E100 – January 28, 2018

“Knowing God’s Will” – Acts 16 – 20


Epiphany 4 – January 28, 2018


  1. Knowing God’s Will

Years and years and years ago, I remember hearing a now-retired pastor talk about how to know God’s will. I still remember the three practical things he said about discovering and following God’s will in and for our lives. And we’re talking about big things – like taking on a new job, or who to marry, or whether or not to move. We’re not talking about what colour shirt to wear today, or what to order from the restaurant menu. The first thing this pastor said was crucial about knowing God’s will was an inner leading – your inward sense, your deep desire, your peculiar prompting to follow a certain course of action. The second thing he referred to was outward circumstances – how external things, things you couldn’t control were lining up and pointing you in a certain direction. Sometimes we call those things open doors, or alternatively closed doors. The third thing useful, vital, in determining God’s will was the Word of God. The implication here was that you were regularly, daily immersed in the Word of God and deeply aware of and listening for how God was speaking to you in it. Of course, if something you were considering was illegal, immoral, unethical or unBiblical, God’s Word in general is going to point that out to you. But even for those more difficult “God’s will” decisions, God may lead you to a certain passage that is really going to speak to that situation. When God’s Word lines up with those outward circumstances and your own inner leading you can be much more certain that God has His hand in that course of action.


As we continue to wend our way through the Book of Acts, specifically chapters 16 – 20, we will see today how Paul sensed and followed God’s leading on his second missionary journey, and what the results of that were.


  1. Preparation

Although our story today just starts in Acts 16, the story of Paul’s missionary journeys really began in Acts 13. That’s where the first determination of God’s will was sought. The Christian Church in Antioch had gathered and the people were worshiping and fasting and praying and waiting for the leading of the Holy Spirit. Probably through one of the local leaders, the Holy Spirit called the group to set apart Paul and Barnabas for the missionary work to which God was calling them. Paul and Barnabas must have had an inner leading to just go where God would send them. The believers fasted and prayed more after this revelation from God, and then placed their hands on them and sent them off on their first missionary journey. The spiritual preparation was important – just making themselves available for God’s work, praying, waiting, seeking guidance, and then the willingness to go.


  1. Where to go…

In Acts 16, Paul teamed up with Silas instead of Barnabas. Luke, the writer of the Book of Acts, was quite likely another part of the missionary team, for the pronouns change here from ‘they’ to ‘we’ implying that these were now first-hand experiences for Luke. Timothy, to whom Paul would later write two letters, also accompanied Paul, Silas and Luke on this missionary journey.


This journey began in the same general vicinity as the first one – present-day Turkey, specifically the provinces of Phrygia and Galatia. They wanted to travel farther north near the Marmara Sea and the Black Sea, but v. 7 says “the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them.” That may have happened directly by a vision again, or perhaps by the closed door of outward circumstances or common sense with respect to various dangers. Whatever the reason, they were prevented from going there. Then, as one door closed, another door opened. Paul had a night-time vision of a man from Macedonia – that’s the northern part of Greece – standing and begging him to come across the sea to help them. The response was immediate: “we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.” The Gospel had not yet made its way out of the Middle East. Now, for the first time, it would be taken to Europe. Macedonia included the Bible book cities of Philippi and Thessalonica, and one other notable city – Berea. It is those three cities that Paul and his team visited next.


  1. The Gospel in Greece

In Philippi, one of the first converts to the Christian faith was Lydia, a dealer in rich, royal, purple cloth. She even extended hospitality to the missionaries and they stayed at her house. One day, as Paul and Silas were going to the place of prayer to engage people in conversation about Jesus, they encountered an evil-spirit-filled fortune-telling slave girl who made a lot of money for her owners. She shouted, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” That was the truth, but she continued to heckle them, until Paul’s patience wore out and he cast the evil spirit out of her by the name of Jesus. Her owners, of course, were upset by their loss of revenue, and stirred up such trouble that Paul and Silas were stripped and beaten and thrown into prison.


When a midnight earthquake rocked the prison and opened the prison doors and loosed the chains of the prisoners, Paul and Silas had an opportunity to have a spiritual conversation with the distraught jailer who thought he would be executed because of the jailbreak. He had heard Paul and Silas praying and singing hymns to God, and asked simply, “What must I do to be saved?” They didn’t expound on great, deep, theological truths. They told the simple truth, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.” Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and baptized both him and his family.


They were released because they were Roman citizens who had been thrown in prison without a trial, and then they moved on to Thessalonica. In that city, Paul started in the synagogue as usual, reasoning with the Jewish worshipers from the Scriptures and explaining and proving that Jesus was the Messiah, and that He had to suffer and rise from the dead. Some Jews and a large number of Greek men and women believed, but there were also the detractors, who formed a mob and started a riot. One of the believers, Jason, got into trouble over the whole thing but Paul and Silas were sent away to Berea.


Again starting in the Jewish synagogue, Paul preached Christ and the Berean people examined the Scriptures every day to verify what Paul was teaching. Again… lots of Jewish and Greek believers, and again… some rabble-rousers who agitated the crowds so much that Paul was forced to leave and head down the coast line to Athens.


In Greece’s glory days, Athens had been a center of art, philosophy and literature, and even in Paul’s day, it had a reputation as a philosophical hot-spot. When Paul got there, he took note of the religious milieu – a city full of idols and altars, and Epicurean and Stoic philosophers who loved to talk about the latest ideas. They wanted to hear the strange, new ideas that Paul brought as he preached the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. He talked about how God made everything, and didn’t need anything, and how God is close to each person. He talked about the judgment day and called on the people to repent, but again spoke about Jesus having been raised from the dead.


From Athens, Paul went on to Corinth, where he associated with Apollos, and Priscilla and Aquila. Then he went to Ephesus, on the coast of Turkey, and backtracked through Macedonia and Greece, before heading back all the way to Jerusalem. At every place where he proclaimed the name of Jesus, there were those who listened eagerly and believed, but at every turn, in every city, there were also those who questioned, doubted, and challenged the Gospel. The road of following God’s will wasn’t always or only easy for Paul.


In the Acts 9 story of the conversion of Paul, we read that God would show him, warn him how much he must suffer for the name of Jesus. Some of that suffering took place on this missionary journey: flogged and imprisoned in Philippi; chased out of Thessalonica; fled from Berea to Athens for safety’s sake; attacked and brought to court in Corinth; publicly maligned in Ephesus; advised by friends not to get involved in a public riot in Ephesus that might have threatened his very life. The message of Jesus was gaining traction in Asia Minor, and also in Greece… according to God’s expressed will in that vision of the Macedonian man. Paul followed God’s will – that vision to cross the Aegean – but it wasn’t only or always an easy road.


  1. The will of God for you

There are some general “will of God” Bible passages: God wants all people to be saved; rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; don’t conform to the world, but be transformed in your mind; it is God’s will that you live Godly, sanctified lives. But generally, when we want to know God’s will, it’s about a certain situation or opportunity in life.


What are your “knowing God’s will” questions? Are they about marriage? a career, or job change? where to live? how to serve? family conflict? how to invest your money, or how much to give?


It all starts – as it did with Paul and Barnabas – with preparation: being available, engaging in daily prayer, waiting on God, seeking guidance from God, and a willingness to follow.


This five-finger diagram and the accompanying Bible verses, includes the 3-part advice of that now-retired pastor, but includes a couple more worthwhile things. Let’s have a look at it.




Start with prayer. Know that God’s going to lead your heart, He’s not often going to force your life into something that you just despise. God’s going to line up all the other external things so that doors are open, so that nothing is preventing you from following His course of action. God’s going to lead you to those places in His Word that support and encourage you in making a decision that is pleasing to Him. Finally, consult some Godly advisors.

I’ve been reading Martin Luther’s Lectures on Genesis. He believes that when the Bible says that God spoke to Abraham or Isaac, He did it through someone like Shem – Noah’s Godly son. That would have been God’s Word to them. God may not speak to you through an angel, a dream, a vision, or an audible voice. But like Luther’s sense with respect to Abraham and Isaac, God may speak to you through a Godly advisor… a pastor, a trusted Christian brother or sister, a Bible study group and topic of discussion. Listen, discern, and act.


A couple of other things:

Don’t be afraid if you’re not 100% sure. This is where faith comes in. Trust that God will guide you and use you even if you have misinterpreted and misread His will, and know that in Jesus there is forgiveness for times that you go astray.

Sometimes God uses “detours” to get us to where He wants us. Paul wanted to go to one place, but God put up a roadblock and detour sign, to direct Paul to cities and people that would be receptive to the Gospel message. Consider “detours” to be God’s closed door… and opened door, an opportunity for you to be God’s person in an unknown situation. And remember that the road won’t always or only be easy along the way. With God, find your way through challenges.

Finally, a little prayer about God’s will that I read somewhere, and that I pray from time to time: “God, lead me to what you would have me do today, and bless me in the doing of it.” You might want to write it down and use it as you face “God’s will” questions, or even use it every day as your desire to be God’s person in whatever comes your way. God bless you in the doing of it. Amen.

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