Acts 16:9-15 – Paul has a vision during the night: A man from Macedonia pleading with him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.
Psalm 67 – Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you.
Revelation 21:10, 22 – 22:5 – And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God… No temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb… Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
John 14:23-29 – The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.
John 5:1-9 – Jesus heals a man at the pool of Beth-Zatha, by the Sheep Gate of Jerusalem.
Hymns: Shall We Gather at the River and Here I Am Lord.
Today’s first lesson from Acts 16 recounts a vision that Paul has towards the start of Paul’s second missionary journey. Dating these journeys can be difficult. Paul’s account and Luke’s account in Acts have some irreconcilable differences. However, we have some help. Several historical events are mentioned along the way, for example, Claudius’ expulsion of the Jews from Rome (which Seutonius dates at 49 AD) causing Priscilla and Aquila (“my fellow workers in Christ,” Romans 16:3-4) to be in Corinth, as recounted in Acts 18:2.
It is worth a brief tangent here to mention the remarkable number of female leaders mentioned in Luke, Acts, and Paul’s letters. I just mentioned Priscilla and Aquila, who were co-workers in the tentmaking business with Paul, and also co-workers in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Today’s text mentions Lydia, who is the head of her household, the host (at the very least) of a house church, and a business woman of means. In Romans 16, Paul commends Phoebe, a deacon, Julia, and Mary, leader of some sort. He also mentions coworkers Tryphaena and Tryphosa, probably twins or two of a triplet, and Adronicus and Junia, a couple that he refers to as “apostles.” It is astounding, but should probably not be, that a movement that began with women and slaves, those on the edges, morphed into a stunningly patriarchal system.
Getting back to the background of our story, Luke, in Acts, recounts Paul’s conversion three times, all of them considerably different than Paul’s own accounts. Luke also says that Paul went to Jerusalem, however, Paul himself says he went to Arabia and Damascus. Read this from Galatians 1:
But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus. Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him for fifteen days; but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother. In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie! Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia, and I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ; they only heard it said, ‘The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.’ And they glorified God because of me.
Keep in mind that Paul is writing Galatians in the 40’s, about an event in the 30’s, and Luke is writing in the 80’s or 90’s, about events that he did not witness. On the other hand, if Luke was a travel companion of Paul, as tradition holds, he would have likely heard the story once or twice from Paul himself. Even if Luke wrote Luke, and Luke was a travelling companion of Paul, we should not underestimate the challenge of an old man Luke recounting stories told to him half a century earlier.
A flawless timeline for Paul’s ministry and missionary journeys is not possible, however, from various comments in the gospels, Acts and Paul’s own letters, we can cobble something together that looks like this.
33 – Jesus’ crucifixion
34 – Paul’s conversion
Paul says he goes to Arabia (Gal. 1:17 — NOT Jerusalem as Acts claims)
Paul says he goes to Damascus (Gal. 1:17 — NOT Jerusalem as Acts claims)
37 – Jerusalem (Gal. 1:18 — after three years according to Paul, for 15 days. Paul says he only saw Cephas/Peter and James, the Lord’s brother; Acts 9:26-30)
Tarsus (where Barnabas finds him, Acts 11:25)
Antioch (where Barnabas takes him, Acts 11:26)
37-46 – till nine years unaccounted for!
46-48 – 1st Missionary Journey with Barnabas (Acts 13-14)
48 – Jerusalem conference with Barnabas and Titus (Gal. 2:1, Acts 15)
49-52 – 2nd Missionary Journey with Silas (Acts 15:36-18:21) Luke goes too. Timothy gets picked up in Lystra.
51-52 – Paul in Corinth
53-57 – 3rd Missionary Journey (Acts 18:22-21:16)
59-62 – 4th Missionary Journey (to Rome)
There are nine years unaccounted for. I can see only one solution to this, but scholars don’t like it. In 2 Corinthians 12:2, Paul obliquely describes his conversation as having taken place 14 years ago. The Corinthian correspondence must be after his time in Corinth (51-52 A.D.). If we were to date this portion of 2 Corinthians around 56-57 AD, then subtract 14 years, we would have to place Paul’s conversion much later, say, 42-43 AD. There are your nine years. None of this is preachable, of course. This is simply background for Bible study and for those who want to understand more deeply what is happening with first century Christianity.
There is not time in this post for a full-blown treatment of Paul’s missionary journeys. Here’s a map below to provide a bird’s-eye view. Notice Paul’s first journey (in white) is entirely in what we would call Turkey (and parts of Syria). This is a hot spot today. Paul would have called that region “Asia Minor”, though not to be confused with the modern-day continent.
Paul’s second missionary journey is in yellow. This map has it starting in Jerusalem with the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15). Others start the missionary journey with the commissioning (and argument) in Antioch. Still others like to begin the second missionary journey in Derbe, the westernmost point of the first missionary journey. Let’s not quibble. I chose this map because it was color coded.
The Council meets in Jerusalem to take up the matter of the Law of Moses. A group of Jewish Christians held that converts had to keep the Law of Moses (including laws, rites, circumcision, etc.) in order to be saved. Many of these were Pharisees. Peter stands up to say, “On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” (Acts 15:11) Paul and Barney then recount the conversions and miracles of their first missionary journey. The decision (Acts 15:19-21) is made to not trouble the new converts with circumcision and other fine points of the Mosaic Law, but to ask them to abstain from things polluted by idols (the meat processed through pagan temple sacrifice), from fornication (likely a reference to temple prostitution), from animals that have been strangled (not killed according to kosher law), and from blood (kosher law forbade the consumption of blood). The rationale is both defining and missionary: Moses is still being read in the synagogues. Differentiate yourself from pagan practice.
The second missionary journey has a rocky start. It begins with a decision to revisit the churches of the first missionary journey. The visit is to strengthen the churches and see how they are doing. But an argument arises. It is hardly the first argument, given the debate over the Law of Moses, and even arguments among Jesus’ disciples while he was still with them. This debate is between Paul and Barnabas. Barney wants to take John Mark from Jerusalem (Acts 12:12). Paul does not, because John Mark cut out on the group mid-journey (in Pamphylia) last time (Acts 13:13). They are unable to resolve the dispute, so Paul and Barnabas part company. “The disagreement became so sharp that they parted company…” (Acts 15:29) Sometimes this happens in churches. I once asked a megachurch pastor if his congregation had planted any new congregations. He responded, “Not intentionally.”
Acts 15 ends with Barnabas sailing to Cypress with John Mark. Paul takes Silas west by land, to to visit the congregations. “Come, let us return and visit the believers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord and see how they are doing….” (Acts 15:36)
If you look carefully at the yellow line in Map 1: Paul’s Missionary Journeys, you can see this second journey will encompass a much larger area than the first journey (white line). Follow the yellow line to the westernmost part of Turkey. There you can see Troas, where the night vision in today’s story takes place, Neapolis, across the Aegean, Philippi’s port, and Philippi. With Paul’s crossing the gospel enters Europe. Below Troas you can see Assos. We had a group from our synod just return from there, In Search of Paul. Check out the “In Search of Paul 2016” map. We have sponsored this spiritual pilgrimage three times years now.
The first eight verses of Acts 16 set up the scene for us. Paul heads to Derbe and then Lystra. If you go back up to the first map, you can find Lystra, about a quarter of the way from the right edge of the map, just west of Tarsus (from whence Paul hails, according to Luke’s account). During the first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas were almost stoned in Iconium, so they fled to Lystra. While in Lystra, Paul healed a man. The people started to worship Paul and Barnabas as gods, so some Jews came and stoned Paul, dragging him out of the city for dead. Later he awoke and went back into the city. This was the first missionary journey.
By the time Paul returns a few years later, on this second journey, this time with Silas, there is an established community. He bumps into Timothy. Timothy’s mother is a Jew, but his father is
Greek. For Paul, because of what Christ has done, this distinction is now irrelevant. There is no longer Jew nor Greek… (Galatians 3:28)
Paul has Timothy circumcised. This is an interesting choice of words. Why wouldn’t Luke say, “Timothy decided to get circumcised?” Apparently Paul already has a lot of clout. Anyway, the decision is apparently made because, as a circumcised male, Timothy will be more effective in his mission work.
There are two letters from Paul to Timothy (presumably in Ephesus) in the New Testament, late documents almost certainly not written by Paul himself. Paul refers to Timothy as his “son in the Lord” in 1 Corinthians 4:17, an undisputed epistle. This moniker is repeated in 1 Timothy 1:2, 18 and 2 Timothy 1:2. There is little doubt that Paul and Timothy develop a paternal bond. The churches are strengthened, Luke tells us, and their numbers increase daily.
Luke tells us the Holy Spirit forbade them to speak the Word in Asia. It is unclear how the Holy Spirit did this. In any case, they head down to Troas. The team is stuck. They have a decision to make. Where to go?
This is where our story for this week begins…
During their first night in Troas Paul has an ὅραμα (horama), a vision. Luke does not use the word for dream (ὄναρ, onar), so we can interpret this as a waking vision at night time or as a dream.
In this night vision, a man from Macedonia is calling to Paul. “Come to Macedonia and help us.” I am reminded that Paul is a mystic. His whole ministry is based on a vision he had of Jesus on the Road to Damascus. Paul describes this as likely an out-of-body experience (2 Corinthians 12:2). He describes his vision as being taken up into “the third heaven.” Let us not think we know Paul. He is a mystic. He has ecstatic visions. He speaks in tongues. He has experienced a personal revelation of Jesus. And now he has an ecstatic vision of a person in Macedonia telling him where his ministry must now go.
I’ve been giving background for some time, so perhaps it’s time for some thoughts about where a sermon on this text might go.
How do we discern God’s will? How do you make decisions? Have you ever been at a point of decision and didn’t know what to do? A marriage proposal? A job offer? Or perhaps the loss of a job with nothing on the horizon. The death of a loved one. At times we arrive at a point of decision. Going one way will lead us down one path in life. Going another way will lead us down a very different path. Perhaps as preacher, you could spin a personal yarn about a point of decision in your life.
After college I graduated with a degree in music. I was contemplating going into music for a career, but also considering seminary. I couldn’t decide. In my case, I made a bargain with God. I took an interview at a church in Indianapolis to be music director. I told God, probably foolishly, “I can’t decide, so, if I get this gig, I will take it and become a musician. If I don’t, I will go to seminary and see what happens.” The rest is history.
Have you ever had a difficult decision that left you tossing and turning? Have you ever awoken in the night with a vivid vision that pulled you in one direction or another? Do you pay attention to your dreams? Could it be possible that God speaks through dreams? Can you name the people in the Bible who have had dreams? Consider Abimilech, Jacob’s ladder, Jacob wrestling with the angel, Laban, Joseph, Pharaoh, Samuel hearing God calling in the night, Daniel, Joel: young will see visions and old will dream dreams, Mary’s husband Joseph, the Magi, and Paul. Don’t assume the folks in the pew know these stories. Preach them. You could pull one of these out and go into it. You could sing of Samuel’s dream, “Here I am Lord. Is it I, Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go, Lord, where you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart.”
Night vision is an interesting image. I imagine night vision goggles. In the night vision. Do you listen to your dreams? Do you have night vision? More importantly, are you watching and listening for God’s movement in your life, in every conceivable way? Where is God leading?
Paul acts upon this vision. He sets sail for Samothrace, an island in the Aegean Sea. The next day they head to Neapolis, Phiippi’s port.
Pronouns and Authorship
Okay, back to some background. There is a famous watershed pronoun shift our first lesson. The author goes from talking about the mission team as “they” to “we.” Watch. Read this passage with a keen eye on the pronouns:
They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them. We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district[c] of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.
It appears the author has joined the delegation. Luke the physician is mentioned by Paul in Colossians 4:14. He’s also mentioned in 2 Timothy 4:11 and in Philemon 24, an undisputed epistle. The spurious Anti-Marcionite Prologue to the Gospel of Luke claims that Luke was a disciple of Paul from Antioch of Syria, unmarried, without children, who died at the age of 84. Whoever the author is (the gospel is anonymous), he becomes part of the European mission team in Troas, and the narrative for the rest of Acts will be in the first person.
When Paul, Silas, Timothy, and our author (let’s go with “Luke”) set foot in Europe with the gospel of Jesus Christ, the people of Macedonia, a region of Northern Greece, have no idea that European history will be changed forever. Not only for Christianity, but also for antiquity. Would we even have Plato to read today if it were not for the monks of Benedict preserving them in their libraries? Would Plato’s writings have survived centuries of wars?
N. Wilson invites us to imagine Europe without: Benedict, Dante, cathedrals, Medieval universities, 15th century humanism, the Reformation, Crusades, Inquisitions, Ambrose, Augustine, Aquinas, Marsilius, Luther, Duns Scotus, Hume, Marx, Voltaire, Bach, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Kant, and Wagner. Christianity shaped Europe, and Europe shaped Christianity. One cannot study Western History without a good working understanding of Christianity. E. P. Sanders writes: “Of course if the Faith had not been European, and Europe had not adopted the Faith, there would have been some other story. But it would not have been our story.”
Philippi and Lydia
From Neapolis, Paul and his companions make their way to Philippi. Named after its founder, Philip II of Macdon, Philippi was established four hundred years earlier (354 B.C.). It will later, in the 14th century, be abandoned in the Ottoman Conquest. It is to this city that Paul writes his marvelous letter with the Christ hymn (Philippians 2), and all the stuff about rejoicing at all times, even in crisis.
We know of no significant Jewish community in Philippi. Archeologists have uncovered no Jewish Synagogue. So where do Paul and his entourage go on the Sabbath Day? They head down to the river “outside the gate,” looking for a προσευχή, a place of prayer. There they find a group of women. Jesus, too, was known to go to watering holes and encounter women, like the woman at the well in John 4.
Consider the river as a place of prayer both symbolically and literally. Consider the African American churches in the slave era that met down by the river, outside the proverbial gate, because they were marginalized, not part of the power structure. They cannot have a beautifully appointed house of prayer on Main Street.
Your congregation might sing, Shall We Gather at the River, ELW 423. I have grown to appreciate this hymn, that draws upon images of the river in Revelation 22 that flows from the throne of God. The river produces the water of life. It has both ecological and eschatological overtones, as it moves us to that shining river where we lay our burdens down. What if we saw the sky, the trees, and the river as our cathedral?
It is interesting that having now entered Europe, Paul meets a woman from Thyatira, back in Asia Minor (Turkey), southeast of Troas and Assos, from where they have just come. Thyatira is in a Roman Province called Lydia. She has probably gotten the Greek name “Lydia” because she is from Lydia, like someone from Texas being called “Tex” in Ohio. The first convert to Christianity in Europe is a Greek woman from Turkey.
Paul and his companions encounter this group of women. Christianity caught on with those on the margins, those on the edges, women, and slaves. They are likely god-fearers, that is, Greeks who are curious about monotheism and perhaps Judaism. Since women are not affected by the circumcision question, it is not surprising to find more female than male Jewish converts.
Lydia is the head of her household, probably a widow. She is apparently a woman of means: her house is big enough that she invites Paul and his friends to come and live with her for a while. Thyatira is a famous center of dyers. Philippi was also known for a purple vegetable dye. Perhaps that is why she was there. Her house becomes a church, the first house-church mentioned in Acts.
Women in the Roman Empire could not serve in the army, vote, or appear as witness in a court of law. Roman women remained in the control of their fathers even after marriage. There was no real adulthood for women in antiquity. There is no rite of passage for a woman to adopt the toga or bar mitzvah. So, inasmuch as Lydia is in control of her own destiny, she is a unique person in a unique situation. “It is only fair to remember this background when considering Paul’s attitude to women in his writings.” (E. P. Sanders, The Apostle’s Life, Letters and Thought p. 139)
Christianity gave women a higher place in society. Lydia has a role, the leader of a house church. She and her whole family are baptized. This calls to mind those women who followed Jesus and who funded his ministry (Luke 8:1-3).
A question for the church today might be this. Who is outside the gate, metaphorically or even literally? Where is “down by the river” in your community? Who is on the margins, on the edges that needs to be invited in, not just for their sake, but for yours? Who from the edges might God have already called to be at the center?