Paul is the most visible apostle in the New Testament. He is the example of what a biblical apostle looks like. He is the only person in the New Testament other than Jesus we are called to imitate. His life is foundational to the New Testament church. However, Paul was not the first messenger “sent” in the New Testament. The first man in the New Testament described as a “sent” vessel was John the Baptist:1
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. (John 1:6)
Paul’s apostolic ministry cannot be understood apart from John the Baptist because Paul built on John’s foundation. John had a very specific assignment to prepare Israel for the public ministry of Jesus, but his ministry was also a prototype for the apostolic ministry that followed. John’s message was the message of the Old Testament prophets and a lot of the language John used in his messages specifically referred to Jesus’ second coming and His judgment of the nations.2 Because John’s message was intended to prepare the people for the first and second coming, he was modeling the ministry of the church to prepare, not just Israel, but the nations for Jesus’ return and the judgments of God.
John was sent by God, he called people to prepare for the coming of God and he baptized those who responded to the message. In this way, he’s a prototype of what’s to come and when we get to the book of Acts, we again see the ministry of sent messages, who call people to prepare for the coming of God, and baptize those who respond.
Though we tend to think of the gospel as the message of individual salvation, when we look at the ministry of the apostles in the books of Acts, we can see it bears a striking similarity to John’s ministry. The New Testament apostles did more than evangelize—they prepared the people for the arrival of God:
And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. (Acts 10:42)
The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30–31)
But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. (Romans 2:5)
but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. (1 Peter 4:5)
The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers. (1 Peter 4:7)
But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly. (2 Peter 3:7)
It was also about these that Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied, saying, “Behold, the Lord comes with ten thousands of his holy ones, to execute judgment on all and to convict all the ungodly of all their deeds of ungodliness that they have committed in such an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things that ungodly sinners have spoken against him.” (Jude 14–15)
Not only did they speak this way to unbelievers, they also prepared the church for the appearing of Jesus:
on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. (Romans 2:16)
For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; (Romans 14:9–10)
Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. (1 Corinthians 3:12–13)
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. (2 Corinthians 5:10)
Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing. (2 Timothy 4:8)
then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment, (2 Peter 2:9)
By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. (1 John 4:17)
Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica in the public square and in the church gives us a good example of how the apostles communicated the gospel. In Thessalonica unbelievers accused Paul of saying there was another King who will challenge Caesar:
And when they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some of the brothers before the city authorities, shouting, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has received them, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.” And the people and the city authorities were disturbed when they heard these things. (Acts 17:6–8)
The city authorities were disturbed because Paul’s preaching went beyond personal religious devotion. Paul preached the message of a King coming with His judgments, and warned his audience to prepare for the King and His judgments. Paul was not preaching insurrection—on the contrary Paul called for obedience to government officials as leaders God has put in place—but Paul was preparing the people for Jesus’ rule over the nations.3
Paul was only in Thessalonica for a short period of time and his letters to the church indicate he gave the same message to the church and put a priority on preparing the church for the end time judgments.
For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night…But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. (1 Thessalonians 5:2, 4–6)
Paul simultaneously warned the nations and prepared the churches for the coming of Jesus. This was the heart of John the Baptist’s ministry and it became a key part of the task of a New Testament apostle. While the first century church did not live to see the return of Jesus, they lived in light of it. It was foundational to the establishment of churches. Their expectation of Jesus’ return and preparation for it served the church well and enabled Christianity to take root in a hostile environment and overcome a wicked empire.
Paul continued to lay this foundation his entire ministry. In 2 Timothy, likely Paul’s final letter, Paul gave Timothy specific instructions:
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. (2 Timothy 4:1–5)
Paul charged Timothy to preach in light of Jesus’ return and the accompanying judgments. The phrase “the living and the dead” is a phrase early Christians used to describe Jesus’ judgments at His return.4 George Knight summarizes Paul’s motivation well: “Just as the thought of the judgment by Christ of all people motivated Paul, so Paul wanted it to motivate Timothy.”5
We can summarize verses 1-4 this way: in light of the Lord’s coming judgments and the deception that will fill the earth, faithfully prepare the people for what is coming. Part of Paul’s vision for pastoral ministry was the preparation of the people for the end times. Paul commanded Timothy in verse 5 to “do the work of an evangelist.” We define evangelism as speaking the gospel to unbelievers so they make a confession of faith and experience the new birth. However, we cannot take this modern definition and assume that Paul used the term in the exact same way. Paul’s understanding of evangelism was connected to the entire charge he gave Timothy.
Paul understood evangelism as more than a conversion. It included proclaiming the gospel so that some people experienced conversion, others were warned, and those in the church became a people prepared for what was coming. This does not invalidate the ministry of evangelism that brings individuals to the new birth, it simply means Paul saw the preparation of people for the return of the Lord as part of the work of evangelism and as part of apostolic ministry.
John’s summary of his ministry, is very similar to Paul’s summary:
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:11–12)
We must understand the foundations laid by John the Baptist to understand Paul and the apostolic ministry. John’s ministry represented a profound turning point that went far beyond what John understood about his own ministry. Jesus indicated as such in Matthew when He spoke about John:
For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, (Matthew 11:13)
Something changed when John came preaching and John’s ministry laid the foundation for what became the ministry of the church. While Paul is the primary apostolic example given in the New Testament, John’s ministry paved the way for Paul’s. The apostolic gospel follows the pattern of John’s gospel because John’s message has not yet been fulfilled. The people must still be prepared for the coming of God. Jesus will return.
1 The word “sent” used in John 1:6 is ἀποστέλλω (apostello) the word we get “apostolic” from.
2 See Matthew 3:12; Luke 3:5, 16-17.
3 See Romans 13:1-7.
4 Thomas D. Lea and Hayne P. Griffin, 1, 2 Timothy, Titus, vol. 34, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 242.
5 George W. Knight, The Pastoral Epistles: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle, England: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 1992), 452.