by Christopher R. Little
Not everything in our Bibles is inspired. The words certainly are, but the chapters, verses, footnotes, references, and maps are not. This is particularly true when it comes to Paul’s missionary journeys.
Not everything in our Bibles is inspired. The words certainly are, but the chapters, verses, footnotes, references, and maps are not. This is particularly true when it comes to Paul’s missionary journeys.
In fact, several New Testament scholars have spurned the idea that Paul’s career can be reduced to just three forays into unreached Gentile regions. F. F. Bruce spoke of Paul’s “early travels,” then the traditional three, and last, his “Journey to Rome” (1977, inside cover). Before Bruce, Adolf Deissmann charted seventeen “journeys of St. Paul” (1957, 159–161). More recently, Eckhard Schnabel discusses “fifteen phases or locations of Paul’s missionary work” (2008, 40).
Whereas these attempts to outline the journeys of Paul should not be discounted, it seems more helpful for pedagogical purposes to organize them into the following seven.
#1: First Missionary Journey: Damascus, Arabia, and Jerusalem (Acts 9:3–30; 26:20; Gal. 1:17–19; 2 Cor. 11:32–33)
Saul the Pharisee encountered the risen Christ on the road to Damascus and was both converted and called as “a chosen instrument . . . to bear [Jesus’] name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel” (Acts 9:15).
Like most recent converts, Paul did not keep silent about his newfound faith, and while in Damascus “immediately . . . began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God’” (Acts 9:20). He then went to Arabia not to hibernate in a cave somewhere to contemplate his faith, but to evangelize many cities of the Nabatean kingdom, including presumably Petra in present-day Jordan (cf. Schnabel 2008, 63–64).
Thereafter, he returned to Damascus (cf. Gal. 1:17), and because he created such a stir in making “disciples” (Acts 9:25), King Aretas tried to seize him (cf. 2 Cor. 11:32) while “the Jews plotted to kill him” (Acts 9:23). Yet he was able to flee to Jerusalem, where he interacted with the Apostles Peter and James (cf. Gal. 1:18–19) and continued “speaking out boldly in the name of the Lord” (Acts 9:28). But again, the Jews rose up “to put him to death” (9:27), so the brethren in Jerusalem “brought him down to Caesarea and sent him away to Tarsus” (9:30).
#2. Second Missionary Journey: Tarsus, Syria, and Cilicia (Acts 9:30; Gal. 1:21)
This stage of activity is a blind spot in most depictions of Paul. Yet Martin Hengel and Anna Schwemer, in their work Paul Between Damascus and Antioch (1997), present a treasure trove of information regarding what Paul was up to during this stage in his life.
Apparently, young Saul was taken from his city of birth by his father at an early age to Jerusalem to study under the famous Rabbi Gamaliel (cf. Ac. 22:3; cf. Van Unnik 1973, 295–296). His return to Tarsus during this time of need demonstrates that he maintained close connections to the city. The best estimation is that he spent at least ten years in Tarsus (cf. Schnabel 2008, 67).
What was he doing all this time? Since he later visited Cilicia after the Jerusalem council, the province in which Tarsus resided, to strengthen “churches” (Acts 15:41), it is fairly clear that he was doing what we normally associate with Paul—proclaiming the gospel and making disciples (cf. Martin and Schwemer 1997, 151ff). But that was not all. He no doubt took advantage of his lengthy stay to acquire a more thorough knowledge of “Hellenistic culture in all its forms” (Van Unnik 1973, 305–306) in order to be better equipped to impact the Roman world.
#3. Third Missionary Journey: Cyprus and Asia Minor (Acts 13:1–14:28)
This is traditionally Paul’s first journey, but in this taxonomy becomes the third. It was at this time he was accompanied by Barnabas after being sent out by the church in Syrian Antioch. Contrary to popular opinion, however, it wasn’t this church that supported Paul and Barnabas on this trip. Rather, they supported themselves, presumably through leatherworking (cf. Acts 18:3; 1 Cor. 9:6–18).
#4. Fourth Missionary Journey: Asia Minor, Macedonia, and Achaia (Acts 15:36–18:22)
This is commonly known as the second journey, but here is the fourth. It is interesting to note that Paul misunderstood the Spirit’s leading on two separate occasions while on this journey: first, when he attempted to go into Asia (cf. Acts 16:6); and second when he tried to enter Bithynia (cf. Acts 16:7). What this indicates, among other things, is that the suggestion that Luke is presently hagiography in Acts is unfounded.
#5. Fifth Missionary Journey: Asia Minor, Macedonia, Achaia, and Palestine (Acts 18:23– 21:17)
This fifth journey is arguably the most fruitful of all Paul’s journeys. This is when he established a training institute at the school of Tyrannus in Ephesus (cf. Acts 19:9). Since there is no evidence that Paul visited any of the cities which are mentioned in Revelation 2 and 3, one can reasonably conclude that the disciples he trained during the two years at this school were the ones who planted the churches in these areas. Their ministries were so successful that Luke could write, “all who lived in Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks” (Acts 19:10).
#6. Sixth Missionary Journey: Jerusalem, Caesarea, Malta, and Rome (Acts 21:27–28:31)
This journey was inspired by Old Testament prophecy. Paul’s Jewish eschatology taught him to expect the day when God’s people from among the nations would make pilgrimage to Jerusalem to offer their gifts to the Messiah on Mount Zion (cf. Pss. 68; 72; Isa. 60; 66).
From a Christological point of view, he reinterpreted this event and applied it to his life’s work. This is the fundamental motive for taking up a collection from among the Gentile churches he planted and bringing it, along with a contingent of converted Gentiles (cf. Acts 20:4), to Jerusalem (cf. 1 Cor. 16:1–4; 2 Cor. 8–9).
Beyond expressing Gentile indebtedness for having received the gospel from the Jews (cf. Rom. 15:27), he was attempting to fulfill prophecy and in doing so provoke the Jews to jealousy whereby they would be saved (cf. Little 2005, 162–168). But because Paul was seized in the temple (cf. Acts 21:27ff), his hope for the conversion of Israel did not materialize at that time.
In captivity, he eventually appealed to Caesar and was sent to Rome on a cargo ship (cf. Acts 25:11; 27:1–2). In the providence of God, Paul was shipwrecked on the island of Malta whereby the local people were touched by the healing power and message of Jesus Christ (cf. Acts 28:7–10).
#7. Seventh Missionary Journey: Spain, Crete, Asia Minor, and Macedonia (Rom. 15:24, 28; 1 Clem. 5:7; 1 Tim. 1:3; 2 Tim. 4:11–21; Tit. 1:5; 3:12).
This journey is based upon the second Roman imprisonment theory (cf. Schnabel 2008, 115–121), which deduces from the available evidence that Paul was released from his first imprisonment in Rome and thereafter traveled to Spain in fulfillment of his long-held desire to do so (cf. Rom. 15:24, 28). That he did in fact arrive in Spain is confirmed by Clement of Rome, who reported that he “reached the farthest limits of the West” (1 Clement 5:7).
Paul then departed Spain, probably passed through North Africa (see below), on his way to Crete where he left Titus (cf. Tit. 1:5), and then traveled north through Miletus to visit Timothy in Ephesus (cf. 1 Tim. 1:3; 2 Tim. 4:20). Last, he passed through Troas on his way to Nicopolis, where most likely he was captured (cf. 2 Tim. 4:13; Tit. 3:12), taken to Rome, and beheaded sometime during the Neronian persecution from AD 64 to 68 (cf. Guthrie 1990, 624).
Everything in scripture “was written in earlier times . . . for our instruction” (Rom. 15:4; cf. 1 Cor. 10:11). This is the case with Paul’s journeys as well, since upon closer examination they reveal insights, themes, and principles which are highly instructive for those who follow in his footsteps to proclaim Christ among the nations. There is only space to comment on the following seven points.
1. Motivated by mission. From the time he encountered the risen Lord Jesus to his martyrdom, Paul was on mission for the sake of the lost. In fact, he considered himself “under obligation” or “a debtor” to those without knowledge of Christ (Rom. 1:14).
But in what sense was he indebted to them? Probably in the sense that he had the solution to their greatest problem—namely, eternal condemnation before God. As such, he felt constrained to proclaim the gospel “to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in [Christ]” (Acts 26:18).
In addition, Paul was the first apostle to take the Great Commission seriously as he was the first person recorded in the Book of Acts to witness to Gentiles apart from the synagogue (cf. Glasser 2003, 290–291). While on the island of Paphos, he shared the gospel with the Roman proconsul, Sergius Paulus, and he believed (cf. Acts 13:7, 12). The conclusion that one can draw from this is that there is no better lens with which to read and interpret Paul then through mission.
2. Driven by doxology. Paul was theocentric, rather than anthropocentric, in outlook. There is no question that he labored sacrificially to reconcile people to God (cf. 2 Cor. 5:18–20), but this was only his penultimate goal.
His ultimate aim was that “the grace which is spreading to more and more people may cause the giving of thanks to abound to the glory of God” (2 Cor. 4:15). This indicates that saving human beings for Paul was the means by which they would come “to glorify God for His mercy” in Christ (Rom. 15:9). At a time in human history when most everything revolves around the rights, needs, and aspirations of humanity, Paul’s perspective is a welcomed corrective.
3. Method to his madness. Many students of Paul conclude that there was no rhyme or reason to his missionary journeys. This is far from the truth. Paul’s Bible was the Old Testament and he turned to it for guidance in everything he did (cf. 1 Cor. 4:6).
As a case in point, his understanding of the distribution of nations would have come directly from the Table of Nations in Genesis 10 and 11. These chapters taught that the sons of Shem populated the regions in Asia and Arabia, the sons of Japheth those in Asia Minor and Europe, and the sons of Ham mainly in North Africa (see map).
In relation to this, Paul intimates his overall orientation in mission when he states “from Jerusalem and round about as far as Illyricum I have fully preached the gospel of Christ” (Rom. 15:19). The Greek word for “round about” (i.e., κύκλῳ) carries the idea of a “completion of a circuit” and therefore is “describing a circle” (Danker, et. al. 2000, 574). The use of this word evidently “reflects Paul’s hope and expectation of making a complete circuit of the nations, both north and south of the [Mediterranean] Sea, planting the gospel where it had not been planted” (Knox 1964, 11).
Some scholars also believe that Paul was influenced by Isaiah 66:19, since the nations mentioned in this verse include “representatives from all three sons of Noah” (Scott 1995, 146).
Thus, his strategy was to first concentrate on the sons of Shem during his first and second journeys, the sons of Japheth from his third to sixth journeys, then on his seventh journey to go to the end of the earth, which according to Jewish reckoning was Spain, and then swing back and preach the gospel to the sons of Ham in North Africa (note “Put” in Isa. 66:19 is identified with Libya) on his way to Jerusalem in order to complete this circle.
There is no extant evidence to prove or disprove the idea that Paul preached the gospel in North Africa where synagogues were known to have existed (cf. Hultgren 1985, 132–133), but he and Titus clearly would been able to reach the sons of Ham who resided in Crete (see map).
What this means is that Paul knew exactly what he was doing and why he was doing it. He was trying to gather believers in the Jewish Messiah from all the known nations of his day in fulfillment of the Great Commission. Our current understanding of the distribution of the nations has only improved, but the task has not changed and Paul’s example continues to challenge the Church to spare no effort in reaching “all the nations” today (Matt. 28:19; Mark 13:10; Luke 24:47; Rom. 1:5; 2 Tim. 4:17).
4. Masterful use of money. Paul has been described as “the most effective cross-cultural missionary the church has ever seen” (Gilliland 1983, 261). One notable aspect of his methodology was that throughout his journeys: (1) he gave no financial incentives to either convert to or serve Christ; (2) he never transferred funds from churches in one area to pay for the ministries of churches in another; and (3) he expected churches to step out in mission using their own resources (cf. Acts 19:9–10; 20:33–35; Rom. 1:8; 16:19; 1 Thess. 1:6–8). In doing so, he sparked a church-planting movement which literally turned his “world upside down” (Acts 17:6).
Given the unfortunate consequences related to the ongoing foreign subsidy of indigenous Christian movements, there “is no greater need on the mission field today than for just the kind of work Paul did” (Speer 1902, 268) and if Paul “were among us today there is no question . . . he would expect new churches to provide the financial basis for their own lives” (Gilliland 1983, 255).
5. Considerate of culture. Paul is well known for becoming a Jew to win Jews and a Gentile to win Gentiles (cf. 1 Cor. 9:20–21), but what is often overlooked is that although being a Jew came naturally to him, being a Gentile did not. He had to take the time necessary to acquire in-depth knowledge of the Greco-Roman world to be competent in reaching Greeks.
As mentioned previously, this is what he was doing during a full decade in Tarsus while on his second missionary journey. Accordingly, Paul took cross-cultural preparation for mission very seriously. At a time in which short-term missions has become common place, and in some quarters center stage, Paul’s approach is a needed reminder that gaining cultural intelligence is a prerequisite to mission.
6. Committed to contextualization within limits. At a minimum, three principles guided Paul’s efforts at contextualization. First, he recognized that people from different cultural backgrounds require “different starting points” as seen in how he approached Jewish audiences in contrast to pagan ones in Acts (cf. 13:16–41; 14:15–17; 17:22–31).
Second, he felt free to use whatever material available to him, whether the Jewish scriptures, Greek poets, or the ideas of philosophical ethicists, in order to communicate effectively (cf. Acts 13:33–41; 17:24–29; Tit. 1:12). Last, although Paul was “audience-sensitive,’ he was not “audience-driven” (Flemming 2005, 84, 116, 134). Hence, Paul’s approach reveals that although culture serves as a conduit of divine revelation, it is never a neutral one unaffected by sin.
Furthermore, being well acquainted with the Greco-Roman culture of his day, Paul would have known about the heated debate between the Sophists and Cynics. The former argued that charging for instruction was necessary in order to preserve its value, whereas the later maintained it compromised the integrity of the instructor.
Paul opted for the Cynic view and decided to work for a living rather than receive payment in an effort to maintain his independence from the patron-client obligations of his day (cf. Little 2005, 33ff). This means that Paul operated within an ethical framework which did not permit him to accommodate himself to the society in which he served, even if it meant he would be misunderstood.
7. Prioritization in mission. Did Paul have priorities in mission? His own words point to the answer: “I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, so that I may finish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24); “Christ [sent] . . . me . . . to preach the gospel” (1 Cor. 1:17); and “I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some” (1 Cor. 9:22).
He also passed this priority onto others: “Brethren, join in following my example” (Phil. 4:9); “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2); and “As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace” (Eph. 6:15; cf. Phil. 2:16).
What is remarkable to contemplate is that there is no discernible, organized effort by Paul to attempt to resolve the socio-economic, political injustices throughout the Roman Empire, of which there were many. Paul did of course have something to say regarding slavery. He maintained that the Christian slave of a Christian master was now his “beloved brother” (Philemon 16) and thereby laid the foundation for overturning the entire institution.
As such, he showed that the gospel must first take root before the fruit of social transformation can appear—that is, the means to the end of transforming society is transforming the human heart.
But Paul’s methodology addresses another crucial aspect to mission which must not be overlooked. There is an injustice confronting humanity from the first to the twenty-first century which far outweighs any other type of injustice. It is the injustice of unequal access to the gospel among those who are lost. In a day in which holism has become the accepted pattern for mission to the point that some are questioning whether evangelicalism can “avoid the drift toward a social gospel” (Moreau 2012, 318), the Pauline paradigm stands as an indispensable reminder to keep evangelism primary, central, or as Lausanne’s Cape Town Commitment puts it, “paramount” (Part II, IIA, 1), in the mission of the church.
The better we understand Paul and the way he pursued mission, the better we understand God’s mission for us today and how to pursue it as well. In other words, the Church gets a clearer picture of God’s mission to the extent it more clearly beholds Paul. To this end, may there be greater effort given to examining, learning from, and applying the principles of Paul in mission for the benefit of God’s glory among the nations.
Bruce, F. F. 1977. Paul, the Apostle of the Heart Set Free. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Danker, Frederick, et. al. 2000. A Greek Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature Third Edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Deissmann, Adolf. 1957. Paul–A Study in Social and Religious History. New York: Harper & Brothers.
Easley, Kendell. 2005. The Illustrated Guide to Biblical History. Nashville, Tenn.: Holman Bible Publishers.
Flemming, Dean. 2005. Contextualization in the New Testament: Patterns for Theology and Mission. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP.
Gilliland, Dean. 1983. Pauline Theology and Mission Practice. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker.
Glasser, Arthur. 2003. Announcing the Kingdom: The Story of God’s Mission in the Bible. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker.
Guthrie, Donald. 1990. New Testament Introduction. Rev. ed. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP.
Hengel, Martin and Anna Schwemer. 1997. Paul, Between Damascus and Antioch: The Unknown Years. Louisville, Ken.: Westminster John Knox Press.
Hultgren, Arland. 1985. Paul’s Gospel and Mission. Philadelphia, Pa.: Fortress.
Knox, John. 1964. “Romans 15:14–33 and Paul’s Conception of His Apostolic Mission.” Journal of Biblical Literature 83:1–11.
Little, Christopher. 2005. Mission in the Way of Paul: Biblical Mission for the Church in the Twenty-First Century. Germany: Peter Lang.
Martin, Hengel and Anna Schwemer. 1997. Paul Between Damascus and Antioch: The Unknown Years. Louisville, Ken.: Westminster John Knox Press.
Moreau, A. Scott. 2012. Contextualization in World Missions: Mapping and Assessing Evangelical Models. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel.
Schnabel, Eckhard. 2008. Paul the Missionary: Realities, Strategies, and Methods. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP.
Scott, James. 1995. Paul and the Nations. Germany: J. C. B. Mohr.
Speer, Robert. 1902. Missionary Principles and Practice. New York: Fleming H. Revell Company.
Van Unnik, W. C. 1973. Sparsa Collecta: The Collected Essays of W. C. Van Unnik. Part One. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill. (Easley 2005, 6)
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Christopher R. Little, PhD, has promoted God’s mission in diverse cultural and educational contexts over the past three decades and is the author of Mission in the Way of Paul and Polemic Missiology for the 21st Century, as well as numerous articles on missions.