Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.” And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. But the Jews were jealous, and taking some wicked men of the rabble, they formed a mob, set the city in an uproar, and attacked the house of Jason, seeking to bring them out to the crowd. And when they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some of the brothers before the city authorities, shouting, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has received them, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.” And the people and the city authorities were disturbed when they heard these things. And when they had taken money as security from Jason and the rest, they let them go.
The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived, they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men. But when the Jews from Thessalonica learned that the word of God was proclaimed by Paul at Berea also, they came there too, agitating and stirring up the crowds. Then the brothers immediately sent Paul off on his way to the sea, but Silas and Timothy remained there. Those who conducted Paul brought him as far as Athens, and after receiving a command for Silas and Timothy to come to him as soon as possible, they departed. – Acts 17:1–15 (ESV)
There have been two gale winds blowing against Paul’s ministry. One has been Jewish persecution and the other persecution by the Roman authorities. Increasingly Paul will be struggling against the latter. N.T. Wright helps us understand why:
Anyone who suggests that Luke was writing this book to show the authorities who might glance at it that Christianity was a peaceful movement which merely encouraged everyone to be good citizens should look at this pair of verses and think again. ‘These people who have been turning the world upside down’, they said, ‘have come here.’ Well, yes. Paul would probably, if pushed, say that they were turning the world right way up, because it was currently upside down, but he most likely have been quite pleased to see that people had at least understood that he wasn’t’ just offering people a new religious experience, but announcing to the world that its creator was at last setting it all right. And, the charge goes on, ‘all of them all acting against Caesar’s decrees’ – they don’t say which ones, but the meaning seems to be in the final phrase – ‘saying that there is another king, namely Jesus.’
Another king! Well they really have got the message. Jesus is Lord and Caesar isn’t; the fundamental ‘decree’ or ‘dogma’ of Caesar is that he and he alone is emperor. Northern Greece had been the site of the awful civil wars a century before, where Brutus and Cassius had fought it out with Anthony and Octavian after the death of Julius Caesar, and Anthony and Octavian (Augustus) had fought it out for eventual mastery. A phrase like ‘another king’ sounded very much as though people were thinking of starting another civil war aimed at ousting the Emperor Claudius and installing another candidate. If all this took place, as seems likely, around AD 50, we should remind ourselves that less than two decades later no fewer than three emperors were hailed, in far flung parts of the empire, as ‘another king’, and installed in quick succession, making up the ‘year of four emperors’ of AD 69. These things were all too possible, and the charge all too believable.
So yes, increasing Paul was being persecuted by the Romans but this hardly means that the Jews were leaving him alone. In verse 11, we are famously told that the Jews in Berea were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica because they kept examining the Scriptures to see whether or not what Paul was telling them was true. But what we shouldn’t miss is that, in their fury, some of the Jews from Thessalonica actually traveled to Berea to persecute Paul there too! This will be critical to remember when we begin studying First Thessalonians next week. In particular, it would be good if we could keep these two truths in mind: (1) Paul was driven out of Thessalonica in just a few weeks. This means that the new Christians there had essentially no time to mature in the faith before they were left without an Apostolic teacher; and (2) The fledging church in Thessalonica was worshipping in an environment where they could expect severe opposition both from the Gentiles and also from the Jews.
MEMORY WORK – Shorter Catechism Q/A 65
Q. 65. What is forbidden in the fifth commandment?
A. The fifth commandment forbiddeth the neglecting of, or doing anything against, the honor and duty which belongeth to every one in their several places and relations.