Two More Cities

Thursday: What Happened in Thessalonica

Acts 17:1-15 In this week’s studies we see how to establish an effective and faithful ministry.
What Happened in Thessalonica

The church Paul founded in Thessalonica soon experienced persecution. Those who did not believe were jealous and moved to round up certain bad characters—the kind you find hanging around on street corners everywhere—and with these started a riot in the city. They went to Jason’s house because that is where Paul and Silas were staying. They did not find them. They found Jason and a few other brothers instead. So they dragged them before the city officials, shouting, “These men who have caused trouble all over the world have come here, and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus” (vv. 6-7). 

In our translation the people in charge of Thessalonica are called “the city officials,” translating the Greek word politarch. This is the only place in ancient literature where this word is found, and there was a time when the liberal scholars were saying that it was proof that Luke didn’t know what he was writing about and could not be trusted as a historian. They assumed that Luke made up the word because he didn’t know the proper title. 

However, as is often the case in such matters, it is the liberal critics, rather than Luke, who have been proved wrong, because today this term has been found. And remarkably, it has been found, not scattered throughout the Roman world, as we might expect, but in this very city of Thessalonica. In fact, there are sixteen inscriptions of this very word. It was even found on an arch that was once above one of the gates to the city.1 Since the inscriptions are not found elsewhere it seems that this was a term unique to Thessalonica. So, far from its being evidence of inaccuracy on Luke’s part, it is actually proof of his extraordinary power of observation and of his reliability as a historian. 

When they came to the city officials, the leaders of the riot made a two-part accusation: 1) that Paul and Silas, who had been upsetting people elsewhere, had come there; and 2) that they were teaching that people should defy Caesar’s decrees. The second half of the accusation was untrue, though it was a wise move for them to have raised it. If they could get people thinking that the disciples were teaching rebellion against Caesar, they had a point in their favor even though it was not true. But although that part of their accusation was untrue, the first part, which claimed that they were upsetting the world, was accurate. 

This is another place where we have lost something in translation. The New International Version says, “These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here” (v. 6). Well, they were and they had. But the text is actually stronger than this. It says literally, “These men… have turned the world upside down.”

There is an ancient letter in which a teenager is writing to his mother to complain that his father wouldn’t let him go to Alexandria. He says, “Father has upset me.” That word, the word “upset” or “turn upside down,” is the word Luke uses.2 Paul and Barnabas had been upsetting the world. But that wasn’t a bad thing for them to do. It was a good thing, because the world had already been turned upside down by sin. So by turning it upside down again, they were actually setting it right. 

I wish all Christians would upset the world that way. A lot are upsetting other people, but not like that. They should be upsetting the world by bringing the grace of God to it through the preaching of His Word. This alone is able to bring the world back to its senses and bring blessing. 

In the first two chapters of 1 Thessalonians Paul reflects on what happened in Thessalonica as the result of his preaching.3 In the rest of today’s study and the beginning of tomorrow’s, let’s look at the important points. 

1. The preaching was blessed by God. Paul says that when he preached at Thessalonica the Gospel came “with power,” that is, by the Holy Spirit (1 Thess. 1:5). The way Paul writes makes us think that there were times in his ministry when, at least so far as he could tell, the Gospel did not come in such power. He preached the same Gospel. But for reasons known only to God, not as many responded and the results were not as firm or long lasting. In Thessalonica God had blessed the preaching powerfully. 

2. The people received God’s Word eagerly. Paul says that when he preached the Gospel the words he spoke were received by the Thessalonians “not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God” (1 Thess. 2:13). Paul often referred to his teaching in that way, saying that what he taught was God’s direct teaching since he taught as an apostle of the Lord. People did not always receive it as God’s Word. Often they rejected it completely. But in Thessalonica they did receive it. They received it as given by the Holy Spirit and were blessed accordingly. 

3. The believers tried to model their Christian lives on Paul. Paul wrote that those who received the Gospel became “imitators” of him (1 Thess. 1:6). There was no New Testament in those days. It had not been written yet. There was no Sermon on the Mount for the disciples to place before them and say, “This is our model.” What they had was Paul, who was himself trying to live like Jesus Christ, and they tried to model their Christian life on him. 

1See E. M. Blaiklock, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1963), 129. 

2Ibid., 129. 

3As we go on from this point we will be dealing with churches in more cities to which the Apostle Paul wrote letters. He goes to Corinth in Acts 18, and he wrote two letters to Corinth. In chapter 19 he visits Ephesus, and he wrote a very important letter to Ephesus. At the end of the book he gets to Rome, to which he wrote the most important of all his letters. We have already studied his work in Philippi to which Paul wrote the book of Philippians.

Study Questions
  1. How is the word politarch evidence of Luke’s reliability as a historian?
  2. What was the twofold accusation critics made against Paul and Silas? How much of it was true?
  3. List and describe the three important things that happened as a result of Paul’s work in Thessalonica.

Reflection: Are you a faithful model of Jesus Christ whom other Christians could observe and after whom could try to model their own Christian lives?

Prayer: Pray for major cities and those city churches, that a Christian presence will become strong and more will be reached.

Key Point: Christians should be upsetting the world by bringing the grace of God to it through the preaching of his Word. This alone is able to bring the world back to its senses and bring blessing.

For Further Study: Download for free and listen to James Boice’s message, “The Purpose of the Scriptures.” (Discount will be applied at checkout.)

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