Acts 15 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
Mission to Asia Minor and the Macedonian Call
Part of St. Patrick's benediction, "May the wind be always at your back," well suits the experience of the Pauline missionary band at the beginning of its second journey. The wind is, of course, the wind of the Spirit, and it blows in some surprising directions. Hearing how this push west into Europe began under God's good hand is certain to give the reader confidence that the gospel message is more than just another Eastern cult threatening to pollute Roman minds and hearts. We too can gain confidence as we think about God's direction of the nature, personnel and carrying out of the same mission.
The plan of the second missionary journey is follow-up nurture, then further outreach. Paul is not one to "dip and drop" his converts (Talbert 1984:68). He suggests to Barnabas that they visit (denoting caring oversight; compare Lk 1:68, 78; 7:16; Acts 15:14) the brothers and sisters in the churches they have planted (13:13--14:20; 15:41; 16:1, 4-6; Gal 1:2, 21; 3:1-5). This was always Paul's practice (Acts 14:21-23; 18:23; 19:21; 20:1-6).
So after disagreeing with Barnabas and choosing Silas, Paul went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches. As had been done at Antioch, the emissaries shore up the Gentile Christians' faith, which has almost been dismantled by the Judaizers (compare 15:32). They probably also deliver the Jerusalem Council's decrees (15:23). The summary statement about ministry in the Galatian churches explicitly notes such activity (16:4-5).
The result is the same: wise and healthy decisions (used of imperial decrees at Lk 2:1; Acts 17:7) help to strengthen Christians in the faith (compare 3:7, 16; Col 2:5; 1 Pet 5:9). Qualitative growth is matched by quantitative growth. With reaffirmation of the Gentiles' full acceptance by faith alone and instructions on how to fellowship with scrupulous Jewish Christians, it is not surprising that the churches grew daily in numbers (compare 2:41, 47; 4:4; 5:14; 6:7; 9:31; 11:21; 12:24). So today God's hand of blessing, manifest in quantitative growth, will be seen where Christians proclaim a gospel of grace without additional cultural requirements and promote multicultural unity. And this fruit will remain when we choose the right purpose: nurture.
Paul gathers his companions for the journey in some unexpected ways. His recruitment begins logically enough when he asks Barnabas to accompany him (v. 36). But Barnabas's intention to take John Mark leads to such a sharp disagreement, literally "a heated disagreement" (compare Deut 29:27 LXX; Jer 39:37 LXX), that Paul and Barnabas decide they can no longer work together. So they separate.
Luke does not explain why Barnabas wants to take John Mark along. Is it that this encourager's sympathy reaches out to restore the deserter (compare Acts 4:36; 9:27)? Is it Barnabas's sympathy with the viewpoint of the strict Jewish Christians, which he may share with Mark, and which may have occasioned Mark's earlier defection (Gal 2:13)? Is it simply the family tie between them (Col 4:10)? What we do know is that from Paul's perspective, John Mark's desertion in the midst of the first missionary journey rendered him unfit for the second (Acts 13:13; compare Lk 8:13; 1 Tim 4:1). Luke has not told us why John Mark deserted. Paul does say that Mark had not continued with them in the work, and earlier that work was defined as "the door of faith" being opened to the Gentiles (14:26-27). It may be that on a journey to communicate the Jerusalem church's affirmation of the Gentile mission, this defector would have proved more of a liability than an asset.
In any case, the separation doubles the church's mission, for Barnabas takes John Mark and goes to his home area, Cyprus (4:36), and Paul chooses a new partner, Silas. Silas is well suited to the task. He is spiritually gifted, a prophet (15:32). He embodies the church's commitment to a Gentile mission with the law-free gospel, for he was one of the envoys bearing the council's letter (15:22, 27). As a Roman citizen, he can move about easily within the Empire (16:37).
Given Luke's emphasis on unity as the mark of the Holy Spirit within the church, he can hardly approve of the divisiveness that led to the separation (2:44-46; 4:32; 5:12). Yet he does approve of Paul's team and notes that it is commended [having been handed over to] by the brothers to the grace of the Lord (compare 14:26).
This incident shows us that past performance reveals character and properly serves as a basis for judging suitability for future service. Further, even though differences in judgment may produce schism, God can so rule and overrule that there is no permanent barrier to the advance of his mission.
The other "right person" for Paul's mission is Timothy (16:1-3). Though he obviously fills the gap created by Paul's refusal to take John Mark, there is also an element of providential surprise in his selection (compare the introductory kai idou, "and behold," untranslated in the NIV). Timothy will be very useful for the mission. He is a disciple, a man of good character (Phil 2:20-22; compare Acts 6:3; 1 Tim 3:7) whose reputation has extended even to Iconium, a day's journey away. He is a person of mixed parentage.
Timothy's one defect is a lack of circumcision. If the Jews at this time traced Jewish descent of mixed marriages matrilineally (m. Qiddusin 3:12; m. Yebamot 7:5; Cohen [1986:267] questions whether the principle was applied this early), uncircumcised Timothy is a Jew by birth but apostate. The small Jewish community at Lystra was either too weak or too lax to enforce circumcision in a culture that determined ethnic and religious heritage patrilineally. Still, Timothy has a good spiritual heritage from his mother (2 Tim 1:5; 3:15). With his father now possibly deceased (the verb tense seems to indicate this), there is no impediment to circumcision. And there is every reason. If Paul condones Timothy's uncircumcised, apostate status, he will not have access to synagogues, his strategic point of contact in most cities. Further, the decree's underlying principle of respect for cultural identity will be compromised by the presence of a Jewish Christian who has "gentilized." So by circumcising Timothy, Paul clarifies his status for Jewish believer and unbeliever alike.
This is not inconsistent with the circumcision-free gospel to Jew and Gentile so recently affirmed at the council. Rather, it reflects Paul's higher consistency. For Paul never denied his religious heritage or its practices as an appropriate way to live out his Christian commitment (Acts 21:21-24), yet he could treat circumcision as a matter of indifference and use it as a means of cultural adaptation to further the gospel (1 Cor 9:19-23; Gal 5:6).
The "right people," then, to promote the advance of the church's mission are spiritually fruitful, morally faithful and culturally flexible. Today such men and women are God's gift to the church for the cutting edge of mission advance.
From Pisidian Antioch in the region of Phrygia and Galatia Paul evidently intends to make his way straight west into the Roman province of Asia on the Via Sebaste, 150 miles to Colosse and then 150 more to Ephesus. We are not told how, but the Holy Spirit clearly prevents them from taking that route so that they could preach the word in Asia. This occurs probably before they set off or early in their passage, for they evidently turn northward almost immediately.
They come to Dorylaeum, or more probably Cotiaeum, at the border of Mysia (the latitude of Mysia), the northern portion of the province of Asia, and sought to head northeast into the province of Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. Again there is no indication of the means he uses. Paul evidently takes this negative guidance to mean that he must push the mission farther west, across the Aegean to Greece. He heads for Troas, the port of embarkation for Macedonia, even though there is no direct route to it from where he begins (compare Bowers 1979; Haenchen 1971:487 disagrees).
Troas, more properly Alexandria Troas, was an important seaport for travel from the northwestern part of the Roman province of Asia to Macedonia and the west. Ten miles south of the ancient site of Troy, the now deserted site has ruins of an aqueduct, a theater and city walls six miles in circumference, giving mute testimony to its prosperity and magnitude. There during the night Paul receives positive guidance. In a vision (compare 9:12; 18:9; 22:17; 26:16) he sees and hears a man of Macedonia . . . begging him, "Come over to Macedonia and help us." This "begging" is a strong appeal (compare 13:42).
Now that Paul has received extraordinary and circumstantial guidance, his team corporately reasons, putting together (symbibazo) the positive and negative guidance, to the conclusion that God has called them to evangelize the Macedonians (compare 13:2). And they act immediately, getting ready (literally "seeking") to leave for Macedonia.
How does God guide his church to the right place for mission? There will be "closed" as well as "open doors." There will be guidance addressed to individuals as well as to the entire team. There will be guidance via circumstances, sometimes extraordinary, as well as through the use of reason in evaluating circumstances in the light of God's Word. And specific guidance will come only to those who are already on the road, living out their general obedience to the Great Commission. Being able to say, "God sent me; I come with the wind at my back," is a strong witness to one's hearers that one's message is from God and true.