"Apostle Paul and the Missionary Task"

Apostle Paul and the Missionary Task

Metropolitan Makarios (Tillyrides) of Kenya)

As a missionary, the Apostle Paul was second only to our Lord. The great apostle is the archetypal missionary and the supreme exemplar to every man and woman aspiring to undertake the most precious labor available to human activity: the proclamation of the Gospel.

As a missionary and missionary statesman, Paul was a divine appointee. There are no less than three accounts of his supernatural calling on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:3-9; 22:6-16; 26:13-18). The accounts supplement each other, but the last of the three spells out specifically and in detail the missionary task laid upon the great Apostle by our Lord: "I have appeared to you for this purpose, to make you a minister and a witness both of the things which you have seen and of the things which I will reveal to you. I will deliver you from the Jewish people as well as from the Gentiles, to whom I now send you, to open their eyes and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me" (Acts 26: 16-18).

Although the Apostle was supernaturally called, it is more than probable that would never have been able to carry out his missionary calling without the academic and other grounding he received in early life. Paul left an account to posterity which throws much light on his youth, early manhood, how his spiritual foundations where laid and other details. The following account is compiled from what Paul revealed of himself in Acts 1:39; 18:3; 22:3; 22:25; 22:28; Gal 1:13,14; Phil 3:5-6:

He was a Jew, born in Tarsus, the Roman province of Cilicia (now part of modern Turkey). Tarsus was "no mean city." Paul's upbringing was Jewish in every respect. He was fortunate in being born into a family possessing Roman citizenship; Paul always valued his Roman citizenship and availed himself of its benefits. He was educated in Jerusalem at the school of Gamaliel according to the principles of the sect of the Pharisees. He was so zealous for the traditions of Judaism that he advanced in his studies far beyond his contemporaries. He would even go so far as to claim to be almost faultless in his adherence to Old Testament legalism. In addition to his religious studies, Paul was taught the practical trade of tent making.

From this description of himself it is obvious that Paul was well equipped to evangelize Jews. As a profound student of all things Jewish he would have known Hebrew but as a man born into the first century Middle East he would also have been instructed from childhood in Greek, the lingua franca of the region. It is even possible that Greek was his mother tongue. His first Bible may well have been the Greek edition of the Old Testament, the Septuagint. It is known that most Jews living outside Palestine used the Septuagint in preference to the Hebrew Bible. Since Paul in later life had many contacts with Roman officials, it is probable that he also knew Latin.

Before his conversion, Paul was prominent among those ardent Jews whose lives were dedicated to bringing what they regarded as the blessing of the Jewish law to their contemporaries. It is no doubt to this that Paul was referring when he wrote: "I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my own nation, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers" (Gal 1:14).

While having had a very thorough training in every aspect of Judaism, Paul was emphatic that the Gospel he preached was of wholly supernatural origin. To quote his own words from Galatians, chapter 1, vv 11 and 12:

But I make known to you, brethren, that the Gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ.

Although we cannot know for sure, it seems probable that the revelation received by Paul was not instantaneous. It is a singular fact that it was literally years from the time of Paul's conversion before he began active and systematic missionary work. To continue with the Apostle's own account:

When it pleased God … to reveal His Son in me, that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me; but I went to Arabia, and returned again to Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter …

The chronology of Paul's ministry is not known with any certainty, but from Galatians 2:1 it seems likely that more years went by before he begun active mission work.

What is the significance of this? Different answers might be given to this question, but my own opinion, for what it is worth, is that deep spiritual preparation is an essential prerequisite for a dynamic mission a career. This was true of Paul and it remains true today.

It is clear that Paul did not embark on his missionary labors without a definite strategy. Missionary work cannot be done in a haphazard manner. Paul's outreach, initially, was "to the Jew first". With the background he had had, it was natural for the Apostle to have fervent desire for the salvation of his own people. He even when so for as to declare: "I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen by race" (Rom 9:3). All the greater, then, was his grief at their adamant refusal to recognize God's chosen Messiah. One can appreciate Paul's exasperation, but also sense his sorrow when he told the Jews of Corinth after they had opposed him and blasphemed: "Your blood be upon your own heads; I am clean. From now on I will go to the Gentiles" (Acts 18:6). Paul later wrote, "It pleased God to reveal His Son to me that I might preach Him among the Gentiles" (Gal 1:16). Paul also twice described himself as "a teacher of the Gentiles" (1 Tim 2:7; 2 Tim 1:11).

A natural aspect of Paul's strategy was to go where people were most receptive. He found them among the "God-fearers." These were men and women, Greeks of pagan background, who had attached themselves to the synagogue. Disillusioned with pagan idolatry, they there were attracted by the ethical monotheism of the Jews and the other positive elements of the Hebrew religion. However the God-fearers demurred at circumcision and full conversion to Judaism. A penumbra of God-fearers was found around every synagogue in the world of the first century, and to this people Paul went. From among them he drew the human material for his first Gentile congregations. From this example of Paul we draw the conclusion that it is enlightened common sense for the missionary to go where he is more welcome and where his message will be more readily received. In the African context, for example, the black African is very much more receptive to the message of a Orthodoxy than the Arab Muslim, even where access to the Arab is attainable.

In Romans 15:19 Paul mentioned that his missionary itinerations had taken from him from Jerusalem to Illyricum (former Yugoslavia) and added that in all that large area he had "fully preached the gospel of Christ." But in verse 23ff of the same chapter he makes the astonishing statement: … no longer having a place in these parts … I shall come to you." By this, Paul did not mean that the whole large area had been so completely evangelized that no further work there was required. The Apostle was motivated by other considerations. His urgent desire was to get to Rome. As a missionary statesman he aimed at establishing dynamic churches at strategic points throughout the Roman Empire. From these the surrounding regions could be reached.

When he wrote his letter to the Romans (who incidentally were not his own converts) Paul's great objective was to disseminate Christianity throughout the whole civilized word, which he equated with the Roman Empire. He put on record his desire to evangelize Spain (15:24), which would have completed the cycle of his evangelistic outreach from the Eastern and of the Mediterranean to the Western. Yet at the same time he believed that as the "apostle to the Gentiles" he had something to contribute in the most strategic center of the Empire, Rome itself. It is obvious that the same methodology applies today. Missionary outreach must be planned and executed like a military operation.

One of the issues which convulsed the Gentile congregations that Paul had brought into being was a basis of which Gentile converts where to be received. Christians of Jewish origin tended to regard the Christian faith as little more than a Jewish sect and were insistent that converts must submit to circumcision and the full ritual of Judaism. Worse still, "certain men from Judea" (Acts 15:1) visited the Gentile congregations and told them that if they were not circumcised, they could not be saved. This obviously caused devastation and resulted in the ruling of the Council of Jerusalem that the rituals of Judaism were not to be imposed on Gentile converts.

There are various analogous situations today. Men and women of non-European nations can be converted to Orthodoxy without being required to become synthetic white people first. The adoption of white culture is not the gateway to Christianity. The rich heritage of Orthodoxy is well able to accommodate the cultures of others civilizations, obviously excluding those elements in them that might be sinful or unedifying. From its beginning, Orthodoxy has assimilated different cultural features. The earliest church in Jerusalem, which was Hebrew, was swiftly supplemented by Greek and Latin elements. Russia was evangelize by Byzantine Greeks but the Orthodoxy they brought was very soon enhanced by the native Slavic. No men's culture has anything to fear from Orthodoxy; on the other hand those things that are positive in an indigenous culture are gladly received as an enrichment of Orthodoxy. In East Africa, for example, indigenous features have been introduced into the celebration of the Divine Liturgy.

It was Cyprian of Carthage, one of the greatest among the saints and martyrs of Africa, who gave out the well-known aphorism that he who does not have the church as his Mother cannot have God for his father. This is a pearl of divine wisdom which could well have come from Paul himself, because it is an eminently "Pauline". The Apostle's missionary theology is inseparable from his doctrine of the church. The widespread heresy that "all we need for salvation is Christ" and that the church is of marginal importance is utterly alien to the spirit and letter of Paul's teaching. For Paul salvation can never be achieved apart from the Church and its sacraments. The glory of Christ and His saving power can only be found within His Church. This is the central message of Paul's letter to the Ephesians, in which he refers to the Church as the Body of Christ (4:12ff; 5:30). Devine grace and deification comes to the Christian through the sacraments; the dispensers of the sacraments are of course, the clergy.

From this it follows that the building up of indigenous ministry is of the essence of the missionary task. The Church is sacerdotal or it is nothing. Well before the end of the first century the threefold ministry of episcopoi, presbyteroi and diaconai where established in the Church. The Pastoral letters which Paul addressed to Timothy and Titus reveal a Church organization that is so developed that number of scholars have put forward the theory that they were not written by the Apostle of all but are forgeries dating from the second century! No countenance need be given to such fanciful theories. The Pastoral Letters were written by Paul to Timothy and Titus (between AD 62 and 65) clearly show the two younger man functioning as monarchical bishops in their respective dioceses of Ephesus and Crete. The hierarchical and sacerdotal ministry came from our Lord himself and was in full effect in the first century Church.

For 20 centuries men and women of every race and nation on earth have been won for Christ. My own long experience as principal of the Patriarchal Seminary in Nairobi, Kenya, impressed me with the fact that young men of any ethnic background can be trained for the priesthood of our Church. To be sure, I had my share of frustrations and disappointments. At the same time I had the consolation of seeing a continuous procession of fine get men, trained and equipped both spiritually and intellectually, going out into the mission field. What has been achieved in Kenya can be achieved anywhere.

Another important missionary principle that we can learn from Paul is that episcopal oversight must be duly exercised. Paul's first missionary journey was to Cyprus and a segment of Asia Minor known as Galatia. Accompanied by Barnabas (a Cypriot) they went first to Salamis, then crossed overland to Paphos. From there they took a ship to the south coast of Asia Minor. Pressing north into the interior they preached and planted churches in a number of towns. They then retraced their steps to the coast and returned to Syrian Antioch, from which they had originally set sail. When they went over the ground the second time, Paul and the Barnabas revisited each newly-established assembly: that faith of the believers was strengthened and elders ("presbuteroi")were ordained and installed. It goes without saying that the requirement for diligent episcopal oversight applies to every congregation in a missionary milieu, not only to those newly established.

I have been told that most Roman Catholic and Anglican lay folk regard their bishops as remote and rather awe inspiring persons whom they rarely see and with whom they have little to do. Whether this is so or not, one of the strengths of Orthodoxy polity is that our bishops have always had a close relationship with their people and have always been accessible to them.

Paul's pastoral concern did not of course end with personal visits. We are indebted to the Apostle for that large portion of the New Testament comprising his letters to the churches he had founded. As most of us are aware, and large part of each letter contains doctrinal teaching (usually in response to questions raised by converts) and a moral plea for Christian living. It is a revealing commentary on the timeless character of the task that the modern missionary Bishop often finds himself writing letters on the same nature as those of St. Paul, and sometimes dealing with the self-same problems.

On his second missionary journey Paul (this time accompanied by Silas and Timothy) again revisited his converts it Galatia. After a supernatural dream of a man of Macedonia appealing for help, the Apostle, for the first time, set foot on the soil of Europe. Within a day or two, the missionaries were in Philippi and founded a church which has lasted continuously to the present day. Paul went on to found churches in Thessalonica, Berea and Athens, which also continue to flourish.

Up to this time, there had always been a certain sameness in the pattern all of Paul's preaching. Those to whom he preached were either Jews or "God-fearers" familiar with the Hebrew scriptures and the promises it contained. Paul's preaching to these people may be briefly summarized as follows: 

  1. The Scriptures have been fulfilled
  2. The Messiah has come
  3. In the person of Jesus of Nazareth
  4. Whom you slew (or whom your rulers slew)
  5. Whom God raised up
  6. Of which we are witnesses 

In Athens, for the first time in his life, Paul found himself addressing a very different audience. They were neither Jews nor God-fearers but pagan Gentiles. They had no knowledge whatever of the Hebrew scriptures nor of the concept of the coming Messiah. They also knew nothing of earth-shattering events that occurred in Palestine 30 or more years earlier. For such an audience a very different approach was needed. Paul's sermon delivered on Mars Hill (Acts 17:22-32) was given in a language and categories of thought that would be intelligible to pagan Greek philosophers. The sermon met with some success. In the words of verse 34:

… Some men joined him and believed, among them Dionysious the Areopagite, a woman named Damaris, and others with them.

The moral of Paul's outreach in Athens is that the missionary must take careful cognizance of the audience he is seeking to evangelize and must speak to them in a way they will understand. Paul grasped this principle. Many other missionaries do not.

Throughout Paul's letters there is a wealth of practical guidance for the missionary. In some cases the actual advice might still the applicable; in others, the principles laid down provide invaluable guidelines. Many examples could be given but I will cite one. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul answers a number of quarries that have been raised. Among them was the question of meat offered to idols (chapter 8). The Christians in Corinth were all aware that much of the meat offered for sale in the public market had been offered ritually to pagan idols. Was it permissible for Christians to eat it? There was a difference of opinion among the Corinthian Christians. One group held that the meat was contaminated by paganism and should not be eaten under any circumstances. The other group held that since the pagan gods did not really exist, meat offered to them was no different from any other meat; therefore it was permissible to eat it.

Characteristically, Paul resolved the issue by invoking the principle of the love which all Christians must have for one another. With the second group, he agreed that the idols of the heathen where nothing and their gods non-existent. However, the thing that counted more than anything else was the conscience of "the weaker brother". "Therefore" Paul concludes, "if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble" (verse 13). The principle underlying this advice is applicable in all manner of situations.

In 2 Corinthians 12:1-6 Paul speaks of "visions and revelations of the Lord" and gives an account of an enigmatic vision "a man in Christ" who "was caught up to the third heaven." No one doubts that in this passage, Paul was referring to himself; and he gives to himself the title which he no doubt cherished most: "a man in Christ." Paul was many things: missionary, preacher, spiritual genius and very much else. But above all, "a man in Christ." For Paul, this was not just a theological theory. From the first moment that he had stood face-to-face with the risen Lord of the Damascus road, Paul knew that from then on his life must be guided, directed and sustained by Christ. What Paul received was not some new table of commandments to be complied with but a new life to be lived, a life that gives victory over sin and progressive transformation into the divine likeness, in other words, theosis.

Paul found also that in Christ he (and all other Christians) received something further: a new koinonia in which all barriers between Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, men and women, young and old, and between differing racial and cultural groups are broken down, since all are one in Christ Jesus. In Orthodoxy alone is the fullness of this koinonia to be found.