Brandon Gregory is a volunteer for the worship and missions teams at Church of the Resurrection. He helps lead worship at the Vibe, West, and Downtown services, and is involved with the Malawi missions team at home.
Today’s passage (Acts 16:6-15) is seemingly very simple, but there’s a lot buried in there. Right from the start, we learn that Paul’s group tried to carry their message to the province of Asia, but the Holy Spirit stopped them. Then they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit stopped them. Seeing a theme here? Paul and his crew have a plan, and I have no doubt that it was a good plan. But God had a better plan. He didn’t tell them what it was, and we’ll get to why in a minute here. But the important thing is that Paul had some grand plans for his preaching that carried with them some high hopes for great impact.
At this point, they’re probably getting a bit frustrated, so God throws them a bone: he gives Paul a vision of a Macedonian man pleading for help.
“At last!” I imagine Paul saying. “A man needs our help!”
So Paul picks up his group and goes to Macedonia. He doesn’t just pick the first city he sees in Macedonia either. He actually travels right through a few Macedonian cities until he gets to his destination: Philippi, “the leading city of the district of Macedonia.” I’ve got to hand it to Paul: he yearned for impact, and that’s actually a very positive trait.
Paul, having spent most of his most powerful moments in the synagogue, naturally goes there first to look for the man from his vision, or some other important man to preach to. You see, in that culture, men held all the power. Women weren’t even really citizens–they had few rights, they were not trusted, they were not given respect, and they certainly didn’t have a lot of pull. So Paul, with the vision still fresh in his mind, looks for his man to be the cornerstone of the church in Macedonia.
Only he finds that there is no place of prayer. There was no man, from his vision or otherwise. What he found where he thought the synagogue would be was a group of women, likely washing their clothes and getting water for their families. And then Paul does an amazing thing. He sits down with these women, who held little place in society, and preaches to them. He decided that, if that’s where God set him down, he was going to make the most of it and be obedient, even though it didn’t look the way he thought it would.
It’s interesting that Paul’s vision was of a man, but he ended up ministering to women. I wonder if, had the vision been of a woman, Paul would have paid as much attention. He had his plans to make a huge impact for the kingdom, and God’s vision promised that impact. But when he got there, it looked a lot different than he imagined.
God carried through. One of the women down by the river, Lydia, was a purple cloth dealer. This meant that she worked with the most expensive cloth, meaning she worked with the richest customers. She had a lot of money. And we find out that, through her testimony, her entire family was baptised, and her home became Paul’s base of operations in Macedonia. In taking time to minister to people God put before him, Paul gained a powerful ally. There was no synagogue in Philippi, but there was a church because of one of the women there. The church grew, and one of the books of our Bible (Philippians) is a letter that Paul lovingly wrote back to his friends there to encourage them.
Impact can look a lot different than we imagine it to be. We want to win over the sophisticated, charming, and powerful allies, and in doing so, we can miss out other equally impactful opportunities if we don’t take what’s given to us.
I had this experience while volunteering at a week-long Christian music festival with a missionary organization I worked with in college. The goal of us being there was to recruit youth for two reasons: one was to convince people to become career missionaries while they’re still forming their lives, and the other was to turn young people into missions evangelists and recruiters in their home churches. Throughout the week, I had a lot of good conversations with young and not-so-young people and sold a lot of people on our cause. But the conversation I poured myself into the most, the one that took the most of my time, was with a guy named Curtis.
Curtis was about nineteen years old and had come just to listen to some music. When I first met Curtis, I wasn’t even at the missions booth. I just saw him crying and went over to talk to him. Through tears and sobs, he told me that he felt like God wanted him to do something, but he didn’t think there was anything important he could do. He felt like the best he could do would be to get someone else to do something important. You see, Curtis was mentally challenged. I don’t know the full extent of his condition, but he didn’t have a fully-formed young adult mind.
I could have just calmed him down and walked away. But instead, I spent and hour and a half convincing him that God wanted to do great things through him, not just around him. I told him that his church needed someone to show them how to do great things, in the mission field or right at home, and that he could do this. It was a long and hard conversation, heart-breaking at times, but he left full of hope and passion to do something great.
The next day, Curtis came and found me. He brought his sister with him. He had shared his experience with her and convinced her that the two of them needed to start a missions-themed Bible study group at their church. As I talked to his sister, who was only about seventeen, I saw the same hope in her eyes that I’d seen Curtis leave with the day before. He had carried that hope to her, just as he was going to back at his home church. Curtis had been filled with more passion and earnest motivation than anyone else I talked to that week. And had I not stopped to encourage a mentally challenged teenager to do great things, he would have left thinking that God would only do great things through other people.
I don’t know your mission field, what God has placed in front of you. It could be that he’s placed some amazing opportunities in front of you; but it could also be one that doesn’t seem so appealing at first. Maybe it’s the guy at work who doesn’t seem to have any friends or social skills. Maybe it’s a single mom neighbor who barely has times to make ends meet with her entry-level job. Maybe it’s the janitor or cleaning lady that everyone takes for granted. Maybe it’s the young checkout clerk at the fast food restaurant you frequent. God uses these people too, and he does it in amazingly effective ways.
Lastly, I want to say something to another group of people. I realize that not everyone is going to feel like Paul in the story above. Some are going to feel like the women. Some are going to feel like they’re second-class citizens in God’s kingdom, unable to do tasks of real importance, unable to do the impactful work they see spiritual giants doing around them. Maybe you feel like you don’t have the skills to cut it, or you’re too damaged, or you’ve messed up so badly you’ll never pull it together. If this is you, know that you are important. God’s work in Macedonia began with a second-class citizen, just like God’s work in Curtis’s church began with Curtis, and God’s work can begin in you just as easily as it can with any pastor, worship leader, or missionary.
Return to the GPS Guide to read today’s scripture and reflection questions.