Acts 17.1-15 - Really not welcome

The Acts of the Apostles

Acts tells a very carefully-crafted story in which the structure and content of the story of the explosive development of the early church throughout the then-known world match precisely. In this brief introduction, I point to two major structural features of Luke’s narrative.
First, one can see Acts through the lens of mission. After an introduction in which Jesus’ followers wait for empowerment by the Spirit before going out on their mission (1.1-26), the first mission occurs in Jerusalem (21.-8.1a). This is followed by missions in Samaria and Judea (8.1b-12.25).
Luke’s focus then switches to individuals leading mission in the Gentile world, beginning with Barnabus and Saul (13.1-15.35); and developing into Paul’s mission to “the ends of the earth” (15.36-28.31). You can see that our text (17.1-15) fits into this last ‘movement’.
In this way, Luke’s narrative structure captures his intention to show how the Gospel of Jesus Christ was taken from its Jewish homebase in Jerusalem to half-Jews in Samaria and finally out into the wider Gentile world. At the beginning of each of these three ‘movements’ outwards – and this is the second structural feature I want to point to - there is a coming-down of the Holy Spirit who is the inspirer and enabler of this mission, with speaking in tongues giving aural and visual demonstration of the Spirit’s presence and available gifts for mission (2.1-12; 8.14-18. Speaking in tongues is not mentioned in this latter passage but clearly there was some visible sign of the Samaritans’ reception of the Spirit as Simon saw that the Spirit was given…[8.18]; 19.6).
In summary, Acts tells the story of the spread of the Gospel throughout the then-known world in three clear ‘movements’ under the empowerment and guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Paul’s visit to Thessalonica in Acts 17

Paul visited Thessalonica, the capital city of the Roman province of Macedonia during his second missionary journey (he made three journeys). Thessalonica was a Greek city with a well-attested devotion to the cult of the Roman emperor. The incident described at Acts 17.1-9 reflects opposition to the Gospel arising both from this devotion to the cult of the emperor (17.7) and from Jewish opposition to the Gospel.
The Acts account then tells us that Paul and Silas had to leave Thessalonica because of the dangerous opposition there to their ministry. They went to Beroea which lies about 50 miles away from Thessalonica where they again went to a synagogue, receiving a much more friendly welcome on this occasion (17.11). However, hostile Jews from Thessalonica, disturbed by the openness of the synagogue in Beroea followed Paul and incited the same kind of opposition, again resulting in Paul’s having to leave the city (17.14).
It is clear that, on the surface at least, Luke’s account of Paul’s visit to Thessalonica bears little resemblance to Paul’s letter. Whereas Paul preaches in the synagogue to Jews in Acts, he addresses a Gentile church community in his epistle in which there is no sign of a Jewish presence (though there may have been as Jews were all over the place). Further, there is no interest in the Thessalonian correspondence in the great issues between Jewish and Gentile believers that dominate some of Paul’s other letters.
However, it is also clear from 1 Thessalonians, that this community has known persecution in the past (1.3; 2.14; 3.2-3)  and that persecution was probably an ever-present threat, perhaps not from Jews – as I’ve said, no sign in Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians of the Jewish opposition that is such a marked feature of Luke’s portrait of Paul’s time in Thessalonica – but most likely from devotees of the Roman cult of emperor-worship which always presented an alternative view to the Christian one of who rules the world.
After he had visited Thessalonica Paul went to Athens, from where he sent Timothy to Thessalonica to get him information about conditions in the congregation so that he could write to encourage them to stand firm for the Gospel. It is this report from Timothy that motivates 1Thessalonians. Paul thus doesn’t write to the Thessalonians to combat some theological aberration or difficult pastoral issue; rather, his purpose is to strengthen a congregation that was probably fairly young in their faith in the light of two factors, especially: the ever-present threat of persecution and the imminence of the Day of the Lord.

Discussion questions

  1. What were the difficulties Paul and Silas faced as they sought to preach the Gospel in Thessalonica? (Suggested answers for leaders: [1] they preached in a synagogue, which meant that he was bringing a new ‘angle’ by his preaching of Jesus to beliefs he and Jews shared, especially to the shared belief that Jews were waiting for a Messiah or Saviour. [2] They faced persecution because of the success of their preaching (v.5). [3] Those who were “jealous” got “ruffians” (v.5) to use violence to stir up widespread mob-anger against Paul and Silas. [4] They persecuted other believers (v.6) and had them accused of the very serious offence of proclaiming another king (Jesus) in opposition to the Roman Emperor).
  1. Remind yourselves of the content of Paul’s proclamation of the Gospel in Acts. A good passage for this would be his proclamation in Athens (17.16-31), where he is in another city in which idol-worship was a major factor in the cultural religions of the Greek-speaking world at the time.
  1. Compare the content of Paul’s proclamation with Peter’s sermon in Acts 2.14-36. Note the differences between the proclamation of the two men and explain it. (Broadly speaking, Peter, speaking to Jews, addresses them in terms of their own scriptures and traditions, whereas Paul, speaking in a Gentile context in which idol-worship was rife, addresses that error specifically). Note that Peter is doing in chapter 2 what Luke describes members of the synagogue in Beroea doing in 17.11.
  1. How do you think the Gospel should be proclaimed today in 21st century England? How would you use what you have learned from Paul and Peter, and what changes would you need to make so that your proclamation is attuned to your audience?
  1. Share experiences of being persecuted for the Gospel among you. What does it feel like; how were you affected; how did you cope?

Tim Long, 06/05/2014