Building Bridges and Breaking Barriers

“…but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches. Paul came also to Derbe and to Lystra. A disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek. He was well spoken of by the brothers at Lystra and Iconium. Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. As they went on their way through the cities, they delivered to them for observance the decisions that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem. So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily. And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them. So, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.” (Acts 15:40-41 & 16:1-10 ESV)

Last week I stressed the fact that the strong disagreement and separation that occurred between Barnabas and Paul over taking or not taking John Mark on their mission trip was NOT God’s will. As I mentioned, they had just been teaching the church in Antioch of Syria about Christian fellowship in the midst of their cultural diversity. However, you may remember that I also noted that God is able to redeem our failures and use them for His glory. As Paul and Barnabas parted ways, God was still moving mightily and would, ultimately, use both teams for His mission despite their sinful actions and reactions towards one another. This week, I want us to spend a few minutes marveling at God’s sovereignty and to see how He broke down barriers and built bridges to reach these people with the truth and power of the Gospel.

First, Paul and Silas begin the long and difficult journey to visit the churches that Paul and Barnabas had previously established. They travel through Syria and Cilicia and then make their way to Lystra and Derbe spending a little time with each church delivering the letter from the Jerusalem Church (see last week’s notes), encouraging them to remain diligent in their obedience and strong in their faith. At Lystra, they meet a young believer named Timothy whose mother was a Jewish believer and whose father was Greek. It appears to me that Timothy’s father may have already been deceased, but that’s entirely personal speculation.

Timothy has a sterling reputation among the churches of Lystra and Iconium and, while we may be unsure as to the status of Timothy’s biological father, Paul certainly views Timothy as his own “son in the faith” (See 1 Timothy 1:2). We also know Timothy was raised by his mother, Eunice, and his grandmother, Lois, to know the Old Testament scriptures and to cherish and treasure their teachings. When Paul came through Lystra on his first trip, these women seem to have been present when he spoke in the synagogue and became believers and disciples of Jesus.

It also seems likely that Timothy may have become a disciple of Jesus at the same time. I say this for two reasons; 1) Paul refers to Timothy as “my own son in the faith” and, thus, seems to have been personally involved in Timothy’s salvation; 2) Timothy had already established a good reputation among the believers of Lystra and Iconium when Paul returns and, thus, was obviously a believer during the time Paul was absent from Lystra and Iconium. This seems to support the assumption that Timothy became a follower of Christ during Paul’s first trip to Lystra. Now, let’s get down to the issues at hand in this passage…

Paul has returned to the area to strengthen these churches and to deliver the letter from the Apostles outlining their expectations regarding Gentile Christians. Paul is so impressed by young Timothy and, apparently, sees so much ministry potential in him that he immediately engages Timothy to join them on their journey. Timothy appears to consent to join Paul and Silas and Paul immediately takes him and has him circumcised. But why? Doesn’t the letter from the Apostles make it clear that circumcision is unnecessary for saving faith in Jesus? Yes, of course but Luke tells us why Paul insists on circumcision for Timothy; “because of the Jews who were in those places” and because Timothy’s father was Greek.

Building Bridges

Confused? Let me explain. While Timothy was half Greek, he was also half Jew and was raised to know and follow the Jewish traditions and laws by his mother and grandmother. However, his father appears to have refused to have him circumcised as a child as required by Jewish law. While Timothy is well known and respected among the people of Lystra and Iconium (both Jews and Greeks), Paul knows the lack of circumcision will prove to be a problem as they seek to reach both Jews and Greeks/Gentiles. While the Gentiles won’t care about his lack of some Jewish religious rite, the Jews they will attempt to reach with the Gospel will care, deeply.

This really isn’t hard to understand when you consider the cultural challenges faced in every area where the Gospel is being proclaimed. While the Gospel of Jesus certainly challenges many cultural norms, the Gospel also fits and is applicable to every culture. But in every culture, certain assumptions will exist and certain expectations must be met before they will listen to our “good news” about Jesus. For example, in most Asian cultures that I’ve visited there is an expectation and assumption of hospitality that must be satisfied BEFORE the host is ready to hear the gospel. In those cultures, you would never just meet someone and immediately launch into a presentation but you must satisfy the cultural expectations of hospitality, first, then they will be open to hearing about Jesus.

Paul knew and understood these expectations. He was building bridges to reach people: “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.” (1 Corinthians 9:19-23 ESV)

Breaking Barriers

In the next section of our focal passage, we find Paul, Silas and Timothy expanding their reach with the Gospel beyond Lystra and Iconium. The team heads north and west through the regions of Phrygia and Galatia and Luke notes that they were forbidden by the Holy Spirit to “speak the word in Asia.” He goes on to note that the Spirit didn’t allow them to go into Bithynia and so they bypassed Mysia and proceeded to the port city of Troas. I must admit that, at first, it seems odd that the Holy Spirit would refuse to allow them to preach the gospel in these areas. Why would the Holy Spirit hold the gospel back from these people? That’s really not the purpose for His actions. So, don’t miss this…

As Paul’s team arrived in Troas, they are probably feeling a bit disappointed and confused. God’s actions through His Spirit were directional and intentional but we often misunderstand God’s directions and intentions. Paul and his team were trying to work in Asia Minor but God was at work elsewhere. As they rest that night in Troas, Paul has a vision of a “man from Macedonia” begging them to come and help them. The vision implies that the people need the gospel and that Paul’s help is needed in declaring the good news to them. So, if Paul and his team had become engaged in efforts to spread the gospel in Asia Minor they would have missed God’s divine appointment for them in Macedonia.

We are often confronted by opportunities that are not a part of God’s will and face barriers in our lives that seem insurmountable. The question most of us need to face is whether we truly listen to the leadership of the Spirit or simply push ahead with our own agenda and plans. While we don’t have specific details as to how the Spirit prevented the team from preaching in Asia or Bithynia, it is painfully obvious that we must become more sensitive to His leadership and more familiar with His voice in our lives and in our churches.

Somehow the American church has lost touch with the power and leadership provided through the Holy Spirit. Perhaps those words offer us a clue as to why… we don’t seek the power and leadership of God’s Spirit because we don’t recognize the dearth of power or leadership in our churches. Why should we seek God’s power and leadership when we feel our power and leadership is adequate for the task? It isn’t until we recognize and admit that our personal, church and denominational power and leadership are simply inadequate for the task that we will begin to long, desire and prayerfully seek God’s power and leadership. Paul and his team were confronted by this reality daily.

I’ve indicated that Paul and his team were breaking down barriers to the gospel and this is evident when you realize that as Paul’s team leaves Troas for Macedonia, they are bringing the gospel from Asia into Europe, for the first time in recorded history. The night vision Paul had was of a Macedonian man pleading for help and he immediately sought to take his team into Macedonia. Notice the change in personal pronouns from third person to first person in this sentence. Our narrator, Luke, appears to have joined the team at Troas and begins to give us a first hand report. I do believe it is important for us to note the team’s “conclusion” regarding the vision was that they were called to take the gospel into Macedonia.

The team appears to have reasoned through and reached a concensus that this was the direction God was sending them. They didn’t receive a text message from heaven and God didn’t sky-write it in the clouds. They appear to have sat down, laid out the circumstances and the facts as they knew them, considered Paul’s vision and the closed doors into Asia and Bithynia and then the group concluded that this must be the direction God was calling them. Nothing mystical, nothing dramatic, nothing outrageous. Just information, prayer and an intimate knowledge of God and then action.

That’s how we need to approach ministry, today. We need to understand that we can’t go everywhere and do everything, but we CAN and MUST go where God directs us. God obviously closes some doors, on purpose. But we need to keep trying and probing while praying for direction. We need to become more sensitive to the leadership of God’s Spirit and we must depend more on His power. Sometimes God’s will may seem odd or even puzzling or confusing to us like the closed doors into Asia and Bithynia must have seemed to Paul’s team, but we must never stop trying to move forward with the Gospel and our ministry to the lost.

We must hear the call of those like the “man of Macedonia” that are ringing in our ears, today. Perhaps for your church that sounds like the cries of children from our southern border. Perhaps that voice sounds like the voice of the hungy and the homeless standing on the corner near your church. Perhaps that voice sounds like oppressed women and children in Africa. Perhaps that voice sounds like the spiritually hungry people of the Middle East or Far East. How can you know? Follow Paul’s example and probe, pray, and discern God’s leadership as you seek to move into ministry opportunities with the rest of your team. He’ll close some doors, and open others. Follow Him, I promise He won’t let you down. I’m certain that He’ll lead you to break some barriers, too.

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