Middle East Resources

St. Paul's Theology of Missions

By Bassam Michael Madany

Following World War II, Evangelicals held congresses and consultations to address plans for Christian missions in the post-colonial era. Unfortunately, some began with the presupposition that Christian missions in Muslim lands had failed, for lack of contextualizing the Gospel. It was a misleading evaluation of a work that had begun early in the 19th century and had accomplished great things throughout the Middle East.

Having spent thirty-six years in broadcasting the Gospel in Arabic over several international radio stations, and communicated with thousands of Muslim listeners, I found it strange to hear the claims of the Contextualization Movement assuring us that if only missionaries would adopt their methodologies, some if not all the obstacles to missions among Muslims would disappear!

The basic motif or impulse of the Contextualization Movement has been to facilitate the conversion of Muslims to the Christian faith. As much as one may laud the purpose of Christians engaged in this difficult task, there are certain Biblical principles which must not be ignored. Such as the Pauline missionary tradition.

When Paul and Barnabas were sent by the Church in Antioch with the blessing of the Holy Spirit, they were properly prepared for their missionary task. Paul was born in Tarsus Cilicia, Asia Minor, where he received his early education in the Hellenistic culture. His parents, being devout Jews, sent him to Jerusalem to complete his formation at the school of Gamaliel, where he became an expert in Rabbinic Judaism. Barnabas, a native of Cyprus, was at home in Greek culture, and equally equipped to deal with Jewish and Gentile objections to the Gospel of the Cross.

Paul and Barnabas preached the Gospel without any dilution, or compromise. For example, in the First Epistle to the Corinthians, Paul reminded the new believers in Corinth (who were of Jewish or Gentile backgrounds,) that he had made no concessions to their prejudices when he first came to their city to proclaim the Good News.

“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” I Corinthians 1:18-25 ESV

“And I, when I came to you, brothers I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony    of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God. I Corinthians 2: 1-5 ESV

“The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things but is himself to be judged by no one. ‘For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ.” I Corinthians 2:14-16 ESV

It is evident from the above quotations that Paul, with full awareness of the Jewish and Greek objections to his message, did not hesitate to declare the saving message of a crucified and risen Messiah. He, as a former Pharisee, had believed in the ability of getting right with God, by fulfilling the demands of the Law. And being familiar with the Hellenic mind, knew that the kerygma sounded like nonsense to the Greeks. Still he brought to Corinth what they needed, and not what they wanted. The real problem existed in the Rabbinical and Hellenistic minds, and not in the core of his message!

In 2 Corinthians 3, Paul returned to discuss the subject of the receptivity of the Gospel, by explaining why the Jews missed the meaning of the Messianic passages of the Old Testament:
“Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end. But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” 2 Corinthians 3: 12-18 ESV

The Old Testament Scriptures’ main emphasis was on the saving message that was first proclaimed by God in the Garden of Eden to our first parents, Adam and Eve. (Genesis 3:15) This promise was made specific to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and reiterated to David. Unfortunately, even though the Prophets like Isaiah and the Psalms, spoke of the coming Messiah as a redeemer from sin, Rabbinical Judaism, as it developed during the Intertestamental era, formulated the doctrine of salvation by observing the deeds of the Law. This doctrine became a “veil” over the minds of the religious leaders in Israel that prevented them from welcoming a Redeemer Messiah. It became the firm belief of the Jews in the Diaspora, which explains why many of them did not welcome Paul’s message. They expected a political Messiah who would liberate their nation from Roman imperialism.

Thus far, I dealt with the objections to the message of the Gospel, by both Jews and Greeks during the time of Paul. My point has been to show that the impediment to the reception of the Gospel resided in the minds of the Jewish and Greek recieptients, and not in the vocabulary used by Paul. However, I was not implying that there was no hope or way to convert Jews and Gentiles, seeing that their minds had insurmountable obstacles to the message of the Good News. My purpose was to show that God had, in fact, provided a way to overcome their resistance to the Gospel offer. Paul put it this way in I Cor. 1:21: (ESV) “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.”

The expression “the folly of what we preach” refers to an important formula that summarized the essence of the apostolic proclamation known in Greek as the κηρυγματος. In God’s plan, the instrumental cause of salvation is the proclamation of the Gospel; while the efficient cause of salvation is the death of Jesus Christ on the cross and his resurrection, as actualized by the work of the Holy Spirit.
This Pauline teaching about faith in Christ occurring within the context of hearing the proclamation of the Gospel is expounded in Romans 10. Paul’s heart yearned for the salvation of his people. He acknowledged their tremendous “zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” Romans 10:2-4 ESV

This attempt to establish one’s own righteousness is the major obstacle to the reception of the Gospel, by Jews and Muslims alike. Both systems of belief are thoroughly legalistic. Man, in Rabbinical Judaism and in Islam, possesses the ability to please God by doing the deeds prescribed by the Law or Shariah!

Furthermore, notwithstanding the strong criticisms that have been leveled by Muslims against the Bible’s authenticity, the Trinity, the deity of Jesus Christ, and His crucifixion; their greatest objection has been to Biblical Anthropology. Whereas the Christian view of man’s predicament takes seriously the drastic results of the Fall, the Muslim view of man’s present condition is very optimistic. It may be described as a thoroughly Pelagian point of view.

This was articulated in a 1959 article published in the quarterly “The Muslim World” where the Islamic doctrine of man was discussed. At a gathering of Christian and Muslim scholars in Morocco, a Muslim professor said:
“The possibility of man’s deliverance and the way to follow have been indicated by the Qur’an in its address to sinners, fathers of the human race: ‘Go forth all of you from hence and if there comes to you guidance from Me then he who follows my guidance shall have nothing to fear, nor shall they know distress.” (Surah 2:38) In this solemn affirmation God Himself acts for the salvation of man. By following the Right Path, Islam leads man to final perfection, the effect of which is liberation from the obstacle which prevented him from attaining the eternal blessedness which is life in God and for God.”

Commenting on the paper, Edwin Calverley, the then editor of the journal wrote:
“[This] exposition of Muslim theology and its concepts of man and his salvation raises several deep questions. The Christian must always be perplexed about its ready confidence that ‘to know is to do,’ that man’s salvation happens under purely revelatory auspices and that through the law given in the Divine communication is the path that man will follow once he knows and sees it. The whole mystery of human recalcitrance and ‘hardness of heart’ seems to be overlooked.”

Goring back to Romans 10, we read:

“For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them. But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim);because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So, faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” Romans 10: 5-17 (ESV)

Paul repeats what he has taught in I Corinthians about how saving faith in born: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” In the Greek text, it reads: “αρα η πιστις εξ ακοης η δε ακοη δια ρηματος χριστου” “dia rematos Xristou” may be translated as “the Preaching of Christ,” which is equivalent to the term κηρυγματος Kerugmatos used in I Corinthians 1: 21. 

We must never forget that the Lord Jesus Christ gave the missionary mandate to His Church. As we have noticed earlier, it was the church in Antioch that commissioned Paul and Barnabas, to preach the Gospel throughout the Roman Empire. After they had finished their First Missionary journey (Acts 13 & 14), they returned to Antioch and gave a report to the assembled church, about the Lord’s blessing on their labors. When disputes arose about Gentile converts and their submission to the Mosaic Law, the problem was resolved at an official Church Assembly as recorded in Acts 15.

Having expounded the main points of Paul’s missions teaching, I end by turning to the work of missions among Muslims. In these crucial times, Muslims are facing some tremendous challenges, with unresolved disputes and civil wars, coupled with tense relations with the rest of the world. Their need for the message of the Biblical Christ is urgent. Thanks to the Internet, Christians possess the means to communicate the Good News. The proper way to accomplish this work, is to apply Saint Paul’s Theology of Christian Missions.