Paul’s Apostolic Ministry as Presented in the Book of Acts

Lionel Windsor (2002)

‘In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach’, writes Luke, at the beginning of his second volume (Acts 1:1, emphasis mine). The implication is that Jesus continued to act and to teach after his ascension (So Köstenberger and O’Brien 2001, 128). So Paul, the dominant figure of the latter part of Acts, is presented as one who continues and fulfils the purposes of the risen Messiah Jesus by means of the Holy Spirit. This principle underlies Paul’s entire apostolic ministry, playing itself out in such areas as the tension between Jew and Gentile mission, practical mission strategies, Paul’s preaching, his understanding of suffering and his final destination.

Paul is no doubt the hero of the book of Acts. He dominates most of the narrative, confident and God-fearing even in the most trying of circumstances (e.g. Acts 28:25), (Bruce 1988, 15–16). The word ‘apostle’ (ἀποστολος) is only used of Paul in one situation, where he shares the title with Barnabas (Acts 14:4, 14), (Clark 1998, 182). However, Luke makes it clear that Paul has been ‘sent’ (ἀποστελλω) by Jesus to perform an important task (e.g. Acts 26:17), (Bruce 1993, 683). Paul shares many characteristics with the Twelve, such as witnessing the risen Lord Jesus (cf. Acts 1:22 and Acts 9:17) and receiving commands from him (cf. Acts 1:2 and Acts 9:6), (Clark 1998, 184–89).

Moreover, Paul’s conversion and commissioning on the Damascus Road occupies a prominent place in the narrative, and is crucial to Luke’s understanding of Paul’s apostolic ministry (Barnett 1993, 50). Luke places this event (ch. 9) just before the start of any truly Gentile mission (chs. 10–11), even though Paul’s own Gentile ministry does not begin in earnest until later (ch. 13). It is thus a significant turning point in the narrative (Everts 1993, 159). The Damascus Road experience is also recalled at length later in the text (Acts 22:1–21 and Acts 26:2–23), where it is retold with different emphases and purposes1. Linked to the first retelling is an experience in the Jerusalem temple (Acts 22:17–21) where Paul’s mission is made even more urgent and explicit (Blair 1965, 19–26).

What is this commission that defines Paul’s apostolic ministry? Ananias is told:

‘[. . .] he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’ (Acts 9:15–16, ESV)

This recalls the commissioning of the suffering servant of the Lord in Isa 49:1–7 at many points. The servant is a chosen instrument, fashioned by the Lord (Isa 49:1–3). He glorifies the Lord before Israel and brings back the preserved remnant of Israel (Isa 49:5–6). Furthermore, he goes to all the nations (Gentiles), the ‘ends of the earth’ (Isa 49:6). Kings and princes shall see and bow down (Isa 49:7). Yet, for the sake of the glorified name of the Lord, this servant also suffers (Isa 49:4), being despised and abhorred by Israel (Isa 49:7).

Paul is thus commissioned to complete the work of Jesus, the suffering Servant of the Lord. Jesus, whose suffering and vindication brought forgiveness of sins and restoration (e.g. Acts 13:38, and see Luke 24:46–47), now sends his apostles, pre-eminently Paul, to announce this forgiveness, to complete the restoration of the preserved children of Israel and to be a light to the Gentiles and the rulers of the whole earth. This task involves suffering; in particular rejection by many from Israel. Hence suffering at the hands of Jews is an essential part of his calling (Hafemann 1993, 919–21), as is Gentile participation in salvation (Köstenberger and O’Brien 2001, 125). Paul makes much of this as he recalls his Damascus Road experience before Festus (Acts 26:16–23). As Hansen (1998, 323–24) observes, ‘Not only was Paul’s mission a continuation of the mission of Jesus because Paul did the work of Christ, but also because Christ did his work through Paul.’

This apostolic ministry of fulfilling the mission of Christ is especially evident as Paul approaches the issue of Jew and Gentile evangelism. Although Paul’s commission unambiguously included a mission to the Gentiles, Paul himself does not inaugurate the opening of faith to the Gentiles (Bowers 1993, 609). It is Peter who preaches to the first truly Gentile convert (Acts 10:1–11:18) and a group of unnamed evangelists who preach en masse to Greeks at Antioch (Acts 11:20). Paul, however, begins his ministry by preaching to Jews at Damascus (Acts 9:19–22) and Jerusalem (Acts 9:26–29) and does not begin a specifically Gentile mission until commissioned at Antioch (Blair 1965, 23–24).

Furthermore, even in his missionary journeys, Paul repeatedly follows a pattern of going first to Jews and then to Gentiles (Tannehill 1986, 130–34). Paul goes to the synagogue first in Salamis (Acts 13:5), Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:14), Iconium (Acts 14:1), Thessalonica (Acts 17:2), Berea (Acts 17:10), Corinth (Acts 18:4) and Ephesus (Acts 18:19 and Acts 19:8), (Bornkamm 1968, 200). Even in Rome, at the end of Acts, Paul goes to the Jews even though there are Christians already in Rome (Acts 28:17), (Köstenberger and O’Brien 2001, 154). The only exceptions are Lystra, where circumstances are beyond Paul’s control (Acts 14:14), Philippi, where Paul intentionally seeks a ‘place of prayer’ on the Sabbath presumably because there was no synagogue (Acts 16:13), (Bruce 1988, 310–11) and Athens, where Paul preaches to Gentiles while waiting for his co-workers (Acts 17:16). Although the mission is universal, it follows a prescribed order with Jews being given priority (Tannehill 1986, 130). The suggestion that Paul went to Jews only to provoke jealousy and thus further the Gentile mission (Blair 1965, 32) does not hold, since there were significant Jewish conversions, for example at Berea (Acts 17:11–12).

Paul does not call upon his own countrymen to turn away from their Judaism and renounce the law (Bornkamm 1968, 205). Rather, he upholds the law when in the company of Jews. He circumcises Timothy because of the Jews (Acts 16:3), fulfils a vow (Acts 18:18) and is willing to go through a purification ritual to show his approval of the Mosaic Law (Acts 21:20–26). Paul, as the Servant of the Lord, is sent first to the children of Israel, not to turn them into Gentile Christians but to turn them back to their God through his Messiah, Jesus.

Nevertheless, just as Jesus predicted, Israel’s rejection of the Servant is also a consistent pattern. The tension arising from Jewish jealousy of Gentile converts is practically resolved only at Antioch (Acts 11:19–23), (Towner 1998, 422–29). In Corinth and Ephesus, this ‘resolution’ is partial and temporary. The normal pattern is rejection by Jews of Paul’s teaching, especially when the implications for the salvation of Gentiles are spelt out. Paul is rejected by Jews from Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:45), Iconium (Acts 14:2), Thessalonica (Acts 17:5), Corinth (Acts 18:6), Ephesus (Acts 18:9) and Rome (Acts 28:25). This rejection is often in partnership with Gentiles and is usually violent.

The rejection of the Servant by Israel is not only consistent with the suffering Servant’s task; it also furthers his mission. On three separate occasions, Paul specifically turns to Gentiles after being rejected by Jews: Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:44–52), Corinth (Acts 18:6–7) and Rome (Acts 28:24–28)2. There is a consistent pattern on each occasion. Firstly, Jews reject the word, either reviling Paul or disagreeing with one another. Secondly, Paul speaks of his obligation to go first to the Jews. In Pisidian Antioch he speaks of the ‘necessity’ of Jewish priority (Acts 13:46). In Corinth, he speaks in language reminiscent of the watchman of Ezek 33:4, saying that he has discharged his responsibility and is therefore innocent of their blood (Acts 18:6). In Rome, Paul takes upon himself the command of Isaiah 6 to ‘Go to this people’. Thirdly, having justified his actions from Scripture, Paul announces his intention to go to the Gentiles. God’s prophetic Suffering Servant has discharged his responsibility to the Jews, has suffered at their hands as predicted, and now turns to fulfil his wider mission to Gentiles.

At this point it is worth stating explicitly that Paul’s ministry is theologically driven. Isaiah’s Suffering Servant can provide salvation to the ends of the earth (Isa 49:6) only because he sacrificially bore the sins of the people (Isa 53:4–6). Hence salvation is not contingent upon works of the law, but upon faith in the sacrifice of Jesus, which is open to both Jew and Gentile. This is the only satisfactory theological basis for Paul’s apostolic ministry and Paul refers to it on a number of occasions (Acts 13:38–39, 20:21, 26:18). We cannot say that Paul’s mission (to Gentiles) drove his theology (of justification by faith), since both his mission and his theology are present in the person of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant3. This theology is confirmed by the Jerusalem council (Acts 15:6–11), which is a central turning point in the narrative of Acts. After the apostles of the Jerusalem church confirm the doctrine of justification by faith, Gentile mission is no longer under threat but it is given impetus to flourish and expand (Köstenberger and O’Brien 2001, 151).

How, then, does Paul achieve his mission as the light to the Gentiles? Ramsay (1902) has gathered geographical and historical evidence of a deliberate ‘imperial’ strategy by Paul to render Christianity co-extensive with the Roman Empire. Others disagree, claiming that the Christianisation of the Roman Empire happened by default (Bowers 1993, 612). The book of Acts speaks of a state of affairs where Paul does appear to have a deliberate strategy but this is guided and, in some cases, overruled by the providence of God through the Holy Spirit. Paul plans to revisit the churches of Asia (Acts 15:36), and often seems to move with definite aims in mind (e.g. Acts 14:21, 16:40, 18:1). However, his movements are often directed by circumstances (note the many times he is forced to leave because of opposition) or by the intervention of the Holy Spirit (e.g. Acts 13:2–4, 16:6–7) or by visions from God (Acts 16:9–10, 18:9–10). It is sufficient to conclude that Jesus achieves his purposes through Paul both by Paul’s deliberate planning and by the operation of the Holy Spirit (Bruce 1993, 687). There is a deliberate strategy, but it is the risen Messiah’s strategy before it is Paul’s strategy.

Nevertheless, there are discernible features in the strategy. Paul targets important population centres situated on rapid lines of communication (Bruce 1988, 16–17). Luke mentions the particular strategic value of Philippi (Acts 16:12) and Ephesus (Acts 19:10), not to mention Rome! Paul is often pushing at geographical frontiers (e.g. Acts 16:9–10), (Bowers 1993, 609–10). However, an additional priority for Paul is the strengthening of established churches, both by revisitation (Acts 14:21–23, 15:36, 15:41, 18:22–23) and by residential missions (Acts 18:11, 19:10), (Bowers 1987, 189). The implication is that the work of mission will continue after Paul has left the region, with strong churches founded in strategic areas acting as ‘self-propagating cells’ (Bruce 1993, 687). Paul does not act alone, either; he works side-by-side with people such as Barnabas (Acts 13:2ff), Silas (Acts 15:40ff), Timothy (Acts 16:3ff), Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:3ff).

The last quarter of Acts, however, describes Paul adopting a very different strategy. Although the reason for Paul’s trip to Jerusalem may have been to deliver relief for the poor, there is nothing within Acts itself to suggest that this is the reason beyond a possible allusion in 24:17 (Bruce 1988, 371–72). Acts, rather, includes Paul’s Jerusalem trip to further highlight his role as the suffering servant of the Lord. He resolves to go to Jerusalem (Acts 19:21), presses on despite warnings from God himself that he will suffer there (Acts 20:22–23, 21:4, 21:11) and indeed does suffer ‘for the sake of [Jesus’] name’ (9:16)4.

That Paul is fulfilling Jesus’ ministry is shown by the remarkable parallels between Jesus’ passion and Paul’s circumstances in Jerusalem. Both set out resolutely for Jerusalem (Luke 9:51, Acts 19:21), send disciples ahead (Luke 9:52, Acts 19:22), predict their suffering (Luke 9:22, Acts 20:22–24), prepare their followers for their ‘departure’ (Luke 21:5–36, Acts 20:13–38), come in front of the crowds in Jerusalem (Luke 22:47–23:25, Acts 21:27–22:29), are accused of leading a rebellion (Luke 22:52, Acts 21:38), are seized by the crowd (Luke 22:54, Acts 21:30), are flogged (Luke 22:63, Acts 22:24) and are falsely accused (Luke 23:2, Acts 21:28). In both cases, Jews stir the crowds (Luke 23:5, Acts 21:28), there is mob rule (Luke 23:18, Acts 22:22), they shout for the accused to die (Luke 23:20, Acts 22:22) and the secular ruler is powerless (Luke 23:24, Acts 22:29). There are trials before the Sanhedrin (Luke 22:66–71, Acts 22:30–23:11), the Governor (Luke 23:1–7, Acts 24:1–25:12) and the King (Luke 23:8–12, Acts 25:13–26:32)5.

However, there are also important differences between the two accounts. Jesus, when face to face with earthly rulers, says nothing to defend himself and so goes to his sacrificial death (Luke 22:66–71, 23:3). Paul, however, takes the opportunity afforded by his arrest and trial to defend himself at great length against charges of Jewish apostasy and Roman insurrection (e.g. Acts 25:8, 28:17–18), both of which are important apologetics for Paul (Hansen 1998, 318–19). The real issue, however, is the resurrection of Christ (Acts 23:6, 24:15, 24:21) and in his trials Paul soundly proclaims Jesus’ resurrection and its corollaries to the worldly rulers—the Roman governors (Acts 24:24), the king (Acts 26:27) and indeed all the leaders of the city (Acts 25:23). Furthermore, in line with God’s promise in Acts 23:11, Paul goes to Rome and has the opportunity to testify before Caesar himself. So the Lord’s Servant, through suffering, trials and rejection by his own people, testifies to the name of the Lord and his Christ before ‘kings’ (Isaiah 49:7).

Acts finishes with Paul having achieved his apostolic ministry. Christ has commissioned him and worked through him to achieve his purpose as the Suffering Servant of Isaiah who brings salvation to the children of Israel and to Gentiles. Paul, through suffering and rejection by his own people, has testified to Jews, has seen the gospel strategically planted amongst Gentiles, and has preached the gospel to the kings of the earth. Nevertheless, Acts is open-ended (Rosner 1998, 231). Paul has not yet stood before Caesar, and dangers lie ahead for the church (Acts 20:29–30). As readers of Acts, therefore, we are forced to ask ourselves: What more is to be done to fulfil Paul’s (that is, Jesus’) apostolic ministry?


1 (Everts 1993, 159) shows that Acts 22:1–21 emphasises Paul’s devotion to Judaism, while Acts 26:2–23 emphasises his obedience and suffering (see below).

2 (Tannehill 1986, 133–35) mentions four: Pisidian Antioch, Corinth and Ephesus, then Rome. However, it is not clear that Paul turns away from the Jews completely in Ephesus. He moves next door to a Gentile lecture hall, but the result is that many Jews hear the word (19:8–10)

3 The issue is discussed in (Everts 1993, 156–163) with particular reference to the New Perspective on Paul.

4 Does this explain Colossians 1:24, written from Rome?

5 Other parallels may include both symbolically breaking bread (Luke 22:19, Acts 27:35), and the ‘resurrection’ story of Eutychus (Acts 20:7–12) strategically placed to parallel Jesus’ resurrection prediction (Luke 9:22).


  1. Barnett, Paul W. 1993. ‘Apostle’. Pages 45–51 in Dictionary of Paul and his Letters. Edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne and Ralph P. Martin. Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity.
  2. Blair, Edward P. 1965. ‘Paul’s Call to the Gentile Mission’. Biblical Research 10: 19–33.
  3. Bornkamm, Günther. 1968. ‘The Missionary Stance of Paul in 1 Corinthians 9 and in Acts’. Pages 194–207 in Studies in Luke-Acts. Edited by Leander E. Keck and J. Louis Martyn. London: S.P.C.K.
  4. Bowers, Paul. 1987. ‘Fulfilling the Gospel: the Scope of the Pauline Mission’. Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 30/2: 185–198.
  5. Bowers, W. Paul. 1993. ‘Mission’. Pages 608–619 in Dictionary of Paul and his Letters. Edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne and Ralph P. Martin. Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity.
  6. Bruce, Frederick F. 1988. The Book of the Acts. Revised edition. New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans.
  7. Bruce, Frederick F. 1993. ‘Paul in Acts and Letters’. Pages 679–692 in Dictionary of Paul and his Letters. Edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne and Ralph P. Martin. Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity.
  8. Clark, Andrew C. 1998. ‘The Role of the Apostles’. Pages 169–190 in Witness to the Gospel: the Theology of Acts. Edited by I. Howard Marshall and David Peterson. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans.
  9. Everts, Janet M. 1993. ‘Conversion and Call of Paul’. Pages 156–163 in Dictionary of Paul and his Letters. Edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne and Ralph P. Martin. Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity.
  10. Hafemann, Scott J. 1993. ‘Suffering’. Pages 919–921 in Dictionary of Paul and his Letters. Edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne and Ralph P. Martin. Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity.
  11. Hansen, G. Walter. 1998. ‘The Preaching and Defence of Paul’. Pages 295–324 in Witness to the Gospel: the Theology of Acts. Edited by I. Howard Marshall and David Peterson. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans.
  12. Köstenberger, Andreas J., and Peter T. O’Brien. 2001. Salvation to the Ends of the Earth: A Biblical Theology of Mission. Edited by Donald A. Carson. New Studies in Biblical Theology 11. Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity.
  13. Ramsay, Sir William M. 1902. St Paul the Traveller and the Roman Citizen. 6th Edition. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
  14. Rosner, Brian S. 1998. ‘The Progress of the Word’. Pages 215–233 in Witness to the Gospel: the Theology of Acts. Edited by I. Howard Marshall and David Peterson. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans.
  15. Tannehill, Robert C. 1986. ‘Rejection by Jews and Turning to Gentiles: The Pattern of Paul’s Mission in Acts’. Pages 130–141 in Society of Biblical Literature Seminar Papers 1986. Edited by Kent Harold Richards. Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press.
  16. Towner, Philip H. 1998. ‘Mission Practice and Theology Under Construction (Acts 18–20)’. Pages 417–436 in Witness to the Gospel: the Theology of Acts. Edited by I. Howard Marshall and David Peterson. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans.
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