Acts 16

1. Then he came to Derbe and Lystra. And behold, a certain disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a certain Jewish woman who believed, but his father was Greek.

Paul now arrives back at Derbe and Lystra, the places where he proclaimed the gospel in Acts 14. In Lystra, there is a certain disciple named Timothy, or Timotheos in Greek. This name means “Honoring God” or “Valued by God,” and he was a man who did honor God indeed, and was valuable to Him. As far as we can tell, Timothy was a mid-teenager at this time, perhaps 15. He is described as a disciple, so he had apparently believed in the Lord Jesus Christ when Paul was in Lystra the first time.

We read that Timothy was the son of a certain Jewish woman who believed. However, his father was a Greek. As we have discussed, this means his mother was a woman in Lystra who had remained true to the God of Israel, and who kept the law and commandments God had given Israel, at least as much as anyone outside the land was able to do. His father, however, though he probably was also descended from the man Israel, had given up on the culture of the Jews and the customs God had given them, and instead lived the same Greek lifestyle that the Gentile people of Lystra lived.

This was a sad situation for a young man to grow up in, but it left Timothy with a choice. Would he choose the unfaithfulness and disbelief of his father, or would he believe in and be faithful to the God of Israel like his mother? It speaks well of Timothy that he chose God, and followed the practices of the Jews like his mother. Then, when Paul came to Lystra and he heard the word of the Lord Jesus Christ, he had believed it.

2. He was well spoken of by the brethren who were at Lystra and Iconium.

The Spirit also reports to us that Timothy had a very good reputation with all the Jews, both in Lystra and in the capital of Lycaonia, Iconium. They all would have known his situation growing up, and that he had chosen to serve God like his mother, rather than to go the way of the world like his father. Therefore, they all gave a good report of him to Paul and Silas.

3. Paul wanted to have him go on with him. And he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in that region, for they all knew that his father was Greek.

Paul too apparently was impressed by Timothy, and wants to have him go on with them. Thus he could take the position that Barnabas had wanted Mark to take as a servant for them. It was not that the job Barnabas wanted Mark to do was not an important one, but that Paul did not trust Mark to be willing to stick with it that he did not want Mark to come along. Now Paul believes that Timothy is ready to fulfill that role. Timothy would become one of Paul’s closest and most faithful companions, even co-writing six of his epistles with him. Timothy also was the recipient of two of Paul’s letters that are included in the Scriptures, meaning he was involved in eight of Paul’s books. It was to him that Paul’s final words in Scripture are addressed, and what I believe were God’s last words before He fell silent.

So Paul chooses Timothy to join him. However, there is one problem. Timothy is not circumcised. This was something that was the responsibility of the father to do, and since Timothy’s father was a Greek, he had not done it. Of course, this was neglected long before Timothy was old enough to make the choice or to decide to follow God like his mother. Yet now here he was, a man living like a Jew, and yet not circumcised. Paul knew the problems that this would cause. Therefore, he circumcised him. He did it, we read, because of the Jews who were in that region, because they all knew that his father was a Greek, and therefore their first question when discovering that Paul had taken him to be his servant would be if Timothy was circumcised. If they found he was not, they could have blamed Paul for not being zealous for the law, not caring about the Word of God, and so forth. Paul circumvents this by circumcising him, for now he can say that this matter was taken care of.

Yet this seems to present a difficulty to us. For how, when we just read chapter 15 and how Paul and Barnabas were so insistent on not making the new believers be circumcised, could Paul have turned around and in the very next chapter have circumcised Timothy himself? Was this not denying the very truth Paul had stood for so faithfully in chapter 15?

To understand this, we will have to understand the real character of what was going on in Acts. The fact was that three kinds of people were being saved. First was the Jews. They were those who were already keeping the law and seeking to serve the God of Israel before Paul ever came to them and declared to them the truth. When these people believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, they were believing in the Messiah Whom God had long promised to the nation of Israel. However, this belief did not change their status as Israelites, nor did it exempt them from continuing to keep the law. These people were not taught by Paul that they should stop keeping the law, and they did not stop. This we can see most clearly from Acts 21.

In Acts 21, Paul came to Jerusalem, saluted the elders there, and told them what God had done among the nations through him. Their reply is given in verses 20-24.

20. “You see, brother, how many myriads of Jews there are who have believed, and they are all zealous for the law; 21. but they have been informed about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs. 22. What then? The assembly must certainly meet, for they will hear that you have come. 23. Therefore do what we tell you: We have four men who have taken a vow. 24. Take them and be purified with them, and pay their expenses so that they may shave their heads, and that all may know that those things of which they were informed concerning you are nothing, but that you yourself also walk orderly and keep the law. 25. But concerning the Gentiles who believe, we have written and decided that they should observe no such thing, except that they should keep themselves from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality.”

So a report had gone out among the believers in Judea that Paul taught all the Jews who were among the nations to forsake Moses by not circumcising their children or keeping the customs. The elders suggest that Paul counteract this rumor by joining himself with four men the apostles had with them who had taken a Nazarite vow, and fulfill his own vow along with them, also paying for the necessary animal sacrifices that went along with finishing a vow. Since animals were somewhat expensive, paying for these four men to fulfill their vow would be quite a commitment on Paul’s part. By doing this, the elders believe, Paul will have ample evidence to show that not only does he not discourage the Jews from keeping the law, but that he actually supports it, and is willing to spend his own money, even a considerable sum, to support it.

Now if the elders were wrong and Paul did teach the Jews who were among the nations to stop keeping the law, he should have declared that right here. However, he did not. Instead, we read that he acquiesced and did as they instructed.

26. Then Paul took the men, and the next day, having been purified with them, entered the temple to announce the expiration of the days of purification, at which time an offering should be made for each one of them.

So Paul did what these men suggested, and by doing so proved both to the Jews in Judea and to us today that he did NOT teach the Jews who were among the nations to forsake Moses, not to circumcise their children, and not to keep the customs. Instead, he supported them doing this.

So who was it, then, whom Paul insisted must not keep the law when they came to Christ? The answer to this is simple. It was all those who were not keeping the law already. This would include both Gentiles, who of course did not keep the law, and Greeks among the ancestral Israelites, who had given up on keeping the law. They were not to be circumcised, and not to start keeping the law. This would have added law-keeping to faith in Christ. As Paul warned them in Galatians 5:2, “Indeed I, Paul, say to you that if you become circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing.

What this created among the believers was a situation where there were two different sets of rules. There were the rules for those who came to Christ as law-keeping Jews, and those who came to Christ as Greeks who did not keep the law. This might seem strange to us, who live in a time when all believers are of equal standing before God, and yet that is the way it was at the time. Paul sets forth this as the rule in I Corinthians 7:17-20.

17. But as God has distributed to each one, as the Lord has called each one, so let him walk. And so I ordain in all the churches. 18. Was anyone called while circumcised? Let him not become uncircumcised. Was anyone called while uncircumcised? Let him not be circumcised. 19. Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping the commandments of God is what matters. 20. Let each one remain in the same calling in which he was called.

So whether they were called to faith in Christ while being circumcised or uncircumcised, they were to stay in the same calling in which they were called. If they were called circumcised, they were not to become uncircumcised. Of course, we understand that physically it is impossible to go from circumcised to uncircumcised again, so what Paul means here is that they were to continue to keep the law, and not to stop. However, for those who were called to faith in Christ while being uncircumcised, they were not to become circumcised or to start keeping the law. Instead, they were to trust completely in their faith in Christ. Otherwise, they would be denying the very truth of the sufficiency of their faith in him.

So this being the case, we still are left with the question as to why Paul circumcised Timothy. Wasn’t the command that if Timothy was not circumcised, he should not become circumcised? Was that not what Paul contended for so fiercely in Acts 15 and in Galatians? Is that not what Paul taught the Corinthians?

The fact is that Timothy was a very strange case. As I said above, the point of “being circumcised” was not just the physical act, but rather the sign that the person who was circumcised was keeping the law. One who had stopped keeping the law would have become “uncircumcised,” in spite of the fact that he was still physically circumcised. Timothy was a man who kept the law. He had chosen to go the way of his Jewish mother. When Paul came to Lystra, he found Timothy already among the Jews and keeping the law. And yet, though he was keeping the law, one thing was out of line. That is that he had not been circumcised. That had been up to his father, and his Greek father had failed to do it.

Now that left Timothy in a very awkward position when it came to the rules as Paul declared them in I Corinthians 7:17-20. He was uncircumcised, yet he was already keeping the law when Paul came to him and declared to him the gospel of Jesus Christ. Now, according to the rules given by God through Paul, Timothy is not supposed to stop keeping the law just because he has come to faith in Christ. Yet his flesh remains uncircumcised. What is he to do? Should he stop keeping the law and become like a Greek, or should he continue keeping the law like a Jew?

The decision made in this strange exception is what Paul does here. Timothy is in the camp of those who were keeping the law when he came to Christ, and so Paul will take him all the way into that camp by circumcising him. This may not really have been necessary, but since it would be a problem to the Jews who knew Timothy among whom Paul was ministering, it was decided that it was good to do this. Moreover, since Paul was the Lord’s apostle, he was acting as the Lord inspired him to do. He made a decision to bind this on Timothy on the earth, and this decision was bound in heaven. Therefore, Timothy was circumcised, and now he was ready to join Paul and Silas in their ministry.

4. And as they went through the cities, they delivered to them the decrees to keep, which were determined by the apostles and elders at Jerusalem.

Now as Paul, Silas, and Timothy travel through the cities of that region, they deliver to them the decrees they were to keep. These were the decrees that the apostles and elders at Jerusalem had determined in Acts 15, that they were to “abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality.” These decrees were contained in the letter that had been given to Paul and Barnabas to carry back to Antioch.

5. So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and increased in number daily.

So the ekklesias were strengthened in the faith. When we hear a word from God and believe it, that always works to strengthen our faith, for we have continued to believe God. This is true, even though what we read may not have to do with the gospel itself, which we believe for salvation. Yet surely these decrees did have to do with salvation, for they told all those who had believed in Christ who were not keeping the law what God wanted of them, and that they did not have to be circumcised in order to please Him. As they heard this and believed it, their faith in the saving work that Christ had done on the cross was strengthened.

Now the ekklesias increased in number daily. This does not mean that there were more and more churches being created, or anything like that. The ekklesias were the out-positioned men in these places, and their numbers were added to by more and more men who were being given a position out of God. They probably received these positions as the Lord saw that they had grown in faith and were ready for them. Thus everything was going very well in these places, and the believers were prospering in the Lord.

6. Now when they had gone through Phrygia and the region of Galatia, they were forbidden by the Holy Spirit to preach the word in Asia.

So Paul and his companions continue their journey. They pass through Phyrgia, which means “Dry” or “Barren,” and the region of Galatia, “The Exiles.” So Paul has completed his intention, as he put it to Barnabas, “Let us now go back and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the Lord, and see how they are doing.” Now, the question arises as to where they are to go next. There are plenty of places that have not yet heard the Word of the Lord Jesus, and Paul determines to go to some of them. His first thought apparently is to go into the region they called Asia, or “Orient.” We must not think of this as the huge continent we call Asia, however. This was a relatively tiny province in what we now call “Asia minor.” Yet this was not the Lord’s intention for Paul yet, and the Holy Spirit forbids him to proclaim the word there. This was not a permanent thing, for Paul would eventually come there and proclaim the word. The time had not yet come for this, however.

It was the Person of the Spirit Who forbade the apostles from going to Asia at this time. We can see that from the phrase used in Greek here, tou hagiou pneumatos or “the Holy Spirit.” This is a rather unusual phrase, for usually in Greek the word “Spirit” comes first. In this case, with “Holy” coming first, the phrase is emphasizing His holiness. It was the HOLY Spirit of God Who had set apart Paul and his companions to serve Him in their journeys and work. Now, it is not His will that Paul serve Him in Asia. The One Who set Paul apart, the Himself “Set-Apart” or “Holy” Spirit, has the right to command Paul and send him where He wishes.

Some are likely to make far too little of what this says here. They want to make it that Paul did not go into Asia because he ran into a “closed door,” and so he looked for an “open door” elsewhere. They then make out that we all run into “open and closed doors” in our lives, and that these are actually the Holy Spirit guiding us. What happened to Paul and his company here, however, was far more than a “closed door.” This was the direction of the Holy Spirit, the very One Who in Acts 13:2 said, “Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Barnabas may have left and Silas taken his place, yet these were still the apostles He had chosen. Now, He directs them. While we have no way of knowing exactly how He sent the message to them, we have no reason to think that it was not in words as clear as those they received from Him in Acts 13:2. This was not just a “closed door.” I doubt such a thing would have kept Paul out of any place he thought God wanted him to preach the gospel, anyway.

7. After they had come to Mysia, they tried to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit did not permit them.

It seems that the Spirit’s message was most laconic. He told them where they could not go, but He did not tell them yet where He does want them to go. Therefore, they try once more to find the place He has for them. First they come to Mysia, “The Land of Beach Trees.” This was another province in what we call Asia Minor. From there, they attempt to go into Bithynia, or “A Violent Rushing.” This was another province of what we call “Asia Minor.” (Remember, they did not call this Asia, reserving that name only for a very small province in what we call Asia Minor.) However, this is not the Lord’s will either, and the Spirit does not permit them to enter Bithynia.

This time, there is no word for “Holy” here, but the Greek is “the Spirit,” and there can be no doubt that the Person is meant. Again, we do not know how He did this forbidding, but we can be sure that the message was plain and unmistakable.

8. So passing by Mysia, they came down to Troas.

Since they are not allowed into Bithynia, they pass by Mysia and come down to the city of Troas, meaning “A Trojan.” Troas was a major city of Mysia on the coast of the Aegean Sea. Paul would several times use this as an important point in his journeys. Apparently it is here, as we will see in a few verses, that he met his good friend and faithful companion Doctor Luke. It is here too that the Spirit will finally make known to Paul just where it is He wishes Him to go.

9. And a vision appeared to Paul in the night. A man of Macedonia stood and pleaded with him, saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”

Finally, direction from God comes. A vision appears to Paul in the night. In this vision, he sees a man of Macedonia standing before him. The man pleads with him to come over to Macedonia and help them.

Macedonia means “Extended Land.” It was the territory to the north of Greece. Alexander the Great, the founder of the Greek Empire, was actually from Macedonia, and his empire therefore was more the Macedonian Empire than the Greek Empire, in spite of the fact that it has come down to us as being the empire of the Greeks. It is to this land now that Paul and his companions are to travel.

10. Now after he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go to Macedonia, concluding that the Lord had called us to preach the gospel to them.

After Paul sees the vision and communicates it to his fellows, they all are aware that this is at last the Spirit’s guidance, not just where they should not go, but now where He does want them to go. Therefore, they immediately seek passage into Macedonia, concluding that the Lord has called them to proclaim the gospel there.

The word for “concluding” here the Greek word sumbibazo. It occurs six times in Scripture. In Acts 9:22, it is translated “proving.” In I Corinthians 2:16, it is translated “instruct.” In Ephesians 4:16, it is translated “knit together,” as in Colossians 2:2 and 2:19. The word speaks of a joining together, and in this case has to do with putting the facts together. Paul and his company know they have been seeking where to go to proclaim the gospel, and now this vision has come to Paul of a man in Macedonia asking for help. They put the facts together, and conclude that the Lord has called them to proclaim the gospel to the Macedonians. If we too will put the facts of the passage together, we will come to the same conclusion. This was what the Lord wanted them to do.

If we have been watching closely as we read this passage, we will notice that a significant change in the passage has taken place in this verse. That is, that the pronoun “we” appears in this verse, and a few words later the word “us.” Sometimes, we have a tendency to overlook the pronouns in Scripture, and yet often they are quite significant. This is the first time in Acts the pronoun “we” has been used. We know that “we” is the first person, subjective, plural pronoun, which means that the author is now including himself in Paul’s company. From this, we would gather that it was here in Troas that Paul met his future friend Doctor Luke, and here that Luke joined with Paul and became part of his company. From this point on, the things we read of in Acts will be recorded by an eyewitness to many of the events, for Luke will now be writing about things he experienced along with Paul.

11. Therefore, sailing from Troas, we ran a straight course to Samothrace, and the next day came to Neapolis,

Paul, Silas, Luke, Timothy, and whoever else might have been with them now book passage on a ship, and sail away from Troas. They sail into the Aegean Sea, heading north up the coast to Samothrace. The word “ran” here indicates that they are running before the wind, so they are making very good time. Samothrace is an island in the Aegean Sea, its name meaning “A Sign of Rags.” However, it does not appear that they stop there, but sail by it to Neapolis, or “New City.” Neapolis was a city of Macedonia to the south and east, although it appears to not have been their destination, but merely a stopping point on the edge of Macedonia as they headed inland.

12. and from there to Philippi, which is the foremost city of that part of Macedonia, a colony. And we were staying in that city for some days.

From Neapolis they head north and west, arriving in the city of Philippi, which means “Lover of Horses.” This city is described for us as “the foremost city of that part of Macedonia,” and as “a colony.” Though this city had been founded by the King of Macedonia long before Rome’s ascendency, Rome had sent people there to colonize it, and so Philippi was considered a colony of the Italian homeland. Its importance to Rome, the ruling city, is probably why it was “the foremost city” in that place.

Having arrived at Philippi, Paul, Luke, and the others do not immediately set to work, but wait for several days. They might have been resting up from their long journey, or perhaps they were waiting for the Spirit to lead them further by showing them what to do. When they do act, however, they act decisively, and according to the mandate that they had been given to proclaim the gospel there.