What is Paul’s missionary strategy? He tells us in his letter to the Romans: he preaches “first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.” (Romans 1:16) He didn’t make this up himself; it’s based on Jesus’ parable of the wedding banquet (Luke 14:15-24). The Jews already have an ‘invitation’ to enter the Kingdom of God, and so they must always hear the Gospel call first.
So Paul and Barnabas arrive in town, find somewhere to stay, and their first ‘missionary’ action is to go to the local synagogue on the Sabbath. Now Paul mentions another of his strategies in I Corinthians: “to the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews.” (I Corinthians 9:20) So we have to imagine him dressing that morning as a devout Jew, maybe even putting a phylactery on his forehead to make it obvious that he’s a Pharisee. This will virtually guarantee that he will be invited to contribute to the discussion and that the other men there will respect what he has to say.
Good news for the Jews
When I first read the book of Acts, I used to wonder how it was that Paul could just walk into a synagogue where he’d never been before and be allowed to preach there. But that was because I was subconsciously thinking that a first-century Middle Eastern synagogue was like a 20th-century European church. And of course, there were a number of differences! For a start, the men and women were separated. Now the meetings were very democratic – but only for the men! Any of the men present could speak to the congregation. When they had had their say, the other men would discuss and debate it. So although we call Paul’s speech a ‘sermon’, it was really more of a discussion starter…
It is very similar to Peter’s sermon in chapter 2 (and quite different from the sermon to pagans that Luke records in chapter 17) In the synagogue Paul is speaking to people who know the Scriptures and are familiar with religious concepts such as sin, so he refers to the Old Testament quite a lot. The first part (verses 16-22) is a fairly standard review of Jewish history and his theme is how God is faithful to His promises. “God promised our ancestors a homeland, and He gave them a homeland. They asked for a king, and God gave them a king.” So far, Paul has said nothing out of the ordinary. The congregation can follow his line of thought quite easily, and they think they can see where he’s going. What they expect him to say next is this: “And so, brothers, God has promised us a Messiah and one day He will give us a Messiah.” And everyone will nod and feel encouraged and say ‘Amen’. But he doesn’t say that! Instead he says: “God has promised a Messiah and the Messiah has come!” That’s not just unexpected, that’s absolutely mind-blowing! Any old codgers nodding off in the front row wake up with a start! Paul then talks about John the Baptist, and Jesus, and then he quotes the Scriptures, to show that Jesus fulfils the Messianic prophecies. And he says a lot about the Resurrection, because that is the proof that Jesus really is the Messiah!
When he has finished talking, questions will be fired at him: What is the evidence for what he has just said? How can Jesus be the Messiah if he was crucified? We can imagine that the discussion was unusually lively that Sabbath! And note that at this point there is no hostility at all. A lot of the people there become Christians on the spot, and even those that don’t are looking forward to another session the next week.