5-9 Reaching The Unreached
There can be no doubt that the emphasis in the life of Paul was upon the geographical spread of the Gospel as far as possible. In around ten years, he established ecclesias in the four provinces of Galatia, Macedonia, Achaia and Asia. And then he speaks as if his work was done in that part of the world, he had spread the word from Jerusalem round to Illyricum [i.e. throughout the Eastern half of the Empire], and therefore “I have no more place in these parts” (Rom. 15:19,23). He speaks as if he has fulfilled the “line” or geographical apportion of areas to him, and now he was turning his attention to the Western side of the Roman empire, going to Rome, planning a visit to Spain. In some ways, this is surprising, for his letters indicate that the ecclesias he had already established were weak indeed. All in Asia turned away from him, and he warned the Ephesian elders of this. Ecclesias like Corinth were hopelessly weak in doctrine and practice, and many were turning away, either to the world, or back to Judaism as in the Galatian ecclesias. He could so easily have spent his life running around the Eastern half of the Roman empire, seeking to strengthen what remained. But he seems to have considered his work to have been done, and presses ahead with fresh witness in another part of the world. He wrote letters and made occasional visits to address the problems as they arose, but his stress was repeatedly on pushing forward with the work.
This explains the speed with which he established ecclesias. He stayed a few weeks or months in cities like Lystra and Thessalonica, returning, in the case of Lystra, after 18 months, and then again a few years later. He spent three consecutive sabbaths in Thessalonica (Acts 17:2), baptized the converts, and then didn’t come back to see them for about five and a half years (Acts 20:1,2). How were they kept strong? By the good shepherd, by the grace of God, by the Father and Son working with Paul. He seems to have drilled them with the basics of the Gospel and the life they needed to live, ordained immature elders who were literate and able to teach the word, and then left them what he repeatedly calls “the tradition”, a document or set of teachings relating to practical life in Christ (1 Cor. 11:2,23; 2 Thess. 2:5; 3:6; 1 Tim. 6:20; 2 Tim. 1:13; 2:2; 3:14; Tit. 1:9) (4). It was perhaps the simplicity and brevity of the message that was its strength in the lives of the early converts. Their lives were based directly upon reflection upon the implications of the basic elements of the Gospel. It is today amazing how simple men and women remember and reflect upon the things taught them even verbally, and show an impressive appreciation of them when they are visited again after some months or years. Interestingly, Corinth had the most evident problems and immaturity, even though Paul spent 18 months there, whereas ecclesias like Philippi which he established far quicker seem to have been far sounder. It therefore follows that length of pastoral work is not necessarily related to spiritual strength.
An insight into Paul’s attitude is revealed in the way he speaks of how a door of preaching opportunity had been opened to him at Ephesus (1 Cor. 16:9). Surely he is alluding to the Lord’s words about knocking in prayer, and a door is opened. He had presumably prayed for the opportunity to spread the word in Ephesus, and he was given the positive answer. We likewise should be praying systematically for the people in our lives, for unreached nations and peoples. Yet the language of a door being opened sends us to Acts 14:27, where the response of the Gentiles to Paul’s missionary work is likewise spoken of as a door being opened- presumably, meaning that here was an answer to prayer for response. A door was opened at Troas, we assume also because of sustained prayer beforehand (2 Cor. 2:12). We must ask whether we really desire the Gospel to spread; if we do, it will be reflected in our prayer life.
The disciples asked how the fig tree [cp. Israel] withered away so quickly. The answer, of course, was in that Jesus had faith that it would. He goes on to tell them that if they had faith, the mountain of Zion, the hope of Israel, would be cast into the sea of nations (Mt. 21:20,21). The Lord Jesus is surely saying that His faith should not be seen as separate from our faith. According to the faith of the disciples, the Hope of Israel, rejected by the withered fig tree of Israel, could be spread to the Gentiles. But the spread of the Gospel world-wide was and is conditional upon our faith, modelled as it must be upon His example.
It was also the Lord’s desire that His word should be spread. The neat maps in our Bibles notwithstanding, it is clear that Paul had no such clear plan of where to found ecclesias. He preached in Galatia because illness required that he spend some time there, against his original intention (Gal. 4:13). He was forbidden to preach in Bithynia as he had planned, he fled to Athens for safety and ended up preaching there, then he fled from there to Corinth (Acts 16:6,7). And it seems that he was only in transit through Ephesus, but found the people responsive and therefore continued working there (Acts 18:19). Indeed, his movements were so uncertain that he was open to the charge of vacillating about his plans (2 Cor. 1:15,18). And yet it has been shown (5) that the places where Paul founded ecclesias were strategic points, in that they were centres where different nationalities mixed, where trade routes crossed, where social and religious conditions were better than elsewhere for the spread of the Gospel. Yet this was not due to any conscious desire of Paul for this; the Lord overruled this, so that, e.g., from Thessalonica the message sounded out throughout Asia, due to the many mobile people who heard the Gospel there.
(4) We perhaps need such a document
today especially in the mission field. Robert Roberts’ ‘The Commandments
Of Christ’ and the similar booklet by my dear wife Cindy could perhaps
be more widely translated and used.
(5) Roland Allen, Missionary Methods
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999 Ed.) ch. 2.