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In Acts 16:6 the Holy Spirit kept the apostles from preaching in Asia. How did they know this message was from the Holy Spirit?


Question: In Acts 16:6 the Holy Spirit kept the apostles from preaching in Asia. But Jesus had told His disciples to preach in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and then the whole world (Acts 1:7, 8). Was the Holy Spirit commanding the apostles something the opposite of what Jesus had commanded them to do? How did they know this message was from the Holy Spirit?

Steve Answers:

By putting Acts 16:6 with Acts 1:7, 8, you’ve come up with a logical question. Here are those two verses:

Acts 16:6: “Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia.”*

Acts 1:7, 8: “He [Jesus] said to them: ‘It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’”

Acts 16 seems to indicate that the Holy Spirit stopped Paul and his companions from preaching in Asia, but Acts 1:7, 8 contains that amazing promise from Jesus that the Holy Spirit would come on the disciples and that they would be Christ’s witnesses right where they were at the time, and then to the entire world!

The answer to your question can come in two forms—facts and feelings.
First, the facts. In Acts 16 the word “Asia” doesn’t mean the largest continent of the world (China, Russia, India, etc.). In the book of Acts, “Asia” was like one of the states or provinces in what is now the country of Turkey, specifically the western part of Turkey. Paul and his companions were in the middle portion of Turkey (Phrygia and Galatia). By not heading west, they headed north to Bithynia, where “the Spirit of Jesus” stopped them again (verse 7). So they headed to Troas, a seaport city in northwestern Turkey (verse 8).

Acts 16:9, 10 picks up the story: “During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.”

That took Paul into Greece, and Christianity spread to the rest of Europe from there. So in reality the promise Jesus gave in Acts 1:8 comes to pass in Acts 16 as you continue to read beyond verse 6!

Here’s one more “fact”—this one coming from Acts 1:7, 8. Jesus told His disciples that it wasn’t up to them to know the times or dates God has set. That includes exactly when and where God would expand the gospel message throughout the world. The disciples started in Jerusalem. When persecution drove them away, they took the good news of Jesus with them, and it spread throughout Judea and Samaria. With Paul, Barnabas, Silas, Timothy, Luke, and others, it continued to spread throughout the world.

Jesus initially told His disciples to wait in Jerusalem until they had received the gift of the Holy Spirit (see Acts 1:4, 5). Without that, they would have simply had a plan but no power to take the gospel anywhere. The same is true for you and me today! We first need to receive the Holy Spirit before we share the gospel.
This fact also leads us to the feelings portion of the answer. Do feelings make you skeptical or hopeful? I tend to prefer facts, and I feel quite uncertain about feelings! But I undoubtedly have feelings. I simply don’t usually trust them. But that’s not true for everyone.

Acts 16:6 seems to lack the details I’d like to have regarding “having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia.” Did the Holy Spirit put Paul in a straitjacket? Did He render him mute? Did Silas speak a prophetic word from God to Paul? Had Paul received a vision as vivid as the one recorded in Acts 16:9? And would Paul feel just as “led by the Holy Spirit” when he ended up in jail after he preached the word in Macedonia? Was that what the Holy Spirit had in mind?

The early church seemed to rely on impressions, dreams, prophetic utterances, and coincidences much more than what I do nowadays. I’m willing to rely on the Holy Spirit’s inspiration of Bible writers thousands of years ago (2 Peter 1:20, 21). But I’m terribly reluctant to expect or believe that same Holy Spirit would communicate so directly with me today. How about you?

You mentioned the vague description in Acts 16:6 of “having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching.” In the next verse we read, “They tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to.” Then they went to Troas and Paul had his vision, and the group as a whole got ready to leave at once for Macedonia, concluding that God had called them to preach the gospel there (verse 10).

Amazing! Would you move into action like that based on somebody else’s middle-of-the-night vision? I hope so. And here’s why: God has promised dreams and visions, especially toward the end of time. Acts 2:17, 18 quotes the Old Testament: “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.”
I have found that when I go on mission trips to “less civilized” areas of the world, the people there tend to rely on the Holy Spirit being active right now to give messages and impressions. I rely more on education and tradition and just plain thinking. Don’t get me wrong—God communicates to us through our minds. It’s just that God isn’t limited to merely thoughts or human reasoning.
You also asked the question “How did they know this message was from the Holy Spirit?” The Bible doesn’t say. I don’t know. My gut feeling is that they were depending on impressions from God in all sorts of ways, and they compared that with what they already knew about God and His desire for them to share the good news of Jesus wherever they went. They didn’t worry about the exact path or plan or place. They just shared about Jesus wherever they were and wherever they went.

I’d like to follow that example more. How about you?

*Bible texts in this article are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Steve Case is a youth pastor, popular speaker, and mission trip leader. He’s also president of Involve Youth, in Sacramento, California. Got a spiritual question? Send it to: Pastor Steve • INSIGHT, 55 W. Oak Ridge Dr., Hagers­town, MD 21740-7390. •

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