Acts 17:1–15 . . .
“Evangelization for Thessalonica and Berea”
George Gallup contends that fewer than 10 percent of evangelical Christians can be called "deeply committed." He says that the majority who profess Christianity don’t read the Bible daily, don't pray intimate prayers daily, don't know basic teachings, and don’t act differently because of their Christian experience (cited by Steven J. Cole, www.bible.org).
Yet, Apostle Paul must be seen as having been deeply committed to Christ Jesus and his Church. Jesus called people to take up their crosses and lose their lives if they were to follow him (Mark 8:34–35). As we look at Paul's life of dedicated servanthood, it's easy to find concrete examples of what it means to be deeply committed to Jesus. In today's text, having just been mistreated in Philippi, Paul came to Thessalonica, having boldness to speak the gospel to people there, in the face of much opposition (1 Thessalonians 2:2). Driven out of Thessalonica, he did the same thing in Berea; driven from Berea, he went on to preach to the intellectuals in Athens. Back in Thessalonica, an angry mob accused him and Silas of upsetting the world, or, as some translations put it, turning the world upside down and proclaiming a King, other than Caesar (vv. 6–7).
Acts 17 contains the description of the evangelistic team efforts of Paul and Silas and Timothy in three cities: Thessalonica (17:1–10a), Berea (17:10b-15), and Athens (17:16-34, which we'll cover next week). In all three cities, Paul visited synagogues where he proclaimed Jesus as being the promised Messiah. The focus of the campaigns in the first two cities was strongly Jewish, while the focus in the last campaign was on the Gentiles. In his description of Paul’s ministry in the first two cities — Thessalonica and Berea — Luke dwells on Paul’s speaking in the synagogue, on the belief of some, and on the strong opposition of those Jews who rejected the gospel and strongly opposed Paul and those with him. In the last city, Athens, we'll see how Luke only casually mentions that Paul went to the synagogue each Sabbath. But he'll attend significantly to Paul's deeply committed ministry efforts in the streets and market place while focusing on Paul’s ministry to heathens, not to those familiar with Judaism.
Church Plant in Thessalonica (17:1–10a)
Amphipolis was 33 miles from Philippi; Appolonia was 30 miles from Amphipolis; and Thessalonica was 37 miles from Appolonia. So, when the missionary team set out from Philippi, they'd set their sights on Thessalonica, some 100 miles away. Seeing that Paul and his party “passed through” Amphipolis and Apollonia, we might presume that there were no synagogues in those two cities, while there were synagogues in Thessalonica, Berea, and Athens.
Where's the first place Paul went when he arrived in a town? It was the synagogue, if one existed. But, what happened on his first missionary journey, every time the team visited synagogues? They were persecuted! In Antioch Psidian, the Jews incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city, driving the team out of town (13:50). In Iconium, the Jews and Gentiles conspired to stone the apostles, who fortunately caught wind of the threat and hightailed it out of town (14:4–6). In Lystra, Paul was stoned and left for dead (14:19). It didn't appear promising to try to preach to the Jews in their synagogues.
You're probably betting that Paul avoided the synagogue when he arrived in Thessalonica, right? Wrong! He went to that and other synagogues probably because he believed that God had called him to preach the gospel first to the Jews, and that's where the Jews gathered. God had given Paul a job to do and he was committed to do it! Remember: He'd just come from Philippi, where he was beaten with rods and thrown into an inner prison cell! Every single time he approached a synagogue it resulted in pain, affliction, and threats. In Thessalonica, his synagogue ministry resulted in a mob riot. As a result, the disciples snuck Paul out of town at night, on route to another city with a synagogue: Berea. But, before we go there, let's look closely at what Paul's team accomplished in Thessalonica.
The capital city of Macedonia, Thessalonica was a thriving commercial city of at least 200,000 people, situated by the Aegean Sea, along major trade routes. Paul’s choice to preach in the synagogue at Thessalonica was “his custom” (v. 2). He maintained a plan of action for his ministry, which he customarily followed at most of the cities where he sought to proclaim Christ. His “custom” was to find a city with a synagogue, then go there on the Sabbath where he'd be granted the opportunity to speak to those gathered therein about Old Testament Scriptures that proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah. There were exceptions, of course, as in Philippi, where there wasn't a synagogue, although there was “a place of prayer” (16:13–15 ).
In v. 6, the enemies of the gospel refer to Paul and his team as those who “have caused trouble all over the world.” Of course, they meant that as an accusation and a slur, but we Christians take it as a compliment. About 51 AD, Paul, Silas, and Timothy entered the city of Thessalonica. The message they preached, if believed, would turn listeners right-side up. However, those "jealous Jews" (v. 5) who reported what was taking place were still living in their sins; what they perceived was that the three men were turning the world upside down.
And so, at Thessalonica, Paul and the others went to the synagogue and were invited to speak. There, as always, Paul preached of Jesus as being Israel’s Messiah. His argument could be summarized: (1) The Old Testament prophets spoke of Messiah; (2) this Messiah must be rejected by God's people, Israel, and be put to death for the sins of men; (3) this crucified Christ, according to the Old Testament prophets, must be raised from the dead; (4) Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, having fulfilled all of these prophecies; (5) each listener must make a choice, either to accept Jesus as the Messiah or to reject him, as the Jewish leaders and people of Jerusalem had done. To accept him would result in obtaining forgiveness of sins and the assurance of eternal life; to reject him would bring about a future day when he'd come to judge and punish his enemies.
As almost always was the case, the response to Paul’s preaching was mixed (v. 4). Some who heard (who seem to be Jews) believed, joining Paul and Silas. An even greater number of Gentiles believed, including a number of leading women. But there was also a strong negative response, not to the message of Paul, per se, but to the popularity of his message and its reception. In retaliation, the opposing Jews sought to overpower Paul and the other missionaries by manipulating the crowds and the political system. Skillfully, a crowd was gathered and worked up into an agitated mob. The “peace” was deliberately “disturbed,” with the city being in an uproar. The angry mob stormed the house of Jason (v. 5), who apparently was a believer and may have provided food and lodging to the missionary party.
Those jealous Jewish opponents of Paul and the gospel, who'd stirred up the entire city, now accused them of upsetting the world, and of inciting men to acts of violence and insurrection by advocating a King other than Caesar. The ministry of Paul's team in Thessalonica had to be cut short from a human point of view, thus forcing Paul to minister to these new saints “by letter” (i.e., 1 and 2 Thessalonians), so that in God's providence, we could profit heartily from Paul’s teaching and exhortation, even as the Thessalonian saints did.
Church Plant in Berea (vv. 10b–15)
Berea was 50 miles from Thessalonica. The disciples must have figured that Paul was safe there. There was nothing happening in this little town — it was dead. Paul could have kicked back and relaxed for a while to nurse his wounds. So, what do you think he first did in Berea? As soon as he arrived, he went into that city's synagogue! (You just couldn’t stop this guy's commitment!)
Clearly in v. 11, the noble-mindedness of the Berean Jews was a matter of emphasis for Luke. What made these people “noble-minded”? First, the picture Luke paints of this Jewish community at Berea is one that depicts Judaism at its best, the way God intended for his people to be. Sadly, the Bereans were the exception to the rule; but they happily depicted the ideal for Old Testament people of God. The remaining characteristics of these Bereans, who were, indeed, “noble-minded,” are what set them apart from other Jews. Second, the noble-minded Jews of Berea were looking for Messiah; they didn't believe anything other than the fact that Jesus was the promised Messiah. These Jews “received the word with great eagerness” (v. 11). They obviously loved the Word of God and sought to live by it. Third, the noble-minded Berean Jews were predisposed toward Paul’s teaching, while the Jews of Thessalonica were predisposed against it. Finally, the noble-minded Jews of Berea had a very different way of handling those with whom they differed. The Jews of Thessalonica, like those in other cities, were willing to resort to political manipulation and mob violence. Not so with these Jews at Berea. If violence and unrest occurred, the Berean Jews would never have been the cause of it.
Concluding “So What Now?” Considerations
Now that Luke has completed his account of the missionaries ministering in the first two of three Jewish cities, it's wise to highlight one important realization that's relevant and applicable to our own day and time. After reading vv. 1–15, we're obliged to ask ourselves: "So what now? What have I learned and how do I apply it today?"
Our text challenges us to "Become Berean Christians.” The noble-mindedness of the Berean Jews is surely set before us as an ideal, a goal for every Christian. The Berean attitude can be summarized by two words: "confidence" and "distrust." The Bereans were characterized by a noteworthy confidence in the Word of God, being God’s authoritative source of revelation and the standard by which all teaching and conduct should be appraised. Quite possibly, the Bereans had a confidence in their own ability to understand and interpret the Bible.
But the second characteristic of the Berean attitude was that of distrust. While God’s Word is perfect, man's words aren't. Thus, the Bereans didn't assume that every so-called biblical teaching taught by man was documented by Scriptures. Even a teacher as great as Paul wasn't presumed to have spoken rightly, simply because he sounded authoritative. The Bereans devotedly examined the Scriptures to back up or refute a man's teaching. The Bereans believed wholeheartedly that every man’s teaching must be tested by the Word of God.
We Hearty Boys need gifted teachers, such as Paul, who'll challenge us and our interpretations, make us uneasy, and urge us to read the Bible so we can successfully test our own thinking and interpretation of Scripture.
So what now? What are we to do having taken in this essential account? Let's attempt to be Berean in our handling of God's Word; let's ask God to give us the love and eagerness to study God’s Word so we can test the teachings of all men; let's make ourselves responsible for discerning what the Bible teaches and not let others do our thinking for us; let's listen to faithful men and women very carefully; and then let's do our homework by reading, discussing, and studying the Word as the only authoritative source of doctrine and practice.
- Q. 1 Are you a person who turns the world upside down? What enables or prevents you from doing so?
- Q. 2 What made the Bereans worthy of the “noble” designation?
- Q. 3 What does total commitment to Christ and the gospel look like in a person who isn't gifted as an evangelist or a missionary?
New International Version (NIV) [View it in a different version by clicking here; also listen to chapter 17.]
† Watch this "Visual Bible" video clip: Acts 16:34–18:11, starring Bruce Marchiano as Jesus, James Brolin as Simon Peter, Harry O. Arnold as Saul/Paul, and Dean Jones as Luke.
17 When Paul and his companions had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. 2As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead. “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah,” he said. 4Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women.
5But 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. 6But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some other believers before the city officials, shouting: “These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, 7and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.” 8When they heard this, the crowd and the city officials were thrown into turmoil. 9Then they made Jason and the others post bond and let them go.
10As soon as it was night, the believers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea. On arriving there, they went to the Jewish synagogue. 11Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. 12As a result, many of them believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men.
13But when the Jews in Thessalonica learned that Paul was preaching the word of God at Berea, some of them went there too, agitating the crowds and stirring them up. 14The believers immediately sent Paul to the coast, but Silas and Timothy stayed at Berea. 15Those who escorted Paul brought him to Athens and then left with instructions for Silas and Timothy to join him as soon as possible.