Sometimes when we read narrative passages in Scripture, we concentrate on the story as a whole and pass over details that may be important. I believe this is the case with Paul’s dream of the Macedonian (Acts 16.6-12). We are pleased to read of Paul and his companions bringing the gospel message to Europe for the first time. What we may fail to grasp are the circumstances leading up to this. They were prevented from preaching in Asia, but who prevented them? No less a person than the Holy Spirit! There was a similar setback in Phrygia, attributed to the Spirit of Jesus.
How the Spirit communicated his disapproval of Paul’s plan is unclear. Perhaps a prophet delivered a message against the proposal or maybe Paul and his friends had a growing sense of unease within. It may have been external circumstances, such as a blocked road or Paul’s precarious health. One way or another they judged that the Spirit opposed their enterprise.
In our own lives, we experience setbacks, disappointments, and failures. As a church, we are concerned at present about our lack of success in mission and outreach. It’s all too easy to blame ourselves, even if sometimes it is our fault. But what Paul’s experience teaches us is that God is in control. Some of the things we propose do not conform to God’s purpose and some of the things we consider important do not matter nearly as much to Him.
We may forget the ever-present reality of God’s Spirit. He is present with us just as much in failure and disappointment as He is in success. It is easy to see the influence of the Spirit when 3,000 were added to the number of believers at Pentecost. It is more difficult to detect His influence in Paul’s setbacks in Asia and Phrygia. However, when we are at a low ebb, we may be more open to the Spirit’s leading.
We may have failed because we have done something wrong. God confronted Moses at the burning bush in the land of Midian where he fled because he had killed an Egyptian. It was then that God called him to the task of delivering the Israelites from Egypt. We may feel depressed by falling attendance at worship and imagine that we are struggling on virtually alone. God confronted Elijah at Mount Horeb when he complained that he alone was left. God then spoke to him not through the conventional means of revelation in earthquake, wind and fire, but in the still, small voice. We may be doing our best, but the world seems set against us. God sent visions to John of the Apocalypse when he was banished to the island of Patmos for his witness to Jesus.
It was after his setbacks in Asia and Phrygia that Paul had his dream of the Macedonian beckoning him to cross over the Aegean Sea into Greece. It is probably wrong to speculate who the Macedonian in the dream was, because Luke does not tell us in Acts. However, I like to think it might have been Alexander the Great, who conquered the Persian Empire and territory as far away as modern Pakistan and northern India. I wonder if this inspired Paul’s vision of every knee bowing at the name of Jesus and every tongue confessing that He is Lord. Paul worked hard to achieve that goal. We need a similar vision and goal. We may not be entirely successful in achieving it. But it is the trying which counts!