ABSTRACT: Baptizing new believers captures just the first half of Jesus’s Great Commission; the other is to “[teach] them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). Moreover, the apostle Paul’s missionary example shows that teaching is no quick or simple task. Paul taught not only unbelievers and new believers, but he continued to teach established believers through repeated visits and letters. He also helped Christians in every church learn how to teach one another under the leadership of duly appointed leaders. At every stage, Paul labored for more than mere conversion — he labored for the full maturity in Christ that comes from ongoing, Christ-centered teaching.
I really wanted to prepare my missions update for a supporting church, probably from Acts. But not yet; I needed to “get through” my devotional reading in 1 Thessalonians. (Yes, I admit it.) But then I read, “For now we live, if . . .” I paused. Were Paul, Silas, and Timothy not really living yet? Perhaps not feeling fully alive before — what?
I expected something like, “if we are in Christ,” or some equally rich Christological and salvific theme. Such would certainly be true. But that is not what they wrote.
For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord. (1 Thessalonians 3:8)
These Thessalonians — some Jewish synagogue-goers, “a great many” devout Greeks, “not a few” leading women (Acts 17:4) — already trusted Christ. They were secure in his righteousness; they had peace with God and eternal life (1 Thessalonians 1:6, 9; 2:13). Yet Paul and his coworkers were not satisfied. Not until Timothy returned with good news (euangelion): the saints are maturing together in faith and love (1 Thessalonians 3:6). Now there can be deep comfort, even life.
Mission: Maturity Together in Christ
In Paul’s missionary mind and heart, as well as in his strategy and actions, the conversion of people is not completely satisfying. Maturity together in Christ is. As we trace Paul’s missionary practice below, a glorious dimension will complement what many Christians traditionally mean by the word missions.
Some Christians speak of missions only as cross-cultural evangelism.1 Others expand the idea of missions, recognizing that the church’s mission is discipleship, which is bigger than evangelism (Matthew 28:18–20),2 though they may still reserve the term missionary for those directly engaged in the type of evangelism, church planting, and/or discipleship that crosses frontier boundaries.3 Still others commend any believer as a sort of missionary insofar as he or she participates in God’s purpose, activity, and goal — God’s mission — by playing whatever part God has given and equipped the believer to do.4
Paul’s sense of participating in Christ’s mission manifests in numerous connected layers. As we notice the connective impulse and end-goal of all the layers, the word mission(s) — in this article, at least — will appear with this general sense:
God’s mission for his people includes carefully designed tasks, jobs, or roles that God gives to one or a group of his people so that his unified purpose is furthered and moved toward his intended global end-goal.
Every stage of Paul’s ministry included maturity together as Christ’s mission. And teaching played a crucial role in layer upon layer.
Layer 1: Teaching in the Initial Missional Vision of Paul
To focus, we begin with how Paul considered his initial missionary endeavor, specifically among the Galatian Christians (Acts 13–14).5 Even this initial layer is bigger than many realize.
“Every stage of Paul’s ministry included maturity together as Christ’s mission.”
Paul and Barnabas helped start many Gentiles and some Jews as disciples of King Jesus during their first missionary journey from their sending church in Syria’s Antioch. They worked east through the “unreached” areas of Pisidia’s Antioch and Galatia’s Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe (Acts 13–14). People believed. Churches were formed.6
Some brief clarifications are already necessary. First, Paul may not have considered Acts 13–14 his first missionary journey, but just his first missionary journey from that sending church. He had already been doing the stuff of such missions in Damascus (Acts 9:19–25), Jerusalem (9:28–30), his own hometown of Tarsus (presumably: cf. 9:30 and 11:22–25), and Syria’s Antioch itself (11:26). Also, in light of Pentecost, it may not be best to use unreached to refer to the people and regions in Acts 13–14 (as I have done before). As the list in Acts 2:9–11 shows, Jews from these regions had already embraced the gospel, and likely had shared the gospel with others back home. Nonetheless, Paul and Barnabas’s missionary journey established the gospel’s presence in southern Galatia far deeper than before.
After Paul and Barnabas reached Galatia’s eastern border (Acts 14:21), they stood on the cusp of a tactical missions decision. Turning northeast, they could bring the gospel into the land of Cappadocia. Delaying that movement would result in some Cappadocians dying in their sins, without hope. Or they could travel southeast through Paul’s hometown of Tarsus and around the coast to their sending church. What was their tactical missions move? Neither.
Even as “frontier” or “pioneer” missionaries, they knew that their King’s commission — and thus their mission — was not yet complete in southern Galatia. The task wasn’t finished. True, the region was not “unreached,” and churches were formed throughout. But they were not satisfied with this; none of it meant their royal mandate for that place was over.7 Therefore,
They returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed. (Acts 14:21–23)
Teaching disciples in various forms was integral to the initial layer of these missionaries’ commissioned mission — strengthening, encouraging, kingdom speaking. So too was establishing formal leaders in that local community of faith to carry on the discipleship process, the mission. (We will see more about this layer below.)
Layer 2: Teaching Again and Again
Paul’s sense of participation in God’s mission did not stop with that initial stage, even though it included all three legs of the missional stool: new converts (evangelism), new communities (church planting), and nurtured churches (discipleship).8 Teaching the same disciples and churches remained vital in Paul’s mission well beyond the initial frontier.
For example, Paul continued to teach the believers in Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe, as well as in the smaller towns from a distance, by sending them a theologically and practically robust letter: Galatians. Would Paul have viewed this letter as separate from his initial missionary work there, as if one was missions while the other was not? I see no evidence that Paul thought like that.
Within this layer of Paul’s mission to the Galatians, he taught about massively important themes: justification by faith in Christ; how this relates to the Mosaic law in God’s wise redemptive-historical plan, culminating in Christ at the fullness of time; using freedom in Christ for loving each other; practically and ethically walking by the Spirit, particularly in community.
Paul’s epistolary teaching displays his passion and goal: “I am . . . in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (Galatians 4:19).9 Paul’s sense of mission plays the long game: maturity together in Christ. This is why Paul’s mission continued from initial layer to further layer — and on to further layers still.
For example, Paul and Barnabas wanted to visit those Galatian churches in person again (Acts 15:36). Why? Their explicit reasoning for another Galatian missions trip was “to see how they are” and to strengthen the churches (15:36, 41).
As Paul revisited those already-reached, already-engaged, already-churched people of southern Galatia — with Silas now instead of Barnabas, and the Galatian Timothy from Lystra onward — he delivered still more teaching. On this trip (Acts 16), his teaching involved, among plenty of other topics I’m sure, delivering the theological and practical decisions made by the council of apostles, elders, and other appointed representatives (from 15:2). As his Master’s mandate specified, Paul’s teaching in his missionary trips was geared toward obedience, not bare belief (16:4).10 Again, just as Paul had hoped and strategized, “the churches were strengthened in the faith,” even growing “in numbers daily” (16:5).
“Paul’s teaching in his missionary trips was geared toward obedience.”
And we are still not done with Paul’s sense of mission to the Galatians! Paul went back again to the Galatian churches, again “strengthening all the disciples” (18:23). It seems Paul’s missionary mind and heart were profoundly committed to strengthening churches — that is, with helping believers keep maturing together in Christ — in addition to helping others come to know Christ Jesus, join the local church, and mature together.
Paul’s missional trajectory is unified, borderlessly transitioning from the unreached frontier to the same reached and engaged area, and still beyond to those same established churches and Christians so they are further and further taught. What is more, it continues still beyond.
Layer 3: Teaching Through Letters
Galatians was sent to a young cluster of churches. But Paul continued to send such letters to churches even if they had been firmly established for years. We do not have any of Paul’s subsequent letters to the Galatians (I imagine he sent some). But we can get a glimpse of the types of teaching Paul’s missionary mind and heart would unfold to longer-established churches. Take 1 Corinthians, for instance.
First of all, in 1 Corinthians — as in Galatians and all his letters — Paul organically weaves throughout clear teaching about the good news, the gospel. Jesus is King (Messiah, Christ). He died for our sins, remedying its guilt, shame, and power. He rose for our justification and glory. He is enthroned. He sends his Spirit to equip and empower us for daily life and relationships. He is going to raise us bodily and cause us to reign with him in the new earth.
What is more, Paul teaches that all this must affect life now. So, Paul teaches the Corinthian Christians about functioning as the church gathered (e.g., chapters 11 and 12–14); engaging each other as small or large clusters of Christians in the marketplace, or at dinner parties at a patron’s home, or even with pagan friends in the public or rented rooms within the various temples (chapters 8–10); daily living even as smaller Christian units or as individual Christians in the privacy of their own homes (chapter 5) or at evening parties (chapter 6); how any Christian should think and hope and act in relation to the impact Jesus’s bodily resurrection has on our present and future bodies (6:13–15; chapter 15). That is a lot of practical discipleship training!
As Paul continues teaching the believers through his letters — often bringing coauthors into this part of the mission — he consistently pursues this missional end: stand fast, mature together in Christ. As he and Sosthenes write, “My beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58). And as he and Timothy write, “[Christ] we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:28). And Paul extends this mission still further.
Layer 4: Teaching Through Helpers
Paul continued his missionary trajectory through sending helpers like Timothy or Titus to further establish clusters of churches. His goal was that local leaders — using terms like elders (Titus 1:5), overseers and deacons (1 Timothy 3:1, 8), pastors and teachers (Ephesians 4:11) — would be raised up and established solidly for the long haul. Why? To carry on the mission of maturity together in Christ. Therefore, Paul taught Timothy and Titus to teach the churches and their budding leaders (2 Timothy 2:2) about how the Scripture-saturated Christ and the Christ-centered Scriptures must deeply affect their daily lives, regardless of their sectors of life or spheres of influence, such as home or work or church (see all of 1–2 Timothy and Titus).
In a helpful recent study, Claire Smith found a high number of words involved in education in ancient religious communities in 1–2 Timothy, Titus, and 1 Corinthians: for example, teaching, “traditioning,” announcing, revealing, commanding, correcting, remembering.11 And there is a notable difference between these early Christian communities and the roughly contemporary mystery religions and voluntary associations: namely, a much heavier focus on teaching and learning among the Christians.12 From Paul’s language, then, early Christian churches were not only considered “worshiping communities” — though they were that — but could even be characterized as “learning communities.”
Some brief clarifications are necessary. Many readers will be from the world’s “weird” population (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic). We make up only 12 percent of the global population, substantially less when considering population throughout history. Yet we are notoriously adept at making sweeping, even universalizing assumptions and applications from our own particularized set of experiences and values.13 Many of us will “naturally” (culturally) assume that “teaching and learning” looks like individualized text-focused study (where everyone has his or her own Bible) and tends toward cognitive skills. (We weird Christians have even been known to unthinkingly impose our assumptions of teaching and learning on non-Western groups in missions.)
But early Christian communities, who most likely had only communal copies of their texts — Old Testament Scriptures, some of Paul’s circulating letters, perhaps other Christian writings (some Gospels, other letters) — primarily would have engaged Scripture and theology through oral (speaking) and aural (listening) forms and in communities rather than individually. What is more, much teaching and learning happened in less formal relational modeling, as in life-on-life or apprenticeship. And the point of it all was not aimed at cognitive knowledge per se but character formation14 — and that regarding both the individual’s and the community’s character.
As a layer of the mission, Paul sent and taught helpers to teach and establish local leaders. And these Paul envisioned carrying on the same mission toward maturity together in Christ, with equally robust teaching and learning.
Layer 5: Teaching Through Local Leaders
As we have seen, Paul deemed it important to help establish elders in the churches in Galatia (Acts 14:23). Paul deemed it important to send helpers to further establish people in the local offices of elders (whom he also called overseers and shepherds/pastors in Acts 20:17–35) and deacons (see 1 Timothy 3:1–13). Paul also deemed it important to teach communities of believers who already had various types of local leaders, whether offices or otherwise, that they had such leaders precisely because the enthroned Jesus himself is still on the same mission — that is, toward maturity together.
“It seems Paul’s missionary mind and heart were profoundly committed to strengthening churches.”
According to Ephesians 4:11 (on which we will focus, rather than on broader ecclesial constructions), Jesus graciously gives “the pastors and teachers” to the saints for a reason — as if sending them on a mission. Jesus gives them “toward the preparing [or equipping] of the saints for the work of ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ” (4:12). And how long does this layer of the mission last? And toward what end? Precisely until everyone is mature together in Christ and standing fast together in him (4:13–16).
Paul’s word equipping or preparing (katartismos) is a concrete word with numerous metaphorical applications. Matthew and Mark use it concretely for mending nets (Matthew 4:21; Mark 1:19), and Paul himself uses it for the preparation of clay vessels (Romans 9:22). Both concrete actions have to do with manipulating an object in such a way that it is thereby fit for its purpose.
The way Paul describes Christ’s mission in Ephesians 4 includes Christ sending local pastors and teachers to handle and work with (manipulate, if you will, but in a positive sense!) the saints in such a way that the saints are fit for their purpose. And what is the saints’ proper purpose (their mission)? Using two prepositional eis phrases,15 Paul describes what the pastors and teachers are to make the saints fit “for” (or unto): namely, for “the work of ministry,” for “building up the body of Christ” (4:11–12).
This mission of the enthroned Christ in his churches is exactly what Paul craves to participate in. Standing fast. Maturing together. This is why he goes back time and again to the same Christians on his missionary journeys. This is why he writes them letters. This is why he sends helpers to them. This is why he encourages their local leaders to be faithful to Christ’s mission to equip the saints. For the saints also have a role in this mission.
Layer 6: Teaching Through the Saints
In Ephesians 4:12–16, Christ’s mission extends well beyond Paul, his letters, and his helpers. It extends through “the pastors and teachers” in order to help the saints better
- build each other up in Christ;
- help each other mature in Christ;
- help each other be unified in their trust in Christ;
- help each other be unified in the knowledge of God’s Son;
- help each other not be moved by false doctrine;16
- speak to each other the truth of Christ in love;
- do their part in growing and building up Christ’s body in love.
Worded differently, as Paul writes to nearby churches, “Let the word of Christ dwell among you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom” (Colossians 3:16).17
Notice how it is only when the saints themselves take seriously their part of Christ’s mission that the deceitful and false teaching will stop battering them around so (Ephesians 4:14). And the missional goal for the saints is the same as Paul’s in every layer of his missional trajectory: believers maturing together in Christ, standing fast in the faith together (1 Thessalonians 3:8; cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:15; 1 Corinthians 16:13).
If the saints are to sound like Paul in his missionary mind, heart, strategy, and action, they (we!) can be regularly asking questions like these: Are we all helping each other grow into the head, Christ? Is the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16; Philippians 2:5) and even Christ himself (Galatians 4:19) being formed within and among us all?18 Are we all maturing together in Christ in ordinary life: in family dynamics, in how we eat and drink together, in the market, with Christian friends, with pagan friends, in our gathered church? What about when no one is looking except that prostitute? What about in daily work, whether leather tanning, or working in the city’s treasury, or selling fabrics, or serving as a jailer or soldier? Are we all being fully discipled in God’s mission toward maturity, which involves (in Paul’s language)
- being renewed in knowledge according to the image of the Creator (Colossians 3:10; cf. Ephesians 4:23–24)
- as we are being conformed to the image of King Jesus (Romans 8:29; cf. 2 Corinthians 3:18),
- who himself has dominion over heaven and earth precisely as the resurrected and visible image of God (Colossians 1:13–15; cf. 2 Corinthians 4:4),
- who will share his reign over the earth with us forever (2 Timothy 2:11–12; Romans 5:17; see also Revelation 2:26–27; 3:21; 5:10; 22:5),
- and so train us in such reigning and judging now (1 Corinthians 6:1–3)?
For Paul, teaching and learning in the early Christian communities involved the saints carrying on the same mission Paul has been on since his initial missional work, and in his returning and re-returning missional work, and in his letters, and in the helpers, and in Christ’s formal church leaders. As Paul makes clear, maturing in Christ together involves reflecting (imaging) God ever more accurately as we proclaim and portray his character and kingship in Christ through our mental, affective, bodily, individual, and communal activity — all of which perfectly aligns with God’s first great commission (Genesis 1:26–28).19
End-Goal of God’s Mission
God has an end-goal, a telos, for every aspect of his mission from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22 and beyond. For one, the global glory of God is the end-goal of missions — even cosmic worship.20 Yet there is more to say, for God built an eternal means into this eternal worship. In short:
God decided (1) he will be globally worshiped forever (2) as his people sit enthroned with Christ forever, perfectly mature together in him.
This two-pronged end-goal of God’s mission is portrayed throughout Scripture: for example, compare Daniel 7:13–14 with 7:27 and ask who exactly is reigning to the worship of the Most High,21 and compare Luke 22:29–30 and Matthew 19:28; 25:1–34 with this passage in Daniel.22 In the end, though, God makes it an abundantly clear and present glory. So the resurrected and enthroned Jesus says to his people,
The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from my Father. (Revelation 2:26–27; alluding to Psalm 2:8–9)
The kingship, the authority over the nations, and the rod of iron of Psalm 2:8–9 apply to Christ himself (Revelation 12:5; 19:15). Here in Revelation 2, he applies them to his overcoming followers.
Our enthroned Lord reiterates:
The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. (Revelation 3:21)
What is more, worship is given to this royal Lamb who shares his throne and authority with his triumphant followers (Revelation 5:8), for he has made the ransomed people from the whole world “a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth” (5:10).
God has wed worldwide worship with the co-regency of his people with his Son. As in the very end:
No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in [the new heavenly earth], and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. (Revelation 22:3–5)
God has eternally purposed and temporally orchestrated in creation and history (1) that he will be worshiped precisely (2) as his children reign with Christ, mature together in him.
Everything God has done and will do — not just regarding redemption and reconciliation from Genesis 3 to Revelation 20, but even regarding the very fabric of creation and new creation from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22 and beyond — is heading toward worship of him through co-dominion of us with Christ. And detailed teaching encompassing all of life is a major contributor.
The second great royal commission (Matthew 28:18–20) nestles into and naturally nudges along the fulfillment of the first great royal commission (Genesis 1:26–28). Paul saw them linked. And every aspect and layer of his missionary impulse and activity — including so much teaching — drove toward helping God’s people stand fast, mature together in Christ, and even endure so that “we will also reign with him” (2 Timothy 2:11–12). Missions: matured together in Christ and trained to reign — all glory be to God.
Teaching Toward Maturity
As I considered Paul’s language and heart in 1 Thessalonians 3:8 — “now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord” — I realized I fell so far short of the glory of God’s mission for his people, even as a leader in a missions agency! And that prompted some challenging personal questions, which I continue to pursue and which I leave with you and your communities of faith.
Can we really live if those in our spheres of influence — at home and abroad — are not yet holding firm, not yet standing fast, not yet helping each other mature together in Christ in order to bring him worship by reigning with him forever?
Or do we, like Paul, find ourselves unable to really live if the mission is not yet done? Not “done” in the sense of others having heard the gospel, even if such hearing is all over the world. Not “done” in the sense of planting churches at home and abroad and helping new believers start the journey of faith together. Not even “done” in the sense of “discipled” if we have not taken seriously enough the true height and breadth and depth of whole-life training in individual and communal character development in Christ.
Because that is what is involved in the mission from Paul’s perspective. Over the long haul. In layers upon layers of teaching. Including equipping and passing on the missional torch to the saints themselves in this royal co-mission toward mature reigning together in Christ. And all by Christ’s Spirit of power and wisdom for the Father’s glory.
Credit: Jonathan Worthington