READ : Acts 16:9-12, 16-23
For more than 1500 years, Christianity has been considered to be a “western” or European religion. But it’s not. Christianity is the faith of all -whether European or African, Asian or American -who believe in and follow Jesus Christ.
As we all know, Macedonia has been much in the news in recent weeks. The ethnic cleansing (that hateful term) in Kosovo and the attacks of NATO throughout Yugoslavia have caused the crisis there to spill over into neighboring countries. A flood of ethnic Albanian refugees has spilled out of Kosovo into Albania and Macedonia. The world’s attention has been riveted upon these small, little-known Balkan countries for months, and everyone wonders when and if the suffering will end.
In New Testament times the country of Macedonia was also a center of attention. Then it was notably larger and more powerful than now. Macedonia had first risen to greatness under its famous king, Philip, and his even more famous son, Alexander the Great. For a brief period Macedonia was the capital of an empire that stretched thousands of miles, from Greece all the way to India.
By the first century a.d. it had shrunk to the status of a province within the Roman Empire, but Macedonia still encompassed much of northern Greece and the southern Balkans. It was to this territory that the apostle Paul and his companions brought the Christian gospel, during his second great missionary journey.
PAUL’S SECOND MISSIONARY JOURNEY
Acts 16 picks up the narrative of the second of Paul’s great missionary tours. This journey grew out of the apostle’s desire to revisit the congregations which he had established in southern Asia Minor during his first missionary expedition a year or two previously. Some interesting points emerge from the account in Acts 16 of the early stages of Paul’s journey.
First, he had a new set of companions for this trip. Luke reports that when Paul introduced the idea of another missionary journey to his old friend and partner Barnabas, they disagreed over the question of whether or not to take John Mark with them again. Mark was the young man who had deserted them earlier, after starting out on the apostles’ first campaign with them. “They had such a sharp disagreement,” Luke writes, “that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and . . . went through Syria and Cilicia” (15:40f.).
It is to Luke’s credit as a historian that he frankly records the parting of the ways between Paul and Barnabas, two longtime friends and colleagues. It’s true that God made good come out of this disagreement by raising up two missionary teams where before there had been one. And in later years Paul was reconciled to Mark (cf. 2 Tim. 4:11). But there is no denying that the quarrel between him and Barnabas was a sad occasion. Just as he faithfully records the sins of the early church, Luke also, with his characteristic honesty, shows us that the apostles themselves were only human and they too struggled with personal problems and conflicts like everybody else.
So Paul set out into Asia Minor, accompanied by his new co-worker, Silas. In the city of Lystra, where on the first missionary journey Paul and Barnabas had been mistaken for Greek gods after healing a crippled man and where Paul had preached a notable evangelistic message, Paul and Silas added a young believer named Timothy to their team (16:1-3). And there was one other addition. Chapter 16 contains the first of the passages in the book of Acts that use first person plural pronouns. That is, Luke here begins to say “we” in writing of Paul and his companions rather than “they,” indicating that somewhere along the way he personally joined Paul’s missionary team. From thenceforward Luke, this Greek physician and gospel writer, would prove to be Paul’s most faithful and trustworthy friend, and the most important eyewitness to “the Acts of the Apostles.”
It is also interesting to follow Paul’s itinerary on this second missionary journey. The account of how Paul got from the interior of Asia Minor to Philippi in Greece is fascinating. After finishing up in the region of Galatia, the missionary team sought to enter new territory to resume the work of church planting. But they were stymied, Luke reports, at every turn – they couldn’t enter either the Roman provinces of Asia to the west, or Bithynia to the north. Luke says they were prevented from going to these places by the Holy Spirit.
Paul and his friends went through Phrygia and Galatia, but the Holy Spirit would not let them preach in Asia. After they arrived in Mysia, they tried to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not let them. So they went on through Mysia until they came to Troas.
Acts 16:6-8, cev
Exactly how God prevented Paul and his companions from carrying out their planned evangelistic itinerary Luke does not say. We’re not told whether the Spirit communicated to them through circumstances, or by an inward conviction or belief, or directly by words or signs. But somehow the apostle and his team were denied the opportunities for ministry they were seeking. They kept on moving west, bouncing from place to place, until they reached the sea at Troas on the western coast of Asia Minor. It must have been mystifying to them, and trying to both their faith and their patience.
“COME OVER AND HELP US”
It’s easy to imagine how frustrated the missionaries had to have been as they traveled the whole length of Asia Minor. Here they were, with great plans and equally great opportunities, and nothing seemed to be working right. It was one obstacle, delay, roadblock, after another. Every time they tried to enter a new territory with the gospel, something happened to close them off or shut them out. They must have been praying the whole time for God to clear the way for them, but one door after another slammed in their faces, until at last, they ran out of doors when they reached the coast. But in Troas, positive direction was at last given, in the form of a dream of Paul’s.
During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 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.
This “Macedonian call” for Paul to bring the gospel across the sea from Asia to Europe was God’s way of opening a new chapter of expanded ministry in the apostle’s life. God’s ways are not our ways, says the scripture (Isaiah 55:8-9). Paul and his friends had a vision and a plan for their missionary outreach, but it wasn’t the plan God intended for them. Obviously, there was much work they could have done in Asia, but God’s vision for them was bigger. A whole new continent – Europe – stretched away to the west and to the north. It was filled with people and tribes and nations who needed the gospel. In his dream Paul saw a man standing on that further shore, begging him to come over and help them.
Why did they need help there? Because they did not know Jesus Christ. What sort of help did they need? Not physical, economic, or military help. They needed the gospel, the knowledge of how to be made right with God and become his children by trusting in Jesus Christ.
Faithful Christians today still hear the same kind of Macedonian call coming from “the regions beyond.” Many sense that the call comes from God to them personally, and they respond by going, or perhaps by helping to send others. Wherever they go, though, Christian missionaries still bring help to people, all kinds of help. They heal the sick. They tend the dying. They dig wells. They build schools and teach in them. They assist in the development of business and agriculture. They serve in every imaginable way, meeting every sort of human need. But always one need stands out for them. Christians seek to meet the very deepest of all human needs: the need to be delivered from sin, and the fear of death; to know the truth of Jesus Christ, and to be set free by it; to find peace with God through him. Missionaries go for the sake of people who need help, but they go primarily with the help of the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ, the only kind of help that lasts for all eternity.
PAUL’S FIRST EUROPEAN CHURCH
While it is exciting to read this marvelous story in the book of Acts about Christianity’s expansion into new regions, it’s sobering to reflect on the spiritual condition of some of those same places today. There are almost no indigenous Christians left in the country of Turkey, the scene of so much of Paul’s missionary labor. Though almost 100% of the population of Greece are baptized Christians, only about 2% attend worship. Evangelical believers there are a tiny, harassed minority. Throughout all of Europe – the center of Christianity for seventeen centuries from the end of the New Testament age till the rise of America – the situation is not much better. And we all know what is happening in the Balkans even now, where the gospel of the Prince of Peace seems to have been forgotten completely.
Recently we received a letter from a young woman in Albania. Writing from roughly the same region as the man in the apostle Paul’s vision, this woman issued a present-day Macedonian call.
The person who is writing you is a girl called Anila from Albania. I am 21 years old. . . .
Every night . . . I regularly listen to your programs and try to write your words in my heart. There is nothing more beautiful than to listen to the Word of God every night. With all my heart I want to tell people in the village about Jesus, to speak the words of God with his Holy Spirit about the new life and how they can obtain it. . . . This evening and last evening I have been listening to the broadcast Words of Hope about Jeremiah and Isaiah who were born to prophesy. I hope that I also have been born to serve God. Anyone can do this by following His way and by loving each other. I pray that God will make me worthy to serve our heavenly Father who knows my thoughts and desires. . . . I am a Muslim but I believe in Christ.
Conditions in the village are hard: there is no post-office or telephone. I am not baptized. I have never been to a Christian meeting or to a church. . . . If possible, send me some Christian literature. Please pray for me. I am like a sheep without a shepherd.
How can we help this young woman? We can’t stop the war that rages on her doorstep. We can’t offer her money, or a job, or a new place to live. But we can give her what she wants most, what she asks for with greatest urgency. We can continue to offer her God’s word. We can pray for her.
We’ll do the same for you, too.