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GOD’S SUPERVISION OF HIS PEOPLE AND HIS MESSAGE
—ACTS 16:6-15.—JUNE 15.—
“Thou shalt be his witness unto all men.”—Acts 22:15
FOR HIS SECOND missionary tour Paul chose Silas for a companion. The original plan was that he and Barnabas should go together again, but they disagreed respecting the suitability of Mark to be their companion. The result was a division of the work, Barnabas taking Mark, and revisiting the brethren in the Island of Cyprus, while Paul went overland to the churches of Galatia, probably visiting en route his home city of Tarsus. Apparently Silas, whose home was at Jerusalem, found it necessary to go there to close up his affairs, before starting on the tour, and joined Paul later in Asia Minor. This inference is based upon the fact that Luke, the historian, says “he” instead of “they,” at the beginning of Paul’s journey; then uses the word “they” after Paul had been joined by Silas and Timothy at Lystra, and finally uses the word “we” when he would include himself;—Luke probably joining the company at Troas.
The apostle’s journeys amongst the churches of Asia Minor, planted in his previous tour, was for the purpose of their encouragement, strengthening, advancement in knowledge, and incitement to growth in grace. Doubtless also the Apostle experienced refreshment from contact with these fruits of his labor. At Lystra he found that the grace of God and the knowledge of the Gospel had reached a considerable development in a young man, probably about twenty-one years of age, named Timothy, whose father had been a Greek and his mother a Jewess,—the latter at this time, according to the Greek text, apparently a widow.
Although devoutly raised, Timothy had never been circumcised according to Jewish regulations, and when it was determined that he should accompany Paul in his missionary work the latter caused him to be circumcised. To some this has seemed strangely inconsistent, in view of the fact that the Apostle at the same time was calling to the attention of the Christian brethren wherever he went the decision of the Council of Apostles at Jerusalem—to the effect that circumcision was not necessary to Christian brotherhood. We are reminded also that the Apostle would not consent to the circumcision of Titus, who was a Gentile. (Gal. 2:3.) In view of these things, why did he countenance the circumcision of Timothy? We
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answer that, properly understood, the Apostle’s conduct was thoroughly consistent; circumcision was no part of the Mosaic Law, but was instituted with Abraham, centuries previous, and was intended as a mark or sign upon all the children of Abraham. The council at Jerusalem did not decide that no Jew must be circumcised thenceforth; but it did decide that circumcision should not be considered necessary to a Christian. The Apostle Paul’s own argument on this subject is most specific: he says, “In Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love.—Gal. 5:6.
The thought is, that being children of Abraham, according to the flesh, is not sufficient to make us new creatures in Christ Jesus; and therefore circumcision of the flesh will not accomplish this. As the new creature is received of God as a member of the body of Christ through a living faith, he must as a new creature have the circumcision of the heart, in order to be a Spiritual Israelite, whether he was previously a Jew or a Gentile. Circumcision of the heart signifies a cutting off—a separation from the flesh, its aims, hopes, desires, etc. We see, then, that there could be no objection to the circumcision of Timothy—it would neither help nor hinder him spiritually,—if done with the clear understanding that it was only a figure, and not the real circumcision which constituted Timothy a member of the body of Christ, the Church. Timothy’s mother being a Jew, he was a Jew,—even tho his father had been a Greek. And this fact becoming known to Jews in general with whom in traveling they would come in contact, inquiry might be made as to whether or not he had been circumcised. If the answer were No, the implication would be that he had never been a good Jew but a renegade. If the answer were Yes, it would remove this obstacle and grant him correspondingly greater influence with them—a closer access to their hearts.
If there was one thing more than another characteristic of the Apostle Paul it was his honesty, his candor; and it is necessary that we should see his conduct in respect to Timothy and Titus in the proper light, in order to do him justice;—in order also to counteract a compromise spirit in some who consider that Paul’s course in this matter justifies them in duplicity and compromising. It was in this perfectly legitimate way that Paul meant, “Unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews.” (I Cor. 9:20.) That he had no thought of compromising the truth in any degree, is evident from his withstanding of Peter on one occasion, when the latter to some extent dissembled in dealing with Jew and Gentile believers. (Gal. 2:11.) This is manifest also in his letter to the Galatians, in which he most positively declares to those who had been Gentiles, that to them circumcision was not an optional matter as with the Jew; but that if they should become circumcised it would imply that they were not trusting wholly to the merit of Christ’s sacrifice for their acceptance with God, their salvation; but were trusting partially to laws and ceremonies. His words to them are, “If ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing. … Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the Law: ye are fallen from grace.” (Gal. 5:2-4.) Let us likewise clearly distinguish between concessions in respect to forms, dress, ceremony, etc., which may properly be made to the prejudice or ignorance of those about us, and concessions of principles, which are not permissible to anyone under any circumstances.
The journey through Galatia and Phrygia having been accomplished, the next question was respecting future labors,—other fields. The Apostle’s intention was to “go into [lesser] Asia”—the region in which subsequently the seven Churches of Asia were located. But for some reason this was not the Lord’s plan at this time; and so we read that they were prevented or forbidden (whichever way the word might be translated) to preach the Word there. We are neither informed why nor how. The Lord possibly had some other agent or better means or more favorable time for sending the word of his grace into that quarter, as well as some other work for Paul and his company. As soon as the missionaries discerned the Lord’s leading in this respect they turned their attention northward, to go into the province of Bythinia; but again the Lord’s spirit, power, influence, hindered their proposed plans. So they passed onward to the coast—to Troas—doubtless wondering at the Lord’s providences, and speculating as to whether or not this meant that their work for the present was accomplished, and that they should return homeward. It was at this juncture that the Lord instructed them respecting their journey, by means of a vision or dream, in which Paul saw a man dressed in the garb of Macedonia, standing before him, and beseeching him, saying, “Come over into Macedonia and help us!”
In these verses we have three positive, distinct statements, showing the Lord’s supervision of his cause and of his servants. And when we remember that our God changes not, that he is the same yesterday, today and forever, it gives us assurance that he is still careful and interested as ever in his work, and in the affairs of all his servants. It gives us assurance that the harvest work in the end of this age is not going haphazard, as it extends hither and thither from one to another, by letter, by tract, by book, by word, to the uttermost parts of the earth. What a comfort there is for the Lord’s people in this! How completely overwhelmed we would be if we were to lose sight of this fact, and feel the weight and burden of the responsibility of the work pressing us down! In proportion as we are able to exercise faith, trust in the Lord in regard to the work, in that same proportion are we enabled to joy in the Lord and to possess the peace of God which passeth all understanding;—and to have it ruling in our hearts, controlling our lives and keeping us balanced, not only regarding the things of this present time, but also concerning the glorious outcome,—things to come.
This faith is largely a matter of education, too; for instance, as we observe the Lord’s providential care, as taught us in this lesson and other lessons from his Word, we are more and more enabled to apply the same care and the same promises to ourselves. Nothing will calm our fears more than this, and enable us to be strong in the Lord and in the power of his might; and in our confidence that he will ultimately bring off his work victorious. “This is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.” “Lord, increase our faith.” The Apostle’s confidence in the Lord’s supervision of his work enabled him to read the lessons
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of his time, and to act accordingly with full faith respecting the results. The Lord could have directed him otherwise, and could direct us also otherwise than as he does—could speak to us audibly, if he chose. We are, therefore, to presume that it is for some wise purpose as concerns the development of our faith that he requires his followers to walk by faith,—not by sight and sound.
As soon as the Lord’s guidance was recognized no time was lost, and matters in general seemed to co-operate for the journey of the missionaries into Macedonia. They went direct to Philippi, the principal city in that vicinity. Apparently they found no Jewish synagogue there, but outside the place they found a spot on the river bank where services were customarily held. This place is supposed to have been a temporary shed, such as, it would appear, was not
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unusual where the numbers were insufficient to erect a synagogue. It is possible, too, that this city, being directly under the Roman government, prohibited synagogues within its walls.
We note the course of the apostles here, in the presentation of the gospel. They did not go to the chief magistrates of the city, and say, Please direct us to your most degraded population, the wickedest people you have in this city, for we wish to preach the gospel to them and reform them. On the contrary, they evidently made inquiries respecting people who already knew God, and reverenced and worshiped him; and however small their number and unimposing their meeting place, thither the Apostle and his companions went. He knew, as many at the present time seem not to know, that God’s work now is not that of reforming the world, is not a “slum work,” but a seeking and gathering of the “jewels;”—a mission for those who are hungering and thirsting after righteousness;—a hunt for those whose hearts are tender and broken, and therefore ready for the balm of Gilead, the gospel message of redemption and deliverance from sin and its penalty. Whatever others may do, let us follow the Scriptural precedents—let us be laborers together with God in his work; the results will justify this course, when this age shall have fully ended, and the things now hidden to so many shall be revealed, and they shall learn that God’s ways were not their ways, nor his plans their plans, but that his were higher, broader, grander, as the heavens are higher than the earth—that his time for the reformation of the world is future, and that the present is his time for selecting the Kingdom class which shall bring about this reformation.
The text of the Apostle’s discourse is not given. We know, nevertheless, quite distinctly what his message was. He had only the one message; viz., that God’s promises made to Abraham were beginning to be fulfilled; that Messiah had come and had paid the ransom-price for the world, as its sin-offering, and that now forgiveness, reconciliation to God, and a privilege of joint-heirship in the Kingdom, was being offered, “to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile;”—and that whosoever accepted the call in honesty of heart, and was faithful to it, would have not only the joy and peace of the Lord’s spirit and blessing in the present time, but also a share in the glory to follow by and by.
In the audience was a woman from Thyatira, of the very district (Asia Minor) into which the Apostle was not permitted to enter and preach. She was in Philippi, probably temporarily, engaged in merchandising—a seller of purple—perhaps of purple dyes, or possibly of purple-dyed cloth. Dyeing and dyes had not reached present development, and the processes were generally secret, and profitable to those who understood them. It is presumed, therefore, that Lydia was well to do in this world’s goods, as well as rich toward God in faith. Like the Apostle, she had sought out the place of prayer, and now the Lord had rewarded her and answered her prayers by sending her the truth for which she had been hungering and thirsting. She and some of her household believed, and were promptly baptized in confession of their faith;—possibly on this very Sabbath day in which she first heard.
Where the heart is in a condition of readiness, obedience does not need to be delayed, nor does it require long to decide to be on the Lord’s side, and to be obedient to the voice of the good message which he sends us. This attitude of Lydia’s heart is noted in the lesson, in the words, “whose heart the Lord had opened.” We are not to suppose a miracle wrought in her case, to open her heart to the truth; we are rather to suppose that it was in her case as it is in the case of all the Lord’s people; that none are ready for the truth unless the Lord has prepared their hearts. And O, how much this preparation of heart means!—often trials, disappointments, difficulties, etc.—the processes by which the Lord breaks up and mellows and makes the soil of our hearts fit for the receiving of his truth and grace. No doubt Lydia, after receiving the truth, looked back at past experiences, severe ordeals, etc., and could praise God for the leadings of his providence by which her heart had been “broken” and humbled and made ready for the seed of truth—ready to appreciate, not only the good things which God hath in reservation for them that love him, but ready also to appreciate his promised watch-care in their affairs in the present time, guaranteed to work out blessings to those who abide in his love.
Having received the truth, and some of its joy, Lydia not only confessed the Lord, but sought means to serve him. She could not join the Apostle’s company as an evangelist of the good tidings, but she could entertain and serve Paul and his associates, and did so. No doubt she received more than compensation for the expense and trouble, in spiritual riches and refreshment;—but nothing in the narrative implies that even this laudable selfishness actuated her. Apparently her sole desire was to serve the Lord, and she saw the opportunity for this in rendering service to his representatives. She esteemed it a privilege, and so expressed herself, saying, “If ye have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house and abide.”
When we remember the Master’s own words, “He that receiveth you, receiveth me; and he that receiveth me receiveth him that sent me,” we can see that Lydia took no extreme view of her privilege and opportunity in connection with this service. Her whole question was whether the Apostle and his companions would honor her dwelling with their presence. The same principle is true and applicable today, and
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conduct similar to that of Lydia is always to be considered a favorable sign indicating deep love for the Lord and for the good tidings. The messengers of the good tidings must necessarily always be associated in our minds with the message which they bear, and the great King whom they represent.
Our Golden Text calls for just a word of comment. It represents the Lord’s message to Paul. It can be understood only when we remember that up to that time God’s message was not sent to all men, nor to all nations, but merely to the men of one nation, the Jews. Henceforth it was open to all;—to be delivered to all, as they might have ears to hear it. This explanation will be found a key also for various other Scriptures, referring to all people, all nations, and the preaching of the Gospel to them during the present age. It is to and for as many as “have an ear to hear”—we are to let such hear. Tho these will in all be but a “little flock;” yet it is the Father’s good pleasure to give to this little flock the Kingdom under which all the families of the earth shall be blessed and brought to an accurate knowledge of the truth.—Luke 12:32; I Tim. 2:4, Diaglott.
— June 1, 1902 —