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When Plans Go Bad

Date: May. 4, 2014

Author: Bob Henkins

Acts 16:6-15

Key Verse: Acts 16:10

“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.”

Some people go through life and they think they have it all planned out. After high school, they’re going to go to a certain college, study a certain major, get a certain job, get married to a certain person and live happily ever after. I don’t know about you but I’m not like that at all. I didn’t even know what I was going to do after high school, I wasn’t thinking that far ahead, foolish me. But I have to hand it to those folks that have it all planned out, that is until their plan begins to fall apart. And when they don’t get into the college of their choice, or get the job they hoped for, or whatever it is they had planned on, they cry out wondering what went wrong. Some are resilient enough to bounce back and roll with the changes, but those who are not strong enough live in the desolate world of “it could’ve been,” never getting the answers to their question. However for those of us that have put our faith in Jesus, here we have a blessing because although we may be in the same exact situation as the planner, we may have a chance to gain insight into the reason of why plans go bad. (hence the title) Notice that I said, “we MAY have a chance” and not “we WILL have a chance” and yet I still call it a blessing, why? Let’s find out from today’s passage.

At the end of last week’s passage we found that Paul and Silas hade made plans to re-visit all the churches that had been planted during Paul’s first trip. But as I mentioned already, even the best planners sometimes run into problems. (have you ever been on a trip that had a problem?)

  1. The Problem

As Paul and Silas left Antioch and went through Cilicia they stopped at Derbe and then Lystra. While they were at Lystra, Timothy got circumcised and joined their travel team. Everything was going great as they re-traced their steps going through Galatia to Iconium and then on to Pisidian Antioch. However that’s where things started to get a little funky. Let’s take a look at verses 6-8. “Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas.” On their first journey, they essentially started in Pisidian Antioch and then they headed east, but this time they were going the other direction and decided to keep going, past Pisidian Antioch. Some scholars think that they wanted to head to Ephesus but they weren’t allowed to turn that way because the Holy Spirit was somehow blocking their way. So instead of heading west they continued north until they came to the borders of Mysia and Bithynia. Their intention was to go into Bithynia, probably to witness in the big cities along the Black Sea like Nicomedia, Nicea, and Byzantium, but it says they were stopped again by “the Spirit of Jesus.” This could have meant that they had seen a special vision of the risen Jesus, but it’s probably more likely that it’s just a different expression of the Holy Spirit.

So far in the book of Acts, we’ve seen Paul’s attitude during his mission trips. When he was in Pisidian Antioch, the whole city was stirred up against them but it didn’t stop him, even as they left they were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit. (13:52) And when they went to Lystra the first time, Paul ended up getting stoned (not high – not like in Colorado) by the town’s people. Even that didn’t stop him he went back into the city after that. And yet all we hear in these two cases, is that Jesus and the Holy Spirit stopped them. We know that Paul isn’t easily dissuaded when he’s focused on a mission so it must have been something significant to keep him from going there. And it’s here where we find the problem. Even though they gave their best effort, it seemed like all the doors were closing on them. And during all this, they were trying to do what they thought was God’s will. Of course if they were trying to do something that was outright wrong we could understand why things weren’t going well. But in this case, they were trying to follow God but door after door was being closed. And the danger is, they could have become discouraged and given up. Have you ever experienced a situation like this? Where you think that you are doing what God wants you to do, and you’re not getting the results that you think you should be getting? That’s a frustrating problem isn’t it? What do you do? Is this the type of problem that God wants us to persevere through and push on and thus growing our faith in him? Or is this the type of problem that God wants us to change direction? How do we get the discernment to know which way to go or how long should we try, how many doors have to be closed? This is a great question. Here I’m reminded about the story of Balaam and his donkey from Numbers 22. Who remembers the story of Balaam? Here’s a short summary, Balaam, was about to do something that God didn’t want him to do. Balaam had made his plans and he hopped on his donkey and started on his way. However, as he was going on down the road when suddenly his donkey went off the road into a field. Balaam got off and beat his donkey. Then he started going again. Then they were on this narrow path with walls on both sides and when suddenly the donkey stopped and it pressed up against the wall and started to crush Balaam’s foot. So Balaam got off and beat the donkey until is started moving again. Then finally they came to a narrow place where there was no room to go to the right or the left, only straight and suddenly the donkey just laid down and wouldn’t go any further. Balaam was angry and he got off and started to beat the donkey again, this time with his staff. “Then the Lord opened the donkey’s mouth, and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?” 29 Balaam answered the donkey, “You have made a fool of me! If only I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.” 30 The donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?” “No,” he said. 31 Then the Lord opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road with his sword drawn. So he bowed low and fell facedown. 32 The angel of the Lord asked him, “Why have you beaten your donkey these three times? I have come here to oppose you because your path is a reckless one before me. 33 The donkey saw me and turned away from me these three times. If it had not turned away, I would certainly have killed you by now, but I would have spared it.”” (Nu 22) From this we learn that sometimes, God leads his people by closing doors. Sometimes this is for our own protection, other times it’s to prevent us from going against God’s will. When this happens, the most important thing we can do is to make sure that we stay sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s leading. I know that several of you have experienced a closed door in your lives, Daniel & Deborah’s decision to go as missionaries, Mike’s choice of college, Dan’s PhD studies, Gideon’s job situation, Orlando & Monica’s house in Aurora and I’m sure there are many more that I didn’t mention. These have all been closed doors in the plan of their lives but God wasn’t done leading them.

When I thought about this point in Paul’s trip I couldn’t help but wonder, why didn’t our Lord Jesus let Paul preach the gospel in Asia or Bithynia? What was the reason, were they not worthy of God’s grace? John Calvin, a famous preacher, uses this event to point out God’s freedom to do whatever he wants. This is called election, where God elects to do whatever he wants. God leads his people where he wants them to go. Calvin says that there is nothing better than God having the free power to pour out his grace upon whomever he wishes AND to deprive of his grace from whomever he wants. God says, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” (Rom 9:15) We might say that sounds unfair, but we do it all the time. As we mature, we realize that God’s calling and his election is only by his grace, this keeps us humble because there is nothing that we can boast about that we did. It’s all by God’s grace.

Still this didn’t help me answer the question why didn’t Jesus let Paul go into Ephesus, if that’s where he was headed. Another thought is, well, maybe it just wasn’t Paul’s job to do it. Maybe Paul wasn’t the right person to go there. I will throw out an example that is pure speculation on my part but bear with me for a moment. When Paul finally did get to Ephesus, the gospel had already been there, we don’t know by whom. That’s where Paul met Pricilla and Aquila in Corinth, they were training a young man called Apollos, who seems like he may have been to Ephesus because the people that Paul met there had the same idea about the gospel. But we find that Pricilla and Aquila did a great job teaching Apollos, who had a similar character as Paul. Maybe if Paul had gone into Ephesus when he wanted, he would have run into Apollos and they would have clashed and Paul would have crushed him as in the case of John Mark. And since we know that Paul eventually did go to Ephesus, maybe it wasn’t the right time. The simplest answer is we don’t know why God does thing but he does them with a good purpose. Because as believers in Jesus, we believe God’s promises, and he says that he works for the good of those who love him. (Rom 8:28) My point in all of this is that sometimes we keep trying to do a task, and it may be a good task in the church, but maybe it’s not our job to do it. Maybe we’re not gifted to do it. This is when we really have to seek God for wisdom and discernment to get his will and direction for our lives and conviction of God’s leading.

The missionary group must have been thoroughly perplexed as they were led away from the cities of Bithynia through the wild backwoods country of Mysia over to the coast and down to Troas. Troas lay in the region associated with Troy, some thirty miles to the south of the ancient city. It had been founded in the fourth century B.C. and was primarily a port city. It had a significant harbor for sea traffic and had been given the status of a colony city by Augustus. Thus Troas had a sizable population and would itself have been a suitable candidate for a major mission. Ah ha, maybe THIS was the place that God was leading Paul to go….. Nope.

Take a look at verses 9-10. “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.” Ah finally we get to the answer to their problem.

  1. The Solution

In the night Paul has this vision of a man begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” It seems finally their direction became crystal clear. Well, as clear as someone telling you, “Hey go that way.” This kind of reminded me of Abraham who was told by God to, “Go to a place that I will show you…” Just as Abraham didn’t know where he was going, likewise Paul didn’t know where he was going but still he went. Sometimes to follow God’s direction, we need patience and humbleness because we may not know exactly what or how we are to do it.

They accepted the vision as an answer to their prayer. The Bible says that they “got ready at once,” I’m not sure if that meant that they went down to the dock in the middle of the night, and caught the first ship to Macedonia or not but here we learn that in doing gospel work, we must carefully follow the leading of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes, opportunities that look good to us are not God’s leading so he may close the door. When this happens, we have to accept it without being discouraged but continue to seek God until we find his leading. Then, when we find it, we must decide to follow God’s leading with faith. Persistence is the key, to find God’s will we may have to seek him through his word, through prayer, through godly console, or simply through an opportunity. And sometimes we don’t find out how God solved the problem until much later in our lives.

In the vision, the man was begging. Usually only those in dire need beg. So I think that this was an indication of the seriousness of the situation. But how could Paul help them? He didn’t have a lot of money, power or supplies. But what he did have he was willing to share it with them and that was the gospel. And as it turns out the gospel is the best thing to help them. Sure Paul could have helped them by giving them things like money, or something else, but those things fall short and may help for a time, but they don’t last. Only the gospel lasts. The help that all people need is to be saved from their sins, because our sins separate us from our Creator and the source of our life is cut off and we will eventually die because of our sins. Nothing in the world can help us with our sins except Jesus, who gave his life in our place, paying the price that our sin demanded. The gospel was the best help the Macedonian’s could get.

  1. The Result

So what happened, what were the results of the solution? Take a look at verses 12-15. “From there we traveled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district of Macedonia. And we stayed there several days. 13 On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there. 14 One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. 15 When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” And she persuaded us.” Finally, now the picture became clear. It was revealed half way before but God was actually leading them to Phillipi. We find out that there wasn’t a synagogue there, so they met near a river. There weren’t enough Jews there to have a synagogue. They would have needed at least 10 married Jewish men to establish a synagogue. As a result the scriptures were not being read each week, they didn’t have a proper place to worship God and yet they had somehow heard the gospel. So it was the right time for Paul to come and give them the gospel.

Among the women gathered there, one stood out. Her name was Lydia, the same as the ancient territory in which her native city of Thyatira was located. She is described as a dealer in goods dyed purple, a likely occupation since Thyatira was indeed a center of the purple dye trade. Lydia’s business is not an incidental detail. It marks her as a person of means. Purple goods were expensive and often associated with royalty; thus the business was a lucrative one. It’s also interesting to note, that the church at Phillipi was the only one to support Paul materially during his mission trips.

  1. The Conclusion

So what do we take away from all of this? All of us have our own plans. We make them thinking that we know what is best. But we can’t see the big picture. Only God can. He is the Almighty Creator of heaven and earth and he doesn’t do things without reason. If he closes a door on our plans it’s because it wasn’t right for us at the time. Two weeks ago, I interviewed for a job. They said that I should receive an answer this coming week. I don’t know God’s plan. I have my hopes, but He has his plan. I’m excited to see what his will is. Remember when I mentioned the Yang’s, Mike, Dan, Gideon, Orlando & Monica, sure God may have closed those doors on them but he opened new ones for them. IIT wasn’t Mikes first choice it was his 4th but God had a plan when he sent him here. When God closed the door on Dan’s PhD studies, he opened the door to get a job and start a family. When God closed the door on the Ocassio’s house in Aurora, he opened a new door to move to Chicago and join our fellowship. In Gideon and Rebecca’s case, we’re still waiting to see what God has planned for them. I remember when I was demoted, that door slammed shut, but God used it so that I could be free to serve my family when Mikey was born. God works for the good of those who love him and have been called according to his good purpose. We must believe this and trust that God knows what he’s doing.

May God bless your life of faith.

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