Plans people and providence
PLANS PEOPLE AND PROVIDENCE (Acts 15:36-16:15)
As C.S Lewis explains in a letter: “The great thing, if you can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions to your ‘own’, or ‘real’ life. The truth is, of course, that what you call the interruptions are precisely your real life – the life that God is sending you, day by day: what you call your ‘real life’ is a phantom of your own imagination.”
This message aims to encourage you with the reality of divine providence. To embrace it and to know how to live in it. To know how to make plans and yet allow God to redirect your path and find joy in serving God wherever He puts you and whatever He asks you to do.
As I mentioned last week, I try have a formal time of prayer every day and I have different things I pray for on different days of the week. But I have a list of specific things I pray for myself and the church on a daily basis. One of the things I pray for myself every day is for the Lord to help me “make the most of each moment knowing that Christ’s plans prevail over mine.”
To some that might seem like a relatively unimportant prayer request, but I’m one of those Engineering types. I like things to work, and I like them to work according to my schedule and plans. And yet a substantial part of my time is spend working with people and people don’t work like clocks. You can’t easily find out what their problem is and fix them and they often don’t keep time. The life of people is a lot more complicated and messy than the life of machines. When you ask the ATM for cash, its response doesn’t depend on how much sleep it got last night….
So I find I need daily grace to live in the world as God has ordained it. The world God has ordained operates according to His plans not mine His schedule, not mine, His purposes, not mine. I often found myself missing the opportunities that God had provided for me because I was living in another day, which I had planned, rather than the one God had planned for me. We all know Prov 16:9, “In his heart a man plans his way, but God directs his path.” But most of us don’t know how to live it out.
As C.S Lewis explains in a letter
“The great thing, if you can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions to your ‘own’, or ‘real’ life. The truth is, of course, that what you call the interruptions are precisely your real life – the life that God is sending you, day by day: what you call your ‘real life’ is a phantom of your own imagination.”
(from a 1943 letter from C.S. Lewis, included in Yours, Jack: Spiritual Direction from C.S. Lewis)
As we continue in our study through Acts, we come to Paul’s 2nd missionary journey. It’s a portion of Acts full of plans and activities. Paul’s favourite designation of himself is the designation “slave of Christ” and his aim is to serve Christ’s glory, proclaim Christ’s gospel and strengthen Christ’s church. So as any faithful servant Paul makes plans for how He can best do this. He sets out on a mission to return to the churches that he and Barnabas had planted, in order to strengthen and encourage them. By the end of the chapter he finds himself in a different place, with different ministry companions, doing a very different kind of ministry than he had envisaged. Paul made his plans, but God directed him along a very different path.
This morning, I want to encourage you with the reality of divine providence. To embrace it and to know how to live in it. To know how to make plans and yet allow God to redirect your path and find joy in serving God wherever He puts you and whatever He asks you to do.
I’ve called this message plans, people and providence because I want us to see how these fit together from our text this morning.
1: Plans (15:36)
Let’s first consider the plans. They are briefly explained in vs 36. Paul and Barnabas had been enjoying a fruitful ministry at Antioch for some time, when they decided that they should go back to visit the churches they had planted in the first missionary journey and encourage them in the faith.
In the 1st century, as in the 21st, you didn’t just wake up one morning and say, “Let’s go on a mission trip” and leave later that day. You would have to save the money to cover travel costs, or raise support, you would have to make travel arrangements, plan an itinerary, sort out your affairs at home. So Paul and Barnabas had undoubtedly been doing all this planning and preparation and after “some days,” as Luke mentioned, they were finalizing their plans and about ready to go.
2: PEOPLE (15:37-41)
But then they were struck with people problems, and people don’t strike like grandfather clocks – on the hour, every hour. People problems are unpredictable, and sometimes unresolvable.
Barnabas, as his name indicates, was the encourager, the one who really cared about people and always saw the best in them. He’s the one who had sold his property in order to give the proceeds to the poor in Acts 2. He was the one who introduced Paul to the brothers at Jerusalem and vouched for him in Acts 9, when everyone was afraid and steering clear of him because they weren’t sure whether he was truly converted or merely trying to trap them. Barnabas is the one who went and found Paul in Tarsus in Acts 11 and asked him to join the ministry team at Antioch. So in many ways, Barnabas had discipled Paul into ministry. He was the leading partner on the first missionary journey.
Now on the second journey, he wants to again take John Mark with them as an assistant. But John Mark had abandoned the team in Acts 13:13, a very short way into the trip. The text doesn’t say why – whether he was afraid of persecution, or got sick and wanted to go home to mommy, or whether he disagreed with the itinerary – or what exactly was the reason. Only here we see that in Paul’s eyes, he had “abandoned them” (vs 38). The word which ESV translates “withdrawn” means he had “deserted them,” he went AWOL. Paul doesn’t think he deserves a second chance and Barnabas does.
Who’s right when it comes to people issues like this?...
Of course, we know from Col 4:10 that John Mark is Barnabas’ cousin. So how much was Barnabas’ judgment being affected by family connections? How much was Paul being more purpose driven than people orientated? That must have been an interesting discussion. The Greek word in vs 39 means, “To stir up, to provoke, to disagree sharply.” Things got so heated that Paul and Barnabas parted ways. The amazing partnership between Paul and Barnabas was brought to an end. Neither was willing to compromise on their conviction.
· This is not a doctrinal issue, or an ethical issue.
· You might say it’s a wisdom issue, you might even say it’s a preference issue. It’s definitely not a clear cut issue, should they give John Mark a second chance or take someone else along who is more reliable and trustworthy?
· Why were they not able to find a compromise for the sake of the mission? Did they let personal agenda’s get in the way?
· Is this really something worth breaking the team up over?
God’s work is accomplished
The text doesn’t comment on any of these issues. It tells us what the disagreement was about, but it doesn’t tell us whether it was right or sinful or who was right. Because that is not the point of the narrative. The point is not to teach us how to handle disagreements.
The point is to show that these are a reality, these are an inevitable part of serving the Lord and they ultimately do serve the Lord and His purposes. Whether there was sin involved, or pride, or not – this disagreement happened and it ultimately served God’s purposes.
Barnabas takes John Mark to Cypris, Paul takes Silas to Syria and Cilicia, and the one missionary band becomes 2. According to 15:40 Paul and Silas are now also commended by the church at Antioch, sent out from the church at Antioch and 16:5 the churches throughout the region are strengthened and encouraged.
The narrative is highlighting the advance of the gospel despite all these things….God’s providence, God’s sovereign control over all things in order that they might all work together for His glory, to accomplish His purpose.
This should not be an excuse for us to not pursue unity, to not seek to compromise for the sake of peace. This is not a reason to be stubborn and insensitive in relationships – but it is a comfort to know that even the godliest of men, sometimes have to agree to disagree. We don’t know that the relationship was broken here, but the partnership certainly was and despite the mess – God’s purposes prevail and the gospel is advanced and the church is built up.
Don Stewart defines providence as “The providence of God refers to God making all the events of the physical and moral universe fulfill His original design.”
Another definition of providence says, “Divine providence is the governance of God by which He, with wisdom and love, cares for and directs all things in the universe to accomplish his purposes….. The doctrine of divine providence asserts that God is in complete control of all things – the physical world, the affairs of nations, the destiny of people, human successes and failures and the protection of His people.” (Got Questions)
That’s providence… Man plans his way, but God’s purposes prevail.
Paul loses one great partner in the ministry, but gains another. In God’s providence, as he returns to Lystra and Derbe, basically retracing the first missionary journey in reverse – he comes across Timothy. Paul needs someone to replace Barnabas and God provides Timothy. Humanly speaking, if Paul and Barnabas hadn’t parted ways, they wouldn’t have been looking for additional personnel. Timothy is the ideal person for the job, he has a Jewish mother and a Greek father. In God’s providence, he is able to relate to both Jew and Gentile and Paul would later write of him in Phil 2:20 “I have no-one else like him, who has a genuine concern for your welfare.”
That’s providence – God controls people, circumstances, plans, sickness – everything – to accomplish his purposes for His glory and our good.
3: GUIDANCE (16:6-10)
So let’s talk about guidance-16:6-10.
It would be most helpful to look at a map at this point so you can see visually what Paul was experiencing. (MAP)
· Paul began retracing his steps from the first missionary journey – Lystra, Derbe according to his plan.
· 16:6 -Then he probably intend to go straight across to Asia, possibly to Ephesus along this major route, but the Holy Spirit stopped him.
· 16:7 - So they decided to go North and Skirt Asia and then go North East into Bythinia. But again the Holy Spirit stopped him.
· 16:8 That would have required them to go along Mysia, basically along the shore of this section of water which connects the Black sea and the Mediteranian sea- which brought them to Troas.
· 16:9 At Troas, they would have been encamped across from Macedonia. In Acts 13-14 Luke describes how Paul stopped at every place along the way and evangelized and how churches were established in every town. Here, we don’t have that. Here we have Paul surrounded by all these places that have yet to hear the gospel. Ministry opportunities are literally on every side, but wherever Paul tries to go, he’s met with a “No” from the Lord.
· It’s not a, “No, don’t go here, instead go there. Don’t do that, instead do this.” It’s simply a “No.” And Paul is left haven’t to try a different route, a different place, a different plan – only to be told “No again.”
· I’m sure Paul must have been quite frustrated by this time. What’s going on here Lord, “Do you want me to preach the gospel or not?” This ministry trip is not working out at all as Paul had planned.
· The places Paul wanted to go were good. Paul would later spend a few years at Ephesus and use it as a base for establishing a major outreach into Asia. But that wasn’t God’s plan for this trip.
Application: Do you get frustrated
· Do you get frustrated when God re-directs your steps?
· Are you like me and you want to throw your toys out the cot every time things don’t work out as you planned, or are you able to see God’s hand of providence in everything that happens?
· Are you able to yield and to serve God, even if you find yourself thousands of miles away from where you intended to be?
· You plan to make this trip….and your car breaks down. You plan to close this business deal and you lose it. You plan to pass this exam and you fail it. You plan to enter into this partnership, to marry this person, to start this business, to watch this movie, to enjoy this cup of hot coffee, to wear this dress, to impress these people, to gain this promotion, to complete this task list, to raise godly children, to earn this degree, to play in this team…..but God has other plans.
Mechanisms of guidance
· Again, the text is not concerned with the internal mechanisms of how this was accomplished, only that it was.
· In vs 6 we have the Holy Spirit saying, “No,” in vs 7 the Spirit of Jesus and in vs 10 God calling. So all three members of the Trinity are at work here, Father, Son and Spirit – ensuring that Paul arrives at the destination that God had ordained for him.
· What mechanisms did he use? 15:28 when they deliver the decision of the counsel they say “Its seemed good to the Holy Spirit and us.” And that was a decision which was clearly reached by discussion and debate and consensus. In Acts 9 God’s leading was through prophesy revealed to Ananias. In Acts 20:23 Paul is lead by the Spirit to go to Rome largely by inner conviction. Here, and in other places it involved dreams and visions. Acts is not a manual for how to receive and respond to guidance. The text doesn’t even explain the mechanism because the emphasis is not on how – but on the reality.
· What is the reality? Paul is being actively lead and directed so that he would be exactly where God intended, when God intended to do what God intended. Providence says that God is perfectly able to direct the lives of His people and all people. He is able to move us around exactly as He likes, when and where He likes.
Urgency – speeding onward
· There seems to be some measure of urgency here. Luke’s picture is of Paul “making a bee line” for Macedonia as it were. VS 10 says that “immediately they sought to go into Macedonia. VS 11 says they set sail from Troas to Samothrace, and the next day went on to Neapolis. In Acts 20:6 when Paul makes the reverse trip it takes him 5 days from Philippi to Troas so evidently God was giving them strong head-winds.
· Again, we love it when God gives us head winds and He speeds us along in what He has called us to do and everything is smooth sailing. But what about when Paul took 5 days on the returns trip to do the same journey that had taken him a day?... What about when God sends him to testify to the gospel in Rome, but gives him a shipwreck and a few months stranded on an island along the way….
· God’s providence is not only at work in the head-winds but also in the cross winds, and even when we find ourselves becalmed in the middle of the ocean with nowhere to go and nothing to do but wait upon the Lord.
· This leading involved Paul’s plans, other people’s plans, conflict, convictions, circumstances, dreams, prophecies, conversations and a bunch of other realities that we are not even aware of – but the net result is the same. God is working all these things together to get Paul where He needs to be, right on time – but it’s God’s time and God’s agenda, not ours. That’s providence. God working all things together according to His plans for His glory and our good.
4: PRoDUCTIVITY (16:11-15)
Finally, let’s talk about productivity because that is why we make plans, because we want to accomplish things. And that is why we throw our toys out the cot when our plans get messed up, because now our goals, our purposes are being frustrated.
God doesn’t want us to live unproductive lives, but sometimes His outcomes don’t match ours and His are better than ours.
As 16:12 says, Phillipi was a leading city in the district. It was a prominent Roman colony with many retired and active soldiers. It was as Gentile as you get. Jewish practice required at least 10 men for a Jewish synagogue to be established. It seems that there were not even that many, so when Paul arrives they can’t go to the synagogue as was their practice in the other cities, but they supposed according to vs 13 that there would at least be a place of prayer. A place where the Jewish women and other god-fearers would gather for prayer outside the city walls.
· This group was evidently very small.
· It mostly or exclusively involved women
· In vs 14 Lyda is described as a worshipper of God which is a designation for a God-fearer, or Gentile, who had associated themselves with Yahweh without becoming a full convert to Judaism.
So this was a small fringe group of religious adherents who would have been viewed with suspicion, which is probably why they met for prayer outside the city.
This hardly seems like a great door for effective service has been opened for Paul. Is this the great end toward which God has been directing Paul? And the situation is only going to get worse – in the next paragraph he faces demonic opposition and then imprisonment… Within a week of arriving he finds himself in chains in prison. Paul certainly didn’t have a prison ministry in mind when he set out on his second missionary journey… Can you enter into this situation and begin to see how unfathomable are God’s ways and beyond searching out His plans?
Oh the disappointment and difficulty of coming to terms with God’s plans for our life, our family, our country, our career….
I wanted to drop out of varsity in order to become a missionary to unreached people groups. Megan and I planned on having no children so we could be undistracted in pursuing a vocation in missions. Nearly 30 years later we have 7 kids and are nowhere near unreached people groups. All I’ve learned along the way is never to say never to God…. I said I’d never study in the States, I’d never pastor Midrand Chapel. It seems like all I’ve managed to do is what I said I’d never do….
GOD IS AT WORK
But look again how God is at work here…..God had been preparing the soil of Lydia’s heart. 16:14 God opened her heart and caused her to pay attention and to understand. Unless God works, the gospel falls on deaf ears – but when God is at work, people hear and see with faith and the simple message of the gospel comes with life transforming power.
God had prepared a day on which Lydia would hear the gospel and believe and He brought that day about according to His plan and purpose and Paul was right on time….
That’s providence…the hidden hand of God working all things together according to His purpose, for His glory and the good of those who belong to Him.
· She comes from Thyatira, which was a city well known for its trade in purple dyes.
· She was probably a regional agent for some manufacturing connections that she had in her home town.
· Purple was the colour of royalty and the trade in purple dye was lucrative business with those who had financial means and positions of power and wanted others to know it.
· She invites the disciples to her house, and her entire household hears and believes the gospel. So she evidently has financial means of her own and a household of servants.
· The church at Philippi began using her house for services and her household were the first members and so was born one of the greatest mission minded churches of the first century.
o Phil 1:3-6 – note Paul’s gratitude for them
o 1:1:19 – note Paul’s great affection for them
o 4:14-17 – They were the only church in Macedonia to start supporting Paul’s ministry and they supporting him faithfully over all the years sending gifts and money and people to encourage him.
From the letter to the Philippians church you can tell that Paul here – received one of his greatest gifts from God for the support of His ministry. God was not only working this plan out for the good of the church and the salvation of Lydia, but also for the good of Paul and the effective advancement of his ministry. Paul could have been frustrated that his plans had been thwarted – but far better to rejoice that God’s plans had prevailed.
What is not encouraging – is to start out on a missionary journey to Galatia with one person – and end up in jail, in Macedonia with another person. What is encouraging, is to know that God is in control of everything, and every now and then to get a glimpse into the good He is doing.
I hope this encourages you!
Life in service of Christ is sometimes difficult, and certainly takes many unexpected detours. We will face conflict with people and the messiness of relationships, persecution, demonic opposition, political interference, personal discouragement, trying circumstances and we will often have no idea what God is doing or how it is all going to work out….
But this is providence, God working all things in or life, everything, even our own selfish choices and sinfulness and mistakes – working it all for good, according to His plan for His glory alone.