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The Spreading Flame - Series 5: Episode 1

Paul’s Macedonian call

| Martin Charlesworth
Acts 15:36-16:10

Following a disagreement between Paul and Barnabas, they separated and Paul took Silas on his journey. The Holy Spirit hinders his progress in Bithynia and Paul has a vision of a man from Macedonia calling him to go there - to Europe.

Following a disagreement between Paul and Barnabas, they separated and Paul took Silas on his journey. The Holy Spirit hinders his progress in Bithynia and Paul has a vision of a man from Macedonia calling him to go there - to Europe.


Welcome to Series 5. The story is moving forward. This is the way the book of Acts progresses. At every stage there’s a new development and a new geographical area comes into view. That’s why the book of Acts can be so very exciting to read.

Background and Introduction

It is now time to see how God miraculously leads Paul and his colleagues to move into a different area altogether and to travel to Europe. A big transition takes place in this episode as we move forward. You’ll remember, if you’ve seen episodes in the previous series, that the focus on Series 1 was on one city - Jerusalem. The focus in Series 2 was on Judea and Samaria - two major districts in the country of Israel. The focus in Series 3 was how the Gospel began to come to Gentile people beyond the boundaries of Judaism and the Samaritan people who are related to them. Then, in the last series, we saw how through the mission of Paul and Barnabas, the Church went into southern Turkey or Asia Minor and many new churches were established and a whole new mission field opened up. The progression has been continuing in a very wonderful way.

In the last episode, we told the story of how there was a temporary setback; a really risky situation had developed where the Church could have divided over the question of the Jewish law, the Old Testament law, the Law of Moses. How does that fit into Christianity? The Apostles met in Jerusalem, with Paul and Barnabas travelling down to meet with Peter and James and all the other Apostles. They decided, very clearly, that the Law of Moses was not applicable to Gentile believers coming into the Church, that a form of legalism with rules and regulations should not be created for those coming in from a Gentile background. That crisis was overcome at that time, although the issue will resurface as we move forward. A resolution was found. At the end of Series 4, the situation was this: the church in Jerusalem was doing well under Peter’s overall leadership with James alongside him and they were developing; and the church in Antioch, which we have described extensively in Series 4, 300 km north of Jerusalem, in the major city of Antioch, has now become a large, successful, vibrant base for Paul and Barnabas. As we left Series 4, Paul and Barnabas were back in Antioch and had spent some considerable time there. That is the situation. The question is: What are Paul and Barnabas going to do next? Paul knows from his experience on the Damascus road that he is called by God to go to the Gentile people and so, he is always thinking, ‘Where next?’

Paul and Barnabas Disagree

We are going to take up the story as Paul is trying to decide what to do next and immediately we encounter a tense situation; another issue arises - another potential setback in the mission. We are taking up the story in Acts 15:36 - 41.

36 ‘Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” 37 Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, 38 but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. 39 They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, 40 but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord. 41 He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.’

Acts 15:36-41, NIV

It’s interesting how Luke is unafraid to tell us difficult stories. He didn’t need to put this section in his account. He could have just described Paul travelling off with Silas as a different companion rather than Barnabas, and left us to imagine the reasons for that change. But he deliberately includes this incident in his story, even though it’s a difficult one. That makes us think, ‘Why is this passage here and what can we learn from it?’

Paul’s intention was to go back to the churches that had been planted in the first missionary journey, in places like Pisidian Antioch, Lystra, Iconium and Derbe, places that are described in Series 4. He wants to go back again and strengthen those churches and to see what he could do in that area. The obvious thing was to travel with Barnabas, his travelling companion in the first missionary journey, but there was an issue about their helper, John Mark. John Mark is described as having been with them on the first journey. John Mark actually lived in Jerusalem; he had come up to Antioch, he was known to Barnabas and they took him on the first missionary journey as a helper. When you are travelling around preaching and pioneering it is good to have somebody with you who can consider the practical issues of life and that’s probably what John Mark did: Where are we going to stay? How is the finance going? What are the travel arrangements? What about getting enough food in for our lodgings? and so forth. That was a kind of role that he probably helped them with. But Paul was very nervous about John Mark. We notice in Acts 13: 13 that Luke says in passing,

‘From Paphos, Paul and his companions sailed to Perga in Pamphylia, where John left them to return to Jerusalem.’

Luke doesn’t comment further. He just said that halfway through the journey John left. Paul here considered him leaving as an act of desertion. He’ had committed to the full trip but halfway through he decided to go, for unknown reasons. Paul wasn’t happy with this because he considered that there was a fundamental reason why John Mark left, to do with his actual human capacity to stay on the journey and deal with the hardships of the situation that they faced. But what’s interesting is, Barnabas said, “Yes, he’ll be okay this time.” and Paul disagreed. They disagreed about the human capacity of their associate. One reason why they might have had a difference of opinion is, we find in Colossians 4:10, that Mark is described as a cousin of Barnabas; they were related. Barnabas, being a very generous and positive person, as we find in the text, was saying to Paul, “Give him another chance” and Paul was saying, “It’s too much of a risk because our helpers need to be really strong, because it’s going to be difficult.” They had a disagreement about team dynamics and the capacity of team members. There was no doctrinal disagreement but they disagreed about how to set up their team. The interesting thing is, the outcome was two teams. Barnabas said, “Well I’ll take John Mark anyway”, and he went to Cyprus, which was the first part of their first missionary journey, and was Barnabas’ home territory. He had lived some of his life in Cyprus. That was a good place for him to go and he took his cousin, John Mark, with him and then he disappears out of the story of Luke writing in Acts.

Luke follows the story of Paul, who decided to take a man called Silas. We met Silas in the last episode. He was a leader and a prophet from Jerusalem, who had come up to Antioch previously to help with sorting out the problem of the Jewish law and had gone back to Jerusalem. He was called again by Paul, “Silas, come back to Antioch. I want you on my team.” He noticed his capacity and he said, “Silas, come with me”. Silas turns out to be a very reliable, long-term partner of Paul because he appears quite a few times in the book of Acts and in Paul’s letters. He is always a reliable, steady collaborator and mission partner. So, Paul chose well in taking Silas with him.

Rather than going to Cyprus, he went to southern Turkey or Asia Minor to visit the churches there. But we may wonder, ‘What about Paul and Barnabas? How do they relate together in the long term?’ It is difficult when you have a sharp disagreement with another Christian. How do you handle that? It is interesting that Paul speaks well of Barnabas in the letter of 1 Corinthians 9: 6, and also interesting that John Mark worked with Paul later on in life and, for example, in Philemon verse 24, is described as a fellow worker of Paul, This disagreement didn’t lead to fundamental division. It meant they needed to operate in different teams. Sometimes God uses those difficulties to enable his mission to move forward. Barnabas, Mark and Paul maintained gracious attitudes towards each other which meant in the longer term, they’re still collaborating, even though they took a different path on this particular occasion. That’s a lesson for us concerning similar situations that we might face.

Timothy Joins Paul’s Team

Paul needed to strengthen his team. He didn’t have a helper. He had Silas, a colleague, but he didn’t have a kind of administrator or team support, like John Mark. He wanted other people on board in the team. We don’t know how many people he had on the team, but he was certainly looking for a particular type of assistant. And this is what he found in the next passage, Acts 16: 1 - 5 ,

1 ‘Paul came to Derbe and then to Lystra, where a disciple named Timothy lived, whose mother was Jewish and a believer but whose father was a Greek. 2 The believers at Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him. 3 Paul wanted to take him along on 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. 4 As they travelled from town to town, they delivered the decisions reached by the Apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the people to obey. 5 So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers.’

Acts 16:1-5, NIV

Paul found Timothy, who had been converted on Paul’s first visit, on the first missionary journey, along with other members of his family. In fact, in 2 Timothy 1: 5, it says:

“I am reminded of your sincere faith,(Timothy)which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also.”

So, when Paul came to Lystra, Lois, the grandmother, Eunice, the mother and Timothy, the son, all believed. We know that the mother, Eunice, was Jewish and we find out here that the father, unnamed, was a Gentile - a Greek. It was a mixed-race family. Paul noticed the capacities of Timothy as a young man and wanted to take him on the team. But the context in the area which we know from the previous missionary journey, is that there were Jewish people who were very hostile to Paul, who had caused real difficulty for him in the past, and were still his opponents. They would be looking closely at his team. They would find Silas, who they would recognise as Jewish from Jerusalem and then they would see Timothy and it was known that his mother was a Jew. His father was a non-Jew or a Gentile. In Jewish tradition, your ethnic identity as a Jew, comes through your mother, not your father. They would see Timothy as a Jew because his mother was Jewish and if he wasn’t circumcised as a Jew then this would create an issue of controversy for Paul. While he is preaching the Gospel, they would be arguing about Timothy. So, he asked for Timothy to be circumcised in order to avoid an unnecessary controversy with the Jewish communities in the area, who were already going to cause him trouble.

Communicating the Gospel Well

In other words, it was a tactical, cultural move and it was to help him communicate the Gospel well. Paul’s principle here is very interesting. And we find it in 1 Corinthians 9 :19 - 23. Paul says,

19 ‘Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 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. 21 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. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.’

1 Corinthians 9:19-23, NIV

The point of this passage is Paul saying, “Wherever I am, whichever ethnic group I’m with, I try to identify with them as closely as possible and cause as few difficulties for them as I can, so that they will listen to my message.” That’s exactly the principle he applies here. He thought, ‘He’s really ethnically Jewish. I will circumcise him. Not because he needs to be circumcised, not because it’s anything to do with his faith,’ as we discussed in the last episode, ‘but in order not to cause a local controversy with Jewish opponents.’

Summary Statement

Acts 16:4 - 5:

4 ‘As they travelled from town to town, they delivered the decisions reached by the Apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the people to obey. 5 So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers.’

Acts 16:4-5, NIV

This is one of Luke’s summary statements. If you’ve been following through, as we’ve gone through the book of Acts, you’ll know that each series is based on a geographical area and at the end of each series, there’s a summary statement, which says how the Gospel has advanced. It’s a marker in the text. These two verses are really the conclusion of the last series. The first marker was in chapter 6:7 when the work in Jerusalem is summarised with the following words:

‘So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.’

Series 2 summary Chapter 9: 31:

‘Then the Church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.’

Series 3 has a summary in Chapter 12: 24:

‘But the word of God continued to spread and flourish.’

Then we come to the statement here. It’s basically saying that the mission in Asia Minor had been successful and God had blessed it and the churches were strengthened in faith and grew daily in numbers.

The Macedonian Call

Now comes the decisive moment. Everything changes quite suddenly because Paul is trying to work out where to go next. He thinks he needs to stay in the area of Asia Minor and go to the surrounding areas, beyond the churches he has established, to look for new places and he begins to do this when God intervenes decisively. Acts 16:6 - 10,

6 ‘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 province of Asia. 7 When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. 8 So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. 9 During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 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.’

Acts 16:6-10, NIV

Paul’s burning question, “Where do I go next?” The text indicates that he couldn’t find an easy opportunity to preach the Gospel in the surrounding areas, almost as if the Holy Spirit was showing him that he was heading in the wrong direction. Have you ever had that experience in life? You try and go somewhere, try to do something and yet everything doesn’t quite work out, and you can’t get there? He had a lack of obvious opportunity; a lack of inner peace; a lack of confirming signs of the Holy Spirit. So, he was looking. He travelled a long distance, going from place to place, trying to think, ‘Where do I go next? What do I do next?’ Feeling frustrated and confused. He got to the port city of Troas, on the north west of Turkey on the Aegean Sea, facing towards Europe, facing towards Greece in the west.

As he was in this port city, trying to work out what to do next, God broke in. God sometimes breaks in dramatically when we’re confused. There is a time when we don’t know what we are doing and then suddenly it becomes clear. This was one of those incredible moments, where he had a vision during the night while he was sleeping and a man from Macedonia spoke to him - someone who would be dressed in the clothes of the Macedonian and Greek people. Macedonia was a province in the northern part of Greece. Here he was, in what we call Turkey, in a port and it was a short distance to take a boat from Troas through to the cities on the coast of Macedonia. He was near there but it was a different culture; a different environment; different people; different dress; different situation and a different continent.. He was moving from Asia to Europe. It was a major change. Paul had not anticipated going that far. He didn’t know quite where God wanted to take him and this particular moment was going to change the whole destiny of his mission. He was going to get to all sorts of amazing places: Philippi, Thessaloniki, Berea, Athens, Corinth. Places that were far away from where he was and he was already a long way from Antioch, and Antioch was a long way from Jerusalem where he had started. At this point, Jesus was, in a sense, saying to him, “Take another risk. Go to another place, another dimension of mission.” and he knew what he needed to do.

They packed up, got on a boat and travelled over to Macedonia. Notably, it says here at the end, ‘We got ready’. We now find out that in this team we have Paul, Silas, Timothy, who has just joined, and Luke himself is a helper. Sometimes in the book of Acts, Luke is actually present at the events he’s describing. For the next part of Paul’s journey, Luke is actually with him - a direct eyewitness of everything that happens. The whole story takes another exciting and improbable turn and it appears that the Holy Spirit is energetically pushing the boundaries of the Kingdom of God and calling the Apostles further and further afield, to reach more and more people. What an amazing passage! The Macedonian vision. Everything changes at this point. As we end this episode, we’ll be preparing the way for seeing what happens when Paul lands in Macedonia and it’s very dramatic when he lands,


Let’s think, as we bring this episode to an end, what we can learn from this passage. First thing is the importance in Christian ministry of stable teams. Paul had an issue of instability with John Mark. If there’s an unstable team, the mission of the church will be compromised fundamentally. Paul was very sensitive about who he had with him. He wanted people who could cope with the pressure of working alongside him - and it wasn’t easy working alongside Paul! He was a very intense person on a very intense mission, with high-risk - high-risk of financial uncertainty; high risk of danger on the road; high risk of being attacked verbally and physically by Jewish opponents; and risk of getting into controversy with Gentile communities; occasional risk from the Roman authorities; and the ever-present uncertainty of travelling with health and all the other issues involved. It was a difficult mission. He needed stable teams.

A second reflection from here is to think about Timothy. This is the point where Timothy, a very young man, probably a teenager, is called to become a servant leader. He is one of those people who is very faithful throughout his life. Paul entrusts huge responsibility to Timothy later on, when Paul is in prison, and Timothy is his representative in some of these areas that we are talking about. Timothy is a man who’s called young, serves well and matures to major leadership. We should aspire to have that heart like Timothy.

My final comment would be about the significance of prophetic guidance. If you receive a significant prophetic word in your life through a prophetic contribution, or a dream or vision, or scripture that stands out to you as tremendously important for you personally, can I encourage you not to ignore such guidance? Follow it. This is the journey of faith and this is what Paul did here. He risked everything by going even further away from his base in Antioch. He was now a huge distance away from his home base, going further and further away, going even further away than he said he was going to go when he left. They would be amazed to find that he had gone over to Europe because it was never in the plan. But it was in God’s plan. Miracles will begin to happen as Paul follows the divine plan.

I hope you’ll join us for the next episode where we’ll have a look at the amazing things that happen when he lands in the city of Philippi. Hope to see you for that episode.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. Timothy was a young man. Who do you know who is both young but mature?
  • Discipleship
    1. Paul and Barnabas argue. How do you manage disagreements with other Christians - especially co-workers?
    2. Pray for all young people in your church, especially young leaders.
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. What new way does the Holy Spirit guide Paul here? Research Acts examples in tagging to see the different ways the Holy Spirit works.
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