Apostle Paul

094-Paul's No Place Left Vision: Nathan Shank

Nathan Shank explains what Paul meant when he said, “Now . . . there is no more place for me to work in these regions” (Rom 15:23). Nathan unpacks how Paul could say that his job was finished across the eastern half of the Roman Empire.

How can we cast vision, and trust God, for "no place left"?

Paul among the Nabateans

nabataeans.jpg According to conventional wisdom, Paul spent three years in the solitude of Arabia between his conversion and visiting Jerusalem.

It's assumed he spent the time in prayer and study preparing for his future ministry.

There's no evidence Paul spent the three years in quiet contemplation. We just assume he did.

Here's what we do know, according to Eckhard Schnabel and Martin Hengel and FF Bruce:

1. Paul's missionary work began in Damascus immediately after his conversion (Acts 9:19-22).

He proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues as the Son of God and promised Messiah.

The opposition stirred up by Paul's missionary work is an indication that his preaching was successful and resulted in a good number of Jewish believers in Jesus.

2. Paul went to Arabia to continue his missionary work in obedience to God's call (Gal 1:15-17).

Arabia (in the region of modern Jordan) was not just desert, but also a flourishing civilization made up of cities, sea ports and cultivated land.

In the cities of Nabatean kingdom, south of Damascus, there were synagogues that Paul could have used as an entry point.

Paul's conversion was also his calling to mission. He didn't suddenly become a missionary years after his conversion. Paul met the risen Christ. He was commanded to preach the gospel and go to the Gentiles. Three years of solitude in the desert does not fit.

Luke never says Paul went "into the desert," as John the Baptist and Jesus had done. Luke says he went "into Arabia" where there was both desert and civilization.

Paul relates his Arabian visit closely with his call to preach Christ among the Gentiles (Gal 1:15-17). The point he is making to the Galatians is that he began to discharge this call before he went up to Jerusalem to see the apostles. Therefore none could say it was they or any human authority who commissioned him as an apostle to the Gentiles.

When his mission was complete in Arabia Paul returned to Damascus where the representative of King Aretas of the Nabateans sought to have Paul arrested (2 Cor 11:32-33). Why would Nabateans take action against Paul if all he had been doing in Arabia was prayerful contemplation?

Paul's mission in Arabia had stirred up trouble.

3. Therefore Paul's missionary career began immediately he was converted.

By the time Paul and Barnabas set off on what we call their "first missionary journey" (Acts 13) they were already seasoned missionaries who had seen both Jews and Gentiles come to faith, and churches established.

Why is this important? Missionary movements mobilize new disciples, like Paul, immediately for evangelism and church planting. They are action oriented. Their leaders learn their theology on their feet.

Paul's lost years

Go to the back of your bible and thumb through the maps. Eventually you’ll find a map like this one, that shows each of Paul’s three missionary journeys.

There’s a problem.

The first of the journeys (Acts 13-14) began in AD45 when Paul and Barnabas set off for Cyprus and Galatia. That’s about 15 years after Paul was converted. Can anyone imagine Paul waiting that long to obey Jesus’ command to preach the gospel to the Gentiles?

I don’t think so.

Paul says he engaged in missionary work in Arabia right after his conversion (Gal 1:15-17; 2 Cor 11:32), before preaching the gospel in Syria and Cilicia (Gal 1:21-24).

Eckhard Schnabel rejects the three missionary journeys schema and identifies no less than fifteen phases or locations of Paul’s missionary work in the 35 years between his conversion in AD31-32 on the road to Damascus and his death in Rome in AD67.

Why all the fuss? Missionary movements spread chaotically and rapidly. They are messy. This view of Paul taking years, even decades, before obeying Jesus’ command just doesn’t fit.

How Paul understood his call (con't)


The second installment on Paul's understanding of his calling as a pioneer church planter.

By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man's work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames. (1 Cor 3:10-15)

8. The metaphor of the building and of the activity of building refers, initially, not to the individual believer but to the church as a whole.

9. Paul likened his role as the pioneer missionary-church planter with a "skilled master builder" who lays the "foundation" (v10a).

Paul uses the metaphor of the master builder to describe himself as appointed and employed by God, together with a team of coworkers, to proclaim the gospel in pioneer situations, to lead people to faith in Jesus Christ and to establish new communities of believers. This is the foundation without which there would be no church in the city of Corinth.

The fact that Paul was active in Corinth for over one and a half years (Acts 18: 2, 11-12) clarifies that Paul regarded pioneer missionary work not as evangelistic Blitz whose results need to be consolidated by other preachers and teachers in follow-up work. For Paul, to lay the foundation included instructing the new believers in the fundamental content of faith in Jesus Christ and in the basic teachings of Scripture.

10. The foundation that Paul lays is Jesus Christ himself, specifically Jesus the crucified Messiah (1 Cor 1:23; 2:2).

For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ (1 Cor 3:11).

The crucified and risen Jesus Christ is the content of the missionary proclamation and thus the foundation and the measure of the establishment of the church and of the growth of the church.

The decisive factor in the mission of the apostles is not the missionary, the preacher or the teacher but the One who is preached and taught—Jesus Christ. As a building has only one foundation, there is no alternative to Jesus Christ: the existing foundation that Paul had laid in Corinth cannot be changed.

11. Preachers and teachers are responsible for the way they build on the "foundation Jesus Christ" (v:12-15) that Paul or other pioneer missionaries have laid.

In the ancient world, when a master builder had laid the foundation and left the city or died, catastrophes could happen if the builders who continued to work on the edifice were not careful to follow the measurements that were given by the foundation that already existed.

Herod I disregarded existing foundations during his rebuilding and renovation of the Jerusalem temple and sought to build his grandiose new edifice on newly dug foundations, it sank into the ground (Josephus).

Any builder who seeks to finish a building that has been started on foundations laid by another architect must adhere carefully to the benchmarks provided by the architect, even if the builder regards the style of the building as antiquated.

Missionary work and church work will "remain" on judgment day if and when Jesus, the crucified and risen Messiah and Savior, was at the center of the proclamation of the preachers and teachers, if and when Jesus was the criterion and standard of the behavior of the preachers and thus also the behavior of the believers.

Early Christian Mission (2 Volume Set), (Eckhard J. Schnabel)

How Paul understood his call

Apostle Paul-RembrandtApostle Paul - Rembrandt

I've grown weary of relying too heavily on business literature, the social sciences or even contemporary missional theology for my understanding of church planting movements. It's back to the Book for me.

I've been working through Schnabel's Early Christian Mission: Paul and the Early Church. Detailed but valuable insights into the mission of Jesus, the Twelve, Paul and the early church.

Here's my summary of his reflections on I Corinthians 3 and Paul's understanding of his calling as a pioneer missionary-church planter.

These insights should shape how we understand the calling of a pioneer church planter today.

Background Paul is concerned that the Corinthian Christians have accepted human wisdom as the decisive measure of their spirituality and the criterion for evaluating the effectiveness of Christian preachers and teachers. The result were divisions in the church as groups championed different teachers.

Paul's problems with the Corinthian church provides the backdrop to paint the picture of how he understands his calling as a pioneer missionary-church planter.

What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe--as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labor. For we are God's fellow workers; you are God's field, God's building. (1 Cor 3:5-9)

1. Paul understands himself as a servant (v5).

Paul knows himself to be bound to God and to Jesus Christ as a servant, which excludes the possibility that he or anyone else might rule over the church or within the church.

Paul uses images from agriculture and house construction to describe the tasks and activities of missionaries, preachers and teachers: they plant, they water, they build. In contrast, the Greco-Roman elites despised manual labor.

2. God is the Lord of missionary work and of church work (v5).

If Paul and other Christian leaders are “servants” then God is their “master”. It was God who assigned to each missionary and preacher his task and who gave to each one and everyone different gifts.

3. There is only one ministry (v8a).

The pioneer missionary who ˜plants and the teacher in the church who waters are involved in the one and the same task, and both are dependent on the same Lord. They are literally one.

4. Paul as a pioneer missionary plants churches.

Paul sees himself as pioneer missionary called by God to plant (v6) and to lay the foundation (v10) that is, to establish new churches.

Apollos and other preachers water (v6) and build on the foundation (v10); that is they encourage and promote the further growth of the church, teaching the believers and reaching unbelievers.

The Lord has assigned different tasks to each (v5).

The Corinthian Christians focus on the personality of the preacher and teacher ( I Cor 1:10-17; 3:1-4). This attitude contradicts the character and the nature of the Christian message, whose center is the crucified Messiah (I Cor 1:13, 17-18; 2:2).

5. Success always comes from God and God alone (v6-7).

This is true both for pioneer missionaries and for preachers and teachers in local congregations: only God gives growth.

The effectiveness of missionary work and of church ministry does not depend on persons or programs, it does not depend on techniques or methods, but only on God's activity.

Preachers are nothing—a nothing from which only the creative act of God can make something. If God does not grant organic growth, the seed or grain of wheat would be like a lifeless pebble.

6. The church is God's field, God's building (v9b)

The churches that are established as the fruit of missionary work belong to neither Paul nor to other teachers.

The origin and the growth of the church are the effects of God's own work, the church is neither the work nor the possession of the apostle: it is the work and the possession of God. Missionaries, preachers and teachers work on land that belongs to God.

7. The pioneer missionary-church planter is responsible to God (v8b)

God himself is their employer, and they are accountable to him.

It is God alone who decides what constitutes success or failure of the work of the worker, not the church or the coworkers.

The scale of the worker's reward does not depend on the degree of giftedness or the scope of the success, because it is God who gives the growth who decides the giftedness and the success. The reward is promised only to sacrificial service of the individual: it is with this that Paul linked the expectation of a reward, without any inhibitions (1 Cor 9:17-18).

That's the first seven, four more to follow in the next post. . . Early Christian Mission (2 Volume Set) (Eckhard J. Schnabel)

Paul and the spread of the Christian movement

How important was Paul in the early spread of the Christian movement? He made a major contribution to the New Testament as both a writer and the subject of half of the book of Acts. Yet his direct impact on the spread of early Christianity may have been overstated according to Rodney Stark's latest book.

Stark examines the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman empire city by city and surprisingly finds that the more Hellenized (Greek language and culture), rather than Roman, the more likely that city was to have a Christian congregation by the end of the first century. If a city had a Hellenized Jewish community (the “Diaspora”) it was also far more likely to have a Christian congregation.

Looking at the data, we see that Paul’s missionizing had no significant, independent effect on Christianization, while the importance of Diasporan communities was quite significant. These results strongly suggest that Paul’s impact on the spread of Christianity was incidental to the general receptivity of the Diasporan communties to Christian missionizing.

Stark is no Paul basher. But he reminds us that

Paul was only one of many traveling professional missionaries, to say nothing at all of the rank-and-file missionaries who circulated from city to city. Indeed, Paul may have been far more important as a trainer, organizer, and motivator of missionaries than as an actual founder of congregations.

Did you read that last line?

“Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome” (Rodney Stark), 134-5.