Luke continues his account of the spread of the gospel from Jerusalem, Judea, and out towards the very ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).
In Acts 17, we encounter Paul and Silas as they enter the city of Thessalonica, a thoroughly imperialized city, committed to the ethos and politics of the Roman Empire. This is important to note, because in all that follows and in the Pauline account of the response of the Thessalonians, there are political and anti-imperial nuances throughout. In our own ever-shifting political times, we have a message and a reminder here of the supremacy of the Lord Jesus Christ.
While Acts 17:1-9 may well be a truncated account of Paul’s first visit to Thessalonica, Luke, having some knowledge of the events of Paul’s visit to Thessalonica, is clearly aware of and makes use of three key aspects of Paul’s visit in his narrative account. First, we note that the text stresses that Jesus is the Christ/Messiah, the King of the Jews. Second, he makes clear that Paul’s message concerning Jesus the Messiah is rooted in the death and resurrection of Jesus. And third, Luke shows an awareness of the profoundly political nature of both of the above in his reference to the clash with imperial laws—the “decrees of Caesar.”
Luke records how Paul bases his argument upon the scriptures (17:2) and seeks to prove that Jesus is the anointed one—the King of the Jews, the Christ, “… explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, ‘This is the Messiah, Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you’” (17:3).
It is worth reflecting here that there may well have been a specific reason why Paul is proclaiming the Messiah in this particular way. The chances are that the Thessalonians—and no doubt many others—are asking the critical question: if Jesus is the Messiah, the promised one of God, the King of the Jews, then how on earth was he crucified, and what on earth has resurrection got to do with it? The generally accepted Messianic expectation in the first century was for a human kingly figure who was (and is) to bring deliverance, at once political, economic, and spiritual, to the Jewish people, and through them peace, prosperity, and righteousness to all humanity. If such skepticism was true then, it may well be true today, that people cannot comprehend how the one who was crucified in weakness and humiliation by the Roman state can possibly be the King who brings deliverance to humanity.
However, this stress on Jesus as the Christ, the King of the Jews, is a theme throughout 1 Thessalonians. On no less than ten occasions in the epistle, Paul affirms that Jesus is the Christ.
The narrative in which the Thessalonians are bit-part players is the imperial narrative, dominated by the emperor and his family, with their quasi-claims to divinity, imperishability, and omnipotence. But the message brought by Paul and Silas is an invitation and a challenge to align their life stories with the narrative of the Christ, truly divine, eternal and powerful.
This invitation to shift narratives is made abundantly clear by the response to the message. First, Luke lays out the positive response: “Some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women” (17:4). But then there is the counter-response: a mob is formed and the city is set in uproar (17:5). The claim of the opponents of Paul and Silas is, “They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus” (17:7). Something in the message concerning Jesus is upsetting the powerful and is clearly seen as being anti-Caesar.
In Paul’s own account of the response of the Thessalonians, he notes that they received the message so wholeheartedly that they had become an example throughout the region, and specifically, Paul makes the claim that the Thessalonians had “turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming” (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10).
We can make three observations here that help with the narrative claim in Acts 17 that the message proclaimed in the city was an invitation to shift one’s own life narrative to align with Jesus Christ and also that the message upset the political and social sensitivities of the powerful in the city.
First, what is abundantly clear amongst studies of the culture in Thessalonica is that idols were everywhere. And not only so, but the evidence clearly suggests that idols were intrinsically religious, political, and social all at the same time. In other words, it is not possible to delineate between the possible focus of the worship that may be offered to the idols. If at one glance it appears that worship has a religious edge, a second glance will confirm that the political and/or social can and must be drawn into the perspective. Turning to the “living and true God” from idols would inevitably necessitate, in some sense, a turning from the imperial ruler and the imperially-dominated prevailing culture.
Second, Paul says that having turned to God, the Thessalonians were waiting for “his Son from heaven.” A close examination of the word used here reveals something quite astonishing. The infinitive “to wait for” (anamenein) is a very rare word in the original Greek. Paul could have used a more common expression, but he did not. Instead, he used the word anamenein, which is used by the Jewish Roman historian Josephus, writing in the first century, to express how people would wait eagerly for the arrival of the Roman Emperor Vespasian. Paul is suggesting that Jesus has become for the Thessalonians an alternative emperor, a true and living King.
Third, Paul notes that at the heart of the Thessalonians’ acceptance of Paul and Silas’ message is that Jesus was “raised from the dead.” There is an abundance of literature from the first century BCE and the first century CE that death was the very symbol of all that was wrong with the world, the irrefutable evidence of the alienation of creation and humanity from God. The death of Jesus by crucifixion was a reminder of this: the powerful demonstrating their power over the weak. It was like a regular public service announcement: the Empire is in charge. In other words, the crucifixion was a political act, it was a very present reminder of the impressive power of the Empire. But then, as Paul declares that the Thessalonians responded to the gospel concerning the raising of Jesus from the dead, we can understand that resurrection speaks of the ability of another—and greater—power to usurp that imperial authority and call into question all imperial claims to its previously undisputed and all-pervasive power over the affairs of nations, communities, and individuals.
Acts 17:1-9 and 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 give us a wonderful account of how people, hearing the message of the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, understand that it cannot be limited to a spiritual side of our lives, but impacts the social, cultural, and political. Jesus has been raised from the dead and so everything changes. There is a power at work in the resurrection that is more powerful than any earthly ruler and we are invited to live within Jesus’ story.
Messiah, Jesus, your followers established churches in communities near and far. Take us outside of ourselves and teach us to give away what you have given to us. Show us how to witness to your presence in places near and far. Amen.
O Zion, haste ELW 668, H82 539, UMH 573 Built on a rock ELW 652
Built on a rock, G. Winston Cassler