Understanding Paul the Missionary (part three)

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The Purpose for Which the Clay was Shaped: God’s Glory Among the Nations

Just as God shaped all of time, raises up kingdoms and brings them down, so God shaped Paul for His sovereign purposes. Paul was called and especially equipped to be a light in the dark places of the earth (Acts 9:15; cf. 13:46; 18:6; 22:17-21; 26:17-18; 28:28). Even in the beginning God calls Paul His “chosen instrument” (Acts 9:15). Paul indeed was an instrument shaped by his Maker to carry His message to the nations. And Paul would be happy to spend and be spent for souls (2 Cor. 2:15).[1]

We see that in the OT, God showed Himself to be a missionary God first by calling Abraham. Then God proceeded to say that all the nations shall be blessed (Gen. 12:3). Though Israel has more of an attraction based task than the NT’s commission to “go,” there was still an eschatological expectation of a gathering of the nations to worship the LORD in the OT.[2] Israel was to be a literal shining city on the hill (Jerusalem) to attract the nations to the glory of the one true God, Yahweh. At times Israel had success by God’s grace, but overall they failed. And instead Israel became a “proverb and byword among all people” (Deut. 28:37; 1 Kings 9:7; 2 Chron. 7:20; Jer. 24:9) in a reversal of their calling. Israel left their missionary calling of demonstrating the lordship of Yahweh so Yahweh left them to their own devices (2 Chron. 12:5; 24:20).

From the beginning of part one of Luke’s writing, i.e. the Gospel of Luke,[3] to the end of part two, i.e. Acts, there is a theme of good news to the nations (Acts 28:31). Or to rephrase that, there is an emphasis on the fact that through an offspring (Gal. 3:16 cf. Gen. 12:3; 18:18; 22:18; 26:4) of Abraham all the nations of the earth would be blessed. Paul saw this connection and thus in his characteristic way was zealous to proclaim the One through whom all nations would be blessed; namely, Jesus the Christ.[4] This, indeed, was “the heartbeat of Paul’s mission.”[5]

If we are to grasp Paul’s mission adequately we must understand that “he believed that the promises given to Abraham came to fruition in Christ.”[6] So, I think Paul was zealous to go to the nations because Jesus’ command was related to him and because he realized that is how the nations would be blessed and the Kingdom of God would expand.[7] I think when Paul came into contact with the resurrected Jesus of Nazareth his theology was eclipsed, it underwent a massive shift, yet once he had been given the Luke 24 lens he could see very clearly.

“Jesus Christ’s resurrection,” for Paul, “represents the hinge of history.”[8] In Jewish thought resurrection is the precursor of the age to come. “Hence, Jesus’ resurrection signaled that the new age has come. God’s saving promises are being realized.”[9] So we see that it is right to say that “Paul’s theology drove his mission.”[10]


 [1]Hengel points out that many “God-fearers” had a concern for the gathering of God’s people in the name of the Messiah “in whom the prophet’s prophecies had been fulfilled. Part of this fulfillment was the nations’ conversion to the one true God. This conviction must have been particularly strong in Paul, the former zealot for the law, who had received this revolutionary insight in his Christ-encounter in Damascus, that now, with the beginning of the new era, only the crucified and risen Messiah Jesus of Nazareth, rather than the fulfillment of Torah’s commandments, was the true path of salvation” (“Paul in Arabia,” 56).

[2]cf. Gen. 12:3; 18:18; 22:18; 26:4; Ex. 7:5; 9:16; 12:38, 48; 14:4, 18; 15:14-16; 22:21; 1 Kings 10; 2 Chron. 6:32-33; 9:8; 20:29; Pss. 22:27; 47:1, 9; 67:1-7; 72:17; 96:1-3; Esther 8:17b; 9:1b-2ff; Is. 2:1-4; 19:16-25; 45:22-25; 49:6-7; 52:15; 55:3-5; 56:8; 66:18-19; Amos 9:11-12; Jonah 4:11; Zeph. 3:9-10. For an overview see Andreas J. Kösterberger and Peter T. O’Brien, Salvation to the Ends of the Earth: A Biblical Theology of Mission (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 25-71.

[3]Luke 2:10, 31-32 cf. Is. 42:6; 49:6 see Schreiner, The King in His Beauty: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids: Baker Academics, 2013), 493. I. Howard Marshall rightly says, “Whatever else it is, the book of Acts is a book about mission” (“Luke’s portrait of the Pauline mission” in The Gospel to the Nation: Perspectives on Paul’s Mission, 99 cf. William J. Larkin Jr. “Missions in Acts” in Mission in the New Testament, 171), specifically, I would argue, Paul’s mission since he is the main actor in the book. In I. Howard Marshall’s commentary on Acts he says, “Acts is a book about mission. It is not unfair to take 1:8 as a summary of its contents” (Acts in Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 25). I would say then that Paul is Luke’s “star witness.” Paul is also the one that seeks to go “to the ends of the earth.” Polhill points out that “The geographical scope of Acts 1:8 provides a rough outline of the entire book: Jerusalem (1-7), Judea and Samaria (8-12), the ends of the earth (13-28)” (Acts, ­85-86).

[4]The Letter of Aristeas helps us to see the great change that Paul undertook in reaching out to Gentiles. “God for the knowledge of universal truths, surrounded us with unbroken palisades and iron walls to prevent our mixing with any of the other peoples in any matter, being thus kept pure in body and soul, preserved from false beliefs, and worshiping the only God omnipotent over all creation” (v. 139).

[5]Schreiner, New Testament Theology, 307.

[6]Schreiner, Paul, 73.

[7]So I. Howard Marshal says in “Luke’s portrait of the Pauline mission” that “There is a case (based to some extent on a specific interpretation of 2 Thess. 2:6-8) that Paul saw himself as entrusted with at least part of the major task of proclaiming the gospel to all nations as the necessary condition for the parousia of the Lord Jesus” (The Gospel to the Nations, 104). I think it is also significant that the Spirit comes as promised (Is. 11:1–10; 32:14–18; 42:1–4; 44:1–5; Jer. 31:31–34; Ezek. 11:17–20; 36:24–27; 37:1–14; Joel 2:28–32) in Acts (ch. 2) and thus points to the ingathering of the nations.

[8] Schreiner, New Testament Theology, 292 see also 853.

[9] Ibid. See also end note 1.

[10] Ibid., 724.