Great Expectations


Old Testament: 2 Samuel 11 & 12

Poetry: Proverbs 22

New Testament: Acts 16

     You can look at today’s chapter as about expectations, being anticipated, met, shifted, and subverted. For example, it might surprise us to read that Timothy was circumcised (v. 3) – we just went over this, and circumcision was ruled out, right? But circumcision was restricted for Christians as a religious choice involving the Law. This text shows it being chosen as a surgical procedure, to avoid offending Jews who believed Timothy should have been circumcised when he was a child. Timothy chose this just to be less objectionable and let the message of Jesus be conveyed better. Paul later described him as a “kindred spirit who will genuinely be concerned for your welfare” (Philippians 2:20).

     Paul had intended to revisit the places he and Barnabas went (15:36) but Barnabas set off with John Mark, at least going to Crete. Paul went a different route and was probably quite surprised after a while that God was not permitting him to speak the gospel. When he received a vision calling him to Macedonia (north of Greece) he accepted this and entered Europe, where he hadn’t expected to travel. It has been pointed out that Acts 15 marks a transition point in the mission account when we hear less about Jewish people coming into the Church, and more about Gentiles. Paul could have continued traveling to where large groups of Jews lived, but before long he is in Philippi where it seems there were very few Jews, or at least few Jewish men. It took ten Jewish men to set up a synagogue, and apparently Philippi lacked this, but Paul’s group located a Jewish “place of prayer” by the river – they were often by the water.

     One of God’s favorite things may be subverting our expectations, whether by using weak people to achieve a victory, or turning a persecutor into an evangelist, or having us confront our own prejudices. As a Pharisee Paul would have been taught to pray each day “I thank you, Lord, that you did not create me a slave, a woman or a Gentile.” I’ve been told that the meaning of the prayer isn’t as extreme as it first sounds, that the point was how any of those three categories would limit access at the Temple and drawing closer to God. But still, it seems like such a prayer would tend to affect one’s ideas on the importance of people to God. And, the way Luke tells it, as Paul and Silas began their ministry in Europe the first three people they reached were a woman, a slave girl, and a Gentile. (This understanding of the text was pointed out to me in The IVP Women’s Bible Commentary, edited by Catherine Clark Kroeger and Mary J. Evans.)

     While Lydia was likely wealthy, since she was selling a luxury item like purple cloth, it seems that the Jewish community in Philippi lacked political influence. The owners of the slave girl who was helped by Paul were willing to unjustly push around her houseguests, though they did gather a crowd before going to the authorities with their claims. Paul didn’t seem important to them, and these officials were all too ready to accept the accusation that he was proclaiming customs it wasn’t lawful for Romans to accept or observe.

     After the earthquake struck and opened the prison doors the jailer was ready to kill himself because when a prisoner escaped a Roman jailer’s custody he was subject to whatever sentence that prisoner was to receive – with so many prisoners in his jail he must have thought it impossible to survive the collective punishments. In this story Paul and Silas seem like Joseph in a night, so impressing their fellow prisoners with their songs and their attitudes that they managed to convince them to behave according to their best selves in the situation and wait to learn what would happen. Or perhaps the other prisoners were cowed and afraid, like the sailors on Jonah’s ship in the middle of the turmoil, and they, too, had asked what they needed to do to be saved. Whatever the exact situation, when the jailer learned they all were still there he was ready to accept that Paul and Silas were falsely accused. And in the morning the local officials were likewise prepared to accept that a wrong had been done, but they wanted it to be swept aside. This is one of several times that Paul’s Roman citizenship benefited him, and it makes you wonder how government officials were so careless about not checking in advance who they might be abusing. The initial order for release may have been due to fear, related to the earthquake, or it may have been recognition that the actions already taken were outside the law, but the response to knowing Paul was a citizen was probably a good lesson to them. We can hope it put some lasting caution into their minds for future interactions with the new community of believers in Philippi, and that it helped to encourage the community that God was watching over them.

     Lord, thank you that Paul was willing to leave his expected course to get where you wanted him to be. Please help me be willing to take the course you want me to take. Please help me to accept your guidance. Help me to seek it and desire it, and not fear it. Give me strength and trust to rejoice in the Lord always, amen.

-Daniel Smead

Reflection Questions

  1. How much do you think it helped Paul and Silas to be locked in prison together?
  2. If you were locked in prison for serving Jesus, do you think you would sing hymns of praise to God? I think that with Paul and Silas as our examples we may be likely to say we can do that. But is it sometimes harder to glorify God in more “normal” situations, so that they wear you down over time? Recognize that you are a child of God, and that we don’t see all that is going on. Isn’t every situation potentially the lead up to something extraordinary? Joseph was a kid being mistreated by his siblings. Hannah was a childless woman, being picked on by a rival, for years. Don’t reject them as examples because they are famous Bible characters, it may have been their faithfulness while they were unaware of what would happen that led to what happened next. Recall that we don’t know what Lydia had been praying for, her role in this story may be much larger than we realize.
  3. As you think about the people in the chapter, what connections do you make to your own life?
  4. Having thought about Acts 16 today, how will you look at your life differently?
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