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If we were to ask the Apostle Paul for advice on how to honor God as preachers, he would say, “Preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:2), do not shrink from “declaring . . . the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27), and always highlight the central theme: the gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s how Paul summarized his own philosophy of ministry. In 1 Corinthians 2:2, he distills the key to God-honoring preaching in one short sentence: “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
Today’s conventional wisdom might suggest that such a strategy is not sophisticated enough, not appealing enough, and not subtle enough to reach a thoroughly pagan society. But Paul’s life and legacy prove otherwise. In fact, before he first arrived in Corinth, the Apostle and his cohorts had already earned a reputation as “men who have turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).
That statement proves that Paul’s (and his companions’) gospel preaching was effective. But it wasn’t meant as a compliment. That is what the Jewish leaders in Thessalonica said about Paul—just before they incited a riot. The fact that the church grew quickly and reached to the outer edges of the Roman Empire (and beyond) certainly does not mean that the Apostles found a way to make their message popular. The gospel was no more popular in the first century than it is today. The majority of people rejected and opposed the message—often violently.
The opposition Paul faced in Thessalonica was not unusual or unexpected. Before he arrived in that city, Paul had already met fierce resistance in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra (2 Tim. 3:11). In fact, he had been stoned and left for dead in Lystra (Acts 14:19). In Philippi, he was attacked by a mob, stripped, beaten with rods, and jailed (16:22–23).
While the church grew, hostility from the wider community kept pace. Some four years after Paul was run out of Thessalonica, Ephesus responded even more angrily to the gospel (19:29).
What’s significant is that in the face of such opposition, Paul made no effort to adapt his methodology in a way that might mollify his critics or avoid reproach. He was fully aware of the people’s “felt needs”: “Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom” (1 Cor. 1:22). But he did not adapt his strategy accordingly: “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (v. 23). Whenever he came into a new region, he would immediately go to the local synagogue on the Sabbath and preach Christ. He preached that message boldly and without apology, not to antagonize people, but to glorify God. For Paul, this was “the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted” (1 Tim. 1:11). And it was, after all, good news. Nevertheless, it triggered antagonism almost everywhere Paul went.
Paul did not respond by de-emphasizing the gospel and trying to find a way to win the respect of influential citizens. He used the same strategy in every city. He went from Thessalonica to Berea and preached in the synagogue there (Acts 17:10). When some hooligans followed him from Thessalonica and tried to provoke the citizens of Berea to riot, Paul moved on to Athens (v. 15), where yet again he took the gospel to the synagogue on the Sabbath. He also proclaimed the gospel in the Athenian marketplace during the week (v. 17), stirring both interest and controversy there, too.
Acts 17 goes on to recount how Paul was summoned to speak at the Areopagus—the gathering place of philosophers and intellectuals. It was not because he had won their respect, but practically the opposite: the philosophers thought he would make an amusing diversion (v. 18).
Paul was an educated man, well versed in the philosophies and ancient writings of the Athenians. He was able to quote classic Greek poets. But Paul did not try to wow the Athenians with philosophical arguments or oratory. He began by declaring to them that their religious beliefs were rooted in ignorance. He announced that God commands repentance and will one day judge the world by Christ (vv. 30–31). In other words, Paul preached Christ. He was about to expound the gospel more fully to these Athenian intellectuals, but as soon as he mentioned the resurrection, the response was so much mockery, controversy, and crosstalk that the meeting broke up.
Surely, such a response—by then a predictable pattern in Paul’s ministry—required a revamping of the whole strategy. Right?
Wrong. Paul next went to Corinth, where his strategy remained unchanged. “He reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks” (Acts 18:4). Did he use different arguments in Corinth? He answers that question definitively when he says he decided to know nothing “except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:1–2). Paul stayed on message. Despite intense opposition, he never downplayed or deviated from the gospel. That’s how to honor God in the pulpit.