Commentary on Acts 16:1-10
Today we find ourselves on the second missionary journey of Paul.
Just in case we think that quarrels and divisions in our church is something that only happened later in the Church’s history, we need to see how this second journey got under way. Some time after the first journey, Paul suggested to Barnabas that they should go back and visit the places they had evangelised. However, Barnabas wanted to take John Mark, his cousin, along with them. However, Paul disagreed because he said that Mark had abandoned them early on at Pamphylia on the First Journey and he did not want him along this time.
Their disagreement was so strong that they decided to go their separate ways. Barnabas took Mark and they went off to his native Cyprus. Paul, however, with the blessing of the Antioch community, took Silas instead as his companion. They began by going through Syria and Cilicia, visiting the churches Paul had been to on his first journey.
It is at that point that our reading begins today. We find Paul back in places where he had proclaimed the Gospel before – Derbe and Lystra. As Paul is approaching this time from the east, the order of the towns is reversed.
It was in Lystra that Paul met Timothy, whom he invited to join him in his work. Timothy was to become one of his closest and most loyal companions and there are two letters of the New Testament dedicated to him. His mother was a Jew but his father was a Gentile Greek and because of that he had never been circumcised. (We saw how that could have been an issue during the meeting in Jerusalem.) Since Paul addressed him as a young man some 15 years later (see 1 Tim 4:12), he must have been only in his teens at this time.
On the basis of the decision that had been made in Jerusalem, there was now no need for Timothy to be circumcised but Paul, sensitive to the strong feelings of the Jews to whom they would be preaching, had him circumcised. In general, Paul opposed circumcision for converts from paganism but, because Timothy had a Jewish mother, he was an Israelite according to Jewish law. However, in the case of Titus Paul refused circumcision because it was being demanded by some people as a condition for salvation. All of this is an indication of how flexible Paul could be on non-essentials and it should not be seen as mere compromising with unreasonable people.
Paul himself was a totally free person but he was very aware that other people were not so liberated. As he says elsewhere, “with the weak I am weak”. Here he tolerates the weakness of some people. Circumcision was not necessary for baptism but, if it made some people happy and furthered the growth of the Kingdom, then have it. As Paul would say elsewhere, being circumcised or not makes no difference whatever.
At the same time, we are told today that Paul was disseminating the decisions made at Jerusalem about circumcision and the status of Christian Gentiles to all those he met. And the churches in these places were growing in faith and numbers. It was a very encouraging situation.
After visiting these places of the First Journey, Paul now began to penetrate new ground and visiting new places in Asia Minor (Turkey today). However, when he and his companions tried to go into the Roman province of Asia, they met some unspecified obstacles on the way which were seen as the guiding hand of the Spirit indicating that they should go in a different direction. Asia at this time was a Roman province in what is western Turkey today, and included the districts of Mysia, Lydia, Caria.
After leaving Iconium, it seems they had originally intended going west to Ephesus (on the west coast of Turkey) but instead began going in a northerly direction. The Spirit intervened and Paul and his companions turned north, then in a north-westerly direction. They found themselves going through the territories of Phrygia and Galatia (to the west and north of where they had been). Phrygia formerly had been Hellenistic territory but more recently had been divided between the Roman provinces of Asia and Galatia. Iconium and Antioch, where Paul had been during his First Journey, were in the Galatian part of Phrygia.
They found themselves headed for “Galatian country”. Here, where illness kept Paul for a time as we know from the letter to the Galatians (Gal 4:13-15), he preached the gospel and later would return later to visit the disciples he had evangelised there (Acts 18:23).
When they then tried to enter Bythinia, a province lying along the shores of the Black Sea, through Mysia, they were again blocked by unspecified obstacles. (Were they landslides, floods, earthquakes, civil unrest or the like…?)
Eventually they found themselves at Troas, which is just at the entrance to the Dardanelles. Troas was located just 16 km (10 miles) from ancient Troy. Alexandria Troas (to give it its full name) was a Roman colony and an important seaport between Macedonia and Greece to the west and Asia Minor. Paul would return there following his work in Ephesus on his Third Journey (see 2 Cor 2:12). At some point – on this journey or on the Third – a church was established there. We know that Paul ministered to believers in Troas when he returned from his Third Journey on his way to Jerusalem (20:5-12).
It was in Troas that Paul had a vision of a man from Macedonia, a Roman province since 148 BC, calling him to come over and help them. Paul immediately decided to respond to this call.
Macedonia was a province in what is now northern Greece. It was the place where the famous Alexander the Great was king. His father was King Philip, after whom the city of Philippi, to whose Christians Paul wrote one of his famous letters, was called. (Caesarea Philippi where Peter confessed Jesus as Messiah was also partly named after this Philip.)
Paul accepted the challenge and prepared to cross the Dardanelles. Christianity was coming to Greece, the hub of Mediterranean culture at that time, and from there to Rome and the world.
(Incidentally, it is at this point, too, that Luke begins to write in the first person plural. This seems to indicate that he was a member of Paul’s mission from then on.)
Probably, without anyone being aware of it at the time, what seemed a minor change of route actually represented a major step in the development and expansion of the young Church, with ramifications which would affect not only the Church itself but the whole of European history for centuries to come.