Paul is known as the greatest missionary of all time; he went to the ends of the known world, heart set ablaze, to bring the Gospel message to all the lost people groups of the earth. Through his Journeys, we learn the Biblical model for doing missions and gain an understanding of how to press on through difficulties that are certain to arise.
How many missionary journeys did Paul take in the book of Acts? Traditionally, it is believed that Paul took three long missionary journeys through the Mediterranean, but it is possible that he went on four missionary journeys, even going as far as Spain.
Let’s make a thorough examination of Paul’s journey’s so we can better understand the purpose and model of missions.
Who was Paul?
Paul is known for a great many things, and the first thing I think of when I hear his name is a man who was as bold as a lion, and on fire for the Lord. He wrote thirteen of the New Testament books, planted at least 14 churches, and persevered through some of the toughest trials and persecutions.
Before Paul was converted in Acts chapter 9, he was a Pharisee who trained under Gamaliel, also a Pharisee who was held in great esteem among the Jews.
…I was a member of the Pharisees, who demand the strictest obedience to the Jewish law….Philippians 3:5
Pharisees were teachers of the law; they studied and followed scripture to the T, though they were severely misguided and lost the point of the law and scripture. And while the pharisaical system may have started with good intentions, it got lost along the way and became a cold shell that loved the power and esteem of man.
Thus, when their long-awaited Messiah came, they completely missed it. This group of people was one of the biggest oppositions and persecutors of Christians.
Paul, as a Pharisee was of the same mindset as the rest of his brethren. He persecuted the church massively and was known and feared because of it.
But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prisonActs 8:3
It was partly because of him that a great persecution broke out against the church, which then caused them to scatter.
But now on to the good part of the story.
One day, as Paul was traveling along the road to Damascus so that he could further persecute the church, Jesus stops him in his tracks and utterly wrecks him.
After he meets and is blinded by Jesus, Paul is completely transformed and baptized, then a defender and advocate of the Christian faith.
The Holy Spirit Sends Paul and Barnabas
After Paul’s conversion, he didn’t get back on his horse and ride off to the next nation to spread the Gospel. Instead, he was met by a man named Ananias, who was sent by God to restore his sight.
Ananias himself was hesitant to meet with Paul because he knew Paul was at this point imprisoning and “breathing murderous threats” at the Christians. But in the end, he was obedient to God and went to Paul.
After this Paul spent a lot of time with the church and in Chapter 13 of Acts, we come to the beginning of Paul’s missionary journeys.
Luke, the writer of Acts, recounts how the church in Antioch was fasting and praying together when the Holy Spirit spoke and instructed them to set apart Barnabas and Paul. Then they laid hands on them and sent them off.
Paul’s First Missionary Journey
Paul’s first missionary journey is found in Acts 13 and 14. Paul and Barnabas set sail with John as their helper from about 46 to 48 A.D. and their first stop was Cyprus. Acts 13 records that they made it to Salamis in Cyprus, and proclaimed the word of God in the Jewish Synagogues.
As they traveled through the whole island they came to Paphos where they ran into a Jewish sorcerer and false prophet named Bar-Jesus who was an attendant to the proconsul. Paul and Barnabas were actually summoned by the proconsul because he wanted to hear more about Jesus.
But when they arrived, the false prophet sought to turn the proconsul away from the truth, but the Holy Spirit came upon Paul who then rebuked the man and caused him to be blind. It was because of this that the proconsul saw the power of God and converted.
After they left Cyprus, they made their way to Perga in Pamphylia where John left them to go back to Jerusalem. They went from there to Pisidian Antioch.
In Pisidian Antioch, they went to the synagogue and began preaching; many received them and what they taught and urged them to continue on, even following them in order to learn more. But they were removed from the city after the jealousy of the Jews rose up and they stirred up the God-fearing women and leading men of the city and persecution broke out against Paul and Barnabas.
They then traveled to Iconium and taught in the Jewish Synagogue where a great number of Jews and Gentiles converted to the faith. But again, other Jews stirred up trouble for the two missionaries. They left sometime after arriving because a plot against their lives arose.
Next was Lystra and Derbe where the Galatian church was planted. While they were there they got mistaken for gods. After Paul healed a crippled man, the city erupted, claiming that Barnabas was Zeus and Paul was Hermes. This greatly distressed both of them, so they went out into the masses to set the record straight and tell them the Gospel message, but as they were doing this, the crowds were won over by Jews trying to cause trouble for Paul and Barnabas. As a result, Paul was stoned, almost to death. The very next day he and Barnabas went to Derbe.
Upon arriving in Antioch, they called the church together and reported everything God had done through them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles, too. And they stayed there with the believers for a long time.Acts 14:27-28
After a time of preaching in Derbe, they returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Attalia, then they returned to the church in Antioch where they first set sail from and spent some time there before heading out a second time.
During his missionary journeys, Paul wrote multiple letters that became known as the epistles. And during Paul’s first missionary journey he wrote a letter to the church in Galatia which was his first epistle and is known as the book of Galatians in the Bible.
He wrote to encourage the Galatians and bring truth to them because they were being choked out by a false understanding of the Gospel that taught that you needed Christ plus the Law to be saved.
Paul’s Second Missionary Journey
While Paul was in Antioch, men were coming and preaching that the Gentiles must be circumcised so he with other church leaders were appointed to go to Jerusalem to address this issue. After this was settled, Paul proposed a second missionary journey to Barnabas, to go visit and strengthen the believers and churches they had planted during the first missionary journey.
This, however, did not go as planned.
Barnabas and Paul had a very sharp disagreement about whether or not to bring John, who had deserted them during the first journey, and in the end, they went their own separate ways––Barnabas bringing John along, and Paul, Silas.
Paul’s second missionary journey lasted from 49 to 52 A.D. and is recorded in Acts chapters 16-18. Paul and Silas first came to Derbe and Lystra where they met Timothy, who they decided to bring with them on their journey. They traveled through the region of Phrygia and Galatia and eventually on to Troas where Paul had a vision in the night calling him and his companions to travel to Damascus and preach the Gospel there. He intentionally avoided Asia as the Holy Spirit would not allow him to go there and preach.
That night Paul had a vision: A man from Macedonia in northern Greece was standing there, pleading with him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” So we decided to leave for Macedonia at once, having concluded that God was calling us to preach the Good News there.Acts 16:9-10
During their time in Damascus, Paul once again faced much opposition but in spite of this, they planted the churches in Philippi and Thessalonica. Once they reached Macedonia, they met a woman named Lydia in Philippi who converted to the faith. During their stay with her in Philippi, they went out and were followed by a young girl who was demon-possessed.
After some time of this girl shouting and causing trouble, Paul finally cast the demon out of her, which then caused the crowds to stir up against them and led to their imprisonment. In the night, however, an angel of the Lord came and set them free, and as a result, the jailer was saved.
They went on to travel through Thessalonica, Brea, Athens, Corinth, and Ephesus, then to Jerusalem and finally back to Antioch for a short time. During his journeys, he went to the synagogues in every city and reasoned with the Jews.
All along the way, Paul understood the culture he was stepping into and thus entered in with a strategy, conscious of the culture’s traditions. In chapter 17, Paul begins reasoning with the Greek philosophers, speaking to them in the way that they were familiar with and would receive which led to the conversion of many Greek philosophers.
Paul made a stop in Corinth, then Ephesus, and then made his way back to Antioch. The Book of Acts tells us that he spent some time there before setting out for his third journey.
While he was traveling from country to country on his second missionary journey, Paul wrote 1st and 2nd Thessalonians. He wrote this letter to the church of Thessalonica because he had to leave them in the midst of persecution and was not there to walk through it with them. The first letter was to urge them on through the persecution, and the second letter was addressing fears of having already missed the second coming of Christ.
Paul’s Third Missionary Journey
After his visit to Antioch, Paul traveled again to the region of Galatia and Phrygia, with the intent of strengthening his brothers and sisters in Christ. His third missionary journey lasted from 53 to 57 A.D. and is found in Acts chapters 18:23-21:14.
Paul’s third missionary journey was a longer trip than the previous two, and he spent his time shoring up the churches he had planted on his first two journeys. Acts tells us that he spent a significant portion of his time in Ephesus, about 2-3 years. And while he was there he encountered some disciples who had not heard the full Gospel message or the Holy Spirit. So he told them of Christ’s death and resurrection and placed his hands on them and then they were filled with the Holy Spirit.
Ephesus went through a great revival during Paul’s time there, he performed many miracles, signs, and wonders, and the people were to Christ in great numbers.
When this became known to the Jews and Greeks living in Ephesus, they were all seized with fear, and the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honor. Many of those who believed now came and openly confessed what they had done. A number who had practiced sorcery brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly. When they calculated the value of the scrolls, the total came to fifty thousand drachmas. In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power.Acts 19:17-20
In response to this great revival, a riot broke out in the city against Paul because their way of life was being threatened by the Gospel. A silversmith who made shrines of Artemis was angered because of his loss of business, so he stirred up the city into a state of rage and confusion. It took several hours before the city clerk was able to quiet them down.
Paul then met with the disciples in Ephesus and encouraged them, said goodbye, and left for Macedonia, accompanied by Sopaterm Aristarchus, Secundus, Galius, Timothy, Tychicus, and Trophimus. They visited the churches in Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea before he made his way to Corinth after a short time there, Paul sought to go back to Syria but was stopped short when he discovered a plot against his life.
Paul then retraced his steps back through Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea, stopping in Troas where he stayed for seven days. Led by the Holy Spirit to go to Jerusalem, and eager to be there for Pentecost, Paul bypassed Ephesus knowing that he would need to stay there longer than he had time, so he called for the Ephesian elders to come and meet him in Miletus.
This meeting was a difficult one for all the disciples and elders because Paul knew he was saying goodbye for the last time.
When Paul had finished speaking, he knelt down with all of them and prayed. They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him. What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again. Then they accompanied him to the ship.Acts 20:36-38
None of Paul’s journeys were easy or without persecution, but his journey to Jerusalem was nothing but pain and difficulty. In about 55 A.D. Paul made his way to Jerusalem where he would be “bound hand and foot by the Jews and given over to the Gentiles (Acts 21:10).”
After Paul had received a prophecy that he would be persecuted in Jerusalem, the people whom he was staying with at Caeserea pleaded with him not to go, but Paul refused to stay.
Paul answered, “Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” When he would not be dissuaded, we gave up and said, “The Lord’s will be done.”Acts 21:13-14
So on he went, and this concluded his third and final missionary journey.
While in Ephesus on his third trip, Paul wrote 1st and 2nd Corinthians in about 53-55 A.D. to the people of Corinth. In these two letters, he addressed some false doctrines that were being taught, as well as some specific concerns they had brought to Paul’s attention.
Paul’s Proposed Fourth Missionary Journey
After Paul arrived in Jerusalem, he was quickly met by men who sought to destroy him. He was beaten, falsely accused, imprisoned, transferred from one place to the next, shipwrecked, held under house arrest, all in the course of around 4 years.
After Paul entered the Jewish Synagogue for the first time to teach, he was immediately met with opposition by the Jews. They incited a riot so violent and chaotic that Paul was arrested and carried off by two soldiers for his own safety.
Paul later discovered a plot against his life and brought it to the commander’s attention and was then transferred to Caesarea where he was imprisoned for two years––58 to 60 A.D. Finally Festus planned to transfer Paul back to Jerusalem to be put on trial there, but before this happened, Paul appealed to Caesar and was transported by ship to Rome.
It was during this journey to Rome that Paul was shipwrecked and experienced many difficulties before finally making it to Rome in 60 A.D. where he was under house arrest for two years.
Paul may have been released after 2 years in prison c. 62 AD and gone on a 4th Missionary Journey, or he may have been kept in prison until the time of the Fire of Rome in 64 AD.Melanie Hurlbut
It is hard to say for sure whether Paul went on a fourth missionary journey or not, and some count his trip from Caesarea to Rome as his fourth, as he ministered to many people along the way. Others, however, believe that his letters to Timothy point to Paul being imprisoned in Rome two times, and it is after the first release that he embarked on a fourth journey, possibly to Spain, though there isn’t solid evidence for this.
Nevertheless, we know that during Paul’s imprisonment he wrote many of the epistles, which are actually known as the prison epistles: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon.
What We Can Learn From Paul’s Journeys
So much can be learned from the life of Paul and his missionary journeys, not only can we learn the example by which we are to model present-day missions, but we can also learn what living an abandoned life for Christ actually looks like.
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain ChristPhilippians 3:7-8
Missions work is no easy business, in some countries you may not face the threat of death, in others you might, but one thing is true of all countries, living in a different culture can be incredibly challenging.
But don’t worry, God is on our side.
In Philippians 3, Paul is explaining and contrasting his life before surrendering to Christ, and he had everything––status, money, respect, knowledge, all of it. But none of it meant a single thing to him next to knowing Christ.
I believe this is the life that all Christians are called to, I don’t necessarily mean suffering to the extent that Paul did, though that is not out of the question, but rather, lives wholly abandoned to Christ. This kind of abandon ushers in radical, society altering, world-shaking impact.
By following Paul’s example and posturing our hearts in the same way, we will find ourselves living Godly lives and walking in effective ministry whether overseas or in a local church. This kind of abandon opens the door to a vast array of different opportunities to serve the Lord and spread the Gospel that we couldn’t otherwise have with tight grips.
So what can we learn from Paul’s journeys? Among the many many other things we can learn, we know by his example how to live abandoned and obedient to the call of God and we learn that the key to perseverance in difficult times is through eyes set on God and God alone.
And we know that we do not do this alone but rather are enabled through and by Christ’s love for us and the empowering of the Holy Spirit, to reach into the scariest and darkest places on earth and declare the name of Jesus Christ.