Rev. Erik Veerman
Our Plans and God’s Providence
What kind of job should I pursue? What school should I attend? Should I move? Which apartment should I rent or house should I buy? What church should I attend? Should I date or marry this person?
We seek God’s direction in decisions – big decisions, little decisions. We pray for the Lord to reveal what’s best. But sometimes we become paralyzed. In our desire to know exactly what God would have us do, we sit and wait and wait and wait. Not knowing what to do can be discouraging. We can even question whether God even cares because he hasn’t made it clear.
Alternately, we can be so stubborn with what we want, that we push forward without sensitivity to God’s leading. That can sometimes have disastrous consequences.
These verses, here in Acts 16, help us avoid both extremes. I think Proverbs 16:9 summarizes them well. “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.”
That’s what is happening here. Paul had a plan. He was moving forward with that plan, but God directed his steps. The result? The Gospel reached a brand-new region. Through his leading, God continued to accomplish his grand plan - the good news of Jesus to the ends of the earth.
This morning, as we journey with the apostle Paul and Silas, we’ll see some clear leading and guiding. We’ll see that even though they made plans, they were open to the Lord redirecting them. And that’s all helpful for us. The question is this: how do our plans integrate with God’s providence?
God’s providence, by the way, is how God upholds, directs, and orders the universe that He created. The Scriptures teach us that God ordains everything that comes to pass. He oversees is all for his purposes and plans. That’s God’s providence.
Now, before going any further, let me step back and talk about how we apply the Bible. When we try to apply the Bible to our life situations, we need to think carefully about how each passage relates to us. Like whether a particular book of the Bible speaks directly or indirectly to our situation and in what ways. Or how a particular event relates to God’s big picture redemptive plan. Or the people in the Bible – we should ask: are their actions something that we should emulate? Sometimes… people’s specific roles or actions in the Bible are there for a special reason. Like to point us to Christ, or to accomplish a special task in God’s big picture. Often times it’s a mixed bag.
Let’s take the apostle Paul, for example.
• He’s a New Testament believer in Christ. In that sense we can look to him as a model of a mature Christian. A couple of times in his letters he even instructs the churches to imitate him as he imitates Christ. That’s helpful
• But we can’t look to Paul as a positive example in every situation. He is a sinner. Think of our study last week – Paul and Barnabas got into a sharp disagreement. But that’s not something we should emulate. I mean, it would be a little awkward if I said to you - “Hey, um, we haven’t had a good disagreement in a while. Can we get together and have a Paul and Barnabas style conflict?” You’d be like “huh?” That’s obvious, I know.
• But also, Paul had a special role as an apostle. So, we also have to understand when that special role is coming into play. Like the signs and wonders he performed. He had these God-given special gifts for that special time – that’s when God’s kingdom in Christ was inaugurated. A time before the New Testament was written.
Now, in past Acts sermons, we’ve looked to the examples of the early Christians – models of prayer, models for the church, models for teaching and evangelism, and models for missions. Those have been helpful for us. So to summarize, many times we can apply examples right to our lives, but we need to first discern how the specific situation relates to ours.
I wanted to say that up front because Paul and Silas display a faithfulness to the Lord. They demonstrate a sensitive to the Lord’s leading. And we can apply their model to our situations as we likewise seek to be faithful and let the Lord lead us in our decisions.
Now, before we look at these verses, which are positive. Think about our study last week. Paul and Barnabas split up. It happened because they disagreed. But what was the result? God used that situation for his providential purposes. There were now two missionary teams. Barnabas and John Mark, who went off to Cyprus. And Paul and Silas who then picked up Timothy along the way and whom God would lead to Macedonia. Even in the difficult things and through sin, God is working his providential plan. This is not the first time we’ve seen this. back in Acts 7 when Stephen was martyred, God accomplished his purposes as the Christians were scattered. Even the disunity leading up to Acts 15. The disagreement over circumcision - God used it to bring together his church and ultimately bring unity. You see, God accomplishes his purposes not despite sin and persecution, but through it.
That has been a tremendous encouragement to me – to know that even in the hard times, God is accomplishing his plan. To be sure, that’s not a license to sin. No, not at all. We are still called to seek truth and righteousness.
So the question is not whether God’s providence will prevail in our decisions – it will. Rather the question is how can we be faithful to God’s call and his leading in our decision?
Let me give you 3 principles from our text:
#1: Make faithful plans
#2: Allow God to redirect you
#3: Seek Gospel opportunities
Now, that’s not an exhaustive formula on how to seek God’s leading in your decisions. In fact, the foundational things include being in God’s Word and in prayer and seeking Godly counsel. Rather, these 3 principles from the text – (1) Make faithful plans, (2) allow God to direct you, (3) and seek Gospel opportunities - are practical ways to take steps forward in faith.
#1: Make faithful plans
So first, make faithful plans. Really, that’s how this new missionary journey started. The end of chapter 15. Paul began by saying “Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.” Little did Paul know that God had different plans. Yet that did not stop his planning. And his plans were reasonable and faithful. Paul wanted to encourage the believers and strengthen the churches. Those are worthy ideas.
Now, there’s a difference between making plans and making faithful plans. A faithful plan is a plan that seeks to honor God. To honor him in our job pursuits, or family, or service, or church. That means, first of all, pleasing him in our thoughts, words and actions. Also, being humble – recognizing he is the one who upholds us. He gives us talents and resources.
As a contrast, a plan that is not God honoring is one that is self-seeking and doesn’t consider God.
James, in chapter 4 of his letter, puts it this way: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’”
In other words, planning is not the problem. No, rather the problem is planning with selfish desires and without consideration of God’s providence. Faithful planning involves planning with an open hand… planning with the knowledge that the Lord alone knows what tomorrow will bring. ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’ Lord willing.
That realization has been a journey for me. I’m a planner. Some of you know that. I think about goals and all the plans needed to reach those goals. Over time, the Lord has had to pry my hands open. He’s made me realize, the hard way, that his providence is sovereign.
Like March of 2020. We were ready to launch our church. Our core team, many of you, had worked hard. We had plans in place. And then COVID hit (deep sigh!). The Lord had to open my hands even more. As you know, we had to put things on hold for a period of time. The original location we had planned to rent fell through. It was a healthy reminder to all of us that we can plan… and we should but God ordains everything. Even though our plans were put on hold, God’s plan was still in place – and looking back, it’s been an encouragement and blessing to see the Lord’s provision.
Our faithful plans need to be submitted to our faithful God.
So we should make plans, as Paul did. Those plans should seek to be faithful to our call as Christians – which is to glorify God and serve Him – not ourselves. And next, we take steps forward. All the while, submitting those plans to the Lord.
Look at verses 6 and following. Over and over, there’s movement. “they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia” and verse 8 “they went down to Troas” and verse 11 “they made a direct voyage”
You see, not only did they make faithful plans, but Paul, Silas and Timothy started to follow through on those plans. They took steps forward. Of course, with much prayer and care. They didn’t sit back and twiddle their thumbs and wait for the green light from God… nor did they recklessly charge forward. Rather they trusted the Lord and stepped out in faith.
#2: Allow God to redirect your steps
This brings us to point #2. So first, make faithful plans – submitting them to the Lord. But second, allow God to redirect your steps.
All throughout these verses, God led them. His providence directed their steps. One door was open, another closed. That led to another open door and another closed one.
As they travelled through Phrygia and Galatia, which is the western part of Asia Minor - modern day Turkey. They wanted to stop and share the Gospel and plant more churches. But it says they were “forbidden by the Holt Spirit”. So they continued west. When they got to Mysia, which, by the way, is the northwest part of Asia Minor, they tried to go further north to Bithinia, but again it says, “the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.” So they continued on to Troas – on the northwestern edge of Asian minor. Right on the Aegean Sea, which is between modern day Turkey and modern day Greece.
Now, we don’t know exactly how the Holy Spirit re-directed them. Silas was a prophet, if you rmemeber, so he could have received a revelation. There could also have been a physical barrier of sorts. Maybe the road was closed. Perhaps the Spirit gave them a unified sense that they shouldn’t travel north.
Some doors were closed, others opened. They didn’t force their way in where they weren’t being led. They didn’t say “well, we made these plans, so come hell or high water, we’re going to move forward.” No, rather, they moved forward and let God direct or re-direct their steps.
In a recent podcast, Pastor John Piper put it this way, “God loves to steer a moving ship. If you are tied up in the harbor... God ordinarily will not give you clear direction. He gives direction to captains who point their ship out of the harbor, into the storm." Piper also gave some practical advice. He said, “One of the ways to be moving without knowing exactly where you are going is what I might call investigative moving. You are moving when you are pursuing possibilities with serious investigation. That, too, is moving.”
God can leads us in different ways, such as through the wisdom of trusted advisors who know us. Another way God leads is when we take steps forward, he also closes doors. Closed doors can be especially hard. When we’ve put so much vested interest in something. It can be a big let down. That job opportunity didn’t work out. That house contract fell through. Several years ago I was meeting with a young man. He was convinced that this girl he liked was God’s chosen one for him. I asked him, “what does she think of that?” …”Well,” he said, “she doesn’t want to date.” That was a really hard conversation and a really hard realization for him… his plans were not God’s plans.
Notice that Paul and Silas willingly went where God lead them. In verses 9 ad 10 – God gave Paul a vision of a man urging them to come to Macedonia. They discussed it and, as it says, “concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.” So they went. And the word is “immediately.”
And guess who they meet along the way? Luke! The author of Acts. I know what you’re thinking. “but he’s not mentioned here.” No, he is. Look at verse 10. “Immediately we sought to go to Macedonia.” “We” first person plural. So Luke is now travelling with them… This is the first time that Luke includes himself in the mix. Verse 11, another “we” “we made a direct voyage” … they passed through a couple of cities and verse 12 after arriving in Philippi, again “we remained.” Another “we” in verse 13. In God’s providence, he brought Paul, and Silas, and Timothy to Luke. Through their faithfulness in letting God direct their steps, He orchestrated this divine encounter.
Luke would hear of all their journeys. Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Luke would eventually write them down. We have the book of Acts today… because they allowed God to direct their steps.
And not just that, the Gospel has reached Macedonia – Greece! In the bigger picture of Acts, we’ve reached a new milestone. The Gospel had crossed the Aegean sea. And it had a profound impact over the next generations. From ancient Greece the Gospel spread to the rest of southern and central Europe, and eventually western and northern Europe.
Now, let me make a side note here. Remember, in Acts, we are given significant events about God (1) inaugurating His kingdom and (2) establishing his church. That involved Jesus’ ascension and His ongoing work through the Holy Spirit. As people come to faith in Christ in Acts, churches are established. Well, each of those churches then sent out missionaries – to declare the Gospel, call people to faith, and plant new churches. Even though Paul, Silas, and Timothy were directed west to Macedonia – the Gospel was also going north, south, and east. We have record of Thomas, one of the 12 disciples of Jesus going to southeast Asia. The Gospel also arrived in northern Africa. We were given a glimpse of that back in Acts 8 when the Ethiopian Eunuch believed. The church was expanding through God’s people stepping out in faith.
The point is - God’s providence leads and guides and turns us… when we take steps. Through thoughtful planning, moving forward in faith, but allowing God to direct and redirect. And in Acts, churches were being established all throughout the Mediterranean – through out the middle east – and from there, on the path to the ends of the earth.
#3: Seek Gospel opportunities
And next – not only did they make faithful plans and allow God to direct their steps. But everywhere they went, they sought Gospel opportunities. This is point number 3. Seek Gospel opportunities.
They had arrived in Philippi – a leading city in Macedonia. Verse 12. Luke was also now with them. And while they were there they looked for opportunities to share Christ. Now, on this particular day, verse 13, the sabbath day – they would usually have gone to the local synagogue. Presumably there was no synagogue. I think that’s a good assumption… because instead they went to the nearby river supposing there were people praying. And sure enough, a group of women had gathered for prayer.
One of them was Lydia. Well, it turns out that she was from the city of Thyatira. Lydia was from the very region forbidden by the Holy Spirit up in verse 6. In God’s providence, he brought together Lydia and these women together with Paul and his companions. In Philippi, nonetheless. Lydia was a God-fearer, meaning she believed in the God of the Jewish Scriptures – but she didn’t know Christ. And as Paul began to share about Jesus, the Messiah… as Paul spoke about Jesus’ fulfillment of the promises, his sacrifice on the cross, his resurrection … and the call to repent and believe. Lydia believed! Verse 14. “The Lord opened her heart.” Yet another emphasis on God’s providence. His leading, his directing, his work through people and in hearts for his kingdom.
Seek Gospel opportunities, and let God do the work.
This point is for me. Often what’s on my mind during the week… is what’s in front of me - getting ready for Sunday – getting together with or communicating with many of you. But often I’m not seeking out opportunities. This is a reminder and challenge to me. Every interaction is an ordained interaction. Not every interaction presents an opportunity to share Christ. But God has placed people in our lives – in my life. And it’s God who does the work when we faithful share Christ.
And look at the impact – Lydia believed. And her whole household was baptized – her family and servants – verse 15. A church would soon be planted in Philippi. The testimony of Christ presented there on the riverside – had lasting and ongoing impact. From Lydia to then her family and household to then the city, and the region, and ultimately a link in the chain to the ends of the earth. And do you know what? The church in Philippi would become one of Paul’s greatest supporters. In Paul’s letter to the Philippians – at the very beginning, he says this to them: “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now”
And where did it all begin? Faithful planning back in Antioch… even a disagreement and separation – but despite that trusting the Lord taking steps forward… allowing God to lead and at times redirect… all the while looking for opportunities to share Christ.
And it’s all under God’s providence. They submitted their plans to God’s providence. Coming to Philippi was not in Paul’s plan, but it was in God’s plan, and he brought Paul there. And we can look back and see the result – a new companion, Luke; the Gospel to a whole new region, a prominent woman coming to faith in Jesus and her household, and a new church – one that would support and continue this Gospel work to the ends of the earth.
As you seek God’s path for your life – where you live, your work, your family, where to serve - Keep those things in mind. Don’t recoil back in fear of not being in God’s will – no, rather let God steer you – the rutter of a ship doesn’t do anything when it’s anchored in the harbor. Make plans with an open hand – plans seeking God’s glory through Godly wisdom. Then step forward in faith, but allow God to lead, even if that means He turns you in a different direction than you originally planned. And as God leads and guides, seek opportunities to declare the love of God in Christ. And let him work.
In summary, submit your plans to God’s providence.
“The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.”