accompanied the missionaries’ constraints.
In vv. 6-8, we read of some closed doors to the gospel. Asia Minor would one day be the home of some wonderful and world impacting local churches, but the time for that was not yet. First, God had other plans for these men and their mission.
This missionary team marched towards Asia Minor, no doubt were expecting much fruit. But a strange thing happened: the Holy Spirit prohibited them from preaching there. We don’t know how this prohibition was made known, but it is clear that these missionaries obeyed their Lord.
If you look at a map of the team’s journey, you will see that they would have travelled some five to six hundred kilometres across this region before finally getting to Troas, from where they would enter Macedonia to preach the gospel. In other words, for perhaps four to six, weeks these passionate preachers were instructed by God to keep their mouths shut! They were disallowed—by God Himself—from making disciples and therefore planting churches.
In fact, after submitting to the Spirit by not preaching in Asia Minor, they turned their thoughts northward towards Bithynia (modern-day northern Turkey). Perhaps they thought, “The Lord does not want us to focus on Asia Minor because He wants us to go north and do missionary work in Bithynia.” But again, “the Spirit did not permit them.” Imagine that! The Spirit of Jesus—the Spirit sent by the One who had sent them to make disciples of all the nations—was now telling them not to do so in this particular nation. Are you confused? I would think that these missionaries were equally confused.
I must confess that sometimes I am confused by the Lord about what He is doing. After all, His desire is that He be glorified in all the nations through the gospel, and yet at the same time He does not always seem answer our prayer about closed doors being opened into the nations.
I mentioned above the man from our church who was willing to die in his place of ministry for the sake of the gospel. That was a very real threat in the unreached land to which he was being sent. After living there just a few months, God closed the door to ministry. The government, which had earlier welcomed him, now refused him permission to stay there, and he was called by the church to return to South Africa.
Great effort and significant expense had been put into the missionary endeavour, and yet God closed the door. Why? I don’t have all the answers. I am absolutely convinced that God wanted that family there for the brief time that they were there. It was in no way a waste of time or money. But, clearly, God did not intend for them to stay there very long. That confuses me, but I take comfort in the fact that it is not completely foreign to the biblical record.
William Carey initially wanted to go to Polynesia in the South Seas, but God sent him to India. Adoniram Judson wanted to go to Burma, but God sent him to India. David Livingstone wanted to go to China, but God sent him to Africa. My own missionary mentor, Bob Hayes, had a desire to go to Zaire, but God sent him to Ghana. My own desire as a missionary was to go to Australia, but God closed that door and instead brought me to South Africa. Missionaries sometimes need to submit to God’s sovereignty, even when they don’t understand what He is doing.
The history of God’s mission is filled with such illustrations. All we can say is that, though we might be confused, God is not and so we can cease to be as well! God has His ways. Since He is the sum of all wisdom, we need simply and submissively to put our hands over our mouths and keep on moving until God allows us to open them again! This is precisely what this missionary team did. “We too in our day,” Pierson concludes, “need to trust him for guidance and rejoice equally in his restraints and constraints.”15
In vv. 9-10, we read of the confidence of the missionaries. After a several week unscheduled “furlough” from ministry, the call came ringing o’er the restless wave, “Send the light!” As the missionary team was in Troas, no doubt praying and conversing in an attempt to know God’s plan, Paul received a vision of an (unbelieving?) man pleading with him to go to Macedonia and help him. This was a cry for salvation. It was a cry of God’s elect for the gospel. This man was speaking on behalf of Europe: “Come and save us!”
People often approach texts in a strange way. Some have done so here, seeking to identify who this Macedonian man was. Some have suggested that it was Alexander the Great, the one who so passionately desired the political and social uniting of East and West. But, of course, since he died in his own vomit in a drunken stupor this would seem very unlikely.
What we do know is that this was a vision and that is enough. God used this as a means to communicate to Paul, and by extension to his fellow missionaries, that the reason that doors had been closed elsewhere was because God had opened this one. In His all wise providence, and according to His sovereign design, Macedonia needed to be reached with the gospel before Asia Minor. Asia’s turn would come, but first things must come first.
The response of the other team members (v. 10) was one of complete confidence that the Lord indeed had spoken, and so immediately they departed for Macedonia.
It should be noticed that at this point we find Luke including himself for the first time in the narrative. He clearly includes himself by use of the pronoun “we.” A medical doctor by profession, and a historian of the highest class, he was first and foremost a disciple maker!
Some have suggested that the clear reference to Luke’s presence here may indicate that this was the means by which the Spirit had hindered the missionary team from pursuing missions work in Asia Minor and in Bithynia. They have suggested that perhaps Paul was not well and that the Lord used Luke to say “no” (for the time being) to Paul’s further ministry engagements until he was physically ready. That may be true, but no one can say for sure. What we can say with confidence is that the time came when these men were persuaded that the Lord had opened the door for them to go and make disciples in what we now know as the entry point into Europe, and thus the rest of the world.
When the Lord opens doors, it is a wonderful assurance to know this and to seek (v. 10) to walk through it. This would put them in good stead when difficulties and disappointments came their way later on. When you are imprisoned for preaching the gospel, it is no doubt a comfort to know that God has certainly called you to such a place. Paul understood this principle, and, when imprisoned, eagerly called himself “the prisoner of the Lord” (Ephesians 4:1).
As we conclude this study let us do so with confidence that the Great Commission continues to be great, that God is still saving sinners, and that the Lord Jesus Christ is still planting local churches as He builds His church among the nations.
May we learn the valuable lessons from Acts concerning how to do God’s mission. And may God continue to raise up the likes of Paul, Silas and Timothy for the sake of the gospel and for His own glory.
- The Greek word here translated “childhood” can refer to infancy. ↩
- A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 6 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1930), 3:243. ↩
- Charles R. Erdman, The Acts: An Exposition (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1966), 129. ↩
- Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 3:244. ↩
- John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1990), 254. ↩
- Richard N. Longnecker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan 1981), 9:455. ↩
- William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles: The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1955), 130. ↩
- Stott, The Message of Acts, 257. ↩
- Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 3:245. ↩
- Stott, The Message of Acts, 255. ↩
- Harrison, Interpreting Acts, 263. ↩
- Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 3:245. ↩
- Longnecker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 9:456. ↩
- Longnecker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 9:458. ↩
- Stott, The Message of Acts, 261. ↩