Living above the Circumstances – Acts 16:1-15

Welcome to Day 1 of our new devotional series on the book of Philippians. There will be a total of 15 writings and readings that come out daily on Monday to Friday of the next three weeks.

Today and tomorrow Chris and I begin by giving some of the background of the Christians who comprised the church at Philippi, which was one of the better fellowships of those we see in the New Testament Scriptures.

Something I have been profoundly impressed with in recent months is the number of people whom I know well and who are living with ALS – a.k.a. Lou Gehrig’s disease. I know of four godly people suffering with this condition. In each case, these are among the most joyful and vibrant Christian folks that I know! One might say that they are “living above their circumstances.”

It was my old Dallas Seminary professor friend and renowned Bible teacher Howie Hendricks who used to often include in his messages a conversation with a certain Christian acquaintance, where Howie would ask, “How are you doing?” … to which the response would be some version of “Not bad under the circumstances.”  And Howie’s humorous retort would be to say, “Under the circumstances? What are you doing down there?”

The letter to the Philippians rings with a theme of joy. We can have joy in all circumstances, even if we don’t always have happiness. It depends upon our measuring stick. If our measuring device is only limited to the circumstance and events of our immediate physical world, well, we are going to come up short quite a bit. But if our measurement is calibrated in eternal numbers and true realities, we are in possession at ALL TIMES of God’s magnanimous grace and the promise of His eternal relationship with us.

When we calibrate our earthly sorrows and challenges against the greater spiritual reality, well, we see the smallness of our problems, along the lines of the old hymn that says “and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.”

Philippians is a prison epistle – written by Paul while chained to a Roman soldier. But you’d never know it by the joyful tone of his writing.

Philippi ruins

Philippi ruins

The church at Philippi was begun when Paul and Silas were on a missionary journey – one that has a lot of travel details. Let’s pick up at the beginning of Acts 16 …

Timothy Joins Paul and Silas

16:1  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 traveled 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.

Paul and Silas pick up a new partner in Timothy. This occurred in Lystra – the same place where, on the first missionary journey, Paul was stoned, believed to be dead, and dragged out of the city. He dusted himself off and went back into town to finish his sermon, and it was then that Timothy was saved and came to belief in Christ. (Actually, I don’t really know if that is how it happened – I just made that up! But in that Timothy is later called by Paul “my disciple in Christ,” it would appear certain that he came to faith during the prior ministry of Paul in that town.)  Here, in Luke’s fashion, he briefly introduces Timothy – a young man who will be a major player later in the Acts narrative.

The churches of the South Galatian region were revisited, and Paul used the opportunity to encourage them with the decisions of the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) and to continue to build them up in the faith.

6 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. 7 When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to.

As they traveled on to the northwest, it seemed that the Spirit was closing door after door that one would presume should be open! It is a pattern of the Christian experience that when God closes doors, it is to move us on to a greater open door we might not have otherwise found on our own. And so Paul and his companions travel all of the way to the Aegean Sea – to the town of Troas. Here we see in verse 10 the first mention of the pronoun “we,” which certainly indicates that Luke himself had now become a part of the travelling team.

Paul’s Vision of the Man of Macedonia

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.

God’s Manifest Destiny

You have probably heard the phrase, “Go West, young man!”  This was the quote of the famous 19th century newspaperman and author Horace Greeley – who greatly favored American expansionism to the west in the then-popular concept of Manifest Destiny. While the justice of this era of American expansion may be debated, God had a manifest destiny for the Gospel message to spread to the west. And today’s passage records one of the great moments in world history – when the message of Christ went from Asia to Europe.

In Troas, Paul has a dream that he understands to be from God – a vision of a man of Macedonia calling to him to come there. This is the region of northern Greece; and to travel there would require a multiple-day trip by sea. The group ends up in Philippi – a significant Roman city named after the father of Alexander the Great, Philip of Macedon.

11 From Troas we put out to sea and sailed straight for Samothrace, and the next day we went on to Neapolis. 12 From there we traveled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district of Macedonia. And we stayed there several days.

Lydia’s Conversion in Philippi

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.

On the Sabbath day, the group goes to a place along the river – a place known to be a spot for prayer. And there they meet a business woman named Lydia, who is described as a worshipper of God. Though not a proselyte, she was one who believed and worshipped the one true God, and the Lord brought the truth of the Gospel to her and her household … and to the European continent!

Lydia was apparently very successful in the purple cloth industry that was especially associated with her hometown of Thyatira, producing a highly-valued product in the Roman world. Her hospitality is immediately evident as she hosts the missionary team. Philippi would be among the finest of the churches founded by Paul, consisting of people who were generous in supporting God’s work – as we read in Philippians 4:15-16 …

Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid more than once when I was in need.

God’s expansive grace reverberates down through the corridors of time and across the centuries to our own day. And his desire continues to be that we too look for those open doors he will supply for us to press through and share the message of Christ’s work with those who are yet to know God personally.