Week 29 – Paul’s Mission

Scripture Reading:  Acts 13-14, 16-20; 1 Thessalonians 1-5; 1 Corinthians 1, 3, 5-6, 10, 12-13, 15-16; Galatians 1, 3, 5-6; Romans 1, 3-6, 8, 12, 15

Significant Events in The Story

The disciples are first called “Christians” in Antioch – Acts 11

Paul’s first missionary journey with Barnabas – Acts 13-14

The Jerusalem Council to decide whether Gentile converts had to obey the Jewish law – Acts 15

Paul’s second missionary journey with Silas and Timothy – Acts 15-18

Paul’s third missionary journey – Acts 19-20

Key Themes

The continued development of the church

This portion of the story of Acts focuses a great deal on the apostle Paul, obviously one of the most important missionaries and preachers in the early church and the author of most of the New Testament.  However, this portion of the story also gives us insight to how Christianity grew and how the church adapted as the message of the gospel began to reach beyond its Jewish roots into the larger Gentile world.  Along the way, the church experienced persecution from without and disagreement within, especially around the role of the Jewish Law in Christianity.  However, Luke wants us to see how the Holy Spirit continued to empower the early church to fulfill Christ’s commission in the face of all of these issues.

Discipleship

Paul traveled hundreds of miles, preaching and teaching and establishing churches all over Arabia and southern Europe.  However, Paul was concerned with more than just numbers of conversions.  He truly wanted to see these new believers grow in their faith and become witnesses unto the world themselves.  His letters, which make up the bulk of the New Testament literature, are written primarily out of a concern to encourage and empower the churches and leaders to let the Holy Spirit use them to share the gospel.

Background Information

They proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews – Acts 13:5

Paul’s standard approach when he went into a city was to go the local synagogue, a Jewish house of prayer.  There he would preach and teach to those who already had faith in God.  Typically, once a core group of believers was formed, then the ministry would expand to Gentiles.

Saul, also known as Paul – Acts 13:9

Saul was his Jewish name, and Paul was his Roman name.  From this point forward, the name Paul is used almost exclusively.

The decision that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem – Acts 16:4

Acts 15 tells the story of the Jerusalem Council, a significant moment in the history of the early church.  A debate had arisen whether Gentile converts to the Way (the early name for Christianity) were subject to the commandments of the Torah, including circumcision and the dietary laws.  Remember that, in its origins, Christianity was a movement within Judaism.  All of the first disciples as well as the first converts were Jews.  Almost of all these first believers saw no reason why their faith in Jesus should prevent or restrict their obedience to the Torah or their continued worship in the Temple.  Now that Gentiles were coming to believe that Jesus was the risen Messiah, there were some who believed that observance of the Torah (the Jewish law) was a part of the Christian life and that Gentile converts should be required to observe the Torah.  The apostles and leaders of the early church gathered in Jerusalem to debate this topic and come to a resolution.  The decision that was reached was that identity in the Christian community was not based on observance of the Torah but the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  Therefore, Gentiles would not be required to observe the Torah.  Galatians 2:1-14 provides Paul’s perspective on the Jerusalem Council.

We – Acts 16:10

Starting here, there are several passages in the rest of the book of Acts that are written in the first person plural.  There is a variety of opinions as to whether this use of the first person plural indicates that Luke actually was part of these journeys or whether he was quoting from another source, perhaps a journal or diary from someone who was on the journey with Paul.  Luke Timothy Johnson, in his commentary on Acts, points out that using the first person in accounts of journeys and sea voyages was common in ancient historical works, even if the narrator of the story was not part of the events.  There is no way to determine the reason for the use of the first person in several passages in the end of Acts or why it shifts back and forth between first person and third person.

Because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome – Acts 18:2

The Roman historian Suetonius tells us that, around 49 B.C., Claudius declared that all Jews should leave Rome because “… of their constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus.”  Chrestus could be a corruption of the word Christ, perhaps indicating that the Christian proclamation was causing disturbances among the Jewish community in Rome.

Baptism of John – Acts 18:25

It is unclear what exactly is meant by the “baptism of John”.  It seems to indicate that Apollos has not received the complete gospel presentation of Jesus, including primarily his death and resurrection.

1 Thessalonians

1 Thessalonians is believed to be the earliest of Paul’s letters and, therefore, the earliest of the New Testament writings.  Thessalonica was the capital of Macedonia and was an important center of trade.  The story of the foundation of the church in Thessalonica is told in Acts 17:1-9.  The church was made up of Jewish and Gentile believers.

The primary purpose of the letter seems to be to give confidence and assurance to a congregation filled with new believers that has faced, and perhaps is facing, persecution from their community and trials within.  The first three chapters consist primarily of Paul’s prayer of thanksgiving for the church’s faith and reflections on his ministry there with the Thessalonians.  In chapters 4 & 5, Paul’s offers general words of encouragement about the Christian life as well as some specific teachings about an issue that seems to be of great concern to the congregation.

It seems that the death of some of the members of the Thessalonian church has raised questions about the return of Christ.  The Thessalonian church believed, as Paul seems to have believed as well, that the second coming of the risen Christ would take place immediately and that all who believed would see it happen.  Because some of the members of the church had died and Christ still had not returned, it seems that at least some members of the congregation feared that either they had missed out on Christ’s return or that those who had died would be left out of the kingdom of God.  In chapter 4 & 5, Paul seeks to encourage this church with the understanding that all who have believed in Christ, be they living or dead, will see the glory of the risen Lord at His return, whenever that may take place.

1 Corinthians

Corinth was one of the most important cities in Greece.  Acts 18:1-11 tells the story of Paul’s visit to Corinth and his work to help establish the church there.  The church seems to be made up of Jews and Gentiles of various social strata.

Paul’s relationship with the Corinthian church could be described as “hot-and-cold”, in part due to issues that we see addressed in 1 Corinthians.  Though Paul helped establish the church, Apollos is sent to help the church soon after their establishment.  The Corinthian congregation seemed to struggle with unity, as many of the issues in 1 Corinthians reveal divisions over the best teacher and the best spiritual gifts.  In 1 Corinthians, we see a strong message from Paul encouraging the church to live in unity with God and with one another.  Paul tries to establish his authority over the church as its founder and “father” in the hope of doing away with all factions, including those who supported him and who likely originally wrote him to ask for help with some of the problems and questions within the church.  However, his claim to authority seems to have stirred up some harsh feelings within some in the Corinthian church, leading to a painful and conciliatory message in 2 Corinthians.

1 Corinthians is also one of the earliest full expressions of Paul’s teaching about Christ, his death, and resurrection.

Galatians

This letter is likely not written just to one congregation but a series of churches in the region of Galatia.  It seems that these churches were made up almost exclusively of Gentile believers who had no familiarity with the Jewish law.

Though Acts never directly describes Paul’s establishment of churches in this region, in this letter he claims to have founded these churches.  However, his authority seems to have come into question.  It is unclear whether teachers have come in from outside of the church or whether certain believers within the congregation have started offering new teachings that differed from Paul’s, calling into question Paul’s reliability as an apostle.

In response, Paul writes this letter which is perhaps one of his most passionate, almost belligerent, works.  Paul directly attacks a teaching that Gentile converts must become obedient to the Torah (including circumcision) as a sign of their Christian faithfulness.  In response to this teaching, Paul offers his clearest teaching of justification by faith alone (Galatians 3:1-5:6).  However, he also cautions that freedom from the law does not entail freedom to do whatever we desire (Galatians 5:7-6:10).

Romans

Unlike the other churches we have talked about here, the church that Paul is writing to in Rome is a church that he did not start.  As a matter of fact, Paul has never visited this church before.  In the previous letters, Paul has been able to draw on a previous relationship with the congregations he is writing to provide a certain amount of authority to his preaching.  In this case, so such previous relationship exists.  Instead, the letter to the Romans serves almost like a resume.  Paul is recommending himself to the church at Rome.  The reason for this is that he is hoping to come to Rome as the beginning of a missionary journey to Spain.  His hope is that the church in Rome will not only welcome him but help finance his westward missionary effort.  Thus, he hopes in this letter to introduce himself to Rome and allow them to see that his teaching and ministry is worthy of their support.

Because of the context, Romans is a very different letter to read from the other letters.  It is much more theological treatise, perhaps even homiletic, in nature than the more pastoral messages of most of the other letters.  Paul’s arguments are much denser as he seeks to explain his understandings of salvation, justification, the role of the Law, and the person of Jesus Christ.  We cannot say that the work is all-encompassing – for example, Paul does not pay anywhere near the attention to eschatology (end times, return of Christ) that he does in a letter like 1 Thessalonians.  However, Romans certainly helps us read deeper into the mind and ministry of Paul and his understanding of the gospel message.

Additional Resources

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