Joy on the Front Lines of Ministry, part 1 (Acts 15:39-16:15)

As parents or children you might remember the book Alexander and the Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.  It reads…

I went to sleep with gum in my mouth and now there’s gum in my hair and when I got out of bed this morning I tripped on the skateboard and by mistake I dropped my sweater in the sink while the water was running and I could tell it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

So begins the trials and tribulations of the irascible Alexander, who has been earning sympathy from readers since 1972.  People of all ages have terrible, horrible day, and Alexander offers us the cranky commiseration we crave as well as a reminder that things may not be all that bad.  As Alexander’s day progresses, he faces a barrage of bummers worthy of a country-western song: getting smushed in the middle seat of the car, a dessert-less lunch sack, a cavity at the dentist’s office, stripe-less sneakers, witnessing kissing on television, and being forced to sleep in railroad-train pajamas.  He resolves several time to move to Australia.

As we open our text to look at Paul’s church planting attempt in Philippi, nothing seems to be going right for him either.

His first missionary journey had been a smashing success, establishing churches and disciples in several cities in Asia Minor.

But his second missionary journey starts out with one problem after another.

Would you be able to retain your joy if you and your best friend and comrade split ways, if your ministry plans were shut down by God, if your initial core group for your new ministry was “less than expected,” if you encountered demonic opposition, were flogged and imprisoned and eventually run out of town?

It sounds like a horrible, terrible, no good, very bad quarter for Paul!

All of these obstacles are what Paul faced in trying to plant a new church in Philippi.  It makes our failed attempt to plant a church in Little Rock seem like a piece of cake!

Right at the outset Paul had to start over with a new team.  After a “sharp disagreement” (Acts 15:39) with Barnabas over John Mark, who had gone AWOL during the first missionary journey, Barnabas and Paul split ways and now Paul teams up with Silas (cf. Acts 15:22, 32) and then another young man named Timothy (Acts 16:1-3).

While these men would eventually be very faithful fellow ministers with Paul, he was breaking in new blood.  He believed in working together as a team and was likely very hurt to lose Barnabas.  They had served together in Antioch even before their first missionary trip.

But Paul doesn’t lose heart.  He simply puts together another team.

The second obstacle Paul faced was a change of ministry plans.  Paul’s initial plan was announce din Acts 15:36:

“Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.”

Now, after the disagreement and teaming up with Silas (Acts 15:41) Paul “went through Syria and Cilicia strengthening the churches.”

They went to Derbe, Lystra and Iconium, “through the cities” (Acts 16:4) and the churches were “strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily” (Acts 16:5).  So far everything was going great.

But then problems started.  They started with God standing in the way of Paul’s plans.

How dare He!

6 And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. 7 And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them. 8 So, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas.

I have to admit, I would much rather God bless my plans than change them.

Apparently twice the Holy Spirit kept them from going to Asia and the area of Bithynia.  They were being “herded” by the Holy Spirit, God was redirecting their plans.

It reminds me of Proverbs 16:9 which says,

The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.

God doesn’t always do things the way we want Him to.  Paul was probably confused, frustrated and maybe even upset.  He had plans for a fruitful ministry and God was shutting the down on that.  Everywhere he turned the door was closing.

It reminds me of the story of Mark and Gloria Zook, who wanted to be missionaries, but were initially told they would be too old after getting the training they needed.  God seemed to be shutting the door on their dreams.  Finally, however, they got their training with New Tribes Mission and were sent to Papua New Guinea.

You can see their amazing story on YouTube by searching for Ee-Taow: The Mouk Story.  Ee-Taow means “it is true,” which was the eventual response of the tribal people after hearing weeks of teaching through the Old Testament and Gospels.

Now, because Paul didn’t give up, and He was submissive to God, God ultimately communicated to him in a vision, in which he saw a “man of Macedonia” (Acts 16:9), who stood and begged Paul, “Come over the Macedonia and help us.”

Now, whether Paul had had any previous plans or aspirations to go to Europe we don’t know, But he immediately perceived that it was God’s calling for him to head West into Europe.

There are two significant things I learn from Acts 16:10.  First, Paul’s obedience to this new direction was immediate and unwavering, even though it had not been his initial plan.  Would that our obedience would be so unquestioning and immediate!  He didn’t hold obstinately to his own plans but submitted his plans to the Lord’s direction.

Second, you will notice a change in pronouns beginning in v. 10.  From here on out in the book of Acts you will notice that it is “we,” not “they” that form the central players of these narratives.  This is when Doctor Luke officially joined the team.   Luke would be an invaluable addition to the team and would author two New Testament books.

Whether he was the “man of Macedonia” who appeared in Paul’s dream we don’t know.

So, this growing, redirected mission team went by sea from Troas to Neapolis and then inland to Philippi.

Image result for troas neopolis philippi

Let’s take a moment to describe this city of Philippi.

The name of the city of Philippi was originally “Krinides” (lit. springs). It stood about 10 miles inland from the Aegean Sea in the Roman province of Macedonia.  In 356 B.C. Philip II, King of Macedonia and father of Alexander the Great, renamed the town after himself and enlarged it.

In 42 B.C., the Roman commanders Octavian, Antony, and Lepidus defeated Brutus and Cassius in a battle fought just west of Philippi.  After that battle, Philippi became a military colony. Subsequent battles in 42 and 31 B.C. resulted in Philippi receiving even higher status.  The citizens enjoyed autonomous government, immunity from taxes, and treatment as if they lived in Italy.

Luke’s description of Philippi as a “leading city of the district of Macedonia” (Acts 16:12) probably refers to its colonial status, since it was the only Roman colony in the area.  Amphipolis was the capital of the district, and Thessalonica was the capital of the province.

The Via Egnatia, the main highway going from Rome toward the east, ran through Philippi, and brought much commerce and many travelers to Philippi.  The nearby Gangites (modern Angitis) River was another natural advantage to the city, since it constituted another ancient thoroughfare (cf. Acts 16:13).

Image result for gangites river

Thomas Constable notes:

The Macedonians were a distinct national group, though they had strong ties to the Greeks. They had offered the most stubborn resistance against Rome’s efforts to extend its influence. In an attempt to break down their strong nationalistic spirit of independence, Rome divided Macedonian territory into four districts, each of which had its own local government under Rome. We see this stubborn character in the Macedonians’ reaction to Paul’s preaching. Nevertheless once won over, the Macedonian converts became just as loyal to Paul as they had been hostile to him at first.

Upon entering Philippi Paul’s habit up to now was to find a Jewish synagogue and there reason with the men about the real identity of Jesus and His resurrection power.

However, there does not seem to have been enough Jewish men in Philippi to establish a synagogue, for 10 male heads of households were required to establish a synagogue.  And that leads us to a third obstacle Paul faced—the initial lack of men in the early days of his church plant.

When Paul went to the river Gangites looking for a place of prayer, again, probably trying to find some men there.  Instead, he found only women.

Now ladies, I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but Paul likely would have been disappointed that he had no men to work with—only women.  On the other hand, it is significant that the first European converts were women, and Paul would come to value them more and more.

You see, Paul’s fellow Pharisees would not have stooped to teaching women and regularly in their rote prayers thanked God that they were not Gentiles, slaves or women.  Even the Greco-Roman society did not think highly of women.

Some believe that Paul hated women, yet in the 4th chapter of Philippians Paul will state about Euodia and Synteche, two feuding women, that they “labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers” (Phil. 4:3).

By the way, it is not surprising that then, as now, women were more spiritually attuned to God and regularly praying.

One commentator even suggests that it was in answer to these women’s prayers that Paul received the Macedonian call.  That’s something to think about!

Even though circumstances may not have been turning out as Paul had desired, he did not give up in frustration but worked with the people God gave him.  I’m sure even Jesus had times he could have wondered why God had chosen these twelve apostles, but He also realized that it was God’s pleasure to call them.

One of the principles you learn in church planting, and even in church work in general, is the people God brings to you is an indication of what God is leading you to accomplish.  It turns out that Paul’s first two converts in Europe were women.

Paul’s team began to “speak” (Acts 16:13) to these women and Lydia responded because “the Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.”

Lydia was a businesswoman who was originally from Thyatira and was a “worshipper of God” (which is a typical way of referring to a Gentile who had developed a faith in and love for Jehovah, the God of the Jews).

As a “dealer in purple cloth” she would likely have been very wealthy.  It took 8,000 mollusks to product one gram of purple dye!  Purple was the most precious and desired of all colors and thus was very popular.

Image result for lydia seller of purple mollusks dye

Notice two things about Lydia’s conversion.  First, her belief in Jehovah wasn’t enough.  She needed something more.  I’ve heard many people say, “I believe in God,” but what counts is that they “believe in Jesus Christ” and what He did for them on the cross.

Second, in order for her to believe, God had to “open her heart.”  Something had to happen within the human heart before one can make the decision to trust in Christ.

Paul’s epistles tell us that we were “dead in sin” (Ephesians 2:1), our spiritual eyes were blinded by the God of this age (2 Corinthians 4:3) and our wills enslaved to Satan (2 Timothy 2:26).

In the book of Acts so far we can see that God’s rescue effort for helpless sinners is three-fold.

First, we see that some (or many) did not believe because they “thrust it aside” (Acts 13:46) because the message of the gospel was “folly to [them], and [they were] not able to understand” (1 Corinthians 2:14).  The mind of the flesh “is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot” (Romans 8:7).

Everyone who hears and rejects the gospel “hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed” (John 3:20).  They remain “darkened in their understanding . . . because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart” (Ephesians 4:18). It is a guilty ignorance.  The truth is available.  But “by their unrighteousness [they] suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18).

But why then do some believe, since all are in this condition of rebellious hardness of heart, dead in their trespasses?  The book of Acts gives the answer in at least three different ways.

One is that they are appointed to believe.  When Paul preached in Antioch of Pisidia, the Gentiles rejoiced and “as many as were appointed to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48).

Another way of answering why some believe is that God granted repentance.  When the saints in Jerusalem heard that Gentiles, and not just Jews, were responding to the gospel, they said, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18).

This is the only hope for those held captive by Satan, as Paul told Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:25-26.  Timothy was to instruct with kindness and patience so that…

God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, 26 and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.

But the clearest answer in Acts to the question why a person believes the gospel is that God opens the heart. Lydia is the best example.  Why did she believe?  Acts 16:14 says, “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.”

Spiritual eyes, once blinded to the gospel, were opened; spiritual ears, once deaf to the gospel, now hear; wills once bound to Satan have been set free.

If you are a believer in Jesus, all of these happened to you: You were appointed to believe; you were granted to repent; and the Lord opened your heart. The rest of your life you should be overflowing with amazed thankfulness at the miracle that you are a believer.

Notice then that in v. 15 she and her household were immediately baptized.  Baptism is the public expression of an inward faith that declares, “I am now a disciple of Jesus Christ.”

That “all her household” was baptized is not necessarily an indication of infant baptism, but is likely an indication that Paul had the further opportunity (or maybe Lydia did) of preaching the gospel to her family and they, too, responded.

It is quite common in some cultures to follow the example of an influential person (chieftain, father, for example) and believe.  The reason she was baptized immediately is that everyone could see that she truly believed and, in that culture, it was clear that baptism signified a change of allegiance to Jesus Christ.

Finally, it is significant that a key quality of a heart changed by the gospel is the offering of hospitality.  Lydia welcomed them to meet in her home.  When a heart has been opened, the home is soon to follow.  As Rosaria Butterfield says, “the gospel comes with a housekey.”

You can watch her message at

Lydia’s home was likely large enough to host Paul’s new congregation in Philippi.


End notes:

Published by

Lamar Austin

I've graduated from Citadel Bible College in Ozark, Arkansas, with a B. A. Then got my M. Div. and Th. M. at Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham, MD. I finished with a D. Min. degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, but keep on learning. I pastored at Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington, D. C., was on staff at East Evangelical Free Church in Wichita, KS, tried to plant an EFC in Little Rock, before moving back home to Mena, where I now pastor my home church, Grace Bible Church

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