I’ve been inspired by what I have seen others do in telling this story of Paul’s missionary journeys. I wanted to pass along the story to you as well. I hope that you will consider doing as Paul did!
Paul has previously made two journeys having shared the Gospel, strengthened the new disciples, and started new churches along the way. Each of the previous two journeys has seemed to be slightly different in his approach in that the first journey was filled with Gospel sharing and starting new churches with Paul leading the way. The second journey seemed to have a greater emphasis on taking others along and starting a new team of leaders who would work along with him. Now, in this third journey, it appears that Paul will focus more on teaching and training his current and new leaders to do the same things that he has been doing with the result of having some of the greatest fruitfulness of his work yet.
Galatia and Phrygia
Leaving from Antioch at the end of Acts 18, Paul heads back to the churches that he started in the Galatian and Phrygian areas. This would probably include the churches of Lystra, Derbe, Iconium, and Pisidian Antioch, as well as believers and churches at Troas and Pergamum and those areas in what is now northwestern Turkey. He seems to clearly love the believers in these churches as they are the ones that he visits first in each subsequent journey after he initially started the churches.
On his previous trip, Paul had taken Priscilla and Aquila to Ephesus and left them to work with the church there. While they were there, they met a man named Apollos who had been teaching the people but was only familiar with the baptism of repentance of John the Baptist. Priscilla and Aquila taught Apollos who became a faithful worker there in Ephesus and then set off to Achaia to teach among the people in Corinth also.
Some time after Apollos left Ephesus, Paul arrived and continued the evangelistic work there, teaching in the synagogue. Some of the Jews didn’t believe, though, so Paul took those who did and began a process for two years to teach and train the believers, and in Acts 19:10, its says that as a result of this all of the Jews and Greeks in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord. At the same time, we can see that several new churches had started in many other cities where we don’t see that Paul went himself. These included the churches in Colossae, Hieropolis, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. Clearly, a movement of disciples who follow Jesus had started because now we can see disciples making disciples and starting new churches. A movement was brewing!
There were many miracles that God did through Paul, and all of the work, both through his own evangelism as well as his teaching and training of others, was having a significant effect on the people in that area. We can see that there was even a riot that started because the business of the silversmiths who made idols of the Greek goddess Athena was being affected by Paul’s work. The followers of Jesus were putting away the old things of the past such as their idols and their sorcery and moved on to worship God through Jesus.
Macedonia and Archaia
After this fruitful time in Ephesus, Paul moved on to the Macedonian churches to encourage the believers in Philippi and possibly also the Thessalonians and other cities and churches in the area. He also stopped through the Archaia peninsula in Greece, likely to see the church in Corinth and others. All of this while on his way to Troas, to where we believe Luke, the writer of the book of Acts was from.
Troas and Miletus
When Paul arrived in Troas, he spent time meeting together with many, if not all of his leaders from across most of the areas where Paul had started churches. Paul taught his leaders and others for an entire day and then moved on. After sailing through a few port cities and landing in Miletus, Paul called for the elders from the church in Ephesus. Praying with them, he exhorted and commissioned them to remain faithful and continue in the work that God gave them before returning back to Jerusalem.
- As I said in the beginning of this post, Paul seems to have had different phases of his work that coincide with the different journeys.
- Journey 1 – He is doing most of the evangelizing and teaching the disciples directly himself.
- Journey 2 – He continues direct evangelism, but also begins to raise up a few leaders, taking them with him, seemingly showing them how they will go on to do the same thing in the future.
- Journey 3 – Paul has some churches that are more mature and so his role becomes that of an encourager and strengthener. In others, especially in Ephesus, Paul places an emphasis on discipleship and training, and from that, millions of people hear the Gospel and several churches are started by others that Paul has discipled.
- Paul seems to see multiple roles for the people that he is working with, likely based on various types of gifts of the Holy Spirit. Luke shows us that the churches have leaders that work locally, but there is also this band of leaders who do not remain local, but instead go out to catalyze the work of evangelism, discipleship, and church planting.
- As Paul’s work grows, he seems to spend an increasing amount of time with the leaders, teaching them to do what he has done.
- Paul and his leaders are not, by any means, content with one church. Instead, they continue to work to establish multiple churches, and then as local churches are started, they are taught to do the same thing locally – sharing the Gospel, discipling, and starting new churches – that Paul has been doing on a broader geographic scale.
In Acts 15, after Paul and Barnabas had returned from their first journey, they stayed in Antioch for some time, sharing what God had done during their missionary journey. While they were there, some men had come from Judea – probably directly from the church in Jerusalem – and were preaching that the churches must continue to follow the law of Moses to be saved. This meant, for example, that the men in the churches must all be circumcised. Paul and Barnabas debated them, but ultimately didn’t come to a resolution, so they decided to appeal to the apostles in Jerusalem for a ruling on this issue.
In addition to Barnabas accompanying Paul in going to Jerusalem, Paul later says in Galatians 2 that Titus, who was probably from Antioch, went with him to Jerusalem as well. It appears that Paul’s goal in this trip is to not only have a ruling on the specific issue of circumcision, but also to confirm that the freedom in Christ that Paul believes in and has been preaching is the same message that the apostles believe and are teaching as well. It seems that the teaching from these men from Judea have thrown that into doubt for him, so he wants to confirm that they are all “on the same page” in a sense.
Having previously discussed Peter’s encounter with Cornelius and his household having received the Holy Spirit, the apostles see that God is continuing to have many more Gentiles come into the Kingdom of God, believing in Jesus. As a result, they write a letter to the churches explaining that, yes, there are certain practices that should be avoided, such as eating food that has been sacrificed to idols, from various kinds of sexual immorality, eating meat from strangled animals, or drinking the blood of animals (yuck?). But absent, of course, is any requirement that they will need to be circumcised.
As a result, Paul’s message is vindicated and it is confirmed that his Gospel message that Christ is for everyone, setting the requirements and weight of the old law aside. Paul and Barnabas initially take this letter back to Antioch with two men sent from the apostles to confirm its authenticity and then continue teaching in Antioch for some time.
Paul has an idea to go back and encourage the churches, but he and Barnabas separate over a disagreement over whether or not to take John Mark with them given that he had left them early-on in their last journey. So Barnabas takes John Mark and goes to Cyprus while Paul decides to go north by land route to Syria and Cilicia to visit and strengthen the churches there.
Syria and Cilicia
Like me, you may be wondering where these churches in Syria and Cilicia came from given that Paul is visiting them, and the letter from Jerusalem addressed them specifically. We don’t know precisely, but there are several important things that we can say that show that, despite us not seeing that Paul specifically started these churches, we know that he was there and active in sharing the Gospel.
- Paul clearly knows these churches given that the letter is addressed to them and that he is going to walk to them from Antioch.
- He had been in Syria after his conversion when he was taken to Damascus. After leaving to go to Arabia for a time, it appears that he returned and began to preach about Jesus in the synagogues yet again in Damascus.
- The Cilician churches were in the area near Paul’s hometown of Tarsus where he had spent approximately 8-10 years after his time in Damascus.
- And, for good measure, Paul says directly in Galatians 1:21 that he was in Syria and Cilicia.
Lystra, Derbe, Iconium
So, having traveled to these churches and strengthening them, Paul now heads back up to the churches that he started in Asia Minor, the Galatian churches that he had started on his last trip. Paul delivers the message from the apostles in Jerusalem and the churches were encouraged and continued to grow.
Along the way, Paul meets a man named Timothy that the churches recommended and takes him along with him. Interestingly, especially after all of the disagreements with the Jews about circumcision having just wrapped up, and even on this trip delivering the message of the letter from the apostles in Jerusalem, Paul decides that he should circumcise Timothy who was a Gentile to make it easier to approach the Jews that they would be meeting. Nothing would stand in the way of the Gospel going forward!
As they continue to travel to the west, they go through several areas, but land momentarily in Troas, which appears to be the hometown of Luke – the writer of the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts – because suddenly in chapter 16, verse 10, the pronoun switches to from “they” to “we”, and so now it appears that Luke begins to travel with Paul and his team.
While there in Troas, Paul has a vision of a man calling him from the district of Macedonia which he interprets to be a call for them to come share the message of the Gospel, so immediately they leave and head off to Macedonia, landing in the city of Philippi, now part of modern-day Greece and their first landing in what we now call Europe.
Two very significant things happen in Philippi. First, Paul and the team would regularly go outside of the city next to a river, a place that people would regularly gather for prayer. The first time that they went, they met Lydia, a Gentile woman, and some other women. In sharing the Gospel with them, Lydia believed and invited them into her home, starting a new church there in Philippi.
The second thing that happened was that Paul and Silas were put in prison because Paul had driven out a spirit from a slave girl who could tell people of the future. The girl’s owners made their money this way, so they stirred up the people and Paul and Silas were put into prison.
Paul and Silas had been beaten and chained while in prison, but in the middle of the night, a violent earthquake came, shook their chains loose, and opened the doors. The jailer would lose his life if he had lost any of the prisoners, but despite all of the chains being loose, the prisoners had stayed. Through this, Paul shares the Gospel with the jailer who believes in Jesus, and both he and his household were baptized in that night.
After having been appeased by the magistrates and city leaders for imprisoning them against Roman law, Paul leaves Philippi, probably leaving Timothy and Luke there to continue the work. Taking Silas, he continues his journey to Thessalonica where he again preaches in the synagogue, this time for three weeks. Some Jews, and a large number of Greeks believed. Among those that believed were Aristarchus and Secundus who would later travel with Paul as part of his team of leaders.
However, again, similar to some previous that they visited cities, some of the Jews were jealous that they were making disciples of Jesus among the people. They whipped up a mob and went to Jason’s house where Paul and team were staying while in Thessalonica. They didn’t find them, but ultimately Jason found himself in trouble for housing Paul and his team and had to post a bond to be released from prison.
Paul and Silas then escaped in the night and moved on to Berea. They preached again in the synagogue and many believed, including Sopater who like Aristarchus and Secundus from Thessalonica, would also join Paul as part of the leadership team in the future. But the Jews from Thessalonica followed them and stirred up a crowd yet again against Paul and their team in Berea so the believers sent Paul on to Athens while Silas and Timothy stayed there in Berea.
While Paul was in Athens, he saw all of the Greek gods in the marketplace along with the temples dedicated to them, so he would preach about the true God in the marketplace. He was invited to come to share with the Areopagus where we see a famous sharing of the Gospel with the Greeks. At this point, a few believed, but many did not, so Paul left them and moved on to Corinth.
Corinth and Ephesus
While in Corinth, Paul shared the Gospel in the synagogue and works alongside of Priscilla and Aquila, tentmakers who came from Rome. Silas and Timothy join Paul in Corinth and after the Jews demonstrate that they will reject the message of Jesus as the Messiah, Paul moves on to the Gentiles and begins to baptize new believers among them.
Jesus speaks to Paul in a dream telling him to continue preaching in Corinth, so unlike many of the other cities, Paul stays there in Corinth for a long time, this time for a year and a half, but after having established the church there, he moved on to Ephesus, taking Priscilla and Aquila with him. Paul leaves Priscilla and Aquila there in Ephesus to continue the work there, and then soon returns back to Antioch, completing his second journey.
In Acts 13 and 14, we see Paul and Barnabas set out on their first missionary journey together. They initially travel across the sea from Antioch to the island of Cyprus and immediately we see them establishing a pattern as they enter the Jewish synagogues and sharing the Gospel among the Jews in the towns that they visit. A sorcerer and false prophet named Bar-Jesus was an attendant of the proconsul of the island (like a governor or someone overseeing the occupied area on Rome’s behalf) and tried to prevent the proconsul from hearing Paul, something that he had wanted to do. Paul declares that he won’t be able to see, and as Bar-Jesus is blinded, the proconsul believes and is amazed also with their teaching.
Paul and Barnabas then travel again across the sea to the north into the Galatian area and make their way to Pisidian Antioch. Again, they enter the Jewish synagogue and share the Gospel. This is one of the few times that we get to see how Paul shares the Gospel with the Jews, through a retelling of their history, starting from the time that God led the Israelites out from Egypt, through the prophets and kings, and ultimately to Jesus, speaking of his preaching, his death, his resurrection, and ultimately the significance of everything that he was teaching.
From their teaching, some of the people of the synagogue followed them and they asked them also to return in the following week to speak again. Unfortunately, it didn’t go well because when they came to speak on the following Sabbath, the Jewish leaders became jealous because most of the city came to hear them speak! At this point, then, Paul told them that they would not continue with them but would go and speak to the Gentiles.
Paul made disciples among both the Jews and the Gentiles and it says that the word of the Lord spread throughout the entire region which I believe means that the people began to share with others what they had been learning about Jesus. Ultimately, the Jewish leaders persecuted Paul and Barnabas and they were forced to leave, and so they headed to a nearby city called Iconium.
In Iconium, Paul followed a similar pattern as he had done previously. They spoke at the Jewish synagogue and both Jews and Gentiles believed in Jesus. Again, the Jews who would not believe spoke out against Paul and Barnabas, but they continued to work and teach the new believers. They were also continuing to perform signs and miracles through the Holy Spirit as confirmation of their teaching.
The people of Iconium were divided, and some of them began to plan to kill Paul and Barnabas, so they left there also to continue to preach in other cities.
Lystra and Derbe
At Lystra, Paul healed a man who was lame and not able to walk. As a result, the people began to sacrifice to Paul and Barnabas, thinking that they were gods. Paul tried in vain to stop them, sharing about the true God with the people, but they continued to sacrifice to them.
The Jews from Antioch and Iconium who had driven Paul and Barnabas out of their cities followed them also to Lystra and won over the crowds, ultimately stoning Paul and dragged him out of the city. But with his new disciples around him, Paul was able to get back up and return into the city of Lystra.
He also went into Derbe, a nearby city, and preached there as well. Paul was particularly effective there and won many disciples.
Establishing churches and returning to Antioch
As Paul and Barnabas began to think of returning home, they decided to return back through each of the cities, including Lystra, Iconium, and Pisidian Antioch to teach them and appoint elders among the communities of new believers, leaving behind churches as they went from city to city. In the end, Paul and Barnabas return back to their home city of Antioch to share with the church all that they had seen God do through their work.
There are a few important points that I think that I can take away from this first journey from Paul and Barnabas. Those are:
- They have a critical role in getting the churches started. They do not intend to plant one church. Instead, they are not from that area, so they are going to start several churches among the people who live in that local area. They share the Gospel, make disciples among these new believers, and start at least four new churches.
- They leave the church in the hands of the local believers, appointing elder leaders among them, even though they are relatively new believers.
- Even though Paul and Barnabas are being persecuted for the message that they have brought to these cities, the people are quickly sharing and spreading the Good News that they have learned.
- They enter the places of worship to share their message. It seems that they almost always go to the synagogue first to share the Gospel message.
- They don’t seem to try to make many friends and a lot of relationships initially. Paul and Barnabas seem to allow the message to go before them, and then they develop relationships and make disciples among those who believe. In other words, they seem to have a priority to share the Gospel first, make disciples second, then start and encourage the churches, ultimately leaving them with local leadership. We will later see that Paul develops deep friendships with the people in these churches.
- Persecution followed them wherever they went as a result of the Good News that they carried with them.
- But the churches were started and the Gospel was spread, even in the face of that persecution.
- The Holy Spirit enabled them to perform miracles. These miracles served to confirm the message that they were preaching among the people.
At the end of Acts 7, we see that Stephen is killed by stoning by the members of the Sanhedrin. Saul, who will soon come face-to-face with Jesus, is there as a zealous Pharisee and Acts 8:1 says that he is giving approval to the killing of Stephen. Saul begins to persecute the church, scattering the believers out from Jerusalem into many other locations.
We see specific mention of Philip both to the north of Jerusalem in Samaria as well as to the south of Jerusalem on the road toward Gaza.
We also see that Paul is headed to Damascus to look for believers there as well when Jesus encounters him, so the church has scattered in a significant way, well beyond Jerusalem to the surrounding areas.
One of the places that we see the believers go is to Antioch, which is the present-day Antakya in the southern part of Turkey, which is more than 400 miles (700 km) to the north of Jerusalem.
As they enter Antioch, we see that as they go and begin to do what they had learned to do in their community in Jerusalem. Initially, they tell other Jews about Jesus, and then some who joined them who originally came from the island of Cyprus, and even all of the way from Cyrene (present-day Shahat, Libya), started to speak with the Gentiles as well. The result was that many people believed and a new church was formed at Antioch.
As the leaders in Jerusalem heard about this new church in Antioch, they sent Barnabas to learn more and help this new church. When he arrives, he realizes that the church needs teaching and discipleship, so he goes to Tarsus and brings back Paul who stays there for a year to teach the people within the church.
At this point, it appears that there are now five main leaders in the church at Antioch. In Acts 13:1, it says that they meet together for fasting, prayer, and worship and the Holy Spirit speaks to them that they should send two of the five – Paul and Barnabas – out to do the work that he has called them to do.
From this narrative within about the start of the church in Antioch, I think that there are a few things that we could learn.
God uses persecution
First, God seems to have used the persecution of the church to send the people out beyond Jerusalem. As Stephen is killed, persecution breaks out and the people who are following Jesus are running for their lives.
It is interesting that this is the first time that we see the church outside of Jerusalem. Prior to leaving, Jesus told the disciples that they would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
But now, approximately three years after Jesus has returned to heaven, we don’t yet see evidence that word about him has gone out beyond Jerusalem, and so we see that as persecution comes from the Jewish leaders, God uses this persecution to send out his disciples just as Jesus had said.
As a side note, but definitely connected to this idea, a friend recently told me an interesting way to think about how God uses persecution. He said, “You know, if the church doesn’t do Acts 1:8, it will get Acts 8:1.” Of course, this begins to touch on a theology of persecution, which I intend to think and write about in the future, but for now, I think it is fair to say, at the least, that God will even use persecution to accomplish his purposes.
Mission starts with the church
I think the second lesson is that the church is intended to be senders of those who will go out on mission to share with others in new areas about Jesus and start new churches. In the case of Antioch, we see that all of the leaders were listening to the Holy Spirit together, hearing that God had work for Paul and Barnabas to do.
The Antioch church started with the practice of the believers from Jerusalem reaching Jews and Gentiles in Antioch and forming a church, so from the beginning, we see the church initially formed as a missional outworking of the people from the church of Jerusalem, even if they were sent out as a result of persecution. As a result, I am sure that they can see the value in creating new outposts, new groups of believers outside of their current community.
Subsequently, through the teaching that Paul brings to the church, and through listening to the Holy Spirit, the leadership of the church as a whole understands that they are to continue what God started with them, now sending out new missionaries in Paul and Barnabas to continue to spread the message and see new communities started in new areas. God, therefore, desires to use the existing churches to start new churches.