Church at Thessalonica

On his second missionary journey, Paul sets out again from Antioch to travel through Syria and Cilicia.

May 6, 2012

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

On his second missionary journey, Paul sets out again from Antioch to travel through Syria and Cilicia.

Having parted ways with Barnabas, Paul chooses Silas to join him on this journey (15:36-41). At Lystra they are also joined by Timothy (16:1-2).

Guided by a vision of a “man of Macedonia,” Paul and his companions set sail for that region (16:6-10). At Philippi their message is well received by a group of women led by Lydia (16:11-15). But they also encounter opposition after Paul drives out the “spirit of divination” from a slave-girl and her owners are angry about losing their profit from her fortune-telling. The owners drag Paul and Silas before the authorities, charging them with disturbing the city and advocating customs that are unlawful for Romans to adopt, after which Paul and Silas are flogged and thrown in prison (16:16-24). After an earthquake breaks open the doors and chains in the prison, the jailer comes to faith and is baptized with his whole household. Meanwhile the magistrates decide to release Paul and Silas (6:25-40).

Acts 17:1-9: Receptivity and Resistance in Thessalonica

Paul and Silas travel on to Thessalonica, the leading city of Macedonia (northern mainland Greece) and headquarters for the Roman governor. “As was his custom,” Paul goes first to the synagogue in the city. On three consecutive Sabbath days he interprets the scriptures, “explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise from the dead,” and that Jesus is the Messiah (17:1-3). This is a summary of Paul’s synagogue preaching, a fuller version of which appears in 13:16-41.

A recurring pattern appears in Paul’s ministry in Acts. He begins by preaching in the local synagogue, which results in some Jews and God-fearing Gentiles coming to faith in Jesus. In Thessalonica this group includes “a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women” (17:4). But then some Jews become jealous and stir up opposition to Paul. In Thessalonica they recruit some ruffians from the marketplace to form a mob and “set the city in an uproar” (17:5).

The mob goes hunting for Paul and Silas, and when they cannot find them, they bring out other believers, including one named Jason with whom Paul and Silas have been staying, and drag them before the city authorities (17:5-6). The charges brought against Paul and Silas in their absence are similar to those brought in Philippi, but ratcheted up a notch. They are charged not simply with disturbing the city, but with turning the “whole civilized world (oikumen) upside down” (17:6), and not simply with advocating un-Roman customs, but with what amounts to treason — “acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus” (17:7).

The people and the city officials are disturbed by these charges, but as they do not have the alleged perpetrators in custody, they take bail from Jason and the others and let them go (17:8-9).

According to what follows in Acts, the Thessalonian believers send Paul and Silas off to Beroea, where they find a more receptive audience in the synagogue (17:10-12). But the opposing Jews from Thessalonica follow Paul to Beroea to stir up crowds against him there also. So the believers get Paul out of the city and convey him as far as Athens (17:13-15). From there Paul travels on to Corinth, where Silas and Timothy later rejoin him (18:5).

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10: Thanksgiving for a Faithful Congregation

In Corinth with Silvanus (Silas) and Timothy (1:1), Paul writes to the Thessalonians. He indicates that they have been longing to return to Thessalonica, but have been prevented (2:18). Yet because he was so anxious for the well-being of the Thessalonian believers, particularly as they faced persecution, Paul sent Timothy to strengthen and encourage them (3:1-5). Timothy has just returned to Corinth with good news — a glowing report of the Thessalonians’ faith and love (3:6). Paul’s relief and gratitude at this news overflows throughout the letter, particularly in the thanksgiving section at the beginning.

Paul gives thanks for the Thessalonians’ “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:2-3). He recalls with gratitude how the gospel came to the Thessalonians “not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1:5). Their reception of the gospel was confirmed by the living of their faith. They became imitators of Paul and his companions, and of the Lord himself, when in spite of persecution they “received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit” (1:6).

Indeed, the Thessalonians have become an example to the believers throughout Macedonia and as far as Achaia (southern Greece), where Paul is now. Their faith in God has become known “in every place… so that we have no need to speak about it,” Paul says with some hyperbole. People of those regions report how the Thessalonians “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” (1:7-10).

The phrases “turn to God” or “turn to the Lord” are often used to speak of Gentiles who come to faith in the one true God (Acts 9:35; 11:21; 14:15; 15:19; 26:18, 20). Although Acts indicates that some Jews in Thessalonica became believers, Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians seems to presume a predominantly Gentile congregation. His letter also indicates that opposition to the gospel has not abated, but continues to be directed at believers there. Paul rejoices that in spite of persecution, the Thessalonians remain steadfast in faith, hope, and love.

Opposition and Irony

In the Acts narrative, the charges brought against Paul and his fellow missionaries contain some irony. On the one hand, the charges that they are disturbing the peace and promoting disloyalty to the emperor are false, just as the charges brought against Jesus were false (Luke 23:2). The movement of Jesus’ followers is not about political ambition or plotting to overthrow Caesar. Those who bring the charges, who have incited mobs to attack Paul and his companions, are in fact the ones “disturbing the peace.”

At the same time, there is truth to the charges that proclamation of the gospel threatens to “turn the world upside down.” Loyalty to Jesus the Messiah renders all other loyalties — to family, nation, empire, or religious hierarchy — secondary. The reign of Jesus the Messiah does indeed threaten to overturn the status quo (Luke 1:46-55; 6:20-26). The mission of Jesus and his followers to “bring good news to the poor… to proclaim release to the captives” (Luke 4:18, Isaiah 61:1-2) threatens all oppressors, including Caesar.

One approach to preaching these texts may be to ask whether Jesus’ followers are still “turning the world upside down” today. Where do you see this happening? What is happening in and through your congregation that would cause an old apostle like Paul to overflow with thanksgiving? On the flip side, one might ask whether we have become so comfortable with the status quo that no one perceives us to be any threat whatsoever. In what ways might God be calling us to risk our own comfort and security to proclaim and live the gospel, even in the face of resistance?