A Commentary by John Stott
Acts. 16:6-17:15. Mission in Macedonia.
The most notable feature of Paul’s second missionary expedition, which Luke narrates in these chapters, is that during it the good seed of the gospel was now for the first time planted in European soil. Of course there was in those days no line of demarcation between ‘Asia’ and ‘Europe’, and the missionaries sailing across the northern part of the Aegean Sea were conscious of traveling only from one province to another, not from one continent to another, since both shores of the Aegean belonged to the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, I agree with Campbell Morgan who wrote: ‘That invasion of Europe was not in the mind of Paul, but it was evidently in the mind of the Spirit’. With the benefit of hindsight, knowing that Europe became the first Christian continent and was until fairly recently the main base for missionary outreach to the rest of the world, we can see what an epoch-making development this was. It was from Europe that in due course the gospel fanned out to the great continents of Africa, Asia, North America, Latin America and Oceania, and so reached the ends of the earth.
What Paul and his companions were conscious of doing was to establish new churches in three Roman provinces during the second missionary journey, which they had not penetrated during the first. In the first they had concentrated exclusively on Cyprus and Galatia; in the second they reached Macedonia and Achaia, the provinces of northern and southern Greece respectively, and they just touched the province of Asia by visiting Ephesus, promising to return during their next journey. Moreover, in each case the missionaries included the capital city in their itinerary – Thessalonica being Macedonia’s capital, Corinth being Achaia’s, and Ephesus being Asia’s. In addition, to each of the churches in these capital cities Paul was later to write, namely his letters to the Thessalonians, the Corinthians and the Ephesians. In this chapter we focus on his mission to Macedonian, which involved visits to three principal Macedonian cities, Philippi, Thessalonica and Berea.
How, then, did the missionaries come to reach Europe? Paul had set out from Syrian Antioch, again commended by the church to God’s grace, not primarily in order to plant new churches, but to nurture and strengthen those planted several years previously during his first expedition. The verb translated ‘visit’ in 15:36 (*episkeptomai*) is linked with *episkope*, pastoral oversight, and is used of visiting the sick (Mat. 25:36,43) and of looking after widows and orphans (Jas. 1:27). Paul was more than a pioneer missionary; he was concerned to see churches and believers grow into maturity. So he and his companions spent some time in Derbe and Lystra, and then in Iconium and Pisidian Antioch, which is probably what Luke meant by *the region of Phrygia and Galatia*, namely ‘the Phrygian region of the province of Galatia’. It is very instructive to see how God guided them in their next moves. (vv.6-10).
Pisidian Antioch, the centre of the Phrygian region, was also very close to the border of the province of Asia. It was natural, therefore, that the missionaries’ eyes should look south-west along the *via Sebaste* which led to Colosse (about 150 miles) and then to the coast of Ephesus (almost as many miles beyond). In fact, they seem to have travelled some way along this road, but in some undefined way were prevented by the Holy Spirit *from preaching the word in the province of Asia* (6). With the south-westerly route blocked, they turned north, until they reached *the border of Mysia*, which was not a Roman administrative region but an old name for much of Asia Minor’s north-westerly bulge. Here they tried to continue north and enter Bithynia, the province situated on the southern shore of the Black Sea, including towns like Nicea and Nicomedia. But again, in some way which Luke does not explain, *the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to* (7). It has been conjectured from the fact that Peter later wrote to the Christian dispersion in these parts including Asia and Bithynia (1 Pet.1:1), that Paul was kept from evangelizing there in order to make way for Peter. But how the Holy Spirit did his preventive work on these two occasions we can only guess. It may have been through giving the missionaries a strong, united inward impression, or through some outward circumstance like illness, Jewish opposition or legal ban, or through the utterance of a Christian prophet, perhaps Silas himself (15:32). At all events, having come from the east, and having found the south-westerly and northerly roads obstructed, the only direction left open to them was north-west. So they went ‘through’ Mysia (JB) or *passed by* it, which could mean either that they ‘neglected’ it, in the sense that they did not stop to evangelize there, or that they ‘skirted’ it (NEB), because there was no main road straight through its territory to the coast. Whichever precise route they took, they arrived in the Aegean port of *Troas* (8), close to the Hellespont, which we call the Dardanelles. They had come a long way, in fact all the way from the south-east to the north-west extremities of Asia Minor, and by a strangely circuitous route. They must have been in a state of considerable perplexity, wondering what God’s plan and purpose were, for so far their guidance had been almost entirely negative. Only now did they receive a positive lead.
Tomorrow: Acts 16:6-17:15. Mission in Macedonia (continued).
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.