Several reasons for a high attrition rate among missionaries are discouragement and loneliness on the mission field. An individual or couple may go out for a few years and when they return home for furlough, decide not to go back to the field again for these reasons. One wonders if following a Biblical pattern of mission might avoid some of these problems on the field. This paper will examine one aspect of Jesus' instruction for mission. It is: He sent them out two-by-two in order to preach the gospel.
Jesus and His Disciples (Students)
The first disciples that the Lord Jesus called were two sets of brothers: Simon and Andrew, the sons of Jonas, who were using their cast net in the Sea of Galilee when Jesus said, “Follow Me, and I will make you become fishers of men” (Mark 1:16-18; Matt. 4:18-20). He went a little further and found another set of brothers, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, in their boat mending nets and Jesus called them to become fishers of men as well (Mark 1:19, 20; Matt. 4:21, 22).
This was not the first time they had met Jesus. In fact, more than a year and a half before, Andrew and most likely, John the son of Zebedee, were disciples of John the Baptizer [Remember, John was a Jew, he was not a Baptist!!!]. It was the Baptizer that introduced them to the Lord Jesus, the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world (John 1:29, 36). When Andrew realized who Jesus was, he went and found his brother Simon and said, “We have found the Messiah!” (1:41).
Andrew, Simon, John the son of Zebedee, Philip, and Nathanael literally followed Jesus from Bethany beyond the Jordan (also known as Batanaea) to Cana of Galilee to a wedding where Jesus turns water into wine (John 1:43-2:10). As a result of this sign, Jesus’s new found disciples (or students) believed on Him (John 2:11). This was the point in time when these disciples put their trust in the Lord Jesus as their Savior (cf. John 20:30, 31). After this event, Jesus found and called seven other individuals to be His students. For the call of Matthew the tax-collector, see Mark 2:13, 14; Matt. 9:9; Luke 5:27-29. A short while later, He called together twelve men that He wanted to train in order to send them out to preach (Mark 3:13-19).
After a few months of training them to become fishers of men, Jesus gives His students a “mid-term exam.” John Mark records: “And He called the twelve to Himself, and began to send them out two by two, and gave them power over unclean spirits. ... So they went out and preached that people should repent [change their minds]. And they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick, and healed them” (6:7, 12, 13; cf. Luke 9:1-6).
Interestingly, in the parallel passage in Matthew’s gospel the make up of the “two-by-two” teams are given: Peter and Andrew; James and John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew; James and Lebbaeus / Thaddaeus; and finally Simon the Canaanite and Judas Iscariot (10:2-4; cf. Luke 6:13-16).
Later, Jesus sends another group of seventy individuals out, most likely to Perea, in order to prepare that area for the next stage in His ministry. As with the Twelve, He sent these disciples out two-by-two as well (Luke 10:1).
Jesus set forth the Biblical pattern, two-by-two, for future missionary endeavors by the example of the Twelve and the Seventy. The Holy Spirit, in the Book of Acts, confirmed this pattern by example as well (Acts 13:2).
The Examples in the Book of Acts
The Book of Acts has been called by some, The Acts of the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit is working in the Church and fulfilling the mission that was set forth by the Lord Jesus (John 14:15-18, 26; 15:26, 27; 16:7-11; 17:18-21; Acts 1:8).
The book ends abruptly with Paul still under house arrest in Rome (Acts 28), yet we know from Paul’s later epistles, he has a fourth missionary journey to Macedonia, Asia Minor, Crete and possibly Spain before he is martyred in Rome in AD 67. The implications seem to be that the Church, under the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit, continues its work even to the present, following the pattern set forth in the book of Acts.
Just before the Lord Jesus ascended into Heaven, He gave this command to His disciples: “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
Ten days later, on the Day of Pentecost, the Twelve (Judas being replaced by Matthias) were together in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit came upon them and gave them utterances in known languages of the Jewish people from the Diaspora visiting Jerusalem for the festival (Acts 2:1-13). At that time, the Apostle Peter preached a powerful message that demonstrated from the Hebrew Scriptures that Jesus is the Son of God who died for the sins of humanity and was bodily resurrected from the dead. As a result of this preaching, 3,000 people came to faith in the Lord Jesus (Acts 2:41). A short time later, Peter and John are together in the Temple and healed a lame man and ended up in trouble with the religious authorities (Acts 3:1-4:31).
Interestingly, Peter and John are working together at this point. Scripture is silent as to where their brothers, Andrew and James, are. Church tradition says that Andrew went to Scythia (Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 3:1; LCL 1:181). Who he went with, we are not told. James, the son of Zebedee, remains around Jerusalem until he becomes the first apostolic martyr of the Christian faith (Acts 12:2).
More than ten years later, Peter and Silvanus, also known as Silas, took a missionary journey to “those of the circumcision” in the regions of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia. Apparently John Mark was with them as a disciple (I Pet. 1:1; 5:12, 13). According to Jerome, one of the early church historians, this trip ended in Rome in the second year of Claudius (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd series, 3: 361). The second year of Claudius was AD 42. Peter wrote his first epistle as a “follow-up” letter to the churches they had just planted in these regions.
Later, Paul wrote to the church in Corinth about his apostleship. He raises the question about wives. He asked: “Do we have no right to take along a believing wife, as do also the other apostles, the brothers of the Lord, and Cephas?” (I Cor. 9:5). Here he acknowledges that Cephas, another name for Peter, was married and his believing wife was with him. [You didn’t know the first “pope” was married, did you?! Cf. Mark 1:30]. According to church tradition, they were crucified together in Rome.
It should be pointed out that the wife is not the other person in the two-by-two equation. She is “one flesh” (Gen. 2:24) with her husband. The two-by-two equation would be the husband and wife as “one flesh” along with another man, or another couple, thus fulfilling the pattern set forth by Jesus (Vine nd: 36).
The first team recorded in the Book of Acts that went out was Barnabas and Paul, and John Mark along with them, apparently as a disciple again (Acts 13:2). They evangelized and planted churches on the island of Cyprus, as well as Pamphylia and South Galatia.
After this first missionary journey, Barnabas suggests to Paul that they revisit the churches from the first journey. He also suggested they take John Mark with them. Paul like the idea of revisiting the churches, but was adamant against John Mark going along. As a result of this heated dispute, Barnabas ended up going to Cyprus with John Mark (Acts 15:39) and Paul selected Silas as his co-worker on what became his second missionary journey (Acts 15:40). They later had Timothy join them as a disciple (Acts 16:1-3). At the end of the second missionary journey, Paul and Aquila, along with his wife Priscilla, depart Corinth for Ephesus (Acts 18:18).
On Paul’s third missionary journey his co-worker is apparently Timothy (cf. Acts 19:22). They spent two years in Ephesus teaching disciples in the School of Tyrannus. So effective was this work that “all who dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks” (19:10). During this time Paul sent two of his fellow workers, Timothy and Erastus to Macedonia to minister the Word of God (Acts 19:22). At the end of the third missionary journey, Paul returns to Jerusalem for the Feast of Shavuot (Pentecost) and Dr. Luke rejoins them at Philippi (Acts 20:6, note the “we”).
Paul’s preaching caused such a ruckus in the Temple that the Roman soldiers had to extract him from the crowd in the Temple courtyard to the Antonio’s Fortress. Later that night, they removed him to Caesarea-by-the-Sea where he was imprisoned for about two years. When Paul had a hearing before King Agrippa II, he appealed to Caesar. He also almost persuaded the king to become a Christian (Acts 25:11, 12; 26: 24-32). Paul was turned over to the centurion Julius in order to take him to Rome (Acts 27:1). Dr. Luke and Aristarchus also book passage on the same ship in order to travel with Paul (27:2; cf. 20:4).
On Paul’s fourth missionary journey, he decides to spend the winter in Nicopolis in western Greece. He wrote Titus and instructed him to come to the city. He also added a note to “send Zenas the lawyer and Apollos on their journey with haste, that they may lack nothing” (Tit. 3:13). Apparently Zenas and Apollos were itinerant preachers and co-workers that Titus had shown hospitality to while they were on the island of Crete.
The Reasons for Two-by-Two
As we have seen, there are no “Lone Ranger” missionaries in the New Testament; the pattern is always disciples going forth two-by-two with the gospel in order to plant churches. I believe that there are at least four reasons why Jesus and the Holy Spirit set this pattern.
The first reason is accountability to one another. When a person comes to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, all their sins are forgiven – past, present and future. Believers have been saved from the penalty of sin (justification), are being saved from the power of sin (sanctification), and, one day, will be saved from the presence of sin (glorification). But until that day, believers still have a sin nature and sin. James the son of Zebedee admonishes believers to “confess your trespasses (or sins) to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (5:16). If a believer is by himself, he is accountable to no one. Yet if there is a co-worker, the spiritual one can help with the restoration process. Paul writes: “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such as one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted” (Gal. 6:1; cf. James 5:19, 20 and Eccl. 4:9, 10).
The second reason is for mutual encouragement. People, when they are alone and things start going the wrong way, become discouraged. They have no one to turn to for mutual support and encouragement.
The Church was fortunate to have a lesser know apostle named Yosef ha-Levi. We would say in English, Joseph the Levite. The apostles gave this man from the island of Cyprus the nickname, Barnabas, which in Aramaic means “son of encouragement” (Acts 4: 36). The nickname was well deserved because he had a solid reputation of encouraging people in the things of the Lord. The Lord used Barnabas to encourage Saul (later known as Paul) and John Mark at crucial points in their spiritual lives and to see potential in them for the work of the Lord.
The third reason to go out two-by-two is so that younger men can be taught with the help of a co-worker. Paul admonishes Timothy: “And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (II Tim. 2:2). The pattern of discipleship seen in the New Testament is not “one-on-one” discipleship, but rather, “two with a group of men.” For Jesus, it was twelve. At one point, Paul and Timothy had six men they were training in sort of a “seminary on the road” with practical “on the job training” (Acts 20:4).
The fourth reason is to maximize spiritual gifts. When Paul went on his second missionary journey he chose Silas, also known as Silvanus, to join him (Acts 15:40). Paul’s spiritual gift was that of apostle and teacher (Eph. 4:11), while Silas gift was that of prophet (Acts 15:32). While they were in Lystra, they invited a young man that Paul had led to the Lord to join them. Timothy had the gift of evangelist (Acts 16:1-3; II Tim. 4:5). Between the three men, they could effectively reach people with the gospel, establish and teach local churches, and train other men in the doctrinal truths of the Word of God, as well as ministry.
Applications for Today
The trend in missionary endeavors today is toward a team concept where several couples go to one place and work together. Recently I was teaching several classes on archaeology at two Christian schools in Bulgaria. A friend of mine was the regional director for SEND International in the Balkans. He was sharing how their mission board encourages a team effort in church planting.
There are several notable examples of team efforts in assembly mission work. One such example of a team effort was the “Auca Five” who were martyred in 1956. Jim Elliot, Peter Fleming, and Edward McCully were friends from the assemblies and two of them had attended the same college. They planned and prayed together to reach the unreached Auca Indians in Ecuador. They were later joined by Nate Saint and Roger Youderian who were also laboring in that area with other missionary organizations.
This is not to depreciate the great work done by some pioneering missionaries who went to labor on the mission field all by themselves. Yet one wonders how much more effective they could have been if they labored together with other workers?
Some of the early gospel pioneers in the assemblies followed this pattern as well. For example, Richard Varder and John Rae labored from 1882-1886 in western Canada (Anonymous 2007: 13, 14). Another example is George D. Campbell and his fellow worker Gaius Goff who labored in Newfoundland and Labrador for three decades (Nicholson 2007: 18).
I was talking with an elder in an assembly about this issue and he mentioned that the assembly he fellowshipped at had sent out two missionaries to different countries, but commented they could never have sent the two out together because both had domineering personalities and would clash with each other! I thought to myself, “That’s no excuse. Yes, Paul and Barnabas both had strong personalities that could not be reconciled, but they still followed the Biblical pattern and went out two-by-two with one other individual.”
Also, Paul gave a command to the believers in Ephesus when he said: “And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, ... submitting to one another in the fear of God” (Eph. 5:18, 21; cf. I Pet. 5:5; Gal. 5:13). One of the fruits of being filled with the Spirit of God, and every missionary should be filled with the Spirit, is submitting to one another! What a testimony it would have been if two strong-willed brothers went out two-by-two, submitting to one another for the purpose of reaching people with the gospel.
W. E. Vine in his booklet, The Divine Plan of Missions states: “Where two are working together they are able to render help one to another by way of comfort in sorrow, counsel in perplexity, and sympathetic advice and warning in times of temptation. An ear ready to receive wise counsel may mean deliverance from succumbing to temptation” (nd: 36). He goes on to say: “How happy, how effective, how sure of Divine blessing, is co-work carried on in the absence of selfish individualism in the spirit of mutual esteem, and in a constant recognition of what is involved in being ‘God’s fellow-worker’!” (nd: 38, 39).
The Lord Jesus set the pattern for apostles / missionaries going out two-by-two in the Gospels. The Holy Spirit reconfirmed this pattern in the Book of Acts. Will we continue to follow the pattern set forth by the Triune Godhead in our missionary endeavors? If we do, we might not see a high attrition rate!
2007 Richard Varder, Prairie Pioneer. Uplook 74/5 (Aug.-Sept.): 13, 14.
Bruce, A. B.
1971 The Training of the Twelve. Grand Rapids: Kregel Reprint Library. (This book is the classic on how Jesus trained the Twelve disciples to reach the world with the Gospel after His earthly ministry. It is highly recommended).
1926 Ecclesiastical History. Vol. 1. Trans. by K. Lake. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University. Loeb Classical Library 153. Reprinted 1980.
1994 Lives of Illustrious Men. Pp. 353-402 in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Second series. Vol. 3. Edited by P. Schaff and H. Wace. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.
2007 Review of Take the Challenge: The Life of George D. Campbell, by George Campbell and Gaius Goff. Uplook 74/5 (Aug.-Sept.): 18.
Thompson, Robert Ellis
1890 The Sending of the Apostles, Two by Two. A sermon preached in the Walnut Street Presbyterian Church. West Philadelphia, PA.
Vine, W. E.
nd The Divine Plan of Missions. London: Pickering & Ingles.