There are a lot of things that can be drawn from this passage: I could talk about the concept of fathering, in the way Paul took Timothy under his care; about freedom, based on the ‘unnecessary’ circumcision of Timothy, or about not giving unnecessary offence, based on the same verses. Then the faithful praying women of Philippi, who are an example to all of us. However the one thing that stands out to me in these 15 verses is the theme of guidance (getting God’s direction for your life).
Have you ever come across someone who said: “God did not tell me to do …, therefore I won’t?” I have heard that about doing set-up on Sunday, about coming to Life Group, and a whole range of other things that in my opinion are part of belonging to church family. Often comments like that are based on a passage like this, or better: on a selective, incomplete, and out of context reading of a passage like this, for as we’ll see in a minute Paul acts very differently to this. One of the verses on guidance that has helped me most is Isaiah 30:21 “And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it,’ when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left.” In short it tells us that when we stray from the way we should be walking (be it to the left or the right), then we will hear His voice reminding us that this is the way, and we shouldn’t stray from it. This encourages us to keep moving, and trust God to guide us when we stray.
Paul and his company follow a very similar strategy to guidance. Let’s have a paraphrased look at it:
They are on mission trip because they know that God wants everyone to hear the gospel, and because they know that Jesus’ blood can set anyone free. I know it doesn’t specifically say that here, but other passages very clearly show us that it is good to start off with living by God’s general revelation (like “love one another”, or “God desires all men to be saved”, or “do not neglect to meet together”, etc., etc.).
v.2: When Paul gets to Lystra he meets Timothy and sees so much potential in him he wants him to join them on their mission trip. Notice the Bible doesn’t say anything about praying about it, or even Holy Spirit speaking to him about it. It simply says: “Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him”. So how does he know this is OK? I think there are a few simple checks in a situation like this: Is it sinful? Does it go against, or interfere with, something God has told you to do? Is it beneficial (for both yourself and the other person)? These questions will help you stay on the right path. Remember God gave you a brain, and He expects you to use it.
v.13: The group goes and finds a place of prayer. Why? Because it is their habit to do so. Every time they are in a new town they start off at the synagogue, there isn’t one in Philippi, so they go where there most likely is a place of prayer. Habits can be very powerful, wrong habits are often hard to break, but good habits help us enormously in staying on the right path. I would like to encourage you to develop good habits, just don’t get overly legalistic about them (once you have solidly developed them). Good habits will help you navigate life when things get hard or difficult to understand.
v.18: Lydia urged them, and prevailed upon them. Sometimes guidance comes via someone else’s desire. Again apply the checks of the first point here, but don’t simply dismiss it.
As you’ve probably noticed I have skipped verses 6-10. And I left them to the last very much on purpose, not because they are more important, or more ‘spiritual’, which they aren’t, but this is where people often have doubts, or where they can take things out of context. The earlier mentioned ways of ‘guidance’ are completely valid, however often Holy Spirit speaks to us very specifically, and always for things we were not to know in the natural. We can split what He says into two categories: ‘Yes’ and ‘No’. Let’s have a look at v.6-10.
v.6-7: In these verses we see Holy Spirit stopping them from going places and doing things. It is not that going to Asia was sinful, or that Bythinia did not need to hear the gospel. I would say that the opposite is true. In this case the tests mentioned before would have failed them, however they were listening to the Spirit and realised that God had other things for them. (Things that would not come to pass following their natural habits and desires.) Notice that Holy Spirit does not tell them where to go next, He just says “No”, so they move in a different direction, but they don’t stop. Even when things are made this clear by the Spirit, it still requires them to use their brains, and follow either previous direction, or their own (tested) desires.
v.9-10: Sometimes guidance is such a clear ‘Yes’, you just can’t get around it. Paul gets a vision, though note that he still needs to interpret it – “concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.” Admittedly it wasn’t hard to come to that conclusion.
Guidance is often about living by good habits and tested desires, while allowing God to change our plans at any time, either by stopping us, by giving us new direction, or by prompting us to do things we would not otherwise have done. It is not one or the other, but both at the same time; both are equally important. Live holy lives guided by the general revelation of His desires and goodness, and at the same time stay tuned in to Holy Spirit for those life changing supernatural encounters. That is supernatural living.