Upon His investiture with a new role of divine authority not exercised nor possessed in His humiliation, the incarnate Son of God, the resurrected Man, with all authority over heaven and earth gave His followers one last command. How does one encapsulate the richness and the sweeping nature of this final statement? For it reaches back into eternity past and stretches forward through thousands of years of history (then future), into the reaches of eternity future. Though a command for the church in its distinctive dispensation, it is rooted in the one kingdom program promised in the past and executed progressively into the future. It gives His disciples His authority to execute His will on earth, not merely to win His elect but to—in their churches and lives—manifest the glories of the full future kingdom in the inaugurated kingdom of the present, amidst the fallen kingdoms of the world, inhabited by the same “many people” whom the Lord had in Corinth (Acts 18:10).
It is that command upon which Paul and his friends are acting in this section of the book of Acts. It is circa A.D. 49. Their first missionary journey completed, Paul wishes to retrace his steps not merely to share the gospel with new unbelievers, but to care for those whom the Lord used him to save the first time. This begins a series of events designed by the Holy Spirit to teach us about the mindset and motivations of those the Lord uses most freely to fulfill His final earthly command.
Because an outline was not given in the sermon, I will create one using the names and events of this passage of Scripture.
A. The Division over Mark (15:36-41)
Mark, of course, is the Mark who wrote the gospel which bears his name, collected from the memories and memoirs of the Apostle Peter. His mother’s home was an important meeting place for the Jerusalem church (12:12), the cousin of Barnabas, Paul’s close ministry associate for his early ministry. It was probably through Barnabas’s influence that Paul allowed John Mark to come with them on the first journey. But Mark made it as far as Pamphylia and abandoned the team, returning home to Jerusalem (13:13). This evidently did not sit well with Paul, who viewed the accomplishment of the mission as the top priority; it could not be hindered by people who, though likely sincere, could not handle the stresses or demands of missions and ministry.
So, when this second opportunity for ministry presents itself, Paul does not want to take Mark with them, while Barnabas does. The latter’s devotion to his family, desire for compassion and grace, and concern for his cousin’s maturation through experience may have overridden his commitment to the mission (although since the text does not say, we must be very careful before assuming who was right in this episode, or what motivated whom. We can’t go where the text does not). Paul is deeply devoted to the mission and does not want any hindrances. The disagreement between the two of them became quite sharp. Indeed, we get our English word “paroxysm” from the term for “sharp disagreement.” The disagreement is so strong that Barnabas collects Mark and they return home to Cypress, while Paul goes on the journey with the prophet Silas, sent from the Jerusalem church to minister to the Gentile believers in Syrian Antioch (vv. 22, 32, 34). Just as they had done for Barnabas and Paul, the church lit. entrusted or committed them to the charge of the grace of God (v. 40; cf. 14:26). God’s grace would go before them, creating opportunities, softening harts, orchestrating circumstances, through the Spirit and the Lord. We see this in the next section.
B. Timothy and Macedonia (16:1-10)
Paul and the apostolic team arrive at Galatia—yes, that Galatia, the region to which Paul will write his first inspired letter (evidently, the confusion over the Mosaic Law had spread hither and yon).
Lystra was the home of Timothy and his family. His mother and grandmother were godly Old Testament Jewish women who became New Testament Christians after hearing the gospel from Paul on his first journey. Timothy would have been a younger man (late teens to early twenties), and likely saved for only a few years given the recency of his relatives’ conversion. But his diligent mother and grandmother had taught him the Old Testament with fervor and thoroughness, and so he catapulted to spiritual maturity rather quickly, even in the eyes of the elders who were likely saved longer and at least mature enough to qualify for eldership in the church.
Paul saw Timothy’s evident gifting. He knew he would one day pass on to glory, and younger men needed to be discipled and invested in to be the next generation of elders and leaders. Something drew him to Timothy, and he knew this young man could carry on his life’s work. So Paul wants him to come along—and I get the sense that Paul was not the kind of person you said no to! But doubtless the elders and others in the Lystran church were enthusiastic, commending Timothy’s character and depth to the apostle and his team. Knowing Timothy’s Greek father could prove a stumbling block to the Jews they attempted to evangelize, Paul had Timothy circumcised, to avoid unnecessary offense (cf. 1 Cor. 9:19-23). Timothy immediately gets involved in important ministry—delivering the apostolic Jerusalem decree to the various churches Paul had founded. Moreover, their unified ministry is effective: Not only are the local churches strengthened, but many more elect people are coming to Christ for salvation (doubtless there is an uptick in Gentile converts now that they learn God accepts them as Gentiles).
The team travels through various regions doing the same thing. Notice how this coheres with Paul’s intent for the trip mentioned in 15:36: He wants to go to the churches to see how they are. And what does he do when he gets there? Gives them doctrinal truth about the work of Christ, the sufficiency of the gospel, their security in Him, etc. He gives them doctrine! He is doing what Jesus commanded—to teach them everything He commanded them, which included everything He would reveal through His apostles’ direct revelation and their meditation on the Word (it is the same for us today when we sit under non-inspired but authoritative teaching from a qualified person who has unearthed the riches in Scripture. This too is Christ unveiling His authoritative Word to us, and He expects us to obey). Do we grasp the importance of full engagement with and understanding of the whole counsel of God? Do we realize Paul took basically an entire missionary journey (if not more time) to just teach already-saved people? He put evangelism on hold for it, for heaven’s sake! O how important it is to have a robustly-taught people whose wills and autonomous thinking have been crushed by the Word!
Here too we learn to be sensitive to the sovereign direction and leading of the Spirit (though obviously in our day, when revelation has ceased, it works differently). God has a perfect and comprehensive decree and plan, and we must not insist on our own what when His is so much better! Here, Paul had a doubtless holy and good intention to expand his ministry to modern Turkey, but the Holy Spirit—whether through providence or direct revelation, or a combination of both, we do not know—says His will for Paul is different (v. 6). Moreover, they try to go north, to Bithynia (one of the regions to which Peter will later write his letters), but the Spirit again says no. With the entire northern region prohibited by divine orchestration, they have no option but to go to Troas, a seaport on the Aegean Sea. While there, God makes known His will to Paul: They are to go into Macedonia, a region on the Grecian mainland, to preach the gospel there. It is to that journey we now turn.
C. Lydia Receives Christ (vv. 11-15)
Evidently, Luke has joined the apostolic team, as the pronouns change from third-person to first in verse 10 and following. Perhaps Luke was staying at Troas, or met them there. At any rate, he is coming along for this journey, and accompanies them as the sail from Troas to the island of Samothrace (to avoid the danger of sailing at night), and from there to Neapolis, the port city for Philippi. Philippi was a Roman colony, populated by soldiers and their families who had retired from military life. Evidently, not many Jewish men lived there, as there weren’t enough to start a synagogue. That is why these women met by the river—to read and discuss the Old Testament, and pray together. Not all of them were Jewish, either; Lydia at least is a Gentile from Turkey who worships the God of Israel and has become very wealthy from her purple fabric business. Paul and his team find an open door with these women who are receptive to OT truth; he shares the fullness of the gospel with them. The Greek for “listening” is in the imperfect tense; that means Lydia kept listening, and listening (likely intently), and then instantaneously the Lord smites her heart—He decisively and sovereignly opens it to believe the gospel and be raised from spiritual death to life. The Greek for “respond” means to heed, cleave, or be given to. Evidently the transformation and witness of their mistress had a powerful effect on the servants and relatives in her household, as all of them were baptized, too (v. 15; there is no reason to believe Paul would have baptized people whom he had no reason to believe were saved). The newly saved Lydia wishes to do all she can to build the church in Philippi; she invites the apostolic team to lodge at her home, and eventually the whole church meets there as well (vv. 15, 40).
What are the mindset and motivations of a true missionary? Unyielding commitment to the mission. A willingness to disciple others who can carry on the work. Commitment to giving the saved true doctrine that will build them up. Sensitivity and surrender to the leading and will of God. And persistence in bringing the saving gospel to any whom God brings across your path, that He might draw many of His elect to Himself through the message of His Son. May God be merciful to raise up this kind of Christian to build His kingdom, here and among the nations!