Strategy, Sovereignty, and Signs | Acts 16:1-15
There are three distinct parts in the text: Strategy, Sovereignty, and Signs. While these seem to be unrelated and jumbled together, there is a theme. When you combine the first two points then Proverbs 16:9 becomes obvious: “Man makes his plans but God directs his path.” However, our text is more specific than Proverbs 16:9. The path that God sets them on becomes clear when Lydia hears and believes the Gospel and then it’s capped off with God’s covenant sign!
This passage, while telling one story, seems to be chopped up and thrown together. However, this story shows the human side of mission strategy, with the obviousness of God’s Sovereignty which is directing Paul’s path. There is purpose behind the closed doors in Asia and Bithynia and it’s for the salvation of a woman named Lydia. It is with Lydia, that we are reminded of the
importance of the covenant sign of Baptism.
So, three questions that I will try and answer:
- Why Circumcise Timothy and later on not circumcise Titus? (Galatians 2:3)
- Why would the Holy Spirit prevent them from speaking in Asia and then Bithynia?
- Why Baptize Lydia’s household?
Why circumcise Timothy? Two weeks ago, back in Acts 15, Paul, Peter, and James ripped the Judiazers that said the Gentiles must be circumcised to be delivered from God’s wrath of sin. Now, shortly after, Paul takes Timothy and circumcises him. It gets even more confusing because in Galatians 2:3, Paul takes another disciples in Titus and does not require circumcision! What is going on?!
It’s called strategy. And it teaches us that we should not be so hardline that we can’t make strategic decisions which do not conflict our theology. The difference in Paul’s position with Timothy and the requirements the Judaizers were placing on the Gentiles. Timothy was already a disciple. He was already saved. This is not a requirement of salvation but one of strategy in missions.
Last week I said that there is a difference between Law and Prudence. But there is another word that I saved for this week and it’s “Scruples.” We all have scruples. They are feelings of doubt or hesitation with regards to moral issues. Some believers refuse to drink alcohol because they doubt it’s morality. Even when they are convinced that it’s not a matter of law, but for them they have only seen the evils of it and so they develop scruples. This can be said of almost anything. So, when someone has scruples about the rightness of something, even if that something is adiaphorous ethically neutral), to do it anyway would be sinful for them.
Paul calls for sensitivity toward the weaker brother on one occasion, like here with Timothy, yet he would never permit the weaker brother to tyrannize the stronger either. With Titus, the weaker brother wanted to elevate an option or an opinion to the level of requirement and there Paul’s sensitivity stopped. He drew a line in the sand.
While the church cannot be governed by scruples, it does not mean one’s scruples are to be overlooked.
Paul circumcising Timothy was a matter of prudence and strategy. It was not a decision of ethics or theology. The region that Paul and Timothy were going to share the gospel recognized Timothy’s mother Eunice, and his grandmother Lois as godly Jewish women, however Eunice married a Greek, a pagan. For the Jews to listen to Timothy, they needed to deem him worthy to be heard. So, based on scruples and prudence and not theological necessity, Timothy carries the OT sign of the covenant.
This next section reminds us that while “Man makes his plans but God directs his path.” Paul had obviously wanted to go through Asia, but he was prevented by the Holy Spirit. The text does not say how he was prevented. It was not until after they had been prevented again that Paul received a vision to go Macedonia.
This is not an uncommon way for God to reveal his plan for us. When doors are closed that we think should have been open, it’s a very hard thing to accept. Christians can become embittered when God does not allow us to carry out our plans.
Jenny and I knew it was time for us to leave Macon Ms. long before we ever heard of Bethel in Lake Charles. I begin to work on a portfolio and send those out to churches looking for a pastor. When you put out resumes, you have to be ready for the rejection letters to follow. And they came. There were also opportunities that came as well, but in the process of interviews there would be something that would give us great concern and we would withdraw our name. I had wanted to plant a church in the North East Alabama region, but that too never materialized.
In the midst of that discouragement came a call from a good friend wanting me to apply for Bethel. God didn’t give me a dream or vision, but he gave Jenny a strong desire to move to Lake Charles and that was good enough for me.
God led Paul to Macedonia and it was there, while he was outside the city gate, near the river that he meets a woman named Lydia whose heart was opened by God to receive their message. Finally, we see the purpose of the closed doors and that was the salvation of Lydia. In the midst of the closed doors was an open heart.
The text says nothing about anyone else’s heart being opened by the Lord, but Luke does record, which will be the first of three, that Lydia’s whole household received the covenant sign of baptism. This is where I want to spend the rest of our time. In a protestant world dominated by believer’s baptism, it’s imperative that we understand baptism as clearly as possible.
The Westminster Confession says that those who are baptized are baptized into the visible church. This is very important to understand. The Confession’s larger catechism differentiates between the visible and invisible church. Q62 says the visible church is a society made up of all who profess the true religion, and of their children. Then it speaks of the special privileges of the visible church. A believer’s child enjoys being under God’s special care and government, they enjoy the fellowship with saints and they hear the gospel of Christ that whosoever believes in Christ shall be saved.
But Question 64 asks “What is the invisible church?” the answer is more than one of just privileged; it’s union with Christ. The very thing that baptism is a sign of. Union with Christ does not come from baptism, but from faith. Let me go back to the section on Baptism in the Confession: Not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible church, but also, to be unto him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, etc.
This seems confusing unless you miss what it means to be a sign and seal. All these benefits of baptism are not tied to the moment of time they are administered, but are again, received by faith alone.
Therefore, historically speaking, Presbyterians do not believe baptism unites us to Christ, only faith does this. If Baptism did, the confession would not say “grace and salvation are not annexed to Baptism and that a person can be regenerated, or saved, without it.”
With that said, we still stress the rich objective significance of Baptism. What is central to the application of redemption, namely all that Christ is for his people is central to the symbolism and sealing of baptism. Baptism signifies all that Christ is for us; it points us to all that he will do in us and all that we are to become in him.
In the New Testament, those who come to faith in Christ are baptized. Sinclair Ferguson weighs in here: “The organic unity of the covenants of God and of the way of salvation in the old and new covenant raises the question: ‘Is there such continuity in the administration of God’s covenant that children and infants as well as their believing parents continue to receive the inaugural signs and seal of the covenant of grace?’ Unless you view Gods’ relationship with His people with a dispensational disunity, the answer should be positive. The covenant of grace is one; the foundation of salvation is one, the instrument of justification is one (namely, faith). There is one Israel of God (Galatians 6:16). The majority of NT illustrations of life in the new covenant are drawn from life in the old. This underlines the single redemptive-historical and soteriological underpinnings of both epochs of God’s grace.”
Finally, what are some other reasons for infant baptism other than continuity?
- God has special dealings with families. Paedobaptism is consistent with this perspective. All those born of believing parents have interests in the covenant of grace. Peter reinforces this in Acts 2 when he says that the promise is ‘for you and your descendants’. There is no question that God deals favorably with families. The family holds a very prominent place in the history of redemption. Some believe that God’s mode of operation has radically transformed and he ceases to view families the same way, but if you pull on this thread, the Bible’s view of family has a tendency to unravel until it’s nonexistent.
- Jesus blesses children. Matthew tells us in his Gospel “but Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.’”
- Household baptisms. It’s been said by a few that there is not one instance of an infant being baptized in the NT. Yet there are a total of 7 baptisms that are recorded in the NT and three are of the whole household. It’s safe to say that there were many more than 7 baptisms and therefore there were many more households. It would therefore be unimaginable, statistically speaking, to argue that there were no babies in any of these households. The point is that the baptism of an entire household echoes the pattern governing the covenant sign in Genesis 17.
Lydia and her household finds no tension with the continuity of baptism replacing circumcision.