October 16 – Backgrounder to the Thessalonian Letters

October 16, 2020 Randy Bushey

~by Randy Bushey

And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ” (Acts 17:2,3).

Thessalonica is a city with an unusual name. But it’s one of the few cities evangelized by the Apostle Paul in the 1st century that survives to the 21st, now a tourist destination of over 300,000 with the name Thessaloniki, or Salonica, in Central Macedonia in northern Greece.

However, Paul – together with Silas and Timothy – was not there for a vacation. And the “welcome mat” was pulled out from under his feet!

This city figured prominently on his 2nd missionary journey where Paul and his companions functioned as itinerant evangelists.

Here’s the backstory:

Acts 16 tells us that while in Asia Minor, Paul & Silas encountered Timothy and were subsequently directed by Lord to head west to Macedonia. This meant they were crossing over from Asia Minor to Europe.

Wanting to evangelize Europe, they headed for the significant city of Philippi, where Lydia was their 1st European convert. Paul became embroiled in a skirmish when he freed a fortune-telling slave-girl of demonic oppression. Her owners, seeing the loss of commercial potential, promptly dragged Paul and Silas before the local magistrates.

A mob scene ensued, resulting in the apostles being beaten with rods (analogous to being pounded across the back with a hockey stick) and dragged to the local jail where they were fastened in stocks.

At midnight, as they entertained the other prisoners as a hymn-singing duo, a sudden earthquake shook the foundations, releasing the prisoners’ bonds as the jail doors swung open.

Recognizing the consequence of being responsible for escapees, the head jailer was about to kill himself when he was intercepted by Paul and led to Christ.

The next day, officials of the city intended to release Paul and Silas if they would leave town. However, as Roman citizens, the missionaries had state-guaranteed civil liberties – including the right to a properly constituted trial – that had been trampled upon in the melee of the day before. When asked to leave quietly, Paul refused to meekly capitulate:

But Paul said to the officers: “They beat us publicly without a trial, even though we are Roman citizens, and threw us into prison. And now do they want to get rid of us quietly? No! Let them come themselves and escort us out.”
The officers reported this to the magistrates, and when they heard that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens, they were alarmed. They came to appease them and escorted them from the prison, requesting them to leave the city. After Paul and Silas came out of the prison, they went to Lydia’s house, where they met with the brothers and encouraged them. Then they left (Acts 16:37-40).

It was in that badly beaten-up condition that the small missionary band walked the 160 kms – every stride a painful reminder of their bleeding and bruised bodies – from Philippi to Thessalonica, initially preaching the Gospel in the local synagogue on 3 consecutive Sabbath days.

Those who responded with faith in Christ were Jews and God-fearers – those that had not converted fully to Judaism, but worshiped the God of Israel.

Bible scholars disagree on whether those few weeks were the full duration of their stay in the city; however, after planting a little church in Thessalonica, Jewish persecution intensified.

This renowned charge against the apostles was intended as a summary of threat, but has since been viewed as grudging praise: These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also (Acts 17:6).

Consequently, Paul determined to leave Thessalonica rather than be the cause of increased persecution to his new converts.

A few months later, he reconnected with Silas and Timothy in Corinth for a duration of year-and-a-half where he wrote 1st and 2nd Thessalonians to instruct and to commend these infant believers on their growing faith in affliction and love – sure signs of the authenticity of their new birth.

Takeaway: Counter-intuitively, the Apostle instructed these nascent Christ-followers with a detailed explanation of events and signs surrounding the future Second Coming of Christ.

We might think this was exclusive theological fare for believers of significant maturity. But Paul provided some of the most thorough future description of the final days, what theologians call eschatology.

So I have to ask: am I aware of – and watching vigilantly for – the signs that Paul described? Am I as enthusiastically watching for the return of the Lord Jesus as these early believers?

Because, whether it happens in our lifetime or not, we are inarguably 2 centuries closer!