THE SILENT PARTNER
6 And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. 7 And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them. 8 So, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. 9 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.” 10 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. 11 So, setting sail from Troas, we made a direct voyage to Samothrace, and the following day to Neapolis, 12 and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city some days. 13 And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together. 14 One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. 15 And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” And she prevailed upon us.
— Acts 16:6-15, ESV
We see a lot of partnerships in the book of Acts. They include Jesus and the Apostles, Peter and John, Paul and Barnabas, Paul and Silas, and now Paul and Silas and Timothy. There is yet another partner in this and every other Christian enterprise, a silent partner, whom we don’t speak about enough. Perhaps it is because he never speaks. Or, does he?
Many editions of the Bible entitle this book, “The Acts of the Apostles.” That’s not wrong, but there are some older editions that use a better title, “The Acts of the Holy Spirit.” Indeed it is the Holy Spirit who is working in every Christian, every Christian partnership, every Christian church, to be the lifeline between God and people in order to bring people to God. Though He is usually off camera and behind the scenes, the silent partner, the Holy Spirit appears prominently in this part of Paul’s second missionary journey.
The Silent Person of the Trinity
The Apostles’ Creed affirms our trinitarian view of God, one God, in three persons. The creed says a little about God the Father, calling Him “Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.” It says a lot about God the Son, as necessities facing the early church dictated a definitive statement about the full humanity and absolute deity of Christ. But the only thing it states about the God the Spirit is “I believe in the Holy Spirit,” with no other titles, adjectives, or credits given.
Throughout the Bible God the Father dons nearly every page, hovering over every person, exerting His divine presence and providence. God the Son is alluded to in a multitude of Old Testament prophecies, bursts into plain sight in the Gospels, and remains a point of reference throughout the rest of the New Testament. But it is God the Spirit who inspired the pages of holy writ and hovers over the entire redemptive plot from creation to consummation, though He is quite hard to hear and almost impossible to see.
Catching the Holy Spirit in the right light is one of the most elusive pursuits of the Christian faith. What does the Holy Spirit look like, a bird, a flame, a man, a woman? What does the Spirit sound like, a gentle breeze, a mighty rushing wind, a still, small voice? How can we know when the Spirit is near us, with us, in us, speaking to us?
This text cannot teach us all we want to know. But it does affirm two things. The Holy Spirit indwells and guides every faithful follower of Jesus Christ. And, it is the Holy Spirit who moves in to enable saving faith in the first place. This narrative starts Him moving in existing believers before moving on to making belief begin in a new believer.
The Silent Guide to the Christian
Here we have it, a Holy Spirit sighting! As rare as Sasquatch but more real, the Spirit is spotted in this story. We are not given a description of sight or sound, but He makes his presence known by forbidding on one hand (vs. 6), not allowing on another (vs. 7), and casting a vision for direction in the end (vs. 9-10).
Paul, Silas, and Timothy were strong Christians, as good and more gifted than most. They were sent to the world with the gospel, but the world was so big it almost blinded them. Where exactly in the world did God want this expedition to go? For the first time, Europe. How did they get there? The Holy Spirit, the silent partner, somehow guided and got them there. How exactly did the Holy Spirit speak, lead, and guide them?
I don’t know, at least not entirely. But I can give you some theological options and textual evidence. Here and throughout redemptive history, the Holy Spirit speaks in three tongues: prophecy, providence, and prompting.
The clearest and best way to hear the Holy Spirit is to read the prophetic words of the Holy Bible, for they are literally Spirit-breathed (ref. 2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20). Prophecy also includes accurate sermons and lesson that are “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15, KJV) from godly preachers to godly people. I cannot explain all the ways the Holy Spirit speaks, but I can tell you confidently that He will never say anything to you that contradicts the plain teachings of the Bible, which He wrote in conjunction with forty or so prophetic personalities. In this episode, Paul and Silas and Timothy were obeying the prophetic words of Jesus, now appearing in prophetic pages of Scripture in Matthew 28:18-20 and Acts 1:8.
Since the Holy Spirit was, is, and always will be God, He exerts His will by providence, which provides hard and fast directions for decision-making. If you think it is God’s will for you to marry a certain lady, but the lady says “no,” then be assured it is not God’s will, for providence has turned you away, and perhaps another lady awaits. If the missionaries thought it was God’s will for them to go further into Asia, God the Holy Spirit said, “no,” perhaps through persecution or some other roadblock, but “yes” to traveling into Europe for the first time and minister in Philippi, Macedonia. Trusting providence requires patiently learning to take “no” for an answer.
There is prophecy, providence, and then there is perhaps the most perplexing way to hear the Holy Spirit, prompting. Prompting is a feeling, an inward voice, or “vision” in Paul’s case here of “a man of Macedonia” (vs. 9). Speaking of Paul’s case, remember he was an Apostle with a capital “A,” and Apostles were given certain gifts and gazes uncommon to the common Christian. Nevertheless, I do think the Holy Spirit speaks to every believer, with some sort of prompting, with a voice almost audible, and maybe in some cases more tangible sights and sounds.
All three levels of “speech,” the prophecies and the providences and the promptings, must be interpreted to be correctly heard, and herein lies the tricky part. God the Holy Spirit is infallible, we the Christians are not. We can misread prophecy. We can misinterpret providence. We can mistake promptings, mixing up a desire for happiness with the holiness God, the Holy Spirit, reflects and requires.
Paul got it right, didn’t he? How come? He was a follower of Jesus deeply committed to Scripture. He submitted to the sovereign providence of God to work out all things together for good (ref. Romans 8:28). Because of this deep, abiding faith, Paul could trust his feelings, inner voices, and visions. Make sure you’ve got a serious faith before diving in according to your inner feelings. But make no mistake that God the Spirit speaks constantly, silently, to everyone who truly believes in the Lord Jesus Christ. But how do we believe, in the first place?
The Silent Savior of the Soul
The Holy Spirit moves the missionaries from the Asian port of Troas to the Greek cities of Samothrace, Neapolis, and Philippi. That’s one small step for Europe, one giant leap for Christian kind. As we move forward chronologically, we take a step back theologically. Now that we’ve seen how the Holy Spirit moves Christians, let us look at how He makes Christians in the first place.
It may or may not take a village to raise a child, but it does take a partnership to raise the dead, spiritually speaking. This is what salvation is, the raising of a dead sinner into a living saint (ref. Ephesians 2:1-10). For this God uses His people, missionaries, pastors, and the average person in the pew. God’s people share God’s word and the gospel of Jesus Christ. But it is the silent and most powerful partner of the evangelistic team, the Holy Spirit, who seals the deal.
Two converts are made in this text. One comes to Christ almost invisibly, while the salvation of the other is an open book. Their names are Luke and Lydia.
Luke is the human author of Acts, written as the Holy Spirit breathed in and through him. This text tells of his initial conversion to Christianity, very subtly. Pay attention to the pronouns. As the author is describing the progress of the gospel, “they” and “them” (vs. 6-9) all of a sudden becomes “we” and “us” (vs. 10-15). Dr. Luke, probably a maritime physician, is quietly converted by the silent partner, the Holy Spirit, and added to the church missions team. He may well be the literal vision Paul had of “a man from Macedonia,” converted at the port in Troas, begging Paul to come to his home town of Philippi.
Lydia’s experience more directly and dramatically captures the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in salvation. She was a good woman, as most lost people are basically good in human terms. She was a religious woman, at least outwardly, again, like most lost people. She was probably a Jewess, meeting on the Sabbath to pray by a riverside, since there must not have been enough Jewish men in Philippi to start a synagogue (10 men would have been required). Her body and mind were alive, but her heart and soul were dead without Christ, the Christian gospel, and the Holy Spirit.
Then, it happened. Christians witnessed, the word of God was heard, and most importantly, “The Lord opened her heart.” Remember, we are trinitarian in our beliefs about God. God the Father is Lord. Jesus the Son is Lord. And the silent partner, the Holy Spirit, is the Lord who opens people’s hearts and enables them to have saving faith in the gospel (ref. Titus 3:5; also Ephesians 2:8 and Acts 11:18).
The Holy Spirit is mysterious, but there is no mystery about how He works to save the soul. Jesus explained in John 16:8, “And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.” Lydia, living in the European world, encountered the gospel through Paul’s preaching. The Spirit convicted her of her sin and separation from God. The Spirit convinced her of her need for forgiveness and the imputed righteousness of Christ. The Spirit converted her to Christianity, the only way one can escape the coming judgment of God. Sin, righteousness, and judgment, all put into perfect perspective by the perfect, silent partner, the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit promotes perseverance, too, as the new Christian Lydia did what all genuine Christians do, they follow through. She was baptized, shared Christ with her whole family, then became a member of a brand new body of Christ, a church, which probably met in her own home. Paul stayed a while and would return later (ref. 16:40), guiding, through the Holy Spirit, these new worshippers and witnesses for the Lord.
Has the Holy Spirit opened up your heart to believe the gospel? Were you convicted of your sin, convinced of your need for Christ, and converted into a fully devoted follower of Christ? Are you following through in baptism, church membership, and putting forth a proper witness for Christ?
If so, you have a silent partner in the whole process. The Father chose you, the Son saved you, but it is the Holy Spirit who is leading you. Listen to Him, through the word and in prayer. Patiently pay attention to the providence of God in your life, for sometimes He says “no” twice as much as “yes.” Go with God, and you’ll never go wrong, and the silent partner will be with you, giving grace and guidance, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the silent partner, the Holy Spirit.