‘We must all experience many hardships before we enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). How do we react to that warning? Typically, I believe it, but push it to my brain’s back burner. Or, how about this: “This Jesus . . . is the Messiah” (Acts 17:3)? Do we dig into the meaning of “Messiah” and why Paul said “This Jesus”, or do we assent superficially to this teaching?
In today’s text we find starkly contrasting reactions to Paul’s preaching. The first sets out an example we should shun, the second one we should seek
Having left Philipi (http://theoldpreacher.com/jail-quake/) Paul, Silas and Timothy (Luke is out of the picture until 20:6) travel southwest (by horse or foot) on the Via Egnatia, the great Roman highway. Thirty-three miles to Amphipolis, 27 to Apollonia, 35 to Thessalonica.
Paul and Silas traveled on through Amphipolis and Apollonia and came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue. According to his usual habit Paul went to the synagogue. There during three Sabbaths he held discussions with the people, quoting and explaining the Scriptures, and proving from them that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from death. “This Jesus whom I announce to you,” Paul said, “is the Messiah” (Acts 17:1-3, TEV).
Thessalonica was the capital of the Roman province Macedonia with a population of 100,000. The city was a center for both trade and philosophy. Greek, Roman, Egyptian and imperial cults marked its religious life. The city had a Jewish population sufficient to support a synagogue. As was his habit, Paul visited to preach the Gospel “to the Jew first.”
Unlike Philippi, author Luke offers no personal conversion accounts. Instead, he summarizes Paul’s message from the Jewish Scriptures: “the Messiah had to suffer and rise from death” and “This Jesus . . . is the Messiah.”
Some of them were convinced and joined Paul and Silas; so did many of the leading women and a large group of Greeks who worshiped God. But some Jews were jealous and gathered worthless loafers from the streets and formed a mob. They set the whole city in an uproar and attacked the home of a man named Jason, in an attempt to find Paul and Silas and bring them out to the people (Acts 17:4,5, TEV).
Jewish men, upper-class Jewish women and Gentile Greeks who adhered to Jewish Law but remained uncircumcised “were convinced.” All these “joined Paul and Silas” forming a new church in the city.
On the other hand “some Jews were jealous.” Suspicious of Paul. Envious of his success. Protective of their synagogue. So they rounded up “worthless loafers from the streets and formed a mob.” Rushing the house of Jason (who lodged the visiting missionaries), they searched for Paul and Silas.
But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some other believers before the city authorities and shouted, “These men have caused trouble everywhere! Now they have come to our city, and Jason has kept them in his house. They are all breaking the laws of the Emperor, saying that there is another king, whose name is Jesus.” With these words they threw the crowd and the city authorities in an uproar. The authorities made Jason and the others pay the required amount of money to be released, and then let them go (Acts 17:6-9, TEV).
Jason and other believers bore the brunt of the mob’s anger. Like Philippi, Thessalonica was self-governed by Greeks, albeit under Roman rule. These magistrates don’t appear terribly troubled when they hear Paul and Silas had identified “another king” other than Caesar. Their sentence was basically bail, to be lost if Paul and Silas returned.
Results of Paul’s preaching in Thessalonica, then, were mixed. A church was planted of those who were convinced that Jesus is Messiah. But other Jews reacted with hostility, and not (apparently) over truth. They were jealous. It seems, therefore, they gave little consideration to the substance of Paul’s message. They heard, “The Messiah had to suffer and rise from death. This Jesus whom I announce to you is the Messiah.” But what spurred reaction was the numbers convinced who left to join Paul and Silas. Like the seed scattered on rocky soil in Jesus’ parable, Satan stole away the word from these jealous Jews who never thought deeply about this Jesus (Matthew 13:4).
As soon as night came, the believers sent Paul and Silas to Berea. When they arrived, they went to the synagogue. The people there were more open-minded than the people in Thessalonica. They listened to the message with great eagerness, and every day they studied the Scriptures to see if what Paul said was really true.Many of them believed; and many Greek women of high social standing and many Greek men also believed (Acts 17:10-12, TEV).
Berea lay 60 miles from Thessalonica. Paul’s tactic was the same: visit the synagogue and preach from the Jewish Scriptures that Messiah had to die and rise. And this Messiah is Jesus. Luke observes that the Bereans were more eugenays than the Thessalonia. The word can be translated “noble” (ESV), but TEV is probably more accurate to translate “open-minded.” Unlike the reactionary Thessalonians, “They listened with great eagerness . . . and every day . . . studied the Scriptures” with the result that “many of them believed.” Maybe the Thessalonians who believed responded similarly. Maybe only some Thessalonians reacted with hostility. But Luke’s intentional description of the Berean response commends them.
But when the Jews in Thessalonica heard that Paul had preached the word of God in Berea also, they came there and started exciting and stirring up the mobs. At once the believers sent Paul away to the coast; but both Silas and Timothy stayed in Berea. The men who were taking Paul went with him as far as Athens and then returned to Berea with instructions from Paul that Silas and Timothy should join him as soon as possible. (Acts 17:13-15, TEV).
The Berean visit ended abruptly. The trouble-making Thessalonian Jews showed up in Berea. Paul probably didn’t want to leave so soon, but “the believers sent Paul away to the coast” with Silas and Timothy to meet him in Athens once they were sure the new Berean believers were ready to go it alone.
The people of Berea responded wisely, commendably. Eugenays means they were objective and receptive, but also that they held high moral principles and ideals (“noble”). These qualities drove them everyday to “[study] the Scriptures to see if what Paul said was really true.”
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Here, then, are two examples of sermon-listening and Bible-reading. First, some of the Thessalonians. Now we’re not apt to sue our pastor if he preaches something we don’t like. But we are apt to listen enough only to presume we’ve heard it all before. Or to tune him out not wanting to hear any disagreeable lesson. Or to half-listen while letting our minds wander to something more pressing or exciting. (A real problem, since even good listeners retain only about 10% of what they hear!) All this is reactionary listening, like the hostile Thessalonian Jews.
The better example is the Bereans. They listened with “eagerness.” They wanted to learn something new. They rejected the I-heard-it-all-before attitude. But they weren’t so open-minded that their brains fell out. Everyday they studied the Scriptures to see if Paul’s message matched up. They wouldn’t react against the humiliating doctrine that their Messiah had to die. Their Scripture-study-response became the Holy Spirit’s fuel to ground them in the Gospel.
I know time is a problem. If we go to Sunday Worship, who has time to study the sermon-Scripture later? If we read the Bible on our own, how can we grab more than a few minutes. Besides, a little Scripture, even if not interpreted correctly, is better than none!
But superficial Scripture knowledge as culture attacks our faith increasingly, may not be enough. Times call for disciples learning to know and live God’s word.
Let’s not be like some of those Thessalonians! Don’t buy what the preacher says just because he says it. Or whatever might “stick” from a cursory reading. Let’s be like the Bereans—listen eagerly, but then study the Scriptures. Because men’s words can’t save—only God’s. And even God’s must be understood correctly.