All the apostles had important roles to play in the founding and spread of the early church. John was the only one who lived to old age. The rest became martyrs, starting with James, whom Herod “killed . . . with the sword” (Acts 12:2). Some of them took the gospel to the far reaches of the known world. In Acts 17:6, the angry mob who seized Paul and Silas in Thessalonica referred to them as “these who have turned the world upside down.”
No one did more than Paul to spread the gospel across the face of the Roman Empire. Luke carefully chronicled Paul’s three missionary journeys in the Book of Acts. Beginning in Acts 13 through the end of that book, Paul becomes the central figure. And Luke’s record of Paul’s ministry is breathtaking. Paul’s influence was profound wherever he set foot. He preached the gospel, planted churches, and left new believers in his wake no matter where he went—from the land of Israel, throughout Asia Minor, across Greece, through Malta, Sicily, and finally to Rome. And while doing all this, Paul wrote more New Testament epistles than any other author. In an age long before modern conveniences made travel and communication relatively easy, Paul’s accomplishments were extraordinary.
More important, God used no one more than Paul to define, delimit, and defend the gospel. The other apostles clearly gained an appreciation for Paul’s devotion to the gospel. Their belief that he was appointed by Christ to be an apostle “born out of due time” (1 Cor. 15:8) was rooted in the fact that he had learned from the risen Christ the very same truths that they themselves, during their Lord’s earthly ministry, had been trained and commissioned to proclaim (Gal. 2:2, 6–9). Paul learned nothing about the gospel from the other disciples that he had not already heard from Christ by special revelation (Gal. 1:11-12; 2:6).
It’s no wonder Paul felt such a significant weight of responsibility to preach and defend the gospel. Wherever he went, agents of opposition to the gospel followed close behind, attacking the message he proclaimed. The powers of darkness seemed keenly aware of Paul’s strategic role, and they focused their relentless attacks against the churches where his influence was especially strong. Therefore Paul was constantly engaged in “the defense and confirmation of the gospel” (Phil. 1:7).
So much controversy surrounded Paul and his ministry that almost no one wanted to be identified with him. In the final epistle he wrote before giving his life for the gospel, he described how his arraignment in Rome had gone: “At my first defense no one stood with me, but all forsook me” (2 Tim. 4:16). In the opening chapter of that letter he told Timothy, “All those in Asia have turned away from me” (1:15). And his closing words included this doleful plea:
Be diligent to come to me quickly; for Demas has forsaken me, having loved this present world, and has departed for Thessalonica—Crescens for Galatia, Titus for Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for ministry (2 Tim. 4:9–11).
Had Paul not been a man of such profound faith, he might have died feeling alone and abandoned. As it is, he most likely did not fully realize how far his shadow would extend over the church and how deeply his influence would be felt by generation after generation of believers. But he did not die discouraged. He knew the truth of the gospel would ultimately triumph. He understood that the gates of hell would never prevail against the church Christ was building. He remained confident that God’s purposes would assuredly be fulfilled—and that God’s plan was indeed already being fulfilled, even in Paul’s own impending martyrdom. He wrote,
For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing (2 Tim. 4:6–8).
According to tradition, not long after penning those words, Paul was led by Roman soldiers to a place of execution where he would be beheaded for the sake of Christ. Even in death, the apostle was triumphant. He knew that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8). As his sojourn on this earth ended, with the flash of a Roman sword, Paul was ushered into the presence of his Savior. There he was undoubtedly greeted with these words, “Well done, My good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Master.”
Learn more about the apostle Paul in Dr. John MacArthur’s book One Faithful Life: A Harmony of the Life and Writings of the Apostle Paul (Thomas Nelson, 2019). For the first time, you can experience Paul’s world-changing writings in the full context of his life story—from Pharisee and persecutor of the church, to broken and humbled convert, to the apostle of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
BONUS: Get this free timeline of Paul’s life and ministry, excerpted from One Faithful Life.
The above article is excerpted from One Faithful Life: A Harmony of the Life and Writings of the Apostle Paul by John F. MacArthur. Copyright © 2019 by John F. MacArthur. Published by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson. thomasnelson.com. All rights reserved.
One Faithful Life: A Harmony of the Life and Writings of the Apostle Paul is published by HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc., the parent company of Bible Gateway.
BIO: John MacArthur (@johnmacarthur) has served as the pastor-teacher of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, since 1969. His ministry of expository preaching is unparalleled in its breadth and influence. In more than four decades of ministry from the same pulpit, he has preached verse by verse through the entire New Testament (and several key sections of the Old Testament). He is chancellor of the Master’s University and Seminary and featured teacher with the Grace to You media ministry. He has authored a number of bestselling books, including Twelve Ordinary Men and One Perfect Life.
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