Summary: This continues in my series of expository messages through the book of Acts.
What do you do when God says, “NO”? When you pray all the right prayers with all the right motives, as best you can tell? When you are certain you’re following the right direction, only to find the way blocked? When you feel certain that what you want is what God would want, only to find out differently? What do you do when God says, “NO”? Such is the case in today’s text; God said “no”, not once but twice, to the man some have called the greatest Christian who ever lived, the apostle Paul. Let’s consider the text this morning (read/pray).
I. Closed Doors - :6-8
Here’s where Paul’s journey takes a turn. His original purpose statement for this trip was that he planned to visit the established churches, care for the Christians there, help them in their growth in Christ, etc. Little did he know what was in store. His original idea was to go to the Roman province of Asia (not to be confused with what we think of today when we think of Asia, a large continent).
But God said “no” to speaking the Word in Asia. Then, God said “no” to preaching the Word in Bithynia as well. How did God speak? We’re not told; Silas the prophet? Audibly? The Trinitarian references in these verses is clear: “the Holy Spirit”; “the Spirit of Jesus”; “God”. It might be that the means by which the two prohibitions were communicated was different: the resurrected Christ might have made an appearance in the second case, or communicated in some way similar to Paul’s Damascus Road experience. Nonetheless, however it was clearly communicated, twice God says, “no”.
“How odd of God”, we might be tempted to think. And how frustrating was this for Paul and his buds? How perplexing it must have been. The 18th-century Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote, in his poem, To a Mouse, “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an ’men Gang aft agley”, or taking it out of the Scots language, “the best-laid schemes of mice and men often go astray.” The “best-laid plans” of these missionaries didn’t come to fruition—what, were these guys not close to God, seeking His will? And yet God does what He does not only without our permission, but also without any real sense of obligation to make us understand His ways. This idea that becoming a follower of Jesus gives us some sort of carte blanche, some sort of blank check with the Almighty, is not something we find through a careful study of Scripture.
So, what do we do when God says, “NO!”? I mean, I can identify with doubters. Doubters look at what seems like the randomness of the universe to them, at what seems like signs that “nobody’s home”, and conclude that to be the case. I can identify with doubters, because I know that if I were running the show, I’d do some things differently than God does. Good thing I’m not running the show. But does a “no” from God mean He doesn’t care, or worse, that He’s not in control, or even not there at all?
No, because after God’s “no” comes a big yes, we find in :9-10:
II. An Open Door - :9-10
Before we get to the main point, notice a subtle change in the pronoun used: it is in this passage that we read the term “we”, indicating that Luke joined the journey, likely at Troas. It’s possible that Luke, a physician by trade, ministered to Paul physically. But at any rate, the shift from third person “they” to first person “we” takes place at Troas.
God had a different plan in mind than the missionaries had envisioned. Paul receives a vision of a man who beseeches him, “come over into Macedonia and help us.” “Help us,” using the Greek word Boêthêô, has the idea of someone running to help after hearing the cry of another person who is in danger. There is an urgency to the Macedonian call; it stems from the reality that apart from Christ, people are lost in their sins, bound for an eternity separated from God. This is why Gary and Esther Smith followed the call of God to leave Marietta, GA and make their homes in Papua, New Guinea, to bring glory to God by reaching out with the gospel to the Dinangat people.
“Concluding” – v. 10 – In the Greek, the word means “to bring together”, “to coalesce”, and what is suggested here is that Luke and Paul and Silas and Timothy considered the vision in the context of everything that had gone before, and it seemed clear: God was pointing them to take the gospel to Europe, instead of continuing in the regions that they’d expected.
And so this vision changed Paul’s direction; it’s likely that his original plan was to evangelize the cities of the eastern shore of the Aegean Sea, but instead, he ended up crossing into Europe and planting not only the church at Philippi, but also those at Corinth and Thessalonica. Macedonians were a hardy nationalistic people, people with a real sense of identity and pride as Macedonians, hard to be won to faith, but once won, very loyal and committed. Perhaps this accounts for the fact that Paul seemed to particularly favor the churches at Philippi and Thessalonica, Macedonian churches with strong commitment to the Lord.