We saw in chapter 15 how the apostles and elders met together in Jerusalem to consider whether or not believing Gentiles needed to be circumcised in order to be saved. And, having discussed the matter, they agreed that no, circumcision was unnecessary for salvation. However, for the sake of good relations in the church, it would be wise for believing Gentiles to avoid certain things which would only offend the believing Jews. And their decision was sent down to the churches.
Luke began chapter 16 by telling us that Timothy joined Paul and Silas on their next missionary journey. And we read that Paul arranged for Timothy to be circumcised. And we thought about this the last time: If believing Gentiles didn’t need to be circumcised in order to be saved, why did Paul think Timothy needed to be circumcised? And I suggested the last time that the issue here is about being sensitive to the sensitivities of the people they were trying to reach with the gospel. You see, it’s likely the Jews would be offended if Paul brought an uncircumcised man into their synagogues where he preached the gospel. And so, in an effort not to offend them, Timothy was circumcised.
So, that was the last thing we considered. In verse 5 we’re told that the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers. A potentially divisive issue was dealt with conclusively in chapter 15. But now that that issue had been sorted out conclusively, things settled down and the church continued to grow.
Verses 6 to 10
In verses 6 to 10, Luke tells us how Paul and his companions travelled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the Roman province of Asia. Then, when they tried to enter the province of Bithynia, the Holy Spirit once again prevented them from doing so. So they passed by the region of Mysia and came to the seaport of Troas. And while they were there, Paul had a vision of a man in Macedonia who begged them to come and help them. Macedonia was just across the Aegean Sea from Troas. And that’s where they headed for next. And so, they entered into Europe for the first time.
Well, there are a number of things to notice here. First of all, notice at verse 10 that Luke has joined them. We know that because, instead of referring to what ‘they’ did (see v. 8), he now refers to what ‘we’ did. Do you see that? Verse 8:
So they passed by Mysia….
After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready….
Luke is now with them.
Secondly, we see the sovereignty of God. Paul and his companions had their plans for what they wanted to do, but the Lord overruled them. He prevented them from entering the province of Asia and he kept them away from Bithynia too. The Lord was leading them in the way he wanted them to go.
I was part of a Presbytery Panel sent to review the work in another congregation on Monday evening. And one of the interesting things they said was that their successes often happened accidentally. In other words, they had their plans and the things they wanted to do as a congregation to reach out to their community. But, sometimes, the Lord was doing other, surprising and unplanned things among them. Sometimes their own plans came to nothing, but still the Lord is at work to build his church. The Lord is King — and he has every right to rule over us and to overrule our plans and to do his own thing for his own glory.
Next, notice how Luke refers to the Holy Spirit. In verse 6, Luke refers to him as the ‘Holy Spirit’. However, in verse 7, Luke refers to him as the ‘Spirit of Jesus’. By using that title for the Holy Spirit, I think Luke is reminding us that the Lord Jesus was the one who was guiding them. Remember what we saw in chapter 1? Luke opened the book of Acts by saying that in his gospel he had written down all that the Lord Jesus began to say and to do. And the implication of the word ‘began’ was that this book — the book of Acts — is about what the Lord Jesus continued to do. And so, from his throne in heaven, the Lord Jesus is directing and guiding his apostles, opening one door to them, closing another door to them. And, all the while, he is working through their preaching to build his church.
Next notice in verse 6 what they wanted to do in the province of Asia. They wanted to preach God’s word. Wherever they went, they preached the word of God, because they believed that the Lord Jesus calls sinners to himself and he builds his church through the reading and preaching of his word. And then notice what the man in the vision asked for. Verse 9:
Come over to Macedonia and help us.
So, what kind of help do you think he needed? Well, look at verse 10. Paul and his companions concluded that God was calling them — through this vision — to preach the gospel to the people of Macedonia. In other words, having discussed what the vision meant, they agreed that the help they needed, the help they were asking for, was to hear the good news about Jesus Christ. The best way we can help people is by telling them the good news about Jesus Christ, because those who hear and believe receive peace with God. And what could be better than that!
I’m reminded of a prayer meeting in Edinburgh where some people from another country had written to the church about their situation and they were appealing for help after some kind of natural disaster. But the help they were asking for was for more Bibles to be sent into the region. They weren’t asking for food and medical supplies, though they needed those things desperately. They were asking us to send them Bibles, because the natural disaster showed them how urgently they needed to reach their unbelieving neighbours with the good news of the gospel.
Guidance and the word of God
And then, finally this evening, I should say something about how the Lord guided Paul and his companions. In verse 6, we’re told that the Holy Spirit prevented them from going into Asia, but we’re not told how he prevented them. One of the commentators suggests that perhaps God spoke to them through a prophetic word, but we don’t really know. The same applies to verse 7. We don’t really know how the Spirit of Jesus kept them from stopping in Mysia. But then we have verse 9 and the vision they received from God. So, the question arises:
Should we expect such visions today?
One of the commentators notes that Luke records that visions were given to certain key individuals at significant times. Stephen, when he was being stoned, saw the Lord in heaven. Then there was Paul’s vision on the Road to Damascus; and afterwards, Ananias also received a vision to tell him to go and see Paul. Cornelius received a vision to tell him to fetch Peter; and Peter also received a vision to teach him that it would be okay for him to go to see Cornelius even though he was a Gentile. As well as this vision, Paul had a vision in the city of Corinth and also in Jerusalem. Now, those are the only visions Luke records. In other words, such visions were rare. And they were unexpected. And they were given for particular reasons: To Stephen, because he was dying. To Paul and Ananias, because the conversion of Paul was so important. To Peter and Cornelius, because it was to convince the church that it was God’s will to take the gospel to Gentiles. To Paul in Corinth, because he was discouraged and to Paul in Jerusalem in order to warn him to flee. Such visions were rare. They were unusual events. They were not commonplace.
But still the question arises: Even though these visions in the book of Acts were rare, should we still expect them today? Christians disagree. Some believe that God still speaks to us today through what we might call extra-ordinary revelation. They believe he still speaks through prophets, visions and dreams.
But others say: Now that we have a complete Bible — which the Apostles didn’t have — now that we have a complete Bible, God only speaks to us through his written word.
This, in fact, is the official view of the Presbyterian Church. Listen to what we read in our church’s Confession:
It pleased the Lord at different times and in various ways to reveal himself, and to declare his will to his church. Afterwards, for the better preservation and propagation of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the church against the corruption of the human heart, and the malice of Satan and of the world, God was pleased to commit his revelation of himself and his will wholly to written form. Accordingly the Holy Scripture is now essential, for God’s former ways of revealing his will to his people have ceased.
The Lord used to reveal himself and his will in various ways. But now — now that we have the Bible — his former ways of revealing his will have ceased. And so, our Confession teaches that we need the Bible: The Bible is necessary in order for us to know God and his will, because there’s no other way to know God and his will now. And the Confession goes on to teach the sufficiency of the Bible: The Bible is all we need in order to know God and his will, because God has revealed in his word all we need to know about him and his will for us. And so, the Confession teaches that nothing is to be added to God’s word. And it teaches us that the Bible is the only rule of faith and practice because it alone teaches us what we’re to believe and what we’re to do as God’s people. What did Paul say to Timothy?
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
He’s thoroughly equipped because he has the Bible which gives him all he needs.
Having said that, one writer who has studied this subject has written that many of the authors of the Confession accepted that ‘prophecy’ continued in their time and a number of them apparently believed that God still discloses his will through dreams and visions. However, such prophecy was considered to be an application of Scripture for a specific situation, and not an announcement of new information not already contained in the Bible. In other words, God is able to bring to our attention just the right verse we need to hear in order to guide and direct us today. He doesn’t reveal new things to us, but he reminds us of what he’s already revealed to us in his word. And he shows us how his word applies to whatever situation we find ourselves in. So, the Bible remains necessary and sufficient. But God, by his Spirit, works in us to illuminate our understanding of his word.
Well, Christians have always disagreed about this subject. But I only wanted to make known the official view of the Presbyterian Church which is that God reveals himself through his word and through his word alone, because he no longer speaks to us directly and immediately as he once did before the Bible was complete.
So, he speaks to us today, but he speaks to us in and through his word. And as we have seen week by week as we’ve gone through the book of Acts, the Lord Jesus, from his throne in heaven, speaks through the reading and preaching of his word to call sinners to himself and to build his church throughout the earth.