Thessalonika

Acts 17:1-10a

Paul, Silas, and their travelling companions have left Philippi following the consequences of having restored a demon-possessed girl’s normal life, much to the dismay of her “handlers.”  A public beating, a night in jail, an earthquake, the salvation of the jailer and his household, and an apology extracted from the city magistrates — all in a day’s work for God’s Apostle to the Gentiles.

Acts 17:1-2  ”Now when they had traveled through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonika, where there was a synagogue of the Jews.  And according to Paul’s custom, he went to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures.”

As is our custom, a little geography is a useful thing.  Please take the time to look at Paul’s Missionary Journeys – Thessalonika (Hosanna Lutheran Church, Houston, TX), an excellent description of the geographic aspects of their route westward through Amphipolis and Appolonia to Thessalonika, a distance of some seventy miles.  You may think it odd that I am directing you to a Lutheran church website.  I am not endorsing Lutheran theology, but excellent research and presentation can stand on their own merits.  The materials were developed by Dale Bergmann, Hosanna Lutheran Church’s Communications Director in Houston, TX, an ELCA church.  While I would not agree on every theological point, their stand for Martin Luther’s sola fide, sola scriptura, sola gratia basis for salvation is clear and true on their website and is laudable.  I certainly can recommend Mr. Bergmann’s accurate, colorful and highly instructional geographic research and presentation on Paul’s missionary journeys!

In a nutshell, the travelers headed west from Philippi on the via Egnatia (named after the Roman Proconsul of Macedonia who ordered its construction), the Roman “interstate” of the region across the northern end of the Aegean Sea.  Today this region forms the northeastern panhandle of Greece, composed of the regions of Macedonia and Thrace — as it did in Paul’s day.

The distance from Philippi to Amphipolis was 33 miles, a long day’s journey.  Amphipolis was known in earlier days as “Nine Ways”, a reference to the convergence of nine roads at at the sole mountain pass between eastern and western Macedonia.  From here roads led into southern Europe and the Greek peninsula.  From Amphipolis they proceeded to Apollonia, another 30-mile day’s journey.

Interestingly, Luke does not mention any ministry taking place in either Amphipolis or Apollonia, nor does he state how many days elapsed in passing through this region.  He does mention that upon arrival at Thessalonika they first sought the Jewish synagogue.  Luke’s phraseology suggests that there were no Jewish synagogues at Amphipolos or Apollonia.  But didn’t God send Paul as the apostle to the Gentiles?  If so, why didn’t he minister to them on the way through?

In Romans 1:16, Paul writes, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”  Bible teachers have many different positions on this statement, and we must consider it carefully.

  • Some say this means that Jews today must be evangelized before we should take the gospel to the gentiles
  • some say this means that personal witnessing should be to Jews first, and only then to gentiles
  • some say this means that since there were no synagogues in Amphipolis and Apollonia, Paul was forbidden to preach the gospel to gentile-only communities
  • some say this means that Paul’s mission was the same as the Twelve, radiating outward from Jerusalem, and focused on the return of Israel’s promised kingdom

I humbly disagree with all of these possible meanings.  Let’s get our context right, and let Scripture interpret Scripture.  (1) Paul wrote his letter to the Romans several years after this journey across northeastern Greece, and was writing with a historical perspective, as born out by many later passages in the letter.  (2) Historically speaking, the gospel had gone out to Israel first, starting from Jerusalem, under the ministry of the Twelve and the Great Commission.  The balance of Romans explains that now “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek” (Romans 10:12).  In the same vein, Paul explains in his letter to the Ephesians that the “middle wall of partition” separating Jew and Greek has been broken down in Christ’s sacrifice. (Ephesians 2:14)  (3) The book of Acts is a book of transition from God’s Kingdom program for Israel to His program of grace for all people today, and consequently there is a visible mingling of the two programs throughout, even in Paul’s life and ministry.  Luke records that they went to the synagogue in Thessalonika as a starting point because it was Paul’s custom.  Later in this chapter we will see that when Paul arrives in Athens, he does go directly to the gentiles.  (4) If these three hops of the journey were all accomplished back to back in one day each, there would have been little time for ministry.  Have you ever tried to walk 30 miles in one day?  Three days in a row?  (5) Just as the Holy Spirit had directed them into Macedonia and prevented them from going into Asia and Bithynia, He potentially prevented them from ministering here – perhaps no opportunity to minister presented itself.

In addition to all of this, perhaps their destination was the greatest reason to not minister in Amphipolis and Apollonia.  As I hope you read in Hosanna Lutheran Church’s website, Thessalonika was the capital city of Macedonia, with a population of about 200,000 even in Paul’s day.  It’s not beyond reason to suspect that this was their planned destination when they left Philippi.  If we take vv. 1-2 at face value (as we always should), I believe Luke is saying, “When we left Philippi, we went to Thessalonika by way of Amphipolis and Apollonia, and there, according to Paul’s usual approach, went to the Jewish synagogue for three Sabbaths and reasoned with them from the scriptures.”

Acts 17:3-4  ”… explaining and giving evidence that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you is the Christ.’  And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, along with a great multitude of the God-fearing Greeks and a number of the leading women.”

Here we see the effect of Paul’s message as reminiscent of the situation at Pisidian Antioch on the first missionary journey (Acts 13:14-52, viz. v43).  Note Luke’s description of the number of those who believed and joined with Paul and Silas: “some” of the Jews  believed, but “a great multitude” of God-fearing Greeks and prominent women (like Lydia?) believed.

Acts 17:5-9  ”But the Jews, becoming jealous and taking along some wicked men from the marketplace, formed a mob and set the city in an uproar; and coming upon the house of Jason, they were seeking to bring them out to the people.  And when they did not find them, they began dragging Jason and some brethren before the city authorities, shouting, ‘These men who have upset the world have come here also; and Jason has welcomed them, and they all act contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.’ And they stirred up the crowd and the city authorities who heard these things.  And when they had received a pledge from Jason and the others, they released them.”

Unfortunately, the mixed response among the Jews along with an unmixed response among the gentiles at the synagogue provoked the remaining Jews to jealousy, as it had in Pisidian Antioch.  For whatever reason, apparently Paul and Silas were not immediately available to the crowd, unlike what happened in Philippi where they were bodily dragged before the magistrates.  Lacking Paul and Silas, the mob apparently turned on Jason, the owner of the private home where Paul and Silas had been lodged for two weeks.  Luke doesn’t explain how they came to be lodged with him, but suffice it to say that the mob knew where they were staying and probably went directly there hoping to find them.

The same accusations that Pilate had been instructed by the Jews in Jerusalem to pursue against Jesus (“Are you a king?”) were trotted out once again.  And just as they did in Jerusalem, these rulers of the Thessalonian synagogue held the party line of ‘We have no king but Caesar!”.  Jason and the brethren with him were required to “post bond” (the pledge) and were released.  Luke doesn’t say so, but we can safely presume that the bond involved turning Paul and Silas over to the authorities whenever they returned to their quarters.  As we’ll read next, Jason and his friends no doubt forfeited the bond and chose to obey God rather than men.

Acts 17:10a  ”And the brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea…”

If they had been taken in by Jason within a day or two of their arrival in Thessalonika, and they had made the journey to Thessalonika in three long back-to-back 30-mile hikes, and had left Philippi on the morning after their imprisonment, they were only four or five days past the “beating with rods” experienced in Philippi.  They were still no doubt tender, and Jason and others may have actually seen the wounds that were inflicted.  If their arrival was on a Friday, coinciding with the start of the Sabbath, they would have been in residence at Jason’s for an additional two weeks while Paul reasoned with the Jews over three Sabbaths.  Have you ever hosted missionaries in your home for a missions conference?  Can you imagine what it must have been like to have Paul and Silas staying with them?  Surely the subject of their treatment in Philippi was thoroughly discussed before events in Thessalonika turned sour!  And so it is little wonder that Jason and other local brethren sent Paul and Silas away that very night under cover of darkness.

As mentioned before, no doubt Jason and his compatriots forfeited the bond they had posted.  We don’t know how this affected their personal finances, nor whether other legal consequences followed their civil disobedience.  Paul’s second letter to them, written from Corinth within a year, directly addresses the persecution they were suffering.  The entire first chapter of II Thessalonians in a nutshell is “Be patient, God will repay, and their turn is coming.”

It seems odd to me that Paul and Silas chose to endure the beating and imprisonment in Philippi and were so brazen as to extract a public apology from the Philippian magistrates (an extremely “front door” exit), and then chose to sneak out the back door at Thessalonika. They could have brought the entire Philippian debacle to a cold screeching halt by claiming their Roman citizenship at any time — but didn’t.  Had they done so, perhaps the Philippian jailer and his household would never have been reached with the Gospel.  God’s ways are past finding out, and we can be sure in either case that Paul and Silas simply followed the Holy Spirit’s leading.  Maybe when we all get to Heaven we can ask them — if it still matters then!)

Now, this Berea… that’s a whole ‘nuther story (not to mention a whole ‘nuther blog post)!

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