In approaching the narrative sections of Scripture, there is always the danger of foreclosure, of assuming the conclusion, and missing the true nature of the issues at hand. The story is always easier when you can read the ending, the drama reduced when you know the outcome, but give a man or woman the middle pages of the first draft and they may quickly faint and fail in their resolve to reach the conclusion. A dip sample of key sections of Scripture will bear this out, and no passage more powerfully portrays this than Acts 16.
In this post I want to consider life for the Apostle Paul before Philippi, in the immediate lead up to the groundbreaking moment when the gospel reached Europe. My prayer is that in examining this crucial moment we will be fortified in our mid-tale strivings if we are engaged in gospel work, and find fresh hope even when our hopes are dashed, our work is inhibited, and our progress is stunted.
Before Philippi: acrimony
When Luke joins his story to that of Paul in Troas in Acts 16, it is at a critical juncture. Paul has successfully and harmoniously served alongside the most encouraging man the early church portrays (Barnabas) but as Acts 15 closes this goes south and goes sour over the issue of John Mark. As Acts 16 opens we are living in the aftermath of a dispute which has become so hot and horrible that a schism has developed. The men who could work so hard to protect the church from division at the Council of Jerusalem, cannot find common ground over a missionary failure, and part company.
Before Philippi happens there is this acrimony, this internal wrangling and dispute, which is of sufficient significance for Luke to record it. This means that when doors close for Paul and his companions in Acts 16 it is not an isolated blip on a good ministry trajectory, but one further disappointment after already hard times.
There is some help here for us as we seek to serve Christ. Our troubles and trials seldom come in single packs, but in multiples. There can be for us a cumulative accrual of pressures and problems, personal and public issues, which could make the present crisis unbearable for us. Before Philippi, Paul was working with a new partner in a new place, separated from his former ministry companion who had endured beatings and terror alongside him. It is hard to imagine how hard it was now to be in doldrum Troas with new troubles.
As we wrestle with the issues thrown up by Covid19, it might be that this is the latest in a long line of battles, and we fear that the camel’s back may not withstand this last straw. The cessation of church services and our new limitations have most likely followed periods of existing trial and trouble in our ministry, interpersonal issues, family concerns, personal dilemmas. Paul’s biography ministers to us here, as it shows to us that God’s good purpose often unfolds in circumstances that we would count as less than ideal, that a composite of issues and opposition can be the prelude to him opening new doors of effective service.
Before Philippi: a stalled gospel
A trick of the light can quickly derail our reading of Acts. From chapter 13 onwards Luke narrows the range of his account to that of one man and one ministry – Paul, formerly Saul of Tarsus. Commentators have noted the parallels between Luke’s depiction of Jesus in his gospel, and of Paul in his later work. Kingdom endeavours serve as a prelude to the long journey into Jerusalem, hostility, and captivity. There may be some mileage in this view, but what can be quickly forgotten is that Luke’s interest in Paul is not primarily personal or biographical, but missional. Paul matters, not because of the greatness of the man, but because of the gravity of his ministry, the importance of the work he was given. Luke’s singular focus is centred on the mission of God, realised through a man of God, the heartbeat of whose life was to make the Lord known.
This means that the abortive attempts to penetrate into Asia with the gospel are not the mere disappointments of one man, but of a mission and ministry which, in Christ’s purpose, was central to seeing people saved. Before the heady days of repenting merchants and redeemed jailers, was the pushback of not being able to preach where the gospel project seemed to lead. Paul and his companions are withstood by the Spirt of God himself, their ideas are dashed, their strategies are stripped from them, and they are left in a seemingly powerless and pointless position. We are not given a psychological assessment of Paul here, but Luke includes the diversions of his itinerary as well as its successes, he records the gaps in the map as well as the movement of the work. Before Philippi the gospel stalled, and a man who had faced hostility with the ‘Son of Encouragement’, now seems to face opposition from the Spirit of God.
This should help us enormously in our current moment as ministers, missionaries, and church members. It shows to us that God overrides and overrules our best intentioned plans in a way that can confuse us and confound our purpose, that he often establishes setbacks which seem to be utterly against us. In similar circumstances to those of Paul I have at times been quick to read the name Satan, rather than that of the Spirit, in the crossings of my desires and plans. Sometimes God stymies us, sometimes he stations us in places where we cannot do as we wish, and where we do not really know what he wants.
One of my lowest moments in ministry was sitting in an apartment in Lima, Perú, grappling with the fact that none of our plans were working out, and that our dreams seemed to have been torpedoed. There seemed no way back and no way forward, just an intransigent present tense which would not yield to the curve of a story which might have good or God at its ending. Into that difficulty God spoke to me from Isaiah 50:10 ‘Let him who walks in the dark, who has no light, trust in the name of the LORD and rely on his God.’ This was a moment of decision, to absorb the broken narrative and scrawled writing of my present page, in anticipation of the tale’s ending. In retrospect I can now view that waiting period as central to all that God would do in and through us in succeeding months and years.
Ten years on, we are all in Troas. The work of ministry has been physically furloughed, our missions teams, our summer camps, our regular outreach are all in abeyance. As preachers we are grappling with the task of preaching to a congregation of one, with the inability to engage with people on a personal level, and for some of us our best laid plans for evangelism have had to be parked. This is unsettling and uncertain, it is troubling and trying to us, especially if the growth of the gospel is at the heart of how we seek to serve. Our calling in these days is not to bin the manuscript of what God is doing, but to trust the narrative line of his greater glory, even if we cannot credibly trace its reality right now. The gospel is never truly stalled, the work is never in cold storage, and the stoppages which God lays in the path are his selah in the song of our service, his sovereign pause in our plans and projects so that he might correct us, redirect us, and use us in ways we could not have planned.
Before Philippi Paul and his companions were being prepared for new ground to be broken, for a city and a significant land mass to get the gospel which otherwise would not have heard. I believe with all of my heart that God is working now, and that when ‘normality’ returns we will have cause to see and savour the way in which God was organising and ordaining even a hiatus for his greater glory. So we dig in for now, we blast the trumpet of online ministry with a certain sound, we buy up every opportunity that lies to hand, and we look forward to the day when these frowning providences will prove afresh the smiling face of God on the growth of his own gospel.