New Team, New Territory

Paul and his colleague Barnabas, with whom he had traveled extensively, came to a serious disagreement over the future use of their assistant, John Mark. He had accompanied them on their first extended trip together to Cyprus and into Asia Minor. But for reasons that are unclear, he had left them and returned home to Jerusalem.

That Paul was displeased with the attitude displayed by this action becomes clear later: when planning another tour, he “insisted that they should not take with them the one who had departed from them in Pamphylia, and had not gone with them to the work” (Acts 15:38). Barnabas seemed more inclined to be forgiving of his cousin (Colossians 4:10) and let bygones be bygones. The difference of opinion became so strong that Paul and Barnabas parted company, each man standing his ground and demonstrating as much by his choice of future traveling companion. Barnabas took John Mark and left Syrian Antioch for his home island of Cyprus. Paul chose Silas and began a tour of the congregations in Roman Syria and Cilicia, his home territory.

Temporary Disagreement

Some have puzzled over this impasse between men of God who had achieved so much together. It’s important to note at the outset that their disagreement was not a matter of doctrine. It wasn’t that one man began to teach something contrary or unbiblical. Their difference was over an administrative matter. It was about the choice of a traveling companion. Neither man departed from the faith nor from doing their part in the work at hand. The result of their disagreement was that they simply set out to serve the members of the same church in different areas. If Paul and Silas had gone to Cyprus instead, the people there would have heard the same message. Administrative separation seems to have been the wisest course of action in the circumstances. Personalities can clash even within the same belief structure, but the same work can still be accomplished until resolution is possible. If doctrine had been the issue, then separation would have become necessary in a more profound sense. And Paul and Barnabas could not have later found reconciliation without one stepping down and admitting doctrinal error.

What do we know of the men involved in this upset as time passed? In two of his later letters Paul writes, “If [Mark] comes to you, welcome him” (Colossians 4:10) and “Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for ministry” (2 Timothy 4:11). Mark, of course, was also responsible for the Gospel account by his name. It seems obvious that reconciliation between Paul and Mark had occurred. But what of Barnabas? In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, written a number of years after the disagreement, Paul clearly recognizes him as a fellow apostle (1 Corinthians 9:6). We can surely conclude that Paul came to appreciate Barnabas once again and to see that the latter had been justified in his confidence in Mark.

A Wise Decision

As Paul and Silas continued their travels, they went from Cilicia through the steep-sided pass known as the Cilician Gates and came to the cities of Derbe and Lystra (Acts 16:1). There they met the disciple Timothy, who was to become Paul’s “beloved and faithful son in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 4:17). Apparently Timothy had become a follower of Jesus during Paul’s previous visit to Lystra and had developed a good reputation among the other members in the city and in neighboring Iconium.

It was well known among the Jews that Timothy’s father was Greek and his mother Jewish. But Timothy was not circumcised—a reason for the local Jews to reject him. Because Paul intended to use Timothy as an assistant in the area, he had the young man undergo the procedure to combat Jewish prejudice. Part of the teaching that Paul and Silas brought to the congregations as they traveled was the decision made by the apostles and elders at Jerusalem two years earlier in respect of circumcision. They had confirmed that the physical ritual was no longer required of those entering a relationship with the God of Israel. But Paul knew that Timothy’s teaching would more likely gain acceptance among the Jews if he was seen as one of them. It’s an example of Paul’s wisdom in finding ways to offset resistance to hearing the gospel message.

New Territory

By the time Paul, Silas and Timothy reached the west coast and the Roman colony of Troas, anciently Troy, they had experienced closed doors for several weeks. The account tells us that they had been “forbidden by the Holy Spirit” to speak in the Roman provinces of Bithynia and Asia, including the region known as Mysia (Acts 16:6–8). Why and exactly how this forbidding took place is unclear, but what happened next may be the key to understanding. At Troas, Paul had a dream in which he saw a Macedonian man pleading that they come over to his region. The dream was understood to be God’s way of guiding their footsteps to a new area for spreading the good news.

In verse 10, the writer of Acts changes his account to the first-person plural, saying, “we sought to go to Macedonia.” This is understood to be when Luke, the author of Acts, became part of Paul’s traveling party. The narrative continues in this way till verse 17 and resumes again with “we” in chapter 20, verse 5.

Sailing the short two-day journey across the Aegean Sea from Troas to Neapolis, the men were soon on their way to Philippi in Macedonia, in what is today northern Greece. The ancient city was renamed around 356 B.C.E. by Philip II, the father of Alexander the Great. Once the Romans conquered Macedonia in 168, they built the Egnatian Way joining the Adriatic and Aegean seas, and Philippi became a major trading and military center. Two of the assassins of Julius Caesar, Brutus and Cassius, were defeated there in 42 B.C.E. by Octavian (later Augustus Caesar) and Mark Antony. As a result, the city became a Roman colony and many veterans retired there, making its population largely Roman. The language spoken was mainly Latin, and Philippi was in some respects a miniature Rome. The way Acts describes the city has led some to wonder whether it was not Luke’s original home.

Seeking people to meet with on the Sabbath, Paul and his party went outside the city to the banks of the nearby river Gangites. There they came across a group of women who met regularly on the Sabbath for prayer. Luke writes that one of them, named Lydia, was a “worshiper of God.” One translation puts it this way: “She was already a ‘God-fearer,’”—that is to say, she was not a Jewess but a gentile who worshiped the God of Israel. The account continues, “and the Lord opened up her heart to respond. . . .” (Acts 16:14, Jewish New Testament). This is an important point. Luke is telling us that conversion is a matter of God opening the mind to accept His way. It is not the case that we can do this alone. We cannot become converted without God acting first. According to the apostle John, Jesus said, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:44).

Lydia came from the city of Thyatira in Asia Minor, a city with a Jewish community and probably the source of her knowledge of Israel’s God. She was a seller of purple dyed cloth, for which the city was famous. The specially colored fabric was essential in the manufacture of Roman imperial clothing. This means that Lydia was very likely a woman of considerable social standing. Once her mind was opened to Paul’s message, she and her household were baptized and became followers of Jesus and members of the Church of God. As a result, Paul, Silas, Luke and Timothy were invited to stay at her home for a time.

Two Kinds of Freedom

While Paul and his party were staying at Philippi, they made their way (on the Sabbath, no doubt) to the place of prayer. A young girl with fortune-telling skills followed them, calling out that they were “the servants of the Most High God” who proclaimed “the way of salvation.” She did this for several more days, much to Paul’s distress. Her masters made great profit from her abilities and were upset when Paul commanded the spirit of divination to leave her. As a result, they dragged Paul and Silas before the magistrates in the marketplace, or forum (which can be seen today, following excavations). Perhaps this was because Paul and Silas were the only full Jews in the group and therefore easier to accuse. The girl’s masters told the magistrates, “These men, being Jews, exceedingly trouble our city; and they teach customs which are not lawful for us, being Romans, to receive or observe” (Acts 16:20–21). The marketplace crowd grew angry; the magistrates tore off the two men’s clothes, ordered a severe beating with rods, and threw them into the inner prison, securing their feet in the stocks.

But at midnight, as Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns and the other prisoners listened, an earthquake shook the prison, opening all the doors and breaking the men’s chains. The jailer awoke in a panic and, thinking that he had lost all the prisoners, was about to kill himself, when Paul reassured him that the prisoners were all present. The experience was enough to convince the jailer that he needed God in his life. He asked Paul and Silas what he must do, and they replied with what has become a much quoted though much misunderstood statement within traditional Christianity: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household” (verse 31). Of course, there is more to it than simple belief. We have seen in this series so far that a new way of life is called for once the old way has been deeply regretted and forgiven. This means that teaching of the new way is essential and must be followed. For this reason Paul would often stay in an area after people had been converted in order to teach them more about God’s way. Or he would return after a while to teach and encourage recent converts to keep on following the Way (Acts 20:1–2, 6). In this case, the jailer and his household received immediate teaching and were baptized during the night (Acts 16:32–33).

Paul said to the officers: ‘They beat us publicly without a trial, even though we are Roman citizens, and threw us into prison. And now do they want to get rid of us quietly? No! Let them come themselves and escort us out.’” 

Acts 16:37, New International Version

In the morning the magistrates sent word that Paul and Silas be released quietly. But Paul insisted that the rulers come themselves, since they had beaten and imprisoned Roman citizens without cause—an act forbidden in Roman society. It was the first the magistrates had heard of the men’s citizenship. Fearful, they came to Paul and Silas and released them, asking them to leave the city. The two men went first to Lydia’s house, visiting and encouraging the brethren before departing. Paul’s later letter to the church at Philippi is one of his most encouraging in the New Testament. It speaks of his warm relations with them in contrast to his treatment by the authorities (Philippians 1:3–5, 27–30). His persecution at Philippi is also verified in his first letter to the church at Thessalonica (see 1 Thessalonians 2:2), capital of the province of Macedonia—the city to which he and his group journeyed next.

Two Kinds of Listeners

Thessalonica was about a hundred miles away. The travelers made their way there along the Egnatian Way through the ancient cities of Amphipolis and Apollonia. In 42 B.C.E. Thessalonica had been made a free city by the Romans, rather than a colony. Though it had its own form of government, the city enjoyed good relations with Rome. The emperor was held in highest esteem, and the cult of emperor worship thrived.

It’s apparent from the letters Paul wrote to the church that eventually formed there that he and Silas worked very hard and met with considerable success. As usual, they went first to the synagogue. For three Sabbaths, Paul reasoned with the mixed audience (Acts 17:2). Some of the Jews were persuaded by his teaching, as were many others—described as devout Greeks, including leading women. All of these people were part of the same synagogue and worshiped the same God. Paul was able to show from the Hebrew Scriptures that the prophesied Messiah had come as Jesus of Nazareth. Thus the new congregation that formed under Paul’s leadership was composed of Jews and gentiles, proselytes and God-fearers.

But once again opposition came from those Jews who were not persuaded but were rather envious of Paul’s success. They raised a riot, using disreputable men from the marketplace to form a mob, unsettling the whole city. They attacked the home of one of the new converts, Jason, hoping to find Paul and his colleagues. Unable to do so, they seized Jason and some of the new brethren and dragged them before the city fathers. Then they put forward a wrongful accusation, saying that Jason had welcomed Paul and Silas who were troublemakers—men who taught that Jesus, not Caesar, was king. This stirred up the rulers and citizens, whose fear of Roman reaction brought sentence on Jason. He was to remove the visitors from his house and send them out of the city. That evening, Paul and his party were sent on their way by the brethren to Berea, about 45 miles to the southwest.

Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.”

Acts 17:11, New International Version

Berea is in the foothills of the Vérmion Mountains, a little off the beaten track today but an important town in Paul’s time, prosperous and with a Jewish population. There Paul spoke once more with the Jews. Luke notes that they were more fair-minded than the ones in Thessalonica (verse 11). These people were open and willing to examine the Scriptures daily, not just on the Sabbath, to see whether what Paul said was true. Soon a congregation was founded, and among them were also worshipers who were gentile in origin, men and women of high-born status.

Before long, however, Paul’s Jewish opponents arrived from Thessalonica and stirred up the people once again. This time the new believers sent him on his way alone by sea to Athens, where he would wait for his colleagues Timothy and Silas to arrive (verses 14–15). It was to be a momentous visit, the site of Paul’s well-known exchange with the Athenian philosophers.