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Acts 15:36-16:10
Key Verse: 16:9

In the last lesson we learned about the decision of Jerusalem council. It secured a double victory: a victory of truth in confirming the gospel of grace that all, both the Jews and the Gentiles, are saved through the grace of our Lord Jesus, and a victory of love in preserving the fellowship by not discouraging others’ faith in Christ. This could be the unchanging principle in doing the gospel work until the gospel is preached to the ends of the earth. Chapter 15 is the turning point (“centerpiece”, “watershed”) of the book of Acts in that from now on Peter disappears to be replaced by Paul, and Jerusalem recedes into the background as Paul pushes on beyond Asia into Europe, and Rome appears in the horizon. Although people and places on the stage are changed, God is moving forward and the gospel is progressively advancing toward the goal of evangelizing the whole world. In today’s passage let’s think about how Paul began his second missionary journey.

First, Paul, not taking Mark (15:36-41). Look at verse 36. “Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, ‘Let us go back and visit the brothers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” For Paul’s first missionary journey, the Holy Spirit initiated, saying to the church at Antioch, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (13:2), and the church confirmed the direction through prayer and followed it. Here Paul suggested to Barnabas to do something, which was the beginning of Paul’s second missionary journey. It is true that God gives directions to his servants and also uses their willing desire to do his work. God respects his people’s genuine voluntary spirit.

Paul’s suggestion was good. However, there was a problem. Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him. The reason was that Mark had deserted them in Pamphylia at the first missionary journey, while he was with them as their helper, and had not continued with them in the work. Luke wrote in verse 39, “They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company.” Humanly speaking, it was a sad story, but Luke did not make any comment on this. We know that both of them had no self-ambition and were not self-centred; rather their love for God and his people and their zeal to do God’s work were great. But they were separated. Parting company, Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.

As for us we can learn from both of them. When we think about Barnabas, certainly he wanted to bear John Mark’s failure and weakness and give him a second chance. We know that this is a part of Gods’ love. It is beautiful and must have encouraged Mark. God bore Abraham’s weaknesses time and again and in this bearing love of God Abraham could grow. Jesus bore Simon Peter’s terrible failures and in this bearing and unfailing love of Jesus Simon could become Peter. We also have received this kind of love of God and still need it, and also need to practice this love.

But it can be difficult to understand what Paul did. Rather, it is easy to be quick to judge Paul. Yet, we can think over Paul’s decision not to take Mark on their journey. At that time Paul had an illness in his eye and was suffering from it, especially on the plain like Pamphyla (Gal 4:13). It was likely that when Paul needed Mark most, Mark left him, deserting the mission team. This might be a reason why Paul was not willing to take Mark. However, according to Luke’s description, a deeper reason was that Mark had not continued with them in the work. Paul thought of God and his work. The second journey could possibly entail more hardships.So whether taking Mark was not just a human relationship matter. The work of God was involved. Luke did not write, “…Paul did not want to take him.” He wrote carefully and meaningfully, “…Paul did not think it wise to take him.” This indicates that Paul thought about which was wise for the mission work and also for Mark himself. According to Paul’s judgment, it would not be the right time for Mark to join the mission. In Paul’s mind, Mark had to be serious about what he had done, his discontinuing the mission, and renew his life purpose and direction. It would be a kind of tough love, but Mark needed it according to Paul’s discerning mind. Otherwise, Mark would be useless. It was a wonderful thing that later Mark was changed into a useful servant of God. Paul wrote in his last Epistle, 2 Timothy, “Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry” (4:11). Paul included Mark as one of his dear fellow workers in his last days (Col 4:10; Philemon 1:24). It is really graceful that Mark, who once had quitted his mission, wrote Mark’s gospel, well describing a servant Jesus, who said, “Even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk 10:45). Mark had grown in a well-to-do family and had been much served by his mom and others. He was like a spoiled easy-going intellectual young man. How graceful it is that such a young man was changed into a man who was eager to serve and knew how to serve others, enough to portray the servant-ship of Jesus! God’s love worked in his heart and life through his servants.

We should know that discipline is also a part of God’s love. We can clearly see the importance of this kind of love in the story of Joseph and his brothers. His brothers sold him as a slave to Egypt in a moment. Their evilness was more than one could imagine. After 13 years, they were brought before Joseph who had became the Prime Minister of Egypt. It was certain that Joseph had no grudge at all toward his brothers, which was uncommon. However, Joseph’s concern was how to help his brothers. He could have embraced them right away, revealing himself and saying, “Don’t think about what you had done to me; forget it.” But to Joseph, that would not be the act of true love for his brothers, because if he did so, the power of sin would remain in them, and they themselves unchanged throughout their lives. So Joseph treated them harshly, suspecting them as spies and making events that would frighten them and lead them to think of their sins before God and repent. Joseph himself constrained his sympathetic heart toward them, weeping in secret. In this disciplining love of Joseph his brothers were changed into the people whom God had intended for them to be for his purpose, 12 patriarchs of Israel.

There is a story of King David and his son Absalom. Absalom killed his brother, Amnon, for some reason. When David found out about it, he was stunned and wept bitterly. Absalom fled from the presence of the king in Jerusalem. As time passed by, David mourned for him many days, and longed to go where Absalom was. Yet, he constrained such longing. At this his general Joab devised a plan that moved the king’s heart, and brought Absalom back to Jerusalem. But the king said, “He must go to his own house; he must not see my face.” The king knew that such a treatment was necessary for Absalon’s life. Two years passed in that state. Yet, Absalom was unrepentant and urged Joab to let him see the king’s face. Finally, King David allowed Absalom to come to see him and accepted him. Then Absalom rebelled against the king, and in that coup, David and his officials had to flee from Jerusalem. In the end Absalom was tragically killed. Hearing of this news, the king wept so bitterly for his son Absalom despite the reinstatement of the kingdom Israel. This shows that not at the right time Absalom had been brought back to Jerusalem and accepted by the king. We should know that God’s love is both embracing and disciplining. Hebrews 12:11 says, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” God can put us in a favourable situation or in an adverse situation. He can also give us good things and take them away for our good. May we be able to bear God’s disciplining love, and practice the disciplining love of God as well as the love of embracing unconditionally.

Second, Paul, circumcising Timothy (16:1-5). Look at 16:1. “He came to Derbe and then to Lystra, where a disciple named Timothy lived, whose mother was a Jewess and a believer, but whose father was a Greek.” It is surprising that Timothy, the future successor of Paul, came from Lystra, whose people were superstitious and hotheaded (impetuous). They attempted to sacrifice offerings to Barnabas and Paul regarding them as gods, Zeus and Hermes, but ended up stoning Paul almost to death, being persuaded by the people of other towns. Also, Timothy’s family background was not that noteworthy. However, the brothers at Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him. Probably he earned their respect through his life of faith. It had been five years since Paul had preached in Derbe and Lystra. What fruit!

Look at verse 3. “Paul wanted to take him along the journey, so he circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.” People may wonder why Paul circumcised Timothy. Paul was the one who had engaged in a sharp dispute with those who said, “unless you are circumcised…you cannot be saved” (15:1), and the council of Jerusalem reached a decision that circumcision was not necessary for salvation. Paul seemed to be contradictory or at least compromising. Yet, he was not. He did not circumcise Timothy for the sake of his salvation. Luke wrote that Paul circumcised Timothy because of the Jews who lived in that area. He did not want to create any stumbling blocks for the Jews to come to Christ Jesus. He wanted Timothy not to have any unnecessary conflict with the Jews there; Timothy accepted it and was circumcised in obedient faith. We are reminded of what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” Paul wanted Timothy also to learn this, how to serve the gospel work. Paul was such a considerate shepherd for one disciple, Timothy.

Look at verse 4. “As they traveled from town to town, they delivered the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the people to obey.” Again, the decisions included two things, salvation through the grace of Jesus alone and consideration of others’ consciences. Then the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers. It was beautiful to see that when the apostles and elders had made much effort and reached a right decision before God, the local churches were strengthened and growing constantly.

Third, Paul, having a vision of a man of Macedonia (16:6-10). Look at verse 6. “Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia.” Now the traveling companies were three, Paul, Silas and Timothy. After visiting all the towns in Asia where Paul had preached in his first missionary journey, where did they have to go? They wanted to keep preaching the word in the province of Asia. They were Asians and probably doing their mission in Asia seemed to be more comfortable to them. But they sensed that the Holy Spirit kept them from doing their mission in Asia. This verse shows they were sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit, although we do not know how they had been kept by the Holy Spirit. They must have been seeking for God’s leading through much prayer. Then verse 7 says, “When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to.” Here the Spirit of Jesus is the same as the Holy Spirit. Paul and his companions did not insist their own way but did their best to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit, emptying their minds and hearts. And when their ways were blocked, they did not despair. All the more they sought God’s way. They passed by Mysia and went down to Troas.

Then, what took place? Look at verse 9. “During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’” It is noticeable that in Paul’s vision not a crowd of people but a man appeared, though the voice said, “…help us.” In fact the one man represented many of Macedonians, even the whole Europe of that time. In God one person can be the whole. When God called one man Abraham, all people of the world were in his mind. So he said, “…all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Ge 12:2). When Rebekah was pregnant with two babies jostling in her womb and inquired of the Lord, the Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated…” (Ge 25:25). The nation Israel was named after the new name of a man Jacob, Israel. One person matters to God. God rejoices over one sinner’s repentance and entering the kingdom of God (Lk 15:7,10). Also, one sinner’s perishing breaks God’s heart. A question was raised, “If I were the only one on earth, still would Jesus have come and died for me?” The answer is “yes,” for God’s love is personal. Jesus once said, taking a little one in his arms, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me” (Mk 9:37; Mt 18:5). A little one can represent God.

Look at verse 10. “After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.” Here a personal pronoun was changed to “we” from “they.” This implies that now the author Luke joined in the missionary journey team, and Paul and his companions sensed the meaning of the vision of one Macedonian standing and begging. If the vision was one of a great multitudes begging for help, it could have been a better sign for them to be assured of God’s calling. But through the vision of one Macedonian’s calling, Paul’s journey team got ready to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God was calling them to preach the gospel there. Their concern for one soul and their vision through that one person matched God’s concern and vision. They were ready to invest everything for one perishing soul, entrusting themselves and their future into the hands of God and having a vision in God. They say that Paul’s leaving for Macedonia along with his journey team at this time was the birth of the western evangelization and civilization and the moment of changing world history. May we learn also learn God’s heart and vision through one Macedonian’s calling for help.

In this study we thought of Paul’s not taking Mark, his circumcising Timothy, and his vision of a man of Macedonia. We learn clearly that one person matters to God. May each of us be such one individual and serve one soul in the same manner.

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