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2. What Paul Can Teach Us About Social Distancing

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In 2020 during the pandemic associated with the coronavirus, Covid-19, there has been much talk about social distancing. One might not immediately conclude that Paul was an example of “social distancing.” But the truth is, Paul spent a good deal of his time separated and isolated from others. Some of this was imposed on him by others, and some was self-imposed. Let’s think about that for just a moment.

There were those who sought to rid Paul from his existence on earth (not unlike he once sought to rid the world of Christians – Acts 22:1-5; 1 Timothy 1:12-15). They ran Paul out of town on various occasions (see Acts 14:50; 17:13-14). They nearly tore him apart in Jerusalem (Acts 22:22-23), plotted to kill him (Acts 23:12-15), and thought they had done so in Lystra (Acts 14:19). False accusations and governmental appeasement ultimately led to Paul’s imprisonment in Rome (Acts 28:17ff.) This is not to overlook his imprisonment in Philippi (Acts 16:16ff.) and Caesarea (Acts 23:29ff.). Legal action was taken against Paul in an effort to deprive him of his rights and protections as a Roman citizen (Acts 18:12-17). To this we could add a list of other adversities which Paul suffered (2 Corinthians 11:23-29). It should also be noted that Satan, too, hindered Paul from visiting the churches (1 Thessalonians 2:17-18).

Beyond these hindrances to social interaction, there was also what we might call Paul’s “self-imposed” separation. Paul did not usually (the exceptions would be Ephesus and Corinth) spend long in any one place because he desired to preach the gospel elsewhere, particularly where it had not yet been preached (Romans 15:18-21). He kept moving on, even when encouraged to stay (Acts 18:19-21).

Paul’s ministry was international, and because of his concern for the churches (some of which he had founded, and others which others founded) he would press on so that he could minister his gifts to many face-to-face (Colossians 2:1-3; 1 Thessalonians 2:17; 3:10). Part of Paul’s “separation” from believers was out of his concern that he might not become overly dominant, and that the gifts and ministries of others might be encouraged. Thus, Paul sent out team members like Timothy and Titus, to minister on his behalf.

With all this in mind, let us agree that Paul experienced his own version of “social distancing,” and this for much of his life – far more than you and I will endure during this pandemic. But the important thing for us to notice is that this did not hinder his ministry to others; indeed it enhanced it:

12 I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that my situation has actually turned out to advance the gospel: 13 The whole imperial guard and everyone else knows that I am in prison for the sake of Christ, 14 and most of the brothers and sisters, having confidence in the Lord because of my imprisonment, now more than ever dare to speak the word fearlessly (Philippians 1:12-14, NET).

With all the restrictions on Paul’s social interaction, no one has had a greater impact on the saints for the last 2,000 years than he. The explanation, put simply, is this: Paul’s priorities were those of his fellow apostles:

3 But carefully select from among you, brothers, seven men who are well-attested, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this necessary task. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:3-4, emphasis mine).

These priorities – prayer and the ministry of the Word – have not changed over time.

The means and mechanisms by which they are carried out will, and should, change. When confined to a prison cell, Paul’s priorities were prayer and the ministry of the Word. Evangelism took place wherever Paul was, including prison (Acts 16:23-40; Philippians 4:21-23; Philemon 1:10-11). And to these new believers and fledgling churches Paul was constantly writing (at least three letters to the Corinthians – see 1 Corinthians 5:9), expounding correct doctrine (Romans), exposing false doctrine (Galatians) and ungodly living (1 Corinthians). Paul’s prayer life puts most of ours to shame. Paul knew what was going on in the churches, he knew their struggles, trials, and temptations. He knew the saints and their small group gatherings, even in churches he had never yet visited (see Romans 16). He asked for prayers for himself (Romans 15:30-33; Ephesians 6:19-20). And beyond this, Paul sent others to learn how the saints were doing (2 Corinthians 7:4-16; 8:6-24).

Paul’s ministry was not limited by his “social distancing,” it was greatly enhanced by it, for we now hold his teaching, exhortation, warnings, and prayer in our hands, as has the church for 2,000 years. And this Paul accomplished by his commitment to “prayer and the ministry of the Word.” Yet he did not have Christian publishers and bookstores, newspapers, radio, television, the internet, or Facebook and Twitter. Mail took days, at best, and months at worst. Communication was not easy in Paul’s day.

With all the “social media” we have at our disposal, how much greater are our opportunities and responsibilities. Like Paul, let us make use of our “social distancing” to the glory of God and the good of His people. We are, in Paul’s words (somewhat ill-used) “without excuse.”

Related Topics: Christian Life, Cultural Issues, Suffering, Trials, Persecution

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