Ezra Chong—Bercham, Malaysia
Paul embarked on at least three missionary journeys, with some counting his voyages to Rome and Spain as a fourth. In my opinion, the first journey is the most important because Paul learned a number of important lessons, which set him in good stead for the rest of his service to the Lord. In this article, I will share these for the benefit of our church workers today.
THE WILL OF GOD
God has His own plan and timing in relation to the ministry and His workers. This is evident in Paul’s example.
Acts 9 describes the conversion of Paul, formerly known as Saul. He joined the disciples in Damascus, and “[i]mmediately he preached the Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God” (Acts 9:19–20).
Everyone was amazed that this persecutor of Christians had converted and was now fervently preaching Jesus:
But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who dwelt in Damascus, proving that this Jesus is the Christ. (Acts 9:22)
However, his zeal soon attracted the attention of the unbelieving Jews, who, after some days, plotted to kill him (Acts 9:23). The disciples managed to help Paul escape, letting him down over a wall in a basket (Acts 9:25). Such were the beginnings of Paul’s life as a Christian. Things did not improve when he arrived at Jerusalem and attempted to join the disciples there. The latter were afraid of him and did not believe that he was one of them (Acts 9:26). Fortunately, Barnabas came forward to bring Paul to the apostles and explain how he had encountered the Lord on the road to Damascus, and that he was now boldly proclaiming the name of Jesus.
In Jerusalem, Paul tried to evangelize and debate with the Hellenists. But, like the Jews, they also sought to kill Paul (Acts 9:29). Once they discovered the unbelieving Hellenists’ intentions, his fellow Christians took Paul to Caesarea and sent him on to his hometown of Tarsus (Acts 9:30).
We can imagine that Paul must have been confused as to why his new faith in Jesus and his zeal in preaching brought nothing but trouble and danger. As he would later recall:
“Now it happened, when I returned to Jerusalem and was praying in the temple, that I was in a trance and saw Him saying to me, ‘Make haste and get out of Jerusalem quickly, for they will not receive your testimony concerning Me.’ So I said, ‘Lord, they know that in every synagogue I imprisoned and beat those who believe on You. And when the blood of Your martyr Stephen was shed, I also was standing by consenting to his death, and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.’ Then He said to me, ‘Depart, for I will send you far from here to the Gentiles.’ ” (Acts 22:17–21)
Paul was doing his utmost to preach Jesus as the Son of God. Yet the Lord was telling him to leave quickly, as the Jews would not heed his words. Paul then attempted to reason with the Lord. He pointed out that, as he had previously been a prominent Jewish leader—one who had demonstrated great fervor by imprisoning Christians—would they not see his dramatic turnaround as proof of this gospel’s truth? But God’s thinking differed from Paul’s. God’s will was to send Paul away from the Jews, and to make him an apostle to the Gentiles. But He did not do it immediately; there would be a long period of preparation—one that Bible scholars estimate lasted at least a decade.
Acts 1:8 sets out God’s plan: the gospel would first be preached in Jerusalem and Judea, targeting the Jews (Acts 1–7); then, it would go to Samaria (Acts 8). This latter would be a transitional stage—a watershed—as it would be a massive cultural shift for the Jewish Christians to preach to, and associate with, non–Jews. As it transpired, the apostles in Jerusalem sent Peter and John to the Samaritans, a people of mixed heritage, for this task. The final stage would be to preach to the end of the earth—to the Gentiles (Acts 13).
But when the Jews saw the multitudes, they were filled with envy; and contradicting and blaspheming, they opposed the things spoken by Paul. Then Paul and Barnabas grew bold and said, “It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken to you first; but since you reject it, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, behold, we turn to the Gentiles. For so the Lord has commanded us:
‘I have set you as a light to the Gentiles, That you should be for salvation to the ends of the earth.’ ” (Acts 13:45–47)
God’s will for Paul, disclosed over a decade earlier, was finally about to be fulfilled.
As they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, “Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then, having fasted and prayed, and laid hands on them, they sent them away. (Acts 13:2–3)
In Acts 13:9, Saul’s Hebrew name is changed to Paul, a Greek name, as is fitting for an evangelist dedicated to the Gentiles. In Acts 14:4 and 14, Paul and Barnabas are referred to as “apostles.” In his letter to the Galatians, Paul wrote that the three key workers of the church, Peter, James and John, all acknowledged God’s plan that Paul and Barnabas would be their fellow workers—apostles to the uncircumcised, the Gentiles (Gal 2:7, 9). Previously, Paul might have assumed that his fervency and zeal were sufficient for doing God’s work; but he came to learn that God has His own plan.
When we do church work today, we, likewise, need to understand the Lord’s will. This includes being clear on which area of the ministry He wants us to focus on. Some time ago, a faithful and zealous worker in the True Jesus Church aspired to become a preacher. For reasons unclear, he was unsuccessful in doing so. He pondered over the reasons for a long time, but continued to serve the Lord faithfully. It was not until he was elected to take on an important role to oversee God’s work in the General and International Assemblies that he finally understood; his colleagues remarked to him, “We can see that this is God’s plan for you.” He stood and testified for the Lord, shedding tears as he did so.
Testimonies like this remind us not to be discouraged. We may want to serve in a particular area, but it is important to wait for the timing and plan of the Lord to be revealed. Meanwhile, we should remain faithful. When Paul came to understand God’s purpose for him, he was able to serve Him faithfully to the end.
GOD’S WORK, NOT OUR WORK
Now when they had come and gathered the church together, they reported all that God had done with them, and that He had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles. (Acts 14:27)
After the first missionary journey, Paul returned to Antioch and reported on all that God had done. He did not talk about what he had done, for he knew that it was not his work. This is a good reminder that, as God’s servants, we may work hard in our service, but the outcome does not depend on us—it is in the hands of the Lord.
In church, there was a preacher who was sent to minister in different regions; he served God day and night, visiting lost sheep and doing outreach work. He thought that by putting in much effort, he would eventually reap the fruits of his labor. But things did not go as planned; in fact, he saw no results whatsoever. There came a point when he realized that he needed to rely on God. He knelt down to pray with tears, reflecting on the reasons for the poor outcome. Amazingly, after many prayers, he noticed that the lost believers started to return to church of their own accord. Moreover, truth-seekers came with their friends. Now, he understood that the ministry and its outcome belonged to God. Many years later, he encountered a similar situation. And when he knelt down to pray, God gave him the same experience. He regretted not relying on God from the start, and having to learn the same lesson a second time.
In contrast, this was not a lesson Paul ever forgot—he never failed to emphasize what “God had done” above his own works (Acts 15:4, 12, 21:17–19). Therefore, when he wrote to the church in Corinth, he took care to point out that workers have different roles and responsibilities, and there is no need to compare, compete, or take sides to argue whose work is more important.
Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers through whom you believed, as the Lord gave to each one? I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. … For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, you are God’s building. (1 Cor 3:5–6, 9)
As God’s fellow workers, we must work with the Lord. We should not make misguided claims, saying, “Thank God, the Lord worked with me.” Such statements suggest that it is my plan, my work, and the Lord Jesus follows my lead. The emphasis is on “I,” and on “me.” Are we the master and Jesus the worker? Does Jesus follow us? Is it our plan, our work? No. It is the other way round. Paul was very clear on these points. He was aware that he was merely fulfilling his part of the work; it is God who leads and gives the growth.
In Revelation 3:7, Jesus says He has the key of David, which opened the door of evangelism for the church in Philadelphia—a door that no one can shut. Paul uses the same metaphor on a number of occasions, reporting how God opened the door of faith to the Gentiles (Acts 14:27, 1 Cor 16:9a; 2 Cor 2:12). He also makes this request:
Continue earnestly in prayer, being vigilant in it with thanksgiving; meanwhile praying also for us, that God would open to us a door for the word, to speak the mystery of Christ, for which I am also in chains. (Col 4:2–3)
Paul learned the lesson that, as it was the Lord’s work he was doing, God would be the One to open the door for evangelism. Today, we should pray that the Lord opens this door for us too, so that we can see Him manifest His divine power. As God’s workers, we certainly have to do our part, but we must also entrust every aspect of the work to Him and ask Him to direct us. When the work is completed smoothly, do not say, or even think, it was “because of me.”
KNOW THAT THE LORD STANDS BY US
But you have carefully followed
my doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, love, perseverance,
persecutions, afflictions, which happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra—what
persecutions I endured. And out of them all the Lord
delivered me. (
Paul wrote to Timothy to tell him about the trials he faced during his first missionary journey. In Antioch, he and Barnabas faced blasphemy and opposition from the Jews, who were filled with jealousy because of the response of the listening crowds (Acts 13:45). Instigated by the Jews, prominent people of the city persecuted them and expelled them from the city (Acts 13:50). In Iconium, the Jews stirred up the Gentiles to go against Paul and Barnabas (Acts 14:2), and a violent attempt was made by both Jews and Gentiles to stone them (Acts 14:5). In Lystra, the Jews from the previous cities rallied the crowds and stoned Paul, dragging him out of the city and leaving him for dead (Acts 14:19).
Paul related these trials to
Timothy, so that Timothy would understand that there would be opposition,
obstacles, persecution and sufferings (
As God’s workers, we should likewise expect to undergo trials and tribulations; we should not think our journey will be smooth sailing. Paul forewarned Timothy, so that he would know what to expect, so he could endure, as Paul had endured. This lesson also helped Paul to endure later in his ministry:
At my first defense no one
stood with me, but all forsook me. May it not be charged against them. But the Lord stood with me and strengthened me, so
that the message might be preached fully through me, and that all the Gentiles
might hear. Also I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion. And the Lord
will deliver me from every evil work and preserve me for His heavenly kingdom.
To Him be glory forever and ever. Amen! (
Paul was imprisoned in Rome and abandoned by everyone on account of fear. Far from being resentful, he said, “May it not be charged against them.” God was his reliance and comfort: “But the Lord stood with me and strengthened me” (4:17).
The same challenges are likely to face church workers today. Recently, church workers at an Eastern Hemisphere meeting learned of obstacles faced by workers visiting two different countries. In one country, an elder was detained at the airport; he quickly texted his fellow workers to pray for him. After interrogation, he was deported. In the second country, a preacher was questioned at length by immigration officers on the purpose of his visit. It was not a pleasant experience. So we know there will be challenges for the workers going into pioneering areas, but we must trust in the Lord. It is natural to feel anxious, but we can pray to God and trust that His will be done.
Paul learned a number of important lessons on his first missionary journey. First, he came to understand the will and timing of the Lord, and that God’s work is not dependent solely on man’s zeal. Second, Paul learned that the work belongs to God, and not man. God is the One who opens the door of salvation, whereas the workers are merely doing their part to work with God. Third, Paul learned that he had to undergo hardship, persecution and difficulties, and that he needed to endure to the end. The Lord delivered him, but when the time came, he was willing to die for the Lord.
May the Lord strengthen us to serve Him with the same spirit that Paul did!