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.