The Life and Times of Paul – First Missionary Journey

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Barnabas’ invitation to Paul essentially legitimized Paul, who then had the support of a missionary-minded church. According to Acts, the members of the Antioch church, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, laid their hands on Barnabas and Paul and sent them out. They were accompanied by an assistant, John Mark. Their first venture took them through Cyprus and southern Galatia (see Acts 13-14). This would have been the first of three missionary journeys undertaken by Paul. Unfortunately, there is no mention of such a journey in Paul’s letters.

Nonetheless, their first stop was in Cyprus, and they lost no time in proclaiming the word of God in the local synagogue. They moved from city to city until they came to Paphos. There, they met a sorcerer and a false prophet named Bar-Jesus, who was an attendant for the proconsul. Almost immediately, the proconsul wanted to meet the newcomers, but the sorcerer tried everything to prevent that from happening. Finally, Paul confronted him and predicted a case of blindness. It, of course, happened exactly as Paul had predicted, which really impressed the proconsul.

From there, they went to Pisidian Antioch, which was an important Roman colony. Whenever Barnabas and Paul entered a city, they went to the synagogue where they sat down among the congregation. Obviously, they were newcomers, and the leaders of the synagogue recognized this. After the readings of the law and the prophets, the leaders invited them to speak. It’s doubtful anyone ever had to ask Paul twice! He was always ready. This time he stood up and gave his first recorded speech. The message was always the same. It began with God’s promises, his saving acts, and culminated in the preaching of Jesus.

The audience would have been comprised of a mixture of people – the traditional Jews and the “God-fearers.” These would have been Gentiles who were interested in some of the teachings, but were not willing to convert to Judaism (possibly because of the dietary restrictions and circumcision). Nonetheless, Paul addressed them both, and his message was very well received. Some converted on the spot; others begged him to return the next Sabbath, which he apparently agreed to do.

That next week, “almost the whole city gathered” to hear them speak. Now, maybe this is an exaggeration, but let’s think for a moment about who would have been in this group. It is unlikely that these were additional Jews – most of them would have heard him the week before. The majority were probably Gentiles, separate from the God-fearers. And they were all “ready, willing, and eager” to hear the word of God. One might think that the Jews would have been ecstatic. But it says that “when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy.” The author of Acts does not tell us why they were jealous. Maybe they had been hoping for a bigger attendance at their own services; maybe they felt that they were the recipients of God’s care and protection. Maybe they thought God’s covenant only applied to them.

In any event, the Jews were a little upset, and they began talking abusively against Paul. Acts doesn’t elaborate on the points they were arguing about, but clearly, they did not like what he was saying. They began to accuse him of blasphemy. They began slandering him and openly opposing him.

Yet, Paul and Barnabas had no intention of backing down on this one. So, “they answered them, boldly.” We’ve heard that word before. That’s where you tell it like it is. Paul basically told the Jews that he “had to speak the word of God to you first.” But now, that they have chosen to reject it, his commission to speak still stood. Heretofore, he would turn away from the Jews and turn toward the Gentiles -- not because of random human planning, but because the Lord deemed it so. Obviously, this infuriated the Jews even more. The Gentiles, on the other hand, were rejoicing. They were so delighted to be included. This was very good news as far as they were concerned. Not surprisingly, the word continued to spread -- as did the anger of the Jews.

So it is that they went down to Iconium, about 90 miles southeast of Antioch. But they were hardly downhearted. They didn’t leave discouraged. “They were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.” Even though some people hadn’t liked their message and they had just been thrown out of town, they were not sad. They were ready for the next adventure, for the next group.

And where did Paul go the minute he walked into Iconium? To the synagogue. He’s going to do this in every city. It isn’t just the fact that it’s convenient or that he’s comfortable there. It’s the natural platform for him to get to the people. Not only are there Jews, but there are also many Gentiles in the synagogues. And when these Gentiles heard the word, they went back home and talked about the wonderful news they had heard. And the word of God continued to spread.

Barnabas and Paul spent considerable time there, “speaking boldly for the Lord,” and doing signs and wonders. Finally, however, the opposition grew in strength, and tried to “mistreat and stone” Barnabas and Paul. Once again, they had to flee, this time to the city of Lystra, which was about 20 miles further and where they continued their work. In Lystra, Paul healed “a man who was lame from birth,” much like Peter had done in Acts 3:1-10 and Jesus had done before that. Such signs of continuity are not accidental.

Upon witnessing this healing, the people thought Barnabas and Paul were gods. They called them Zeus and Hermes. And they were very excited about such a visit from the gods. Barnabas and Paul were pretty clueless as to what was going on until the priests of Zeus started bringing bulls and wreaths to the city gates so they could offer sacrifices to them. The thinking was that if the gods had come to visit, they would have expected to be honored. Once Barnabas and Paul saw that, they got it.

They tore their clothing as a symbol of mourning; they were not divine beings. But the occasion did provide another opportunity for Paul to give another speech. He encouraged the people of Lystra to give up their false gods and to turn toward the real God, the living God. The people of the city were persuaded – at least until disgruntled Jews from Antioch and Iconium showed up and talked them out of it. In no time at all, the crowds had turned completely against them and were ready to attack them. In fact, the people stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead.

“After the disciples had gathered around him, he got up and went back into the city.” It doesn’t say they were praying. But it’s hard to imagine that they wouldn’t have been. And the very next day, he and Barnabas traveled 60 miles to the next city, which was Derbe, where their time is recorded without incident. Once again, they attracted large crowds and won a large number of disciples.

We don’t know how long they stayed there, but afterwards, they decided to retrace their steps. They went back to all the places where they had been – Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch. It is possible that they went back quietly, to the people who were already believers. It says, that they were “strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith.” This first journey might have lasted roughly two years – from 46-48 CE. But since Paul does not mention any of this in his letters, we can only speculate. Next month we will look at his second missionary journey.

Life and Times