Understanding Paul the Missionary (part four)

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The Mission and Marrow of this Chosen Instrument: Six Elements of Paul’s Mission

Paul had a long pedigree (Acts 26:5; Phil. 3:4-6). He was sovereignly prepared, primed, and picked for God’s saving purposes. However, how were those saving purposes to be worked out; what was Paul to do to reach the nations?

There is a lot of focus on the need to take the message of Christ to the nations in the book of Acts (cf. Acts 10:1-11:18; 13:2-3; 14:27; 16:9-10) and Paul is one of the answers to that great need. What we will see below is just a few themes that were present in Paul’s mission as given to us by Luke. There are, of course, more than six things that we could look at in Paul’s theology of mission.[1] Yet, we must limit our scope to six elements for the sake of space constraints.

The lordship of God is seen throughout the book of Acts over and over again. God is clearly sovereign in the unfolding of events and the spread of the church. We saw this in Paul’s conversion and we see this in many other things as well. Even the fact that Rome was the ruling power was orchestrated. John Polhill says that “In many… ways the Roman rule made Paul’s missionary travels possible.”[2] Whether Paul was in custody on a ship or walking thousands of miles on a road, Roman rule made it possible by God’s foreordination.

Proclamation and Proving

In the book of Acts we see Paul proving that Jesus is the Christ.[3]  Paul preached Jesus as the Christ from the OT Scriptures, but he was not the only one that saw this as integral to the mission task. This is really a theme throughout the book of Acts and not just by Paul (cf. Peter in chs. 2, 3, 4, 5, 10; Stephen in ch. 7; Philip in 8:35; Priscilla and Aquila 18:26; Apollos 18:28). Paul, as we have said, went about preaching and proving from Scripture that Jesus was indeed the Christ. This theme is rooted in Luke’s Gospel (cf. 18:31-34; 20:41-44; 22:37; 24:25-27, 45ff). Actually, even in the beginning of Luke we see that he has done his research and is now presenting an “orderly account” to Theophilus (Luke 1:1-4) to essentially prove that Jesus is the Promised One.  Luke wrote so that Theophilus would have certainty concerning the things he had been taught” (v.4). Luke’s “orderly account” clearly shows that Jesus is the Promised One, from the beginning (e.g. Luke 1:32-33), to the end (Acts 28:31).  

Paul’s, as all missionary’s, primary call is to tell the world about God’s saving work in Christ (notice the emphasis on the Church growing in proportion to the Word in Acts 6:7; 9:31; 12:24; 13:49; 16:5; 17:11-12; 19:20). This includes declaring that Jesus is the Christ (2:32; 3:15; 4:2, 33; 5:32, 42; 10:41; 13:34), the Kingdom of God (8:12; 20:25; 28:31), and forgiveness of sins (10:43; 13:38; 28:31).[4] However, this is not to say that Paul’s evangelistic presentation was wooden or fixed to some sort of formula that included a measured mixture of these three. Instead Paul’s message was dynamic in its pastoral sensitivity yet unchanging in its commitment to the truth of the gospel. Paul had a genuine love for the lost and so he set out to reach them where they were.[5] Not surprisingly, because of the tumultuous context and content of the message we see a theme of bold preaching in the book of Acts.[6]

Key Evangelistic Encounters

All over Acts we see that the Church grows at God’s prerogative; not Paul’s, not Peter’s. Paul is almost literally swept off of his feet and carried away to where the Lord would have him go (Acts 16:6-10; and in Acts 23 we see that Paul was literally carried away on horseback to preach the gospel elsewhere, which he did 24:22-25). God takes him to all sorts of strategic evangelistic encounters; from rulers (e.g. Felix in Acts 24; the Sanhedrin in Acts 23) to rabble (Act 17:22ff), from Jews (cf. Acts 13:13ff) to far out Gentiles (Paul at Malta in Acts 28). All along the way God established intentional people that would be open to the gospel (the Philippian Jailer and Lydia in Acts 16, for instance) and continue his task of sharing the gospel.

Appointed to Suffer for His Savior

Suffering is a very large theme in Paul and indeed in the book of Acts.[7] In Paul’s call was a call to suffer. Paul had an eschatologically informed theology of suffering that met heads on a practice of suffering.[8] It was certainly true that Paul expanded God’s kingdom through surrender and sacrifice. As a dandelion matures it sheds its bright yellow peddles and in exchange receives seed in their place. As the plant continues to mature until death, it loses more and more of itself. But it is by the dandelions death that many other dandelions are brought to life.  As with a dandelion, the more we die and give ourselves away the more life will come. (cf. Jn. 12:24; Gal. 6:8). “For we who live are always given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in [others]” (2 Cor. 4:11-12).

Paul said, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col. 1:24). What does Paul mean by “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions?” Paul is referring to afflictions that he received as Christ’s messenger. He is not saying that Christ’s work on the cross did not fully succeed at bringing redemption to whosoever will believe but that him taking the message and receiving the afflictions demonstrates to a new audience God’s sacrificial love. 

Thomas R. Schreiner in his insightful book, Paul Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ, helps us on this point:

What was lacking in Christ’s afflictions is that the benefit of those afflictions had not yet been proclaimed among the Gentiles… And like Christ, Paul heralds a message advanced in and through his suffering… Paul’s sufferings mirror and reflect what Christ has done, so that the messenger in this sense replicates the life of the one proclaimed.[9]

This is not surprising when you remember that Jesus, Himself, called His disciples to renounce all they had, take up their cross, and follow Him.[10]  Similarly, Polhill says, “Paul did not mean in any sense Christ’s atoning work is incomplete. What was lacking was the proclamation of the good news of that atoning work to all people.”[11]  

Paul suffered not only for the proclamation of the gospel but also the demonstration of the gospel. For instance, in 2 Corinthians 4, Paul says under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit “We are afflicted in every way… always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies” (v. 8; 10). In fact, Paul bore on his body the marks of Christ (Gal. 6:17). This we see all over the book of Acts.

Paul said that he and his colleagues “endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:12). He became a servant and all things to all people that they may get saved (v. 19, 22-23; 10:33). He said that he does not count his life of any value but his sole purpose was to fulfill the ministry that God had called him to, that is; “to testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24). He even willingly underwent extra stress and fatigue for the sake of the Thessalonian Christians. He worked night and day so that when he preached to them the gospel he would not be a burden to them (1 Thess. 2 cf. Acts 17:1-9; approx. AD 49). Paul said to the Corinthians, “I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls” (2 Cor. 12:15) and he was not being hyperbolic when he made that statement. He was true to his word.

Paul suffered greatly as he told of the gospel of God. He was stoned and left for dead at Lystra for preaching salvation in Jesus the Christ. However, that did not stop him. He went back into the city and the next day he departed for Derbe, a trip of 58 miles (after being stoned), to preach the gospel and make disciples there. (Acts 14:19-23). After doing so, he returned to Lystra, where he had previously been stoned, to strengthen the disciples and encourage them to continue in the faith. Paul clearly taught and demonstrated that “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (v. 22).

Paul was relentless in his preaching of the gospel. A great crowd had seized Paul and “were seeking to kill him” (Acts 21:31). Yet even this did not scare him to silence. He was arrested and actually carried away by soldiers but he asked them to permit him to speak to the people. He was permitted to speak for a time but it did not take long for the people to cry out “Away with such a fellow from the earth!” (Acts 22:22). From first to last, and with great cost to himself, Paul expounded and testified to the kingdom of God and tried to convince people from Scripture that Jesus was the Lord Messiah.


It is interesting that there is a theme in Paul of co-leadership. Perhaps this was established by Jesus Himself (cf. Mark 6:7). Whatever the case, Paul was almost always with a co-laborer[12] and always desired to be with them. When Paul was separated from his co-laborers he said come “as soon as possible” (Acts 17:15 cf. 2 Tim. 4:10-12; Titus 3:12-13) and he waited for them (v. 16). So from his first church sponsored “mission trip” (11:30 cf. Gal. 2:1) to his last trip (notice “we” in ch. 28) he sought to be with a fellow laborer. We also see that he “appointed elders [pl.] for them in each church” (Acts 14:23; cf. 11:30; 15:2; 20:17-18; 21:18; Titus 1:5), which also establishes the importance that Paul placed on co-leadership.


From the time of his conversion Paul realized the importance of discipleship since he was taught by Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), Ananias (Acts 9:17), Peter (Gal. 1:17), and heard from Peter about Jesus’ own emphasis on discipleship. Paul said, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1 cf. Acts 20:18ff; Phil. 3:17; 1 Tim. 4:12; Titus 2:7-8; Heb. 13:7; 1 Pet. 5:2-3).[13] Thus Paul wanted to teach men, like Timothy, that they would be able to carry on and teach others also  (2 Tim. 2:2). Paul’s desire was not to merely preach but make “many disciples;” that was his consuming toil and struggle (Acts 14:21 cf. Col. 1:28-29). He sought the strength of his disciples and not merely their salvation (Acts 14:22; 15:32-41; 16:5; 18:23).

Paul made many disciples and yet he never got to Spain to share the gospel and make disciples as he had planned (Rom. 15:28). He died in Rome before he could go.[14] However, Paul did get there through his spiritual descendants, his sons and daughters in Christ. Thus we see through Acts and in Paul’s letters that he practiced discipleship as his Lord and Savior did before him.

Letters and logistics

We see that Paul in Acts gave instruction to churches and interacted with churches. [15] Of course we also know that he wrote many letters (we know that he wrote at least fifteen yet he probably wrote many more). Paul did not just plant his churches and have no concern for them. Rather, he had an unceasing burden for them (Rom. 9:2; 2 Cor. 11:28). He wrote letters to both individuals (e.g. Philemon) and congregations (e.g. Corinthians) to instruct them. Thus we see that Paul had a concern for both people and polity. He was not aloof from his fellow brothers and sisters, even when he was separated from them by many miles or the four walls of a prison cell.

We see in Acts 20:17-38 a powerful description of Paul’s pastoral ministry. He reminded the Ephesian elders of his humble service to them (vv. 17-19). He taught not only publicly but also house to house (v. 20). He was a model for them of what it means to be a faithful elder of the church even through great hardship. He admonished everyone with tears, night and day. Truly, Paul worked hard (v. 19, 35). Paul’s purpose in ministry was to “testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (v. 24) by declaring the whole counsel of God (v. 27), the things concerning Jesus the Christ (v. 21). Because Paul was faithful to declare Christ even through great difficulties he saw himself as “innocent of the blood” of the Ephesians (v. 26 cf. 18:6; Ezek. 3:18; 33:4). Thus we see that though Paul instructed churches about logistics, in person and through letters (e.g. church discipline, church leadership), he deeply cared about people.[16]


When Paul collided with the risen Christ, he, as well as his theology, were shaken to their core; yet when he and his theology were laying in shambles they were able to be reconstructed on Jesus the cornerstone. After Paul’s eyes were opened to Jesus, the crucified and risen Christ, he was willing to spend and be spent to spread the gospel and the glory of God among the nations. Paul, through God’s sovereign orchestration, went to the nations and proclaimed that Jesus was the Christ. And through great suffering, God used His chosen instrument to grow His Church by planting churches and ensuring solid leadership through teaching in word and deed. To sum up Paul’s mission and method, Paul saw that Jesus was the Lord, high and lifted up, and so he wanted to know Him, to be Him to people, and to proclaim Him to people; and that is what he did.

 [1]Such as Paul’s dependence on the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 13:2-4; 15:8, 28; 16:6-7). Or Paul’s dependence on prayer. “There are forty-five explicit passages on prayer in the Pauline corpus” (Howell Jr., “Mission in Paul’s Epistles,” 88n50). See also Peter T. O’Brien, Gospel and Mission in the Writings of Paul: An Exegetical and Theological Analysis [Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995], 3). We could also look at Paul’s intentional church planting. It does not seem like it is sheer coincidence that Paul visited major cities and villages. Rather he saw strategic importance in establishing churches in major provincial centres (see Marshall “Luke’s portrait of the Pauline mission,” 103). Another big theme is God’s sovereignty (see Schreiner, New Testament Theology, 138-143). A sampling of passages would be Acts 1:2; 2:23, 38, 47; 3:18; 4:27-28; 5:31; 10:1-8; 11:18; 13:48; 16:14; 18:27; 20:22; 26:32; 27:24. Though not pointed out explicitly, God’s sovereignty is also seen in Paul being a tentmaker and thus capable of supporting himself in travel. In contrast to some of the disciples that were constrained by being fishermen. It is also significant that Paul had no wife and was able to give his undivided devotion to the Lord (cf. 1 Cor. 7).

 [2]Polhil, Paul and His Letters, 21.

 [3]Acts 9:22; 13:16ff; 16:13; 17:3, 17; 18:4-5, 19; 19:8ff; 24:25; 26:6, 22-26; 28:23, 31 cf. 18:28; from the beginning of the church preaching and teaching was integral 2:42. Hengel rightly says Paul considered the “Jewish-Messianic message and its concomitant scriptural evidence… quite important from the very beginning” (Marten Hengel, “Paul in Arabia” Bulletin for Biblical Research 12.1 [2002], 59). Also, in Luke’s “orderly account” that he wrote to Theophilus so that he may have “certainty” (Luke 1:3), he said that Jesus “presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs” (Acts 1:3). I. Howard Marshall sees the spread of the message of Jesus the Christ as the main story-line that the book of Acts is concerned with (Acts, 26).

 [4]William J. Larkin, “Mission in Acts” in Mission in the New Testament, 178. “The central emphasis of Paul’s preaching was the proclamation of Jesus as the Messiah” and Lord (Eckhard J. Schnabel, Paul the Missionary: Realities, Strategies and Methods [Downers Grove: IVP, 2008], 183).

 [5]cf. Acts 14:8-20; 17:16-31; 19:23-40 cf. 1 Cor. 9:19-22. D. A. Carson rightly points out that “Paul’s evangelistic addresses could change, depending on whether he was addressing biblically literate Jews and proselytes (Acts 13) or completely biblically illiterate pagans (Acts 17) (“Pastoral Pensees: Motivations to Appeal to in Our Hearers When We Preach for Conversion” in Themelios 35.2 (2010): 258-64, 263). Though it is important to point out, as Schnabel says, Paul’s response to pagan beliefs “was, ultimately, not accommodation but confrontation” (Paul the Missionary, 182).

[6]For instance Peter says “you killed the author of life” in 3:15 cf. 4:10-13, 29, 31; 5:29-30; 7:51; 9:27, 28; 13:10, 46; 14:2; 28:31 cf. 2 Cor. 3:12; 10:1; Phil. 1:14; 1 Thess. 2:2.

 [7]There is actually an expectation of suffering. Here is a list that is not exhaustive. For Acts see: 5:41; 7:58; 8:3; 9:1, 15-16; 13:50; 14:22; 16:19-24; 20:23-24. In the Pauline corpus see: Rom. 12:1-2; 1 Cor. 6:7; 24:9;13; 2 Cor. 1:3-7; 2 Cor. 4:7-12; 16-18; 2 Tim. 1:8; 3:12; 4:5; 1 Thess. 3:3-4 (“we are destined for this”); Phil. 1:29; 3:7-21 (note esp. v. 17). For the NT see: Matt. 5:10-12; 7:13-14; 10:22; 24-25; 37-39; 16:24-26; Mark 8:34-37; 13:13; Luke 6:22-23; 40; 9:23-24; 14:27; 21:16-19; John 15:18-21; 16:33; 1 Peter 2:18-25 (note esp. v. 21); 3:13-18; 4:12 (“do not be surprised… as though something strange were happening to you”); 5:10-11; Heb. 13:12-14; Rev. 2:10. Paul even speaks of suffering for Christ as a privilege. He says suffering has been graciously granted to us. The word for “granted” in Philippians 1:29 is the Greek word ecarisqh which is from the same root as the noun for grace (cariϛ) and it could be translated as “give graciously.” Paul is saying that God has been gracious in allowing us the privilege to suffer for His sake. It is also interesting to note that “witness” is the Greek word martuV where we get our word “martyr” (for the theme of “witness” see  Acts 1:8; 5:32; 7:1; 8:5-8′; 10:39, 41; 22:20 cf. Is. 43:10; 44:8).

[8]This is an example of an area where Paul must have grown quite a bit in his theology as far suffering and the coming of the Messiah are concerned. As we have seen, at first he did not have a lens to see that the Messiah would need to suffer. Thus he did not have a lens to see that those in His Kingdom would have to suffer. Yet as Paul came too understood the “already/not yet” of the Kingdom he was willing to be persecuted instead of persecute. For example, “Alexander the Coppersmith” did Paul “great harm.” Though we do not know the nature of that harm, we do know that Paul says, “The Lord will repay him according to his deeds” (2 Tim. 4:14). Paul, in contrast to Alexander, will be rescued from every evil deed and brought into God’s heavenly kingdom (v. 18). We can be reminded here that God says, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay” (Rom. 12:19; Deut. 32:35). And as Paul said gravely, “God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict [us]… They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord” (2 Thess. 1:5, 9 cf. Ps. 73; Is. 34 in contrast to 35; Acts 23:2-3).

 [9]Schreiner, Paul Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ, 102.

[10]“The means by which Paul ‘fulfills’ the word of God by bringing the gospel to the Gentiles is suffering. The ‘filling up’ of Christ’s afflictions is the pathway by which the gospel is ‘fulfilled’ in the lives of Gentiles. When Paul speaks of what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions, he is not suggesting that Christ’s death was insufficient inherently. Paul through his sufferings, however, extends the message of Christ’s all-sufficient death to the Gentiles, for such a message was concealed to the gentiles during the life of Jesus of Nazareth” (Ibid.).

 [11]Polhill, Paul and His Letters, 342.

 [12] See 11:30; 12:25; 13:2, 13, 42-43, 46; 14:1 [“they”]; 15:2, 25-27; after a disagreement Silas goes with Paul v. 40; 16:3, 25; when he went to Corinth he connected with Aquila and Priscilla 18:1-3; when he went to Antioch he took them with him v. 18; in ch. 19 he found other believers; 20:4-5.

[13] Robert L. Plummber, “Imitation of Paul and the Church’s Missionary Role in 1 Corinthians” in JETS 44/2 (June 2001) 219-35. In this article it is demonstrated that individuals within churches are called to imitate Paul in his witness for the gospel. However, Paul did not expect “bland uniformity” (235) because people are entrusted with different stewardships.

 [14]There is debate over whether or not Paul actually made it to Spain or was beheaded in Rome. Clement of Rome who wrote around AD 95 said in first Clement 5:6 that Paul “taught righteousness to the whole world, and come to the extreme limit of the west” (i.e. Spain) and the Muratorian Canon says, “he journeyed to Spain.” However, even if he did make it to Spain his influence still reached far beyond there, in part, because he made disciples.

[15]Paul had a “concern for the theological and practical development of the churches he planted” (Merle, “The Need for Theological Education in Missions,” 51).

 [16]“Paul was a pastor as well as a pioneer missionary. He ministered through letters and coworkers but in person as often as he could” (Polhill, Paul and His Letter, 221).