Commentary on Acts 16:9-15
Just prior to the beginning of this text, Paul and his companions Silas and Timothy seem to be at a loss for where to go next with the gospel.
They stumble around the region, running into one barrier after another set up by God. Barred by the Spirit from going south and west into Asia or from going north into Bythinia, Paul appears backed into a coastal corner at Troas by God’s strange and repeated “no.”
It is regrettable (but not beyond correction) that verses 6-8 are not included in this lectionary reading. They might remind the church that God is in charge of the mission, that the church often searches for God’s calling in mistaken directions and aborted attempts, and that God’s Spirit often speaks through frustrating and difficult discernment.
Thus Paul receives his vision in the night. One might think that getting a vision from God would make everything clear, but even a vision requires interpretation; more to the point, it requires the community of faith. Famously, this is the first point in Acts where the narrator seems to join the characters as a part of the story. Arguments continue over whether the “we” that enters the text at this point indicates an author who was an eyewitness and participant in the events, or whether this “we” reflects the use of some else’s diary woven into the story, or whether the use of “we” is simply a narrative technique.
We can let those questions go, and instead focus attention on the communal claim carried by this “we.” Paul received the vision, but verse 10 says that “we” concluded what it meant and what to do about it. The vision must be interpreted, and that task does not fall to Paul alone. The small community contained in “we” is involved in discerning that this is God’s call not just to an individual, but to “us”; that the “help” which is needed is the preaching of the gospel; that the call was for immediate action.
The mission doesn’t belong to Paul alone, even though at this point in Acts the other apostles are almost completely left behind. The mission, of course, doesn’t even belong to the church; it is God’s mission. Yet the church is called into the discernment of God’s mission at every turn. Where is the Spirit calling us, and doing so through those whom we might otherwise think are outside our circle of responsibility? What visions call us beyond the boundaries into ministry where we had not considered it before?
It is worth noticing that Paul and his entourage do not stop in the lovely seaside town of Neapolis (modern Kavala), but immediately head for Philippi. Despite the notorious difficulty in translating the middle section of verse 12 (“a leading city of the district”, or “a city of the first district”?), perhaps the main point comes at the end of the sentence: “a Roman colony.” This is where the Empire was powerful and popular. This was the heart of the Empire’s project in this corner of the world, a place that lived like an extended section of Rome itself, intended to be an example of what Rome offers to the world.
Perhaps Paul heads straight there because a place like Philippi is where the gospel of the Lord Jesus is needed most clearly. And so, unlike the unsuccessful wandering that characterized the verses before the vision, here there is no hesitation and no meandering — it is straight to Philippi. In places just like that God planted (and still plants) the church to the community that says “no” to the ways of imperial power and offers a different way of life, a different story, and a different promise. This is what the church is still called to be and to offer in the face of different (and not so different) systems of power and oppression.
Though the team apparently wastes no time in getting to the city, the mission still requires patience. Not much happens for a while. They were there for “some days” (just how long was that?). The appeal in the vision is urgent, and the response to it is immediate; but the results are not seen right away. When God does begin to work in Philippi, it comes with a surprise. Paul’s vision had involved a Macedonian man. But the first to welcome the gospel in Philippi was a woman, and in fact a woman from the area that Paul had just left in the east. Any simple expectations about God’s mission are clearly going to be wrong. How odd, and grace-filled, that this woman from Thyatira, in Asia where the Spirit had forbidden Paul to go, is now met in Philippi and hears the gospel.
Lydia listens, but the Lord must open the heart to believe (verse 14). At this crucial point, Paul practically disappears from the story. It is not the charismatic personality of the pastor or preacher that has the power to create faith; it must come from God’s own merciful activity. From beginning to end, this text stresses that it is God who is in charge of the mission, God who sets its direction, and God who determines its results.
Lydia’s faith becomes immediately active: she is baptized along with her whole household, and she opens her home. Social and cultural barriers crumble, and this corner of the empire is beginning to be changed by God’s grace. The author says that Lydia “prevailed upon” (NRSV) Paul and his companions to stay with her and accept her hospitality. There is only one other place in the New Testament where this word is used: in Emmaus on Easter evening, as the two traveling disciples urged the risen Jesus to stay with them that night (Luke 24:29).
Perhaps the verbal echo is not accidental; by lives transformed and opened up in faithful discipleship, the fellowship of the risen Lord continues to extend into the world. Here near the end of the Easter season, we continue to experience and to live out that fellowship, “prevailing upon” the world to hear, and see, and know the mercy of God in the risen Christ.