Did Paul want to be a missionary?
Have you ever wondered if Paul wanted to be a missionary? Perhaps he came to the conclusion that it would be a fun thing to do, an exciting life to live. If that is the case, the story soon tells us it was not much fun. Paul was jailed and regularly beaten for his “career choice.” If his goal was fun or excitement, he would have stopped after that first trip.
Maybe, as I think most of us suppose, he received some divine understanding, some cosmic sign from God almighty telling him missionary service was his “calling.” It is indeed true he had some miraculous visitation from God on the road to Damascus, but he was not given details of his future service there. However, I am willing to bet most good, church-going folk assume Paul received some spiritual feeling or impression that he was supposed to leave the country, travel around the world, and plant churches.
After all, that is what we are looking for today.
When I worked with college students, the question they asked the most was, “How do I know God’s will for my life?” They wrestled with career choices, service in ministries at the church, classes to take, and a whole host of other decisions, and it seemed every time they wanted some spiritual feeling to tell them it was right. Admirably, they desired to do what God wanted, but they always struggled with knowing “God’s plan for their life.”
Sound familiar? It is a question we all ask. But is it a question we should ask?
If we look at Paul’s calling to the mission field, nowhere do we find the answer to the question posed above. Nowhere does it say Paul wanted (or did not want) to be a missionary. Furthermore, contrary to the way most of us view this issue of calling, it does not tell us that God gave Paul an impression to go. Truly, the passage makes it look as though Paul had very little to do with his personal calling to be a missionary.
These questions, the first two we often try to answer when thinking of calling, are not answered in scripture. The Bible does not even pose these questions, and if the Bible does not ask them, should we? Are we asking the right questions when it comes to calling?
This is how the story goes:
Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off (Acts 13:1-3, ESV).
That is it. That is all the Bible says about Paul’s great calling to the nations. It is three verses. However, there is a lot in these three verses that I think most need to hear.
If we are not careful, we read this passage through our current way of thinking instead of letting the passage determine how we think. For instance, at first glance, I think most of us read past this passage and think that Paul was praying and the Holy Spirit said to him, “Go and be a missionary,” so he went. Yet, that is not what the passage says at all.
Was Paul “called” to be a missionary? Yes.
Did God give that call to Paul? No.
Read it again. If you put this passage back into its context in the story of Acts, this is a section that deals with the church at Antioch. Big things were happening at this church, and Luke (the guy that wrote Acts) focuses on it. This church happened to be Paul’s home church, in a manner of speaking, and the passage lets us know he was one of the teachers and leaders of the congregation.
As the story moves forward, we see that the church was worshipping the Lord and fasting – the whole church—not just Paul, and that the Holy Spirit said to the church – the whole church – not just Paul, that they would set apart Barnabas and Saul (Paul) to be missionaries.
If you read this passage correctly, it spins our normal understanding of calling on its head. The question of calling is no longer one of preference or some spiritual feeling given to a specific person. Calling is given to the church, even the calling of individuals that are part of that church. God could have easily came to Paul in another flash of light and shouted at him from the sky about being a missionary, but he did no such thing. Instead, God placed the calling in the hands of the church.
This understanding is very instructive, but to accept it we must tear down our common approach to calling. Calling is not some individual journey that God designed just for us. It is not sitting on a shelf in heaven, waiting for you to ask, so that God can give you some spiritual impression telling you where to go. God’s word paints a different picture. Calling flows directly out of the mission of the local church.
Perhaps, we should stop trying so hard to find our own little, God-ordained path and start seeking the mission of our church. Instead, we meander around looking for what God “wants us to do” and eventually find a church where we can do that. That is precisely backwards. Instead, we must root ourselves deeply in our church and realize that our mission, our calling, flows out of the body where we are planted. Your calling may be some far-flung journey to foreign lands, or it may be raising up a generation of little rug-rats in your hometown. But, whatever it is, it is to be found through the mission of your church. Your church’s mission is your mission.
Dig deep enough into your church, and you will find your calling.