How do you look at history? Through dates? Politics? People? Social change? Local events? World events? We have multiple ways to picture history. For the first Christians, their focus was upon Israel – the nation whom God had chosen (De 7:6) – and how her destiny was fulfilled in Christ. One of the ways they saw that was by breaking Israel’s history into three segments: part 1 was the time when God ruled her; part 2 was when an Israelite man ruled her; part 3 was when other nations ruled her (Mt 1:1-17). They then saw each of those parts reaching its fulfilment in Jesus, who is: the king of heaven (Jo 18:38); the inheritor of David’s line (Ro 1:3); and God’s ruler for all the world (Mt 28:18). So Israel’s past helped Christians to see Jesus’ future and that comes through in Acts, especially the idea that Jesus’ kingdom is to surpass all others.
Now the thought of Jesus as the ultimate king built upon an ancient Israelite prophecy about history. Many centuries earlier, Daniel served the Babylonian emperors (Da 1:18,19). For one of them – Nebuchadnezzar – he interpreted a mysterious dream about a giant statue, telling the potentate that it represented four empires which would bestride the Middle East (Da 2). The first was Babylon itself; the others were Persia, Greece and Rome. Each was pictured in the dream as a different element of the statue: gold head, silver body, bronze thighs and iron/clay feet. As a whole the statue represented the glory and power of human civilisations. But in the dream, God threw a stone and shattered the statue (Da 2:34,35). Daniel said this pointed to a kingdom formed by God to replace all others (Da 2:44). Jesus taught his disciples that his kingdom was that stone.
Keeping that in mind helps us to appreciate the huge significance of Acts 16. Things begin quietly enough, with Paul and Silas (Ac 15:40,41) travelling to visit the churches which Paul previously planted in Asia Minor (Turkey). This was a decision Paul had taken rather than being by God told to do it (Ac 15:36). However, that wasn’t a problem; rather it was a sign that Paul, like a maturing child, had learned responsibility in the Lord’s work. We are to pray to grow in such wisdom (2Ti 3:16,17) since it is a great blessing from God, even though the path to it can be hard (Ja 1:2-5). But the Lord also gave Paul others to stand with him including, in Lystra, a young Jewish/Greek man, well-respected by the believers, called Timothy (v1,2). Paul asks Timothy to be circumcised (v3). However, this is not a breach of the Jerusalem agreement that Paul is delivering to the churches (v4) since it’s not done for Timothy’s salvation (Ac 15:1) but to enable him to work among Jews (1Co 9:20). The team then get on successfully with their work (v5).
A barrier arises, however, when they try to move into new parts: the Holy Spirit stops them (v6). Unusually, Luke refers also to the ‘Spirit of Jesus’ (v7), thus showing the Trinitarian bond between the two divine persons. But the phrase may also be to confirm that what happens next really is driven by the king of heaven. Possibly Luke does this to reassure some readers about Paul’s work, or maybe to draw our minds back to Jesus’ original plan (Ac 1:8). Whatever is the case, the group arrives on the western coast (v8) where Paul has a vision of a Macedonian man pleading for help (v9). He realises that the vision is directing him to take the gospel over the sea into the Greek world (v10,11), which is a momentous move. Macedonia was the heartland of the successful Greek emperor, Alexander the Great. And when Rome replaced the Greek empire, it became closely tied to Caesar, especially in the city of Philippi which was very proud of being a Roman colony (v12). The vision, however, shows human empires shattering, as Daniel said, with the arrival of Jesus’ kingdom. Paul’s missionary team has become a demolition gang!
What is the most powerful force in the world? Jesus and his gospel. Christians may, rightly, get involved in all kinds of activities which affect society. But we must also remember that none of them match the gospel. Jesus alone is the stone which shatters human empire and replaces it with an eternal kingdom of love. We must hold onto that belief and live it out boldly in our daily lives. To do so is truly to bring the best good into the world. Paul certainly believed that (Ro 1:14-16).