Church at Thessalonica

The conflict is not explicitly theological, but political

City shoreline of Thessaloniki, Greece
Photo by Miltiadis Fragkidis on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

April 21, 2024

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Commentary on Acts 17:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

The movement between the Third and Fourth Sundays of Easter in the Narrative Lectionary marks the transition between those who directly experienced the ministry of Jesus and the growth of the earliest church who had no direct contact with the earthly Jesus. This shift marks the first passing of the tradition from one generation of disciples to the next and, more specifically, the transition between the ministries of Peter and Paul represented both in Acts and in the Pauline letters. 

This Sunday also represents the first occurrence of a Pauline letter in the arc of the Narrative Lectionary, so there is an opportunity here to introduce congregants to the epistles as a genre within the New Testament broadly and to the Pauline letters specifically.   

The Second and Third Sundays of Easter centered on the life of the earliest church in Jerusalem. These Jesus-followers attempted to understand what it meant to be a community who believes in Jesus without his earthly presence. 

It was these very communities that suffered the violent, traumatic loss of their teacher through crucifixion. They were likely still unsettled by the eeriness of their once-dead teacher walking among them alive. They were likely even now shocked that their resurrected leader had just ascended on a cloud that took him out of their sight. 

In addition to these earliest believers in Jerusalem being the very community that bore witness to Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, another important characteristic of this community to highlight in this transition point of the Narrative Lectionary is that it was composed primarily of Jewish Jesus-believers—people with a strong connection to the stories, teachings, and traditions of Israel. 

The first section of Acts (chapters 1–7) centers in and around the life of this Jewish church in Jerusalem, the place of Jesus’ ascension; the birth of the church at Pentecost; and the church’s first struggles with sharing all things in common. Peter is the primary leader of this church, himself a Jew and arguably one of Jesus’ most important disciples. 

The stoning of Stephen—and Saul’s lurking around the edges of that scene (Acts 7:58)—marks the church’s first soundings north of Jerusalem, beginning with Philip’s preaching in Samaria, and then south on the wilderness road between Jerusalem and Gaza. It also marks the first encounters of Jewish Jesus-believers with Gentiles, such as Philip’s conversation with an Ethiopian eunuch on that wilderness road. Finally, this section marks the waning of Peter’s centrality in the narrative and the introduction of other important leaders of the early church. 

As the narrative unfolds, the geography spirals further outward in the subsequent chapters in the second section of Acts (chapters 8–15). While Saul, like Peter, is also Jewish, he has no direct experience with the earthly ministry of Jesus. 

This second section includes a full introduction of zealous Saul on the road to Damascus: a persecutor of the church, turned instrument chosen “to bring [the Lord’] name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel” (9:15). 

An important note here is that congregants will often identify the road to Damascus, when Saul received his call to preach the gospel of Christ, as the moment of the name change to Paul. The name change, however, does not occur until significantly later in the narrative in what almost reads as a throwaway line, “But Saul, also known as Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit …” ( 13:9). 

The name change occurs in a passage describing the welcome of a high-ranking Roman provincial official, Sergius Paulus, a Gentile, into the early church. The renaming of Saul as Paul when Sergius Paulus comes to the believer in Christ is not an accident on the part of the author of Acts. While in his own letters Paul represents himself as the apostle to the Gentiles (non-Jews), in Acts, Peter is portrayed as the apostle charged with their inclusion first through the baptism of the Roman centurion in chapter 10 and then his advocacy for the Gentiles at the Jerusalem Council in chapter 15. 

But after Acts 15, Peter disappears from the narrative entirely. The third section of Acts (chapters 16–21) focuses entirely on Paul’s missionary activity throughout the Mediterranean basin to ever-increasing numbers of Gentiles, a world map that does not even seem fathomable at the start of Acts, centered around the very earliest Jewish Jesus-believers in the city of Jerusalem itself. 

In this third section of Acts, where the word about Jesus is spreading further and further throughout the Roman Empire, this week’s reading describes a hubbub in Thessalonica. The ancient city of Thessalonica was a bustling port city and the capital of the Roman imperial province of Macedonia, located in what is modern-day Greece. While ruled by Rome, Thessalonica was culturally a Greek city. 

In the larger-than-life events among Paul and the other Jesus-believers with Jews and “some ruffians in the marketplaces,” the conflict is not explicitly theological but political. The accusations made against them have nothing expressly to do with their faith in Christ. They have everything to do with “these people who are turning the world upside down coming here also” (17:6). Even worse, “they are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus” (17:7). 

The opening of Paul’s letter to the “church of the Thessalonians” (1 Thessalonians 1:1) has a very different tone and presents a very different situation. 

Paul founded the church in Thessalonica and then went off to other parts of the Mediterranean world, being in relationship with many churches over a large territory. After Paul left, his coworker Timothy visited the community. Timothy later reports to Paul about his visit, speaking well of the life of the community but also relaying some anxiety within it that Paul had not returned to them. 

Responding to Timothy’s report is the occasion for Paul’s letter. He works to shore up the relationship, assuring the Thessalonians of his ongoing commitment to the church and reiterating the teachings he shared while he was among them.  


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

Pittsburgh skyline

Festival of Homiletics 2024

May 13-16 | Pittsburgh (or digitally from anywhere)

The 2024 Festival of Homiletics is an invitation to lean into a little self-love. Hear from some of the voices of our time, including Grace Ji-Sun Kim, Pádraig Ó Tuama, Neichelle Guidry, Brian McLaren, and Angela Dienhart Hancock, and more! Experience inspiring worship along with time for reflection, renewal, and remembering – to recall once again the why for what we do.