This study provides important background to the study of Paul’s letter to the Philippians.
Acts 17: 1-4
For more information on Thessalonica see https://www.bibleplaces.com/thessalonica/.
1. What is different in Thessalonica compared to Philippi where Paul has just come from?
There is a synagogue in Thessalonica which indicates a sizeable Jewish population.
2. What scriptures is Luke referring to?
The New Testament did not exist, so Luke is referring to the Old Testament. This could be a significant sidetrack.
If you want to pursue this topic there are two excellent sites which provide lists of prophecies from the Old Testament fulfilled by Jesus:
Two passages worth looking at in summary are Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53.
3. What did Paul have to provide to the Jews?
He had to provide them adequate proof from their own scriptures to convince them to leave behind several thousand years of tradition.
4. How well did Paul’s approach work?
Those who were open to the gospel believed. In addition to some of the Jews, there were some Gentiles who also believed. It is interesting to note that Luke makes special note of the women who believe.
1. How did the non-believing Jews respond?
They responded with violence. The Jews hated the Romans, but they were willing to call on the Roman authorities in an attempt to stop the gospel from being proclaimed. This is consistent with what the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem did in order to have Jesus crucified.
2. What do they accuse Paul and Silas of?
They essentially accused Paul and Silas of treason. They claimed that Paul and Silas were calling for people to worship a king other than Caesar, and they were. This was the one charge that the Romans would have cared about. The Romans didn’t care about the concept of the trinity, the crucifixion, or the resurrection. The did care a great deal about who was king.
3. What is different in the treatment of Jason and the others from the way Paul and Silas were treated in Philippi?
The Jews in Thessalonica do not have the power to put Paul and Silas or their followers in prison. The Jews must accept whatever the Roman authorities decide. In this case it appears that the local authorities are more concerned about restoring order than they are about stopping the spread of the gospel. In Philippi, the men bringing the complaint were Romans and Paul and Silas were thought to be only Jews. The authorities in Philippi had no hesitation in beating Paul and Silas before throwing them into prison.
4. What do the believers do to restore peace?
They send Paul and Silas away. I think this required great faith. We are not told that any of Paul’s party stayed behind. If no one did, then this group of new believers had to totally trust in the guidance of the Holy Spirit for what to do next.
1. What is unique about the Jews in Berea?
They checked out what Paul and Silas were teaching. They might have even gotten help from their rabbi. We know they got out the scrolls and examined them carefully to verify what they were hearing. In Thessalonica there were some Jews who believed, but in Berea there are many Jews who believe.
2. Why are the Jews in Thessalonica so determined to get rid of Paul?
The message of the gospel is a threat to the Jewish way of life. The gospel turns existing authority structures upside down. Thousands of years of being God’s only special people disappear as Gentiles find equal status in God’s eyes.
3. The barrier that existed between Jews and Gentiles was a clear form of racism. What must break God’s heart to this day?
Racism exists among Christians around the world. For some reason we seem to bring the racial barriers that divide us outside the church into the church. This is not unique in the United States. Tribalism and racism in many forms exist in almost every culture around the world. Jesus died to break down these barriers and we seem determined to rebuild them.
4. How does Paul feel about being on his own?
Paul does not enjoy being on his own. The missionary life is hard and it is important to have friends to share those hardships with.
1. How is Paul received in Athens?
He seems to be well received. There is no mention of Jewish converts, but there is also no mention of Jewish opposition. He finds and audience that is at least curious about what he is teaching.
2. How does Paul spend his time?
He goes to the places where people are gathered and begins to teach. He engages people in conversation with the hope that they will accept his message.
3. What is the core of Paul’s message?
The risen Jesus in the focus of Paul’s teaching. This probably meant that Paul was proclaiming that Jesus was the Messiah to the Jews and that Jesus was God to the Gentiles. The concept of God in a human body would have been hard for both groups to accept. This is why the resurrection is key. The resurrection is the proof that Jesus is who He claimed to be.
4. Where would you find an atmosphere like the one Paul encountered in Athens?
I think of two places, although neither seem to be as open to the gospel as Paul found the intellectuals in Athens. The Areopagus was a place where the leaders of the city gathered. A gathering of the Optimist club might have some similar characteristic. The other places I thought of were a university and a TED talk.
5. Who seems to be missing in Athens?
Paul seems to be on his own. There is no mention of his traveling companions.
Note: It would be possible to spend an entire session working through the details of this encounter. The questions below provide only a high-level look at the situation and Paul’s message.
1. This situation is very much like a TED talk today. How did Paul begin?
He begins by complimenting his audience and establishing a common reference point. His words are very respectful and not combative.
2. What does Paul teach them about God?
God is the creator of everything. God is the source of life. God does not need anything. God is in control of everything.
3. How is this different from the idols that the Athenians worship?
The Athenians had many idols or gods. They had a creation story, but without a single creator. The core of idolatry is that each god has power over a specific aspect of life. People serve the god to receive favors from the god. Idols can be manipulated leading people to think they are in control.
4. What does Paul teach them about themselves?
He first tells them that they are God’s children. Then he tells them that idolatry is an offense against God. This offense comes with a penalty. Paul doesn’t go into detail about hell, but he does make clear that a day of judgment will come. He introduces Jesus without naming Jesus and then mentions the resurrection.
5. How important is the resurrection to Paul’s message?
The resurrection is the proof that everything else Paul has said is true. It is the foundation on which the rest of Paul’s message is built.
6. What does the message of the resurrection do to the audience?
The concept of a man rising from the dead divides the audience. Some reject it and look at Paul with contempt. There are some others who are curious and want to hear more. We should not expect that everyone who hears the gospel message will believe it.
7. How does Paul’s message differ from the messages commonly preached today?
Paul proclaims truth. He explains the gospel using the language of his audience. This is a message designed to open the door to repentance and belief. Paul is not trying to tell people how to have a more successful or happy life. His is a message of life and death.