Exploring the Phases of Ministry: Insights from Paul's First Missionary Journey

The Mission of Jesus Christ is the context for communicating Biblical truth today.

There are different aspects or phases of ministry that are well illustrated in the Book of Acts. I am not thinking of geographical phases of ministry but practical spiritual phases of ministry. One illustration of these phases is found in Paul’s first missionary journey (Acts 13-14). These phases or “specifics” of ministry and mission can be viewed as functional contexts for communicating the Word of God.

So, turn with me to the Apostle Paul’s first missionary journey (Acts 13-14).

A description of the “sending” church in Antioch would be a study in and of itself. All we need to note is that this missionary journey was compelled and guided by the Holy Spirit. The account includes all the ingredients that are characteristic of Luke’s account in the Book of Acts. After a major preaching event in the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch focusing on “a Savior, Jesus,” forgiveness in Him, and faith in Him (13:16-41)**, we see the pattern of Gentile acceptance and limited Jewish acceptance of the Word of God. Even so, we read “the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region” (13:49).

A lot has taken place by the time you get towards the end of this first missionary journey. But it is very helpful to notice a sequence of ministry phases, events, or ‘specifics’ that take place beginning in Acts chapter 14, verse 21. This is a sequence of events that takes place over time and reveals different aspects of the missionaries’ activities. These different aspects and phases of ministry provide different ‘contexts’ for the communication of Biblical truth.

“When they had preached the gospel to that city [Derbe] and had made many disciples, 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” (14:21-23 ESV).

I realize that this is just one missionary journey in Acts, but I think it reveals four different stages of ministry or “functions.”

First of all, we read of the preaching of the gospel. (Examples of this preaching are given in the Book of Acts (2:14-40, 3:12-26, 7:2-53, 10:34-43, 13:16-41, 17:22-31), as well as shorter descriptions. This preaching of the gospel is related to but not identical with the phrase “make many disciples.” We will comment on this making of many disciples below. Then, we see a changing of locations (Acts 14:21-22) and another phase of ministry, “strengthening the souls of the disciples” in the light of the tribulations being faced. Lastly, we read of the appointing of “elders for them in every church.”

You will notice that only one of these stages of ministry actually uses the word “preaching.” That is the reference to the preaching of the gospel in Derbe (14:21). We have a specific example of this kind of preaching on this missionary journey as it took place in the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch (13:16-41). So, is that the end of preaching? Is there no other preaching or teaching of the Word of God in the other stages of ministry?

I would submit to you that the truth of God’s Word has a role in all three of the remaining stages or functions of ministry.

It is hard to be confident in the exact steps involved when they “made many disciples,” but Acts 2:37-42 may give us a pattern. It may be that the idea here is the reception of the gospel (including repentance and faith), baptism, and possibly basic instruction. These people were ‘made disciples’ ultimately by God, but through the ministry of Paul and Barnabas. We certainly have the sense that these disciples were part of a group of disciples.

Paul and Barnabas returned to the towns where they had ministered previously and ‘made disciples,’ they focused on “strengthening” these believers. This strengthening appears to be on top of the preaching and teaching the disciples had already received. This ministry was one of instruction and help in the light of the challenges these disciples were facing: ‘many tribulations.’ This kind of ministry is needed for all disciples as they deal with the realities of being disciples in a fallen world filled with opposition to the ways of Christ.

Appointing elders was a specific activity listed in our text as well. There must have been some type of teaching or brief process (at least) which was more specific than the “strengthening” ministry that took place.

Why do I want to draw attention to these different aspects or functions in ministry?

It is because these are contexts for the communication of Biblical truth. Sometimes when we think of preaching or teaching, we have a specific picture in our minds or a specific usual setting. This passage in Acts points to the different aspects of ministry that will relate to the Word of God being communicated.

These steps or stages of ministry are interrelated but not identical. In preaching the gospel, the audience is thought to be those who have not received the Word of God. Making disciples seems to be “ministering” to people as they receive the Word and express genuine repentance and faith through baptism and, in some way, indicating a commitment to a group of disciples. This is not just a matter of seeing individual “decisions” it involves forming a group of disciples.

A lot of what we consider “preaching” today is actually stage three, where the goal is to “strengthen the souls of the disciples.” Of course, often in contemporary church life, worship service preaching seeks to accomplish a number of different purposes.

Lastly, leadership appointment (and training) is another important aspect of Biblical communication and ministry.

These four aspects of ministry are all part of completing the mission the Lord gave us (Acts 1:8, Matthew 28:18-20). All aspects need to be valued and considered as we seek to be a part of Christ’s work of building His church.

Also, the Word of God needs to be central in each phase of ministry.

—David O.


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