Led By the Spirit.

1 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.” 10 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 16:1-10 ESV

At the end of chapter 15, we saw Paul and Barnabas parting ways over a disagreement concerning John Mark. Luke does not elaborate on the nature of their conflict, but it was enough to lead Paul to select Silas as his new traveling partner, leaving Barnabas free to take John Mark with him. And while it would be easy to conclude that this whole affair has a negative shadow cast over it, we’re going to see that God was working behind the scenes, orchestrating matters in such a way, that Paul and Barnabas became even more effective in terms of ministry and more men were given the opportunity to participate in the work being done. This disagreement had actually resulted in two ministry teams being formed, effectively doubling the evangelistic capacity of Paul and Barnabas.

Paul, with his new partner Silas in tow, ended up returning to some of the cities he and Barnabas had visited before, including Derby and Lystra. It was in Lystra that Paul came into contact with a young man named Timothy. While you most likely recognize this name and know that Timothy would later be mentored by Paul and become one of his most trusted companions, Theophilus, the man to whom the Book of Acts was written, would not have known anything about him. So, Luke’s description of Paul’s first encounter with this young man would have come across as nothing more than a fortunate coincidence. Paul just happened to meet Timothy in Lystra and Timothy had just happened to be a Greek who had become a follower of Christ. We are not told how Timothy came to faith, but it might have been the result of Paul and Barnabas’ first visit to the city. Paul would later write a letter to Timothy, inferring that this young man had been taught the Hebrew Scriptures since he was child. It is most likely that he had been raised in a Gentile home that feared God. In other words, they were worshipers of Yahweh, the God of the Jews, and had become proselytes to the Jewish faith.

14 But you must remain faithful to the things you have been taught. You know they are true, for you know you can trust those who taught you. 15 You have been taught the holy Scriptures from childhood, and they have given you the wisdom to receive the salvation that comes by trusting in Christ Jesus. – 2 Timothy 3:14-15 NLT

Paul indicates that it was Timothy’s indoctrination into the Hebrew Scriptures, at a very early age, that had informed him about the Messiah, and better prepared him to accept the message of Jesus as the Messiah when he heard it. Evidently, Timothy’s mother and grandmother had come to faith first. Paul refers to this in the first of two letters he eventually wrote to Timothy.

I remember your genuine faith, for you share the faith that first filled your grandmother Lois and your mother, Eunice. And I know that same faith continues strong in you. – 2 Timothy 1:5 NLT

Luke’s description of Paul running into this young man may sound serendipitous, but it was not. In fact, there is little that takes place in the Book of Acts that can be explained away as fate, chance, or luck. The Holy Spirit had come and, as a result, you can sense a divinely inspired influence over each and every event that takes place. Paul’s encounter with Timothy was not a chance occurrence that just happened to work out well. It had been preordained by God. We know that Timothy’s salvation was the work of God. He had been chosen and saved by God. Paul reminded Timothy of that very fact when he wrote to him, referring to the God “who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began” (2 Timothy 1:9 ESV). Timothy had been set apart by God, not only for salvation, but for the work of spreading the gospel. And God had intended all along that Timothy would accompany Paul on His missionary journeys and play a significant role in the ongoing edification and strengthening of the churches that were being formed.

Timothy already had a good reputation among the believers in Lystra and Iconium. So, Paul, recognizing the potential in this young man and, most likely, influenced by the Spirit of God, decides to take Timothy with him. But before he could do that, Paul had to deal with what could end up being a potential problem. Timothy was a Greek or non-Jew, and while he was a God-fearing Gentile, he had never been circumcised. Paul had already had enough interactions with the Judaizers to know that their stance on uncircumcised Gentiles was going to be an issue. While the council in Jerusalem had determined that Gentile Christians should not be required to become Jewish proselytes, undergoing circumcision and adhering to the Mosaic law, Timothy’s case presented a different scenario. This was not about some isolated Gentile becoming a believer. This was about Paul, a Jew, taking Timothy, a Gentile, and placing him in a position of leadership within the church. This would have been a first. And Paul knew that if Timothy were to remain uncircumcised, it would invalidate his ministry credibility among those Jewish believers who were already sensitive about Gentile converts in the first place. So, in an attempt to circumvent potential conflict, Paul had Timothy circumcised. Paul did not want anything to interfere with Timothy’s ministry effectiveness. Circumcision, while painful, was a small price to pay to ensure that Timothy would be accepted by Gentiles and Jews alike. 

We must assume that it was after Timothy’s recovery that they they made their way back through the cities Paul and Barnabas had visited in their earlier missionary journey. And Luke makes it clear that one of the things Paul, Silas and Timothy did was to deliver the content of the letter written by the church in Jerusalem suggesting that the Gentile believers “abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood” (Acts 15:20 ESV). And Luke tells us that “the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily” (Acts 16:5 ESV). The church continued to grow and prosper. More and more Gentiles were coming to faith in Christ. Paul and Barnabas had planted the seeds on their first visits to these cities, not they were reaping the harvest of new converts to Christianity.

And Paul provides us with a somewhat subtle insight into how the Spirit was leading and guiding these first missionaries. He simply states that the Holy Spirit had forbidden them to speak the Word in Asia. He doesn’t tell us how. He provides no details as to what the Holy Spirit said or how He communicated it. He only tells us that Paul, Silas and Barnabas were forbidden by the Spirit from going to Asia and were not allowed to go to Bithynia. The very next verses seems to provide a clue as to how the Spirit may have been communicating to them at this time. “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” (Acts 16:9 ESV). Like Peter and his vision of the sheet descending from heaven, Paul had his very own vision from God. And it became clear to him that they were to proceed to Macedonia. It would appear that Macedonia had not originally been on their agenda. They had obviously planned to go to Asia and Bithynia, but God had somehow made those non-options. Perhaps the only way Paul knew they weren’t supposed to go there is because God had so clearly provided an alternative destination: Macedonia. Whatever the case, Paul obeyed. And this would not be the last time Paul found himself changing course and adjusting his plans according to the leadership of the Spirit of God. He later wrote to the church in Rome:

I want you to know, dear brothers and sisters, that I planned many times to visit you, but I was prevented until now. – Romans 1:13 ESV

Paul would elaborate further, indicating that part of the reason for his delay in coming to see them was that he felt an unmistakable call by God to take the gospel to those places where it had never been heard before.

20 My ambition has always been to preach the Good News where the name of Christ has never been heard, rather than where a church has already been started by someone else. 21 I have been following the plan spoken of in the Scriptures, where it says,

“Those who have never been told about him will see,
    and those who have never heard of him will understand.”

22 In fact, my visit to you has been delayed so long because I have been preaching in these places. – Romans 15:20-22 NLT

Paul was being led by the Spirit of God. This leading was, at times, obvious and irrefutable. Other times, it was subtle and even invisible. But he knew that his life was in the hands of God and under the divine direction of the Spirit of God. Paul was learning to live his life with a sensitivity to the Spirit’s leading, looking for Him and listening to Him. When he had the vision, he took it as having come from God, “concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them” (Acts 16:10 ESV). He was living his life with a desire to focus all his efforts on the Kingdom of God, the cause of Christ, the ministry of sharing the gospel and the joy of seeing Gentiles come to faith in Christ. So, it was easy for him to see each and every event in his life as somehow tied to his calling and commission. Oh, that we would live with that same attitude of urgency and sensitivity to the Spirit’s movement in and around our lives.


The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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