MOST OF PAUL'S EVANGELIZING of Gentiles began with the synagogue.
His regular procedure when he arrived in a new town was to visit the synagogue and (since it was not uncommon to ask visitors to speak) avail himself of the opportunity to preach the Gospel. This meant that his hearers were a mix of Jews, proselytes (i.e., Gentile converts to Judaism), and God-fearers (i.e., Gentiles who were sympathetic to Jews and Jewish monotheism, but who had not formally converted).
The book of Acts shows that in several instances (e.g., 13:13-48; 17:1-9), the synagogue authorities soon tired of Paul and banned him. At this point many of the proselytes and God-fearers went with him, so that although he was now preaching to a largely Gentile crowd, the core of that crowd had received some exposure to the Old Testament Scriptures. In other words, in such cases Paul was able to preach to people who largely shared with him the vocabulary, facts, and movements of the Old Testament storyline.
But what would Paul do if he were preaching to biblical illiterates — that is, to people who had never heard of Moses, never read the Old Testament, never learned a single item of the Old Testament plotline? Such people would not only have to be informed, but would have to unlearn a lot of notions they had absorbed from some other cultural and religious heritage. We have a glimpse of such an encounter in 14:8-20, when the citizens of Lystra excitedly conclude that Paul and Barnabas are incarnations of Greek gods. The brief report of Paul's address (Acts 14:15-17) provides a glimpse of the apostolic response.
But it is the account of Paul's visit to Athens (Acts 17:16-31) that is most revealing. Here, too, Paul began in the synagogue (Acts 17:17), but he also set about evangelizing in the marketplace with whoever happened to be there (Acts 17:17), and this precipitates the invitation to speak at the meeting of the Areopagus. And there, one clearly perceives how the apostle Paul has thought this matter through. In a world of finite gods (often supported by one pantheistic deity), cyclical views of history, sub-biblical understandings of sin, multiplied idolatry, dualism that declares all that is material to be bad and all that is spiritual to be good, tribal deities, and not a little superstition, Paul paints a worldview of the true God, a linear view of history, the nature of sin and idolatry, impending judgment, the unity of the human race and the oneness of God — all as the necessary framework without which his proclamation of Jesus makes no sense. What does that mean for evangelism today?
Judges 13; Acts 17; Jeremiah 26; Mark 12