July 1: Acts 16:6-7

Acts 16:6-7

We have seen how the guidance provided by the Holy Spirit for the early Christian missionaries (on their journeys) is an important aspect of the Spirit-theme in Acts. It is an aspect that was introduced in the Gospel, in relation to the Galilean ministry of Jesus (4:1, 14). The Spirit directs and leads believers on their mission, showing them where to go and what to speak, etc.

This theme continues in the second missionary journey of Paul, following the council at Jerusalem in chap. 15. The new journeys by Paul, extending even further west into the Greco-Roman world, form the core of the third division of the book of Acts (15:36-21:14). The second missionary journey proper begins at 16:6, with the earlier two sections (15:36-41; 16:1-5) being more introductory in nature, establishing two new missionary companions for Paul (Silas, Timothy). It is significant that the role of the Spirit is emphasized at the beginning of this great journey:

“And they went through the Phrygian and Galatian area, (hav)ing been cut off by the holy Spirit (from) speaking the account (of God) in Asia; and, (hav)ing come down to Mysia, they tested (whether they were) to travel into Bithynia, and the Spirit of Yeshua did not permit them” (16:6-7)

Here, the direction/guidance of Spirit is expressed in negative terms—that is, the Spirit directed the missionaries to go in a different direction than they had intended. In the first instance, the verb is kwlu/w, which fundamentally means “cut off, shorten”, sometimes in the more general sense of weakening something or preventing it (from happening). It is something of a Lukan term, used six times in the Gospel and another six in Acts, more than half of all NT occurrences (12 of 23). For the prior three occurrences in Acts, it is used in the specific context of hindering/preventing someone (lit. cutting them off) from being baptized (8:36; 10:47; 11:17). Here, the Spirit prevents Paul and his companions from going into the Roman province of Asia (in the Anatolian plateau), west of Phrygia. Instead, they took a northwestern route, traveling along the border of Asia.

Verse 7 describes the next major decision on their travel route. Having gone north, all the way to the border of Bithynia and Pontus, it is said that they “tested” (vb peira/zw) whether they should travel north into Bithynia. They did not proceed, however, as the Spirit “did not permit” them—the verb here being e)a/w, “[give] leave, allow, permit”. This verb again is typical of Luke, occurring twice in the Gospel and 7 times in Acts (9 of the 11 NT occurrences); the prior use in Acts was at 14:16.

It is not clear how the denial of permission by the Spirit was manifested. Possibly something unforeseen occurred which prevented the missionaries from proceeding, and this was seen as a sign from the Spirit. Such direction by the Spirit can also be expressed through visions (vv. 9-10) and oracular prophecy. In any case, Paul and his companions choose to travel west instead, moving along the northern Mysian coast, along the sea of Marmara, all the way to Troas (v. 8).

An interesting detail here in v. 7 is that the Holy Spirit is referred to as “the Spirit of Yeshua”. This confirms the early Christian identification of the Spirit with the manifest presence of the exalted Jesus among believers. This is an important Christological tenet, and it is expressed at numerous points in the Pauline (e.g., Rom 8:9; Gal 4:6; Phil 1:19) and Johannine writings. Luke attests to it here as well, though otherwise it is not particularly emphasized in the two-volume work of Luke-Acts.

In passing, it is also worth mentioning that the aspect of the Spirit guiding/directing the early Christian missionaries is emphasized in several of the expanded variant readings in the ‘Western’ text (recension) of Acts. Two such instances, in particular, should be noted:

    • Acts 19:1—”Paul was wishing to travel unto Jerusalem according to his own plan/counsel (but) the Spirit said to him to turn back into Asia, and coming through…” (Ë38 D syrh mg etc). This is an example of the more expansive narrative introductions typical of the Western text; here it emphasizes the Spirit’s direction (and intervention) in Paul’s travels.
    • Acts 20:3 (of Paul)—”he wished to take up sail into Syria but the Spirit said to him to turn back through Macedonia…” (D syrh mg etc). A similar expanded introduction emphasizing the guiding direction of the Spirit.

For other distinctively ‘Western’ references to the Spirit in Acts, cf. my earlier article on the subject.

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