Have you ever wished God could just be like Siri or Google, at your beck and call for answers and guidance whenever you need help? We Christians believe that God is always present with us, and in fact, that the Holy Spirit lives within us. There is plenty of teaching in the Bible that God speaks through his Word, through the Spirit, through nature and many other ways. But as you read that, maybe you’ve wondered why it can feel like God’s communication is so inconsistent. If you’ve thought something like that, you’re not alone.
As we continue following Paul and Silas on their missionary journey in Acts 16, in this post we next read verses 6-10, and what we find is that this section features the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit keeps them from preaching in Asia (verse 6). The Spirit would not allow them to enter Bithynia (verse 7). Paul then has a vision of a man from Macedonia (verse 9), which they conclude is a message from God calling them to preach there. Amazing. In these verses it seems like the Spirit is obviously right there, and we compare that to our lives, and we can feel like the Spirit is distant or confusing or mysterious.
To me the questions are twofold: what should we expect from the Spirit? And what should we expect of ourselves as listeners of the Spirit? What I’m getting at is this: should we expect the Spirit to always speak so clearly to us as he does to Paul? My answer is no, because even in the book of Acts, the Spirit doesn’t guide Paul every single time.
Remember last week and the Jerusalem Council? When faced with a difficult decision, how did they church decide what to do? Did the Spirit speak to them? Let’s scan through that chapter to see how the Spirit was involved. In Acts 15:2, Paul and Barnabas were appointed by the church in Antioch to travel to Jerusalem to deliver their concern. No mention of the Spirit. In verses 6-7, the leaders in Jerusalem met and had much discussion. Still no mention of the Spirit. In Acts 15:19, James says, “It is my judgment.” In Acts 15:22, the council “decided to choose.” In verse 24, the all agreed to choose. Not a single reference to the Spirit in their decision-making process! If all we are ever supposed to do was pray and listen for the guidance of the Spirit, you’d think that would be mentioned so far in Acts 15, right? But the Spirit is not mentioned. Instead, the church leaders use wisdom based on biblical principles to make a decision. Then look at Acts 15:28, for how they describe their decision-making process, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.”
In other words, they give credit to the Spirit for the decision-making process they utilized, but they did not specifically hear the Spirit. Instead they assume that the Spirit was present and at work through the community of believers. Their hearts were attuned to the things of God; they were seeking wisdom and following Biblical principles. It seems to me that since their hearts were right, if these decisions would have been hurtful to the Kingdom, the Spirit would have brought that up to them, since they were all seeking him anyway.
That we understand the apostles as seeking the Spirit’s guidance is key. Clearly in Acts 16:6-10, the Spirit is able and willing to speak and guide through supernatural means, but as we saw in Acts 15, that is not always the case. So when we are making decisions of our own, we need to be people who are attentive to and listening for the Spirit, but we would do well to follow the community-based decision-making process, as long as the community is full of people who have their hearts set on Kingdom ways and are humble and teachable. Back in Acts 16, the Apostles follow the leading of the Spirit, and they continue on their missionary journey.
This is no small journey. Remember they are on foot. They are walking northwest through modern-day Turkey headed toward modern-day Europe. From Syrian Antioch, which was their home church, to get to Macedonia, where the Spirit directed them in the vision, they will have traveled a total of about 800 miles. When they receive the vision from the Lord, they have already traveled about 600 miles.
Remember that Paul and Silas are not alone. Timothy is with them too. And other people join the group as well. Notice the word, “we” in verse 10. This is the first time that the third-person pronoun is used to describe the group of people traveling with Paul. That means the author is including himself, as he was part of the group at this point, possibly joining the group in the city of Troas. We believe that author was Luke, who is referred to as a medical doctor in Paul’s letter to the Colossians.
With new direction from the Holy Spirit, read what happens next in verses 11-15. The apostles and their companions travel to the ancient region of Macedonia, which is not the same as the modern nation of Macedonia, and they go to the Roman city of Philippi, whose astounding ruins you can still visit today in Greece.
In verse 13 we read that the apostles go outside the city to find a place of prayer by the river, which is a curious idea, isn’t it? Why would they expect a place of prayer by the river? There was no synagogue in Philippi, so Jews in a city without a synagogue would customarily gather by running water for prayer on the Sabbath. Some scholars believe that the running water would have been used for the ritual cleansing that was a standard element of Jewish worship.
There the apostles start talking with women, as apparently no men were around. To us that is no big deal, as men talk with women all the time. But in that society, this mixed-gender conversation could have been seen as risky and counter-cultural. Men didn’t talk with women, who were considered below men. So it is important for us to see how Paul lives out what he would later teach, that “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but all are one in Christ.” In God’s Kingdom there is total equality.
One woman they meet is Lydia, a seller of purple cloth, which indicates wealth, as purple or maroon dyes were expensive and those color cloths were used by royalty. So Lydia is a businesswoman, and she is also a worshiper of God. Notice verse 14 where we read that God opens her heart and she believes and her whole family is baptized, and she invites the apostles to stay in her home. Amazing! The apostles have followed the leading of the Spirit, and God is at work as another church is being started. Things are going wonderfully in Philippi…but not for long, as we will see in the next post.