When they asked him to spend more time with them, he declined. But as he left, he promised, “I will come back if it is God’s will.” Then he set sail from Ephesus. Acts 18:20-21 NIV
Paul was at the end of his three-year second missionary tour. He had added a new couple to the team in Corinth, Aquila and Priscilla, and now he sailed with them to Ephesus. Paul, as was his custom, went to the synagogue to proclaim the Messiah to the Jews in Ephesus. There seems to have been an open opportunity for Paul the share the gospel among this Jewish audience indicated by their asking Paul to “spend more time with them.” But Paul declined. Why would Paul say ‘no’ to this open door?
Note that Ephesus (main city in the province of Asia) was the target audience for Paul and team two years earlier when they were at the beginning of the second tour (see Acts 16:6ff). The Holy Spirit prevented them from entering the province at that time, and now two years later there was an opportunity. Paul left Aquila and Priscilla in Ephesus (remember, they were Jewish converts) and sailed back to Jerusalem and eventually to Antioch of Syria.
Paul’s parting comment upon leaving was, “I will come back if it is God’s will.” We know he did return to Ephesus on his third tour and remained there for over two years (see Acts 19). Ephesus was still a strategic ministry audience, yet Paul’s future was dependent upon the Lord’s plans for him. He had learned to make his plans, but know that their execution was dependent upon the Lord’s guidance.
Some might say, “Well, what’s the use in planning if we don’t know whether they will be implemented? It seems like such a waste of time and effort. Why not just ‘wing it – let the Holy Spirit guide us as we go?” The Lord is an intentional God who acts according to His purposes. Jesus acknowledged the completion of the work (plans) the Father gave Him the night before His crucifixion. So, put aside this ‘wing it’ idea thinking that somehow this is more aligned with God’s leading us.
But… and this is big…. as we act out our carefully thought-through plans, we must also listen very carefully to the Holy Spirit and be willing to change our plans as He directs. He is God and we are not! He has the right to do as He sees fit and do it at anytime and in anyway He chooses. Our job is to follow His lead not expect Him to ‘rubber stamp’ our plans.
You may think that changing your leadership plans will cause a lack of trust from those you lead, but the opposite can be true. A leader who acknowledges God’s guidance, who has the humility to change plans because God has given a new direction, actually gains trust. Who doesn’t want to be led by someone who in humility says, “I had planned on this, but God over-ruled and directed us this new way?” At the beginning of his second tour, Paul changed his plans three different times before finally understanding that God wanted he and his team to go into Macedonia (northern Greece), not western Turkey.
Listen carefully to the Spirit as you execute your plans and be willing to change them. Study and apply His Word to your ministry efforts and expect Him to use the Word and others to confirm His leading (see Acts 16:1-10).
Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” James 4:13-15 NIV