The synagogue and the Areopagus
God chose Paul to carry the gospel to the gentiles. Wherever Paul went he preached to the gentiles but he also preached to his own people, the Jews. Acts contains two detailed accounts of his preaching the gospel, once to the Jews and once to the gentiles.
During his first missionary journey Paul and Barnabas came to Antioch in Pisidia and attended the synagogue on the Sabbath. They were invited to speak to the congregation and Paul gave this message.
“Men of Israel and you who fear God, listen. The God of this people Israel chose our fathers and made the people great during their stay in the land of Egypt, and with uplifted arm he led them out of it. And for about forty years he put up with them in the wilderness. And after destroying seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land as an inheritance. All this took about 450 years. And after that he gave them judges until Samuel the prophet.
“Then they asked for a king, and God gave them Saul the son of Kish, a man of the tribe of Benjamin, for forty years. And when he had removed him, he raised up David to be their king, of whom he testified and said, ‘I have found in David the son of Jesse a man after my heart, who will do all my will.’
“Of this man’s offspring God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised.Before his coming, John had proclaimed a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel. And as John was finishing his course, he said, ‘What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. No, but behold, after me one is coming, the sandals of whose feet I am not worthy to untie.’
“Brothers, sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you who fear God, to us has been sent the message of this salvation. For those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers, because they did not recognize him nor understand the utterances of the prophets, which are read every Sabbath, fulfilled them by condemning him. And though they found in him no guilt worthy of death, they asked Pilate to have him executed. And when they had carried out all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb.
“But God raised him from the dead, and for many days he appeared to those who had come up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are now his witnesses to the people. And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus, as also it is written in the second Psalm,
“‘You are my Son,
today I have begotten you.’
And as for the fact that he raised him from the dead, no more to return to corruption, he has spoken in this way,
“‘I will give you the holy and sure blessings of David.’
Therefore he says also in another psalm,
“‘You will not let your Holy One see corruption.’
“For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was laid with his fathers and saw corruption,but he whom God raised up did not see corruption. Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.Beware, therefore, lest what is said in the Prophets should come about:
“‘Look, you scoffers,
be astounded and perish;
for I am doing a work in your days,
a work that you will not believe, even if one tells it to you.’” (Acts 13:16-41)
He showed that Jesus was part of the nation of Israel and that his death and resurrection fulfilled prophecies that had been made to Israel.
Later Paul was in Athens and he preached in the synagogues and in the marketplace. The leaders of the city wanted to know what he was preaching so they brought him to the Areopagus and asked him to explain to them what he believed. Here is his response.
“Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for
“‘In him we live and move and have our being’;
as even some of your own poets have said,
“‘For we are indeed his offspring.’
Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:22-31)
He began by complimenting them on their zeal to worship God and then told them that God had created everything that exists. He explained what God was like. He told them that God had chosen Jesus to judge the world and as evidence he had raised him from the dead. Because of this they needed to repent.
The messages were very different but they contained one common element: the death and resurrection of Jesus.
What would have happened if he had spoken in the synagogue the way he did in the Areopagus? When he spoke of God as creator he would have been telling them things they already knew because they had the scriptures God had given them. If he had begun his speech in the Areopagus by quoting the scriptures he would have lost his audience because they would have had no idea what he was talking about. His message to each group was the same; Jesus died and rose from the dead. He had to present the message in such a way that his hearers would understand it.
There was a time when most people in the United States had some knowledge of what the Bible says but many didn’t understand what it taught about salvation. When explaining the gospel to them you could use the method Paul used in the synagogue. You needed only to explain to them what the Bible teaches.
Today that isn’t the case. Many have no knowledge of the Bible but have been taught that the earth and the life on it came into existence through natural processes that took millions of years. When you want to share the gospel with someone you sometimes need to begin by proving that the Bible’s account of creation is true. Until they believe what the Bible says about creation they are unlikely to believe what it says about salvation.
There are some Christians who manage to believe both the Bible and the popular concepts of how the earth came into existence. Their beliefs are a mixture of truth and error. When they try to transmit the truth to others they can’t help also sharing some of the error and it is possible that others will pick up their false beliefs rather than their true ones.
I am 77 years old and I can remember a time when the synagogue method of evangelism was effective. Our culture has changed so much in my lifetime that today we often need to use the Areopagus method.