The first of anything always seems to get the most attention. We know who built the first lightbulb, or who was the first one to successfully determine energy through lightning.
Some of us might also know who made the first toaster, or the first car. We know a lot of the “first” milestones that occurred in the world. But if I were to ask if who the first missionary was, what would you say? Even if we stick to the New Testament, the answer is slightly unclear.
Some people would say Jesus, because well… the Sunday school answer could never be wrong. Others say, Peter, because he was given the first big sermon that is recorded after Jesus’ death. Still, others say that it would be Stephen because he was the first person seized and martyred for His faith. And even still there are those who believe it’s Philip when he travels to Samaria to preach.
So which answer is correct? They all are, depending on your definition of a missionary; interesting enough the word “missionary” isn’t even in the Bible. However, it’s interesting to search through the first couple chapters of Acts and see who may actually fit the definition of “first missionary”.
Was Peter the First Missionary?
Peter was a missionary, no doubt. But the question comes to whether or not he was the first missionary. People look at the time when he preached a sermon during the Pentecost (Acts 2:14-41). This sermon was given to the onlookers that saw the effects of the Holy Spirit coming onto the believers. This was a sermon of love, but also of conviction. Peter was trying to get the people to see the urgency in accepting the truth of Jesus, the reality of the Gospel.
“Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” —Acts 2:38-39
Explaining the gospel is a really big part of being a missionary, and is so important for an individual to take hold of. But that’s not the only thing that is important to take on the title “missionary”, let alone “the first missionary”.
In my opinion, Peter was being more of an evangelist in this situation. He was speaking to a group of lost, however, this was home to him. The Holy Spirit had just dwelled within them, and now He wanted to show those around Him the love and power that Christ instilled in him.
Was Philip the First Missionary?
The first story that comes up when thinking of Philip in my mind is Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch. And this was a time when Philip really encapsulated “missionary”. But that is not the first time that Philip spoke the Gospel. Only a couple verses before the story of Philip and the Eunuch we see that Philip goes and proclaims Christ in Samaria (Acts 8:4-8).
In this situation, Philip did end up getting up and going. Which could help his case in being seen as the first missionary, but Samaria was considered to be “homeland” for the disciples.
Yes, he was sent off but it wasn’t uncharted territory, it wasn’t new for him. He had followed Christ to Samaria before and even in Acts 1:8, we see the words of Christ telling them that they will be going to all of Judea and Samaria.
We see that Christ had gone ahead and already went through Samaria in John 4, it was as if to prepare them for the Holy Spirit that would sweep through the land in time. There is a peace that must come from going to familiar places, smiling at old friends, working in the same place as you had in the past.
What’s the difference between missionary and evangelist?
So Peter and Philip were defined as an “evangelists” instead of missionaries, and you may be wondering what the difference really is.
It’s not an outrageous difference. But part of it is having a willing heart in order to “go”. This is part of the command that we see in the great commission. There is an aspect of leaving the comfort and finding courage in Christ that forces you beyond being an evangelist.
“So evangelism is speaking the gospel to everyone, especially those in your culture. Missions is realizing there are cultures and linguistic groups that don’t have anybody in them to do that.
And therefore we must make a special effort to learn languages, learn cultures, do all of the anthropological, methodological thought that is necessary in order to be effective culture-crossers to plant a church there who would then do evangelism.” —John Piper
Both are going to be used by God, and both have a major impact on the society. The only difference is one is in their society and the other is on a society across the globe.
Was Paul the First Missionary?
Some also believe that Paul was the first missionary. Personally, I take this stance in the sense that Saul (known as Paul) and Barnabas, who were sent off, to Cyprus (Acts 13:1-13).
After some research, I’ve come to the realization that Christ hadn’t been recorded going to Cyprus. This is “uncharted territory”. Paul wasn’t heading off to a place he had been before, but instead going off to where He felt God was calling him. There wasn’t hesitation or questioning of God. There was simple obedience to “go”.
“To stay here and disobey God — I can’t afford to take the consequence. I would rather go and obey God than to stay here and know that I disobeyed.” —Amanda Berry Smith
Fear is something that stops so many Christians from going, from doing the things that we think God is calling us to. However, looking at Paul, we see that those willing to go, willing to do the will of the Lord, are those that God used in amazing ways.
Was Jesus the First Missionary?
Oh the sweet name that you hear time and time again when you are in a children’s Sunday School Class, or even on a small campus like BGU.
People like Dave DeVries believe that Christ is the best missionary that there ever was. And rightfully so, but you can read more of his beliefs on his blog: The Greatest Missionary Ever. I don’t disagree that Jesus was the first missionary, in some ways. But there is also the idea of considering Christ a missionary at all that doesn’t sit right with me. A missionary is going out and telling people the good news, but the Jesus is the good news.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. We have seen His glory, the glory of the one and only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. — John 1:1, 14
I feel like giving Jesus the title of “first missionary” is limiting Him. It’s as if we are taking some of the glory and power of what He actually did for humanity. He created a path in which we can now become Christians and walk out our faith. God is the only reason why we can actually be a missionary, He is the reason behind it and the reason for it. But He, himself, is not a missionary.
So who was the first missionary?
To be honest, I don’t think it matters who the first missionary was. It comes down to definitions and different ideas. On Bethany campus, I asked four different people and got four different answers.
What matters is that we have more missionaries to follow in their footprints. We need people who are willing to go and “take the gospel to where it’s not”. No, it’s not going to look exactly like the testimony of Philip, or the story of Paul, or the journey of Peter. But it’s going to be a leading from God according to His will.
We need missionaries, we are always going to need missionaries. Until every person has heard the Good News, until every tribe has the chance to praise His holy name, we will need missionaries.
Don’t get me wrong, the simple act of going isn’t the only qualification to becoming a missionary. Being a missionary is about devoting your life to God and essentially others. It’s about allowing God to work in the midst of the discomfort of being in a new place, and dedicating your future to an eternal mindset.
Being a missionary is so much more than just a job, it’s a calling. Though explaining and understanding that in complete detail would take a lifetime; thinking through the importance of a missionary and the job title is an important first step.
You can contemplate this topic more with different enrichment videos that Bethany has available for you. These enrichment videos are meant to challenge you and help you to think through the difficult questions at hand. Yes, we are a missionary school and we would love it if you would go and be a missionary, but more we want the body of Christ to grow. For when we are growing, we open ourselves up to the work of God in and through our lives. And that, my dear friend, is what we strive for day by day.