On leaving Philippi, Paul’s party travelled southwestward towards Thessalonica. No reason is given as to why Amphipolis and Apollonia were “passed through” without intensive evangelism (Acts 17:1). Doubtless the Lord’s servants continued to follow His guidance as in chapter 16, so, under divine direction, they pressed on. “I caused it to rain upon one city, and caused it not to rain upon another city” (Amos 4:7). The Sovereign of the universe is under no obligation to explain why.
Thessalonica is unique in that we learn as much about the commencement of the work from the epistle as from the historical narrative. When reminiscing, Paul said that his preaching there was “in much conflict” (1Thes 2:2 RV). Opposition came mainly from the Jews; they were as bitter in their hostility to Paul as he, the wolf-like Benjamite, had been toward early believers. He had persecuted them “unto strange cities” (Acts 26:11), and the Thessalonian Jews harried him as far as the city of Berea (Acts 17:13).
In Acts 17, there is the impression that converts were mainly from a Jewish background or the “devout” who were linked to them (v4). However, the epistle reveals other facts. Many had “turned to God from idols” (1Thes 1:9). There was magnetism about “the living and true God” that had drawn them from their former vanities to serve Him as slaves. Decisively abandoning the old life is as necessary for us today; so too is Thessalonian slave-like commitment to the new Master.
“His manner” (Acts 17:2), or “custom” (RV), was to make the Jewish synagogue his first port of call in any new venture. There was a ready-made audience of people there who had some affiliation with him, which he exploited; but there is a thread that runs through the Acts of the Apostles demonstrating that the gospel was “to the Jew first, and also to the Greek” (Rom 1:16). Jerusalem and Judæa had to be reached before the branches ran over the wall to other territories (Acts 1:8). On arriving at Antioch, refugee evangelists had initially “preach(ed) the word to none but unto the Jews only” (Acts 11:19). And now, as ever, Paul visited the synagogue first. His custom does not give license for involvement in outreach connected to unbiblical ecclesiastical systems; he perceived the gospel as being an offer “to the Jew first.”
Although there is a Jewish slant here, there is a definite pattern in how this prince of preachers communicated with his audience, and there is guidance for the core content of our own preaching. He “reasoned with them out of the Scriptures.” Everything he said was Bible-based, so involvement in gospel activity demands knowledge of the Scriptures. Before the Lord commissioned His apostles as “witnesses,” He “opened … their understanding, that they might understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45-49). In spiritual infancy, witnessing might be limited to “one thing I know …” (John 9:25), but earnest evangelism requires clear knowledge of the Word. “Preach the Word” (2Tim 4:2). Quote its verses, explain its truths, use its stories as illustrations; perhaps they could elucidate a point more adequately than an anecdote or some drama recounted from a newspaper. At Berea they “searched the Scriptures daily, whether those things were so” (Acts 17:11) and it demonstrates that some may check out the validity of the message we preach. Hence the importance of being precise in the presentation of Bible truth. Accuracy should never be sacrificed on the altar of novelty and sensation.
Paul’s message focused on the sufferings and resurrection of the Lord Jesus, with the added factor for the Jewish audience that Jesus is the Christ (v3). Preaching that minimizes time at the cross or ignores the glorious fact of the resurrection is defective. A full gospel demands the preaching of sin, the need for repentance and faith, and a warning of judgment, but at the heart of the message there must be “Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (1Cor 2:2). Even in personal witnessing, we should strive to be like Philip the evangelist, whose approach was just like Paul’s, employing the Scriptures and presenting Christ. When speaking to an African pilgrim, he “began at the same Scripture, and preached unto him Jesus” (Acts 8:35).
Inevitably, Paul’s preaching was divisive, with some who “believed” (v4) and others who “believed not” (v5). Motivated by envy (jealousy, RV), unbelieving Jews marshaled opposition to the preachers. Joining with marketplace idlers, these conceited religionists sought out the objects of their hatred.
Thwarted, they dragged others to the rulers with two main allegations. First, they described the absent missionaries as, “These that have turned the world upside down” (v6). Their statement conveys this at least; wherever they went, these preachers made an impact. No city was left as they found it. No one remained neutral to what they had heard. No conscience was left unstirred. It is in stark contrast to our own ineffectiveness in the western world today. Sadly, we sow much and bring in little (Hag 1:6). Often we toil all night and take nothing (Luke 5:5). Modern attitudes undoubtedly contribute to our disappointments. Militant atheism has spawned increasing skepticism. Religious scandals have spread disillusionment. Comfortable living standards have created apathy. Having said all that, we have to acknowledge that, generally, the drive and commitment of the early missionaries are not seen among us today. Their dependence on God expressed in their prayer lives, their sensitivity to His leading, and their willingness to renounce self-interests are rarities. Are there any who are willing to face the challenge of the consecration that is necessary to reverse current trends?
The second accusation that was made was of rebellion against Roman authority (v7). The preachers had never encouraged civil disobedience, but their opponents perceived them to be preaching “another king;” another of a different kind (heteros), just as He is another prophet of a different kind (Acts 8:34) and another priest of a different kind (Heb 7:11). Undoubtedly, Paul’s preaching insisted on acknowledging the authority of Christ. We would call that, “lordship,” rather than the “kingship” that was read into what was being said. An integral part of the conversion experience is the willingness to submit to Christ, confessing “Jesus as Lord” (Rom 10:9, RV), calling on “the name of the Lord” (v13). Like Paul, we should alert our audiences to the fact that salvation leads to a changed lifestyle characterized by obedience to the One Whom Peter describes on four occasions as “our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”