The Anglican bishop N.T. Wright is reputed to have said, “Wherever St. Paul went, there was a riot. Wherever I go, they serve tea.” Over the next several months, we are going to look at two books by one of the most important writers in the Bible: the Apostle Paul.
The Jew named Saul had risen quickly in the ranks of the Pharisees when Jesus Christ completely upended the life of this “Hebrew of Hebrews” (Philippians 3:5). He was on his way to continue to persecute the Church (Acts 9:5), but for the rest of his life, Paul — a new name for a new man — would use the same zeal to build the Church he once tried to destroy. God graciously inspired and preserved 12 of Paul’s letters to churches. In this column, we will look at two of his earliest letters: 1 and 2 Thessalonians. Since Paul wrote these letters to guide this young church in Thessalonica, we will look this month at Luke’s record of the church’s founding in Acts 17:1-9.
When Acts 17 begins, Paul has just been released from prison in Philippi for preaching the gospel. He then traveled about 100 miles to Thessalonica, which was the most important city in the Roman province of Macedonia. He went to a Jewish synagogue and argued for three weeks that Jesus was the Christ, or Messiah. He claimed, based on their Scriptures (or the Old Testament), that the Messiah had to suffer, die, and rise again. Presumably, he quoted passages like Isaiah 53, Psalm 2, and Psalm 110.
Many Gentiles became Christians as a response to his message, but the Jews became jealous and stirred up a crowd to accuse him of disturbing the peace or even bringing about an insurrection. The crowd couldn’t find Paul, but they did imprison a supporter of Paul named Jason before Jason was released on bail. After Jason’s release, Paul left Thessalonica, but, as we will see in later months, he did not forget the Thessalonian church.
Today as we think back on this story, what do churches need to take seriously? First, churches should take seriously the fact that the story of Jesus dominated Paul’s message. In Luke’s concise summary of Paul’s message, we see that Paul’s message was about the death and resurrection of Jesus. Churches must realize that the gospel is not first about feeling better, finding purpose, for whom to vote, or even a plan of salvation. The gospel is the story of Jesus, and the gospel is what saves.
Second, churches must take seriously the fact that the message wasn’t political, but the message affected the way people thought about politics. In other words, Paul wasn’t starting a political revolution, but his opponents rightly recognized that he was proclaiming “another King, Jesus” (Acts 17:7). The phrase translated “turn the world upside down” often means to “disturb, trouble, upset” — in this case, the whole Roman world. The story of Jesus is the power of God to save those who believe and thus recognize their need of salvation, but the same gospel threatens, disturbs, and troubles those who trust in Caesar — then, or today.
These truths were, and are, the disturbing foundation of the Church. God has come to rescue His people through the death and the resurrection of Jesus. Those who believe that message join themselves to God’s Church (Acts 17:4) and hold to something deeper and stronger than Caesar. God, through Paul, called believers to a different life then. Through 1 and 2 Thessalonians, He still does today.