As the Apostle Paul traveled throughout the Mediterranean world, he would begin proclaiming the Gospel in any city by visiting the local synagogue (e.g. Acts 17:1-2). How would he have proclaimed Jesus in such an environment? Luke has recorded for us an exemplar of Paul’s preaching in the synagogues: his exhortation to the Jewish people of Antioch of Pisidia (Acts 13:14-43).
Paul’s visit to Antioch of Pisidia took place not long after the Holy Spirit had called him and Barnabas to go out to do the work God had called them to do (Acts 13:1-3). Antioch of Pisidia was part of the Roman province of Galatia, but owed its name and standing to its development as a border town of the Seleucid Empire against the Galatians. The town had a significant enough Jewish population to warrant a synagogue, and Paul and Barnabas visited it on one Sabbath (Acts 13:14). It was apparently a custom for Jewish men from other places to be able to speak a word of encouragement to the people, and Paul took up this offer and opportunity to teach them about the fulfillment of God’s purposes for Israel in Jesus of Nazareth (Acts 13:15-16).
After summoning his audience of Israelites and God-fearers to listen, Paul began by rehearsing aspects of Israel’s history which emphasized God’s provision: God chose Israel, lifted them out of Egyptian exile, bore them as a nursing father in the wilderness, gave them the land of Canaan as an inheritance, gave them judges, and then Israel asked for a king, and received Saul and then David (Acts 13:16-22; cf. Exodus-2 Samuel). David is honored as an exemplary king, who would do the will of God (Acts 13:22; cf. 1 Samuel 13:14, 16:13, Psalm 89:19-37). Paul then spoke of the promise God had made to bring a Savior from the descendants of David, and declared Jesus to be its fulfillment: Paul appealed to the witness of John the Baptist who proclaimed a baptism of repentance but did not claim to be the Christ (Acts 13:23-25; cf. 2 Samuel 7:12, Isaiah 11:1-10, Matthew 3:11).
Paul rhetorically appeals for his audience of the children of Abraham and those who fear God to hear him, for he now would set forth the core of the Gospel, for to Israel the word of salvation has come (Acts 13:26). The rulers of the Jews and those in Jerusalem did not recognize Jesus as the Christ, even though they read the prophets every Sabbath, but fulfilled their words by killing Him even though He had done nothing wrong (Acts 13:27-28; cf. Isaiah 52:13-53:12, Luke 22:47-23:49). They took Him “down from the tree,” and laid Him in a tomb (Acts 13:29; cf. Deuteronomy 21:22-23, Luke 23:50-56). Paul then announced how Jesus was raised from the dead and seen for many days by those who had come up with Him from Galilee to Jerusalem, and who bear witness to the resurrection to that day (Acts 13:30-31; cf. Luke 24:1-53). This is the good news of the promise which had been made to their fathers, and fulfilled recently in the days of their children, that God raised Jesus up, thus declaring Him the Son of God, and Paul quoted Psalm 2:7 to this end (Acts 13:32-33; cf. Romans 1:4). Paul also appealed to Isaiah 55:3 and Psalm 16:10 regarding Jesus’ resurrection, testifying how David died, laid with his fathers, and saw corruption, but Jesus of whom He spoke did not see corruption (Acts 13:34-37). Through Jesus, therefore, a forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to Israel, for the one who believes in Him is justified from all things by which they could not find justification under the Law of Moses (Acts 13:38-39; cf. Romans 3:1-31). Paul concluded with a warning from Habakkuk 1:5: God has done a work in their days which they would not find credible, but if they do not accept it, they will perish (Acts 13:40-41).
Those in attendance received the Word warmly: they wished to hear more such words spoken the next Sabbath (Acts 13:42). Many of the Jews and devout proselytes believed in Christ; Paul urged them to continue in God’s grace (Acts 13:43). The next week saw a great number from the city come to hear what Paul had to say, even among the Gentiles: the Jewish people became jealous and started to contradict what Paul said (Acts 13:44-45). Paul boldly declared how this was God’s purpose: the Word of God would come first to the Israelites, and since they thrust it aside, it would now go to the Gentiles, as prophesied in Isaiah 42:6, 49:6; many Gentiles were glad, glorified the Word of God, and came to faith in Christ Jesus (Acts 13:47-48).
We can find many points of continuity among Paul’s preaching in Antioch of Pisidia, Peter’s preaching in Acts 2:14-36, 3:11-26, 10:34-43, and Stephen’s defense before the Sanhedrin in Acts 7:2-53. Paul rehearsed aspects of Israel’s history, selecting elements of the story to establish God’s provision for leadership for His people, just as Stephen rehearsed Israel’s story in such a way to emphasize Israel’s rebelliousness despite God’s faithfulness. Paul appealed to the testimony of David in Psalms 2 and 16 just as Peter did, confirming Jesus’ resurrection by prophetic witness. As Peter spoke as a witness of what God did through Jesus of Nazareth, so Paul appealed to that witness. Paul also made much of the witness of John the Baptist, extraordinary on two fronts: we do not otherwise hear much about John from Paul’s writings, and Paul is not speaking in Judea to some who might have heard John themselves but in Antioch of Pisidia among Jews of the Diaspora. Paul’s preaching is saturated in Biblical references and allusions, as with the witness of Peter and Stephen. All such continuity points to similar evangelistic and rhetorical strategy, and to the end of encouraging the Israelites to see in Jesus of Nazareth not some new superstition but the fulfillment of all which God had promised for Israel: God’s rule is now manifest in Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, the embodiment of Israel’s story.
Yet we can also hear Paul’s distinctive voice and characteristics prevalent in his writings. God had provided in Jesus a way forward for Israel to which they did not previously have access; in Jesus was a form of justification which could not be obtained under the Law. Paul preached salvation and justification to the Jewish people of Antioch of Pisidia, just as justification and salvation would become prevalent themes in his letters to the Roman and Galatian Christians a decade or so later. Paul expected these themes to resonate with his audience to some degree, and by the results we can be assured it did. Some in Israel were looking for the Christ and the promised new covenant in which they would obtain the forgiveness of sins, the end of the baffling time of distance between God and themselves, suffering under the oppression sin and death.
We think of Paul as the Apostle to the Gentiles, and rightly so (Acts 22:21); nevertheless, it was Paul’s great desire for his fellow Israelites to hear the Word and be saved, and Paul diligently preached Christ among the Jewish people he could find wherever he went (Acts 17:2, Romans 9:1-5). He likely would have entered each synagogue with a similar message to that which he proclaimed among the Israelites of Antioch of Pisidia. God has fulfilled the promises He made to Israel: the Christ has come, and He was killed by His people, yet raised from the dead and made Lord of all, and now all mankind can find justification and salvation through faith in Him. May we come to faith in Christ Jesus and obtain the resurrection of life in Him!
Ethan R. Longhenry