How to pray in prison – P.S.

•March 31, 2016 • Leave a Comment
praying hands

We reach out to touch each other so that God can reach out and touch us.

While we have had a lengthy conversation over the last few posts about prayer, specifically the “prison” situations that challenge our prayer lives, there is a parting note I would like to give on the matter.

The apostle Paul, to no one’s surprise, was a man of prayer. In his letters, he often made mention of his constant prayers for the saints; this we have catalogued in our discussion.

As a remedy to his very literal prison, he received “power to stand,” “power to be content” and “power to struggle.” All of these graces, certainly, contributed to his ability to maintain his prayers for the saints during trying circumstances.

What should not go unnoticed, however, is the thing that may be most simple, yet impactful, regarding the apostle’s resolve to pray: the prayers of the saints. In each of the letters he pens from prison, Paul either requests prayer or mentions the prayers of the corresponding churches.

He writes in Colossians 4:2-3, “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. At the same time, pray also for us” (ESV). Philippians 1:19 reads, “. . . for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance” (ESV).

Ephesians 6:18-20 echoes, “And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should” (NIV).

We need people to pray for us. Moreover, we should not be ashamed to solicit prayer. It is not a sign of weakness, but of confidence in the efficacious nature of prayer and the power of agreement. James, very fitting, says, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (5:16 ESV).

I think this is actually one of the most important ingredients to intercessory prayer. It can be become difficult to labor on someone else’s behalf if one feels his own needs are being neglected. Our needs should not necessarily be our preoccupation, but they are a reality.

Paul did not spend a ton of time talking about his difficulties; he had greater concerns in writing to these churches. He did, though, request that the churches pray for him and, in the case of the Philippians, thanked them for renewing their financial support. His suffering for the gospel is also not omitted from his report.

It is fair to say that praying for someone else should mean that someone, in turn, prays for you. After all, Jesus did say, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’?”(Mark 11:17 ESV). If we understand the people of God to be the “living stones” that compose that house (1 Peter 2:5), then doesn’t it make sense for us to pray for each other?

No matter how you slice it, true prayer has an element of selflessness. A commentary of prayer offers, “Prayer must be more than simply a devotional habit in the Christian’s life. It must be a ministry, both in the lives of individual Christians and within the life of the local church.” Prayer, devotionally, ministers unto the Lord. Intercession, though, ministers to people as we bring their needs before God.

I am fortunate enough to attend a church that really values prayer. At every meeting, you can expect someone to pray for you. Hearing someone labor on your behalf is encouraging; I am saying that from experience. To reiterate, though, we are talking about prayer that has great power at its working, not just encouragement.

Another one of the apostles, Peter, also found himself in a prison cell. James, brother of John, had been put to death and Peter was next on the list. While waiting in that cell for his looming demise, the witness of Acts records, “So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him” (12:5 NIV).

Peter didn’t know that the church was praying for him at the time. He was not sitting in a church meeting where he could hear the person next to him; he was in a cell, under lock-and-key, with not a friendly face in sight. The church’s prayer activity became known to Peter, however, after an angel busts him out of prison – the record of Acts seems to imply that this event was in direct result to the church’s prayers.

Some people cannot hear you pray for them, and the same with you. This was certainly the case for Paul and Peter. As a sports enthusiast, the analogy I would like to use is that you may not get the play-by-play, but when you find that your team wins after checking the score, you are not as concerned about the details (that’s what highlights are for anyway, right?).

There should certainly be a reciprocal nature to prayer in the life of the church. In order for us all to serve and give preference to one another, though, we have to trust that it will come back to us; we cannot clinch our fists until we have an assurance of return. We can be assured, however, based on the truth of God’s word: “One person gives freely, yet gains even more; another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty. A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed” (Proverbs 11:24-25 NIV).

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How to pray in prison, part 3

•February 29, 2016 • Leave a Comment
prison bars

These bars, if we are not careful, can incarcerate our prayer lives. 

In the last two posts, we have been discussing the answer to the question, “How do we pray while in prison?”

From the prison epistles – Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians (also includes Philemon) – we understand that the apostle Paul maintained his ministry of prayer while under lock-and-key.

Ephesians tells us we need “power to stand” in the face of the prison of the devil’s schemes. Philippians informs that we need “power to be content” when material needs attempt to incarcerate us. This brings us to Colossians.

Paul evidences his concern for the Colossians in the first chapter of this epistle. He says, “And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (1:9-10 ESV).

While there was cause for concern for the believers at Colossae, the apostle knew that writing a letter would not be enough. Not only did those believers need instruction, but prayer. A commentary on the subject posits, “Prayer must be more than simply a devotional habit in the Christian’s life. It must be a ministry, both in the lives of individual Christians and within the life of the local church.”

Paul models this beautifully, and does so with a Roman soldier constantly reminding him of his chains (Acts 28:16). In writing to the Colossians, he identifies another prison in the life of the believer, and how we can emulate his resolve to pray.

Prison #3: Stewardship of Suffering

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me. (1:24-29 ESV)

This lengthy passage actually has a simple takeaway. Paul does not deny his suffering, but rejoices in it. The reason he is able to do this is simple: his suffering is the direct result of his stewardship from God.

Preaching the gospel had gotten Paul into plenty of trouble. He had been stoned, beaten, mocked and jailed (on more than one occasion). The stewardship of being a minister of the gospel, however, was his motivation to continue. Paul declares, “But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24 ESV).

What do we do when our stewardships necessitate that we incur hardship? How do we maintain a posture of prayer in such situations?

We need POWER to STRUGGLE.

Paul says to the Colossians, “For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (1:29). Notice, though, that this struggle is not with Paul’s own energy, but by the grace that Christ gives through the Holy Spirit.

The Christian life is one that requires toil. Proverbs 14:23 assures us, however, “In all toil there is profit, but mere talk tends only to poverty” (ESV). Philippians 2:13 adds, “For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (ESV). Stewardships, ultimately, are from God and for God, while also being brought to completion by him. Our role is to simply be the vessel God uses to accomplish his purposes.

Doing God’s will, most assuredly, will result in suffering. First Timothy 3:12 offers, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (ESV). A godly life in Christ is not one simply marked by good morals, but by personal advancement of the kingdom of God. In the words of Paul, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me” (Phil. 1:21-22a ESV).

We will experience opposition when pursuing the kingdom through fulfilling our God-given stewardships. This, however, is not cause for gloom, but rejoicing and prayer. Paul understood this, and was not only able to show care for the church (even though, as he says, he was suffering on their behalf), but did not cease to pray for them.

Let us, then, follow his example and admonishment: “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving” (Col. 4:2 ESV).

How to pray in prison, part 2

•February 15, 2016 • 2 Comments
money prison

Money, or the lack thereof, can, in itself, be a prison.

Prison is a place where no one wants to go, yet almost all of us have been. Let me explain.

There are prisons with guards, as well as physical and civil restrictions, much like the apostle Paul experienced as he wrote Colossians, Ephesians, Philemon and Philippians. In fact, the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates 2.2 million people under such conditions as of 2013, making the United States the world’s leader in incarceration.

Our culture, it seems, knows a thing or two about prison. Claiming that all of us have been, you may say, is still pretty audacious.

As Christians, one of our mandates is actually to minister to prisoners. In the words of Christ, himself, “I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Matthew 25:36c NIV). Hebrews 13:3a (ESV) continues this thread: “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them.”

What I am referencing, however, is not being a visitor, but an inmate. Though they might not have physical bars, the prisons that we encounter as believers are just as real. In the last post, we discussed how the apostle Paul details one such prison as “the schemes of the devil,” based on Ephesians 6:10-11. In writing to the Philippians, he identifies another prison:

Prison #2: Material Needs

I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (4:10-13 ESV)

When in a prison situation, it can be difficult to maintain our desire to pray. In regards to our own needs, maybe not so much, but what about praying for others?

The apostle Paul embodied a ministry of prayer. A commentary on the subject posits, “Prayer must be more than simply a devotional habit in the Christian’s life. It must be a ministry, both in the lives of individual Christians and within the life of the local church.”

Paul, from prison, was able to say to the Philippians, “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy” (1:3-4 ESV). Not only did he have a constant habit of praying for this church, but did so with joy, and this in the face of apparent material need. How do we, then, maintain a posture of prayer while in need?

We need POWER to be CONTENT.

When facing the various circumstances of life, it is contentment that allows us to remain unmoved. While Paul does rejoice at the sight of aid from the Philippians, he is not complaining (Phil. 2:14).  The church at Philippi was actually the only church that ministered to his needs after leaving Macedonia during his second missionary journey (Phil. 4:15-16; Acts 16:40-17:1). Moreover, saying, “you have revived your concern for me” (Phil. 4:10), must mean that there was a period when the checks stopped coming.

Paul’s primary concern, however, is not that his own needs are being met. He rejoices at the prospect of this generosity being credited to account of those who gave, believing that God will add to them materially and spiritually (4:16-18).

Paul does mention his needs, but is not preoccupied with them. The various situations in his life had taught him to be content. Between being “in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure” (2 Corinthians 11:27 ESV) — just to name a few — he had plenty of opportunities to learn.

Consider that the bouts we have with challenging circumstances, albeit financial or otherwise, are not to discourage us. They, however, are opportunities to learn Paul’s “secret,” often revealing the degree to which our hearts are actually content.

Upon closer reading of Philippians 4:10-13, we see that the contentment of which Paul speaks is not something that is contrived, but a work of Christ. He says, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (v. 13). Ultimately, our contentment is not only a result of Christ’s power at work within us, but is founded in a heart that rejoices in the Lord (4:4). When this is the case, we can adhere to Paul’s admonishment to “not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (4:6 ESV).

Interestingly, Paul not only acknowledges a need for this contentment in “hunger and need,” but also “plenty and abundance.” Having more-than-enough presents a prison of its own kind. To this end, Proverbs 30:7-9 (ESV) reads:

Two things I ask of you;
deny them not to me before I die:
Remove far from me falsehood and lying;
give me neither poverty nor riches;
feed me with the food that is needful for me,
lest I be full and deny you
and say, “Who is the LORD?”
or lest I be poor and steal
and profane the name of my God.

While having little can cause one to turn his focus to himself, fostering a disregard for others and God (Matthew 6:33), having plenty can cause us to forget God altogether. Before entering into the Promised Land, the Israelites received the following warning:

Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day. (Deuteronomy 8:17-18 ESV)

Wealth has an uncanny affect on the human heart. This is why we see so many strong statements regarding it in the New Testament (i.e. 1 Timothy 6:6-10, 17-19). Jesus tells a parable of a man whose wealth turned him to greed, and that at the cost of his life (Luke 12:13-21). Paul plainly tells us, “a greedy person is an idolater” (Colossians 3:5 NLT).

We need to “rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil. 4:4 ESV), so that in lack we do not discredit Christ’s sufficiency, and in abundance we do not begin to rejoice in things. A heart that is strengthened by the Lord will not only be able to achieve this, but also maintain the ministry of prayer, which is “good and pleasing in the sight of God our Savior” (1 Tim. 2:3 BSB).

How to pray in prison, part 1

•January 30, 2016 • 1 Comment
jail-cell

Definitely not the easiest place to pray.

Upon examining the New Testament witness, there are several things that we glean from the life of the apostle Paul.

He was devout (Philippians 3:5), learned (Acts 22:3), loving (2 Corinthians 11:11) and full of the Spirit (1 Cor. 2:4). Not to go unnoticed, however, is that Paul was a man of prayer.

His prayer life is one that is well-documented in the NT (see Acts 16:25-26). Even from his own writings, we see his passion for the throne of grace. Paul makes mention of his prayers for the churches to whom he writes. Consider the following:

Ephesians 1:16 ESV – “I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers”

The apostle truly modeled the preeminence of prayer in the life of the believer. A commentary on the subject posits, “Prayer must be more than simply a devotional habit in the Christian’s life. It must be a ministry, both in the lives of individual Christians and within the life of the local church.”

What is of particular note, though, is that Paul wrote Ephesians from a prison cell. Likely penned during his first Roman imprisonment (Acts 28:16-31), he writes this letter, as well as Colossians, Philemon and Philippians, with much fatherly concern and affection. Facing the uncertainty of what lies ahead, he is preoccupied with the well-being of the church; in fact, he does not cease to pray for them (Eph. 1:16).

How can we, then, “continue steadfastly in prayer” (Colossians 4:2) while in a prison situation?

We need to, first, understand what are the “prisons” in our lives. Paul was under actual lock-and-key — and that on more-than-one occasion. You and I face circumstances that may not involve physical bars, but can be just as paralyzing. The apostle details three such prison scenarios in his letters from a Roman jail, the first of which we will discuss today. Subsequently, he gives us the remedy to maintain our prayer lives in such situations.

Prison #1: Schemes of the devil

Eph. 6:10-11 ESV – “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil.”

Some prisons in our lives are the result of the enemy’s schemes. This could be a temptation that has laid a snare, a stronghold (1 Cor. 10:4) or simply opposition (Daniel 10:13).

While satan is a defeated foe, on occasion, it could appear as if he has the upper hand. Sitting in his prison cell, chained to a guard, I can imagine the enemy whispering in Paul’s ear, saying, “I have you right where I want you.” How did Paul maintain his composure and desire to pray while under direst? How can we?

We need POWER to STAND.

In order to stand against the schemes of the devil, we need the Lord’s strength. This particular grace comes as we put on the “whole armor of God.” In Ephesians 6:14-17, Paul gives a rundown of the pieces that comprise this spiritual ensemble: the belt of truth, breastplate of righteousness, feet fitted with the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, helmet of salvation and sword of the Spirit. (Here is an awesome resource for further study on the full armor of God.)

Not only is Paul telling us to arm ourselves for battle, but also to be prepared to fight! The reality is that we have an enemy whose sole objective is to devour us (1 Peter 5:8). If we are conditioned to treat the devil like a house cat and not a prowling lion, we will be overwhelmed when he attacks.

On the contrary, Paul not only admonishes us to remain prayerful, but to employ our prayers into our spiritual arsenal. He writes, “and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints” (Eph. 6:17-18 ESV).

While satan may have thought chaining Paul to a Roman soldier was achieving a victory for darkness, the apostle was able use the situation to inspire the church to arm themselves and pray. Let us, then, receive his encouragement and “stand” in the face of the devil’s schemes.

A walk to remember

•December 31, 2015 • Leave a Comment

 

reminder-older-kids-2

Sometimes, we need the reminder.

The end of a year tends to produce some very familiar habits. These include attending celebrations and making resolutions for the coming year.

What the year’s end also presents is an opportunity for reflection. Naturally, the close of one chapter prompts us to pause and skim the previous pages. I’d like to offer a word of admonishment, to this end, upon entering 2016.

While certainly appropriate, the close of a year is not the only time to reflect. In fact, this should actually be a spiritual discipline, one which we practice every day of our lives.

Psalm 106 gives us a snapshot of what it looks like when we develop short memories. Verses 6-7 read this way:

Both we and our fathers have sinned; we have committed iniquity; we have done wickedness. Our fathers, when they were in Egypt, did not consider your wondrous works; they did not remember the abundance of your steadfast love, but rebelled by the sea, at the Red Sea. (ESV)

For Israel, their neglect to remember was reckoned to them as sin. When we forget to recall what God has done, our hearts wax cold and our faith becomes diluted. Moreover, it becomes easier to complain rather than to be thankful.

To be sure, forgetting what God has done takes nothing away from his feats, but hinders our expectation for the future. Celebrating God’s deeds should mark our lives as believers, yes, but the byproduct is belief in the fulfillment of his promises.

Israel actually highlights this truth by doing the opposite. Psalm 106:21, 24 records, “They forgot God, their Savior, who had done great things in Egypt . . . Then they despised the pleasant land, having no faith in his promise.” 

As people of faith, let us rehearse God’s works in our hearts. This brings glory to our God and Savior, and assures our hearts before him.

But then I recall all you have done, O LORD; I remember your wonderful deeds of long ago. They are constantly in my thoughts. I cannot stop thinking about your mighty works. (Psalm 77:11-12 NLT)

It takes faith to worship

•November 30, 2015 • 1 Comment
faith_1

Without faith it is impossible to please God.

“By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks.” (Hebrews 11:4 ESV)

I wonder, how often do we think of faith being a requirement for worship? Emphasized are the use of instruments, lights, projector screens, liturgies and other things, but what about faith?

The concept of faith, to be sure, is by no means ignored. When facing a difficult circumstance, we are admonished to “keep the faith.” Prayer, we understand, is solicited from a heart that is full of faith; the apostle Paul speaks of a faith that can move mountains (1 Corinthians 13:2). He also notes, “The righteous shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17 ESV).

In the same letter to the Romans, Paul exhorts, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (12:1 ESV). Paul not only equates sacrifice with worship, but also our lives as a sacrifice. While we are living lives of faith, we are simultaneously presenting ourselves as sacrifices to God.

In much the same way, the sacrifice Abel presented to God was by faith. We are not only told that this offering was accepted, but that he was also commended. Abel’s authentic faith is still speaking to us by the example of pleasing worship he leaves behind.

Yes, worshipping God does require faith. The foremost reason I would solicit is that one has to believe God exists in order to worship him. Hebrews 11:6 offers this commentary: “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (NIV).

The faith that is required to offer pleasing worship to the Lord is somewhat narrow. It is not an arbitrary belief in one God, but in how he has revealed himself in the Holy Scriptures. First John 5:9-12 states:

If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater, for this is the testimony of God that he has borne concerning his Son. Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son. And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. (ESV)

Jesus rightly says of himself, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 ESV). Hebrews 10:19-20 adds, ” . . . we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body” (NIV). 

Our ability to worship is based on the testimony and work of Christ. We receive the grace to worship God acceptably by the Holy Spirit (John 4:24, Philippians 3:3).

While I am making somewhat of an appeal to orthodoxy, believing the right thing is not sufficient in itself, and cannot be called worship. In the case of Abel, the faith that he exercised, prompting his offering, was what was commended.

Our belief in the one true God should produce heartfelt worship; not just songs or extravagant offerings, but lives promoting the glory of God. In times when we do sing, though, let it not be said, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Matthew 15:8 NIV). Let us, rather, aspire to attain the testimony of Abel, who was “commended as righteous, when God spoke well of his offerings” (Heb. 11:4 ESV).

 

You’re not ready

•October 27, 2015 • Leave a Comment
If God were to us something prematurely, it would be the equivalent of serving an uncooked turkey.

If God were to give us something prematurely, it would be the equivalent of serving an uncooked turkey.

Few things I find more bothersome than someone uttering these words to me: “You’re not ready.”

If you are anything like me, these words can seem like an insult, even a statement of inadequacy. From the male perspective, in particular, being inadequate is the last quality one would want associated with himself. This truth is underscored by the age-old scenario of a husband driving, with his wife in the passenger seat. While it is clear he has no clue where he is going, he tries his hardest to maintain the facade of assurance in front of his wife. She, however, knows he’s lost all along.

We can go to great lengths to hide our perceived shortcomings, even if it is to our own detriment. It would be much to our benefit, however, to take heed when God says that we’re not ready. His assessment of us is always a sober one, while our own assessment is often diluted with an inflated sense of self.

Let’s consider the case of the Israelites in Exodus 13:17-18 (NIV):

When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter. For God said, “If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.” So God led the people around by the desert road toward the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of Egypt ready for battle.

Though the Hebrews were experiencing the realization of an over 400-year-old prophecy, their euphoria and renewed confidence in the God of Abraham would have been nullified by a confrontation with the Philistines. I’m sure if God would have given the people an option, they would have opted for the shorter route. He, however, knew they were only ready for battle, not war. Israel did possess the instincts to survive, but had not been organized long enough to have any kind or army or strategy. Besides, looking ahead into their sojourn into the wilderness, we see their willingness to turn back to Egypt at the mere sight of the Canaanites (Numbers 13:30-14:4).

Interestingly enough, there seems to be a similar instance in the life of the apostle Paul. In Acts 16:6-7, in the midst of his second missionary tour-of-duty, Paul and his companions attempt to travel through Asia and Bythinia, but are prevented both times; it reads this way:

And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them. (ESV)

Why would God prevent the most fruitful Christian missionary of all-time from taking the gospel to these areas?

Continuing in Acts 16, it becomes apparent that God’s immediate priority was Macedonia:

And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. (v. 9-10 ESV)

Oftentimes, our immediate priority comes in conflict with what God thinks is important at the moment. It made sense for Paul to travel through Asia and Bithynia, just based on mere geography. Both could have been reached by land, coming from Galatia and Mysia, respectively. Macedonia, on the other hand, required a trek by land and sea, and easily more travel time than going to either Asia or Bithynia.

God’s ways and thoughts, however, remain above our own. His plan unfolds according to his infinite wisdom, which seldom follows our logic. As Paul’s journey progresses, we see that his trek through Macedonia was an important one. His stops in Philippi, Thessalonica and Berea, later visiting Athens and Corinth in Greece, would shape the face of Christian history and influence the very content of Scripture (1 & 2 Corinthians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians and Philippians). While it is possible that this pivotal part of his journey could have taken place later, we should not so easily presume; God’s plan is very much about the timely occurrence of events.

Having the advantage of the whole witness of the New Testament, we take note of two things. First, Bithynia, is only mentioned twice, in Acts 16:7 and 1 Peter 1:1. This could, perhaps, suggest that it lacked significance as an outpost in the strategic expansion of the Kingdom of God, or that there may have been sufficient Christian witness at the time Paul wanted to enter.

Second, and most importantly, we see the prominence of Asia in the NT (the seven churches to whom Jesus recites letters in Revelation are all in Asia), particularly Ephesus. Paul has two stints in Ephesus: a brief introduction near the end of this second missionary journey and a two-year, three-month stay on his third journey.

After departing Ephesus the second time, though, he pens something rather telling to the Corinthians:

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. (2 Corinthians 1:8 NIV)

Could it be that when Paul wanted to originally enter Asia, he simply was not ready?

A survey on the book of Acts notes that “Ephesus held the greatest challenge and opportunity of Paul’s ministry.” He says in 1 Corinthians 16:8-9, “But I will stay on at Ephesus until Pentecost, because a great door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many who oppose me” (NIV). What Paul experienced in Ephesus left a mark on him that no other place would, perhaps with the exception of Rome, where he was executed.

Though he “fought wild beasts in Ephesus” (1 Cor. 15:32), his time there was not solely marked by hardship. Acts 19 details what could potentially be the height of Paul’s ministry. He remains in Ephesus longer than any other location (two years and three months) and witnessed the economy of the leading commercial city of Asia Minor take a hit because of a steep decline in idolatry. In addition, two things occur during this time that make it unique: believers experience the baptism of the Holy Spirit under Paul’s ministry, which is recorded nowhere else in Acts, and “God did extraordinary miracles through Paul” (v. 11).

Could it be said that the “best of times” is the natural breeding ground for the “worst of times”? It does seem that added results come with added responsibilities, more blessings come with more burdens, and new levels come with new devils. Jesus, himself, says, “When someone has been given much, much will be required in return” (Luke 12:48 NLT).

God knew what lied ahead of Paul, and that his arrival in Ephesus would have been premature had it happened in Acts 16. The pressures of doing ministry in what was probably the fourth largest city in the world almost made him implode; rushing this could have been disastrous.

As we make some final considerations, we find three insights into why Paul’s trip to Ephesus was delayed:

  1. He was missing the Lord’s permission and blessing. 

“‘Everything is permissible for me,’ but not everything is beneficial,” Paul says to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 6:12 BSB). Just because something is within our means to do, does not mean that we necessarily should. Aside from the Spirit’s prompting, there is nothing that restrained Paul and his companions from venturing into Asia. It would have been foolish, however, to persist and not have the Lord’s blessing. When this happens, we are left to our own devices and forced to rely on our own strength.

     2.  The timely execution of God’s plan was crucial.

As it turns out, the Ephesian church was the last that Paul would pioneer. His journey, post Ephesus, focuses on his final tour and eventual date with Rome (which had a church prior to his arrival). While Paul wanted to stop here “on the way,” God knew that this would be a much bigger undertaking than a drive-by could do justice. In our own efforts to get places more quickly, we can easily make the mistake of devaluing the journey and the significance of the place we are trying to get to so desperately.

     3.  Paul needed the right surroundings.

Paul arrived in Ephesus in Acts 19 with a different crew than he would have in Acts 16, bringing along Priscilla and Aquila — a married couple he met in Corinth. He would need people to accompany him who could be entrusted with the task of overseeing the church during his initial absence, a church that would become one of the most prominent in the NT. While travel companions Silas and Timothy were certainly trustworthy, the record of Acts leaves them in Corinth (likely overseeing the affairs of the church) as the Ephesian storyline begins; Timothy appears to have rejoined Paul later on in Ephesus (Acts 19:22).

It seems like Priscilla and Aquila were the perfect candidates. In Paul’s absence, they meet an Alexandrian Jew named, Apollos, and in discipling him produce a key figure in the NT church (and possibly the author of Hebrews). Their house church in Ephesus is mentioned in 1 Corinthians 16:19; another house church of theirs is mentioned in Romans 16:5. Not only did the couple present themselves as capable leaders, but also loyal friends who were willing to risk even their own lives (Romans 16:3-4).

Having the right people around is an invaluable commodity. A star athlete’s desire to win a championship is contingent upon who is on the team. For a politician, being elected has everything to do with those who are running the campaign. Proverbs 13:20 adds, “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm” (ESV).

The words, “you’re not ready,” do not have to be as daunting as they appear. Instead of taking them as a reproach against our person, we should accept them as an opportunity to learn and grow. Like Paul, we may lack permission, understanding or the right surroundings. Those things only come in God’s timing, to which we ultimately have to submit.

As important as our “Ephesus” may seem, it is not the most important thing. We have a very limited perspective, but God sees the beginning and the end. While we are focused on a destination, God is looking at the sum total of our journey, and arranges our lives to fit what he has in mind.

As Proverbs 16:9 rightly states, “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps” (ESV).