It seems the apostle Paul traveled about 15,500 miles in his ministry, and around 8,700 of those miles were on foot! These are the calculations of New Testament scholar Eckhard Schnabel. That’s an incredible range for the first century. We can trace out his missionary plot points in Google maps — in fact it has been done already — but what can we learn from those trips for our missionary work today? It’s a question from Chee Hong, a listener.
“Pastor John, hello from Malaysia! What can we learn from Paul’s missionary journeys? Can we say he strategized his movements based on his accessibility? Sometimes of course he was prohibited by the Holy Spirit to go certain places. I’m wondering about this question for myself and also to guide potential missionaries on how we choose where to go. What do we learn about Paul’s missional strategies from his geographical movements?”
Normative for Today?
I don’t think that the way Paul acted geographically or his regard towards cities, for example, is mandatory for the church today. In other words, descriptive activities in the Book of Acts may or may not be normative for us depending on whether Luke, the inspired writer, gives clues that the description he’s giving is intended by him to be authoritative for later generations. I don’t think that’s usually the case.
However, just like we would be foolish in reading biography not to learn from the strategies of the best missionaries, we would be idiotic not to pay close attention to Paul and his strategies, because he was one of the greatest missionaries of all.
Let me mention three of his strategies and then we can work together on whether these have a direct impact on us or not, or how they do.
1. Three Priorities
On Paul’s first missionary journey, described in Acts 13 and 14, three things marked his geographic strategy.
1. He went to cities — Salamis, Perga, Antioch of Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra.
2. He usually focused on the synagogue first in those towns.
3. He backtracked, revisiting the same towns on his way home, discipling people, telling them they’re going to be afflicted, and appointing elders in all the churches.
So, we should give serious consideration to the wisdom of focusing on population centers that may have some kind of religious expression. For Paul, it was synagogue. But it would be some kind of religious expression that might provide a redemptive analogy, a link to make the gospel more readily understandable.
But I don’t say this as an absolute, because we don’t know whether Paul did serious evangelizing in the smaller villages between these towns. We just don’t know.
There’s nothing in the book of Acts that says Luke’s narrative is exhaustive. We know it’s not. You can read it in an hour, and it covers years. So I would never want anyone to think that the only biblically mandated way to do frontier missions is to go to cities. That may be wise, but there are other factors that might, in a certain situation, say, “No, that’s not the best strategy.”
2. Urban Centers
Here’s a second strategy that we can look at. We noticed that Paul sometimes spent an extended period of time in one of those urban centers, and the gospel spread to the entire region. Evidently, this was because people come and go. There were communication and transportation lines between that urban center and the outlying areas and villages.
“Paul’s ambition and strategy was to preach the gospel where Christ had not already been named.”
Listen to Acts 19:8–10 as Paul describes his first longer stay in Ephesus:
And he entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God. But when some became stubborn and continued in unbelief, speaking evil of the Way before the congregation, he withdrew from them and took the disciples with him, reasoning daily in the hall of Tyrannus. This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.
That little phrase “so that” shows that the effect of Paul’s lingering for two years in one single urban center, instead of jumping around to all those villages, resulted in the whole region hearing the word.
So we should seriously consider whether one effective strategy for reaching a region is to go to a place that may have lines of transportation and communication from an urban center. Focusing on that center might be more strategic than focusing, say, on one of the outlying villages. That’s my second observation that we could learn from.
3. Frontier Missions
Here’s the last one, and probably the most important, I think, for the task remaining for us — namely, Paul’s amazing testimony in Romans 15:18–24.
I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience — by word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God — so that from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum [picture Jerusalem down in southern Palestine and Albania — northern Italy] I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ; and thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation, but as it is written, ‘Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand.’ This is the reason why I have so often been hindered from coming to you [that is, you people in Rome, because I’ve been trying to plant the gospel in all these unreached regions so I can get out of here and let the evangelists finish the work]. But now, since I no longer have any room for work in these regions [it’s astonishing that he would say that], and since I have longed for many years to come to you, I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain, and to be helped on my journey there by you, once I have enjoyed your company for a while.
So, here are my five brief concluding observations from that text.
1. His ambition and strategy was to preach the gospel where Christ had not already been named.
“Nobody should feel guilty in Rome that they didn’t go with Paul. He didn’t invite them. It’s not their job.”
2. With that definition of your ministry, a region can be completed — you can think in terms of closure and completion if that’s the definition of your ministry. The gospel can be, as he said, “fulfilled,” even though lots of people are left to be evangelized. They’re not all saved, but local factors — like Timothy being left behind at Ephesus — can get the job done with evangelism. Paul’s finished. He’s out of there because his job is to bring the gospel where it’s never been heard.
3. Not everybody in missions is called to have this kind of assignment, to preach where Christ has not been named. Timothy was taken from Lystra, his hometown, and planted in Ephesus. He was a kind of missionary. He crossed geography, maybe some cultural differences, no doubt. Paul left him in Ephesus: “Now, you, Timothy, get the job done in these wider regions around here as a pastor there in Ephesus. I’m going to Spain because that’s my calling.”
4. Paul sought help from the churches to support him in his mission to Spain. It’s not only a missionary who feels responsible for going where Christ’s name hasn’t been named, but churches feel it and get behind him. Nobody should feel guilty in Rome that they didn’t go with him. He didn’t invite them. It’s not their job: “You stay there and evangelize Rome, and send me with whatever money you can because I’m going to go where the gospel has never been preached.”
5. Today, I think it is very likely that God wills for there to be at least three kinds of missionary types, or maybe two kinds and a subcategory under number two:
First, a Paul-type missionary, always pressing to the frontiers, where there’s no church and no gospel witness at all. Call it a frontier missionary. May God raise up more and more and more of them in our day.
Second, a Timothy-type missionary, who leaves one place and goes to another place. This could be like going to Dubai and being a pastor. I’ve got several friends who’ve done that. That’s a Timothy-type missionary, I would say.
Third would be all those people who evidently went out from the church in Ephesus and shared the gospel all over Asia so that Paul could say, when he’d spent two years in Asia, “The word of the Lord has been heard all over Asia.” Well, he didn’t take it. Timothy didn’t take it. This is just average Christians moving around in the world along communication — and we would say internet — lines and transportation lines, and they’re taking the gospel everywhere they go.
Those would be at least three pointers from Paul’s missionary strategies that would inform ours today.
But we should be sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s leading for whatever new thing God may want to put on our hearts today for finishing the Great Commission. We should not feel restricted, saying, “Whoa! I didn’t see Paul do that, so maybe I shouldn’t do it.” I don’t think there’s any hint in the Bible that we should limit our strategies to the ones Paul used.