The first-century Greco-Roman context experienced a proliferation of popular philosophers who, in public forums, sought to influence individuals and groups-similar to what street preachers might do today.
These philosophers believed that people had an inner capacity to change their lives (a form of conversion). Philosophers would use public speech and private conversation in order, they hoped, to produce change in their students. They sought to create in their listeners doubts regarding their current ideas and practices. By this means, the listeners would become open to new ideas and change. The ultimate goal increased self-reliance and moral growth.It was expected that such popular philosophers would earn the right to speak by first gaining moral freedom in their own inner lives.“Physician, heal thyself” was a well-known concept in the ancient world.
These philosophers were also aware of the need to vary the message in order to meet various minds, and of the importance of retaining integrity in both the character of the teacher and the message that was being taught.
There were, however, two significant differences between Paul’s approach and that of these popular philosophers. First, Paul not only worked in the public places; he also sought to form a lasting community. This requires some separation from “the world,” along with the formation of emotional bonds and a deep commitment to the group. Second, Paul taught that conversion was not an inner decision, effected by wise speech; it was, instead, a supernatural work of God from outside a person (see Gal. 4:19; John 3:3-8; Phil. 1:6). Paul’s teaching was more than just a philosophy; it was a proclamation of the truth and a revelation of the powerful work of God in the salvation of humanity.
The dark side of the popular philosophers was that they found an easy way to make a living. Plenty were hucksters, nothing more. Some would sexually exploit their listeners. Though honest teachers were among them, a lot of cynicism regarding traveling speakers existed in the ancient world.
Paul sought to avoid some of that cynicism by generally refusing support from his listeners and, instead, doing hard manual labor to support himself. This, along with his sufferings, demonstrated that he truly believed what he preached and that he was not doing it for personal gain. In many ways, Paul’s life was the most powerful sermon he could preach.