In Acts 16:6–40 Luke describes Paul’s approach to what he encountered in that particular locality. As we examine Luke’s report we need to realize that we are not New Testament apostles. However, their example can instruct us. The book of Acts, as history, presents description as opposed to prescription—in other words, the book does not command, it records examples of how believers followed the Word of God and God’s leading to fulfill the Great Commission. Therefore, we aim to observe the apostle Paul and to work out our own missionary strategy and methodology from what we learn from his experience and his example.
The apostle changed some of his practices, policies, and geographical focuses “on the fly” and with the help of both Scripture and the Spirit’s leading (Acts 16:6–10). By being flexible and making changes, Paul did not alter the gospel message. One example of two different approaches to the same issue, Paul circumcised Timothy (16:2), but refused to circumcise Titus (Gal 2:1–14). Different circumstances drove Paul’s flexible approach.
Paul’s sense of urgency
The gospel ministry requires a highly spiritual sense of urgency.
The missionary team responded to divine leading with a sense of urgency (Acts 16:10). That same sense of urgency played a major role in the church’s sending out the missionary team (13:2). This mid-course correction in the path followed by the missionary team turned out to be a historical turning-point in the progress of Christianity in its move westward into Europe.
God provided abundantly when He led Luke (“we” in Acts 16:10) to join the missionary team just prior to their departure for Philippi. Philippi was a major medical center in the Roman Empire, especially in Greece. God directed the forming of a team to meet the needs of that target people group. Some believe that Luke might have previously attended the medical school in Philippi.
The church plant at Philippi began inauspiciously with some very unlikely people with whom to start a church (Acts 16:13). Yet, ultimately, the church at Philippi became Paul’s favorite assembly (Phil 4:1). Paul was not discouraged at women being the first converts at Philippi. That did not alter his aim or his determination to continue to plant a church. An amazing side story involves Lydia. She was from Thyatira, one of the cities in the region from which the Holy Spirit had excluded Paul (Acts 16:6–7). God give him contact with that region in a way Paul probably did not expect. The Holy Spirit may have determined from the start that Lydia would be the chosen instrument to take the gospel to her countrymen. The infant church at Philippi moved from the riverside outside the city to Lydia’s home in the city (16:15, 40).
The missionaries exhibited godly (Spirit-given) joy, calm, thanksgiving, and self-control in their physical suffering (Acts 16:25–31). God used them and their circumstances to bring a much-needed family with a male head (the Philippian jailor) to Christ and into the new group of believers.
Paul’s public responsibility
Paul and Barnabas demonstrated their willingness to allow God to direct their steps and to change their immediate targets. They balanced their assertion of their legal rights and their cooperation with the authorities (Acts 16:37–40). They yielded to the authorities and sought to build good relationships. One of their considerations might have been the safety and perpetuation of the new group of believers. They did everything openly and did not resist the necessary change in their plans.
Selflessness and a sense of being expendable to any God-driven ministry mark the best missionaries.
Paul and Silas left Timothy (cf. Phil 2:19–24) and Luke (cf. “they” in Acts 17:1) behind to disciple the small band of believers. Paul and Silas went on to Thessalonica and Berea (Acts 16:40; 17:1, 10). At some point the apostolic team selected elders/pastors and deacons (Phil 1:1; cf. Acts 14:23). Women continued to have an active role in the Philippian church (Phil 4:2–3), although Paul’s letters do not mention Lydia again.
The church at Philippi began to support the missionaries financially, sending funds to them twice during the three to four weeks they were in Thessalonica (Phil 4:15–16, 18; cf. Acts 17:2). Perhaps the women in the Philippian church drove this support, just as women played a key role in supporting Jesus’ earthly ministry (Luke 8:1–3; cf. Mark 15:40–41).
Lessons for Modern Missionaries
- Flexibility (capacity for distinguishing differences and willingness to change) stands as a significant characteristic for a missionary to possess.
- The gospel ministry requires a highly spiritual sense of urgency.
- Successful missionary teams exhibit a God-led set of interpersonal connections between team members.
- God determines who responds to the gospel and who will be the first active believers in any church plant.
- Adverse circumstances remain under God’s control—He often designs them for the benefit of individual believers or for the formation of a church plant.
- Selflessness and a sense of being expendable to any God-driven ministry mark the best missionaries.
- Believers and churches serve the Lord by supporting missionaries and missions ministries.