One of the problems with reading about the Apostle Paul in the book of Acts is that so few of us are like him. Of course, we are like him in some ways. He was, and we are, human. But in terms of giftedness, experience, and opportunity for ministry, Paul was in a category that includes only a handful of Christians throughout history.
When we read about Paul, it is often his uniqueness, not his ordinariness, that we think about. This makes us feel that we just can’t relate to him. If we can’t relate to him, we can’t learn from him or draw from his life and ministry to shape our own.
Let me suggest another way to think about the missionary work of Paul. Paul’s work can be seen as the ministry of the whole church, not just one individual in the church. What he did, we do collectively. Seeing Paul this way shows us that every member of the congregation and each congregation in the church of Jesus Christ is involved in the mission of gospel advance and church growth.
Paul in the city of Athens is a great example to consider (Acts 17:16-34). Here, Paul is walking around the city, learning its history, seeing its sights, and listening to its voices. But he is not just a tourist on vacation. He is curious for a purpose. He is ever on mission. Are not congregations called to be in cities with purpose and on mission?
In Athens Paul sees that the city is full of idols. The city’s best artists built the shrines and shaped the images that were everywhere in Athens. Everybody saw the beauty of the idols. But Paul saw beneath the beauty of the idols and recognized both the ignorance and rebellion of the idolatry. Have we not been given the revelation of God in Scripture along with the new eyes of the Spirit to see the spiritual condition of people that lies beneath the beauty and prosperity of our city?
As Paul saw, he sensed. He was provoked. He was moved to jealousy for God the Creator to be glorified. He was jealous for people to be freed by Jesus, not bound by sin. Have we not been given new hearts to be similarly provoked and moved to prayer for God’s glory and the good of people?
In Athens, Paul reasoned with people for the acceptance of the gospel. Paul was provoked, not a provocateur. He used thoughtful words, not verbal bombs. He went into the religious gatherings, marketplace, and intellectual center of the city, not into a private enclave of escape. Instead of holding a protest, he had a conversation.
Now here is where we start to lose emotional connection with Paul. He was uniquely gifted to enter the public arena and reason with the religious leaders, philosophers and intellectuals of the day. Most of us are not.
So, think of it this way. Paul had a sending church that was located in Antioch. When Paul was in Athens it was as if the whole church of Antioch was there with him. What he did, they did. That’s the nature of the church. There is really no individual ministry. Even Paul, one of the most gifted men in the history of the church, was an extension of the Body of Christ and a local congregation.
Do you have a hard time relating to Paul? Live as a faithful member of a local congregation and you will actually share in Paul’s ministry, and that of every other highly gifted public spokesperson for the gospel of Jesus Christ.
One more point to consider. Most gospel ministry is done in private conversation. Don’t sell yourself short. You can see, sense, and reason in your world.
I hope you will read Acts 17 with someone this weekend.