God on the Move: “The Long Hot Summer” – Acts 15:35 – 18:23

long hotSome movie buffs will recall that all the way back in 1958, actor Paul Newman (before he was making terrific jars of spaghetti sauce for our local supermarkets) played a role in a film based on William Faulkner’s short stories called: “The long hot summer”. I confess I didn’t see the film – but I read the series of Faulkner’s short stories that were connected to the film, and a summary of how the screenwriter wove them together, and I was fascinated. Apparently, in the movie a drifter named Ben Quick (played by Newman) entered a small Mississippi town where his father had a bad reputation as an arsonist. A town leader played by Orson Welles held a grudge against Ben’s dad, and went after the young man to make life difficult for him. Over time, that harsh community leader developed a muted respect for Ben’s tenacity in the face of countless obstacles, especially in light of that town leader’s own flighty and over privileged son. Eventually the town leader tried to fix Ben up with his own daughter, but his wicked son began to fear he would lose his place as heir and trapped his father in a barn, lighting a fire and planting evidence implicating Ben. The movie was called “the long hot summer” because it reflected a tough time in young Ben’s life – and showed his tenacity and ability to rebound in spite of setbacks.

Americans love these kinds of stories. We love self-made, self-repairing men supermen. We have a mild contempt for defeat, and if not overtly, we secretly love a guy who can get off the canvas when knocked down and go on to win the fight. The problem is, sometimes you can’t win. Sometimes the forces against you are too strong to make it through by “toughing it out”. Even in our spiritual life, times will come when we need help if we are going to have victory. We were not designed to take on life’s obstacles in the spiritual realm without each other, without God’s Word, and without times of rest and protection from the buffeting of the spiritual elements.

Some people are surprised when they read the section found in Acts 15:36-18:23 – what is dubbed the “Second Mission Journey of Paul” – because a close reading doesn’t reveal the “spotless” and “Teflon” version of Paul they have been taught to imagine. Paul gets beaten worse than Rocky Balboa in a boxing ring. Dr. Luke took the time to remind us, fully under the direction of God’s Spirit; of the time when Paul probably considered quitting because the work wasn’t going well at all. It got so bad he despaired and couldn’t continue to function normally. The record of this journey reveals that God was faithful and moved him from pain to power. It is certainly a process we should investigate!

Key Principle: When life pummels even the strongest believer with defeats, there is a process God can use to rebuild them – but that believer must take advantage of the provision.

Instead of reading every verse for nearly three chapters, I will need to select the ones that help move the story. I am not suggesting that every word is not important, and in other lessons we have studied each chapter, line by line. For this lesson, however, what we want to look at requires an overview – a look at the forest and not the individual trees on the landscape. Start with the end of the Jerusalem Council, where we left off in the last lesson:

Acts 15:36 After some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brethren in every city in which we proclaimed the word of the Lord, [and see] how they are.” 37 Barnabas wanted to take John, called Mark, along with them also. 38 But Paul kept insisting that they should not take him along who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. 39 And there occurred such a sharp disagreement that they separated from one another, and Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus. 40 But Paul chose Silas and left, being committed by the brethren to the grace of the Lord. 41 And he was traveling through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.

Put yourself in Paul’s toga and sandals. After a mammoth wrestling match at the council, the Spirit gave direction. The men embraced and the air was sweet with unity…but it didn’t last.

Division in the Team

Did you ever have an argument with someone you love, but you feel like they were DEAD WRONG about what they said. Tell the truth: “Did you not go over the conversation scores of times in your head?” If you answered “Yes!”, you are able to think like Paul as he and Silas boarded the ship and sailed off on the journey. Jesus was raised about twenty years before, and the church had just dodged its first nearly fatal division, and now the mission team is breaking up. I am certain they put a good face on it with the classic: “God is simply leading us in different directions” theme – but I do not for a moment believe both Barney and Paul were leaving unscathed by the altercation. Pain clings and pain stings… and it isn’t easy to shake it off…

Off they went, Silas and Paul. For a bit, things looked like they were turning around…

Acts 16:1 Paul came also to Derbe and to Lystra. And a disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek, 2 and he was well spoken of by the brethren who were in Lystra and Iconium. 3 Paul wanted this man to go with him; and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those parts, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. 4 Now while they were passing through the cities, they were delivering the decrees which had been decided upon by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem, for them to observe. 5 So the churches were being strengthened in the faith, and were increasing in number daily.

There’s a bit of encouragement – the team got back to full strength. Tim joined and seemed teachable. Paul was anxious to have him join in, and wanted to invest in his life. He knew his momma was a Jew, and he took the place of his father and had the boy circumcised, because people knew he hadn’t been with a Greek dad. They delivered the message of the council and people were enthusiastic! What a great moment… but wait for it… things were about to get hazy.

Disorientation of the Team

It seems that Paul and Silas wanted to go on to Galatia, but that wasn’t God’s plan. Look at Acts 16:

Acts 16:6 They passed through the Phrygian and Galatian region, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia; 7 and after they came to Mysia, they were trying to go into Bithynia, and the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them; 8 and passing by Mysia, they came down to Troas.

The mission team came with a brochure hot off the Jerusalem press. It worked well in Iconium and Lystra – but now…dead stop. God’s Spirit said “NO!” to the journey north and east. No problem, how about “due north”? “No way!” Can you hear Tim saying: “Hey guys, um… is it always this confusing? Do you USUALLY have a plan?” Without direction, they decided it was nap time…so they turned in for the night.

Direction was renewed when Paul had a vision of a Macedonian man (Acts 16:9-10) and that set the agenda to head for a boat and cross over to Neapolis, bound for Philippi up the road (Acts 16:11-12). The place was thoroughly pagan and the Jewish community was so small it didn’t have a synagogue, so every Jew in town naturally headed for the nearest stream to have what is called a “Taschlich” ceremony – and begin worship. Paul headed that direction as well. Acts 16 says:

Acts 16:13 And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to a riverside…14 A woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple fabrics, a worshiper of God, was listening; and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul. 15 And when she and her household had been baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house and stay.” And she prevailed upon us.

Wow, now things are turning around! People are coming to Jesus, right? Not so fast…

Draining of the Team:

Acts 16 shared that they no sooner got the home invitation, and the enemy slid into the scene in the form of a possessed slave girl (Acts 16:16).

Acts 16:17 Following after Paul and us, she kept crying out, saying, “These men are bond-servants of the Most High God, who are proclaiming to you the way of salvation.” 18 She continued doing this for many days. But Paul was greatly annoyed, and turned and said to the spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her!” And it came out at that very moment.

Just as the hope of a new mission point was dawning, there was an incessant disruption to the ministry. If you read that Paul got ANNOYED you read the passage correctly. He couldn’t take the constant haranguing. Out came the spirit, and down on Paul and Silas came the law! They were seized by the authorities (Acts 16:19-21). They were hastily and unlawfully beaten with rods (Acts 16:22) and put in prison with their feet in stocks (Acts 16:23-24).

What do you do when you have been unlawfully arrested and beaten… Paul and Silas thought it was a good time for a song service! Acts 16:25-34 tells of the marvelous way that Paul and Silas rocked the house with their praise band… ok, that was a bad way to say it. Seriously, they worshipped and God worked. An earthquake opened the door of the cell, but the testimony of Paul and Silas opened the door of a jailer’s heart – and God saved the Philippian jailer and his house. By the end of the chapter, our missionaries were escorted out of town, but the bruises were still on their bodies. Every sneeze made Silas’ eyes well up with tears.

When the body gets beaten, the heart gets weak. Paul and Silas knew God was at work. They knew God used their heating to save Joe the Jailer (or whatever his name was). At the same time, that didn’t mean that the beating didn’t take its toll on them. It surely did. They went through a physically draining time, and left feeling like an elephant sat on them in the night.

Dried Out Hearts for the Dynamic Duo

They walked westward on the Via Egnatia, a well-built Roman highway constructed two hundred years before and kept very well by Rome. They passed Amphipolis and Apollonia, but stopped at Thessalonica, where Paul had family. The response was initially good in Acts 17:1-4, but you know you can hear a “but” coming in the story…

Acts 17:5 But the Jews, becoming jealous and taking along some wicked men from the market place, formed a mob and set the city in an uproar; and attacking the house of Jason, they were seeking to bring them out to the people. 6 When they did not find them, they [began] dragging Jason and some brethren before the city authorities, shouting, “These men who have upset the world have come here also; 7 and Jason has welcomed them, and they all act contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.” 8 They stirred up the crowd and the city authorities who heard these things. 9 And when they had received a pledge from Jason and the others, they released them.

Only a brief time of growing ministry was pounced upon by enemies of the Gospel, and Paul’s cousin Jason was arrested and held on bond to force Paul to move out of town (Acts 17:5-9). This was no doubt an emotionally draining time. By the time Paul and Silas left town, their bodies were healing some, but their hearts couldn’t have been at peace. The trip began with a split. Philippi left them with split lips, and Thessalonica left them with a split up family. If we were keeping track, I am not sure we would call this a “winning time” in the mission quest.

Distorted by the Personal Attack

Slipping away from Thessalonica so that Jason wouldn’t grow old in jail, Paul and Silas left in the night to the city of Berea, and hoped for a better reception ahead (Acts 17:10). Berea had a good reputation for a great synagogue crowd (Acts 17:11) and the mission team got a good start. The problem was, that soon the same rabble rousers that bothered them in Thessalonica heard they were gaining ground in Berea, so in came the guys with the pitch-forks and placards, and the whole thing deteriorated. Look at Acts 17:13-15:

Acts 17:13 But when the Jews of Thessalonica found out that the word of God had been proclaimed by Paul in Berea also, they came there as well, agitating and stirring up the crowds. 14 Then immediately the brethren sent Paul out to go as far as the sea; and Silas and Timothy remained there. 15 Now those who escorted Paul brought him as far as Athens; and receiving a command for Silas and Timothy to come to him as soon as possible, they left.

Paul was not only getting chased by the same band, they picked HIM as the object of their derision. The TEAM was able to stay at Berea… but PAUL had to find the nearest boat at the nearby Dion harbor. Paul was clearly singled out and told to leave, while his companions would remain and sure up the work. The personal nature of the attack just as his gifts were igniting into results certainly left a mark on his feelings.

Ok, now put yourself on the boat with Paul. Travel alone for a bit. Your old team partner stormed off. You went through a down time and couldn’t get God’s direction. Your body hurts from rod beating. Your family has been attacked. You have been singled out as the central problem… and you have been doing your best to follow Jesus… but it doesn’t seem to be working well…

Disillusioned and Alone

In the modern mythology of the church, some will be offended that I picture “St. Paul” as, well, a regular guy. I have walked every place he ministered, and I have been impressed with how Dr. Luke didn’t exactly try to pretty up the story. Paul made his way to Athens… we don’t know exactly how, but we do know what happened when he got there. The loneliness and idle time appeared to make Paul a bit anxious, and he was stirred as he saw the pagan centers of Athens. (Acts 17:16-18). Paul reasoned with the men from their own poetry, but did not use Scripture (Acts 17:28) – the only time he did this on record. His audience laughed and scorned him (though a few were saved – Acts 17:32-34). Listen to the end of Acts 17 and see if you can read Paul’s feeling into the mix:

Acts 17:32 “Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some [began] to sneer, but others said, “We shall hear you again concerning this.” 33 So Paul went out of their midst. 34 But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them. 18:1 After these things he left Athens and went to Corinth.”

Did you notice how Acts 18:1 was short and to the point. It is as though Luke wanted us to know only this: “It didn’t go so well, and he left, period.”

Have you had enough? I hope so, because God doesn’t leave His servants chewing dust and binding wounds without a purpose. God was about to open the air conditioned encouragement door, and Paul was in the blazing hot parking lot for as long as he could possible stand it. Remember this: God is always on time. He knows what we need, and He knows when we need it. Here comes restoration…

Devastated to Restored

Some scholar point out that Paul recalled to the Corinthians later the low point of entry to them:

2 Corinthians 1:8 For we do not want you to be unaware, brethren, of our affliction which came [to us] in Asia, that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life; 9indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead…

Paul admitted he was whipped when he got there. He was despairing, physically mentally and emotionally wiped out. Yet, God moved in to rescue him. In Acts 18:2-11 Luke offered a window on how God restored him:

First, God provided him a team to weave into (18:1-3)

Acts 18:2 And [Paul] he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, having recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. He came to them, 3 and because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them and they were working, for by trade they were tent-makers.

God brought into Paul’s life, at the critical hour, people with natural connection to his life. They were both Jews, and both heavy cloth workers. The enemy’s move to expel the Jews in Rome became Paul’s opportunity to begin to heal. God has the ability to move people about in order to rebuild, restore and renew His people.

Second, God restored him to a work in a place he was strongest (18:4).

Acts 18:4 And he was reasoning in the synagogue every Sabbath and trying to persuade Jews and Greeks.

Paul went back to the place where his strengths could best be used – the place of debate in the synagogue. He had seen success there in the past, and it was a “natural habitat” for him.

Third, God added back the balance of his team, with exciting reports of God at work (18:5). When he faced opposition, he was surrounded by others who knew he was right (18:6).

Acts 18:5 But when Silas and Timothy came down from Macedonia, Paul [began] devoting himself completely to the word, solemnly testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ. 6 But when they resisted and blasphemed, he shook out his garments and said to them, “Your blood [be] on your own heads! I am clean. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.”

At long last, God sent back Silas and Tim – the team was reunited. Paul sent the men back and forth with some letters, but he took solace in their time together. There is NOTHING like familiar friends and family to help healing advance.

Fourth, God added new believers and new successes that helped him see God still at work in him (18:7-8).

Acts 18:7 Then he left there and went to the house of a man named Titius Justus, a worshiper of God, whose house was next to the synagogue. 8 Crispus, the leader of the synagogue, believed in the Lord with all his household, and many of the Corinthians when they heard were believing and being baptized.

Paul didn’t gauge his life by numbers and success, but it was encouraging to have people respond to the message of Jesus, and grow in that ministry. God brought some key people to faith, and that lifted Paul’s spirit!

Fifth, God spoke directly to his pain, and assured him that he had protection from God for his work (18:9-11)

Acts 18:9 And the Lord said to Paul in the night by a vision, “Do not be afraid [any longer], but go on speaking and do not be silent; 10 for I am with you, and no man will attack you in order to harm you, for I have many people in this city.” 11 And he settled [there] a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them.

Nothing helped more than hearing from God directly. Jesus told him not to be afraid, recognizing the horrible stretch of ministry he had passed through. God gave Paul three very important gifts when he was beaten, but Paul had to recognize them:

• Still time: healing by working on known and waiting on unknown
• Special friends: healing by team strengthening
• Safe places: God put a hedge on him to heal him

The end of the journey contained a simple word that helps us know what really happened. In the face of the trouble, Paul made a vow to obey God. That consecration is tucked into a little detail of the Word in Acts 18:18 Paul, having remained many days longer, took leave of the brethren and put out to sea for Syria, and with him were Priscilla and Aquila. In Cenchrea he had his hair cut, for he was keeping a vow.

A strengthened Paul recommitted himself to God’s work, no matter the cost.
When we strip away all the stories and drama – our lives come down to this: some things really hurt because we are trying to do right and things go very wrong. It hurts to put your trust in God and then have the rug pulled from beneath of us… but we must recognize that God hasn’t left even when all seems to have fallen apart. He has given us resource in Him the world cannot understand because it does not possess.

There is an old story of a man who was shipwrecked on an island. He found no other people on the small island, but he did find a hut and much evidence that another had lived in the place before him. Beneath the hut was a store room full of food. In the hut there were many fine conveniences, but the man would not use the place or eat the food. The man kept a diary and wanted to survive without the help of anyone else – be they alive or not. His last entry in his diary revealed that he died exhausted and surrounded by the very provisions that would have saved his life…but he made his point. He didn’t need anyone else. The only trouble is that the choice killed him.

Paul needed friends. He needed team members. He needed the reassurance of God’s own words. He needed to use the provisions God made – and not fuss because things didn’t seem to work out. It was his own weakness that allowed God to strongly use him.

When life pummels even the strongest believer with defeats, there is a process God can use to rebuild them – but that believer must take advantage of the provision.