Monday, April 22, 2013

A New Perspective on Paul the Missionary (Part 1)

While studying for my graduate degree at Wheaton College I had the chance to take a class entitled Mission in Acts. During that semester my seven fellow students and I read the books of Luke and Acts several times--we looked at broad themes like Jesus' prayer life and the actions of the Holy Spirit throughout both books--we zoomed in on the details, even going so far as to memorize the order of the cities visited on Paul's missionary journeys.

I spent an entire semester living with Paul, learning with Paul and growing with Paul. However, the Paul that I got to know along the way was quite different from the one I had encountered in numerous Christian books and sermons. Later, while serving with Trinity International Baptist Mission, we spent the better part of a year in Second Corinthians, and I became more deeply acquainted with Paul as he neared the end of his life--how he had developed as a servant through suffering and had grown in his grace and love.

This is my first post in a series I have entitled 'A New Perspective on Paul the Missionary.' There has been a lot of controversy over the past few years in regards to the rediscovery of Paul's Jewishness--I would like to consider what we can learn about Paul when we look at him through the lens of Paul the Missionary. I thought I would share a few things that I learned about Paul from my times with him in the scriptures.

Paul on the road to Damascus
Paul's Encounter with the Risen Lord Fueled His Ministry and Gave Him Direction

Paul was a man with an exceptional pedigree. He was born Saul of Tarsus--unlike many of his fellow Jews he was born a Roman citizen, which meant that his parents probably had considerable wealth and influence. In Tarsus he would have received the best education that the Greco-Roman world had to offer. A diaspora Jew, Saul later moved to Jerusalem to pursue his religious education, studying at the feet of Gamaliel, the leader of the Sanhedrin and the greatest Jewish educator of that period.

Unlike Jesus' other disciples, Paul came from wealth, education and influence--and unlike Jesus' other disciples, he became one through an extra-ordinary encounter with the risen Lord. In his zeal for his Jewish faith, Paul became one of the leaders in the first wave of persecution against the followers of Jesus. He received the permission of the high priest to pursue followers of the way to foreign cities and extradite them to Jerusalem to be punished.

While on one of these journeys to Damascus, Saul was knocked off his horse and blinded by a light brighter than the sun--then he heard heard the voice of Jesus. "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?" Many of you will be familiar with Jesus's reply--in fact, this exchange is recorded three times in the book of Acts! Paul, on two occasions, in Acts 22 and 26 shares his testimony.

Paul's encounter with Jesus turned his life 180 degrees--from a persecutor of Christianity to its greatest apologist. At this encounter, Jesus commissioned Paul as an apostle to the gentiles. Jesus' laid out his plan before Paul while he lay on the ground that day, "But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you,  delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you  to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me." (Acts 26:16-18).

Paul knew that this commission would entail suffering--because he was told so from the beginning. "Lord said to me, ‘Rise, and go into Damascus, and there you will be told all that is appointed for you to do.’" (Acts 22:10) After finishing his trip to Damascus, Paul was met by Ananias, who prayed with him and explained all that the Lord had said to him concerning his future ministry. Jesus had said to Ananias, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel.  For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” (Acts 9:15-16)

For Paul, this encounter with Jesus and the commission he received became a reservoir from which he drew on for the rest of his life. Throughout all of his numerous sufferings, through physical ailments and persecution, he could rest in the knowledge that God had appointed and commissioned him. He understood and encountered grace and forgiveness in the person of Jesus. He became, "Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead." (Galatians 1:1)

No Paul without Barnabas
Paul had a Mentor and Advocate in Barnabas

Despite this clear commission, Saul's first attempt at at fulfilling it misfired.  After regaining his eyesight, he immediately went into the Damascus synagogues and began sharing his new faith in Jesus! He then went for a trip of undefined length and purpose to Arabia (the Greco-Roman conception of Arabia was quite large, the boundaries of which would not have been significantly distant from Damascus, however, some believe he may have went as far as Mt. Sinai) before returning to Damascus to resume his proclamation ministry (Gal 1:17). After a short time, some of the local Jews began planning to murder him. I am reminded of the time that Moses attempted to break up the fight between his fellow Jews and they turned on him. Saul had come to Damascus to stop the spread of Christianity and had suddenly become its most outspoken advocate. Saul retreated out of Damascus, fleeing by basket through a hole in the wall at night. He then made his way to Jerusalem. This trip to Jerusalem happened approximately three years after the events on the road to Damascus (Gal 1:18).

It was at Jerusalem that Jospeh called Barnabas, another diaspora Jew, and convert to The Way became an advocate for Saul. Saul attempted to join the other disciples in Jerusalem, but his reputation as a persecutor of the early Christian community was too fresh in their minds--Paul had only a short time earlier been breathing out threats against them, and had delivering some of their fellowship to their deaths. "But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus." (Acts 9:27)

It was not Saul who spoke to the apostles (according to Gal 1:18-19 only Peter and James), but Barnabas on his behalf. Barnabas took a risk on Saul--he became his advocate. Barnabas became an intermediary between Peter and Paul, with whom Paul stayed for fifteen days. Barnabas, one of the original seven deacons, a man of incredible generosity, a man filled with the Holy Spirit, a good man,  a man called the Son of Encouragement by the twelve Apostles. This man took Saul under his wing. Saul, a man with a more than a questionable past--guilty of hunting down and imprisoning Christians. Saul, the man who had presided over the death of Barnabas' friend and co-deacon Stephen. This is an incredible picture of the grace of God--but also a picture of restoration.

Barnabas was in the business of restoration. He took a special interest in difficult cases and invested his life in them (as we will see later with John Mark). He saw the potential of Saul, and trusted the prophetic words spoken over him. As a diaspora Jew from Cyprus, Barnabas may also have had a desire to see a ministry begin among the gentiles, something that was still at that time unrealized. I doubt that it was easy for Barnabas to take Saul under his tutelage in this way, it was a huge risk. But I believe Barnabas did it because he had personally experienced the power of the Holy Spirit, and because he knew the impact that Saul and his testimony could have in advancing the Gospel among the gentiles!

This Saul became the man we know as the Apostle Paul in large part because Barnabas was willing to take a risk and invest in someone who was broken. Shortly after he arrived in Jerusalem, Saul found himself in danger again--he had begun debating with the men, the Hellenistic Jews, that had previously been in contention with Stephen. These men then conspired to kill Saul. The believers at Jerusalem arranged for Saul to travel to Caesarea and onto his home town of Tarsus (in Cilicia, modern day Turkey) via Syria (presumably by ship) where he might be more safe.

Paul Patiently Waited for God's Timing and He Served as Part of a Team

Taking advantage of the period of peace that came after the first persecution of the Christians following Stephen's martyrdom, the Holy Spirit, the one constant throughout the Luke-Acts narrative began to unfold the way for Paul's wider ministry among the gentiles. Up until this point, the Gospel had been confined to the Jewish community--even the Ethiopian Eunuch to whom Philip the Evangelist was transported was a gentile convert to Judaism before he made his confession of faith in Jesus.  (There were probably other gentile converts to Judaism that came to faith in Jesus besides the Ethiopian before the events of Acts 10, considering there is already a 'circumcision party' in the church in Jerusalem before Peter's defends the conversion of Cornelius' family and friends in Acts 11).

The Apostle Peter continued his ministry in Jerusalem and Judea, and through him men and women were healed and even restored to life. While at Joppa, Peter received a vision from the Lord--and God declared that He had made all animals clean (and by this, all men clean). Peter was then brought to the house of Cornelius, a Roman centurion, who had received an angelic visitation prior to Peter's vsion. Now Cornelius was a God-fearing gentile, and was already acquainted with the Old Testament, so the groundwork was laid on which Peter could present the Gospel.

Peter had to have some major heart surgery done by the Holy Spirit before he was ready to step out in faith, saying, "You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean." (Acts 10:28)  Peter then began to explain the Gospel to them and as he was doing so, the Holy Spirit fell on all of them that heard! Just as at Pentecost, the gentile believers began praising God in diverse languages as the Holy Spirit enabled them. These new believers were them baptized, and Peter stayed with them for a time to instruct them more deeply in their new faith.

This is one of the most significant turning points in the history of Christianity--for the first time the Holy Spirit had moved upon a group of gentiles. It was important, I believe, for Peter, the leader of the apostles to partake in this critical juncture. Had this experience happened to anyone else, there might have been some question of its legitimacy, but Peter's participation in the first significant conversion of gentiles to faith in Jesus was instrumental for the advance of the Gospel to the nations! Peter, the apostle to the Jews, paved the way for Paul, the apostle to the gentiles to begin his ministry.

Simultaneously something extraordinary happened in the city of Antioch. Some of the Christian diaspora that had been scattered in the first wave of persecution against the church had been sharing their faith with the Jewish diaspora. These Christians had spread into modern day Turkey, Cyprus, Syria and Lebanon. But at Antioch (in modern day Turkey), independent of Peter's interaction with Cornelius, some of these diaspora Christians began sharing their faith with Greek gentiles (presumably with no prior knowledge of Judaism), "But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord." (Acts 11:20-21)

Eventually, word of this independent mission work began to make its way back to the church at Jerusalem (about 400 miles away), who had already been primed by the Holy Spirit that something big was on the horizon. In order to investigate the validity of the claims being made, they sent one of their most trusted men--Barnabas. Now, it should be noted that the accidental missionaries were Cypriot and Libyan Jewish converts to Christianity--and thus were probably well known to Barnabas, they may have even been his disciples in Jersualem, so it was only natural that Barnabas, a Cypriot himself would investigate this news.

When Barnabas arrived at Antioch, he found that it was just as had been reported, "When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose, for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord." (Acts 11:23-24) His presence in Antioch served to strengthen and grow the new Christian community there! But, he saw that there was much work to do--and he had the perfect partner in mind.

Because of the increase in the size of the Christian community at Antioch, there was a need for additional leadership--thankfully, as providence would have it, there was a man only a stone's throw from Antioch capable of helping to disciple the new believers there, "So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul,  and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch." (Acts 11:25-26a) There is no mention of how long Saul had been in Tarsus, but we know this is more than three years after his initial conversion--and somewhere between 11-14 years before the events of Acts 15 (According to Gal 2:1). So Paul could have been waiting in Tarus for the better part of a decade. This once again parallels Moses' experience in the wilderness--or Jesus' decades of life prior to his baptism. God uses periods of preparation in order to shape us into useful vessels through which His Spirit can work.

Tarsus, where Paul had been laying low, was in the same general vicinity as Antioch--both of them are located in modern day Turkey, only about 150 miles apart from each other. On foot, this journey may have taken a couple of weeks--however Barnabas may have traveled by sea, which would have significantly shortened the trip.

Saul became part of Barnabas' team to strengthen and establish the church at Antioch, "For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians." (Acts 11:26b) Barnabas and Saul became significant leaders of the new gentile Christian community at Antioch. I imagine that the name Christian was given as a derogatory term, being that Jesus was the only thing that these disciples seemed to want to talk about. In time, the Antioch church began to have a gravitational pull that brought additional leaders from Jersualem to Antioch, including a number of men with prophetic gifts.

One of these prophetically gifted men, Agabus, who shows up twice in the book of Acts, predicted a coming famine in the land of Judea. Concerned for the church there, the new Christian community in Antioch, without compulsion, took up a love offering to aid those in the Jerusalem church. Barnabas and Saul were then sent with this relief aid to Judea, cutting short their initial stay in Antioch. It was at this time that another persecution broke out against the Christian communities in Judea--taking the life of James, the first apostle to be martyred.

After the death of Herod and the end of the second persecution, Barnabas and Saul returned to Antioch, this time with Barnabas' cousin John Mark (the author of the Gospel of Mark) in tow. Barnabas and Saul's team was beginning to form! Saul began his ministry as a member of a team, and an in-depth study of the New Testament will reveal that Paul, over the course of his ministry had numerous companions. Over thirty individuals are listed by name as his fellow travelers, minister, co-workers and supporters! Some of the most well known are Silas, Aquila and Priscilla, Luke, Titus and Timothy. It is easy for some people to become so enamored with the Apostle Paul that they miss this critical factor, Paul didn't minister alone--he always worked as part of a team.

The only picture I could find with a black guy!
Paul was Under Authority--Both Temporal and Spiritual

I love the way that Acts 13 begins! The church at Antioch had matured significantly and there was a plurality of Spirit-filled leaders with teaching and prophetic gifts. Rather than keep these gifts to themselves, the Spirit gave them a vision of multiplication. "Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.  While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”  Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off."  (Acts 13:1-3)

Of the five elders at Antioch, two of them were set apart for a new missionary enterprise! (Thats 40% for the math challenged). There is also a beautiful diversity among the names of those listed--African, Greek, Jewish, a diversity of gifts and backgrounds brought together by the blood of Christ.

Tangent: One really exciting possibility is that the Simeon called Niger mentioned in this passage may be the same Simon of Cyrene who carried Jesus' cross as mentioned in the synoptic Gospels! Cyrene was located in modern day Libya, and the word Niger (black in Greek) was often used to distinguish those with dark skin color of African origin. We know that at least one of the founders of the church at Antioch was from Cyrene (Acts 11:20) and that Simon of Cyrene's sons Alexander and Rufus were well known to the early Christian community. A Rufus and his mother are mentioned by Paul in the greetings Romans 16:13--it is possible that this Rufus was the Rufus mentioned in Mark 15:21--which could possibly be why John Mark, who had just come to Antioch is able to mention them all by name (albeit with an alternate spelling) in his Gospel account.

There is great significance in the fact that Barnanbas and Paul were commissioned and sent out at the direction of the Holy Spirit and with the prayers of the Antioch church--they were under spiritual and temporal authority! Many, I believe, in the Western church need to re-examine their tendencies towards individualism. As I have already showed, Paul worked as part of a team, but he was also under the authority of his sending church. Throughout the rest of his missionary career he would report back to the church at Antioch.

Paul was a Practitioner Before He was a Theologian

Beware the gravitational pull of the Ivory Tower! There are many young men pursuing graduate degrees and PhD's in Christian institutions of higher education that will spend their lives studying theology, but will never have the power with which the Apostle Paul ministered. Keep this in mind, before Paul was a theologian, he was a practitioner. I believe one of the significant dangers facing the contemporary church is the wall that has been constructed between theological studies and the work of missionary and ministry practitioners--between orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

After being commissioned and sent out by the Antioch church, Acts chapters 13 and 14 record Barnabas and Saul's first missionary journey. John Mark accompanied them at the beginning of this trip. Their first destination was Cyprus, the island on which Barnabas was born.

Something significant happened on this first leg of the journey. Barnabas and Saul were summoned by the local proconsul Sergius Paulus, "When they had gone through the whole island as far as Paphos, they came upon a certain magician, a Jewish false prophet named Bar-Jesus. He was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, a man of intelligence, who summoned Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God." (Acts 13:6-7) Barnabas and Saul would have to vie with this false prophet, Bar-Jesus aka Elymas, for the heart and mind of the proconsul--who was clearly desirous to hear the word of God.

Elymas the Sorcerer and Sergius Paulus by Raphael
Despite the clear indication in the text that Sergius Paulus was an intelligent man, this confrontation would not be a theological debate or doctrinal dispute--something more profound happened. To signify the importance of this occasion, Luke, the writer of Acts for the first time addressed Saul by the name Paul, "But Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at [Elymas]"

Paul sized up Elymas--this man clearly wanted to prevent he and Barnabas from leading Sergius Paulus to faith in Jesus. This man was clearly a person of spiritual power--a magician. And like Moses' confrontation with Pharaoh's magicians, this was going to be a situation that required more than words! Paul didn't rely on his Greco-Roman education, or his training as a Pharisee by Gamaliel, this was a power-encounter, and all of his best theological arguments wouldn't do him any good in this situation.

Paul exercised dependence on the power of the Holy Spirit to win the hour! "Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him and said, “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord?  And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you will be blind and unable to see the sun for a time.” Immediately mist and darkness fell upon him, and he went about seeking people to lead him by the hand." (Acts 13:9-11)

The amazing thing in this passage is Sergius Paulus' response to this power encounter, "Then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had occurred, for he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord." (Acts 13:12) Without the power of the Holy Spirit, even the best theology would fail to convince the hearer of the truth of the Gospel, we are reminded by Paul in 1 Thessalonians 1:5 "Our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction."

In many senses, this is a kind of graduation for Paul the Apostle. His name was changed from this passage onward from Saul to Paul. From this point forward, any time that he is mentioned in relation to Barnabas, his name will appear first.  I believe that the special filling of the Holy Spirit and the miracle by which Paul defeated the false prophet (paralleling his own blindness on the Damascus road) signify that Paul has fully entered upon into the ministry for which he was commissioned. Barnabas knows that Paul no longer needs protection under his wing, and thus lets Paul step out in front. Barnabas continues to support Paul, but has succeeded in his ministry of restoration. It only took a decade or so to do.

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