Holy Spirit Steering

Acts 16:6-12

Barnabas and John Mark have departed for Cyprus,  while Paul and Silas left Antioch by an overland route that led to the region where the first missionary journey ended — the region of Derbe and Lystra.  While there, Paul meets Timothy.  After circumcising Timothy because of the Jews in the area, they passed together through the cities where Paul had established churches.  Verse 4 tells us that their visit had a very specific purpose as well as the generic “strengthening” mentioned in 15:41.  He delivered to them the decisions that had been made at the council in Jerusalem.  As a consequence, Luke tells us, the churches were strengthened in the faith and were increasing in number every day.

Today’s post begins with the next verse, v6.  Luke next tells us that they proceeded through Phrygia and Galatia because the Holy Spirit forbade them to preach in Asia.  This is one of those passages in Scripture that we have all read many times, and what sticks in our minds is only the first half of the verse — where they went.  But the most interesting part of this verse is why they went there!  Nevertheless, we need to do our geography homework first.

Geography of Pisidia, Phrygia, Bithynia, Mysia and Asia Minor (northwestern Turkey)

There are three regions identified in v.6 — Phrygia, Galatia and Asia, as well as their starting point from the previous verses, the region encompassing the cities of Derbe, Lystra and Iconium, in southern Galatia. Leaving Iconium, they apparently traveled to Pisidian Antioch as a jumping-off point into Asia.  Where is Asia?  Today we know it as China, Mongolia, Korea, Viet Nam, etc.  But those regions were largely unknown to the Roman empire.  What Luke is describing is the western one-third of modern-day Turkey, extending from the region of Pisidia in southwestern Galatia all the way to Turkey’s western coast.  We know it as Western Asia Minor today.

The “Asia” of Paul’s day was further subdivided into smaller regions, including Phrygia in the east and Mysia in the north.  Phrygia was a nation at its apex in the 8th century BC (some 800 years before Paul), but was overrun around 675 BC.  It subsequently passed from conqueror to conqueror.  Ultimately it passed into Roman hands in 133 BC.  As a culture and former nation, Rome divided it into an eastern and a western region, half in western Galatia and half in eastern Asia Minor.  Paul’s travels more or less followed the dividing line between the two halves.  As the culture had been in decline for centuries, there were few population centers along the route.

Bythinia lies to the northeast of Mysia on the west and Phrygia on the south.  Bythinia’s last king, Nicomedes IV, was beseiged by a neighboring more powerful king, but Rome stepped in and restored him to his throne.  In 74 BC he willingly bequeathed his kingdom to Rome, and it became the Roman province that existed in Paul’s day.

Mysia similarly was a remnant of an ancient nation, occupying the northern reaches of Asia Minor to the southern shore of the Sea of Marmara, a body of water that separates the Black Sea from the Aegean Sea that lies between modern-day Greece and Turkey.  It is the site of Mt. Olympus, the purported home of the Greek gods.  Its culture dates back to before the Trojan War, described as an ally of Troy in Homer’s Illiad.  By Paul’s day most of the region’s population lived in small Greek communities dotting the shores of the Sea of Marmara and southwest around the coastline of the Aegean Sea.  In Paul’s day Troas was a seaport in the northeast corner of the Aegean.

Luke describes in vv. 11-12 their further journey from Troas by sea to Samothrace in one day, then Neapolis, and then Philippi in the region of Macedonia.  Samothrace is an island about halfway between Troas and Neapolis in the northeastern corner of the Aegean sea. Philippi is a short inland journey from Neapolis, and is a “prominent city” of Macedonia according to Luke.  When Rome conquered ancient Macedon, it was divided into four regions in 167 BC.  Amphipolis was made the capitol of the eastern province, and not Phillipi, but when Rome rebuilt the ancient road through the region as the via Egnatia, Phillipi emerged as a major trade center.  It also had been a center of gold mining for centuries (it was originally established to consolidate the independent gold mining operations and provide military protection for the proceeds).  When Octavian became “Agustus Caesar” in 27 BC, Philippi received special status.  Under Octavian, new construction turned Philippi into a miniature version of Rome herself.  This is what would have greeted Paul, Silas, Timothy and Luke on their arrival.

A final note before we turn to the Holy Spirit’s role in this part of the journey.  Look closely a the map at the top of the page.  Compare the distance from Tarsus to Pisidian Antioch to the distance from Pisidian Antioch to Troas.  These three locations essentially form a diagonal line all the way across modern Turkey.  By modern highway, the distance from the site of Pisidian Antioch to Troas is about 600 km (380 miles).  The highway is a more direct route than Paul’s journey, so the travelers probably covered about 450 miles or more.  On foot, walking briskly for 12 hours per day (36 miles per day), it would take about 13 days.  Given the often-mountainous nature of the region, it probably took longer than that, but as a conservative estimate I’ll settle for 14 days (two weeks).  Luke gives no indication of the passage of time in his narrative, nor does he mention any pauses for ministry.  The reasons will soon become apparent.

The Holy Spirit’s Direction

Luke often writes in a factual manner that appears to leave little “spiritual” material to work with.  At first reading, this passage seems that way.  In with the geography lesson, Luke’s description of the spiritual aspects of the journey are equally matter-of-fact.  It’s easy to run right through them as if they were part of the woodwork.  Let’s slow down and take a careful look.

v6 — “And they passed through the Phrygian and Galatian region, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia [Minor].”

v7 — “And when they had come to Mysia, they were trying to go into Bithynia, and the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them.”

v9 — “And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a certain man of Macedonia was standing and appealing to him, and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.”

Apparently their intent from Pisidian Antioch was to continue westward into Asia Minor, but the Spirit said “No.”  So next they traveled northward into Mysia, intending to turn to the northeast into Bithynia.  But again the Spirit said, “No.”  So they took the fork in the road to the left and traversed the length of Mysia to its western coastline.

Luke didn’t say that they “found no opportunities for ministry” or “they were mistreated by the Jews.”  He specifically records that the Holy Spirit said, “No, don’t go there.”  Interestingly, He didn’t say where they should go, He said where they shouldn’t go.  Why didn’t He just tell them to go to Macedonia?

Second, notice how clear and direct the Holy Spirit’s direction was to them.  We seldom, if ever, have this direct a relationship with the Holy Spirit ourselves.  I’ve known believers who could justify any action, good or evil, because they “prayed about it and the Spirit gave them peace.”  They have never heard the Holy Spirit clearly say, “No!”, even though according to the Scriptures He must have said it.  They just were willfully disobedient and looking for a spiritual excuse for their evil behavior.  Paul teaches us that the Holy Spirit indwells us.  Paul introduced this concept — he alone writes of this intimate relationship.  As we’ve seen in previous posts, prior to Paul’s encounter with the Risen Lord on the road to Damascus, the Holy Spirit “came upon” the faithful, as if encloaking them temporarily for the purpose at hand.  What a privilege we have to be indwelt by Him instead!  Yet this indwelling can be interfered with.  The Bible’s term is “quenched,” and it is the product of sin in our lives.  Yes, in Christ we stand before the Throne with our sins (all of them, past present and future) forgiven.  That is our position for all eternity.  But until He comes for us or we pass on to His presence, our experience is to still be imprisoned in a sin-prone physical body.  Paul writes at length about this predicament in Romans 7.  In stark contrast to the angst of Chapter 7 is the opening verse of Chapter 8 that bursts forth like a brilliant ray of sunshine on a dark and cloudy day: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus!”  Nevertheless, our experience is different — lesser — than Paul and his companions.

We must remember that the Holy Spirit is God, one of the members of the Trinity, equal with God the Father and God the Son, differing from them in role only.  As God, He has all of the foreknowledge of God, the omniscience of God, the authority of God, the omnipotence of God… and the list could go on and on.  God chooses to keep some things hidden from men at different times for reasons known only to Him.  For instance, Christ Himself refused to answer specific questions about the timing of the coming of the Kingdom prior to His ascension.  For reasons known only to God, the Spirit told them where not to go but did not tell them where to go.

We also must remember that Paul was a “chosen vessel” of God and had a special relationship with God as His emissary and Apostle to the Gentiles.  God revealed a whole new plan for the world through Paul.  Paul is a very singular person in the history of the world.  Concerning his role in this, Paul saw himself as the “prisoner of Christ” and said, “Woe is me if I do NOT preach the Gospel!”  Paul had the ability to perform miracles — an ability which faded for him and for the church as a whole as the need to authenticate his ministry before the Jews waned.

It would be a mistake to try to have the same kind or level of relationship with the Holy Spirit that Paul had, and become guilt-ridden at our failure to achieve it.  He was an Apostle (a very unique one), and we are not.  At the same time, our relationship with the Holy Spirit is as intimate as it gets — more intimate that that of spouses.  We are His home.  He brings to us a whole lifestyle if we will just be open with Him.  And as we adopt his lifestyle more and more, His voice will become more and more ingrained in our thinking and more and more audible to us.

Yeah, I know — that sounds pretty mushy and vague.  There are specifics — learn to identify temptation and turn from it before you sin.  Study God’s Word.  Spend time in prayer.  Engage with other believers.  Do all this because you love the Savior who loved you enough to die on the cross in your place, not because of duty.

Luke says that a “vision appeared to Paul in the night.”  He gives no indication that the Holy Spirit, by name, caused it.  Were the previous directives from the Holy Spirit also visions?  Luke does not describe them as such.  Had Paul been pleading with the Spirit for a week to provide direction by some sign?  Whatever the circumstances, Paul thought it was a clear enough message that he got the others up in the middle of the night to seek immediate passage on a ship to Macedonia!

Personally, I would not trust such a dream as a clear directive from God.  It is too easy for our own mind to conjure up false images out of it’s still-active old nature.  Paul was different (for reasons stated above).  Luke, who recorded all of this, did not have such visions or directives to our knowledge, but we are sure he was a devout believer and faithful companion to Paul.  We must get to know the Holy Spirit’s role in our lives according to the “word rightly divided”, and not strive to fulfill expectations and experiences that belong to a different age or the special powers of an Apostle.

Luke describes the journey from Troas to Philippi as swift and sure, noting that they stayed in Philippi for “some days.”  Apparently they found opportunity to share the Gospel on a level that must have been encouraging after their two or three week silence across northwest Turkey.  And now the Sabbath day approaches…

(Stay tuned for the next installment!)

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