The Ministry of Paul
After Paul’s conversion, he went to the synagogue preaching boldly the name Jesus, proving that Jesus was the Christ (Acts 9). When he and Barnabas went on their journey, they would go to the synagogue every Sabbath and preach (Acts 13). The same was true when he went with Silas (Acts 17). By Acts 20, the day had changed to Sunday, but still Paul would preach; they would break bread and, no doubt, address one another in song.
However, a curious thing happened in Acts 21. Paul was arrested. For the remainder of the book, Paul is prevented from going to a local gathering of saints. He can no longer preach to God’s people. The work of the ministry had to cease … or so his adversaries had hoped.
Paul did not gather together with the saints during this prolonged time for the providence of God hindered him from doing so. However, the work of the ministry continued, and it continued through Paul. It did not continue through his preaching, but, rather, it continued through his writings. These writings, these letters were part of God’s work—they were God’s will for Paul—at that time. Many of them are preserved to this very day as part of the inspired Word of God.
What can we learn from the ministry of Paul both in and out of prison?
Well, of course, we can learn much! One thing we can certainly learn is the importance and the insufficiency of the local gathering of saints. Let’s look first at the importance.
The Importance of the Local Gathering of Saints
God created us as physical beings. Man and woman were the only creations that had a physical existence before their creation. Man was created from dust—woman from man. We are, by God’s design, physical as well as spiritual.
This means that the physical has a purpose—an intent. Likewise the physical gathering of saints has a physical purpose. We are made to want—to need—physical interaction.
Some would purposefully try to downplay this need in the church, suggesting that church-from-home is an equal (maybe even better) alternative to the physical gathering of saints. Some may (completely unintentionally!) downplay this need in the church by treating it as a preferred but not absolutely necessary component of corporate worship.
(Whereas we would want to cast no judgement on elders who lovingly and prayerfully decide this for their membership during desperate times, we would encourage those pastors to highlight that which is lacking, that which their members are [prayerfully] longing for.)
The fact is that God is in the process of calling His people together—physically. He has done so spiritually before the foundations of the world (Ephesians 1) and will complete this task physically in the new heaven and new earth (Revelation 21). In the meantime, He pictures this mission when His saints around the world gather locally together in worship of Him—where the Word is rightly preached and the sacraments are rightly administered.
God has always imaged this on the earth, but, from time to time, in His providence, He has prevented it. For years the Jews were taken captive from their land, and their temple was destroyed. As we saw with Paul, his saints are persecuted and imprisoned and thus prevented from gathering until they can find means of so doing. Each of us has probably experienced a time when sickness has prevented us from gathering together with the other saints for corporate worship.
In these times we trust God’s providence. We long for the day when we can again join the saints. And … we continue to minister in other ways.
The Insufficiency of the Local Gathering of Saints
It may sound off-putting to say that the local gathering of saints is insufficient, but this is (as stated above) not to de-emphasize its importance. It is merely to point out that the local gathering of saints isn’t all there is!
Think of the some 31+ one-anothers of scripture. Here are just a few:
- Live in harmony with one another (Romans 12)
- Care for one another (1 Corinthians 12)
- Bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6)
- Be hospitable to one another (1 Peter 4)
- Have fellowship with one another (1 John 1)
These commands cannot be lived faithfully (and were never intended to be) with only a once-a-week local gathering of saints. As important as it is, God has always willed us to do more than have church!
When the providence of God hinders His saints from gathering together locally, more time is often made available for fulfilling these other commands as christian ministry continues.
Paul is an excellent example! While imprisoned, he wrote to the churches. In his letters we find various ways that he continued the work of the ministry without gathering together locally with the saints. Paul ...
- Taught doctrine
- Prayed for others
- Encouraged others
- Admonished others
- Shared his burdens
- Bore the burdens of others
- Shared his testimony
- Share the gospel of Jesus Christ
This is what Paul did not only while in prison but throughout his ministry. He longed for the physical gathering while ministering otherwise. Consider the words he wrote to the church in Rome.
First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world. For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God's will I may now at last succeed in coming to you. For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you—that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith, both yours and mine. I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles. I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.
Though we are now prevented from gathering together with the saints, let us trust the providence of God, long for the day we can again join together AND continue the work of the ministry at a distance through prayer and teaching, encouraging and admonishing, the sharing of burdens and the sharing the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ our Lord.