“Paul the Missionary, Realities, Strategies and Methods” by Eckhard Schnabel

“Paul the Missionary, Realities, Strategies and Methods” by Eckhard Schnabel

Schnabel, Eckhard J. Paul the Missionary: Realities, Strategies and MethodsGrand Rapids: IVP Academic, 2008.

Hebrews 13:7 “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.”

In light of this passage Paul the Missionary: Realities, Strategies and Methods is a great resource to consider how we might imitate Paul’s faith and his way of life in pursuing spread of God’s kingdom through the preaching of the gospel and starting churches. Here is how Schnabel defines mission in the book:

The term “mission” or “missions” refers to the activity of a community of faith that distinguishes itself from its environment in terms of both religious belief (theology) and social behavior (ethics), that is convinced of the truth claims of its faith and that actively works to win other people to the content of faith and the way of life of whose truth and necessity the members of the community are convinced (22).

It’s thick at 458 pages, but this is a thoughtful gospel-centered book and faithful to Scripture. I appreciate how thoroughly Schnabel thinks through how Paul pursued the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). Here is how he describes the purpose of the book:

This is my goal in this book: to provide a close reading of the relevant New Testament texts that help us understand Paul’s missionary work – proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ and establishing communities of believers – in terms of the goals that he had and in terms of the methods that he used (30).

Normally, when you hear about Paul’s missionary work folks have broken it down into 3 missionary journeys. If you flip to the back of most Bibles you can usually even see a map outlining them. Schnabel doesn’t reject that scheme, but he gives a more nuanced outline Paul’s missionary work in 15 phases or periods:

  1. Damascus in AD 31/32 (59)
  2. Arabia in AD 32/33 (60)
  3. Jerusalem in AD 33/34 (65)
  4. Cilicia and Syria from AD 33/34 to AD 42 – almost 10 years (66)
  5. Antioch from AD 42 to 44 (71, 75)
  6. Cyprus in AD 45 (75)
  7. Galatia from AD 45 to 47 (77)
  8. Macedonia in AD 49 (92)
  9. Achaia in AD 50 (98)
  10. Asia from AD 51 to 55 (107)
  11. Illyricum in AD 56 (112)
  12. Caesarea in AD 57 (113)
  13. Rome from AD 60 to 61 (114)
  14. Spain in AD 62 (115)
  15. Crete in AD 63 (121)

Schnabel goes through each of these periods outlining the historical development of the culture and cities in these regions, and giving a sketch of what Paul did in each of these areas. After giving this solid chronology of Paul’s life and work Schnabel summarizes how Paul identified his missionary task as a “missionary, pastor, theologian” in the content of his 13 letters in the New Testament:

  1. God is the Lord over all missionary work.
  2. “Success” is the result of God’s activity, not men or their methods.
  3. Christ is the content of preaching and the foundation, criterion, and measure of church planting and church growth.
  4. Missionaries are servants of God and His word.
  5. Missionaries make a public proclamation of the victory of God who also leads them.
  6. Paul sees himself as a church-planter establishing new communities of believers.
  7. A missionary’s central work is the proclamation of the gospel.
  8. We must pay consistent attention to our listeners.
  9. Paul is not satisfied with the success of his mission, he wants to reach more and more people.
  10. Paul doesn’t work alone.
  11. These are the last days, Gentiles don’t need to become Jews to then become Christians. Christ is held out to all.
  12. Missionaries, Teachers & Preachers are responsible to God for their work and their motivations. (151-4)

This would be a good list to use as a springboard for prayer for yourself and all the missionaries and pastors you know. Paul was committed to the local church, he wasn’t just concerned to start churches and then leave off. Schnabel observes:

Paul was not content to preach the gospel to unbelievers and to establish new communities of followers of Jesus. He continued to be concerned about the churches that had come into existence and about he believers who were meeting in these local churches every week – concerned for their doctrinal authenticity and for the moral consistency, for their faith and for their life, for their leadership and for the new converts. Paul is concerned that the teachers fo the churches teach correctly and that the believers believe correctly, this is why he writes his letters and why he discusses one-sided or misleading beliefs that some Christians propagate. He is not simply concerned about an authentic Christian “experience” but also about the truth of the gospel and about behaving in a manner that was consistent with the gospel. (207)

He also identifies that the consistent focus of Paul’s preaching is this message of the gospel, the heralding of God’s returning to His people to take up His reign (214), “The consistent focus of Paul’s preaching was on what God had done in and through Jesus Christ, on the crucified and risen Son of God himself.” (214) Further, he outlines that Paul’s goal was, “the conversion of Jews and pagans to faith in Jesus Messiah, Savior and Lord, the transformation and traditional patterns of religious, ethical and social behavior, and the integration into the community of fellow believers.” (225) Repentance (God’s turning us from sin to Himself) and faith (received belief and trust in God through Christ). The demand to preach the news of God’s redemptive intervention in the person and work of Jesus the crucified and risen Messiah and Savior results in Paul’s missionary method (257). He outlines Paul’s missionary method in 7 elements:

  1. People need to hear the message about Jesus Christ (257)
  2. People live in cities, towns and villages (257)
  3. The Mediterranean world was part of the Roman Empire’s political structure, so they will have to travel to Roman provinces (257)
  4. Seek people in places the are willing to listen in – synagogues, central squares of the cities, marketplace (agora), the forum of Roman cities, workshops, and private houses (258)
  5. Ethnic and social classes are important to take into account (258)
  6. Rhetoric of traveling orators (both negative and positive) had to be considered – what were popular teachers in the culture saying/doing (what media were the people consuming?) (258)
  7. What is missionary success in planting churches? (258)

Schnabel considers each of these elements at greater length. I appreciated his points in thinking about “success” in gospel ministry and missionary work. He points out that Paul experienced “success” because the gospel is attractive (357), and that he was fruitful not necessarily because of methodology, but because of the Holy Spirit, “because the Spirit of God had convinced citizens of Thessalonica of the truth of the gospel, causing them to become followers of Jesus and to join the community of believers in the city  all this despite the fact that new believers came under immense pressure. It was precisely this reliance on and confidence in the work of the Holy Spirit that allowed Paul to involve young and inexperienced co-workers such as Timothy in pioneer situations and to entrust them with demanding responsibilities.” (358)

Schnabel outlines 12 factors folks usually give to explain the expansion of the gospel in Paul’s ministry: (1) Pax Romana (360), (2) Rational critique of polytheism by Platonic and Stoic philosophers (361), (3) the disintegration of the Greek city-state (364), (4) Hellenistic ruler cult because of its introduction of the concept of a “god-man” (364), (5) the decline of Pagan religiosity (364), (6) the notion of social position/status inconsistency (365), (7) Hellenistic “yearning” for salvation (367), (8) a belief in life after death (367), (9) miracles (368), (10) the courage of the Christian martyrs (368), (11) an ideal brotherly love [as if non-believers are heartless] (369), (12) the historical foundation of the Christian faith in the unique personality of Jesus Christ rooted in the mythologies of pagan gods (370). After explaining and rebutting these, Schnabel writes, “None of these factors and no combination of some individual factors explain the expansion of the Christian mission – not in the first century or in later centuries. To believe the Christian message that the missionaries or Christian relatives, friends and neighbors proclaimed was not easy. To accept faith in a crucified Savior as [a] necessary condition for salvation was rationally impossible, as was faith in a bodily resurrection. And to join a local congregation of followers of Jesus was potentially dangerous.” (371) So, why was Paul’s preaching successful? Schnabel answers, “He relies on the power of God, which is present in the preaching of the gospel of the crucified and risen Jesus Christ…Paul does not rely on a ‘method’ understood in terms of ‘a defined, and regular plan’ for the success of his missionary preaching[,] but, rather, on the power of God, he regularly asks for prayer.” (371) He understood their dependence upon God. They preach, and try to reach the people, but it is God who saves, God who regenerates, God who convinces and transforms the heart and mind. This is one of the reasons why Scripture is such a central aspect of the missionary endeavor and of pastoral ministry in local churches. It’s God’s Word, and only the power of God can do what we pursue in missions.

The last chapter of the book gets into the implications of all of this for how we pursue missions and preaching the gospel today, particularly in how we: (1) call and send missionaries (382), (2) think about the content of missionary proclamation (394), (3) proclaim the gospel and plant churches (400), (4) disciple/teach followers of Jesus (419), (5) think about the purpose, mission, and work of a local church (422), (6) challenge the culture (445), and (7) how we think about the power of God (451). He closes by discussing how our methodology isn’t disassociated from the content of what we are to do and the goals that we are trying to accomplish: “Methods are not simply neutral tools but routines that influence the way human beings live and behave. In the case of the proclamation of the news of Jesus, methods influence the content of what is being communicated.” (453) He gives a warning to the temptation to culturally compromise:

Authentic biblical contextualization does not exploit a culture “for the Church’s own gain even as Christian faith is not about exploiting God for what we want.” Paul’s willingness to “become all things to all people” (1 Cor. 9:22) is governed by the truth and the logic of the gospel: “I do it all for the sake of the gospel” (1 Cor 9:23). The gospel contradicts all human culture since humankind’s rebellion against God (Genesis 3). This is why followers of Jesus who belong to God’s people never simply belong to a culture, where the term belong means “to be the rightful property or possession of” – authentic Christians are not owned by the culture in which they were born and live. Rather, they belong to the one true and living God, they belong to and serve the Lord Jesus Christ, and they belong to God’s people, a diverse yet unified body that transcends ethnic, social and cultural divisions. When potential Christians – seekers who are unbelievers, the unchurched who are agnostics, future converts who may stay atheists – who are indeed “owned” by their culture, determine the form and ultimately also the content of what is being preached, it is difficult to see how seeker-driven churches can maintain their Christian authenticity in the long run, during which the “noise” of culture disturbs the communication of the Word of God but also threatens to drown out the truth of God’s Word.(449-50)

There is so much in this book – buy it and read it. I wish I could outline and discuss more. Schnabel is a clear and helpful thinker about missions. I don’t have any critiques of the book, but I do wish there was an under 100 page copy condensed for those who lack the patience/commitment to wade through Paul the Missionary. I can’t help but walk away from this book encouraged, and in awe of God’s grace in the gospel and in how He uses weak sinners as instruments in His hand to redeem His people through the message of the gospel. And I’m humbled at God’s grace to be glorified as dependent sinners – saved by His grace in the death and resurrection of Christ – proclaim His name and call upon His name through all nations.

Noah Braymen is an elder at Redeemer Baptist Church and lives with his wife and three children in Des Moines, Iowa. You can find him on Twitter at @NoahBraymen.