Paul’s First Missionary Journey

Published September 12, 2022 in 

Part 1 of this sermon series companion can be found here | The Conversion of Paul

Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.

Acts 13:1-3, Today’s New International Version

Acts 13:1-3

Chapter 13 in the book of Acts marks the beginning of Paul’s first missionary journey. Except for Paul and Barnabas, little is known of those mentioned in Acts 13:1-3. Efforts have been made to identify Simeon Niger with Simon of Cyrene (Luke 23:26) and Lucius of Cyrene with Luke. Manaen, as stated in the passage, had been raised with royalty. These five represent a very diverse collection of leaders. Arguments have been made to associate:

  • Barnabas as a Syrian,
  • Paul, we know, was a Jewish Roman citizen,
  • Lucius (or Luke) was an educated doctor,
  • Manaen was from wealth and royalty, and
  • Simeon was probably an enslaved African.

Paul and Barnabas are set apart by the Holy Spiritwhose actions have been determined by fasting and praying. The laying on of hands is a kind of ordination or blessing.

Paul’s First Missionary Journey

The first missionary journey is initiated at Antioch when Barnabas and Saul are “set apart…for the work to which I have called them” (13:2). John (Mark), the writer of the Gospel of Mark, accompanies them as far as Perga. They sailed to Cyprus, Barnabas’ native island, where Salamis and Paphos are mentioned. Sailing again to the mainland of Asia Minor, they journey in the provinces of Pamphylia, Pisidia, and Lycaonia, the town of Perga, Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe being noted along their way and in reverse order as they retrace their steps. 

They sail this time from Attalia directly to Antioch in Syria (of course, Seleucia was the seaport). Chapters 13-14 tell this story in vivid detail. The contrast between Paul’s sermons to Jews at Antioch (13:16-41) and those to Gentiles at Lystra (14:15-17) is noteworthy. The famous Jerusalem “conference” (15:1-29) account follows, rounding out this section of Acts, according to which each journey terminates in Jerusalem (18:22; 21:15).

Scripture Notes on Paul’s first Journey (Acts 13:4-14:28)

Acts 13:4-12

The departure for the mission is from Seleucia—the seaport of Antioch. They sail to Cyprus, landing at Salami, an important city on the eastern coast. Paul’s practice was to begin preaching in the synagogues to the Jews and then move out to share the gospel with the Gentiles. 

John Mark serves as an assistant or helper, but the nature of his service is not described. Paul and Barnabas then move across the island to Paphos, the provincial capital. Here, Paul comes in contact with a magician named Elymas. Paul confronts the man, and the Holy Spirit blinds Elymas. Luke wants to ensure we understand that the Spirit of God has authority over magic powers. 

Acts 13:13-15

Leaving Cyprus, the missionaries sailed to the southern coast of what is now Turkey. Though the coastal town of Perga is the first stop, Paul and his company go immediately inland to Galatia. At this point, John Mark abandons the group. Some surmise that the difficult road leading to a more remote area was too much for John Mark. Later in Acts 15:38, we learn that Paul is displeased with Mark’s defection and refuses to allow him to accompany him on future journeys. This decision causes the separation of Paul and Barnabas as Barnabas sides with John Mark.

The central city of the southern part of the province of Galatia was Antioch of Pisidia. Most scholars believe the churches founded in this area are those addressed by Paul in Galatians. The rulers of the synagogue were responsible for the oversight of worship. Perhaps Paul’s bearing marked him as a Pharisee, but any visiting teacher might be allowed to address the congregation.

Acts 13:16-43

Luke includes this sermon from Paul in this extended passage. Paul makes his case to the Hellenistic Jews, and it is so well received that the discussion continues after the meeting concludes. Paul and Barnabas are encouraged to address the whole town on the next Sabbath. 

Acts 13:44-52

The synagogue could hardly accommodate the whole city. The crowd who had gathered to hear Paul would have spilled out of the temple and into the streets. The Jews, who had at first openly received Paul, now overtly work to have them driven out of the city. Surprisingly, they leave praising God, filled with joy. This comment implies that success is measured by their faithfulness rather than their results. 

Acts 14:1-7

Paul, Barnabas and their companions now travel to Iconium, an important commercial center located some eighty miles east of Antioch of Pisidia. Though its inhabitants considered themselves Phrygians, the city had been part of Lycaonia and now belonged to the Roman province of Galatia.

The description of this part of the journey is abbreviated. The pattern of entering the synagogue first is repeated. The word translated together can also mean that they carried on the mission “after the same manner” as in Antioch. That they remained for a long time is surprising given the action of the unbelieving (literally “disobedient”) Jews.

The results are the same in Iconium as in Antioch of Pisidia. The preaching of Paul and Barnabas is met with overwhelming acceptance. Great crowds come out to hear them. The Jewish leaders conspire to turn the city leaders against them, and they are run out of town. In this case, there is an attempt to stone them as they escape just in time to save their lives. 

Acts 14:8-20

The missionaries flee to Lystra, twenty miles south. The healing of the disabled person is similar to Peter’s cure of the man at the temple in Acts 3:2-10. Both had been lame from birth, the healer looked intently at them, and they sprang up and walked.

The effort to identify the apostles as “gods in the likeness of men” rests on a legend that Zeus and Hermes descended to the area. The identification of Barnabas as Zeus could suggest that something about his bearing indicates that he is the mission’s leader. The more likely reason is that the pagan god Hermes was the patron of oratory and the comparison of Paul to Hermes was natural because of Paul’s powerful sermon and that he was presented as the chief speaker

Paul and Barnabas rebuke the people for comparing them to the gods. Their humble response, giving credit to God, contrasts with Herod’s reluctance to give God credit in Acts 12:20-23. In Paul’s claim, “we also are men,” he points away from himself to give glory to God. On the other hand, Herod is struck dead for allowing the people to give him credit for what God has done. 

Despite Paul’s protest, the people continue to offer sacrifices to them. The adoration turns to persecution when Jews from Antioch and Iconium arrive to turn the crowds against them. Paul is stoned and left for dead until his companions come to rescue and revive him. From there, they travel thirty miles to the southeast to Derbe

Acts 14:21-28

From Derbe, they retrace their steps to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch. The missionary journey ends with these words from the book of Acts,

After going through Pisidia, they came into Pamphylia, and when they had preached the word in Perga, they went down to Attalia. From Attalia they sailed back to Antioch, where they had been committed to the grace of God for the work they had now completed. On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. And they stayed there a long time with the disciples.

Focus

In this first missionary journey, we see Paul and Barnabas following the lead of God in their lives. They face great success and rejection. They are tempted by the praises of the crowds who witnessed the power of God through them. Yet, they were persecuted and hounded by local and governmental leaders. Through everything, they never waver in their continuing devotion to God. No matter the results, they give glory to God in each circumstance. They never lose a sense of whose they are.

Bridges to the 21st Century

There are many bridges we can build to the 21st century, but there is one primary bridge that guides us as a follower of Christ. Paul and Barnabas always gave credit for their success to God. Their lives were intimately connected to following what God wanted. While we see the vivid demise of Herod (in chapter 12) for his pride and self-importance, Paul and Barnabas (in chapter 14) refuse to let the accolades of the people draw them away from their task or their relationship with God. 

Our life in the affluent suburbs is a constant temptation to take credit for what God has done in our lives. For the most part, we are well educated, well-spoken, and highly successful in our lives. We have the opportunity to travel, vacation, and relax. We can follow our own way. 

The question for us is this: do we allow all that we have to get in the way of our relationship with God? Who gets the credit? How do we keep our egos and pride in check? How do we make sure our lives are connected to what God wants?

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