February 27, 2015

 

Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles

By: Tom Lowe

 

 

Topic #IV. The Church Advancing to the End of the Earth (Acts 13-28)   

                    

Subtopic C: The Missionary Journey (15:36-18:22)                 

                          

                                                                            

         Lesson: IV.C.5: The Work at Thessalonica (17:1-9)                        

 

 

 

Acts 17:1-9 (KJV)

 

1 Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where was a synagogue of the Jews:

2 And Paul, as his manner was, went in unto them, and three sabbath days reasoned with them out of the scriptures,

3 Opening and alleging, that Christ must needs have suffered, and risen again from the dead; and that this Jesus, whom I preach unto you, is Christ.

4 And some of them believed, and consorted with Paul and Silas; and of the devout Greeks a great multitude, and of the chief women not a few.

5 But the Jews which believed not, moved with envy, took unto them certain lewd fellows of the baser sort, and gathered a company, and set all the city on an uproar, and assaulted the house of Jason, and sought to bring them out to the people.

6 And when they found them not, they drew Jason and certain brethren unto the rulers of the city, crying, These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also;

7 Whom Jason hath received: and these all do contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, one Jesus.

8 And they troubled the people and the rulers of the city, when they heard these things.

9 And when they had taken security of Jason, and of the other, they let them go.

 

 

 

Introduction

 

Paul, Silas, and Timothy proceeded from Philippi to the major seaport city of Thessalonica some 100 miles distant (vs. 1-4).  Thessalonica was then (as now) the second largest city in Greece, with a population estimated at 200,000.

 

At Thessalonica Paul was perhaps intending to follow the pattern of establishing himself in and working out of the major population centers, a pattern clearly pursued in Corinth and Ephesus later.  In this instance his mission was cut short by strong opposition (vs. 5-9).

 

Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica is told with the utmost brevity.  The basic pattern of initial witness in the synagogue is set forth (vs. 1-4).  The natation continues with the picture of the opposition to Paul (vs. 5-9), but this time Dr. Luke relates of the significant role played by Jason.

 

 

 

Commentary

 

1 Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where was a synagogue of the Jews:

 

The journey from Philippi to Thessalonica (formerly called Therma) followed the Via Egnatia through the less significant towns of Amphipolis[1] and Apollonia.  Each of these cities was about a days’ journey apart when traveling by horseback.  Luke gave no time frame; and if the company traveled by foot, one would have to assume the 100-mile journey took more than three days and that there were other stopping places than the two major towns Luke designated on their itinerary.

 

Amphipolis was some 30 miles southwest of Philippi.  Formerly capital of the first division of Macedonia and a “free city,” it is important for its strategic position, controlling access to the Hellespont and the Black Sea.  It would have been a significant place for witness, but Luke did not indicate that Paul carried on any mission there or anywhere else along the route to Thessalonica[2].  He simply indicated these as stopping places, Apollonia being the next city mentioned, some 30 miles from Amphipolis and 38 miles from the final destination of Thessalonica. These cities were practically in a direct line of march along the great and well-known Roman road, Via Egnatia. 

 

One wonders why he passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia.  Perhaps on the human side the most probable answer is that there were no synagogues in those towns (no evidence of any has ever been found); and even though Paul’s mission was now specifically to the Gentiles, he still observed the invariable rule of preaching to the Jew first whenever he came to a new town.  All that, however, is merely speculation.  In the passing of these cities we recognize the constantly varying guidance of the Spirit of God.  One is growingly impressed in our study of the Book of Acts that we cannot formulate rules or regulations concerning spiritual conduct.  Underlying principles are revealed on every page and in every undertaking.  Matters of supreme, permanent, and abiding value to the work of the Church and the Christian missionary, and the testimony of the Word, are revealed by the apparently most accidental and unimportant events.

 

As we have noted before, Paul used the synagogue as a springboard to get into a city or a community.  This would lead him to the devout Jews of the city, and some of those Jews would believe.  Never did all of them believe, but some of them did.  In fact, most of them would reject him and this would push him right out to the Gentiles.  Then some of the Gentiles believed.  This is how the church would come into existence, a local church composed of Jews and Gentiles. 

 

Paul’s master plan for missions was to evangelize the main city of an area, leave behind him a mission-minded church, move on to another population center, and leave the evangelization of the rural areas to the converted nationals of the big cities.  Much of our missionary activity, since the days of David Livingstone, has been concentrated on the outback (wilds).  The fascination of wild, barbaric tribes, of trackless jungles and untamed tongues, has exerted an undue influence on the Western mind.  True, such areas must be evangelized, but all too often we have neglected the cities and headed for the hills.  In recent years, many have come to realize the importance of the cities, the universities, the great centers where population concentrates and where the seats of power and influence are found.  The communists have exploited the cities.  Although always willing to spread their doctrines in the jungle, their prime concern has always been the city and the university. 

 

 

2 And Paul, as his manner was, went in unto them, and three sabbath days reasoned with them out of the scriptures,

 

Once they arrived in Thessalonica, Paul followed his usual pattern of beginning his witness in the synagogue.  This continued on three successive Sabbaths.  This is the only time reference in the Thessalonian narrative, but one would assume from Paul’s Thessalonian correspondence that his initial ministry in Thessalonica was of somewhat longer duration.[3] 

 

The messages preached by the apostle were taken “out of the scriptures.” That, of course, means the Scriptures of the Old Testament.  There was no New Testament in the hand of the apostle as he went on his journeyings. The Scriptures that he would use in the Jewish synagogue would be the Scriptures of the Old Testament.  He preached the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, showing that this was necessary, as set forth in the Old Testament.  Friend, you will not find a message given in the Book of Acts either by Peter or by Paul in which the Resurrection is not the heart of the message. 

 

Believers came to Christ, a local church was organized, and Paul taught them.  In that brief time he taught them all the great doctrines of Scripture, including the doctrine of the Rapture of the church—we know this from his First Epistle to the Thessalonians which was the first Epistle that Paul wrote.

 

Opposition did not develop at once.  In the first place, the missionaries had excellent credentials.  Paul was obviously a well-schooled rabbi, Silas had the added appeal of being from Jerusalem, and the fact that Paul had circumcised Timothy, converting the half-Jew into a whole Jew, would be something the synagogue authorities would appreciate and approve.  Accordingly, they gave their pulpit to Paul for three Sabbaths, and no doubt during the two intervening weeks they had many discussions among themselves and with the missionaries regarding the revolutionary new doctrines being pressed upon them with persuasion and power.  No one could deny that Paul knew the Scriptures. 

 

 

3 Opening and alleging, that Christ must needs have suffered, and risen again from the dead; and that this Jesus, whom I preach unto you, is Christ.

 

The pattern of Paul’s synagogue preaching as indicated in verses 2-3 is very much like that of the preaching to Jews in the earlier portions of Acts.  It consisted primarily of scriptural references to Christ from the Old Testament.  Luke describes this as reasoning with them from the scriptures[4]. This is further elaborated as “explaining” and “proving” that the Messiah must suffer and rise from the dead.[5]

 

The words “opening” and “alleging,” reveal his method.  The word “opening” here is Luke’s word in one other place in the New Testament, and that is in his Gospel, the twenty-fourth chapter, where he records that Jesus, after His resurrection, opened the Scriptures to the men walking to Emmaus.  Paul now did exactly the same thing in that synagogue in Thessalonica.  The word simply means making plain, expounding, giving an exposition.  “Alleging” is a word which may mislead, and while this is a technical matter, we must nevertheless take note of it, for it is important.  The word does not mean stating dogmatically.  It means sitting out in order, and displaying.  Paul took up the Scriptures, and opened them, and explained them. 

 

He declared two facts in that synagogue.  He first declared that according to their Scriptures, Messiah must suffer and rise.  Taking up the Old Testament He showed them that their own Scriptures declared that their own Messiah must die and rise again.  That was the first objective of his teaching.  The order in which it is stated here reveals to us the fact that before he told the story of Christ he made them see what their own Scriptures taught about their own Messiah; and this was exactly what the Jew had entirely failed to grasp, or had completely forgotten.  With the ancient prophecies in our hands, with the one prophesy of Isaiah 53 for instance, it seems as though it would be impossible for men ever to have studied them without seeing that the pathway of the Servant of God toward His triumph must be that of travail;(tribulation), but the Jew had failed to see it.   

 

The Messiah has come.  That was Paul’s marvelous news.  The thrill of it would be instantaneous.  These men were ambassadors of the King.  But the initial excitement would soon die down when Paul explained what had happened.  Division will arise as he showed from the scriptures that the Bible had predicted the coming of the suffering Savior; that the cross had to come before the crown; that Christ had to redeem before He could reign.

 

“Jesus is the Christ!” he would assert again and again. It was compelling, but it was not what they expected, or in most cases, what they wanted to hear.  The Jewish ideal was not a redeemer but a ruler, one who would smash the power of Rome and make Jerusalem the capital of a new world empire.  Besides, the rabbis could exegete away such passages as Isaiah 53 by making the nation of Israel the suffering servant.  Such plain and obvious interpretation as Paul would bring to bear upon the Scriptures would be far from popular.  

 

Paul’s work was now to declare to these Jews that their own Scriptures taught that the Messiah must suffer, and that He must rise again; that their long-looked-for, and hoped-for, and longed-after, and waited-for Messiah must die and rise again.  Then he declared that the One Who fulfilled that portraiture of their ancient Scriptures was Jesus Himself.  He preached to them concerning the Kingdom, for they charged him with preaching another King (17:7), one Jesus.    

 

 

4 And some of them believed, and consorted with Paul and Silas; and of the devout Greeks a great multitude, and of the chief women not a few.

 

Revival broke out in Thessalonica. “A great multitude” of the Thessalonian Jews, including perhaps Aristarchus (20:4) and Jason (17:5, 7) were saved by Paul’s Old Testament expositions; some also of the “devout” Greeks, which may have included Secundus (20:4), who attended the synagogue, were convinced,against their own prejudices. These were people who had been attracted to the synagogue because they were disgusted by the gross Polytheism and idolatry of paganism, but who held back from becoming proselytes because they were equally repelled by the Jewish requirement of circumcision.    Among the latter group were a number of prominent women[6]; women from the ranks of the upper class, women of considerable influence and from the best family’s.  When Dr. Luke says “of the chief women not a few,” he is using his usual understatement and means that a large number of prominent women came to the Lord.  At once a faction was formed in the synagogue. That Luke singled out the influential female converts in the Macedonian congregations (see 16:14 and 17:12) is very much in keeping with inscriptional[7] evidence that in Macedonia women had considerable social and civic influence. 

 

One should also note the prominence of Silas in this section, particularly in connection with the synagogue witness (v. 10). He is usually in the background, with the focus being on Paul.  It could be that in mentioning him in these synagogue contexts, Luke wanted to remind us of his connection with the Jerusalem church and the Jewish-Christian endorsement of Paul’s mission.

 

These new believers consorted, that is, cast in their lot with the apostles, joined the Christian community, and in that very hour we see the birth of that church in Thessalonica to which two letters were soon to be sent by Paul.  That the majority of his converts were Gentiles is reflected in his statement “ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God; and to wait for His Son from heaven” (1:9-10). The phrase “consorted with Paul and Silas” implies that the missionaries had by now withdrawn from the synagogue and were conducting separate meetings (14:27).

 

 

5 But the Jews which believed not, moved with envy, took unto them certain lewd fellows of the baser sort, and gathered a company, and set all the city on an uproar, and assaulted the house of Jason, and sought to bring them out to the people.

 

The work in Thessalonica was not one of triumph only. It was one of trial, springing out of the jealousy of the Jews.  Verses 5-9 depict the opposition to Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica initiated by the Jews; they determined to be rid of Paul and Silas and formulated a plan to bring them before the assembly on a charge of sedition.  They are described as being “jealous[8],” perhaps at the number of God-fearing Gentiles whom Paul was attracting away from the synagogue and into the Christian community.  The Gentiles’ presence in the synagogue probably gave the Jewish community a degree of acceptance in the predominantly Gentile city and probably also some financial support. 

 

The Jewish leaders had a dog-in-the-manger attitude.  They did not want to accept Christ themselves, nor did they wish for anyone else to.  But how could they put a stop to the massive movement away from historic Judaism to dynamic Christianity? That was the question.  The rabbis knew they were no match for Paul in ordinary discussion and debate.  There was only one way—rouse the mob.  In every town there are the kind of people who now surfaced at Thessalonica.  Luke calls them “certain lewd Fellows.” The word for “lewd” carries the idea of depravity and evil intent.  Paul said they were of the baser sort, literally “belonging to the market”; that is, idlers, people hanging around ready for mischief.  Nice allies for the Jewish leaders who boasted in their knowledge of God. 

 

One should not, however, get the impression that it was always the Jews who opposed Paul.  In chapters 16-19 there is an equal balance between opposition initiated by Jews and that begun by Gentiles. 

 

Even in this instance, it was ultimately the Gentile populous who opposed Paul.  Beginning with the gang of ruffians, certain lewd fellows who hung around the marketplace, the Jews succeeded in rousing the Gentiles into mob action against Paul and Silas.

 

At this point Jason entered the picture.  We know nothing more about him than his role in this scene.  Evidently Paul and Silas had been lodging with him.  Consequently he probably was a convert and may have been a Jew sense Jason was a name often taken by Diaspora[9] Jews.  It is also possible that he shared Paul’s trade.  Later in Corinth Paul stayed with Aquila and Priscilla, who were of the same trade as he (18:3).  In any event, the crowd did not find the missionaries at Jason’s.  Possibly they had learned of the riot and had fled elsewhere.   

 

 

6 And when they found them not, they drew Jason and certain brethren unto the rulers of the city, crying, These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also;

 

Paul and his friends were warned of what was happening, and by the time the mob arrived at Jason’s door they were gone.  Paul would have gladly faced the mob, but his new converts, concerned for his safety, insisted that he go into hiding.  Paul and his friends gave in, much against their will, and were smuggled out of the town to a place of safety. The plans which the Jews had made had gone awry.  Paul and Silas could not be found, and without them they could hardly appear before the assembly.  In frustration, therefore, they seized Jason and some of the brethren.

 

Jason had remained at home to face the rabble. So Jason serving as Paul’s proxy, along with some of the other believers, were dragged before the city officials (local magistrates). Three charges were leveled against these Christians.  The first was directed against Paul and Silas; they “have turned the world upside down.” This was a rather vague charge—it was like calling them “troublemakers[10].” But what a tribute to Paul and to the power of the gospel.  Wherever Paul went, things happened.  Souls were saved, people took sides, feelings were stirred, decisions were made, and the lines were drawn.  Paul did not slip into town, hold a few brief quiet meetings, enjoy some good home cooking, pick up a generous honorarium, and slip back out of town again without the city knowing or caring that the gospel had been preached to all.  Everybody knew when Paul came to town.  Passions were stirred, things happened, the place was turned upside down.  When Christianity penetrated that old Roman Empire it was a revolution.  It had a tremendous effect.

 

 

7 Whom Jason hath received: and these all do contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, one Jesus.

 

The second charge was directed against Jason for harboring these troublemakers.  He was arraigned before the authorities, and the familiar charge of high treason was raised.  Paul had been preaching against Caesar, and Jason was guilty by association.  The charge was serious—to be guilty of treason by implication or by association was enough to ruin a man.

 

In this case, although false, there was enough truth in the indictment to add to its danger.  We know from Paul’s two letters to the Thessalonians, written soon after his visit, that Paul’s preaching had concentrated heavily on the second coming of Christ.  First Thessalonians deals with the coming of Christ as it will affect the church; Second Thessalonians with the coming of Christ as it will affect the world.

 

The third charge was directed against Paul and Silas and, by implication, Jason their host.  They were said to be “defying Caesars decrees.”  This was a dangers charge.  To defy Caesar would be pure sedition.  But what decrees were they defying?  Probably the final clause in verse 7 is to be seen as an explanation of the charge.  They were claiming that there was another King in addition to Caesar (One who was above and beyond Caesar)—Jesus.  This was virtually the same charge leveled at Jesus (Luke 23:2-4; John 19:12, 15).  Jesus claimed a kingdom not of this world, and Paul and Silas spoke of the same kingdom. 

 

To the Jews “Christ” meant “king,” and since the latter was the title generally applied to the emperors in the lands east of Rome, they could maliciously accuse the Christians of proclaiming a rival to Claudius.  Since Christians called Jesus “Lord” so often, it would have lent further validity to this accusation.  But to a Roman, the charge sounded very much like a breach of the oath of loyalty that every person in the empire was required to render to Caesar.  The magistrates had to take note of this charge. 

 

 

8 And they troubled the people and the rulers of the city, when they heard these things.

 

The magistrates showed a great deal of discretion in handling the charges, though they were greatly disturbed by them.  They evidently did not take the charge of sedition too seriously at first, but they were quite aware of the uproar and were responsible for maintaining order.  No one in authority with an eye to his own future or even his own life could afford to treat such a charge lightly.  The magistrates, however, seem to have been fair-minded men, and they could not find much to substantiate the charges.  Perhaps, too, news had leaked out that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens, which would have made them doubly careful.  Yet, at the same time, to do nothing in the face of the disturbance might provoke displeasure from higher authorities.  But, again, to accuse the Jewish leaders of deliberately instigating the riot had problems, too.  It was nearer to the truth, perhaps, but Jews could be very awkward customers—they tended to have influence in high places.  The best thing to do was send the people (literally, “the crowd”) home.  That would not be difficult, because it was obvious that some in the crowd we’re having second thoughts.  On the other hand, crowds have a psychology all their own, and to do nothing might inflame the mob into further action.  Something had to be done, but what?

 

 

9 And when they had taken security[11] of Jason, and of the other, they let them go.

 

The magistrates evidently decided, much like the Philippian magistrates, to preserve law and order by banning the troublemakers (Paul and Silas) from the city.  Jason was required to post bond, depositing a sum of money that would be forfeited should there be any sequel to the civil disturbance.  That meant the absence of Paul and Silas.  Paul may have been referring to this ban in 1 Thessalonians 2:18 when he spoke of “Satan’s hindrance” to his returning to the city. 

 

The apostle left Thessalonica; but the victory there must be measured by the Thessalonian letters. It became a center from which the Gospel sounded out through the whole region, even after the apostle had left; and the Thessalonians themselves are revealed in his description: “ye turned unto God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven” (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10).  Paul and Silas were sent away.  Jason, the man unto whose house the apostle went, the man whom they arrested, and put in jail to keep the peace, helped the apostle to escape.  He was a man of Thessalonica; we know him by just a few verses, for we never hear of him again, except per chance he may be referred to in the 16th chapter of Romans as Paul’s kinsmen

 

We are pleased to hear that “they let them go,” though they did impose certain penalties on the Christians.  They received from Jason and the others a promise that Paul and Silas would not preach any more in Thessalonica.  This explains the missionaries’ sudden departure.  In first Thessalonians 2:15, 18, we have Paul’s own reflection on this turn of events, which he attributes to Satan through the instrumentality of the Jews—who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to everyone . . .For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, did, again and again—but Satan blocked our way.”   

 

Paul’s removal did not put an end to the harassment of the Thessalonian Christians.  Those who were left behind were subjected to a persecution that to Paul (who of course would know) seemed as severe as that which the Jewish Christians had endured (1 Thessalonians 2:14; 3:1-5; 2 Thessalonians 1:6).  Nor did his absence lessen the slanders of the Jews against him in particular (1 Thessalonians 2:13-16).

 

Paul’s work at Thessalonica was finished.  Religious prejudice had driven him out of town.  It is an all-too-familiar problem of missionary work—religion joining force with civil authority to hinder the work.  But God is not at a loss for a way.  He is not to be intimidated by local magistrates or confounded by entrenched religious prejudice.  Omnipotence has its servants everywhere.

 

 


[1] Amphipolis was also called “Nine Ways,” which name suggests its importance both strategically and commercially.  Most cities are built on the pattern of a square, but this was like a roundhouse and the wall around it was round.  It was an important station on the Via Egnatia, a Roman road which was the predominant thoroughfare through that area.  It was 500 miles from the Hellespont two Dyrrhachium on the Adriatic by this road.  This would be a highway which the Roman army would use.  And now here comes some missionaries’ on this road going to Thessalonica.  Apollonia was another town on this same Egnatian road.

[2]Thessalonica: in Paul’s day it was one of the great seaports of southeastern Europe, with an estimated population of about 200,000.  It was inland but it was a seaport because three Rivers flowed into the sea from there.  It was a prominent city of that day, another Roman colony.  Its Jewish community appears to have been correspondingly large, certainly so by comparison with Philippi.

[3] It was long enough for the church to be established and leadership appointed (1 Thessalonians 5:12).  It was of sufficient duration that Paul received financial support from Philippi “time and again” while in Thessalonica (Philippians 5:16).  Evidently he took up his trade and supported himself as well during this period (1 Thessalonians 2:9).  Most of Paul’s converts in Thessalonica seem to have come out of paganism, judging from 1 Thessalonians 1:9, which would indicate a more extensive Gentile witness than one might gather from Luke’s highly compressed account.

[4] Luke used the terminology of formal rhetoric, the art of persuasion.  Paul appealed to the reasoning of the Jews and persuaded them with scriptural demonstrations.

[5] That the Scriptures point to the sufferings of Christ is a common theme in Luke-Acts: Luke 24:26, 46; Acts 3:18; 26:22; 1 Corinthians 15:3; 1 Peter 1:11.  The servant psalms of Isaiah would have comprised a major part of these Old Testament proofs of the passion of Christ.

[6] Prominent women: the Greek could just as easily mean, “wives of the leading men.”

[7] Inscriptional: a historical, religious, or other record cut, impressed, painted, or written on stone, brick, metal, or other hard surface.

[8] The NIV renders this verse: “But other Jews were jealous; so they rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city. They rushed to Jason’s house in search of Paul and Silas in order to bring them out to the crowd.”

[9] Diaspora: The body of Jews living in countries outside Israel.

[10] Troublemakers: can mean to stir up sedition, be a political agitator.   

[11] Security here means that they had to post bail, though they had a different name for it.

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