Mission in Paul: Book Review

Gospel and Mission in the Writings of Paul: An Exegetical and Theological Analysis, by P. T. O’Brien. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1993. Pp. xiv-161. $9.99 (paper). [Reviewed by Robert Decker.]

O’Brien’s thesis is that the apostle Paul is not only an example to be emulated in regards to his goals, attitudes, and behavior as a Christian, but Paul is also a “missionary paradigm.” The apostle, in his preaching and teaching the gospel to the nations, is the norm, the standard, the model/example for the church and her missionaries today.

As the book’s title indicates, the author supports his thesis by a careful, exegetical analysis of several passages in the epistles of Paul. O’Brien begins with a study of Galatians 1:11-17 and Ephesians 3:1-13. He concludes on the basis of the Galatians passage that the origin of the gospel Paul preached was not man, nor was Paul taught the gospel, but it came from God’s revelation to him. God was the Revealer and Christ was the content of the gospel Paul preached. Paul’s authority, therefore, lay in the fact that God set him apart before birth and graciously called him to preach to the Gentiles.

The author points out that according to the Ephesians passage God made known to Paul “the mystery of Christ,” viz., that the Gentiles would be gathered into the church and with the Jewish Christians be altogether one body, one church. Whether this is the proper exegesis of “the mystery of Christ” is open to question. “The mystery of Christ” may very well be a reference to the gospel itself. The gospel is the “mystery of Christ” in the sense that it can only be understood by the gracious work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of God’s people. At any rate, the statement that God made known to Paul that the Gentiles would be gathered into the one church is certainly true. Further, God commissioned the apostle to preach this mystery to the Gentiles. God did this in His grace to Paul. God thus enabled the apostle to carry out the work. In Paul’s work God was fulfilling the promise made centuries earlier to Abraham, “in thee shall all nations be blessed.”

In his discussion of the subject, “The Amazing Success of Paul’s Mission” (pp. 27-51), O’Brien finds Romans 15:14-33 teaching several “distinguishing marks of Paul’s mission.” There was the “priority of God’s grace” in Paul’s missionary career. God’s grace provided the source and power for the whole course of the apostle’s ministry. The content of that ministry was “the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God.” The purpose of Paul’s ministry was that “the offering of the Gentiles might be acceptable to God.” This clearly implies that Paul’s ministry was “out in the world” and designed “for the obedience of the nations.” This missionary calling was fulfilled by what Christ accomplished through Paul by word and deed and by the power of signs and wonders by the Holy Spirit. The results of Paul’s work were extraordinary, for he affirms that Christ’s dynamic activity through him led to the result “that from Jerusalem, and round about unto Illyricum, I have fully preached the gospel of Christ” (Rom. 15:19). And finally there is the distinguishing mark of Paul’s ministry that he had an all-consuming passion to proclaim the gospel where Christ had not been acknowledged or worshiped. This last feature was in fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah, chapter 52, verse 15.

Are these “distinguishing marks of Paul’s missionary activity” unique to the apostle and, therefore, not to be applied directly to the endeavors of contemporary missionaries, as O’Brien contends? In a sense this is true, but in another sense it is not. The apostolic office belongs to the very foundation of the church (Eph. 2:20). God inspired the apostles. But surely Christ still accomplishes the work of gathering the church out of the nations by means of the ordained ministry of the church. And God’s grace is the source and power of this missionary work today just as well as in Paul’s day.

There is a good bit of repetition in chapters 3-5, where O’Brien treats the subjects: “The Logic of Paul’s Gospel” (Rom. 1:1-17), “Paul’s Ambition and Ours” (I Cor. 9:19-23; 10:31-11:1), and “The Pauline Great Commission” (Eph. 6:10-20). This repetition is especially true of O’Brien’s discussion of the goal of Paul’s ministry, the content of his preaching, and the purpose of the gospel Paul preached. The author could better have blended this material with his exegesis and theological analysis of the passages treated in the first two chapters of the book. He does make, however, two very important points in these chapters. 1) “The saving power of the gospel needs to be understood against the background of man’s terrible plight outside of Christ” (p. 75), and 2) Paul’s ambition to “by all means save some” by being a “slave to all” and by “being all things to all men” must be the ambition of the church and her missionaries today.

Chapter 6, as its title, “Concluding Remarks,” indicates, is a summary of O’Brien’s exegesis and theological analysis of the several selected passages from the epistles of Paul.

To anyone familiar with the epistles of Paul there is nothing new in this book. Nevertheless, the point that we must derive both our missionary principles and practice from sacred Scripture and especially from the ministry of the apostle Paul certainly bears emphatic repeating in our day. This, not secular, cultural anthropology, must be where Christ’s church begins, continues, and ends in her striving to be obedient to her Lord, who said, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen” (Matt. 28:19-20).

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