Would you consider Paul successful? How could you not? He is the first great church planter. He gave up his life as a Pharisee after he encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus and then goes on three missionary journeys where he spread the gospel to the gentiles and starts a plethora of churches. Paul is a man that we should look to as one of the heroes of the faith. We still revere his name today, almost two thousand years later.
Have you ever stopped to think about how his missionary journeys went? It wasn’t Paul walking into towns, preaching, and everyone embracing his message. Quite the contrary, actually. Things went sideways for Paul most of the time. Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea, Corinth, Ephesus, Jerusalem, and Rome is the list of the cities where things didn’t go well. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s the overwhelming majority of the places he visited.
He was repeatedly run out of town, stoned, beaten, and thrown in prison. This doesn’t include when he and his ministry partner (and friend), Barnabas separated over a disagreement. He also had a public confrontation with Peter over the place of the law for believers. Paul was also dealing with a physical ailment which was destroying his eyesight. Ultimately. Paul would finish his ministry by being arrested in Jerusalem, put on a ship to Rome, the ship wrecks at sea, they wash up on an island where he is bitten by a snake, finally gets to Rome, where he sits in prison until they decide to behead him.
If that doesn’t scream success, then I don’t know what does.
No one would look at how Paul’s life unfolded as ideal. When we dream of going and spreading the Gospel, we imagine people flocking to us and falling down to worship God. If the Bible and history are any indications, that’s not how it typically works. Tertullian, an early Christian author during the second and third century, said, “The blood of the martyr is the seed of the Church.” What he means is that the church is what it is today because of the people who were willing to give their lives to spread the Gospel and plant churches.
Christianity has always thrived in the places where it is most persecuted. This remains true, even today. The Asian and African churches are growing exponentially right now, and many of those countries have outlawed the faith. I have a friend who was helping with the underground church in China. He was meeting with one of the church leaders right before he was going to return to America. He told her, “I’m going to pray that things get easier for the church here.” She looked him in the eye and said, “Please don’t pray that.” He was taken aback and asked her, “Why don’t you want me to pray that?” “Because if it’s easy, then it doesn’t require faith,” she replied.
It is the situations where people have to see our genuine faith on display that will have the most significant impact. It’s easy to go to church on a Sunday, sit in the pews with other believers, and let everyone see how committed to Christ we are. What about times when it’s not advantageous for us to be Christians? What about when it will lead to us being rejected, opposed, or looked down upon? That is precisely when we must stand firm in our faith. That was the hallmark of the early church, and it needs to be the hallmark of the present church.
Jesus tells us in Mark 8:34 that, “If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up their cross, and follow me.” The original hearers of this phrase (the Disciples) would have understood that to “take up their cross” means that they would be going to their death. Jesus informs us here that following Him isn’t going to be easy. He speaks several times throughout the Gospels that we will be persecuted and oppressed. It’s how we meet the persecution that will be our greatest proclamation of the Gospel. If people can see our faith on display when we face hardship, they will know that it’s real. It’s when they recognize that it’s real that their ears and hearts will be open to the truth.
Paul proved that over and over. That list of places where it seemed that Paul failed is full of the churches that were the most important in early Christianity. I will argue that Paul was the most important person in the early church. He helped shape and define Christianity into what it was then and what it is today. He did much of it without knowing the impact he made for eternity.
Maybe that’s going to be your story. You may never see the impact that you’re making for eternity in this lifetime. Perhaps you feel like your ministry has had more failures than successes. Personally, I tend to only want to look at my successes and try to forget the things that I consider failures. When we do that we greatly discount what God can do and overestimate how important we are to the message. We are merely the farmer sowing the seeds. It is not up to us to make the seeds grow, that God’s job. All we can do is follow Christ, stand firm in our faith when we face persecution, and liberally sow the seed of the Gospel everywhere we go. If we do that, we will always be successful. We may not see the fruits of our labor in this lifetime, but we will be rewarded for working the fields when we come face to face with our creator. It’s not about successes and failures, it’s about faithfulness.