I would love to tell you the story of each one of my apostles (a Greek word meaning anyone sent on a mission for the sender). They fanned out, and served in many different ways and varying cultural situations. Most of them never had their names recorded in your human history. But I will just focus on one individual who became known among my Messiah people, first as a ruthless enemy then as the one who planted my churches all the way from Jerusalem to Illyricum (present day Croatia, Romans 15:19).
I had noticed his tremendous zeal to study the Torah (Law of Moses) as a young man. He was born a Roman citizen (Acts 22:3, 25-28) in Tarsus (a port city in present day Turkey) from an immigrant Jewish family of the tribe of Benjamin (Philippians 3:5). Rather symbolically he was named after Saul, the first King of Israel, who had to be rejected in favor of King David (1 Samuel 15:10-11, 34). As a young man, Saul was sent to Jerusalem (Acts 26:4-5) for his rabbinical studies under Gamaliel (Acts 22:3, see Acts 5:33-39), who was the most respected rabbi of that time. His teacher was a liberal minded Pharisee, who on one occasion intervened in the Sanhedrin to save the apostles from certain death (Acts 5:33-39).
That went against Saul's view that my church had to be eradicated at any price (Galatians 1:13, 23). The result was that he moved from the open-minded Pharisaism of his teacher , and became rabidly fanatical (Galatians 1:14). Usually when that happens the person is fighting against the gracious invitation of the Holy Spirit.
But the Spirit used every angle to get through to him. A turning point was when one of Saul's student friends named Stephen was arrested and brought before the council for preaching about me (Acts 6:8-13). As Stephen defended himself he looked like an angel from heaven (Acts 6:15), and he spoke so persuasively by the power of the Spirit that Saul was enraged (Acts 7:55). I was so moved by Stephen's words that I stood up next to the Father, and let my faithful witness see me in my glory (Acts 7:56).
When they dragged Stephen out for a lynching, they laid their coats at the feet of Saul, who acted as the rabbi witness for the occasion (Acts 7:58, 8:1). Saul was still convinced that his friend deserved death for the blasphemy of preaching that I am the Messiah. But he never forgot those rocks being hurled at Stephen as he committed himself to die for me, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit" (Acts 7:59). But that was not all. Before he died Stephen knelt down and prayed what I had prayed on the cross. "Lord, do not hold this sin against them" (Acts 7:60).
Filled with a terrible mix of guilt and anger Saul then became the leader of a vicious persecution against my followers. He took temple guards with him into homes and dragged men and women off into prison (Acts 8:3, 22:4). Even under torture not one of the men or women denied me (Acts 26:11). It was awesome, and I appreciated their courage.
To Saul's horror Philip, one of Stephen's friends and an elder of the Greek speaking congregation in Jerusalem (Acts 6:5), escaped to the city of Samaria and proclaimed me as Messiah there (Acts 8:4). The whole city responded with great enthusiasm, and were baptized in large numbers (Acts 8:12). By the time Saul heard the news, some of my twelve apostles had already organized a church of the Holy Spirit there (Acts 8:14-17). And on the way back they planted other churches in the region of Samaria (8:25).
Saul now realized there was no way to contain the growth of my church in the areas of Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria. Some of my disciples had confessed under torture that the Holy Spirit intended to lead them out as witnesses "to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8), and that horrified him. Then he heard that there was already a church in Damascus, the capital of the neighboring country of Syria. This development had to be stopped before the whole diaspora (Jews of the dispersion) became my followers.
So he got letters from the high priest in Jerusalem addressed to the leaders of all the synagogues of Damascus. They were instructed to find, and help him arrest and bring to Jerusalem any who belonged to my Way (Acts 9:1,2). You remember I had told my disciples I was "the Way, the Truth, and the Life" (John 14:6). So my disciples called themselves followers of the Way, and that's how they had become known among their opponents (Acts 24:4, 14, 22) who did not even want to mention my name.
For Saul and his posse of temple soldiers it was a long ten day walk from Jerusalem to Damascus. They spent the sabbath in Capernaum , where to his horror there were large numbers of my people right there in the synagogues (see Matthew 4:13, Mark 1:39, 2:1). But to Saul they were just ignorant Galileans of no great importance, and he had to press on to go for the jugular in Syria from where the trade routes went west to Rome and east into Persia and Arabia.
I watched him trying to fight back the vision of his friend Stephen being martyred. And that alternated with visions of the women and men he had tortured to make them recant, and all they did was pray for him (Acts 26:11). Meanwhile hundreds of my disciples were praying for their friends in Damascus and some, bless them, were praying for Saul's conversion. Finally I could see he was ready, and I stepped in decisively. I let my glory shine much brighter than the midday sun, and Saul and his men fell flat on the ground (Acts 26:13-14).
Then I said to him in Hebrew "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?" And I told him he was like a stubborn ox kicking against the farmer's goad. He asked me who I was, and I said "I am Jesus whom you are persecuting" (Acts 26:14-15). Immediately he realized it was not the people of the Way he was persecuting but me, the Messiah. And right then I made known to him the mission I would send him to engage in among the Gentile nations (Acts 26:16).
When he got up and opened his eyes he couldn't see anything, and his men had to lead him by the hand into Damascus (Acts 9:3). He remained sightless for three days, and refused to eat or drink anything (Acts 9:9), so I was able to have long prayer conversations alone with him. The first thing he did was to tell his men to burn the letters addressed to the synagogue leaders. Then he asked me to forgive him for all he had done against me and my followers. All the tradition he had learned and taught had fallen apart, and he had nothing to replace it. How could he learn about me and my plan? And rather wonderfully he began praying for my disciples, and asked me if he could join them?
That was not easy to arrange. They were all terrified of him, and nobody would believe he had undergone such a change of heart (Acts 9:26). But there was one disciple named Ananias who might be willing to bring Saul into the fellowship of my people. I came to him in a vision, and told him to go and look for Saul, who was in the city in a lodging on Straight Street, and was now praying to me. In spite of some hesitation he agreed to go, and I immediately told Saul he was coming. Ananias courageously went into the house, laid his hands on his head, called him Brother Saul. Then he said that I had sent him to receive his sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 9:10-17).
As soon as Saul could see again, Ananias introduced him to a group of my disciples and they immediately baptized him and he was welcomed to eat and drink with them. On the sabbath day he boldly went into two of the synagogues and proved to them that I was the Messiah (Acts 9:22). Obviously it was not long before some planned to kill him, but his new friends lowered him in a basked over the wall of the city and he escaped by the skin of his teeth (Acts 9:25, 2 Corinthians 11:32-33).
The Spirit guided him into Arabia for three years (Galatians 1:17-18). He was safe in a quiet oasis there, but he was very frustrated without his Scriptures to read. But two hundred and fifty miles away the Spirit moved two of my disciples to collect his belongings from his lodging in Jerusalem, and my servant Barnabas (Acts 4:36-37) paid for fast camels to enable them to cross the desert, find him, and deliver all his precious scrolls and books safely within that first week. You can imagine Saul's astonishment, and that got him into the habit of thanking me again and again every day (Ephesians 1:15, Philippians 4:6, 1 Thessalonians 5:18). Month after month the Spirit helped him study and rethink all that he would need to be able to teach and write about me among the nations.
So much was so different. That women could be baptized and study the torah on the same basis as men was a strange idea for a male chauvinistic rabbi. Then he read "God created humankind in his image . . . male and female he created them" (Genesis 1:27). There were women who had been great prophets (Exodus 15:20, Judges 4:4, 2 Kings 22:14). The prophecy of Joel explained a lot: "I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy . . . even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit" (Joel 2:28-29). He was able to obtain a copy of my teachings that Matthew had written down, and that suggested a totally new view of mutuality between men and women in matters of marriage, adultery, and divorce.
But the biggest change was from the idea that the Messiah would come one day in the future to seeing me as the Son of God, the Lord King Messiah who had from the beginning reigned among the nations (as the prophets had taught). Gradually he came to see that I am now the architect and head of the church, and the Holy Spirit is my agent to bring it into being in every place.
By the end of three years he was impatient to get to work. But first he wanted to meet those he had persecuted so badly in Jerusalem. But nobody could believe he was now one of them. Finally it was Barnabas who found a way to introduce him to my apostles. But when he began preaching among the Greek speaking Jews they intended to kill him, and my disciples hustled him down to Caesarea and put him on a ship to Tarsus (Acts 9:26-30). There he began planting churches in Cilicia, which was the first province on the way towards Rome (Romans 15:19, Acts 11:25).
Then a new development occurred in the big commercial city of Antioch. So far most of my disciples had been Jews. Now Greek speaking non-Jews were also being baptized, and huge numbers were added to my church there. Again it was Barnabas who walked the 150 miles to Tarsus, found Saul, and brought him to Antioch to teach the newly baptized. It was there that my disciples were first called Christians (Greek for Christ people, or Messiah people, Acts 11:19-26). And Saul, who was a Roman citizen, was given the Latin name Paulus, which would be more acceptable in areas controlled by Roman officials.
With the support of that big church in Antioch Paul and Barnabas set off on their first missionary journey across to Cyprus and then up into Pamphylia, the next province to the west of Cilicia (Acts 13:4, 13). In each place they looked to the Holy Spirit to form a local church, and they appointed elders to take care of the new disciples (Acts 14:23). Paul was very disappointed with Barnabas's nephew Mark, who quit the team and went home to his family in Jerusalem. That caused a serious misunderstanding between Paul and Barnabas when they were about to go out on their second journey. It was an ugly scene, and I think Paul was too harsh, but the net result was that there were now two apostolic teams instead of one (Acts 15:36-40). And soon other teams were formed to go out to the east into Arabia and north west into Persia and India.
Meanwhile a very big problem had arisen as a result of my telling Peter that the kosher food laws were not important to me. I had suggested this when I was teaching my disciples (Mark 7:14-19), but it did not sink in. As a good Jew Peter had never eaten any non-kosher food, so I had to free him by telling him three times to "kill and eat" and explained "What God has made clean, you must not call profane" (Acts 10:9-16). Eventually he realized that people who did not keep to kosher food were just as acceptable to me as those who did (Acts 10:34, 11:7-12). This principle made it possible for my Jewish disciples in Antioch to accept the newly baptized Gentile disciples as fellow Messiah people.
But this did not please my disciples in Jeruslaem who were still living strictly by the traditional Jewish laws. Some of them arrived in Antioch and started teaching that the new converts should be circumcised and eat only kosher food. Paul and Barnabas argued fiercely against this, knowing that such rigorism would bring our mission among the nations to an immediate halt (Acts 15:1-2).
A council was called in Jerusalem, and after much discussion the Holy Spirit brought them to a good compromise. The gentile converts would not have to be circumcised or keep kosher laws. But they were asked to avoid four things that Jews found particularly obnoxious. The converts should be taught to avoid meat that had been sacrificed to an idol. Some foods were cooked in the blood of animals, and Jews would find this very upsetting. As would be the common practice of eating meat from which the blood had not been drained. Sleeping around and going in to prostitutes (porneia behavior) was a denial of our kind of love (Acts 15:28-29). That set the groundwork for churches of all nations in every place, and Paul gave himself to this task with great energy.
During Paul's second journey to the west there was an amusing incident. He had intended to go directly west towards Ephesus in Asia Minor, and then he tried to go north towards the Black Sea but the Holy Spirit prevented him from going in those directions. Then he arrived in Troas, and Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia calling him over to help. But when he and Silas and Dr. Luke arrived in Philippi they found there was no synagogue, only some women who met for prayer. The first convert was a business woman named Lydia who was baptized with her household servants and relatives (Acts 16:11-15). It was then he realized that perhaps the man of Macedonia had been a woman? And in fact one of the two congregations in Philippi met in her home (Acts 16:15, 40). The other congregation began with the baptism of the city jailor and his big family (Acts 16:27-34).
After planting churches in Macedonia, Paul went south into Athens. The city had badly degenerated from its golden age four hundred years before. And the citizens were more interested in discussing the latest ideas than in hearing about my resurrection and becoming my disciples (Acts 17:15-34). So he moved on to the wealthy trading city of Corinth. By then Paul's funds had run out, and he had to go back to working as a tentmaker (Acts 18:3). In spite of opposition he stayed a year and a half, and the Holy Spirit was able to bring a strong church into being there with many gifted people (Acts 18:1-11, 1 Corinthians 1:4-7).
While in Corinth Paul stayed with Aquila and Priscilla, who also were tent makers. They agreed to accompany him across the Aegean to help him establish the church in Ephesus right under the nose of the priests of the great temple of Diana (Acts 18:18-21). He left them there, and after a brief visit to Jerusalem and Antioch, he visited the churches which by then were growing all over the province of Galatia (Acts 18:23). He then came back by land across to Ephesus, and over a period of two years he used a rented lecture hall to teach hundreds of disciples from all over Asia Minor (Acts 19:8-10).
Having given you that brief chronicle of the main places here Paul worked, I want you to realize that this church planting work was done at very great cost. I had warned him about this from the beginning (Acts 9:16). And when it happened this is how he described it : "Imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death. Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three time I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from bandits, dangers from my own people, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And beside other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches" (2 Corinthians 11:23-28).
Throughout all that he kept turning to the Holy Spirit for the power to continue, and of course I was with him every step of the way. On many occasions I sent one of my messengers to help (Acts 27:23-24), or I would come to him in a vision in the night (Acts 18:19). Once when he was ready to quit I came and stood right by him to encourage him (Acts 23:11).
I might add that he lived with a terrible physical handicap. I will not tell you what it was, so you can imagine it was your own chronic bodily problem. Having prayed for the sicknesses and diseases and afflictions of hundreds of other people, and seen them miraculously healed, he could not understand why I did not answer prayer for him. On three occasions he spent long hours in prayer with me appealing for relief, but I finally said to him "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12:7-9). And to my astonishment he graciously accepted that.
Some of my followers imagined I was heartless and didn't care. But you remember the psalm that helped me when I was being crucified. "Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted" (Psalm 53:4). That bearing of my servants' infirmities and diseases wasn't just that day when I was hanging on the cross. I felt with Paul, as I do with every one of my servants, in every experience of their pain and mental suffering. But Paul was one of the very few who grasped that he was actually sharing in my sufferings (Philippians 3:10). As he wrote in one of his letters, "I am completing what is lacking in the Messiah's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church" (Colossians 1:24).
Let me just add what seemed to upset Paul most of all. He had planted churches in the province of Galatia, and taught them to live by faith in the Holy Spirit to empower and change and perfect them. Then he heard the news that false teachers had come in and moved them back into legalism (Galatians 1:6-9). He felt they had been bewitched by a monstrous counterattack of Satan himself (Galatians 3:1-3). He fired off a letter to be read in all the churches of Galatia, but he realized that this idea of being put right by self-effort and good works was going to be a perennial problem. False teachers (he called them savage wolves) would inevitably come in as soon as he had moved away (Acts 20:29-31). He therefore worked many long hours composing a letter to the church in Rome, which he hadn't yet visited, with copies to all the other churches (see the appendices attached in Romans 15:14-33, and 16:1-27). It explained in detail the difference between self-effort and the power of the Spirit to empower and perfect my disciples (Romans 1:16, 5:5, 8:4-6, 15:13). And he felt for his own Jewish people who had rejected my good news of the power of the Spirit in favor of their own attempt at good works (Romans 9:32, 10:3). That letter has turned out to be one of the most important weapons in the arsenal of my church (Ephesians 6:11).
You can see Paul was a giant among my apostles, and I hated to see him
finally executed by Nero, my anti-Messiah. But that story belongs to an
account I must give of my first major intervention as I continued my reign
among the nations.
Based on a reference to Paul's defense and delivery from "the lion's mouth" (2 Timothy 4:16-17, see also 4:6-7) and the statement that he planted churches in Crete (Titus 1:5), some think that Paul was released and went on further missionary journeys to Spain (as he hoped in Romans 15:24, 28).
But there is no evidence for this apart for a statement by Clement of Alexandria (c.150-215 AD) that Paul traveled "to the limit of the west." Modern scholars have argued that the Pastoral Epistles were written (pseudonymously) by someone else using Paul's name.
A far simpler explanation is that when Paul "set sail from Ephesus" (Acts 18:21) during his second missionary journey he took a ship to Crete (a brief overnight sail) with his companion Titus (2 Corinthians 7:6-7, Galatians 2:1). After planting churches there, he left Titus to organize them with their own elders (Titus 1:5, as in Acts 14:23). He then sailed across to Caesarea, went up to Jerusalem, then returned to his base in Antioch before setting out on the third journey (Acts 18:22- 23).
Obviously in his Acts chronicle of Paul's life Luke left out an account of what happened in many places (evidenced by the countless beatings, imprisonments, and three shipwrecks listed in 2 Corinthians 11:23-26).
Planting churches in the numerous towns of Crete (Titus 1:5) would have been a necessary part of Paul's claim to have evangelized the whole area from Jerusalem to Illyricum (Romans 15:19). And the names listed in the Pastoral Epistles all fit the period of the second and third missionary journeys (1 Timothy 6:20, 2 Timothy 3:9-20, Titus 3:12-13). They are very unlikely to refer to further journeys after the imprisonment in Rome at least fifteen years later.
Chapter 17 .....