By Bart D. Ehrman, The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Apostle Paul’s was a sustained missionary effort, but he was not a professional evangelist being paid to do the work. Paul used to work all day long at his job and talk to customers and possibly other workers. So what would Paul say or do to convince and convert the people that he came in contact with?
Paul went to cities because there were a lot of people there. He had a big audience, and he used to try and convert them. So, what did he used to say? Paul, in his letters, gives us some hints about what he said. And as always, these are our best sources of information for what Paul actually preached.
A very important passage occurs in First Corinthians 15:3–8. Paul there intentionally summarizes his gospel message to remind his readers what he taught them when he was first with them; namely that Christ died for the sins of others, in accordance with what was predicted in the scriptures and that God raised him from the dead again, as the scripture predicted.
It would obviously be a mistake to think this brief summary was the only thing Paul said during the whole time he spent with potential converts. Here he’s reminding his readers of the heart of his message. It was about the death and resurrection of Jesus that would bring about salvation.
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Converting the Pagans
Moreover, Paul’s message to Gentiles obviously had to be different from any message he would have taken to Jews. The people Paul was speaking with were pagans who worshiped many gods in all sorts of ways, just as their ancestors had done for centuries. To convert pagans would have meant first convincing them to abandon all their past religious practices and to stop worshiping any of the other gods, and then to worship only the God of Israel.
So, before one could convince them that Jesus was the son of God, the messiah, one had to convince them in the one God. How did Paul do that? How did Paul convince pagans to give up on their gods in order to believe in only the one Jewish God?
We get one hint in First Thessalonians 1:9–10. Here again, Paul is reminding his readers, this time in Thessaloniki, what he had preached to them. What he says is that he convinced them to turn from idols in order to worship the living and true God and to await his Son from heaven, whom he had raised from the dead.
Paul’s God Was Living and True
And so, Paul was trying to convince these pagans that his God was living and true, meaning by implication that their pagan gods were dead and false. This was a standard Jewish line about pagan gods. They worshipped statutes of wood and of metal. Paul conveyed that these idols they had were dead and they had got no power. He insisted that his God is powerful; the God of Israel, the God of Jesus is alive and powerful. Moreover, Paul asserted that this most powerful God was the only one that should be worshipped. And so, he had to convince pagans of that before convincing them about Jesus.
But how could Paul convince anyone that the God of Jesus was the most powerful? Why not think of Zeus or Jupiter or Apollo or Athena or someone else? Why the God of Israel? Here Paul was in his wheelhouse.
Paul’s God Was More Powerful
Paul was personally convinced that his God could not only control the weather, feed the hungry, and heal the sick as other gods are said to have been able to do, but that his God was more powerful than death itself. God had raised a man from the dead. This was not something the pagan gods were doing. And Paul knew it was true because he believed he had seen it with his own eyes.
Years after Jesus was dead, Paul insisted that he had seen him alive. That means God must have raised him from the dead, and that means that the Jewish God, the God of Jesus, had the power of life and death.
Jesus: Favored by God
After that, everything else followed. If God raised Jesus, then Jesus was the one specially favored by God. That meant his death must have been planned by God. Pagans no longer needed their gods or the sacrifices they made in order to please them. Christ had been sacrificed. Salvation came by believing in his death and resurrection.
Moreover, since Jesus was raised, the future resurrection of the dead predicted by the Jewish prophets had already started. The end was coming soon. People needed to turn to Christ right away before it was too late. Judgment day was coming. Only believers would escape and enter God’s glorious kingdom.
Miracles by Paul
Paul could speak of the great miracle of Jesus’s resurrection with pure and passionate conviction. He himself had seen Jesus with his own eyes years after Jesus’s death. But he apparently did not persuade people simply by talking about what he had seen. In some of the most enigmatic passages of Paul’s letters, he indicates that he himself demonstrated God’s power by doing miracles. He refers to this several times in his letters. For example, in Romans 15:18–19, Paul talks about the signs and the wonders that he himself did.
It’s impossible to know what Paul’s actually referring to in these passages. His converts apparently believed he did something. Whatever it was, it must have had a big impact; it’s enough to convince some people at least that Paul’s God was more powerful than their own pagan deities, leading them to convert.
Common Questions about How Apostle Paul Convinced and Converted the Gentiles
In First Corinthians 15:3–8, Paul summarizes his gospel message to remind his readers what he taught them when he was first with them; namely that Christ died for the sins of others and that God raised him from the dead again, as the scripture predicted.
Paul tried to convince the pagans that his God was living and true, meaning by implication that their pagan gods were dead and false. Paul conveyed that pagans’ idols of wood and metal were dead, and they had got no power. He insisted that his God, the God of Israel, was alive and powerful.
Paul could speak of the great miracle of Jesus’s resurrection with pure and passionate conviction because he himself had seen Jesus with his own eyes years after Jesus’s death.