Introduction to Paul’s First Missionary Journey
Malcolm C. Davis, Leeds, England
The risen Lord’s great commission
Soon after the Lord Jesus rose from among the dead, triumphant over all His foes, He told His disciples to go to a mountain in Galilee where He would meet them again. There He came and spoke these words to them, ‘All power [authority] is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach [make disciples of] all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world [the consummation of the age]’, Matt. 28. 18-20.
This is His great commission for world evangelism today, until He comes again for us. However, note what it involves for all Christians to obey. First, we should make disciples of all nations. This means that we should preach the gospel of God’s grace to everyone we meet, with the objective of encouraging them not only to trust Christ sincerely for salvation, but also to make a wholehearted commitment to follow Him wherever He may lead them. Second, we should baptize all such genuine converts by immersion in water in the name of the triune Godhead. This is their public confession that they have trusted the Saviour and accepted His lordship over their lives. Third, we should then go on to teach them to observe and obey all Christ’s commandments as found in scripture. Conversion and baptism are only the beginning of their Christian commitment, not the ultimate goal, which is complete surrender to the will of God and full conformity to Christ’s character. Finally, the Lord Jesus assures us that He in all His triumphant authority over all His foes is with us as we preach. He will empower and validate the message we bear to the nations. This commission has never been rescinded nor altered in any way since then, so that this task still lies before all true Christians today. Are we obeying it fully?
The widening sphere of witness
On the Mount of Olives, just before He ascended back to heaven, the Lord Jesus indicated to His apostles their future task, and the power that they would be given to carry it out, in the following words, ‘But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth’, Acts 1. 8. The promised gift of the Holy Spirit to empower them would be the means by which they carried out this awesome task, and He is still the power for witness today. Acts records the progress of the gospel from Jerusalem to Rome, the centre of civilization in the first century AD. The New Testament church, formed into one body by the indwelling Spirit at Pentecost, expanded rapidly from small beginnings in an upper room in Jerusalem, where about 120 people gathered to pray, to more than 3,000 after the Day of Pentecost, to whom were added many others daily, including 5,000 men at one time, and many of the Jewish priests. After the martyrdom of Stephen, fierce persecution against the Jerusalem church caused the majority of the Christians there to scatter throughout Judaea and Samaria, but wherever they went they preached the gospel. Philip the evangelist went to Samaria and saw many saved there; then the Lord called him to speak to an Ethiopian eunuch in the desert on his way home. The eunuch was saved and took the gospel back to his native country in Africa. The Lord was blessing His word greatly.
The unlikely apostle to the Gentiles
Acts chapter 9 records the remarkable conversion of Saul of Tarsus, who was soon to spearhead the decisive expansion of the gospel into the Roman Empire. A more unlikely person to receive this task we could hardly imagine, because at the time of his conversion on the Damascus Road he was ‘breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord’, having previously been consenting to Stephen’s execution. However, our God is the God of the impossible, and fully able to stop an ardent persecutor in his tracks and reveal Himself to him in a way that he could never forget. The Lord told Ananias, who baptized Saul, that the new convert was, ‘a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel’, adding, ‘for I will shew him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake’, Acts 9. 15, 16. Saul had been highly educated in the Jewish religion, and was a fervent Pharisee, opposed to all Gentile influences on his life; but now he began to preach Jesus Christ as the Son of God in the synagogues of Damascus. The transformation in his life had been immediate and total, truly a miracle of grace that only God can perform.
Galatians chapters 1 and 2 record the future-Apostle Paul’s own testimony concerning the gospel that he was to preach henceforth. Soon after his conversion, he went for about three years into the desert of Arabia for a time of mental and spiritual readjustment in his life, during which time he probably received further revelations from the Lord concerning the mystery of the church and associated truths which had not been revealed before the Day of Pentecost. Afterwards, he was ready to return to Damascus, and then to Jerusalem to consult with the other apostles concerning the gospel that they should all preach. They found that they were in full agreement. God’s apostle to the Gentiles was now ready to be called to his life’s main work.
Antioch becomes the centre of evangelism
After the conversion of Paul, the record in Acts gradually changes its main focus of evangelism from Jewish Jerusalem to the largely Gentile city of Antioch in Syria. In chapter 10, the Lord calls the Apostle Peter to preach in Caesarea to the Roman centurion Cornelius and his household; Gentiles are converted, and receive the Holy Spirit, just as Jews and Samaritans had done earlier. Chapter 11 sees Peter defending his mission to the Gentiles as a genuine work of God and being accepted by the majority of the Jewish believers at Jerusalem. At the end of the chapter, Barnabas seeks Paul’s help in the growing work in Antioch and they both become members of that assembly, teaching them for a whole year. It was here that the disciples were first called ‘Christians’. After further persecution by Herod, ending in the latter’s sudden death, ‘the word of God grew and multiplied’, Acts 12. 24, so that the early church was now ready for significant expansion. Who would do this?
How the Lord called Paul and Barnabas to missionary work
The Lord Jesus alone as ‘the Lord of the harvest’ has the prerogative to initiate such a call to missionary work. He usually waits until conditions for expansion are right in the home assembly before doing so. In the opening verses of Acts chapter 13, we do find that the local assembly at Antioch in Syria was in such a favourable condition. All the ministering brethren were fully engaged in exercising their gifts to the Lord and their fellow-saints and waiting upon the Lord with fasting to ascertain His will for them. God rarely calls men who are failing in their local responsibilities into His work elsewhere; normally, He chooses those who seem to be indispensable locally, brethren who are already fully engaged in His service there and in the district around them.
Then, as they were serving and praying together with due self-discipline, the call of the Holy Spirit came to them all, not just to those specially chosen. In Acts chapter 13, the call may have come through the prophets and teachers directly. Today, the call usually comes both to the person concerned and to exercised responsible brethren around them in the form of a clear conviction that the Lord desires that they send the missionary candidate to another area of the world to evangelize and establish local assemblies there. Without this clear call it is unwise for any Christian to attempt to act independently in gospel witness and travel elsewhere without commendation.
The Roman world during the so-called ‘Roman peace’ [Pax Romana] of the first century AD was ready for such missionary endeavours. There were now many good roads connecting centres of population, and there were a few common languages used throughout the Mediterranean world: Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Paul was a Roman citizen from Tarsus in Asia Minor, a Hebrew of the Hebrews, highly educated, and able to converse and write in Greek also, ideally qualified to spearhead the evangelistic enterprise before them. Barnabas was a Levite from Cyprus, who had sacrificed much to join the newly formed Church at Jerusalem and had proceeded to help with the expanding work in Gentile Antioch. It was, therefore, no great surprise that the Holy Spirit said to the gathered company in the local assembly there, ‘Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them’. The assembly proceeded to fast and pray, gave the two brethren their warmest commendation and expressions of fellowship, and sent them on their journey together. Farewell meetings are a great encouragement to the commending assembly as their sphere of outreach is expanded to other areas.
However, the commending assembly did not dictate to them exactly where they should go. Paul and Barnabas were free under the Holy Spirit’s guidance to go wherever they felt that He was leading them. They were not answerable to any missionary board, but simply reported back to the Antioch assembly after their first journey what the Lord had done with them during their service. They did not receive any stated remuneration from Antioch either, but lived ‘of the gospel’, depending on the Lord in faith that He would lead other Christians to support them in their work. Paul used his technical skills in tent-making to support his fellow-workers when he felt that this was necessary, or advisable due to local conditions, although he said in his letters to some of the assemblies planted that he actually had the right to expect material support from them in return for the spiritual help given to them. Finally, we should note that the Lord often used two or more brethren in His work overseas, not just one, so that they could support one another in a united witness to Christ.
Thus, the great task of world evangelism was begun, the initiative of the Lord Himself.