Paul’s Missionary Strategy in Acts (Part 2)

[This is the second guest post from one of my Advanced Studies in Acts students, John Caprari. John is a senior undergraduate Biblical Studies major with an emphasis on Pastoral Ministry. He and his wife will be going to Africa soon after graduation to explore a church planting ministry. He has therefore focused his attention on Paul’s missionary method.]

It amazing to reflect on the many Christian works Paul began. He had a strong desire to win as many people as possible (1 Cor. 9:19). In Paul’s epistle to the Romans he declares his inner yearning for the gospel’s proclamation: “I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation” (Romans 15:20).

romans-1-16Paul set this framework in which he would preach the gospel, and he did just that. Although there were not many places where Christ had already been proclaimed, he certainly fulfilled this internal passion. He had a “commitment to pioneer evangelism, to pursue his mission only in virgin territory” (Dunn 544) Can you imagine entering a city that not only has a population of 0% Christians, but also live in a culture that worships pagan gods? Where and how do you even begin telling people about Jesus? Paul’s answer? The synagogue.

Luke communicates in Acts over and over that upon arrival in a city, the first thing Paul did was go to the Jewish synagogue (Acts 13:5; 14:1; 17:10). Wait a second… Wasn’t Paul supposed to be the light to the Gentiles? Why is he going to the Jewish gathering place?

There are some who understand Paul to believe that the gospel was meant to be proclaimed among Jews before Gentiles (Rom 1:16). They believe that Paul’s custom was to go to the Jewish synagogue because he had a theological understanding that the gospel must be heard by the Jews, and then upon rejection, the Gentiles (Acts 14:36). The following is an excerpt from a scholar who understands Paul’s custom of going to the Jewish synagogue as a theological issue rather than strategic:

Although Luke’s plain intent is to show how the gospel of Jesus Christ was carried from Jerusalem, the center of Judaism, to Rome, the center of the Gentile world, he records of Paul’s ministry in the Roman capital only his customary initial ministry to the Jews (Acts 28:17 ff.). In Acts too, therefore, the theme is clear, the gospel is “to the Jew first.” (Stek 17)

Paul went to the synagogues first because he thought it would be the best way to carry out his mission: to be a light to the Gentiles. These gathering places were mostly filled with Jews. However, it was common for there to be a couple of God-fearing Gentiles who would congregate with the Jews. Dunn writes, “for it was in the synagogues that he would find those Gentiles who were already most open and amenable to his message” (Dunn 560).

Why do you think upon arrival Paul would immediately go to the synagogue? Was it a theological understanding or a strategical method? If theological, how come? If strategical, what made the synagogue, a Jewish gathering place, the right place to be a light to the Gentiles?


Bibliography: Dunn, James D. G. Beginning from Jerusalem (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2009); Stek, John H. “To the Jew First.” Calvin Theological Journal 7.1 (1972): 15-52

14 thoughts on “Paul’s Missionary Strategy in Acts (Part 2)

  1. I think that Paul used this method for theological reasons. The Jews were to be a light to the gentiles. They did not succeed at this. Paul is offering the kingdom just as Peter was to the Jews (Acts 3:19-20). When the gospel is rejected by the Jews, Paul turns to the Gentiles (Acts 13:46). This is the pattern by which he does things. Romans 11:28-29 helps us understand that God does not break his promises. Paul is extending the gospel to the Jews in hopes that they will accept it. Knowing that God is not yet done with Israel. However, he recognizes that God’s plan is to make Israel Jealous through the Gentiles and so the Jews will come to be saved (Romans 11:11). Thus after going to the Jews, Paul preaches to the Gentiles.

  2. While it is clear though the the Jews failed, look at Paul himself though in the beginning. He grew up in the Jewish school of thought and Law. He was ready to make the arguments needed as a Jew. Once converted, Paul is called by Jesus to spread the gospel. However, it’s only fitting that Paul was still a Hellenistic Jew. By a way of understanding, Paul’s strategy was to go to the synagogue to bring about the arguments of the gospel. Those who hear the word (Jew or Gentile) from Paul could then be used “as the light.” For these people to hear and understand the word, Paul came down on their level most of the time, to put it in a way where all would understand it. After understanding, these Jews and Gentiles then could “be the light” to those around them. Paul wants this word to get out like wildfire and spread to the people that it may be heard.

  3. I think that Paul going to the synagogue could be both theological as well as strategically. The synagogue was a place of worship and in some places, although many Jews came to worship there, gentiles would be there also, worshiping their gods. In almost all of Paul’s missionary journeys, he went to the place of worship. This could be because it had the highest amount of traffic as well as people who were searching for something religious or spiritual. Paul’s goal was to reach people and spread the word of God, I don’t think that even when the Jew’s rejected him, he gave up on them. I believe, from what the Bible says about Paul and the passion/perseverance he had on his journeys, that Paul was looking to make the biggest impact he could, targeting the most people in an area at a time.

  4. Paul is not shown in Scripture to be slow in understanding, or someone who would have in any sense been considered slow-witted, so I certainly would think Paul would use both theologically and strategically sound reasoning in his plan of action. For one thing, perhaps he was following the command of Scripture – to the Jews first, then to the gentiles. Perhaps the Jews really held his heart, as he had deep roots in their beliefs and traditions, a connection many of us may not understand.

    One particular thought to cross my mind is how he would have wanted himself portrayed to the gentiles. The gentiles indubitably had all heard of, or known, Jews on their time – and probably seen God’s hand at work in protecting and prospering them. For Paul to go first to these Jews then, ensured those who were seeking the one true God to take notice of him, and to listen to him in other arenas. This also may have opened the door for those who considered the Jews God to be powerful, realizing that Paul was preaching the same God. Are there multiple reasons for Paul to have a strategy such as this? Certainly. But there is no doubt in my mind that he followed the Holy Spirit’s leading, and that God used his obedience for the benefit of the church in history, and the modern day church through Scripture.

  5. I believe Paul wanted to go right to the heart of the worship place. I believe it could be both theological and strategical. Paul may have supposed to be a light to the Gentiles, but he was called to spread the Word to everyone. Jews and Gentiles may both have been present in the synagogues worshiping their God and or gods.As you stated, ” He had a strong desire to win as many people as possible (1 Cor. 9:19)” Paul wanted to win everyone to Christ and I believe he picked a specific place because maybe of the number of people that were flowing in and out.

  6. Honestly, if it is a theological method, then God’s calling for Paul to be a light to the Gentiles, would have come up void in Paul’s ministry. For Paul to go to the Jews first, in order to preach to the Gentiles after he is rejected, does not seem like the Paul of the New Testament. Instead, I believe it to be a very strategic method, for the very reason that there are God-fearing Gentiles worshipping in the Synagogue and I would imagine that those Gentiles would be able to invite Paul to the homes of other Gentiles–whether “clean” or “unclean”. One such account of there being God-fearing Gentiles in the Synagogues–ones whom Paul addresses–can be found in Acts 13:16, where Paul has made his way to Pisidian Antioch and like usual makes his way to the Synagogue. In the Synagogue, the verse says, “Standing up, Paul motioned with his hand and said: ‘Men of Israel and you Gentiles who worship God, listen to me’.” In other words, Paul addresses the Jews, yet also addresses the Gentiles–whom may have truly been on his heart more. The Synagogue was a good place to be a light to the Gentiles because it seems like it is a good place to network. Like churches today or may I dare say, a mall, downtown, etc. Paul would have understood and been able to present the Gospel more readily with these Gentiles which would have led to the building of relationships, that would undoubtedly branch out from within those Synagogue walls.

  7. You said QUOTE
    “It amazing to reflect on the many Christian works Paul began.”

    What in the world are you talking about?
    Paul began the work in Corinth, yes.
    In Philippi, there was already a prayer group, but you could give Paul and his team some credit for beginning a Christian work there, OK.
    Barnabas and Paul did begin some Christian works when they were sent together by the Holy Spirit, OK.

    Paul didn’t begin a Christian work in Thessalonica, or Berea, or Athens, or Ephesus, or Jerusalem.

    What are you talking about?

    • Paul didn’t begin a Christian work in Antioch – there was a large, thriving church there already established for 10 or 15 years before Paul ever went there, and Paul only served there for a year, as a low level associate among many other teachers.

      Although the Book of Acts ends with Paul ministering in Rome, it would be really a stretch to say that Paul “began a Christian work there.” The church in Rome was already well established before Paul ever got there, and although Paul thought he was a big shot that everyone in Rome knew about, Paul was simply a legend in his own mind.[Acts 28:21]

  8. Paul was following the Messiahs lead Jesus spent much time in synagogues (Matt. 4:23). He taught in them (Matt. 13:54), healed in them (Luke 4:33-35; Mark 3:1-5), and debated the interpretation of Torah in them (John 6:28-59). Clearly, he belonged to the community of the synagogue, because when he visited Nazareth, he was scheduled to read the Haphtarah (Luke 4:16-30)The new community of Jesus was born out of the synagogue. Believers were to become assemblies, not single individuals seeking God alone. We address God as “our Father” because we are his assembly. We are one body because we are made that way through Jesus (1 Cor. 12:12-13). In our fractured, broken world, with all its self-preoccupation, the model of the synagogue, the picture of the community of God, presents an alluring message. We would do well to understand the synagogue of Galilee.

    • Michael
      I pretty much agree with the main thrust of your point here.-

      (although I would say that much of the time, Paul WAS NOT following the Messiah’s lead.) Jesus almost never travelled alone. In contrast, Paul loved to travel around alone for extended periods of time.

      Happy Passover / Resurrection Sunday!

  9. I think the reason that’s Paul going to the synagogue was a strategic plan for because he would first try and reach out to the Jews. In the blog it says “there are some who understand call book to believe that the day gobble was meant to be pro claimed I’m on the Jews before the gentile.” I would agree with this statement because I think that was being fair since Israel is the first of God’s chosen people giving them the first chance to accept the invitation of Christ.
    I think this was strategically smart because that is where most of the Jewish men would gather to discuss prominent topics of the time. If the Jewish men didn’t accept the gospel then Paul directed his attention to the Gentiles which I think was also strategically smart because there was a good chance that there was Gentile who was already at the synagogues already had an open minded to the scriptures. Furthermore, the Gentile’s hearts were like already opened as well there by wanting to please God and be close to him as much as they could.

  10. In this post it mentions that Paul’s entering the synagogues first could have been strategic or theological in bringing more Jews and then Gentiles. I believe theological would have been the most likely assumption. In many instances Paul was not welcomed with open arms because of his theological standpoint. In Acts 13 talks describes how Paul and Baranabas tried to witness to the Jews first but since they rejected it they spook to the Gentiles. The post also mentions that in going to the synagogues first Paul would have found Gentiles that were more likely to be open to hearing the gospel. I really believe that Paul was more focused on the hearts and lives of both Jews and Gentiles. I think it was that Gentiles were more open to hearing his words than Jews at the time.

  11. I suppose the bottom line is that all the synagogue communities around the world were decidedly odd little enclaves of people wandering around doing odd things, and behaving oddly. Banging their heads against walls and stuff like that.

    When they accepted Christ they were then freed from the yoke of the Law (but not obviously having a licence to sin – in case anyone is confused), and so would transform from a glum community of people trapped in the prison of sin and the Law, to a joyful community of people, motivated by love, and committed to love. This would be perhaps the best form of witness Paul could possibly want.

    An introspective isolationist community hung up on their own racial superiority transforming into a people who could interact with their neighbours, and who showed the fruits of the spirit.

    There are lots of practical considerations also but I think the aforesaid spiritual consideration is the critical point. God intended Israel as a witness to the nations. Paul was simply following through on God’s intention. If the local synagogue did not want to fulfil God’s calling, then Paul shook off the dust, and went direct to the locals.

    I think the reason why Paul doesn’t clarify this more is that it was also a practical necessity. If he bypassed the local synagogue, there would be all sorts of problems.

    The main one would be that he would be hunted down by the local Jewish constabulary anyhow, and they would probably try and kill him, which usually resulted in him having to leg it out their territory. This would be rather self-defeating.

Leave a Reply