Paul: Mission and Message
Drawing on Old Testament prophetic messages, Jewish history, and the life and teachings of Jesus, Paul developed the Christian concept of salvation history, all centered on the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Because of his cultural background in both Judaism and in Greco-Roman society, Paul possessed sufficient insights to allow him to lift the gospel out from the complexity of Hebrew civil, ritual, and moral practices of Jewish life and make it more accessible to a multicultural world.
Paul’s 13 letters to the believers applied faith to their lives. He touched doctrinal, as well as practical, topics. He counseled, encouraged, and admonished on matters of personal Christianity, relationships, and church life. Nevertheless, throughout his letters his main theme was “Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2, NKJV).
Paul was not only a man of letters. He also became known as the apostolic missionary par excellence, witnessing to the gospel from Syria to Italy, perhaps even to Spain. Within a decade, Paul established churches in four provinces of the Roman Empire.
This week we will take a look at Paul—both his mission and his message.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, September 19.
In the Exodus from slavery in Egypt, God worked remarkable signs of providential care for Israel. Later generations of Jews developed the expectation that any new messenger sent from God should make themselves known by signs and wonders and miracles.
In contrast, in line with their philosophical and scientific heritage, Greeks sought a rational basis for belief, one that would satisfy the demands of human wisdom.
Paul did not dismiss the cultural and spiritual heritage of his target peoples but used it as an entry point for proclaiming Christ crucified. Those who desired signs found them in the life and ministry of Jesus and in the early church. Those who wanted logical elegance and rationality found it in Paul’s arguments for the gospel message. Both types of persons ultimately had only one need, and that was to know the risen Christ and “the power of his resurrection” (Phil. 3:10). How Paul brought them to that knowledge depended upon the people to whom he was witnessing.
When Paul preached to Jewish listeners, he based his sermons on the history of Israel, linking Christ to David, and emphasizing the Old Testament prophecies pointing to Christ and foretelling His crucifixion and resurrection (Acts 13:16–41). That is, he started out with what was familiar to them, with what they revered and believed, and from that starting point he sought to bring them to Christ.
For Gentiles, Paul’s message included God as Creator, Upholder, and Judge; the entry of sin into the world; salvation through Jesus Christ (Acts 14:15–17, 17:22–31). Paul had to work from a different starting point with these people than he did with the Jews (or with Gentiles who believed in the Jewish faith). Here, too, though, his goal was to lead them to Jesus.
As a skilled communicator, Paul in his mission work used the familiar to explain the unfamiliar. He took everyday features of the Greco-Roman world to illustrate the practical reality of new life in Christ. He drew especially from two areas of his converts’ world for his teaching metaphors— athletes with their games and the ever-present Roman soldier.
Fondness for athletic accomplishments gripped Paul’s world, much as it does ours. Ancient Greeks transmitted their love of competition by holding, over the centuries, no fewer than four separate cycles of Olympic-type contests, located in different parts of Greece. Romans inherited and further promoted athletic competition. Foot races were the most popular events and included a race of men wearing full suits of military armor. Wrestling also was popular. Athletes trained assiduously, and winners were richly rewarded. Ethnicity, nationality, and social class mattered little, since endurance and performance were the goals.
Starting with Marius, Roman emperors replaced temporary soldiers with full-time career warriors, garrisoned them across the Roman Empire, and upgraded and standardized their armor and weapons. By Paul’s time, soldiers were recruited from various ethnic and national groups, whether or not they were Roman citizens. In return for rewards at the end of their term of service, soldiers pledged total loyalty to the ruling emperor, who in times of conflict personally led them into battle.
In what is perhaps Paul’s final letter, he applied both soldiering and athletics to his own view of his life as a Christian missionary: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7, NIV).
In English translations of Paul’s letters, the word law appears about one hundred thirty times, and in Acts of the Apostles, about twenty times. Paul endeavored to get his hearers and readers, regardless of cultural background, to understand that “law” carried several meanings, especially for Jews. Laws such as the Ten Commandments are in force for all people at all times. But other kinds of laws in the Old Testament and in Jewish culture, Paul did not consider in force for Christians.
In his writings, the apostle used the word law broadly in reference to rules for religious ceremonies, civil law, health laws, and purification laws. He wrote about being “under the law” (Rom. 3:19) and about being “released from the law” (Rom. 7:6, NIV). He described a “law of sin” (vs. 25) but also “law [that] is holy” (vs. 12). He mentioned the “law of Moses” (1 Cor. 9:9) but also the “law of God” (Rom. 7:25). Confusing as these phrases may seem to non-Jews, for the Jewish believer brought up in the Hebrew culture, the context would make clear which law was meant.
Paul realized that the ceremonial laws, detailing how one approached God through priesthood, Hebrew sanctuary, and sacrifices, ceased to be valid after the Crucifixion. They had served their purpose in their time but were now no longer needed. (This point would become especially apparent after the destruction of the temple.)
With the moral law expressed by the Ten Commandments, however, matters are different. In his letters, Paul quotes some of the Ten Commandments and alludes to others as universal ethical demands on all people, Jewish as well as Gentile. Having written against the practice of sin, Paul would not in any way have diminished the very law that defines what sin is. That would make about as much sense as telling someone not to violate the speed limit while at the same time telling them the speed limit signs are no longer valid.
No question, the cross of Christ was central to all that Paul lived and taught. But Paul didn’t teach the Cross in a vacuum; instead, he taught it in the context of other teachings, as well; and one of them, perhaps the one most intricately linked to the Cross, was the Resurrection, without which the Cross would have been in vain.
Unfortunately, the majority of Christian traditions, as well as non- Christian religions, believe strongly in the immortality of the human soul. Against this belief, however, Paul emphasized repeatedly that:
Worship in almost all religions includes numerous false teachings based on the false concept of the immortality of the soul. These errors include things such as reincarnation, praying to saints, veneration of ancestral spirits, an eternally burning hell, and many New Age practices, such as channeling or astral projection. A true understanding of the Bible’s teaching on death is the only real protection against these great deceptions. How unfortunate, too, that those who show the strongest inclination against accepting this truth are Christians of other denominations.
Paul was a hard worker with a strong personality and singleness of purpose. Such persons can be loners with few friends but many admirers. However, on his travels, two or three fellow workers often accompanied Paul. At least eight of these close fellow workers are mentioned by name (Acts 13:2; 15:22, 37; 16:1–3; 19:22; Col. 4:7, 10, 11; Philem. 24). To this must be added Paul’s greetings to 24 people in Romans 16, in addition to general greetings to households.
The apostle believed in teamwork, especially in pioneering situations. At the same time, however, he did at times have conflict with fellow laborers.
“It was here that Mark, overwhelmed with fear and discouragement, wavered for a time in his purpose to give himself wholeheartedly to the Lord’s work. Unused to hardships, he was disheartened by the perils and privations of the way. . . . This desertion caused Paul to judge Mark unfavorably, and even severely, for a time. Barnabas, on the other hand, was inclined to excuse him because of his inexperience. He felt anxious that Mark should not abandon the ministry, for he saw in him qualifications that would fit him to be a useful worker for Christ.”—Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles, pp. 169, 170.
The account in Acts reveals that Paul expected his companions to persevere in the toils and perils of their mission. For Paul, the close team constituted a church in miniature. He stressed the importance of setting a good example, the imitation model of mission. Dutiful yet loving relationships among team members became a pattern for the churches, which were often based on households. The team also provided an ideal setting for the training of new evangelists and missionaries. Of course, at times things didn’t always run smoothly, as in the case of John Mark.
We all make mistakes. How can you learn to forgive those whose mistakes have hurt you? And think also about those whom you’ve hurt with your mistakes. How have you sought to bring healing in those situations? Or if you haven’t yet, why not do it now?
Further Study: The apostle Paul has been compared with the butterfly effect in chaos theory: that “the flap of a butterfly’s wings in California causes a hurricane in Asia.” His work as a writer and preacher helped turn a Jewish sect in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire into a world religion. The ideas put forth in his 13 letters have probably exerted greater influence than any other ancient Greek literature of comparable size.