As often as I read Acts 16:6, I have wondered just how the Holy Spirit stopped Paul and company from preaching in the province of Asia. Then when they decided to evangelize the province of Bithynia along the Black Sea (verse-7), the Spirit of Jesus again prevented their preaching efforts there. Why and how was this done?
I suppose no matter what we decide about this would be pure speculation, because obviously the text doesn’t offer a clear explanation. Yet, and perhaps only because I prefer to have all things neatly in its place, I have to come to some conclusion, even though I realize we don’t know for certain exactly how the Spirit made his will known until we get to Acts 16:9.
I wonder if the Spirit’s prohibition wasn’t more like an invitation, namely a leading to other places away from the group’s intended goals to other specific places. Notice that Luke tells us that Paul and company had gone throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia (Acts 16:6). At first we might believe they were wandering around aimlessly without any direction at all, but if we assume the evangelists were busy evangelizing—a logical conclusion—then, perhaps, they were led by invitations to preach elsewhere by visitors to the region where they were visiting and strengthening one of the new churches. Notice that in Acts 18:23 that, at the beginning of Paul’s third recorded missionary journey, he did then as he had done at the beginning of his second recorded journey, namely, he visited the new churches in order to strengthen them.
In 116 BCE Rome reorganized the greater part of Phrygia by absorbing it into the Roman province of Asia. About 90 years later the remaining portion was absorbed into the Roman province of Galatia. Thus Galatia included parts of Phrygia, Pisidia and Lycaonia (Iconium, Lystra and Derbe). So, when Luke tells us that Paul strengthened the churches in the country of Galatia and Phrygia, he is referring to that portion of Galatia north of Pisidia and south of Bithynia.
The point of all this is, although Paul and company had planned to go east from Pisidia into Asia, instead they were invited north, perhaps to Ancyra near the southern border of the province of Bithynia. At this time, the natural plan would have been to begin evangelizing Bithynia, but having received another invitation at Troas, the missionary team went there, through Mysia to the coast (Acts 16:7-8). There may have been Jewish Messianic families in these places who had heard the Gospel preached by Peter while on pilgrimages to Jerusalem, and needed to be established as a church of God (cp. Romans 1:11). These matters would have been more important than to evangelize areas who knew nothing about Jesus. First, those who believe need to be strengthened and established in the areas where they live. Yet, in doing this, Paul and company would have all the while been led away from their intended plans (Acts 16:6-8).
In 2Corinthians 2:12 we find that Paul had the door opened to him for the preaching of the Gospel at Troas, this, no doubt, was the result of an earlier effort (Acts 16:8 ?) that had blossomed into a invitation by one or more influential people to preach the Gospel to others in that location.
According to this understanding of Acts 16:6-10, we can conclude that Paul’s original plans were not opposed to the will of God, for Luke shows that Paul did visit Asia later and evangelized the whole region (Acts 19:1-10). Moreover, 2Corinthians 2:12 shows doors were open in Troas for the Gospel and Peter mentions the Gospel had indeed gone into Bithynia (1Peter 1:1), and, if we consider Romans 15:19, all this may have been done through the ministry of Paul—if not personally, through the disciples under his care.
The question then arises, why did Luke word his work this way, instead of being clear about how Paul had evangelized this area? Well, if the above is true, clues to how it was done are seen in other parts of Luke’s Acts and in Paul own epistles. But, Luke may be showing us again that, as was done with Peter to the Jews, so it was done with Paul in his ministry to the gentiles. Peter was roaming about Judea (Acts 9:32-43) in his ministry to the Jews, when he had a vision from Jesus near the coast at Joppa to carry the Gospel to a certain gentile in Caesarea. So, as Paul was roaming about Phrygia and Galatia, he was led to the coast at Troas by invitation (?) just as Peter was led to Joppa. While there, Paul received a vision to carry the Gospel to Europe, beginning at Macedonia (Acts 16:8-9).
Perhaps Paul’s plan after Troas was to begin evangelizing Asia as originally planned (cp. Acts 16:6), except now the team would enter from the west and traveling south via the sea coast, for Pergamum, Smyrna and Ephesus lay directly south of Troas and could be reached by sea. Nevertheless their plans were changed once again by the Holy Spirit. We must not presume that Paul and Silas had no real plan before setting out on their mission. No doubt they had a clear strategy, but they also displayed a keen sensitivity to the leading of the Spirit of God—whether that guidance took the form of a vision as was the case in Troas or an overruling external circumstance, such as an invitation/request to bring the Gospel to a Messianic Jew’s home or synagogue or even the household of a God-fearer in Ancyra on the border of Bithynia, and once there, to Troas on the coast of the Aegean Sea. These were men on a mission, but sensitive to the leading of the Spirit of God for the fruit of that mission.