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The Sovereign Spirit, Acts 16:1-10 by Dr. Richard Lee Montgomery

The Sovereign Spirit 
Acts 16:1-10
Dr. Richard Lee Montgomery

Text: 1Paul came also to Derbe and to Lystra. And a disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek, 2and he was well spoken of by the brethren who were in Lystra and Iconium. 3Paul wanted this man to go with him; and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those parts, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. 4Now while they were passing through the cities, they were delivering the decrees which had been decided upon by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem, for them to observe. 5So the churches were being strengthened in the faith, and were increasing in number daily. 6They passed through the Phrygian and Galatian region, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia; 7and after they came to Mysia, they were trying to go into Bithynia, and the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them; 8and passing by Mysia, they came down to Troas. 9A vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing and appealing to him, and saying, "Come over to Macedonia and help us." 10When he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. 

It is easy to fall into routine Christianity, where we function in the flesh instead of walking in vital dependence upon God’s Spirit. One of the main lessons of the Book of Acts is that the expansion of the early church was due to the working of the Holy Spirit. He was directing, moving, and empowering the apostles as they responded to His leading. If we want to see God working today in a similar fashion, we need to fight routine Christianity and rather, seek daily to submit to and follow the sovereign Spirit. The message of our text is, Since the Holy Spirit is sovereign over His work, we must seek to follow Him as we labor for the Lord.

Our text assumes that we, with Paul and Silas, are already seeking first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness (Matthew 6:33). If we are not living with that focus, we need to stop and confess it to the Lord, and yield our self in obedience to His will for our life. Undergirding and woven through our text is the fact that the Holy Spirit is sovereign, and these men were obediently following His lead as they sought to do His work. There are four lessons:

A. The Sovereign Spirit Leads Us To The Right Workers (1-2, 10).

We read in verse 1 that Paul came to Derbe and to Lystra. That was a radically courageous thing to do! Lystra was where Paul had been stoned, dragged out of the city and thrown on the garbage heap as dead. If I were he, I would not be inclined to go back to Lystra. But here, where he had suffered so terribly, and while he was still grieving over the falling out with Barnabas, God graciously brought into Paul’s life this young man, Timothy, who would become like a faithful son to Paul.

Timothy’s mother, Eunice, and grandmother, Lois (in 2 Timothy 1:5) were Jewish women who had become believers in Jesus Christ. Although Timothy’s father was an unbelieving Greek, these women had taught Timothy the Scriptures from his childhood (2 Timothy 3:15). On Paul’s first visit to Lystra, these women and the young Timothy had gotten saved. By Paul’s second visit, Timothy, who would have been in his late teens or early twenties, had established a good reputation among the believers in Lystra and Iconium. Just as witnessing the stoning of Stephen had made an unerasable impression on Paul, so watching Paul get stoned had made a profound impression on young Timothy. As a result, he had resolved to follow Jesus Christ, no matter what the cost. So now Paul saw Timothy’s commitment and invited him to join the missionary team. It was the start of a lifelong and life-changing friendship.

Not only Timothy, but also Luke soon joined the team. In verse 10, the first of the “we” sections of Acts begins. It ends at the end of chapter 16, as Luke stays in Philippi to shepherd the new church there, while the team moves on. It resumes again, six or seven years later, in chapter 20, verse 5 and runs to the end of Acts. Luke, the beloved physician, a Gentile, became a faithful worker with Paul.

These new relationships did not happen by chance. The Lord knows that we need fellow Christians of a kindred spirit to encourage us and to work with us in the cause of Christ. We need older believers like Barnabas had been to Paul. We need contemporaries, like Silas and Luke. And, we should ask God for some younger believers, like Timothy, that we can bring along in the faith. Ask the sovereign Spirit to lead you to the right people to be not only your friends, but also your co-workers in the cause of Christ.

B. The Sovereign Spirit Gives Us Wisdom In The Right Strategies For Ministry (3).

Paul circumcised Timothy because of the Jews in those parts, who knew that his father was a Greek. Why did Paul do that? Many have criticized him for violating his own convictions against keeping the Jewish ceremonial law.

But Paul acted consistently with his convictions, even if it caused his critics to misunderstand him. In Galatians 2:3, Paul states that Titus, a Gentile, was not required to undergo circumcision. So why circumcise Timothy, but not Titus? With Titus, it was a question of whether a man is justified by grace through faith alone, or whether he must also keep the Law of Moses. It would have compromised the very gospel to circumcise Titus. But with Timothy, who was half-Jewish, it was a matter of causing needless offense to unbelieving Jews. Circumcision would allow Timothy to accompany Paul and Silas into the synagogues where they often preached. So it was a matter of becoming a Jew to the Jews, so that he could win the Jews (1 Corinthians 9:20). Paul did not want anything to hinder Jewish people from hearing and believing the gospel.

We all need to ask the Holy Spirit to give us wisdom from God’s Word so that we know which convictions to take a stand for, and which areas we need to yield out of love. All too often, we stand firm where we ought to yield, and we yield where we ought to stand firm. Only the Holy Spirit can impart the wisdom we need as we grow to understand God’s Word.

C. The Sovereign Spirit Enables His Workers To Strengthen The Churches (4-5).

The missionary team traveled throughout the region, delivering the decrees of the Jerusalem Council. As a result the churches were being strengthened in the faith and were increasing in number daily. The Jerusalem decrees, as we saw, affirmed two things. First, they affirmed that salvation is not by keeping the Law of Moses, but rather is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Second, they asked Gentile believers, out of consideration for the Jews, not to engage in four things that were especially offensive to Jews: #1, eating things sacrificed to idols; #2, eating meat with the blood, or #3, meat that had been strangled; and #4, fornication, which was commonly accepted in the pagan culture in chapter 15, verse 29.

It strengthens churches to hear the gospel affirmed, that we are saved by God’s grace through faith alone in what Jesus Christ provided for us on the cross. And, it strengthens churches to learn to walk in love, in submission to proper spiritual authority. These churches were not free to vote on whether or not to submit to the apostolic decrees. They willingly submitted to them. The aim behind the decrees was to show love and to avoid offending the Jews so that lost Jews could get saved, and believing Jews would not divide from the Gentiles in the churches.

We who are pastors and elders should seek to strengthen the church by helping every person understand the gospel clearly. And, we should help each member joyfully submit to God’s Word and to act in loving regard for others so as not to cause needless offense. Then the church will be strong and increase in numbers. 

D. The Sovereign Spirit Leads His Workers To The Right Opportunities For ministry (6-10).

Briefly note six things:

First – Opportunities come to those who are already serving, not to those who are doing nothing. Sometimes people don’t serve the Lord because they’ve never experienced a dramatic “call” to ministry. But this Macedonian call did not come to people who were doing nothing; it came to men who were actively serving the Lord. It was not a call to begin serving the Lord or to become a missionary, but rather a clarification of direction in an existing ministry. You can turn the steering wheel of your car all day long, but if the car isn’t moving, you won’t get anywhere. You can sit around and pray for God’s direction for service, but you won’t get it if you’re not already serving Him. Start doing something to serve Jesus Christ, and He will redirect you if He needs to.

Second – God sometimes leads us to the right opportunities by hindering us from the wrong ones. We read in verse 6 that these men were “forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia” (a province in western Turkey). Next, in verse 7, they tried to go north into Bithynia (bih THIN ih uh) (near the Black Sea), but “the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them.” What’s going on here? Didn’t the Lord want those in Asia or Bithynia (bih THIN ih uh) to hear the gospel? Later the Lord did (18:19-21, 24-19:41; 1 Peter 1:1), but not now. All we know is that the Holy Spirit is sovereign over His work, and that He stopped these faithful men from going into these two regions and redirected them into Europe at this time. He did not do it because of anything that He saw in the Europeans that was more worthy than what He saw in the Asians or Bithynians (bih THIN ih uh) . The gospel does not come to people based on their merit, but rather based on God’s sovereign, unmerited grace.

Third – God’s leading us to the right opportunities is usually a progressive matter, not an instant revelation of the big picture. Paul was feeling his way along at this point. After these two hindrances, if you had asked Paul what his plans were, he probably would have said, “I honestly don’t have a clue!” Usually, knowing God’s will is like driving in the fog. God just gives us enough light to see the next few feet. As we follow, He gives us the light we need to keep moving ahead. 

Fourth – When God reveals His will to us, we must make sure that it is from the Lord, and then be quick to obey. The word “concluding” in verse 10 indicates that the missionary team discussed the meaning of Paul’s vision before taking action. The word means to join or knit together, or unite. As they talked, it all came together. As soon as they were sure of what God was saying, immediately they sought to go into Macedonia. They didn’t form a committee and deliberate for months. They figured out what God wanted and went down to the harbor to buy tickets. 

Does God direct us through visions in our day? The answer is, He can, but be careful! There are all sorts of crazy visions that people have that are not from the Lord. For instance, Benny Hinn told an audience on the Trinity Broadcasting Network (October 19, 1999) that the Lord had revealed to him that thousands of people from all over the world would be raised from the dead when people put their caskets in front of their TV sets tuned to that station. I don’t know of any funeral homes that have been lacking for business yet! 
The balance we need is on the one hand not to quench the Spirit, but on the other hand to examine everything carefully and hold fast to that which is good (1 Thessalonians 5:19-21). An obstinate apostle Paul could have plowed ahead into Asia or Bithynia (bih THIN ih uh) against God’s promptings not to do so. But the obedient apostle obeyed God’s promptings and waited until the Spirit showed him where to go. Then he went immediately. The world has never been the same.

Fifth – Often, when we obey, the reality does not match the vision. Paul saw a man of Macedonia calling for help in verse 9. He got there and found a small group of women gathered by the river, and one of these became the first convert. The second convert was a demon possessed slave girl. Her conversion landed Paul and Silas in prison with their backs shredded by whips. It wasn’t a glorious beginning, to say the least! But it’s how the gospel began to take root in Europe, and we now know that the history of Europe has been forever different. Often when we obey God’s leading and launch out into His work, the reality doesn’t match the vision. But we must continue to obey what we know God called us to do. 

Sixth – The greatest help that we can give to people is to proclaim the gospel to them. Verses 10 says, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” Paul went and gave them the best help in the world: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved” (16:31). That is the most helpful message that we can give to anyone. It is the most helpful thing that we can do for anyone. We may have to feed a hungry man and provide for his other physical needs, before we can tell him. But if we only provide for his physical needs and neglect the spiritual, we have not given him the most important help.

Let me leave you with the questions I asked at the beginning of this message: Are you seeking first God’s kingdom and righteousness? If not, you need to do some serious thinking about your priorities. Would you notice if God withdrew His Holy Spirit from your life this week? If not, you need to get in tune with Him and seek to follow His leading for how He wants you to labor for His kingdom. 


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