Paul and the Synagogue

For the past couple of weeks, I have been spending the majority of my personal Bible study in the book of Acts, seeking to dig deeper into the mission of the early church in preparation for a summer-long teaching series in evangelism. One of the things that has provoked considerable interest in my study has been Paul’s relationship to the synagogues of the cities where he planted churches. Tim Keller, in his excellent article, “Why Plant Churches?” writes about Paul’s emphasis on urban church planting. Keller explains,

The greatest missionary in history, St. Paul, had a rather simple, two-fold strategy. First, he went into the largest city of the region (cf. Acts 16:9, 12), and second, he planted churches in each city (cf. Titus 1:5- “appoint elders in every town”). Once Paul had done that, he could say that he had ‘fully preached’ the gospel in a region and that he had ‘no more work’ to do there (cf. Romans 15:19, 23). This means Paul had two controlling assumptions: a) that the way to most permanently influence a country was through its chief cities, and b) the way to most permanently influence a city was to plant churches in it.

Keller’s observations are important to understanding Paul’s missionary strategy, but going a little further, one can see that not only did Paul target the largest cities, but he targeted the synagogues within those cities. Consider these verses which I have compiled:

@ Salamis:

When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. And they had John to assist them.
Acts 13:5

@ Antioch:

but they went on from Perga and came to Antioch in Pisidia. And on the Sabbath day they went into the synagogue and sat down. After the reading from the Law and the Prophets, the rulers of the synagogue sent a message to them, saying, “Brothers, if you have any word of encouragement for the people, say it.” So Paul stood up, and motioning with his hand said: “Men of Israel and you who fear God, listen.
Acts 13:14-16

@ Iconium:

Now at Iconium they entered together into the Jewish synagogue and spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks believed.
Acts 14:1

@ Thessalonica:

Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.”
Acts 17:1-3

@ Berea:

The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue.
Acts 17:10

@ Athens:

So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there.
Acts 17:17

@ Corinth:

After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. And he went to see them, and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked, for they were tentmakers by trade. And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks.
Acts 18:1-4

@ Ephesus:

And they came to Ephesus, and he left them there, but he himself went into the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews.
Acts 18:19

And he entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God. But when some became stubborn and continued in unbelief, speaking evil of the Way before the congregation, he withdrew from them and took the disciples with him, reasoning daily in the hall of Tyrannus. This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.
Acts 19:8-10

In some examples, Paul is said to address Jews only (Salamis, Antioch, Thessalonica, Berea, and Ephesus); other times he address a mixed audience (Jews and Greeks in Iconium and Corinth, Jews and “devout persons” in Athens). Luke states the main action of Paul was to “reason” (explain, prove, and persuade), although at Salamis he “proclaimed” the word of God. From here we see that teaching (especially biblical theology) and the importance of truth (life of the mind) are foundational to Paul’s evangelism and apologetic.  In other words, he wasn’t just winning hearts, but he was convincing minds and thus affecting hearts with the truths of the gospel. 

What I find intriguing is that even in predominately Gentile regions, Paul first entered the synagogue. Not only that, but Paul explicitly states that his apostolic mission is to reach the Gentiles with the gospel. So why the synagogue, Saint Paul? Why not the coliseum or marketplace?  Does anyone else find this interesting?

Do you have any thoughts to Paul’s missionary strategy regarding the synagogue? Was it because that was the place where he could most likely build bridges to the gospel? Or maybe could it have been that the synagogue was the culture center of the cities? Was Paul placing a priority of certain people to reach when first entering a city? Or could it be that prior to his conversion as a devoted and well-known Pharisee, Paul might have known many leaders in these synagogues and wanted to first testify of the life-transforming gospel of Jesus Christ (since perhaps the synagogues were the places he would have been most familiar with)?

I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on this. I have been meditating on this in recent days, but there are far greater minds out there than mine! I will be away from the computer in the days to come, so if i don’t respond, I will be back shortly. I look forward to reading your thoughts.  🙂

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12 Comments on “Paul and the Synagogue”

  1. D.L. Kane Says:

    The first thing that came to my mind while reading your post was Romans 9:1-5 and also Roman 10:1-3. Paul states that he has great heaviness and continual sorrow in his heart and actually wishes himself accursed from Christ for his brethren, his kinsmen according to the flesh and goes on later to say how his heart’s desire and prayer for Israel is that they might be saved.

    Perhaps, the intimate knowledge that Paul had of their religious system coupled with his past and his love for them compelled him. His actions, (going to the synagogues) would make perfect sense and actually prove that the desire of his heart for them was sincere. Who better to reason with them than Paul? I’m sure he understood that. One can almost sense an urgency in Paul. As if he might have been thinking, “I must get to them right away and share with them because I was one of them and know exactly what they need to hear; I know how they think and they know I know. Perhaps they may be willing to listen to me.”

    In some ways that zeal is like those who come out of the Roman Catholic Church. Many of them also have great heaviness and continual sorrow in their hearts for those trapped in that religious system and the first people they want to reach with the truth are Roman Catholics.

    Perhaps their was also the thought that if some of them were saved early on, through Paul’s ministry he could be involved with mentoring them and helping to establish them as strong members of the new church being planted, before he moved on.

    Just thinking out loud….Thanks for your dedication to the Lord and to this Blog. It is truly a blessing in my life.

  2. Justin Nale Says:

    Just a thought…

    In Romans 1:16, Paul says that he is not ashamed of the gospel because it is the power of God for salvation to all who believe, for the Jew first, and also for the Gentiles.

    It seems to me that this has something to do with Jesus’ words in Matthew 21-22 that He would be rejected by His own people and that their rejection would lead to the gospel being taken to the Gentiles (See especially the end of ch. 21).

    Though Jesus told His disciples to be witnesses to the uttermost parts of the earth, they all hung around in Jerusalem until Jewish opposition to the gospel (i.e., persecution) drove them out to other cities and other peoples. The gospel was offered to the Jews first, they responded with hostility, and the result was that the gospel went to the Gentiles (a la Romans 11).

    Similarly, Paul, in city after city, took the gospel to the Jews first, preached in their synagogues till they rejected his message, and then took the gospel to the Gentiles of that same city. He went to the Jews first because they were the covenant people, those who had the law and the promises and the prophets, and because they were his kinsmen. But once they rejected him, he would then move his ministry to the Gentiles of the city who were often much more open to the gospel.

  3. James Says:

    May I ask a question? I have often thought of these passages as well. In light of the need to take the Gospel to the muslims should we not consider rolling right up to the mosque/islamic student center? It seems to me the mentality is to “develop friendships or relationships with one or two folks at at time. That seems enormously slow going and doesn’t exactly tend to be on the “turning the world upside down” side of things. I know little about these things but this has been on my mind as of late.

  4. Tim Powell Says:

    The simplest explanation to me (and not really unique from anything above) is that the Jews (ideally) would be waiting for the news he had. They would have been like Anna and Simeon – waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the arrival of the son of David and son of Abraham. Obviously, a few of them were, and those were the ones Paul was seeking.

  5. Phil B Says:

    Evangelise the church first and then go out into the highways and the fields to preach the Gospel.
    Calvin’s exposition of Luke 4:16-21 makes this point – Jesus goes to the synangogue because his message is first for the “church” and Jesus was a good, orderly Presbyterian. 😉
    Paul follows the same pattern in Acts. Tim P’s analysis shed’s light on this. The Gospel makes most sense when seen in the context of redemption history. (You link to the ‘2 ways to live’ site that helps to tell that story.) The Jews know the story and so Paul’s on solid, Biblical ground. By starting the work there the church can then move to evangelise the Gentiles as a community and Paul can move on to the next place.
    George Whitefield was similarly concerned to evangelise the church first. It was only when the pulpits were closed to him that he went out into the fields.
    No answers there but I hope there’s some wheat among the chaff.
    God bless.

  6. Thomas Twitchell Says:

    I think the best answer to why the synagogue first is as has been explained, it is the historic pattern. The Gospel is to the Jew first and then to the Gentile. I agree that it must also be reflected in “the church first and then those without” as this is also the historic patter, “If judgement is to begin…” While we might not think of the Word as judgement it most assuredly is as it judges the heart. It is a refiners fire preparing the way of the Lord.

    As I have often asked, “When was the last time you hear someone preach Steven’s sermon of Jesus Christ crucified by the Jews by the hands of evil men according to the prophets?” It is rare, but right. It is rare because since the 1940’s is has been considered anti-Semetic. It is right because it is the only Gospel, a Gospel that must be preached according to its historic context or it has no relevance.

  7. Timmy,

    One interesting observation that Keller did not point out is that Paul was planting a church in a city where the Gospel had never been preached. I know a lot of church planters use this model (plant churches in large cities) because Paul did so. However, I’m not sure that planting a church in the largest city of a region is any more effective then pastoring an established church. In many areas (deep south) the former may be a hindrance.

    In modern day America, there are few regions where the Gospel has never been preached.

  8. terribleindividualism Says:

    In addition to the historical priority of delivering the gospel to the Jew first, is it not possible that Paul was also exercising some practical missionary savvy (e.g., the synagogue provided a pre-existing venue complete with regularly scheduled meetings)? Gentiles and various visitors would have been a part of the audience, in addition to the Jews. Perhaps using the most accommodating locale first could provide Paul with some free, word-of-mouth “advertising” as he moved to the more challenging settings. Maybe I’m projecting too much present day marketing strategies onto Paul? I’m merely speculating, regardless.

    Just ran across your blog, and it looks fantastic and replete with comments from insightful readers.


  9. Mike P. Says:

    I don’t think that there is any one simple, easy explanation for Paul’s strategy, but I think that some of the comments here hit on the major components. I think that, one component was, as D.L. notes above, simply a personal heart for the Jewish people. Romans 9, 10, and 11 reveal Paul’s passion and heart for his own people. I also think that the basic principle of giving special emphasis to the Jewish people comes in large part from Jesus himself (cf. Matt. 10:5-7). It goes without saying that the ministry of Jesus extends to all men, regardless of ethnic, sociocultural, or any other sort of division, but I think it seems clear that a special focus rests o Jewish evangelism and missions. A big part of this is probably not easily understood by us (i.e., why God chose Israel rather than any other ancient people group) but the important thing to remember is that He did – clearly the Jewish people are special in God’s eyes.

    Back to Paul’s strategy, I think that on a certain level, it was very practical. As several commenters note above, the Jewish person of the first century was “primed” for the gospel, at least much more so than the average Gentile. By preaching to the local Jewish population first, Paul was taking a divinely-provided shortcut/jump-start to getting local ministry going in a given region. He’s sort of a like a military commander who is preparing to invade an area. Rather than taking in an entire army and wandering about willy nilly, he makes effective use of “beachheads” that have already been prepared in advance – namely, the local Jewish populations who have a grasp on Scripture and concepts like sin, sacrifice, atonement, etc. It’s also relevant to note that, during this time, Judaism was actually quite focused on proselytization, so that was an added bonus for Paul – once local Jewish people placed their faith in Jesus, they didn’t even need much evangelism training!

  10. Andrew Murie Says:

    Paul going into the synagogues (first) has always surprised me because the scripture is very clear; Paul was called to the Gentiles (Gal 2 v 7, his own words). I would have thought then that a man with such a passion for God as Paul would have preached to the Gentiles most if not all the time in obedience to his calling. Could it be then that while winning the Jewish souls was admirable, Paul was in fact in disobedience and he was letting his flesh (ego) take over? If we look at 1 Tim Ch 1, we see a picture of the converted Jews in the church at Ephesus trying to bring the law back into the teaching and Paul having to guide Timothy through this situation. Could it be that Paul’s preaching (in disobedience) had created all sorts of problems for Timothy? If the saved Jews who were brought up in the law from an early age could drift back into bad habits, why not Paul also, a man who probably knew and applied the law in his pre-Christian days more than any other? Sela

  11. Tim River Says:

    What if Paul preached to the Jews first because when his message was rejected by the majority it caused the Gentiles to ask questions. In other words, God used the Jews to reach the Gentiles, and the Gentiles to reach the Jews. It was part of God’s plan maintaining the unity of the Spirit.

  12. tstabell Says:

    Here’s a thought, coming out of my reflection as I have taught theology of mission over the past few years. Could it be that Paul’s approach is based on an understanding of OT prophecies predicting that God would graciously work to restore his people Israel, and that when he did this, the Gentiles would be drawn into this renewed people of God? (Isa 2:2-4, 11:1-10, 60:1-3, Amos 9:11-12 (quoted in Acts 15!), Zech 2:4-5, 10-12). This fits in well with Jesus’ deliberate choice of 12 men to be apostles, a fact that the NT several times ties to the 12 tribes of Israel (Not that he is establishing 12 literal tribes, but the number of apostles seems to be an intentional signal that those who gather around him are the renewed Israel of God). This would explain why Paul says that the gospel is “first for the Jews” — because Israel must first be restored to a right relationship with God (Matt 10:5-6 fits here?), and then the gospel can be released for all the nations.

    It has always intrigued me that there were apparently always “God-fearers” (Gentile adherents to Judaism, who were drawn to the Jewish faith in the God of Abraham) attached to the synagogues. This too seems to fit an OT pattern of Israel’s witness to the nations around her, which while nothing like the witness of the NT church in its effect, nevertheless did result in a number of non-Israelites coming to faith in God (Jethro, Rahab, Ruth, …). So faithful Israelites, thru the synagogues, continued to have this kind of witness to Gentiles around them, as part of what God was doing to prepare the way for the gospel once Christ had come and finished the work of salvation on the cross and in his resurrection. I think Paul understood all this, and that his synagogue strategy was a call to Jews whom the Spirit had prepared to receive their Messiah, AND to Gentiles, who had similarly been prepared by the presence of the synagogue in their midst, with its OT witness to God and his promises. I hope that isn’t too disjointed.
    It has always fascinated me as well that

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