God Is Always Working
Text: Acts 15:36–41, 16:6–10 ESV
Well, good morning. I want to start with one of my favorite John Piper quotes: “God is always doing 10,000 things, and we might be aware of three of them.” And in light of our text, I want to add that we might even get those three wrong.
I'm guessing many have had this experience, where you think you know what God's plan is. You begin to start living it out and about midway through you begin to realize, “I don't think I had this all right.” You start making these turns as you start changing from what you originally thought you set out to do.
If this is such a common experience, then how should we think about making plans and trying to follow God's will? If so often when we do it seems to change from what we thought, should we even try to plan? We are going to see today how even the apostle Paul can make plans that he thinks are the Lord’s will, and all the sudden he is heading in a different direction.
As a very serious question, I want to ask, should we stop trying to discern God's will? Should we just improv. Is it even useful to try to even seek God's will?
I think you're going to see in today's story that however we think about discerning God’s will, which we will talk about more later, these three truths always remain:
God is at work when evil seems to be winning
God is at work when our plans are frustrated
God is at work all the time.
In a sentence: God is always working whether we feel he is far away or near at bay. God is always working.
God Is Working When Evil Seems to Be Winning
As we get ready to look at the text, let me remind you where we're coming from. Last time we covered what's commonly called the Jerusalem Council. It's a time when all these apostles and leaders of the church got together and agreed on how they should handle, in particular, circumcision and the law.
Really, in some ways, Chapter 15 of Acts is full of conflicts. First, in the Jerusalem Council believers come together and they don't agree initially. But they eventually come to a unanimous decision. There's no dissension. There's no parting ways. They all agree. They agree because this is a gospel-centered issue. This is an issue about Christ. And it's very clear in Scripture how God wanted them to handle legalism and circumcision.
Well, now we get to this part where Paul and Barnabas disagreed. And instead of them walking out you in unanimity, they actually part ways because they disagree with each other. As we look at this text, we're already seeing God build categories for Christians. There are categories that we cannot budge on. We must have agreement, otherwise we are not Christians. Then there's categories like we're going to see today, where God has not given a clear command about what should be done. There are two Christians here who have the Spirit of God, who are godly people, and they disagree.
Let's look at verse 36 to bring us into today’s passage. “And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, ‘Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.’” (Acts 15:36)
Paul begins by approaching Barnabas, who went with him on the first missionary journey, and he has this good idea to visit all the churches they've reached in the first missionary journey. He wants to go encourage them and go deliver to them this decision that they made at the Jerusalem Council. It’s a good idea. It’s a biblical idea. Both Paul and Barnabas are excited about the idea. But look at verses 37 and 38.
Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. (Acts 15:37–38 ESV)
Here's Barnabas who wants to take his cousin, John Mark. And Paul doesn't. He does not want to take Mark because Mark actually went with him in the first part of their missionary journey, but by the time they get about halfway through Mark bails. So here's what happens.
And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches. (Acts 15:39–41 ESV)
We’ve got to understand, Paul and Barnabas had been really good friends. They had years together on mission. Barnabas is Paul’s first friend as a Christian. When Paul is saved, most won't even go near him. I mean this was the guy who sat over the death of other Christians. But Barnabas, with his soft, gentle heart befriends Paul. This is Paul’s closest friend. But they can't agree to either take or leave Mark. These are two of the most significant leaders in the early church (if not the most) with years of history together. And they couldn't agree.
At this point, we begin to feel this tension. Where's God? What is he doing? Paul and Barnabas both come up with this good idea, this idea of what they think what God's would want — to go visit these churches who they saw on the first round. But it would never come to pass. And it wouldn't come to pass because of a division.
And our God is a God of unity. A God who would say, the right hand cannot say the left hand, I don't need you. You look at these two leaders of the church, who have this division between them that is so strong that they must go their separate ways, and the question is did God fail? Was God not powerful enough to keep his leaders together? The answer is no. God did not failed. Rather, God is working even when evil seems to be getting the upper hand.
God is doing 10,000 things. And Paul and Barnabas, they thought they knew what maybe one of them: “You and me, we're going to go visit these other churches. But that wasn't one of the 10,000 things. Instead, God is orchestrating something that neither of them could see in this moment.
Look at how God uses this division for good. Look at the second half of verse 39:
“Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed” (Acts 15:39–40 ESV).
There was originally only going to be one mission team. But now we have two. And it is clear that Paul’s new mission to start in the opposite direction and to eventually go to places he had never been before was blessed by God. Look at verse 40 again:
“But Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord” (Acts 15:40 ESV).
This division between Paul and Barnabas is not stopping God from completing his plan. There is no power, there is no authority, there is nothing in all the earth that can stop God from accomplishing what he has set out to do. Period.
A division between the two of the greatest leaders in the early church — a division between them does not stop our God. God is still on the move. And he is taking what the enemy was working for evil, division, and he is using it for his good. Let me say it this way. Every victory celebration in hell is cut short by a sovereign God who is orchestrating everything for his god.
This is God's very own character. Here is Genesis 50:20:
“You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” (Genesis 50:20 ESV)
That's Joseph talking to his brothers. Years of slavery, evil, and his brothers meant evil against him. But God meant it for good. In fact, God was going to use this story of Joseph and save thousands upon thousands.
This is not simply some unique occurrence. This is how God operates. The primary example is the cross. The enemy meant it for evil, and God uses it as the central good in his plan of salvation.
In our story, we are already getting a glimpse that God is taking this brokenness, the separation, and he's starting to use it for good. But we are not done seeing what God is going to do. There is more to come in chapter 16. But let me stop for a minute to just dwell on the beautiful truth that God works through our hardships
Don’t buy the lie that hardship means God is not working. Don’t listen to the enemy that insists that God has forgotten those in the dessert. Don’t cave to the falsehood that tries to deny that God has a larger plan. God does, and he is always working.
You may find yourself in prison like Paul, and God may be advancing the gospel among the guards, and making the free brothers bold (Philippians 1:12–14).
You may find yourself like Mary and Martha with a dead brother that Jesus could have healed, and God may be preparing to show his glory (John 11:1–44).
You may find yourself like Joseph sold into slavery, accused falsely of sexual abuse, and forgotten in a prison cell, and God may be preparing you to rule a nation (Genesis 37–50).
You may walk through famine, like Ruth, be driven from your homeland, lose husband and sons, and be left desolate with one foreign daughter-in-law, and God may be making you an ancestor of a King (Ruth 1–4).
Your darkness may not be as extreme. It may be that you are struggling with your job, maybe you kids just won’t stop disobeying, maybe you have been in constant fights with your spouse, or maybe you have been in constant waiting for a spouse. Whatever it is, know that God has not forgotten you. God is working even when it seems that evil may be getting the upper hand.
I remember when my wife and I were living in Nicaragua, we had gone down to Costa Rica to visit some friends. Well, as we were waiting for the bus to come and pick us up to take us home, my backpack was stolen. I had set it on the floor right next to me, and some guy walked by when I wasn’t looking and snagged it.
We were so bummed, so frustrated. We had to stay in Costa Rica for an extra couple of days for me to fill out a police report, insurance documents, and get another bus ticket. But those extra few days in Costa Rica, though they started out with much frustration and not knowing what to do, proved to be the most refreshing days we had there.
You may not see the good in this life like we did in Costa Rica. But Christ, by his blood has purchased a happily-ever-after ending for this story. Whatever darkness seems to be winning, this will not be a final victory. If you are in Christ, you can know that good will ultimately come from brokenness.
Okay, let’s turn to the second part of our text where we are going to see God work out his plan even more.
God Is Working When Our Plans are Frustrated
Now we get to chapter 16. And Paul meets Timothy, in the first five verses. Then we get the verses 6—10. And now we're going to get the final answer. Where was God and what was he planning? Has he now forgotten Paul, because of this disagreement. Far from it.
Look at verse 6:
“And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia” (Acts 16:6 ESV).
These are two guys, Paul and Silas, trying to make wise decisions in the moment. But God has other plans. So here they are, they've gone through Galicia. And they're over here wanting to head straight west to go over here into Asia. But the Holy Spirit prevents them.
Our text goes on. And it says,
“And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them” (Acts 16:7 ESV).
They are realizing they can't go west, so they start going north up to Mysia. But now they want to go over to Bithynia. And the Lord won't let them. So they start traveling towards Troas: “So, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas” (Acts 16:8). And when their in Troas Paul has the vision that finally gives them clarity on where they are going:
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.” 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. (Acts 16:9–10 ESV)
Here they are hanging out in Troas, and they get this call to go up into Macedonia. This whole section where we just read about the Spirit not letting them go west or not letting him to go up the Bithynia, all of this is new territory — new places the gospel is reaching. It finally reaches here in our story — to Macedonia to Europe.
Now, when Paul started he didn't know that God was going to send him to Macedonia. But finally we read this line,
“Concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them” (Acts 16:10 ESV).
When he went and knocked on Barnabas’s door with the idea, “Hey, let's go visit all these old churches,” he didn’t know God had a different plan. God's plan was to take the gospel to people who needed it up in Macedonia.
And the way he was going to get it there is by Paul grabbing Silas and Silas and Paul trying different plans and them not work. But God was still leading. God was still doing his work. God was not thrown. God was not surprised. Instead, God was working his perfect plan even when the plans of man where getting frustrated. God was trying to get the gospel to Macedonia when he wanted the gospel to arrive there.
Now, I don’t know why God didn’t tell Paul his plan was to get him to Macedonia in the first place. That could have saved a lot of headaches. But God didn’t do that. And he often doesn’t.
The interesting part of this story is that all this area in Asia, that Paul and Silas wanted to go to, eventually they would go there. God wanted the gospel to go there. In fact, that's where Ephesius is, where we get our letter to the Epheisans. So they're going to go there, it's just not right now. God had a different plan. God wanted to take the gospel to Macedonia.
Here is a little picture of how this works. Landin, who is our two-year-old son, is starting to learn his directions, left and right. And he's doesn't necessarily know which one it is. But he's starting to learn those words. And he's starting to learn to say, “Go this way, or go that way.”
So while we’re driving in the car now he will say, “Go this way or go that way. No, no, no, no, go that way.” You know when I've turned left, and he wanted to go right. Or he wants to turn right, and it's very clear, we need to go left.
He's got all these plans. And he's pretty disappointed when we don't go the direction that he wanted. But I know at the time I'm driving, I know what's best. And I know where we're going. He may think it's going to be really fun to go left. But I know it's really fun to go to bed. And that's where we're driving too. Or maybe it's really fun to get to go to the park or the swimming pool or wherever we're going. If we go left, it's not going to work.
We were about to turn onto a one-way street the other day. So you couldn’t go right. But he wanted me to go right. We would have had an accident, so I went left. I needed to. And I knew what was best. But in this moment, in his world, he had in his mind that I should go this way. It seemed the right way to go. But his father has a better plan.
And this is how it works with our heavenly Father. Our Father has other plans. And he knows what he's doing. He knows where he's going. We are trying to move where we think the Lord wants us. We don't have to be discouraged about planning, But we need to be willing to lay those plans down and say. “God, I think this is wise. But whatever you want, whatever you will, whatever you desire. I want to go there. I want to be there. That's where I want to be. But I don't want to put so much stock or so much hope in my plans. But in yours.”
I want you to leave feeling a sort of freedom in decision making. It is wise and good to seek God’s will. But you know what, even when we get some details wrong, God is still working.
You might think it’s a great idea to go visit these people from the first missionary journey. And then you come to find out that you need to separate due to a conflict you didn’t know was coming. You may think it’s best to go to Asia, but God has you sent you to go somewhere else.
I'm not trying to discourage you from planning. I'm trying to say we surrender our plans to the Lord. If you talk to almost anyone who’s over 60, I would venture to guess you can ask that if I I've given them paper and a pen when they were 20 years-old and asked them to write out what their next 40 years would look like, they would say that if they would have done that it would have been way off.
But I bet they also would say, “As I look back, and I see what God has done over these last 40 years. It's far more than I could have imagined when I was 20.” Because God's always doing these 10,000 things. And we might be aware of three of them. And we might even be wrong about those three. Plan your ways, but don't trust your own plan. Trust in God, who's working the best plan.
Be leary of the plans of man, but confident in God’s ultimate plan. Notice I did not say, don’t make plans. I did not say, ”Don’t try to discern God’s will.” But I said be leary of your conclusion. Hold it loosely, but hold confidently to the fact that God has a plan, and he is working it out.
Here is what I mean:
“The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps” (Proverbs 16:9 ESV).
I think the Bible is clear that we can make plans, that we can try to discern what to do next. And we should. But we should not put our ultimate trust there. But rather in the Lord who is working all things together for his glory and our good.
God Is Always Working
Our story has some sweet resolution. It provides even more evidence that God is always working. He is always doing 10,000 things.
Paul and Barnabas, who parted ways, later Paul writes about Barnabas calling him a fellow work. It’s in 1 Corinthians 9.
Then we see Barnabas has influence on John Mark. Later in Paul’s ministry, in his second letter to Timothy, Paul asks for John Mark to be sent to him. He says,
“Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry” (2 Timothy 4:11 ESV).
This, the John Mark who failed him. The John Mark he refused to take on the trip becomes the one Paul asks for and needs. And it's this John Mark who writes the Gospel of Mark, the story all about how to be the Lord was a servant.
See God is always doing 10,000 things.
God is at work when evil seems to be winning
God is at work when our plans are frustrated
God is at work all the time.
Now, as I wrap up, I need to make something clear in this message. I can say with confidence that God is always working, and I can say with confidence that this is good news for those in Christ:
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28 ESV).
For those of you in Christ, you can trust that all things are going to work out for your good. They have been bought by the blood of Christ. You can breathe a sigh of relief that if you make a mistake, or you misunderstand God’s will you are not done for. God has not abandoned you. You can look at this promise secured for you by the blood of Christ and know that you are in the middle of God orchestrating a plan that is for God’s glory and your good.
But let me just say, if you are not in Christ, this is not true for you. Instead of coming to find out at the end of the age that all you did worked for your good, you will find that it built up reason after reason for you to be separated from God. Please don’t wait to turn your life to Christ and receive the promise of eternal good.