Studies in Acts
Lesson 29: Is the door Open?
Have you ever had one of those days when maybe things start off well, but then before the day is over it all comes apart and the day winds up being a disaster? If you have had a day like that, you can understand something about the way Paul and his companions must have felt as we come to chapter 16. This chapter gives the details of the beginnings of the second missionary journey which Paul took. The plans for the trip are actually given in the last verses of chapter 15, which we discussed in our last lesson – and they made plenty of sense: He could return and visit and strengthen converts he had made on the first journey, and in addition he could also take the newly developed message of the details of Gentile salvation from the Jerusalem council (described in chapter 15:6 through 29). He had the blessing and support of the church at Antioch and had found an enthusiastic new traveling partner (after his split with Barnabas). But although it all started so promisingly, things didn’t continue that smoothly. Let’s look at the chapter and see why – and what came from it. Let’s think first about an overview of the chapter.
The first thing we will see is the choosing of a new disciple in verses 1 through 5.
Then we will see that the ministry takes a new direction in verses 6 through 10 And finally, in verses 8 through 11 we will see a whole new dimension of ministry . So, let’s look at the new disciple who is described verses 1 through 5. First, his circumstances are described in verses 1 and 2
Then he came to Derbe and Lystra. And behold, a certain Jewish disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a certain Jewish woman who believed, but his father was Greek (2) He was well spoken of by the brethren who were at Lystra and Iconium.
Verse 1 says that they started the trip going by land rather than by sea as they had in the first journey going first to Derbe and then to Lystra and Iconium, and it was here that Paul meets his new disciple. This was familiar territory to Paul – it was here that he had been stoned and left for dead, then miraculously healed in chapter 14. Even though the scripture doesn’t specifically so, Timothy may have seen (or at least heard about) that incident and been strengthened by it. So that was the first “circumstance” that was unique about Timothy. But then in verse 1b we read about a second one: He was from a “mixed marriage” – his mother was Jewish, but his father was Greek. Notice that verse one says that his mother was “a Jewish woman who believed. We don’t know don’t know how long she had been saved, but that may explain why she felt the freedom to marry a Gentile, and why she had not circumscribed her son, another of Timothy’s “circumstances.” Another of Timothy’s “circumstances” is given in verse 2: He had a good reputation among the Christians in that area.
Paul wanted to have him go with him. 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.
Here is one of the most interesting situations in the early days of the New Testament. Was Paul being hypocritical to have Timothy circumscribed? After all, hadn’t they just settled this question in chapter 15 at the Jerusalem Council? Wasn’t it the very issue of circumcision that had brought up that whole discussion in the first place? Of course, all of that is true. But there are several things to consider. First of all, Paul had been in the middle of the discussions in Jerusalem. He understood both the “letter” and the “spirit” of those decisions. Second, before all of that came up Paul had been clearly preaching that salvation is by faith plus nothing. So, this couldn’t have had anything to do with that. The best probable answer is that because Timothy was at least partly Jewish, he didn’t have to give Satan any “foothold” for criticism as they went out to preach the gospel to Jews. Verse 3 says it was “because of the Jews who were in the region.” So that is the answer that fits best. And Paul would later formalize this attitude in a statement to the Corinthians in I Corinthians 9:22, when he said “I have become all things to all men that by all means I might save some.” This didn’t mean that he compromised his principles or the gospel, but that, as illustrated here, he did whatever he could to keep out anything that might confuse the issue of the gospel.
Now we have seen “the circumstances” out of which this new disciple came, and his circumcision, so in verses 4 and 5 we see his contribution to the ministry
And as they went through the cities they delivered to them decrees to keep, which were determined by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem. (5) So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and increased in numbers daily.
Of course, Timothy wasn’t the only one who brought this about, but the place where this verse comes in the context shows that God gave him credit for having a part in it. Isn’t it wonderful that the most inexperienced believer is counted by God as important as veteran missionaries? And that is still true in our work for the Lord today!
Things are going well with “the new disciple,” and the group as a whole. But as we come to verses 6 through 10 we see things going in a new direction.
First, in verses 6 and 7 they find a sudden and frustrating inability to minister in several places
(6) 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. (7) After they had come to Mysia, they tried to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit did not permit them.
No doubt because things were going so well Paul and Silas and the others just assumed that they could continue. But all of a sudden. Things come to a standstill. There is a fascinating statement in Revelation 3:7&8 along this line:
And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write, “These things says He who is holy, He who is true, “He who has the key of David, He who opens and no one shuts and shuts and no one opens:”(8) I know your works. See, I have set before you an open door, and no one can shut it: for you have a little strength, and have kept my word. And have not denied my name.”
We talk a lot about God “opening doors, don’t we? And we rejoice when He does. But these verses say that God just as certainly closes doors sometimes! And that is exactly what happened to Paul and his party in Acts 16:
Verse 1 specifically says that “they were forbidden by the Holy Spirit to preach the word in Asia.” And verse 7 says that “the Spirit “did not permit them” to go into Bithynia. Why would God do such a thing? Weren’t there unsaved people in those areas? Certainly, there were! But either it was not God’s will for them to be reached at that time or it was not God’s will for them to be reached by Paul. The key issue here is the sovereignty of God. God was responsible for those people and God was in control of Paul’s efforts to reach them. And the same thing is true in our lives. In His sovereignty, sometimes He closes doors that we cannot understand. It may be a seemingly effective ministry, a meaningful relationship, loss of health or money or job – all kinds of things. And at times like that its easy to become frustrated and discouraged. But we always need to remember that God never does those things haphazardly – He always has a wider purpose – as is illustrated in the next verses: in the midst of that “frustrating inability to minister,” Paul receives a fascinating invitation in verses 8 through 10 First he has a vision in verses 8 and 9.
So passing by Mysia they came down to Troas (9)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.”
To understand the significance of this point you have to know something about the geography of this area. When they came to Troas they came to the coast of Asia. There was nowhere else to go unless they went across the Aegean Sea and into Greece and Southern Europe – and they had never intended to go that far. But now it became clear that this trip was going to be much bigger than they had thought. God was directing them into a whole new area of ministry! Think about this: If Paul had gotten discouraged and gone back to Antioch, or just dropped the whole project, they would have missed this whole opportunity. As a result of this “vision”, Paul and his group made the decision to go on into the new area. Look at verse 10
Now after we had seen the vision immediately we sought to go to Macedonia, concluding that the Lord had called us to preach the gospel to them.
There is an interesting and important little change in this verse that is easily overlooked: notice the word “we” in the first line. This an indication that Luke, the writer of the book of Acts joined them at this point. Probably Luke was a citizen of Troas, since that is where he joined the group – possibly as Paul’s personal physician, but an evangelist in his own right. Think what a blessing Paul, and the whole body of Christ would have missed in having Luke’s company if he had insisted on his original plan of ministering in Asia! Isn’t it interesting how God so often “kills more that one bird with one stone?”
There are three “we” sections in Acts in which Luke evidently accompanied Paul – 16:10 through 17; 20:5 through 18; and 27:1 through 28:16. And Luke fit in well with the rest of the team, because he had the same vision – note 10b – concluding that God had called us to minister to them.
As we wrap up this section of the book of Acts, think about this: are you searching God’s call and finding nothing but closed doors? Like Paul, maybe you are groping along in a dry, barren “Asia” of your life. Whether your closed doors are because of sickness, failure, or frustrating circumstances, the story of this passage offers two principles that may be of help to you. First, before God can turn us, He has to slow us down, or even stop us. There are times when we drive right through life with the cruise control on. But sometimes God has a different direction He wants us to go, so He places potholes or obstacles in the highway to slow us down or even stop us. Then He can turn us in the direction He wants us to go. In this sense, you see, closed doors may not be the end, but the beginning of God’s new plan for us. And that leads to the second principle: often “when a good door closes a better one opens.” In a time of disappointment and dryness it is easy to forget a very simple yet basic principle: God only has our ultimate good in mind. Psalm 84:11: No good thing will He will withhold from those who walk uprightly.
And Jesus said in Matthew 7:11 If you, then being evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask Him!
God only has good in mind for us, and opens doors for us in His perfect timing. The issue is, will we be patient to follow him even when He hasn’t opened the door, or will we keep banging and pushing on closed doors that we think should be open?