By Christopher Gornold-Smith
Gaius Plinius Luci arrived in Bithynia in time to celebrate the birthday of the Roman Emperor Trajan on September 18, AD 111. Pliny, as we call him, had been chosen as a special commissioner to sort out the problems of this area bordering the Black Sea. The problems were political, financial and administrative, and there were times the only safe and wise course was to write to the Emperor himself for advice. One problem concerned the Christians.
Pliny did not know much about Christians except that they were very stubborn about clinging to their beliefs, would not pray to the gods, and would not burn incense to the Emperor’s statue; that they met together regularly to sing and pray to Christ, and promised to abstain from theft, robbery and adultery. Their stubbornness alone was surely enough to merit punishment. The thing that really got to him was how these Christians had spread their beliefs.
He wrote to the Emperor Trajan, “A great many individuals of every age and class, both men and women, are being brought to trial, and this is likely to continue. It is not only the towns, but villages and rural districts too which are infected through contact with this wretched cult.”1
Just over 60 years earlier the Apostle Paul was on his second missionary journey. He had reached the town of Pisidian Antioch in the province of Galatia, and the next step must have seemed obvious: west to Ephesus. This was the key to the whole Roman province of Asia, still unevangelized.
We are not told how, but God blocked his way (Acts 16:6). It must have seemed strange. Jesus Christ had called him to bring the gospel to the Gentiles, and now Paul was stopped from evangelizing one of the greatest centers of Gentile population in the world.
He turned north and tried to enter the region of Bithynia. The cities of Nicomedia and Nicaea were not unimportant, and the Jewish colonies in Bithynia would fit his strategy. Whether Paul prayed about this we don’t know, but he was on his way when again God stopped him. “When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to.” (Acts 16:7)
I can imagine Paul’s frustration. No, on second thought, I’d rather not.
If you can’t go back, and you can’t go west, and you can’t go north, maybe you can find a road somewhere in the middle. Say, northwest? It led to Troas. The port was strategic in the Roman communications system; from Troas you could easily get to other places.
In Troas two things happened. The narrative of Acts suddenly changes from “they” to “we”. Doctor Luke had joined Paul’s team. When I read the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts, I feel rather grateful that God boxed Paul into a narrow path away from the obvious destinations.
Something else happened. Paul had a vision of a man from Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”
So Paul entered a new phase of ministry in Macedonia and Greece: confronting the demonic in Philippi, challenging idolatry in Athens, converting large numbers from raw paganism in Corinth. God was using Paul’s roundabout journey as a spiritual preparation, and in the end the Lord brought him to Ephesus with great success.
But what about Bithynia? Yes, it was evangelized, though not by Paul. We don’t know just how and when, but God had his servants in place and the church planted there was strong, embracing people “of every age and class… not only [in] the towns, but the villages and rural districts too.”
Sometimes God redirects our lives and ministries in ways that may confuse us, but as J. Philip Hogan used to say “God is the harvest Master,” and the Lord knows what He is doing.
Christopher Gornold-Smith, born in London, joined ICI in Brussels to work in media development in 1982. After the fall of Communism, he and his Swedish wife Ragna served as missionaries in Slovakia, and later with International Media Ministries in Spain. Now officially “retired”, he assists Global University as a media consultant and video scriptwriter/producer.