Any discussion of mission work in the early church after Pentecost must necessarily include some reference to the apostle Paul.
Concerning his early youth he tells us, “I verily am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, (a citizen of no mean city), but brought up in this city (Jerusalem) at the feet of Gamaliel, circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee.” Acts 22:3; Phil. 3:5.
Saul’s parents belonged to the Jews of the dispersion, so that he had personal and intimate acquaintance with the gentiles. His father had obtained the rights of a Roman citizen, so that Paul was a free-born citizen, which was later to his advantage. Even though Saul was brought up in a. gentile environment, his parents were Jews according to all the traditions of the elders. They taught their son the trade of tent making, but they also sent him to Jerusalem to be taught “according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers.” Acts 22:3. He was an outstanding student of the law, superior to his fellow-students, because of his great zeal for the traditions of the past. Gal. 1:14. He also proudly maintained those traditions, living after the strictest sect of the Pharisees, and could boast that he was blameless as touching the righteousness which is in the law. Acts 26:4-6; Phil. 3:6. He was present at the stoning of Stephen, not as a mere by-stander, but as one who understood all that Stephen believed, and therefore was “consenting unto his death.” Acts 7:58, 8:1. The martyrdom of Stephen became the occasion for a widespread persecution of the church, in which Saul took a very active part, always “kicking against the pricks,” as he tried to convince himself that he was doing God an honor. Zeal can be very wrong when its motive is wrong, as the apostle humbly confessed later. Willful ignorance of the truth of the Scriptures and proud unbelief made him “think verily within himself that he ought to do many things against the name of Jesus of Nazareth.” Acts 26:9. With remorseful allusions to the past Paul refers to himself as a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious,” and therefore always considered himself as “the least of the apostles, and not worthy to be an apostle, “because I persecuted the church of God.” I Tim. 1:13; I Cor. 15:9.
In Acts 9 we are told of Saul’s conversion and call to the apostleship. While on his way to Damascus, “still breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of Jesus,” the Lord appeared to him. But let the apostle tell it in his own words, as he told it to Agrippa, “At midday, O king, I saw in the way a light from heaven, above the brightness of the sun, shining round about me and them which journeyed with me. And when we were fallen to the earth, I heard a voice speaking unto me, and saying in the Hebrew tongue, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. And I said, Who art thou, Lord? And he said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest. But rise, and stand upon thy feet: for I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness both of these things which thou hast seen, and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee; delivering thee from the people, and from the gentiles, unto whom now I send thee, to open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto ,God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me.” Acts 26:13-18.
After spending some time in Arabia where he received instruction through visions and revelations from the Lord, Saul returned to Tarsus to await the call of Christ to enter into his ministry. By this time he had acquired the threefold requisite of the apostleship: He had seen the risen Lord; he had been personally called of Christ to witness in His name; and he had received the Holy Spirit to speak and write the infallible Word of God. The Lord did not keep Saul waiting very long, for soon Barnabas came from Antioch to seek his assistance in the work that was being carried on there.
Antioch in Syria was the third largest city of the, Roman empire with about a half million inhabitants. A large congregation arose there consisting of both Jews and gentiles. This church God chose as the new center for mission labors. To this church came the mandate from the Holy Spirit, “Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them.”Acts 13:2. The church immediately responded by ordaining these men with the laying on of hands, and sent them forth in the ministry of Christ.
Thus Barnabas and Saul start out on what is known as Paul’s first missionary journey. They were accompanied by John Mark, but before long he turned back, possibly because of the bitter opposition that they met. Although it is impossible to enter into all the details of this first journey, there are certain things that should be noted. One soon notices that at the outset Barnabas is mentioned first, but soon Saul becomes the main speaker and Barnabas falls in the background. God used Barnabas to introduce Paul into the work, even to the extent that they began their labors on the island where Barnabas was acquainted, since it had been his former home. But Paul is the apostle, and Barnabas proves to be his able assistant. It is also evident that the apostle changed his Hebrew name Saul into Paul, the Greek form, since he will be laboring mainly among the gentiles who spoke the Greek. And then it also strikes our attention that Paul and Barnabas begin with the Jews. They enter, wherever possible, the Jewish synagogue first. After the Jews have taken their stand for or against the gospel of Jesus Christ, Paul feels justified to turn to the gentiles. This practice was followed throughout his ministry. From Cyprus Paul and Barnabas proceed to the mainland of Asia Minor, beginning in the center of that area. They go from Perga to Antioch of Pisidia, and from there to Lystra and Derbe, establishing churches as they go. When the opposition became too severe for profitable labor in a certain place they moved on to another city. The churches that were organized very likely very small at the outset, and the opposition from Jew and Gentile was very bitter, yet Paul carried on with the confidence that “as many as were ordained to eternal life believed.” Acts 13:48. He knew that not man, but Christ gathers His church by His Word and Spirit. It was Paul’s privilege to be Christ’s instrument in the work. John 10:16; Acts 2:47. After spending a short time in the area of Lystra and Derbe, and experiencing for the first time an attempt to take his life, the apostle retraced his steps to Antioch of Pisidia, and then on to Perga and Attalia, to return to report on their labors to the calling church at Antioch of Syria.
Paul’s second missionary journey is often considered the most important of all from the point of view of the new field that was reached. Barnabas did not accompany him on this journey, because of a disagreement about John Mark. Paul did not want to take John Mark with them, evidently because he had faltered on the first journey. Barnabas insisted on taking him along. And so the ways of those two men parted. Barnabas carried on the work by going with John Mark to the island of Cyprus. Paul took Silas, also referred to as Silvanus, with him to visit the churches that had been established in Asia Minor. At a later date John Mark did join Paul in the labors, since the apostle writes concerning him, that he is “profitable to me for the ministry.” II Tim. 4:11. After visiting and strengthening the churches that had already been established, Paul had intended to continue his labors in a broader area of Asia Minor. But wherever he went he was prevented from laboring there by the Holy Spirit. Christ had something else in mind for the apostle, but did not immediately reveal that to him. Evidently Paul had to learn to trust the guidance of Christ in all his labors. Thus the apostle found himself at Troas, the far extremity in the northwest of Asia Minor, as it were, without a field of labor. There he received the vision of the Macedonian man, saying, “Come over and help us.”
I must pause here a moment to point out that Timothy had joined Paul and Silas already at Lystra. This spiritual son of the apostle proved to be a faithful servant in the ministry for many years. Luke also joined Paul and his companions at Troas. It is always interesting when reading the Book of Acts to notice how Luke makes his presence known by that significant “we.” As the author of the book he can show that he joined the company of the apostle by inserting that “we,” and dropping it again when his other duties call him away. Acts 16:10-13; Acts 20:5, 6; Acts 27:1.
In Macedonia Paul labored mainly in Philippi and Thessalonica. This was the first mission work on the mainland of Europe. At Philippi, as you know, Paul saw positive fruit on his labors in the conversion particularly of Lydia and of the jailer. In both Philippi and Thessalonica churches were established. From there Paul was forced by opposition to go to Berea, from Berea to Athens; and from Athens he went to Corinth, where he spent a year and half in intensive labor. At one time when his courage faltered, the Lord encouraged him to remain there because He had many elect that had to be gathered in. Acts 18:10. Making a short stop at, Ephesus with the promise to return, if the Lord willed, the apostle hastened to Caesarea and thence to Antioch, the calling church.
Paul’s third journey covered approximately the same area as the second, except that he went almost directly to Ephesus, as he had promised. He spent three years there, “serving the Lord with all humility of mind, and with many tears, and temptations which befell me by the lying in wait of the Jews,” and “have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God.” Acts 20:19, 27. It was evidently during his stay at Ephesus that the churches mentioned in Revelation 2 and Revelation 3 were organized, referred to often as the seven churches of Asia Minor. During this time he also wrote his epistle to the Galatians and the first epistle to the Corinthians, bearing upon his heart “the care of all the churches.” II Cor. 11:28. From Ephesus Paul went into Macedonia, and even down into Corinth, where he spent the winter. On these visits he was collecting gifts for the needy in Jerusalem, and he also found time to write his epistle to the Romans and Second Corinthians. It was as he was returning that the Holy Spirit-informed him that suffering and bonds awaited him at Jerusalem. Therefore his visits became a final farewell which was indeed difficult, but the apostle was ready not only to suffer imprisonment, but also to die for the faith of the gospel.
Even during his imprisonment in Jerusalem and Caesarea, during his voyage and shipwreck, and during his stay in Rome as a prisoner for the gospel, the apostle did not cease to preach and to write concerning the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ entrusted to him.
A few concluding remarks:
We have been able to touch only briefly on the vast amount of work that was accomplished in a few short years. The Book of Acts tells us far more that can be read with the keenest interest.
Paul had learned, as he also taught the churches, that “through much suffering we must enter into the kingdom.” His main opposition came from his own kinsmen according to the flesh, and yet there was far more that he suffered for the faith. As he tells it: “Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness. II Cor. 11:24-27.
But what a change was wrought through his ministry by the Lord. Churches were organized, elders and deacons ordained, believers were strengthened in the faith. The small mustard seed of the upper room at Pentecost had grown into a large tree. And that by the power of Christ Who gathers His church by His Word and Spirit.