Imitating Paul the Missionary: Acts 20:24
About ten years ago I adopted Acts 20:24 as my life motto. Paul, in his farewell message to the Ephesian elders, remarks: “However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me– the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace (NIV).” These words echo many similar statements made by the apostle throughout his letters. Paul was a man with a clearly defined sense of call and commission that he attributed to as a direct revelation from the Lord Jesus.
Galatians 1:15-16a But when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased 16 to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles . . .
Galatians 2:7-9 On the contrary, they saw that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, just as Peter had been to the Jews. 8 For God, who was at work in the ministry of Peter as an apostle to the Jews, was also at work in my ministry as an apostle to the Gentiles. 9 James, Peter and John, those reputed to be pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the Jews.
Acts 22:15-21 You will be his witness to all men of what you have seen and heard. 16 And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.’ 17 “When I returned to Jerusalem and was praying at the temple, I fell into a trance 18 and saw the Lord speaking. ‘Quick!’ he said to me. ‘Leave Jerusalem immediately, because they will not accept your testimony about me.’ 19 “‘Lord,’ I replied, ‘these men know that I went from one synagogue to another to imprison and beat those who believe in you. 20 And when the blood of your martyr Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.’ 21 “Then the Lord said to me, ‘Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles.'”
Paul’s conversion intimately converged with his call so that it impacted his mission (see Richard N. Longenecker ed., The Road from Damascus). In other words, I do not think one can separate Paul’s conversion with his mission to the Gentiles. Paul was driven by his desire to complete the task of his missionary commission to make disciples of the nations. I would argue that a correct reading of Paul’s letters must give adequate place to Paul as a missionary (see Eckhard Schnabel’s Paul the Missionary).
I guess that I had unwittingly imprisoned Paul in the dusty office of a professor where he spent his days pouring over ancient texts and scholarly tomes. Professor Paul would eloquently expound on the finer points of theology and praxis as he writes to distant congregations. Missionary Paul, however, studies while traveling or during his visits to various cities. (perhaps he would frequent the library in Ephesus). Missionary Paul does theology in the context of communities of diverse ethnicity and background. Missionary Paul seeks to stay connected to congregations of believers with a fierce devotion and parental concern. The letters of Missionary Paul, then, reveal numerous insights into the Gospel that he preached, his concern to demonstrate the inclusion of the Gentiles into the people of God, the challenges he faced from opposing teachers, and various issues affecting congregations.
This aspect of Paul’s life and letters recently came to the forefront as I worked with a group of indigenous people in the Peruvian Amazon. This trip to the jungle occurred in conjunction with some course prep that I am doing on the Life and Literature of Paul. In addition to digesting several seminal volumes of scholarship on Paul, I have committed to reading all of his epistles in Greek in rapid fire succession (in chronological order). What I discovered is that reading Paul in the context of doing missions causes his epistles to pop and crackle with meaning.
I faced challenges of experiencing life in a radically different culture as I adjusted to the reality of the jungle with all of its dangers. Minus the jungle, Paul often gives indication of some cross-cultural challenges.
I struggled with communicating the Gospel to a people with almost no prior knowledge of the bible (not to mention the issue of the literacy rate). This is where, I wish Paul would have written down a copy of what he would teach while establishing a church. We know, in some cases, he would simply remind them of what he taught while with them. At other times, Paul would clarify or expand upon his earlier teachings. It is obvious, however, that he definitely taught them a significant amount of biblical and doctrinal content.
I sought to work closely with the pastor in the village in order to help train him for his role as a church leader.
To this day, my mind returns to various concerns that I have for the small congregation of believers in that village.
I was extremely grateful for the other members of our team who all contributed to the mission in different ways according to their skills and gifts.
We all experienced the need to build trust with the people and win their respect. This hit me when reading Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians. Concerning his missionary model and strategy, he wrote:
2 Thessalonians 3:7-9 For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, 8 nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. 9 We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to make ourselves a model for you to follow.
I adopted this as my pattern for ministry in the village. While my time there was limited, I can tell you that this model made a significant difference in the way the community perceived us. I believe that we went from merely being a group of gringos, to being able to share the life and love of Christ in a manner that was well received.
I have come to realize that Acts 20:24 is really just an entry point for imitating Paul the Missionary. May I continue to learn what it means to give absolute primacy to the task of testifying to the Gospel of God’s grace in Christ among the nations.