Curiosity, suspense, & Surprise in acts 16
The deadline had arrived. I paced my office praying for a sign. If I stepped out to relocate my family to Scotland, would the Lord provide? Although I had once been certain he had called me to make the move, the lack of financial support caused significant doubt.
I grew up in a Christian tradition that discouraged asking God for signs. Such a request was considered, at best, a demonstration of distrust and, at worst, a violation of the “Don’t test the Lord your God” command. But desperate times called for drastic measures—even if they came from other denominations. So, against my upbringing, I did it. I asked God for a sign.
I can’t remember how long it was after my petition that I heard a knock on the door. I figured it was one of the many transients who called on our church’s food pantry. When I opened the door, I could tell from the looks of him I had guessed correctly. I was ready to get rid of the guy so I could get back to discerning the Lord’s will for my life. I didn’t even give him a chance to speak. I just waved him inside and led him to the bags of rice and cans of beans.
After I loaded him up with nonperishables, he spoke up to thank me. When I heard his accent, my jaw dropped. Although I had served countless transients, I had never heard one of them sound like this. Wide-eyed, I blurted: “Where are you from?” As if he got that a lot, he smiled a toothy grin and boasted with a thick brogue: “I moved here from Scotland.”
A curious vision
While I cannot say whether this man was my sign from the Lord, it reminds me of when, to direct Paul’s steps, God sent the apostle a sign—a vision of a man from Macedonia. In Acts 16, as Paul sets his course during the second missionary journey, the Lord keeps turning him back. The Spirit prevents him from going to the province of Asia and then does not allow him to enter Bithynia, either. But then one night in Troas, Paul has a dream.
During the night Paul had a vision of a [certain]1 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. (Acts 16:9–10 NIV)
Curiosity always gets the best of me when I read this account. Who was this Macedonian man? Why didn’t Luke tell us? Did he not know? Did he not care? Or was the man’s identity an inside joke between Luke and his audience?
It has been suggested that, for the original audience, Paul’s vision would have conjured up the image of the most notorious Macedonian, Alexander the Great.2 Like Paul, Alexander had a guiding vision3 and dared to cross ethnic lines in an attempt to unite the world by a common culture.4 It also has been proposed that the man in Paul’s vision was Luke himself—the writer making a cameo appearance (in the style of Alfred Hitchcock, perhaps, or Stan Lee).
Moving beyond these conjectures, I’ve since learned that literary critics look for the use of rhetorical tools such as curiosity, suspense, and surprise as universal techniques in narratives.5 The more I dive into that research, the more I suspect that Luke was employing these timeless tools of storytelling. That is to say, it is possible that Luke’s lack of detail regarding the man in Paul’s vision is meant partly to pique our curiosity.
A string of surprises
According to scholars, authors often use “strategic obscuring” to raise questions in the minds of their audience.6 Once evoked, “curiosity … lingers and pulls our mind backward while we go forward”; it then creates suspense that “arises whenever we look ahead to a resolution.”7
As readers go forward in Acts 16, they are placed on tenterhooks waiting to see if the identity of the man will be disclosed once Paul arrives in Macedonia. Further, perhaps the audience’s suspense gives way to surprise—since, when Paul first arrives in Philippi, he meets not a man of Macedonia but a woman of Thyatira (vv. 13–15)!
Luke may be using the rhetorical tools of curiosity, suspense, and surprise to underline a common theme in his works: the importance of women in the kingdom of God.8 Lydia becomes pivotal to Paul’s mission, serving as his patroness and provider as he founds the Philippian church.9 What’s more, perhaps Luke intends to continue building suspense and causing surprise with Paul’s next encounter—which, again, is not with a man, but with a demon-possessed girl (vv. 16–18).
If so, Luke eventually gives the audience the resolution they’ve been seeking since verse 9: Toward the end of Paul’s time in Philippi, he finally shares the gospel with a man in Macedonia. Yet Luke seems to have another surprise in hand. Paul encounters this man not down by the river with the Godfearers, but in jail surrounded by criminals.
Having told of Paul’s flogging and imprisonment for exorcising the girl’s demon, Luke applies more layers of curiosity, suspense, and surprise in verses 25–34. In the face of severe injustice and abuse, the apostles astonishingly respond by singing praises to the Lord. Immediately comes another surprise: An earthquake rocks the place and sets the captives free. Next, suspense intensifies as the jailer reaches for his sword to commit suicide. But Paul interrupts the attempt with an amazing revelation: None of the prisoners had run away! Surprisingly, the jailer and his whole household get baptized. The joy of the event is punctuated by a spontaneous celebration meal—in the middle of the night!
A sign from God?
In comparison with Acts 16, I cannot say for sure that my Scottish visitor was a sign. However, I can testify from experience that—as seen in Acts—God faithfully guides his followers’ steps, provides for their needs, and surprises them with marvelous encounters.
For instance, two weeks after that knock on the door, the Lord brought another stranger into my life who, out of the blue, wrote a check to cover my entire tuition—for three years no less.
Soli deo gloria!
1 The sense that Paul envisioned a “certain” man from Macedonia is conveyed by the word tis is the Greek text: anēr Makedōn tis.
2 In comparison, “the man from Mount Vernon” might elicit in the minds of Americans the impression of George Washington.
3 The man in Alexander’s vision was a Jewish high priest; see Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 11.333-35 and Pseudo-Callisthenes Life of Alexander of Macedon 1:35; compare Suetonius Julius 32.
4 Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Social-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 480. For Paul, of course, the mission involved a significantly different kingdom.
5There has been a rise of biblical scholars applying these ideas to the Gospels to help us understand them better. For example, see the survey in Karl McDaniel, Experiencing Irony in the First Gospel: Suspense, Surprise, and Curiosity (LNTS; London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 1–41.
6 Literally: “obscurcissement stratégique.” Raphael Baroni, La tension narrative : suspense, curiosité et surprise (Paris: Seuil, 2007), 124.
7 Meir Sternberg, “Universals of Narratives and their Cognitivist Fortunes (I),” Poetics Today 24, no. 2 (2003): 297–395.
8 See Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Social-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 487.
9 See Robert C. Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke–Acts (vol. 2; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994), 196.