How do we determine The Lord's will for our lives?
We’re on a series of ‘sustain.’ I’ve been talking about the Apostle Paul and his second missionary journey. What I want to do in the time that we have here is talk about and give us some tools on how to ascertain clarity for God’s will in our lives. It’s a big thing. We will come to places in our life where it may be vocational relational, it might have to do with a life transition or something we’re facing right now. While we’re wrestling with “what do I do?” Different options are there. There are certain doors or a path I have to choose. How do we understand God’s will? How do we get a better sense of the right move to make with our lives at key juncture points that have tremendous potential implications? I want to zero in on that. I think there’s a lot for us to glean from what we’re about to share. My prayer is that there would be a flow of wisdom that would be given to each of us to utilize and that the Lord would speak to your own heart as well.
When it comes to trying to figure out the Lord’s will, there’s a simple way that I often look at it. We’re going to see this in the passage that we’re about to look at. Sometimes when we’re trying to figure out a direction, the answer that God gives us is no, don’t go that way. Sometimes the answer is yes that’s the way. Other times the answer is slow, like slow it down. Sometimes the answer is to grow. This is a time for growing for the future. With that s in mind, this idea of no, go, slow, and grow. I want to have us think about that together. What I want you to do is turn to a person or two and say, no, go, slow, grow.
There are these moments where we’re going to need to figure out, what am I supposed to do? We’re going to use a passage right here. We’ve been talking about how to sustain, how faith keeps going. We’ve been looking at what’s known as Paul’s second missionary journey from the book of Acts. We’re using it as a template to enhance our understanding. Let’s look at Acts 15:35-36. We covered this a couple of weeks ago, but it sets the table. “Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch teaching and preaching the word of the Lord and many others also. After some days, Paul said to Barnabas, ‘let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaim the word of the Lord and then see how they were doing.”
Paul and Barnabas had planted churches and wanted to go back. They were talking about going back and seeing them. It’s really good to know that the Bible is not just taking place in some made-up places. It’s happening in real places that are still there today, you can experience this. This is not just some fantasy-made-up thing. This actually happened and it’s something to consider. This is the day and the region, as it would have been in Paul’s day, the early part of the Roman empire. You get a sense of where things are.
Even if today you were to see these two big masses and the Aegean Sea. The Aegean Sea separates what we call modern-day Turkey and Greece. It gives you a little bit of a sense of the region. Of course, the way the Mediterranean curls around you see exactly where Israel is. It’s actually a really small little space of land where Jerusalem is and that area along the rim of the Mediterranean. Then above, you have Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. Keep moving in that direction getting in the areas of Iraq and Iran. This is a very active region of the world. Where Paul and the early church were trying to take the message of Jesus was right in that direction. The churches that have been established we’re Derbe, Lystra, Iconium, they had been sent from Antioch.
Now what’s interesting is that when they have this discussion; ‘Hey, what do you think? I think God wants us to go and revisit the churches that we planted. I think he wants us to go see how they’re doing. What do you think about it?’ Paul talks to his ministry partner, Barnabas, who had gone with him. What’s interesting is that they both agree that God’s probably in this, for sure let’s do it, but then we know that something happened. We talked about it. At the very end of this endeavor, they had a heated disagreement. If you recall, that disagreement was connected to a young man named John Mark. John Mark was a fissure in their relationship. John had quit about halfway into their first missionary journey, when they were first planting these churches. For Paul that was unforgivable. Barnabas says you know what? I’d love to take John with us. I think he’s really grown a lot. He’d be a tremendous asset to our team.
Paul says, there’s no way he’s coming. Do you remember how dangerous it was? I almost died in Lystra. He abandoned us, he quit. The guy’s not coming, he may be growing, he’s not coming. It says their disagreement was so intense that they agreed to part ways. Before they even get started with the vision, there is a division. Barnabas says, fine, I’ll take John and head off to Cyprus. He gets on the ship and goes back in the direction they had gone the first time. Barnabas in a way sails right off the pages of scripture as well. We barely learn more about him.
Paul and the other hand says fine. I’ll take another person with me. He has a ministry partner named Sylvanus, Sylvanus is Greek. Silas, as he’s often referred to in the Bible. Paul says, Silas and I will go by land this time. We will revisit the churches and go westward from Antioch. You could see where they’re going. They go through the mountain passes near Tarsus. They make their way into that region of modern-day Turkey. Again, it was this something for us to remember, that from the very beginning. They had this division. In Paul’s mind, they agree to disagree and they go their separate ways.
Paul has a game plan. He really wants to take the message, after he revisits the places where they’ve been. He sees a region called Ephesus. It was one of the great cities of that day in Asia minor. The city Ephesus was tailor-made for the way he wanted to present the message of Jesus. We know that he had a strategy. What he would do is go to a city. An ideal city would be where there was a large Jewish community because he himself was Jewish. This was a message that was grounded in the older Testament. It was about the Messiah. The promised one of Israel, who is now available to all the world, Jew and Gentile alike if they would receive Him. His strategy always was to go to a city where there was a large thriving community and find the synagogue. Paul was a former Pharisee teacher. In the synagogue, he would be able to talk about Jesus. Talk to my fellow Jews and Gentiles who have fully converted over to Judaism and are very familiar with the scriptures and teachings. He could also talk with Gentiles who, although they haven’t made a full conversion to Judaism, are nonetheless attached to that synagogue and very open to the message of scripture. They were called God-fearers. In other words, Paul saw a ripe opportunity and in his mind, Ephesus was the place to go. He has it in his heart from the beginning to revisit the churches and then head to Ephesus. That’s his plan.
Now let’s read through verses 1-5, we’ll pick back up here just to reset everything it says. “Then he came to,” this is Act 16:1-5. “Then he came to Derbe and Lystra.” There they are, the two cities that we’ve mentioned, “And behold a certain disciple was there named Timothy. He Was a son of a certain Jewish woman who believed.” We covered this in-depth last week, “but his father was Greek. He was well-spoken about by the brethren at Lystra and Iconium.” So those churches were very familiar with Timothy. He was a young leader who was highly regarded, a follower of Jesus. We know his mother and his grandmother were committed believers. Timothy himself, half Jewish, half Greek. “As they went through the cities,” it says that, “He took him and circumcised him because of the Jewish leaders who were in that region for they all knew that his father was Greek. As they went through the cities, they delivered to them the decrees to keep, which were determined by the apostles and the elders at Jerusalem. So the churches were strengthened in the faith and they increased in number daily.”
What happens is when Paul gets to those towns, his team essentially grows. He brings on Timothy, and now it is a group of three. They follow through, they encourage the churches. They come to a crossroad somewhere near the other Antioch, Antioch of Pisidia, they come to a crossroad. This is when the road leads westward. He has to make a decision. Okay, now what do we do now? It’s in his heart to head Southwest, to Ephesus. There’s Colossae, there’s Laodicea, there are places, but he really wants to go there. In his heart, it’s his passion, he wants to do it. He wants to take the message of Jesus there. But look at what it says in verse six, something remarkable happens. What we’re about to read is what really caught me. It was the reason why we’re actually sharing so much of what we’ve been sharing in these past weeks and the two weeks that are ahead of us.
It says, “As they went through the region,” they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, that’s that whole area of Derbe, Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch of Pisidia. Then it says, “Having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia,” the Bible just throws this in. Asia means Southwest In Ephesus and Colossae. In Paul’s mind, he’s visited the churches, he’s got Timothy with him, I’m going to Ephesus. Something happens that he interprets as the Lord saying to him, no. In the spirit, you cannot go there now. I don’t want you going there. He senses it, he has an impression. It’s not clear how he knows that the Holy Spirit is forbidding them. All we’re told is that he has this idea and he gets a clear sense that God is saying, I am shutting that door for you now. I don’t want you to go there.
Paul resonates with that. It wasn’t his plan. His plan was to go there. That was the tailor-made spot. It’s what made the most sense from a missiological standpoint, bringing the message of Jesus, no better place. He was very strategic. “Okay. What is God trying to say to me?” I know he commissioned us to go on this journey to make this trip. I know he wants us to take this message to places where it’s never gone, but now I want to go there and God’s saying no.”Okay.” He thinks to himself, God must want me to go in a different direction. Because at that crossroad spot, he’s thinking, “okay, maybe I got it wrong. Maybe God wants me to go northward up.”
If you were to go straight up, you would head to the region of the Black Sea. Today You would see Turkey, parts of Russia, Ukraine, they all border the Black Sea. In his mind. he’s thinking, “God must want me to take the message of Jesus Northward. I got it wrong. I was coming here, I hit the crossroads. I can go this way, that way, or straight ahead. I wanted to go to Ephesus. No, the Holy Spirit says no.” He thinks in his mind, “Okay, then, it must be to the people of the north that I’m called to go and take this message. That must be the door that God wants.”
Look what it says in verse seven, “when they had come to my Lycia,” it’s a little further west. “They attempted to go into Bithynia,” which would be upwards or north towards the Black Sea. Then we’re given this phrase, “The spirit of Jesus did not allow them.” When you read this, you think, what is happening here? That’s a phrase, by the way, you’ll barely ever see it in all the Bible. “The spirit of Jesus forbade them.” The Lord did not allow them. Paul’s thinking, “I’m going to go to Ephesus.” No, no. “Oh, then I’m going then we’re going north.” No.” I can’t, wait a second, I know God sent me on this. I can’t go back. This wasn’t the purpose. I can’t go to Ephesus. Now I know what the Lord is saying to me, in some way, it’s making it very clear to me. I can’t go North. What am I supposed to do?” That’s where we’re at right here. Two nos in both directions.
Remember, he’s not traveling for profit or pleasure. This was not a vacation. This was not a vacation to the Mediterranean or the Black sea. This was not a sightseeing tour or a money-making business endeavor. This, in his mind, was kingdom work. He was an ambassador of the king and felt his entire life purpose was to represent king Jesus in places. Particularly in the Gentile world where the message had never gone. He knew that he was to fulfill his purpose, then he was to give everything he had in the same way that he had given everything he had to oppose the way of Jesus as the chief prosecutor of the way of Christ of his generation.
He had come to a radical ultra review of who Jesus was. Paul said he had met him and it had altered his life. He then turned himself into a completely, utterly committed, devoted follower of Jesus. Paul was utterly committed to the mission that he had been given. He was following through on it. One of the things that is striking here is that he’s contending for the souls of men and women. That’s how he sees it. Paul is trying to figure out God’s leading, and if you look at what actually happened, it is fascinating. It reminds us that God’s direction, His Providence, the framework of Providence that there’s a connection to free will. Within the framework of Providence is free will.
The way that God guides is not always the way of the straight line. Within the larger scope of Providence, we are given the freedom to maneuver. It’s not always easy to decipher the will of God. I doubt there was anybody in the world who has been more tied to the spirit of Jesus than the apostle Paul. We see how hard it was for him to gain clarity. He thought he knew, but then he realized he didn’t. God wants him to think, “okay, let’s head south, then west for Ephesus” but the Holy Spirit says, no. “Okay, let’s head north,” and they start to, but the spirit of Jesus forbids them.
That only leaves them one move, in Paul’s mind. I got a no here, and I’m not going back. This road has only one direction left. I’m going straight ahead. We’re going to move forward. “Okay. I have no idea where this is going to take us, but that’s where we’re heading.” Paul starts heading towards what we call Troas which is a Roman port near the ancient city of Troy, you’ve probably heard that. He heads westward towards the Aegean Sea towards Troas, a Roman port city.
Let’s look at verses eight and nine. They’re the last two verses we’re looking at this morning. “So passing by Lycia, he went down to Troas.” We’re going, I don’t know what God wants us to do. I thought I knew, but it’s clear to me. I can’t go this way. We’re going straight ahead. I’m going to go as far as we can to where the road ends and the road ends at Troas. I don’t know what God has for us, but that’s where we’re heading. He starts moving in the direction of Troas. He gets there and we’re told something happens. Why does God have us here?
Evidently, he goes to sleep that night and we’re told he has a dream. In that dream he has this vision of a man who’s dressed in the garments, or clothing, that would identify with someone who was of Greek Macedonian origin. In this dream, he sees this man dressed in Macedonian clothing saying, “Come and help us.” Paul wakes up, he’s convinced, I know what God is doing. He wants us to cross the sea, the waters. He wants us to go to Macedonia. That’s what the Lord wants.
Do you know what that does for the first time in the history of the world? The message of Jesus will be taken across the waters and landing on the outer rim of the continent of Europe. It’s the landing. Nobody could have known at that time that less than 300 years later, the entire Roman empire would be overwhelmed by the message that these men would bring. At the time in Troas, they were joined by another man. Evidently, there was another believer in Jesus who was a doctor by trade. His name was Luke. You recognize Luke because that becomes the third gospel. He also is the one who records the book of Acts. Luke joins the team, the team grows, they decide, I know where we’re supposed to go. We’re supposed to go across the waters. We’re supposed to take the message. Nobody could have envisioned that less than 300 years later, that this would literally change the world. Not only is the Roman empire ultimately going to be overwhelmed by the message of Jesus, but you could legitimately make the case that this country would not exist as it is, in any way, shape, or form without this moment. The entire history of the world was altered when the message of Jesus landed in Europe with four men. Powerful stuff. You look at it and think, “that’s intense.” It caught me. What happens when they land? That’s next week. Ah, because something happens.
This is important not only to learn history in the church and Bible but to have a working knowledge of it. It has value in and of itself. Remember what we’re talking about, discerning the will of God and how to discern it for our own lives at critical junctures. Maybe we’re in one now. We’re trying to figure out, what door do I walkthrough? Or maybe we’re getting restless and we have something that we desire as Paul did with Ephesus. Here are some principles. These are the pieces that mean so much to me. I want to submit some things to you about sustainment. Sustaining is going to require humility and discernment to effectively decipher God’s will for our lives, which is often not as easy as it seems. One of the keys to sustaining our faith is to decipher His will. Again, at these critical junctures, learning to listen to the spirit of Jesus. It’s more art than science. We can get it wrong. That’s one of the reasons why we need humility.
I think about how Paul thought he knew. Who could have envisioned that they have a relational fissure on their team, from the outset of something that we go, but isn’t God in that? How could that happen? It happens because there are human beings involved who have fallen and broken natures. I think God brought good from it. In its own way, actually, it was a blessing. I don’t know if that was His will. It starts out with a relational breakdown. Then Paul gets there and basically thinks, “I must have got this wrong. I thought I knew what God wanted me to do, but clearly, I’m thinking I’m going to Ephesus, and God’s telling me that no, I’m not. I’m not supposed to do that.” The door that is closing, is more that he has a sense that the Lord doesn’t want him to do this. He could have gone to Ephesus, but he has that deep impression that’s not what the Lord wants me to do.
Paul thinks what am I supposed to do? In his case, it has to do with geographical and missiological things. For us, it might have to do with our life, transitions, relationships, or work. We may think we know, but we may not. When the doors close, we need the wisdom to decide. This is where wisdom often comes in. We have to know, is this something that I’m supposed to push through by faith and redouble my efforts? Or is this something that God is saying, I don’t want you to go that direction? It’s two different things.
Someone will say, “you gotta have faith.” So there are moments where we’re going to have to say, “do I go at this one more time? Or do I see this as the Lord is saying, no?” That requires wisdom and humility in all our ways to acknowledge Him. He will direct our paths. What is it to acknowledge, but to seek counsel and ask the Lord to guide us? To submit to His leanings and to align with His purposes. As we will see next week, this is best done with others.
Second, sometimes when we meet with what appears to be a no, the best thing we can do is keep going on the path that we are on. You take this for what it is, but I believe this is a principle of scripture that has great value and power. Paul wants to go to Ephesus again. He’s thinking, the Lord says, no, okay, I’ll go north. The spirit of Jesus makes clear that’s not His will. He’s left at that point with two alternatives because he’s on that crossroad. Do I go back or straight ahead? What does he do? He pushes on, he pushes on. We may have in our lives a sense of a need for a direction change. When we attempt it, it’s as if God is closing that door or at least making it clear that that’s not my will for you. Then the question is, should we stay on the path and keep moving forward in the direction? That is open. There’s a great principle: when we’re not sure what to do, stay on the path that we’re on and keep moving forward until we gain clarity.
I put something in your handout from a writer that I greatly admire, FB Meyer. I particularly like the way he engages Bible characters. He says, “Whenever you are doubtful as to your course, submit your judgment, absolutely to the Spirit of God and ask Him to shut against you every door, but the right one. In the meanwhile continue along the path which you have been already treading. It lies in front of you, pursue it. Abide in the calling in which you were called. Keep, as you are, unless you are clearly told to do something else, expect to have as clear a door out as you had in. If there is no indication to the contrary, consider the absence of an indication to be the indication of God’s will that you are actually on His track.”
That will save us pain in life because we get restless. I don’t always know what I’m supposed to fight for, or see as a closer, close, and yield to the other direction. This is talking about the art of life and the wisdom of the Lord, but let me put this next principle up. Timing is critical. Just because God shuts a door now, doesn’t mean it won’t open later. When the apostle Paul wanted to go to the great city of Ephesus, he was met with, in the spirit, a no. In obedience, he went a different way.
A few years later in what will be known as the third missionary journey, he’s going to get to go to Ephesus. When he gets there, it will become one of the most satisfying and meaningful moments in his entire ministry and life. He will have such an affection for the people of Ephesus and the church that grows there. Such a genuineness of love, deep meaning, and rich relationship that they will weep together at their parting. You read about it in Acts 20. It’s a powerful principle of waiting for the right timing of God. Paul models that. Remember, to everything, there’s a time and a season and the Lord has a purpose. Sometimes the answer is what we just said, yes, go, now. Sometimes the answer is no, sometimes the answer is slow, sometimes the answer is not now so keep growing.
Here’s another one, when the Lord says no, it’s because he has a yes somewhere else for us to pursue. I love that. God’s plan was to move Paul in a different direction. Why didn’t the Lord just say, when they were getting ready to start their trip, “Hey, after you visit the churches, you just need to keep going straight to Troas.” I don’t know. So it will be with us. Sometimes we must walk through the nos to find the better yes. This is where faith comes in. Trust that the Lord is for you and me.
Westward to Troas. Troas is the place we head to by faith. It’s the end of the road that opens the way for a new thing. We’re going to keep going down the end of the road until there is no road. That’s what we’re going to do. That’s where we’re going. What are we going to do? I don’t know. All I know is we’re going to the end of that road. When we get there, God will show us the path. We’ll just leave it with this last one. Sustainment requires enduring disappointment.
Those moments where we are released to go, where we had hoped to go. Those places are the places that if the Lord is in this, and we’re open and He’s leading, and we follow in the path that He’s opened for us, He’s going to send us a Troas. When we get to Troas, that’s what we’re going to find. All that we need for a new season. The trail of faith always leads to Troas. Troas is where we learn our next steps. It’s where we’re given the clues for the next season of our life.
Indeed, Romans tell us, “all things work together for good to those who love God and are called according to his purpose.” Sometimes the answer is no. Sometimes the answer is go. Sometimes the answer is to slow it down. Sometimes the answer is not now, I need you to grow. Let’s ponder these things. Your life has meaning and value. God has a plan for all of us. Let’s walk with the shepherd together.
Let me pray. Lord, I ask you to be with us as we ponder your words, ponder our life. We ask for your blessing to remain in our hearts as we close our time with a giving time. We honor you in this way and with our closing song. So honoring you and giving it in song Lord, as we bring this time together to a close. I ask for your blessing in Jesus’ name, Amen.