This last Sunday we just started a series on Paul’s letter to the Philippians. The back story to this letter comes in Acts 16 where we’re told how Paul’s first visit to Philippi came about. It contains four helpful lessons for perplexed people…
1. None of us has the complete Big Picture
The task Jesus had given Paul was to take the gospel to new places, which he set about with enthusiasm. And it says in Acts 16:6-7 that Paul made plans to preach the word in the province of Asia, and then changed tack and headed for Bithynia in the opposite direction. But in each case Luke says the Holy Spirit stopped him. It’s not clear how – it could have been through a vision, a dream, a prophecy or circumstances – but the point is that both of Paul’s plans came to nothing. The Spirit of Jesus had other ideas. This must have puzzled Paul – didn’t Asia and Bithynia need to hear the gospel as much as anywhere else? The Spirit didn’t explain himself. Paul – and we – have to accept that we don’t have access to God’s detailed plans. God is in control – just as in Paul’s day – and through our current circumstances he has paused, interrupted or cancelled many of our plans. We don’t know why. We simply have to accept that none of us has the Big Picture.
2. A red light for one thing means a green light for another
The Spirit gave Paul a red light for his Asian and Bithynian plans. But it became clear (eventually) that this meant a green light for something Paul hadn’t thought of yet: taking the gospel into Europe. Perhaps it’s not yet clear what different plans the Lord has for us, but he is always building his Kingdom and bringing us to maturity. Paul gives an example of this in Philippians 1:12. He’d been arrested and imprisoned – a great big ‘red light’. But he says “I want you to know that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel”. A red light for one thing (Paul’s freedom) meant a green light for another (prison guards hearing about Jesus!)
3. The new plan looks like the wrong plan
It became clear pretty quickly to Paul that the Lord was at work in this new plan – when he got to Philippi “the Lord opened Lydia’s heart to respond to Paul’s message”. But things soon got difficult in Philippi. Paul was dragged before the magistrates, severely flogged and then thrown in prison. If only they’d stuck with Plan A and gone to Asia rather than Europe – it looked like the new plan was the wrong plan! But Paul knew that you can’t measure the extent to which God is at work by how easy life is. Jesus didn’t say follow me and life will be smooth.
4. Tough times are praise times
In my opinion, this is one of the most striking verses in the Book of Acts:
The jailer put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks. About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them (16:25).
I bet they were! Feet in irons, bruised and bleeding, and yet these two strange prisoners are singing! Tough times were praise times for Paul and his friends. There was much to give thanks for: the Spirit of Jesus had been opening doors for them all the way through this story; opening the door to Europe, opening the door to Lydia’s heart… and He’s just about to open the door of this prison cell (although Paul doesn’t know that yet). But conscious of the precious presence of Jesus, Paul praises God at midnight. What an encouragement to us to keep lifting our eyes to the Lord with thankfulness.
With love in Christ,