Paul's First Missionary Journey
In his History of the Christian Church Philip Schaff assumes (without even attempting to prove it) that the apostle Paul was converted in 37 A.D. But we know from reading the first chapter of Galatians, where Paul gives us some personal history, that this is not true. After his conversion on the Damascus Road, he fled to Arabia (Gal. 1:17). Presumably he went to Mount Sinai to contemplate the difference between the Old and New Covenants and the relationship between law and grace. What better place to go than the place where God first gave the law and where Elijah had fled from the wrath of Jezebel?
He returned to Damascus the same year (Gal. 1:17). Then after three years he went to Jerusalem to become acquainted with Peter, staying with him 15 days (Gal. 1:18). No doubt they discussed the great issue of the day—how the Christians were to relate to non-Jews, as well as the Temple, the law, the sacrifices, and the feasts. Peter no doubt filled him in on the Samaritan revival and the Holy Spirit being poured out upon the uncircumcised Romans, including Cornelius.
All of this would have confirmed and solidified what the Spirit had taught Paul in the previous three years. From Jerusalem, Paul went to “Syria and Cilicia” (Gal. 1:21), and years later Barnabas found him in Tarsus, the city of his birth (Acts 11:25). Barnabas brought him to Antioch, where the Spirit of God was being poured out, and they remained there about a year (Acts 11:26).
Then came the prophecy through Agabus that there would be a great famine in the world, which, we are told, took place during the reign of Claudius (41-54 A.D.). Relief money was sent to the Jerusalem church by the hand of Paul and Barnabas (and Titus), and this was the 14th year from Paul's conversion (Gal. 2:1). When they returned to Antioch, Paul and Barnabas were sent out on their first missionary journey (Acts 13:2).
Paul was commissioned to the ministry in 47 A.D., fourteen years after his conversion in the latter part of 33 A.D. This also happened to be 490 years after Nehemiah had built the wall around Jerusalem in the 20th year of Artaxerxes (Neh. 5:14), or 445-444 B.C.
It was a secondary fulfillment of Daniel's 70 weeks. The primary fulfillment, of course, was the 70 weeks from the 7th year of Artaxerxes (458 B.C.) to Jesus’ crucifixion in 33 A.D, as I showed in my book, Secrets of Time. The secondary 70-week period from Nehemiah to Paul (444 B.C. to 47 A.D.) is simply added proof of the prophecy.
Paul and Barnabas took John Mark with them on their first missionary journey. [See map in Appendix 4.] They went first to Seleucia, the port city for Antioch, the capital of Syria. They set sail for Cyprus and landed at the city of Salamis. (Cyprus “points” to Antioch on the map.) Barnabas had originally been a Levite in Cyprus before selling his property and moving to Jerusalem to fellowship with the Christians there (Acts 4:36). So this was familiar territory and may explain also why the Governor wanted to hear the gospel from them.
After sharing the Word at the synagogue in Salamis, they walked to Paphos on the other side of the island. Paphos was the capital of Cyprus.
The Governor, Sergius Paulus, heard of them and called them to the Governor's Mansion to hear what they had to say (Acts 13:7). They showed Him the word of Christ, but were resisted by a Jewish false prophet named Bar-Jesus (i.e., “Son of Jesus”), also called Elymas, which means “The Knowing One.” Luke calls him also a “sorcerer” (Acts 13:8). Paul spoke the prophetic word of judgment upon Bar-Jesus, and this sorcerer was blinded for a season. This was a prophetic judgment upon the Jewish nation itself, which was divinely blinded (“for a season”) for usurping the place of Jesus (i.e., as “Bar-Jesus”)
Sergius Paulus was impressed by the word and the miracle and became a believer (Acts 13:12). The Governor later preached the word in Gaul. His bones are in an old church at Narbonne, a church dedicated to his memory.
Paul, Barnabas, and John Mark then set sail for Perga, the capital of Pamphilia. (This is on the south central coast of what is now Turkey.) There, John Mark withdrew from the missionary journey and returned to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13). There was apparently some sharp disagreement that caused this split. Since Mark was Barnabas’ nephew (or perhaps his cousin), it is certain that Mark was also a Levite with ties to the Jerusalem temple. It is likely, then, that Mark was uncomfortable with Paul’s tendency to make enemies among the Jews by making non-Jewish converts their equals. He and Barnabas probably agreed with Paul in principle, but preferred a softer approach to avoid causing trouble.
After the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, when it came time for Paul and Barnabas to go on their second missionary journey, Barnabas wanted to take Mark again, thinking that the primary issues in dispute had been resolved, but Paul refused.
This dispute split them up into two missionary bands by the providence of God. Paul took Silas, and Barnabas took Mark, and they went on separate missionary journeys (Acts 15:37-41). In this way, the Gospel was preached to more people more quickly.
Recall that Mark was a companion to Peter, the apostle to the circumcision and that Paul had found it necessary to confront both Peter and Barnabas with hypocrisy when they refused to sit at the same table with the non-Jewish believers (Gal. 2:11-13). There is no doubt that this was the most contentious issue of the day, and that it took many years for the issue to be resolved permanently.
At any rate, back in Pamphilia, during that first journey, Mark left the missionary band, and Paul and Barnabas continued to Antioch in Pisidia (Acts 13:14). This is not the same Antioch as the capital of Syria, from which city they had begun their journey. This is a different Antioch, the capital of Pisidia hundreds of miles to the West.
Here they preached the Word in the synagogue, and the next Sabbath, the place was packed out to hear the Gospel. The governors of the synagogue, of course, were quite upset that the people would come to hear the special speakers, but stayed home when the usual leaders were speaking (Acts 13:45). So they opposed the Gospel.
46 And Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly and said, “It was necessary that the Word of God should be spoken to you first; since you repudiate it, and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles [ethnos, “nations”]. 47 For thus the Lord has commanded us, ‘I have placed You as a light for the Gentiles, that you should bring salvation to the end of the earth’.” 48 And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord; and as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed.
It seems that it was here in Antioch in Pisidia that the turning point arrived where the missionaries were to focus on non-Jewish people outside of the synagogues. They recognized that this was in fulfillment of the prophecy quoted above from Isaiah 49:6. The Jews had been given the advantage in that the Gospel was preached to them first; but now, because they rejected it, Paul and Barnabas recognized that they were to waste no more precious time, energy, and money beating their heads against the wall. Why preach the word to hardened hearts when there were countless other people waiting to hear the Gospel with gladness?
The Jews then stirred up trouble and succeeded in having Paul and Barnabas expelled (Acts 13:50). They shook the dust off their feet and went to Iconium. They spent some time there, preaching the word in Iconium with mixed results. Some believed, and others did not. Finally, however, those who rejected the word appealed to the civil authorities to have Paul and Barnabas stoned to death. So they fled to Lystra, Derbe, and Lycaonia preaching the word.
At Lystra, a crippled man was healed, and the people thought Barnabas was Jupiter, and thought Paul was Mercury (Acts 14:12). They had to restrain the people from offering sacrifices to them. But then Jews came from Iconium and Antioch in Pisidia to convince the Jews in Lystra that Paul and Barnabas were blasphemers. Barnabas somehow escaped, but Paul, the outspoken one, was stoned to death outside the city.
Nonetheless, he was raised up and walked away with Barnabas to the town of Derbe (Acts 14:19). Here is where Paul benefited from Stephen's cry of forgiveness in Acts 7:60, as he was being stoned (with Saul/Paul consenting). Stephen forgave, and thus, when Paul was stoned, he was miraculously raised from the dead as the disciples stood around him.
From Derbe they retraced their steps to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch in Pisidia, ordaining elders in each place, and finally returned to Antioch in Syria. There they gave their report on the progress of the Kingdom of God. And there they ran into their next great historic obstacle with the Judaizers from the Jerusalem Church, who came to Antioch after hearing Mark’s account of the missionary journey and the reasons for his dissatisfaction with their focus and methods. Apparently, these men were not pleased with Paul’s focus upon the equality of the ethnos, the non-Jews.
This dispute resulted in the first Church Council in Jerusalem, which is our next topic. Though the Council might be seen as a compromise, Paul won his case in the most important issue being decided—that the non-Jews did not have to be circumcised to be part of God’s covenant. The sign of the New Covenant was heart-circumcision, and this New Covenant had replaced the Old Covenant. This ruling went against common Jewish practice in the temple and synagogues.
It is almost certain that the Jewish Christians who came to Antioch from Jerusalem to contend with Paul’s teaching had been roused by Mark’s report and his dispute with Paul. The idea of God breaking down the wall of division in the temple and creating “one new man” (Eph. 2:15) was still not settled and was being debated.
Yet we should hasten to say that by the end of Paul’s ministry, after the Church had experienced much more persecution at the hand of the Jews, Paul wrote in 2 Tim. 4:11, “Pick up Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for service.” This shows that by 65 A.D. Paul and Mark were reconciled fully.