I didn’t go to church much as a child. I only have a few memories of the few times I did go. One was trying to endure the music portion of the service and then secondly trying to keep myself occupied while some guy was up front talking to us about Jesus and some dude named Paul. Being the nerd that I am, I remember being intrigued by colored maps in the back of my Bible. One in particular that I remember was one with three different colored arrows with the heading at top: Paul’s Missionary Journeys.
I don’t know if I really understood who Paul was or even what a missionary journey was, but I thought the map was cool and it held my attention for a few moments. Perhaps you’re wondering who exactly Paul is and what his missionary journeys were.
To put simply, Paul was a guy whose life was radically changed by Jesus Christ. In the early part of his life, he was on a different kind of journey. He went throughout much of his land trying to tell people to ignore Jesus — and he was even instrumental in trying to hurt people who followed Jesus. But on one of these trips his life was changed, and now he went all across the known world to tell people about the goodness of Jesus. He went on three (or maybe four) big missionary journeys that we have record of in the New Testament.
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How Many Missionary Journeys Did Paul Make?
First, it would be helpful for us to establish a definition of a missionary journey. In order for something to be called a missionary journey, there needs to be some sort of explicit mission or purpose, and a type of commissioning. Paul was always doing ministry. In one sense you could say that from the point of his conversion his life was one big missionary journey. But to be specific we would need to have some sort of specific mission and setting apart for this particular task. So how many times did this happen?
It’s possible that Paul went on more missionary journeys than what is recorded in the New Testament. But most believe he had either three or four main journeys. The Bible that I was using as kid was an NIV Study Bible. In that particular map there are three missionary journeys marked, but also a fourth arrow that outlines his trip to Rome. Some would also consider a fourth missionary journey to Spain.
We know that there are three missionary journeys in the book of Acts. We also know that Paul did travel to Rome as a prisoner (should this be considered a missionary journey, though?) We also know that there is mention of a fourth missionary journey to Spain. There are some hints throughout the New Testament that this journey was completed, and early Christian history does seem to give some evidence to this happening. But we cannot know for certain.
It is probably best to confess that we do not know for certain how many missionary journeys he took. But for our purpose we will consider his three major missionary trips.
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What Happened on These Journeys?
You can read about Paul’s 1st missionary journey in Acts 13-14. On this trip he, and Barnabas, were commissioned from Antioch. The goal of this mission seems to have been to preach in Jewish synagogues and attempt to convert Jews. They began in Cyrus and went through Pamphylia, Pisidia, and Lycaonia. They then went through Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe and circled back around to Antioch.
In Cyprus the proconsul was converted after Paul pronounced a curse upon a Jewish sorcerer named Bar-Jesus and made him blind. They were also successful in Pisidian Antioch where many Jews and Gentiles were converted before some Jews incited a riot against Paul and Barnabas and drove them out of the city. Nevertheless “the word of the Lord spread through the whole region” (13:49).
They were met with the same mixture of success and opposition in the other cities as well. Perhaps one of the most significant things which came from this journey was the massive number of Gentiles who came to the faith. As they shared their story back in Antioch, this was an emphasis (see Acts 14:27-28).
Paul’s 2nd missionary journey is recorded in Acts 15:36-18:22. After a short stay in Antioch, Paul wanted to go with Barnabas on another journey. But a sharp dispute arose (with John Mark being the center of the debate) and the two split. Barnabas ended up back in Cyprus with John Mark and Paul took a different route throughout Asia Minor with Silas. It was on this journey that Paul would be joined by Timothy.
He would also have ministry in Athens, Philippi, Thessalonica, and Corinth. As you might have recognized by some of these names, it was through this missionary journey that Paul began his relationship with many of the churches to whom he would eventually write letters. The purpose of these journeys was to establish churches and to encourage those who were already followers of Jesus, but they also saw many converts as well.
Paul’s 3rd missionary journey begins in Acts 18:23 and goes through Acts 20:38. Paul’s third journey was essentially the same as his second journey but in reverse order. The narrative in Acts focuses on the church in Ephesus (another church that would receive a letter now in the New Testament). It was here also that connections were made to Galatia as well.
Though these journeys were filled with opposition and difficulty, they also experienced much success. The gospel spread all throughout the Roman Empire and churches were firmly established through these missionary efforts. Not to mention that the Lord used Paul’s correspondence during these journeys (and because of these) to inspire many books of the New Testament.
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How Far Did Paul Travel on His Journeys?
Have you ever heard that song “500 Miles” by The Proclaimers? Well, Paul journeyed far more than 500 miles to take the gospel to the nations. Even though he was able to use the Roman Road for easier access to the cities, it is still estimated that Paul traveled well over 10,000 miles.
One person has taken it upon themselves to estimate the cost and travel time of Paul’s three journeys and his trip to Rome. He concluded that it would have taken him 281 days of travel time, journeying 10,282 miles at a cost of 1,731 denarii (day’s wages) for each person to sail on the trip.
When you factor in the toll these journeys took upon Paul’s person, his missionary endeavors were far-reaching, consequential, and costly. But you likely have heard the gospel today because of these efforts.
Did Paul Travel with Anyone?
Paul did not travel alone on any of these journeys. On his first missionary journey, he went with Barnabas. On his second journey he took Silas, and eventually Timothy joined them. While in Corinth on this journey he met Aquila and Priscilla and he took them with him on his third journey to Ephesus. Timothy and Erastus had gone ahead of him on this journey as well — so there would be those who greeted him while there. It is also quite likely that Luke accompanied Paul on some of these journeys. In Acts there are several sections where Luke says “we,” indicating that he was physically present.
Gospel mission is never a solo enterprise. Throughout the New Testament we see disciples traveling in teams. Even in the gospel account when Jesus sent out the earliest disciples, he sent them two by two. It’s likely that part of the reasoning for this is the Old Testament standard of having two witnesses. Paul never traveled alone on a missionary journey.
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What Happened to Paul at the End of His Life?
When we begin discussing the end of Paul’s life, things get a bit cloudier. We know that Paul is alive at the end of Acts. Everything leading up to that point (the three journeys and travel to Rome) we can be fairly certain about. But after the book of Acts ends, we have to piece together scant evidence and rely upon church tradition to establish his end of days. It is almost universally accepted that he died a martyr’s death, but when and where is up for debate.
As the book of Acts ends, Paul is in prison awaiting a verdict. Many believe that he was released on this occasion. There are details in the pastoral epistles (1 and 2 Timothy, Titus) that do not fit with his having died in Rome during the time period of Acts 28. From here, debate ensues about whether or not Paul traveled to Spain and completed the task he mentioned in Romans 15:23-29. Early church tradition has him going to Spain and completing a missionary journey there.
Eusebius claims that Paul was beheaded at the order of Nero shortly after Rome was burned in a fire. (This is where tradition has Peter meeting his end as well). But we cannot know for certain what happened at the end of Paul’s life. We know he continued writing, we know he spent more time in prison, and we know that he kept the faith. 2 Timothy 4:6-8 is the capstone on Paul’s life:
“For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day — and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”
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