Acts 16:6-10 and Change

By all  accounts it was a successful trip so far.  Wonderful reunions with congregations Paul founded on his first mission trip.  Congregations in Derbe.  Lystra.  Iconium.  Psidian Antioch.  How the Holy Spirit was at work!  How much more might be accomplished!  Plans were made to build on these successes by further mission work in the area to the north.  But such plans came to nothing.

What does it mean to be forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia (v.6) ?  Was it clear to Paul and his associates that this was the case?  Did the Holy Spirit reveal the divine will in this matter?  It would seem not.  They attempted to go to Bithynia and were unable to.  Confusion.  Frustration.  They had the will and the ability, why couldn’t they make good on their plans?  Why did they reach nothing but dead ends despite all the good work accomplished thus far?

More time should probably be given to considering verses six and seven, to the simple statements that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus prevented Paul and his companions from sharing the Gospel in certain areas.  What a strange thought to us today, who are so certain that we control evangelism, we make our plans, we execute them!  Confident that the Holy Spirit desires all to hear and be saved, how can we make sense of the possibility that for the purposes of God, and without conflicting with the reality of a good God who desires that all would be saved, God the Holy Spirit might for his unrevealed reasons frustrate the plans of faithful Christians to share the Gospel with certain others?  I’d argue we can’t, and we don’t even try any more.  But that’s a secondary consideration for me right now.

In the midst of confusion and frustration comes a vision.  More than a dream, perhaps.  Something visible, and something with supernatural overtones.  Paul can see this man.  Perhaps he can hear him as well.  He understands him despite an accent perhaps.  He sees the different clothing.  Somehow Paul understands where this man is from, where this man represents.

Morning comes.  Paul reports his experience to his associates.  Silas.  Timothy.  And based on the sudden change of pronouns in v.10, many presume also Luke himself was there, the author  of the book of Acts.

What to make of it.  The message is clear – an appeal for help in Macedonia.  Moving from the Asian continent to the European continent.  An entirely different arena for sharing the Gospel.  The vision was clear, but what to do about it?

I imagine that the men were hesitant at first.  After all, they’d had such success in the area of what we call Turkey today.  Thriving congregations!  Certainly, they hadn’t been able to travel north as they intended, but surely that would resolve itself in short order and they could continue with their plans.  Surely there were other opportunities closer to hand.  They weren’t doing anything wrong, but what they were doing wasn’t working the way it had previously.  Was it clear to them this vision came from God?  I presume not necessarily, as we’re told in v.10 they concluded it was.  There was some level of analysis, consideration, prayer.  And the result of all those things was a determination that God was behind this and it was time to follow.

Change is hard.  It isn’t what is expected.  It isn’t what is familiar.  Yet small changes can yield incredible results.  A diversion from Asia to Europe – such a small matter in the moment and yet the history of the world is changed no doubt as part of that change.  Would the Holy Spirit still have worked through Paul and his associates if they came to the conclusion that while the vision was interesting, they really were better suited and preferred to stay in Asia?  Of course.  They might have been mistaken, but that certainly wouldn’t have made them bad or evil.  Perhaps the Holy Spirit would have sent a clearer indication of the proper path.  Perhaps He would have worked with them where they were.

It’s good to remember ultimately that the Church claims that God the Holy Spirit is behind everything we do.  That doesn’t mean we aren’t prone to error, it doesn’t mean we don’t interfere.  It doesn’t mean that things are always clear and simple and easy.  But we have to trust the Holy Spirit to work in and through and at times despite us.  And this should foster a level of humility, a willingness to acknowledge our limitations and brokenness and therefore the very real possibility that we might be mistaken.  And it should drive us to hear in others the possible voice of the Holy Spirit, even if we don’t like or agree with what they say.

Change is difficult.  So is staying the course.  Such forks in the road are an opportunity for faith to work itself out in surprising ways.  Not necessarily pleasant ones, but surprising ones, with the trust and confidence that the Holy Spirit is working things out to the glory of God regardless of what is motivating us and our decisions.

Humbling indeed.  But comforting as well.  Sola dei gloria.  Always and in all situations.

 

2 Responses to “Acts 16:6-10 and Change”

  1. JP Says:

    Thanks for this reflection. I’ve thought about these verses often over the past 18+ months after being forced out of one mission field that we loved, and then sent to another that we are learning to love. It’d be easy to talk about how it was this person or that government’s fault that we left. But this text forces another question: what was God’s role? It is a confounding question that brings my wisdom to naught. It is a question that arises out of threadbare faith in the God who is over all and through all and in all.

    • mrpaulnelson Says:

      Thanks for your note. I can’t imagine all you and your family have gone through and continue to go through. And yes, it’s easy for us to try and map out the human and systematic issues that appear to bring situations about but we have to trust that in these as well, or behind or around or through them God the Holy Spirit is present and working. That’s a lot more difficult and less satisfying than pointing fingers and rationalizing.

      I find myself in a vaguely similar situation now with my congregation. I have to trust God the Holy Spirit is at work even though the miracle I was praying for them didn’t materialize. I have to trust there is something else coming along that will help make sense of this standstill, just as I’m sure you are praying for the emotional reassurance in your new context. In both cases, I trust it will come in time. I pray for patience for not only you and I but our families who are also affected by these things. Being slaves to Christ is not always simple, but I have to believe that this is the identity I need to cling to in these confounding moments.

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