At this point, with a new missionary team and new workers, Paul received a new vision for his service. It concerns his vision of a man of Macedonia, who challenged Paul to “Come over to Macedonia and help us” (v. 9).
I have already mentioned William Ramsay several times—a man who studied this area of the world very carefully and then looked at Acts in light of what he had learned about the towns, history and geography of Asia. Ramsay points out how easy it is to understand what was happening as Paul made his way from Galatia, where he had been ministering and had picked up Timothy, to Troas, where the Macedonian vision occurred. After leaving Antioch Paul had pursued a generally westward direction, passing through Cilicia and then through the towns of Derbe, Lystra and Iconium in the southern portion of Galatia. Taking that western road, he would have proceeded eventually into the Roman province of Asia, where Ephesus is located, but God stopped him from doing this, though he did reach Ephesus later from the west.
Since the Holy Spirit kept him from going west Paul tried to make his way north, passing by the edge of Asia, to Bithynia. But when he tried to go into Bithynia, the Spirit forbade him from doing that as well (v. 7). The missionaries were cut off from the west and south, and from the north and east. So the only thing they could do was press on more or less between the two forbidden territories in a direction which eventually brought him to Troas on the coast of the Aegean Sea. There Paul waited to see what God was going to do with him.
This is a good example of negative guidance, and it is worth stressing because the guidance we get in our lives is often like it. We speak of this as “closed doors.” Generally we do not like closed doors. We find closed doors frustrating. We pray, “God, what do you want me to do?” But when we look in what we think is a rather promising direction, God closes the door. We ask again, “God, what do you want me to do?” We look in another direction, and God closes that door too. Then we get depressed. We think God is not answering us and that he doesn’t care what we do. Sometimes if this goes on long enough, we even get angry at God.
We need to understand that “closed doors,” though they are a type of negative guidance, are, nevertheless, true guidance. If we can learn anything from the Apostle Paul at this point, we learn that negative guidance merely keeps us from a sphere of activity to which we are not called in order that, in God’s time, we might come to an area to which God has called us and in which God will provide blessing.
When God closes doors, it is not because He has nothing for us to do. He does not want us to take a vacation. It is to keep us from getting into a work to which we are not called in order that we might be saved for a work to which we are.
The positive leading came at last, and it was the vision to which I have referred. This call of God to Paul and his missionary team teaches some important lessons about missions. Why do we engage in world missions? There are a number of reasons.
1. Jesus Christ has told us to do it. We call this “The Great Commission.” We find it five times in the New Testament—once in each of the four gospels, toward the end, and once at the beginning of Acts.1 I sometimes say, “If God says something once, we should pay attention. If He repeats it, we should give rapt attention.” How, then, if He says it three, four, five or more times? Obviously, it is something we dare not overlook and to which we must give the most intent, sustained and obedient scrutiny. Somebody once spoke to the Duke of Wellington about missions. He said, “The Great Commission is Jesus’ marching orders for the church.”
2. Christ’s love constrains us. Paul talks about this explicitly in 2 Corinthians 5:14, saying, “Christ’s love compels us.” It would be important for us to go into all the world with the Gospel if, for no other reason, because Jesus has told us to do it. But it would be sad if the only motivation we had were mere obedience. It would be as if we were to say, “I am here to preach the Gospel. I don’t want to be here, but I have to be. Jesus told me to do it. So here I am.” It is not like that. Therefore, Paul, who understood the marching orders of Jesus Christ, also understood the compulsion of Christ’s love, saying, “Christ’s love compels me.”
That involves the love of Christ for the lost; He loves them. But it also involves our love, as the love of Christ works its way out through those who know Him. Paul loved those to whom he was sent. So must we. In fact, there is nothing that so commends the Gospel to the lost as love for them by the one who proclaims it.
1Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-18; Luke 24:46-49; John 17:18; Acts 1:7-8.