Most people, at some time or another, seek purpose and direction in life. As a consequence, they go off in different directions searching for meaning. Most have great difficulty in their search, and some look for alternatives to bring moments of joy into their lives. And only some, perhaps only a few, seem to continually receive that tap on the shoulder pointing them in the right direction.
Now, if you’re a believer, discovering the meaning to life should be a past event. Because it should come naturally through a relationship with God. But even then, that is not the end of the process. Because even those who are totally committed to God, and his cause, will continue to need direction and guidance to stay on track, and to grow in their relationship with God.
The problem is that divine guidance can be dangerous. Indeed, it comes with a warning. Because as many Christians can attest, following God—wherever he leads—comes at a price.
1. The Vision (9)
Take the Apostle Paul. He had had dedicated his life to Jesus. Indeed, he had found his purpose in life. And as a consequence, he went out on his first missionary journey; he travelled to the eastern half of what we would now call Turkey. And then he went out on his second missionary journey; he extended his mission to the western half of Turkey too. And he went to a port in Turkey about as far west as he could possibly go.
And then something happened. He had a vision of a man who lived in what we would now call Greece. And this man pleaded with him to get on a boat and sail the two hundred and fifty kilometres across the Aegean Sea to come to him.
2. The Response (10-12)
Now most people, if they’d received a vision like that, might have wanted to sit down and consider what they had seen—to think through all the implications. After all, was it really a vision from God? And, if it was, what about the need to stop and prepare for what lay ahead? And then there’s the issue of timing, getting across the sea, and all the other obligations they had in western Turkey, etc.
But not Paul. He immediately shared his vision with his fellow travellers, who agreed it was a vision from God. Indeed, they acknowledged that this was God’s leading; that it was a cry for help of a spiritual nature; and that there was an immediacy in the call. And without further prompting, they prepared themselves for the journey.
And that meant that they went down to the dock, got on a boat and, after a two-day journey, arrived on the others side of the Aegean Sea. After which, they (presumably) walked the sixteen kilometres to Philippi—a city of great commercial importance because of its location on the road between Asia and the west.
3. The Sabbath (13)
And then, having only had a few days at the most—to work out the lay of the land—on the very first Sabbath after their arrival they began their mission. They began by walking west of the city—because no religious buildings or burials of strange cults were permitted within two kilometres of the city. They sat down by the river, where a few people had gathered in the open air, at the regular Jewish meeting spot. And there they talked to the people who had gathered—which seems to have been limited to a few women—about Jesus and the Christian faith.
Now it must be said here, that for a group of men with the upbringing of Paul and his fellow travellers, talking to women about the Christian faith would not have been easy. Jews, traditionally, had little regard for the teaching of women. But Paul and his companions recognised that God had called them to go there and to teach. So who were they to argue with God? And that’s exactly what they did, regardless of any social discomfort that they might have felt.
4. The Conversion (14-15)
And of course, the end result was that at least one of the women was converted (though not necessarily at their first meeting). Lydia, probably a wealthy woman (being involved in the luxury trade of purple cloth) accepted Jesus as her Lord and Saviour. And she and all the people of her house (that is the whole establishment—home and business) were baptised. And as an expression of her faith, Lydia responded with good works. She even persuaded Paul and his fellow travellers to accept her hospitality for as long as they remained in the city.
And so the church at Philippi was born. The result of Paul (a man who had already accepted his purpose in life) accepting divine guidance. He had accepted God’s vision—his direction—to cross the water, to go to a place where the Gospel had not yet reached. And despite whatever cultural misgivings he and the others may have felt—regarding sitting by the river, teaching women—the end result was that Lydia opened her heart to the Lord. And, further, as tradition tells us, she then opened up her home to become the first “church” in Philippi. Indeed, the first church in the whole Macedonian region.
This part of Paul’s second missionary journey, then, is a very inspiring story. For it involved the creation of a new church—the direct result of a small group of people being open and responding to the guidance of God.
And what makes it even more interesting, is that if we were to read on, we would discover that apart from Lydia (a woman), there were two other people who became noted as forming the foundation of that church—a slave girl and a gentile jailer.
What we have in Philippi, then, is the story of three people who epitomised the kind of people that Jews normally held in contempt—a woman, a slave, and a gentile. And yet these three became noted as being the nucleus of that first Philippian church.
As a result of Paul’s obedience to God, not only had the gospel crossed the Aegean Sea, but it had bridged the far more difficult gap of sexual, social, and racial distinctions. And that is a very significant matter indeed.
As you can see, then, this is a very important story regarding divine guidance and direction, as well as being a significant story in the growth and expansion of the Christian church. As a consequence, if we are looking for purpose, if we are looking for God’s help, and if we are looking for a way to grow the church and the congregation to which we belong, then there are some very important points that this story has to make.
1. The Call
And the first of these is the need to be open to God’s calling.
Because when Paul was about as far west as he could go—in what we would now call Turkey—he could well have decided that this was as far as he was prepared to go. He could have said, “I’ve come a further five hundred kilometres west than I did last time. I’ve done my bit,” and he could have closed his mind to anything else that God said to him.
But he didn’t. He didn’t let his achievements up to that point get in the way. And he certainly wasn’t content to put his feet up for a while. On the contrary, he was open to God’s leading. He listened. And the seriousness of the way Paul took that vision, is reflected in the fact that he didn’t pretend that it hadn’t happened. Rather he immediately told his fellow travellers all that he had seen and heard.
Paul’s example should tell us, that even if God told us to do certain things in the past, we are not to rest on our laurels. Part and parcel of wanting direction and divine guidance is the need to be open and prepared to listen at all times.
Previous direction does not preclude the possibility of being called to do something new. And as a consequence, we need always to be open and prepared to listen to the voice of God.
2. The Confirmation
The second thing that the passage teaches us relates to the testing of God’s call.
Because in our story, one of the vital ingredients was the fact that having received the vision, Paul’s immediate response was to relay it to his fellow travellers.
Now whether the man in the vision was calling specifically to Paul—or to Paul and his fellow travellers—we don’t know. But Paul didn’t just charge off on his own. Rather, he told his vision to his fellow believers, so that they could confirm his understanding of his call. And as a consequence, his fellow travellers were in a position to offer their support.
And that is important. Because sometimes we can come across people in church who have a bee in their bonnet. And they charge off on their own on their particular quest. But that’s not a recipe for a healthy church. Indeed, when that happens, it often things end in disaster.
Paul’s case, then, sets a far better example, because a call needs to be tested to see if it is genuine. And what better way than to confide in one’s fellow believers, and to ask for their confirmation and their support.
3. The Process
The third thing that the passage teaches us relates to the immediacy of the need to put our call into action.
Because in Paul’s case, what we see is that both Paul and his fellow travellers immediately got ready to leave for Macedonia. Now Paul’s situation may have been unusual. After all, he was already on a missionary journey, and all he was being asked to do was to change physical direction and location. But regardless of that, there was no prolonging the preparation. There was no humming and hawing. There was no setting up a committee to go through all the various options—producing reports or anything like that. Paul and his fellow travellers simply got up, paid their passage, and went.
Now for us, yes, we may need some preparation time, particularly if we’re not in full mode. That is, if we are not already doing similar things that are requested of us. But referral to committees and reports? Well, they do have their place. But endless delaying tactics should not be part of the process at all.
All Paul did was to get up and go, believing that God had done the ground work. All he had to do was to get there and do his part. There was nothing very complicated at all. And to a great extent, that should be our response too.
4. The Focus
And the fourth thing that this passage teaches us is that, when it comes right down to it, we should be prepared to abandon our social upbringing, our cultural sensibilities, and whatever other barriers that we like to keep in place, for the priorities of God.
Now when Paul had his vision, he was faced with a man who was calling him. Paul may even have assumed that this man was of Jewish descent—and the situation might have seemed quite acceptable in terms of the Jewish customs of the day. However, when they arrived, who were the three people they not only met but became the founding members of the church? But a woman, a slave, and a gentile jailer—three kinds of people who were considered to be socially unacceptable to the Jews. Indeed, three people who were considered to be social undesirables.
But the thing is, do we see any sign of complaint that the first people that Paul and the others talked to were women? Do we see any objections to a slave girl and a gentile becoming part of the nucleus of the first church in Philippi? No! The only thing that was important was that each of them were open to what they had to say, and that each of them responded to the salvation message with a loud and hearty “yes!” And that is all that should be important to us too.
The Christian gospel is a great leveller, and if God guides us to minister to people to whom we would not normally mix, then that is something we need to learn to accept. After all, aren’t these the very people with whom Jesus spent most of his time? And as a consequence, we shouldn’t be surprised if these are the kind of people that we are called to be with too.
Looking for purpose and direction in life, then, is a very common pastime. And while people go in all sorts of directions searching for meaning in life, only Christianity does true purpose and meaning. But having said that, God also wants to guide us and show us direction in other ways too.
The question is, though, “Do we always we want to go?”
The Apostle Paul had a vision in what we would now call western Turkey, and at the time he may have been very unsure of what to expect. But he was open to God, and when his fellow travellers confirmed his call, they went off without delay. What’s more, they accepted the people God brought to them, regardless of their social and cultural upbringing.
So if we want meaning and we want purpose in life—and we want God to prompt us and show us the way—we’re not going to get it by putting up barriers on what we are willing to receive. On the contrary, we’ll only get it by being open to God and doing what he asks, and by following God’s standards, not ours, wherever he leads.
Posted: 8th February 2021
© 2021, Brian A Curtis