The record of Paul’s first missionary journey is found in Acts chapters 13 and 14. From it may be taken many valuable lessons for missionaries implementing the Lord’s great commission down the centuries of the Christian era until today. We shall consider some of these in this article.
After the local assembly at Antioch in Syria had commended both Barnabas and Paul to the Lord’s work, they let them go. The two missionaries went down to the Mediterranean coast at Seleucia and sailed to Salamis in Cyprus. There they preached in the Jewish synagogues before moving on to Paphos, the capital of the island, where they met the Roman proconsul, Sergius Paulus. He became a Christian after Paul had miraculously silenced an opponent of the gospel; a sorcerer named Elymas. From Paphos they sailed to Perga in Pamphylia on the south coast of modern Turkey. There, sadly, John Mark, whom they had taken with them as their servant, decided to leave them and returned home to Jerusalem. However, the other two travelled almost a hundred miles north through some rough and mountainous terrain to Antioch in Pisidia along a Roman highway called the Via Sebaste, which connected several Roman colonies inland with the coast. After experiencing some Jewish opposition at Antioch, the missionaries moved on south-eastwards some fifty miles to Iconium, and then to nearby Lystra in Lycaonia, both cities within the Roman province of Galatia. There Paul was seriously injured by opponents of the gospel, but miraculously recovered and proceeded to travel the next day to Derbe, about sixty miles to the east. There they had a better reception for their message, before deciding to retrace their steps back to the south coast at Attalia in Pamphylia. They then sailed back to Antioch in Syria.
Probably, much of their journey was travelled on foot, often using good Roman roads, but facing many dangers from natural obstacles and robbers. Paul later summarized all the dangers that they faced en route, 2 Cor. 11. 26, 27. However, for many of the longer journeys they used reliable shipping routes. They had covered several hundreds of miles altogether between AD 46 and 48. Missionaries today are often required to travel long distances in their service and to face many similar dangers, for which they need our prayers and practical fellowship.
First, Paul and Barnabas concentrated their work on recognized centres of population, often on Roman colonies, because here communications were easier, so that the gospel could be propagated more widely throughout the surrounding districts. Second, wherever there was a Jewish synagogue in the city reached, Paul went to it first and preached Christ to the worshippers there. If the local Jews rejected the message, he then turned to preach to the Gentiles, who were often more receptive. This strategy exemplified his principle explained in Romans chapter 1 that the gospel was first to the Jews, then to the Gentiles, because it came to mankind through the Jewish nation. Third, the missionaries did not outstay their welcome in any place but were prepared to move on to territory untouched by the gospel to give others an opportunity to receive the blessings of salvation. Fourth, wherever they went, they aimed to establish local assemblies, permanent testimonies to Christ, which they then nurtured through return visits or letters sent to guide and encourage the young Christians. This strategy is still a good one for servants of Christ to follow today.
In Acts chapters 13 and 14, there are recorded two typical sermons preached to the people they met: one to the Jews in a synagogue at Antioch in Pisidia and another to a Gentile audience in Lystra. They reveal very different approaches to their hearers, but for very good reasons.
First, amongst his fellow-Jews, Paul was able to assume a good knowledge of Old Testament scripture. Therefore, starting from where his hearers were in their thinking, he:
Second, among a crowd of ignorant Gentiles, the missionaries did not assume any knowledge of scripture, but only the fact of creation, and proceeded to try to persuade the crowd not to worship them, but to turn from their futile idolatry to the living God who created all things and has revealed Himself in gracious providential ways to mankind.
They did not have opportunity to present a fuller gospel than this.
Both approaches are valid and appropriate with their respective kinds of hearers and could be followed today.
Those who listened to the messages that the missionaries gave reacted in various ways, as so often happens today. Some of their hearers accepted the gospel and followed Paul and Barnabas, while others delayed a decision until another time, and many more rejected both the messages and the messengers, often threatening their lives. We may expect such reactions today and need to be prepared to face both encouragement and outright opposition and persecution.
At Antioch in Pisidia, the Gentile hearers requested that the missionaries preach the same message to them on the next sabbath day, while many of the Jews and religious proselytes were converted and followed Paul and Barnabas. However, soon after, the unbelieving Jews, motivated by envy, began to stir up opposition against the preachers, so that they were obliged to shake off the dust of the city and move on to Iconium. Here again, the gospel produced two different reactions, faith, and violent rejection, so that they had to flee the city and go on to Lystra and Derbe to avoid being stoned.
At Lystra, the idolatrous Gentiles wanted to worship the missionaries, who had a problem in restraining them from doing so. Also, soon afterwards Jews came from Antioch and Iconium to stir up trouble again, and the natives stoned Paul and left him for dead. However, he recovered miraculously, and the next day left the city for Derbe. Here the missionaries had a quieter reception and some encouragement, before retracing their steps back to the coast.
During the first century AD, much of the opposition to the gospel came from unbelieving Judaizers, but sometimes the Gentiles also reacted violently to the preachers, and nearly all the apostles eventually died martyrs’ deaths. Believers today need to be prepared to lay down their lives for the sake of the Lord Jesus. Their message is not always accepted or tolerated; usually, it is only a minority of their hearers who believe and are saved, and then go on with the Lord.
The aim of all missionary work should be the establishment of local assemblies functioning according to the scriptural pattern indicated in the New Testament. In Acts chapter 14, we find that, as the missionaries returned along the same route that they had taken on their outward journey, they stopped in every city visited to do just this. They encouraged all those who had become Christian disciples, strengthening them with helpful teaching, and exhorting them to continue in the faith.
They appointed elders in every local assembly, recognizing those who were already acting as true shepherds. They also warned them that we must expect many afflictions from unbelievers before we enter the coming kingdom of God, when Christ will rule supreme in this world. Only then will persecution of Christians finally cease. Paul, especially, knew what he was talking about in this respect.
However, the follow-up work in the region of Galatia did not end with Paul’s first journey to evangelize there. A little while later, he wrote to the Galatian assemblies a stern letter, in which he expressed his great sadness that many of the believers there had been persuaded to listen to false teachers, who denied the truth of the gospel in an important respect. The latter were saying that the Galatian saints needed to keep the law of Moses and be circumcised to complete their salvation, requiring law-keeping in addition to divine grace. This is a denial of the complete efficacy of the death of Christ for us, and always needs to be resisted and corrected. Salvation is by grace alone, by faith in Christ alone, based on His vicarious death for us alone. Other gospels are no gospel at all. Professing believers do sometimes cause such disappointments to their fathers in Christ. People, like helpless and defenceless sheep, need constant care, encouragement and guidance in right ways, a good diet of sound teaching, and protection from, and warning about, many dangers, both moral and doctrinal. The local elders, like good shepherds, should be foremost in providing this careful nurturing, although they may be helped by the other assembly members exercising their gifts and showing Christian love in practical ways as well.
Finally, when Paul and Barnabas eventually arrived back to their commending assembly in Antioch in Syria, they reported to the gathered company all that God had done with and through them during their two-year period of service. This missionary report meeting set a good precedent for many thousands of similar report meetings down the centuries of the New Testament church age. Then they stayed in their home assembly for an extended missionary furlough for about a year, exercising their ministries there again, as they had before they went abroad. There is a principle of accountability to be followed in missionary work; the commending assembly is accountable for the prayerful and practical support of the servants they sent out, while the missionaries themselves, who live ‘of the gospel’ by faith, receiving gifts from the homeland, are accountable to their commending assembly for the diligence they have exercised during their period of service abroad. This is true fellowship in the Lord’s work.
So ended the first significant missionary journey made by Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, to the surrounding foreign countries. The scriptural record provides Christians today with a helpful blueprint to follow in similar forays into foreign territory. Ever since that time, many dedicated servants of the Lord have made strenuous efforts to fulfil His great commission to His church to evangelize the whole world. Hallelujah!
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