Every person has their own traits and personality. But when people come together – such as in a town or a team – the combined group can have traits and personality too. Luke uses that in Acts as he describes various select cities in the western Roman empire where churches are planted by Paul and his team. In each, the Lord challenges issues which the particular city needs to face. So Philippi (Ac 16) was a proud city which needed to discover humility. Next is Thessalonica, a city nestling 80 miles to the west of Philippi, in a corner of the Aegean Sea.
Though lacking the status of Philippi, this large port near a major road is economically strong with a big population, including sufficient Jews to have a synagogue (v1). But the strength of the city is also its weakness because its wealth invites the pursuit of an easy life. Paul later wrote of how he made sure he paid his own way at Thessalonica so he couldn’t be seen as living off others (1Th 2:9), as some travelling speakers did. Paul wanted to give an example of one who gives not takes (2Th 3:6-12). In a comfortable society it is easy to fall into a taker’s attitude and pursue one’s desires. But Christ challenges such a lifestyle (Ac 20:35) and, therefore, so did Paul. Happily, the church in Thessalonica learned the lesson and became known for its love (1Th 4:9-12). However, the road to that reputation included hard moments for the believers, as we see in our passage.
Arriving in the city, Paul goes to the Jews first, as usual (v2). Over three weeks of discussion at the synagogue, Paul emphasises to his hearers that Christ had to suffer and then rise (v3). It is hard for them to take this in. They probably think that if Jesus really was the Messiah then his life would have been one of victory, success and mastery, rather than dying on a cross like a slave. But Paul drives home to them that Christ had to be the suffering servant (Is 53). We can imagine that in comfortable Thessalonica it would be very hard to view ‘poor’ Jesus as God’s promised king. However, a number believe including some of the prominent women (v4) whose lives must have been very far removed from the struggles Jesus faced (Mt 8:20). But this gospel impact upon life in Thessalonica does not sit well with the local Jews. Angry with Paul, they gather unruly men from the market-place to start a riot, and try to grab Paul and Silas from the home of Jason, one of the new converts (v5). When the duo are found to be missing, they take the young believers instead and bring them before the authorities, accusing them of turning the world upside down (v6). The charge is then expanded into treason: their claim of Jesus as king is in direct opposition to Caesar (v7)! As a result the authorities feel huge pressure (v8) to act and only release the believers when money has been paid over (v9). But the agitation and threat levels remain so high that the Christians decide to send Paul and Silas away in the night (v10).
To spread his kingdom, Jesus tackles particular sins in cultures and groups. At some level all people break all of God’s laws, requiring repentance. However, we see in Jesus’ own ministry, and in his work in Acts, that he also brings a sharp focus onto those sins which are most characteristic of a group (eg Mt 23:13-31). In Thessalonica that was self-centred living which encouraged taking not giving. This reminds us to examine our evangelism and ask whether it speaks to the particular issues of our society and day.
But it also tells us to examine our own hearts and churches. That is to be done with care. We can find it easy to see faults in other people or point to features of our church we dislike. Well, both of those can be handled in discussions Christians have with one another. But seeking out our sinful traits is a deeper, more serious matter. These may be harmful patterns of living picked up from our society which we don’t even notice. Dealing with such faults can be difficult and painful. But as Christians and a church we must want to have our lives remade, even if it feels like upsetting our whole world. In Thessalonica, Jesus did that through the preaching of the cross and the example of Paul; it seems he also did it through persecution (1Th 1:3-6). But the result in the lives of the Christians was glorious (1Th 2:19,20). That must be our inspiration and hope. Though the Lord’s path may be hard, it will lead to the finest of outcomes.