The New Testament records Paul taking three missionary journeys that spread the message of Christ to Asia Minor and Europe. The apostle Paul was a well-educated, leading Jew named Saul. Living in Jerusalem just after Christ’s death and resurrection, he did his best to destroy the Christian church. He even participated in the execution of the first Christian martyr, Stephen (Acts 7:55–8:4).
On his way to Damascus to find and imprison more Christians, Paul met the Lord. He repented, turning in faith to Jesus Christ. After this experience, he attempted to persuade Jews and Christians about his life-changing conversion. Many doubted and shunned him. Christians such as Barnabas, however, accepted and spoke up for him. Paul and Barnabas became missionary partners.
On three separate missionary journeys—each several years in length—Paul preached the news of Jesus in many coastal cities and trade route towns. The following is a brief chronicle of these missionary journeys:
1st Missionary Journey (Acts 13-14): Answering God’s call to proclaim Christ, Paul and Barnabas left the church at Antioch in Syria. At first, their method of evangelism was to preach in the town synagogues. But when many of the Jews rejected Christ, the missionaries recognized God’s call of witnessing to the Gentiles.
Because of his bold testimony of Jesus, Saul the persecutor became Paul the persecuted. Those who rejected his message of salvation through Jesus Christ tried to stop and harm him. In one city, he was stoned and left for dead. But God spared him. Through trials and beatings and imprisonments, he kept on preaching Christ.
Paul’s ministry to Gentiles brought controversy over who could be saved and how to be saved. Between his first and second missionary journeys, he participated in a conference in Jerusalem discussing the way of salvation. The final consensus was that the Gentiles could receive Jesus without submitting to Jewish traditions.
2nd Missionary Journey (Acts 15:36-18:22): After another stay in Antioch, building up the church there, Paul was ready to take a second missionary journey. He asked Barnabas to join him, revisiting the churches of their first missionary journey. A disagreement, however, caused them to split. God turned this dispute into a positive, for now there were two missionary teams. Barnabas went to Cyprus with John Mark, and Paul took Silas to Asia Minor.
God providentially redirected Paul and Silas to Greece, bringing the gospel to Europe. At Philippi, the missionary team was beaten and imprisoned. Rejoicing to suffer for Christ, they sang in jail. Suddenly, God caused an earthquake to open the doors of the cell and free them from their chains. The amazed jailer and his family believed in Christ, but the government officials begged Paul and Silas to leave.
Traveling on to Athens, Paul preached to an inquisitive audience on Mars Hill. He proclaimed the only true God whom they could know and worship without man-made idols. Again, some sneered and some believed.
Paul taught those who believed in Christ and established them in churches. During this 2nd missionary journey, Paul made many disciples from all backgrounds: a young man named Timothy, a businesswoman named Lydia, and the married couple Aquila and Priscilla.
3rd Missionary Journey (Acts 18:23-20:38): During Paul’s third journey, he fervently preached in Asia Minor. God confirmed his message with miracles. Acts 20:7-12 tells of Paul at Troas preaching an exceptionally long sermon. A young man, sitting in an upstairs window sill, went to sleep and fell out the window. He was thought to be dead, but Paul revived him.
Once involved in the occult, the new believers at Ephesus burned their magic books. Idol-makers, on the other hand, were not pleased with their loss of business on account of this one true God and His Son. One silversmith named Demetrius started a city-wide riot, praising their goddess Diana. Trials always followed Paul. The persecution and opposition ultimately strengthened true Christians and spread the gospel.
At the end of Paul’s third missionary journey, he knew he would soon be imprisoned and probably killed. His final words to the church at Ephesus display his devotion to Christ: “You yourselves know, from the first day that I set foot in Asia, how I was with you the whole time, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials which came upon me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you publicly and from house to house, solemnly testifying to both Jews and Greeks of repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. And now, behold, bound by the Spirit, I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit solemnly testifies to me in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions await me. But I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, so that I may finish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:18-24).
Some Bible scholars see a fourth missionary journey as well, and early Christian history does seem to attest to the idea. At the same time, there is no explicit evidence for a fourth journey in the Bible, as it would have occurred after the close of the book of Acts.
The purpose of all of Paul’s missionary journeys was the same: proclaiming God’s grace in forgiving sin through Christ. God used Paul’s ministry to bring the gospel to the Gentiles and establish the church. Paul’s letters to the churches, recorded in the New Testament, still support church life and doctrine. Although Paul’s missionary journeys caused him to sacrifice everything, they were worth the cost (Philippians 3:7-11).