Contrary to popular misconceptions, Paul’s approach to missionary work did not merely involve baptizing people and starting churches. Sufficient resources were invested for adequate instruction and edification, requiring extended periods of time (cf. Acts 14:3; 18:11; 20:27, 31). When this luxury was not afforded, ample follow-up work was necessary in order to establish these churches. When only a brief time was spent in a given location, it was typically because of forced departure rather than by design.1
The Galatia Campaign
When Paul and Barnabas reached the city of Derbe, the end of the first missionary campaign’s evangelistic trail, they did not continue eastward towards home. “And when they had preached the gospel to that city and made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith …” (Acts 14:21-22a).2 Not long thereafter Paul says, “Let us now go back and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the Lord, and see how they are doing” (Acts 15:36). This plan was carried out on multiple occasions (Acts 15:41–16:6; 18:23).
The Macedonia Campaign
On the second missionary tour at least three churches were started in the province of Macedonia, beginning at Philippi (Acts 16:12-40). We don’t know how long Paul and his fellow missionaries were in that city; the only time indicators are “some days” and “many days” (Acts 16:12, 18). Seeing that they were compelled to leave prematurely, one member of the mission team appears to have stayed behind to continue the work. The pronominal “we” (inclusive of Luke) at the beginning of the account (Acts 16:10-16) switches to the third person “they” at departure (Acts 16:40; 17:1), implying that Luke remained in Philippi – potentially, in view of the next “we” section (Acts 20:6), for about seven years. There were also follow-up visits (Phil. 2:19, 24; etc.), noted further below.
Next was Thessalonica, where converts were made but again the missionaries were forced to leave prematurely (Acts 17:1-10). Nevertheless, Timothy returned soon with a letter (1 Thess. 1:1; 2:17; 3:1-6) and probably a second time a few months later with another letter (2 Thess. 1:1). The three-man mission team also worked together in nearby Berea until Paul was forced to leave, while “both Silas and Timothy remained there” (Acts 17:10-14). After regrouping in Athens, Silas and Timothy went back to Macedonia (1 Thess. 2:17–3:2; Acts 18:5).
In total, Timothy made four or five documented return trips to Macedonia (1 Thess. 3:1; 2 Thess. 1:1; Acts 19:22; 20:1-4; Phil. 2:19-23), Silas at least one (Acts 18:5), while Paul revisited these brethren no fewer than four times (Acts 19:21; 20:1, 3; Phil. 2:24; 1 Tim. 1:3; cf. 1 Cor. 16:5; 2 Cor. 2:13; 7:5; 9:2-4).
The Achaia and Asia Campaigns
Paul stayed in Corinth at least a year and a half, “teaching the word of God among them” (Acts 18:11). He later returned for a three-month visit (1 Cor. 4:19; 16:5-6; Acts 20:2-3) and possibly again a few years later (2 Tim. 4:20). Follow-up work was also done by Apollos, Timothy, Titus, and others (Acts 19:1; 1 Cor. 4:17; 2 Cor. 7:13-15; 8:16-24; 12:18). While Paul’s first trip to Ephesus was brief, leaving Aquila and Priscilla there to initiate this work, he soon went back for an extended three-year mission (Acts 18:18-21; 19:1; 20:31; 1 Cor. 16:8) followed by multiple return visits (Acts 20:17-18; 1 Tim. 1:3; 3:14; 4:13).
The biblical pattern of missionary work has never been a quick and easy enterprise. While baptizing penitent believers is essential, converts must be sufficiently taught, grounded in the faith, and trained in discipleship (Matt. 28:18-20). This requires extensive follow-up work, with churches not only started but established as faithful, growing, self-sustaining communities. As we pray for laborers to be sent out into the Lord’s harvest fields (Luke 10:2), may we never discount the importance of missionaries returning to the mission field.
--Kevin L. Moore
1 Cf. Acts 13:50; 14:5-6, 19-20; 16:30; 17:10.
2 Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are from the NKJV; emphasis added in italics.
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