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Did Paul only plan to make one missionary journey?

Posted by on Aug 22, 2011 in scripture | 8 comments

Did Paul only plan to make one missionary journey?

Acts chapters 13-14 describe what is typically referred to as Paul’s first missionary journey. He began his “second missionary journey” at the beginning of Acts 16, just after he and Barnabas decided to go their separate ways.

But, the “first missionary journey” began in Acts 13, while Paul and Barnabas and others were serving/worshiping while praying, fasting, prophesying, and teaching among the believers in Antioch. During that time, the Holy Spirit directed Paul and Barnabas to leave Antioch in order to proclaim the gospel and make disciples. The church agreed so the sent Paul and Barnabas on their way. (Acts 13:1-3)

The pair traveled from Antioch down to the coastal city of Seleucia and, from there, they sailed over to the island of Cyprus. (Acts 13:4-12) After visiting several cities on Cyprus, they sailed across to Perga in the region of Pamphylia, the north to another city named Antioch, this one located in Pisidia. (Acts 13:13-50) When they were run out of Antioch, the two traveled over to Iconium, then finally to the Lycaonia cities of Lystra and Derbe. (Acts 13:51-14:19)

Although they were not far from Paul’s hometown of Tarsus and not too far from their starting point in Antioch, Paul and Barnabas decided to travel back through the cities they had just visited so they could strengthen the believers there. (Acts 14:20-25)

(By the way, as an aside, it was very dangerous for Paul and Barnabas to travel back through those cities, since they had been run out of town. In fact, Paul was stoned and left for dead in Lystra, but after spending some time in the nearby city of Derbe, Paul returned to Lystra. Apparently, strengthening and encouraging the believers in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch was very important to Paul and Barnabas.)

Finally, the pair sailed back to Antioch. Once there, they gathered the church together (another interesting statement by Luke) and reported everything that God had done through them, especially the fact that God was saving Gentiles. (Acts 14:26-28)

While describing the return trip to Antioch, Luke makes the following statement:

And from there [Attalia] they sailed to Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work that they had fulfilled. (Acts 14:26 ESV)

Now, Luke doesn’t tell us exactly what Paul and Barnabas thought God had called them to do (i.e., what Luke calls “the grace of God for the work”). However, he does indicate that, at this point, Paul and Barnabas thought they had completed that work (“the work that they had fulfilled”).

Certainly, this could simply indicate that Paul and Barnabas only thought that this particular part of the work (i.e., the “first missionary journey”) was complete. However, it could also indicate that, at this time, Paul and Barnabas thought this particular trip was all that God wanted them to make.

The final statement of chapter 14 seems to suggest that Paul and Barnabas stayed in Antioch for some time: “And they remained no little time with the disciples.” (Acts 14:28)

It doesn’t bother me to think that Paul (and Barnabas) did not completely understand what God was calling them to at this point. It’s clear at the end of Acts 15 that they decided to go back to the believers in the cities they had visited previously (with Barnabas traveling back to Cyprus and Paul traveling back to Derbe, Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch of Pisidia). But, even at that point, there’s no indication that either of them planned to travel to other cities and proclaim the gospel to people who had not yet heard. (Acts 15:36)

So, what do you think? Did Paul and Barnabas only plan to make one missionary journey? If so, what do you think we can learn from that?


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 8-22-2011

    That they appointed elders in such a rush also supports notion that they didn’t necessarily plan to come back. It wasn’t just a rookie move, it was an attempt to fully establish before permanently leaving.

  2. 8-22-2011


    Good point.


  3. 8-23-2011

    I really appreciate people who can “put everything on the table” and not hold onto views and beliefs that remain unexamined.

    We can look at Paul’s explanations of his call to itinerant work in Galatians and elsewhere, and the accounts in Acts, and see how Paul thought about the scope of his ministry.

    In that vein, I see “what is typically referred to as Paul’s first missionary journey” as his sixth missionary journey (seventh if you count his pre-salvation travels to pursue persecutions of the church).

    I’m officially on the clock at work in a few minutes and don’t have the time to flesh this response out, so count this as a placeholder until this evening.

  4. 8-23-2011


    We talked about that with the church a few weeks ago when we were studying Acts 9 and Acts 12. Paul was already traveling around before Acts 13.


  5. 8-24-2011

    Because Luke in Acts chapters 1-12 focuses mainly on Peter and Jerusalem, and then on Paul from Acts 13 on, doesn’t mean the Apostles did nothing much after Acts 12. Nor does it mean Paul (converted in 31/21 AD) did nothing much prior to Acts 13 (~AD 45). It seems to me Luke’s point, following His recounting of our Lord’s life in his gospel, continued to follow the work of our Lord’s twelve apostles until the gentiles were reached, and then moved to Paul’s work to show how Christianity spread throughout the Gentile world.

    We need to include what we find in the epistles when we look for the whole picture. Galatians 1 tells us some very important things about Paul.

    1. In Gal 1:1,11-12, Paul asserts he did not become an apostle by men, nor did he receive the gospel by man, but directly from Jesus Christ.

    2. In Gal 1:15,16, Paul recounts that he “immediately” began to obey the calling as he understood it, to “preach him among the heathen.”

    3. In Gal 1:17-24 Paul lists the following periods of missionary work:

    (a) Gal 1:17 (II Cor 11:32; Acts 9:19-23, 27) Arabia and Damascus
    (b) Gal 1:21-24 Syria and Cilicia (see Acts 15:23,36,41)

    Obviously then, Paul’s commission and commencement of missionary work did not begin at Antioch. Nor did Paul see this as beginning at Antioch.

    Besides Gal 1:11-12, we can see Paul’s understanding of the work Jesus directly committed to him was from the first of his conversion in the following recountings:

    1. Acts 9:15-16
    2. Acts 22:15
    3. Acts 22:21

    Paul being in Antioch itself was itinerant, missionary work for Paul, Acts 11:25-26

    I do not think Paul had the slightest notion his work was done after his fourth missionary journey in Acts 13-14. I also think it ill-considered to speak about Paul’s work in Acts 13-14 as the work of an inexperienced missionary/itinerant worker experimenting with methods. By the time of his departure from Antioch in Acts 13:4, Paul had about 15 years of itinerant, missionary experience.

  6. 8-24-2011

    By the way, In Luke’s narrative, Acts 15 is a pivotal connection point, where all affirm and proclaim the validity of Jewish and Gentile churches as being one in Christ, and the work of Peter and the twelve, and Paul and his co-workers, as being the resultant work of God among them all.

    It seems Paul knew this from direct revelation (Rom 11:25; 16:25; Eph 3:3-9; Col 1:26-27) and the Jerusalem church learned it by evidence of God’s work (Acts 10:35, 44-45; Acts 11:15-18).

    This also effectively bridges the story Luke is relating in his two books Jesus–>Jews–>Gentiles, and explains why the focus shifts in Acts, with the resultant level of details related on the work of the Twelve to the work of Paul and his coworkers.

  7. 8-25-2011


    While I might not be willing to recreate Paul’s life in the detail that you have, I agree with your conclusion. Acts 13 was not Paul’s “first missionary journey.” My point in this passage is that Paul did not necessarily plan his next step. What I mean is this: Paul did not return to Antioch in Acts 14 already planning his next “missionary journey.” While it is not spelled out in every instance, I think Paul simply waited for God to direct his next move.


  8. 8-25-2011

    Quite agree with your point. I cor 16 is the classic chapter showing Paul’s tentativeness and that he did not have a detailed “trip-ticket” from God for his itinerary at every step of the way.