Thessalonica was founded about 315 years before Christ, and was the largest city of the Macedonian region in Northern Greece. It has been estimated that during Paul’s time its population may have been as high as 200,000. The majority of the inhabitants of the city were Greeks, but there was also a mixture of other ethnic groups, including Jews and Orientals.
We read in Acts, chapters 15 through 17, that the leadership of the church in Jerusalem felt impressed (“it seemed good to them) to send a delegation from Jerusalem back to the churches that were planted earlier. They would send with them a letter containing doctrine and instruction and encouragement, since many of them in these churches were new believers from among the Gentiles.
So a team sets out from Jerusalem: Paul, Barnabas, Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas.
Acts 15:30 So, when they were sent away, they went down to Antioch; and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter.
Scripture tells us that the congregation in Antioch rejoiced over the encouragement in the letter. The four of them stayed there for a time, and then Judas returned to Jerusalem.
Acts 15:36 And 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.”
In the midst of their planning, Barnabas suggests that they take along John, but Paul doesn’t like the idea. It seems that there had been a previous situation in which Mark had abandoned Paul in the middle of a trip and Paul didn’t want a replay of that disappointment.
Acts 15:39, 40 And there arose 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 departed, being committed by the brethren to the grace of the Lord.
Paul and several of the brothers had a “disagreement”…hmmm. Sometimes we think we know who is with us on our journey, but….
Acts 16:1 And he came also to Derbe and to Lystra. And behold, a certain disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer,.....2 and he was well spoken of by the brethren who were in Lystra and Iconium.
Acts 16:6 And they passed through the Phrygian and Galatian region, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia; 7 and when they had come 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.
I wonder if there was some second guessing going on about now? And maybe a little frustration? When they left Jerusalem, everything was clear….everything was simple. Take these guys with you….and go to these cities! Git-er-done! But now it keeps changing.
Acts 16:9 And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a certain man of Macedonia was standing and appealing to him, and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”
Look at Paul’s response:
Acts 16:10-13 And when he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. Therefore putting out to sea from Troas, we ran a straight course to Samothrace, and on the day following to Neapolis; and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia, a Roman colony; and we were staying in this city for some days. And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to a riverside, where we were supposing that there would be a place of prayer; and we sat down and began speaking to the women who had assembled.
Some of the most disconcerting times in my life were times when I had a plan, I was ready….and then, all of a sudden, things change and y plan is no good! Some folks experience distress and uncertainty in life because they have NO PLAN. Personally, I think it is equally disconcerting to have a plan, and suddenly have that plan sidelined by reality! This is what Paul seems to be experiencing at every turn! So, anyway….Paul makes the best of the situation and sits down...and…
Acts 16:14, 15 And 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.
"Paul! You’re responding to a vision from the Lord. Quit paying attention to people along the way and stick to the plan!" I wonder if people might be more important than plans?
Paul ended up baptizing Lydia and her household. She invites them to stay at her house….so they did. O.K. – at least this interruption makes sense….a woman comes to Christ. The next day they are going to the place of prayer (back on track) and a slave-girl begins to bother them…scripture says, “for many days” she bothered them. They discern that she has a demon…and Paul casts it out! Alright! – more good news! Now?...are we back on track???
Acts 16:19 But when her (the slave girl’s) masters saw that their hope of profit was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market place before the authorities.
So, the angry slave-owners have Paul and friends arrested….the magistrate brings them before the people….disrobes them, beats and whips them, and throws them in jail and fastened their feet in stocks. Plan derailed, again!
This is not quite as exciting! -- So much for the night-time vision – so much for the Macedonian guy who asked for help – so much for the plan as it was envisioned -- What a bummer! Nothing is going according to schedule.
Acts 16:25, 26 But about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns of praise to God, and the prisoners were listening to them; and suddenly there came a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison house were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s chains were unfastened.
Well, the jailer who had been assigned to watch them wakes up, sees that they are free from their chains and decides to kill himself, fearing that everyone will escape. Paul yells at him, "Hold on; we’re all here!" And the jailer says, “What must I do to be saved?” They ended up baptizing him, along with his whole household. They’ve been delayed for who-knows-how-many days; but I guess it’s not all that bad.
- baptized a business woman and her family
- cast a demon out of a slave-girl
- been beaten and imprisoned, yet are found worshiping the Lord
- led the jailer and his family to the Lord and baptized them
- and been set-free without so much as a trial
Acts 17:1-4 Now when they had traveled through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And according to Paul’s custom, he went to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and giving evidence that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you is the Christ.” And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, along with a great multitude of the God-fearing Greeks and a number of the leading women.
In December of 2005 I traveled to Nagaland, India, to visit the Bible College that this church has supported for three decades. Frank Pickard and 2 other men went along.
I had been asked by Alila VitoKhu, the founder of the Bible school, to come and speak at their 25th Anniversary Celebration. I would be speaking to the current graduating class, many returning graduates, the school staff, the board of directors, guests from Christ for the Nations in Texas, and guests from a Bible College in Hokkaido, Japan. Several hundred in all.
So, what does one say to an amazing group of people like this? They treated me like a visiting dignitary; carrying my computer bag, bringing me water, and such. I felt like a light-weight in their midst yet I’m suppose to say something memorable at their school anniversary celebration.
What they didn’t know was that I was still shaken from events in our lives back home: our son’s painful divorce in 2000 had knocked the wind out of me….and the child custody issues dragged on for months. On top of that, we, here at this church, had gone through a major leadership change in 2001. Like much of life, it hadn’t been handled perfectly, and that, too, had left me shaken.
What am I going to say to this group of people, half way around the world, that will matter when the sun goes down at the end of their day? The day before I was scheduled to speak, I climbed up on the roof of our guest house with a bible and a legal pad….and with God’s help, I scrawled some notes.
The next day, at the anniversary celebration, I congratulated the new graduates on their accomplishment….and then over the course of the next 45 minutes I told them that their future ministry would probably bear very little resemblance to the rose-colored pictures they had formulated in their minds….but that God would be faithful…and would use them exactly as He planned.
I used several stories from the life of the Apostle Paul (similar to the story we’ve examined this morning) about how things often seemed to get worse before they got better…and seldom looked like what Paul might have envisioned.
And I told them my own story, too. I told them about disappointments, about times when it seemed that the bottom was falling out. When I wasn’t sure my prayers were being heard….let alone answered. I was honest. I said that many times ministry was marked more by faithfulness that by obvious immediate success…and I encouraged them to be faithful to their call.
I shed a couple of tears as I went through it. At the end everyone was polite and thanked me, but I wasn’t at all sure what I had just said. I lived through it and for that I was thankful.
Fast forward -- Three years and 5 days, to Sunday, December 7th, 2008. It’s two in the morning and our phone rings. The man’s voice on the other end has a heavy accent. He identifies himself as L. John Mekuri, and wonders if I remember him. He says, “I was there at the graduation ceremony in Kohima in 2005. I heard you speak.”
When I got my wits about me I asked where he was. He said that he had planted a church in Burma, near the coastline. (Do you remember what happened in Burma on May 2nd of 2008? They were hit by Cyclone Nargis, the worst natural disaster in Burma’s recorded history, with 138,000 deaths.)
Everything and everyone at his church back home in Burma was gone. And now, 8 or 9 months after the cyclone, he is calling me on a borrowed cell phone from Mae la Oon Refugee Camp, just over the border from Burma, into Thailand.
The camp, designed to hold ten to fifteen thousand, now had grown to 50,000 people – they were in need of food, and clothing, but thankful to be alive. I want to read you what he told me on the phone that Sunday morning.
“I was lying on my mat feeling sorry for my self -- I was wondering if I would ever be able to be a pastor again now that this tragedy had destroyed my church and my home. I wondered if God had forgotten me. And then I remembered your message at the Jubilee Celebration in Nagaland in 2005. And I realized that I was right where God needed me to be. So now I’ve been going from house to house sharing what food I have and I get to tell them about Christ. There are thousands of Children there who cannot read and we have no books…..except my Bible, so teach them to read using the Bible. Please pray for me. Please pray for the children.”
I have no idea where he is now or how he is doing. But I suspect that God has build a ministry around John - just like He did around Paul.