Discernment in Action
Scripture: Acts 16:1–10
Discernment in Action – Acts 16:1–10
As we approach Acts 16, these three things are helpful reminders concerning the context of our passage:
- The recent decision of the Jerusalem council, and the letter written to disseminate that conclusion. (Acts 15:1-33)
- Paul and Barnabas part ways because they discern differently concerning John Mark and are unable to reach an agreement, other than to separate into two teams. (Acts 15:35-40)
- Paul and Silas set out on Paul’s second missionary journey. (Acts 15:41ff) First they take the message of the letter to its intended audience, beyond just the church in Antioch to the other Gentile believers in Syria and Cilicia.
As they continue their journey, which covers a lot of ground (literally), and a couple of important members joining the team (Timothy & Luke), the theme that holds together vv. 1-10 of Acts 16 is discernment: situational discernment and spiritual discernment (discerning the guidance of the Holy Spirit). As we read the verses then, listen and look for discernment in action on the part of Paul and his missionary teammates.
Acts 16:1–10 ESV
1 Paul came also to Derbe and to Lystra. A disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek. 2 He was well spoken of by the brothers at Lystra and Iconium. 3 Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. 4 As they went on their way through the cities, they delivered to them for observance the decisions that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem. 5 So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily. 6 And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. 7 And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them. 8 So, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. 9 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.” 10 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.
In order for a narrative section where we see discernment in action to hit its mark, it’s helpful for us to have a working understanding of what discernment is. So let’s define discernment.
Intro: Defining Discernment
Fundamentally discernment means to have a sound judgment... which allows us to distinguish right from wrong and to recognize the right ways of God for his people. Biblical discernment in our Christian parlance, our regular usage, tends to mean recognizing falsehood (to not be taken in by it) and to mean having a sound judgment to make good, godly choices.
“True discernment [Sinclair Ferguson writes] means not only distinguishing the right from the wrong; it means distinguishing the primary from the secondary, the essential from the indifferent, and the permanent from the transient. And, yes, it means distinguishing between the good and the better, and even between the better and the best.” (https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/discernment-thinking-gods-thoughts)
With that working definition of the common theme in these verses, let’s see how discernment in action plays out first in verses 1-5.
Discerning When Situational Accommodation is Appropriate (vv. 1-5)
The first aim of this missionary journey is to revisit the believers in cities where they had previously proclaimed the word of the Lord (Ac 15:36). So that’s what we find them doing.
[map] What I have for you on the screen is a map that reasonably approximates Paul’s (and his team’s) second missionary journey. And we’re focused right now just on the beginning of that trip, leaving from Antioch in Syria (north of Israel [Palestine]… They travel throughout Syria and Cilicia and on to Derbe and then to Lystra and Iconium.
Now in Lystra there is a younger disciple named Timothy. Evidently he and his mother Eunice and his grandmother Lois (2 Tim 1:5) had become believers on the previous missionary visit to Lystra (Ac 14:8-20).
Timothy is already known and well spoken of by the brothers and sisters in Lystra and Iconium (the city just to the north of Lystra). Both Acts and the pauline epistles will bear out that Timothy will become no small player in the life of Paul and in the expanding ministry of the early church. But before all of that comes to fruition, here we have the incident where Timothy first becomes a member of the team.
Paul strongly desired for Timothy to accompany them, so he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places (the cities they were journeying through, v. 4). Most of the cities had a large enough Jewish contingent to have a synagogue (as they did in Iconium, Ac 14:1). We are clearly to understand that Paul did this, and Timothy agreed to it, because of the Jews—to make it easier to relate to Jews.
Right after the decision was made in Jerusalem that circumcision was not necessary for salvation, we might be left wondering why Paul would do this. That Paul does so as a matter of discernment is the best explanation.
Thinking about the situation holistically actually helps us perceive why Paul would have drawn the conclusion to circumcise Timothy. First, they had already and were continuing to make it clear in their communication (see v. 4) that the Jerusalem council had agreed that circumcision was by no means salvific.
Remember too that in the situation with Titus, who was a full Gentile, they did not circumcise him in order to be clear that he did not need to become a Jew in order to be saved (Gal 2:3-5). Timothy, on the other hand, had a Jewish mother and a Gentile father. This intermarriage would have already offended devout Jews, and it was known that such was Timothy’s heritage (“for they all knew that his father was a Greek” at the end of v. 3 in our text).
So how could Paul and Timothy do their best to make this as much of a non-issue, a non-distraction from the most important message of the gospel, especially for the Jews? Timothy can show his cultural commitment to his Jewish heritage by circumcision, which is what Paul discerned as the wisest course of action. Out of respect for the Jews, Timothy, who could certainly be considered an ethnic Jew, clarifies his social-ethnic status so as not to create a distraction for gospel advance among the Jews. (The Gentiles won’t care because they expect cultural Jews to be Jews.)
It’s necessary to understand that this is an accommodation to Jewish sensibilities but not a capitulation on a theological issue. Paul discerned that this missionary accommodation was appropriate because it was a situational, cultural issue that had no theological bearing on whether or not Timothy was already saved. By circumcising Timothy in order to bring him along with the team, Paul was removing an unnecessary barrier to the gospel among the Jews.
Luke concludes this matter with another of his patented statements on the providential work of God and the progress of the gospel and growth of Christ’s church: v. 5. Because of this discerning decision, and because Silas and Paul continued to spread “the decision that had been reached by the Apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem…. By resolving doctrinal and practical issues the churches were strengthened and stayed focused on the gospel so that they increased in numbers daily.
One way for us to think about how to apply what we’re seeing in action here is to consider how we weigh our convictions and practice our convictions. (By conviction I do not mean a formal declaration that someone is guilty of a criminal offense. We’re using the word in its other meaning, which is a firmly held belief or opinion. [repeat])
Discernment includes weighing which convictions are less central, and which convictions are less certain. Then we will know when it’s ok, and to what degree, we can compromise and have a clear conscience.
Admittedly, this is challenging because we will not always agree on where the boundaries are. Sometimes then, you give one another space to differ where you don’t have to agree, but when necessary (and possible) you confirm consensus with those striving side by side with you for the gospel.
Let’s turn now to our second example of discernment in action, which is less situationally/culturally determined and more spiritually discerned. Meaning…
Discerning the Spirit’s Leading in Specific Circumstances (vv. 6-10)
Twice in this section we are told that they are prevented from going some way that would have been a logical next step, probably even their desired direction. We are not told precisely how, but in vv. 6&7 both they are “forbidden” or “not allow[ed]” by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus (the uncommon phrase Spirit of Jesus being a reminder I think that it is Christ himself who has given us the indwelling Spirit).
We don’t know if each of these was specifically revealed by a prophetic revelation from one among them, or if they prayed together for direction. Probably a combination of praying together for direction and one or more among them having a clear conviction from the Spirit that [map again] now was not the time to preach in Asia minor or up north in Bithynia. Obediently, it sounds like they passed through Mysia without stopping to preach, but headed straight to Troas.
In God’s providence, this is only a temporary pause in advancing the gospel in this region, because we know that yet on this trip they still reach other parts of Asia Minor with the gospel, staying in Ephesus for as much as three years before returning to Jerusalem and then Antioch.
Notice particularly that up to this point they didn’t have any clear revelation of what they ought to do next, just clear revelation of what not to do (vv. 6-8). - We experience this reality in our own lives. Sometimes when we pray, God just doesn’t give us peace about a certain direction and we are left to obediently abandon it, at least for now. And without knowing what to do instead.
For example, maybe you, as a younger woman (or not even that young necessarily) come to the realization that a certain guy you’ve had interest in is just not someone you should commit to marrying. (Perhaps he doesn’t demonstrate the spiritual maturity of a man who is growing in the ways that he might one day be an elder in a church. BTW, I just snuck that criteria in there for your consideration.)
You’ve ended one relationship, but you don’t just have another potential husband in the wings—life isn’t a foolish Bachelorette show. So we wait patiently on the Lord to know if his desire is for us to remain single or if he is providing another direction.
For Paul & Co., listening obediently to the “no’s” and “not nows,” and waiting patiently for God’s leading, does in fact yield an abundantly clear revelation in time. Paul has a dream vision (v. 9) of a man in Macedonia urging them to come over and “help us.” In v. 10, when Paul tells the vision to the team, they immediately conclude that this means they are to go there and preach the gospel. [Note that all visions in the NT are obviously visions. If a person were to have a vision, they shouldn’t have to wonder if it was from God or just an unusual dream. Either way, you should be able to test them by God’s word and his people.]
John Stott points out how this narrative example is helpful to us, because it has “the elements that often characterize divine guidance: God’s use of a period of time, the circumstances of open and closed doors, pondering what was taking place, and seeking response and input from others in pursuit of a kind of corporate wisdom.” (Stott summarized by Bock: Darrell L. Bock, Acts, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 528.)
We’ll make more of this practically for our own lives in concluding application momentarily.
Briefly, here are two additional noteworthy points from v. 10. [map again] 1. This patient obedience from the missionary team leads to the gospel going forth to a whole new region where it has not yet been proclaimed (Macedonia). 2. Evidently it is here in the area of Troas where the author of this theological narrative joins up with the traveling band: “immediately we sought to go into Macedonia” to preach the gospel. (To the reader of Luke’s writings, this would have been an additional confirmation of the truthfulness of his writings—firsthand eyewitness testimony.)
After looking closely at these two examples of discernment in action from the Apostle Paul and his missionary team, one involving sensitivity to a given context, a certain cultural situation, and another involving being sensitive to specific guidance from the Holy Spirit in their missionary endeavor, we can conclude with some additional thoughts from the whole counsel of God to help us as we practice discernment.
Conclusion: Discernment by Spiritual & Situational Sensitivity
First, know that spiritual things are not discernable to the one who has not be reborn of the Spirit to faith in Jesus Christ. 1 Cor 2:12-14
1 Corinthians 2:12–14 ESV
12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. 13 And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. 14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.
You cannot expect to be spiritually discerning if you are an unbeliever. Repent and believe the gospel of Jesus Christ, and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Then you will be spiritually alive to receive God’s guidance.
However, we Christians should be continually growing in Christlike discernment.
Another quote from Sinclair Ferguson on this topic, in the context of following Christ’s own example of perfectdiscernment, he says “So discernment is learning to think God’s thoughts after Him, practically and spiritually; it means having a sense of how things look in God’s eyes and seeing them in some measure “uncovered and laid bare” (Heb. 4:13).” … Judging rightly based on seeing as God sees, and thinking and acting and speaking accordingly.
Here are some practical, Biblical suggestions toward that end of growing in Christlike discernment:
- Know the word of God. Search the word of God. It’s absurd to seek the will of God apart of the word of God.
Also, we can rest assured that God the Holy Spirit won’t contradict his own infallible and authoritative word in the Bible.
Discernment of this type necessarily means that we must give one another a little space for difference, but we must also guard against that which runs outside the boundaries of Scriptural principle or twists Scripture for its own purposes.
- Pray frequently and fervently for discernment, and pray for God’s sovereign will to be done. James 1:5-6
James 1:5–6 (ESV)
5 If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. 6 But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind.
Jesus taught his disciples to pray “Your kingdom come and your will be done.” Christ himself prayed in agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Not my will but yours be done.” (Not the human desire of Jesus, but the sovereign decree of God from before time that the Son would give himself up as an atonement for our sin, but rise again to prove his unique position as perfect priest and all powerful King of the universe.)
God has given us not only his word, and prayer, but also fellow Christians who submit to his word, for our protection and benefit.
- Seek counsel and listen well.
Don’t blame the Holy Spirit for your whims. Be cautious of “I felt God telling me.” If you think you feel that way, first check God’s word for the balance of Scripture, and then also seek input from trusted biblical advisors, shepherds, peers. (Don’t talk to people who will tell you what you want to hear. Talk to those who will genuinely listen, think, and tell the truth.) In a good way—and this is what you want, or should want—this input from others will result in confirmation or correction. Trusted biblical counsel should bring confirmation or correction to your feelings about the Spirit’s leading.
- Know thyself. If you find it necessary to state and defend nearly everything with equal conviction, take care that you are not simply opinionated and combative. If you find that you hold very few convictions firmly, then you will be blown about by different winds of doctrine, or you might capitulate to others as a people-pleaser.
- Follow Jesus. Put the good of others before your own preferences and even freedoms (and I daresay lesser convictions).
We are quite literally the people of Jesus. We do well to learn when and why to overturn the tables in the temple, and when and why to eat with tax collectors and sinners. Like Paul, an Apostle and devoted Christ follower, we do well to know when to make sure we are standing firm on theological convictions so as not to compromise the gospel, but when to be situationally accommodating because it just isn’t worth letting such things be a distraction or cause for division.
Like Paul and his teammates, we do well, in various situations and decisions, to listen attentively for the Holy Spirit’s guidance, confirming it within God’s revealed will in the Scriptures, and confirming it with a ministry team (made up of other Christians who evidence by their lives that they submit to God’s authority). Above all, we must trust that God’s way is best, so we seek his way and not our own.
- The individuals and situation are different between Titus (Gal 2:3-5, 1 Cor 7:17-24) and Timothy (Ac 15:1-3). How does that help our understanding for why Paul discerns to take one course of action with one and a different course of action with the other?
- How should you deal with feeling like the Holy Spirit might be guiding you in a certain direction?
- If you have a dream and wonder if it means something, how should you go about discerning that?
- Describe other types of situations where we as believers must discern the right decision in specific circumstances (and we might not necessarily come to the exact same conclusions)? – E.g. How to interact with the lifestyle decisions of unsaved family members. … Whether or not we send our kids to public school, private school, homeschool.
- Describe any areas of conviction or issues of lesser importance where you are willing to compromise in behavior or submit to leadership or adapt to culture. (Hint: Think like a missionary.)
More in Acts of the Holy Spirit Through the Apostles
February 25, 2024Paul’s Pattern & Plea for Selfless Shepherding (Part 2)
February 18, 2024Paul’s Pattern & Plea for Selfless Shepherding (Part 1)
February 11, 2024People Are the Ministry