Studies in the Book of Acts

Most of this series was written by Paul Kroll, a journalist working for Grace Communion International. Copyright Grace Communion International. The research was done in the mid 1990s, but all articles were edited in 2012 by Michael Morrison, PhD, professor of Biblical Studies at Grace Communion Seminary.

Acts 16:1-8

The second missionary journey, continued (Acts 16)

Derbe and Lystra (16:1-2)

After his pastoral visit to the churches in Syria and Cilicia, Paul travels to the city of Derbe. His first trip to this and other cities in Galatia was discussed in 14:6-21. After his activities in Derbe are completed (Luke gives no details), Paul takes the northwest road to Lystra. Again, Luke says nothing about what Paul does in the city. Luke’s main interest here is to show how Timothy becomes Paul’s associate.

Apparently Lystra is Timothy’s hometown (20:4). He is already a member of the church, as the disciples in Lystra and Iconium speak well of him. Most likely Timothy was converted as a result of Paul’s preaching on his first missionary journey. Timothy’s mother and grandmother are also Christian believers (2 Timothy 1:5). His mother, Eunice, is Jewish and has instructed Timothy in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Timothy will become the most important of Paul’s associates in his mission to the Gentiles. Luke mentions his role several times in Acts (17:14-15; 18:5; 19:22; 20:4). Paul refers to Timothy as a “co-worker” (Romans 16:21). Two New Testament letters are addressed to Timothy personally. In several, he is listed as an author alongside of Paul.

Paul has a special affection for Timothy, calling him “my son whom I love” (1 Corinthians 4:17). In Paul’s mind, there is no individual quite like Timothy, whose thinking is so much like his own (Philippians 2:19-20). Timothy remains a close confidant and friend up to Paul’s death. Paul even sees him as a successor who will continue his work. He is used on a number of occasions to help with Paul’s pastoral and gospel-preaching responsibilities (1 Corinthians 4:1716:10Philippians 2:191 Thessalonians 3:261 Timothy 1:3).

At some point, Timothy is ordained to the ministry. Perhaps it is at this time in Lystra. Paul says that Timothy was given a special divine ability, and the knowledge of it came as a result of divine revelation (1 Timothy 1:18). “Do not neglect your gift,” Paul admonishes him, “which was given you through prophecy when the body of elders laid their hands on you” (1 Timothy 4:14).

His father is Greek (16:1)

Because Paul wants to add Timothy to his missionary team, he is faced with a public relations problem. Luke tells us that while Timothy’s mother was Jewish, his father was Greek, probably pagan, and perhaps now deceased. Timothy was the product of a mixed marriage. Jews will not look kindly on such a situation, because it dilutes Jewish identity (Nehemiah 13:23-27Ezra 9:1-10).

The father, who had authority over the household, did not allow Timothy to be circumcised – but he did allow her to instruct the boy in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Jews know that Timothy is not circumcised. But since his mother is Jewish, Timothy is also considered a Jew. But because he is uncircumcised, he is considered an apostate Jew.

This presents Paul with a dilemma. Circumcision is of no value in salvation (1 Corinthians 7:19Galatians 5:6). In one of his most angry moments, he tells Gentiles, “If you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all” (Galatians 5:2). In his more diplomatic times, he allows that “circumcision has value if you observe the law,” but he quickly notes that the real circumcision is “of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code” (Romans 2:2529).

Timothy is circumcised (16:3)

Paul decides that in the case of Timothy, circumcision will be helpful, so he has Timothy circumcised before taking him on the journey (16:3). Paul will be preaching in synagogues, with Timothy as his helper. But Jews will not look favorably at someone regarded as an apostate sitting in their midst. Timothy is not circumcised as a condition of salvation or discipleship. It is simply a way to assure his acceptance among those Jews with whom he and Paul will work (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).

“It was Timothy’s mixed parentage that made Paul decide to circumcise him before taking him along as his junior colleague. By Jewish law Timothy was a Jew, because he was the son of a Jewish mother, but because he was uncircumcised he was technically an apostate Jew. If Paul wished to maintain his links with the synagogue, he could not be seen to countenance apostasy.” (Bruce, 304).

Since Paul has Timothy circumcised, who technically is only a half-Jew, this takes the wind out of a later criticism that he is teaching Jews not to circumcise their children (21:21). Luke tells his readers ahead of time that such an accusation is without foundation. By circumcising Timothy, Paul is showing that he is not flouting Jewish customs nor trying to destroy Judaism. (He does the same thing by his own observance of Jewish laws.)

Deliver the decrees (16:4)

Timothy now joins Paul and Silas, and the team travels “from town to town” (16:4). Presumably, Luke is referring to villages in southern Galatia. At each church they visit, they read the letter from the Jerusalem church (16:4). In an interesting juxtaposition, in two consecutive verses, Luke shows Paul circumcising a half-Gentile and then delivering decrees saying that Gentiles do not have to be circumcised. This shows that Paul has Timothy circumcised only for expedience, and that it doesn’t conflict with the essence of the gospel.

Regarding the Jerusalem decrees, Paul never refers to them in his letters, even when dealing with practices they touch on. We may see this as odd, but it reveals his position regarding the real source of his teaching. He is in harmony with the council’s judgment, and so he reads the letter from Jerusalem containing the decrees James laid out. But Paul’s gospel depends on direct revelation from Christ, not on what Jerusalem approves. Hence, in his letters, he does not need to rely on the document for his authority.

Churches grow daily (16:5)

Paul and his team travel throughout Syria, Cilicia and Galatia (15:41; 16:4). They take stock of the churches that were raised up on the first missionary journey. Paul strengthens the believers’ convictions, organizes them where necessary, and instructs them in the basics of the faith. Luke can now conclude with another summary statement of the progress of the messianic community: “So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers” (16:5).

This is the fourth of Luke’s brief and general reports on the progress of the church (6:7; 9:31; 12:24). Besides these more sweeping progress reports, Luke also gives more specific updates regarding the church. Commentators have identified the following ones up to this point: Acts 2:41474:45:146:178:25409:3111:24-2512:2414:21-23.

Prevented by the Holy Spirit (16:6)

Luke doesn’t say what plans Paul had for after the missionaries completed their pastoral work in Syria, Cilicia and Galatia. He gives a generalized summary of their subsequent movements: “Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia” (16:6).

The precise meaning of the phrase “Phrygia and Galatia” is unclear. There is a similar reference to “the region of Galatia and Phrygia” in 18:23. On that occasion Paul is traveling west, toward Ephesus (19:1). It is difficult to determine the exact boundaries of Phrygia, and its relationship to Galatia. Strabo has an extensive discussion of this region (Geography 12, 7, 1-5).

One reason for the vagueness is that the Roman provincial boundaries were superimposed on older ethnic regions. (We see a similar situation today where African national-political boundaries created by European powers cut across tribal lands.) Phrygia apparently lay partly in the province of Galatia and partly in the province of Asia. Pisidian Antioch and Iconium — two cities Paul visited — might have been in Phyrgia.

From Luke’s description, it appears the apostle Paul has been moving steadily westward, probably along the road known as Via Sebaste. The cities of Derbe, Lystra, Iconium and Pisidian Antioch are all connected to this important highway. Perhaps Paul intends to follow this road to Ephesus, the capital of the Roman province of Asia, which stretches across the west coast of Asia Minor.

However, some dramatic occurrence interferes with his plans. Luke says the missionary team is “kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia” (16:6). Luke doesn’t explain what the Spirit uses to keep Paul out of the province. Whatever the circumstance, Luke recognizes that it occurs under God’s direction. He takes every opportunity to show God’s involvement in the spread of the gospel, and this is another situation he uses to make clear that Paul’s work is directed by God to achieve his own purposes.

Paul’s missionary journeys display an extraordinary combination of strategic planning and keen sensitiveness to the guidance of the Spirit of God, however that guidance was conveyed — by prophetic utterance, inward prompting, or the overruling of external circumstances. (Bruce, 306)

In this case, God causes events to occur in such a way as to prevent Paul from entering the province of Asia. Perhaps political factors, weather or bandit activity are factors. Whatever it is, Paul’s original intent to travel to Ephesus is thwarted. To get around Asia, Paul and his associates travel north through the Phrygian part of the province of Galatia.

On to Bithynia (16:7)

Paul and his party kept on traveling north. “When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia” (16:7-8). Paul is somewhere around the city of Dorylaeum, north of Pisidian Antioch. From Dorylaeum the missionaries could travel to such Bithynian cities as Nicaea and Nicomedia. It is natural for Paul to think that if the large province of Asia is not open to evangelism, then perhaps they should go northwest to the province of Bithynia. It is along the Black Sea coast of northwest Asia Minor, and has a number of civilized Greek cities as well as Jewish settlements.

Later, Peter writes to Christian communities in Bithynia (1 Peter 1:1). Yet later, Pliny the Younger, the province’s governor under Trajan in A.D. 110-12, complained about the many Christians in the area (Letter 10:96-97).

But Paul is also prevented from doing missionary work in Bithynia. Luke writes that “the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them” (16:7). This is the only time that the expression “Spirit of Jesus” occurs in Acts. Luke may be trying to tell his readers that Jesus continues to take an active role in directing the preaching of the gospel. Jesus has already made his appearance in Acts as one who mandates the apostles’ work of preaching the gospel (1:3; 7:56; 9:5). The Holy Spirit is called by his own name, or is referred to as “the Spirit of God” (Matthew 10:20), “the Spirit of Christ,” or “the Spirit of Jesus” (Romans 8:9Galatians 4:6Philippians 1:191 Peter 1:11). But there is only one Holy Spirit, of course.

God has again intervened in the plans of the missionaries. He is directing Paul and his associates to a historic new phase of the work. But for the moment, they are unaware of what is happening to them.

Stopping at Troas (16:8)

If they can’t preach in Asia, nor in Bithynia, the missionaries can at least get to the coast of Asia Minor — and then decide what to do. Luke tells us “they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas” (16:8). (They had to go through Mysia in order to reach coastal Troas.) Mysia is a somewhat indefinite region in the northwest corner of Asia Minor. It is the land that abuts into the Aegean Sea, and its northern border is the Dardanelles (the Hellespont) (Strabo, Geography 12, 4, 5). Mysia includes the historic seaport of Troas, and the site of ancient Troy, about ten miles inland.

Troas is an important port, connecting the land masses of Europe (Macedonia) and Asia Minor as well being near the passageway between the Aegean and Black Seas. It is a regular port of call for trading vessels plying these waters, and it is an important hub for the Roman communication system.

What Paul does not yet realize is that God has boxed him in. He is in a coastal city with nowhere to go except west across the Aegean Sea to Macedonian Europe.