Where the world comes to study the Bible

26. The Evangelization of Thessalonica and Berea (Acts 17:1-15)

Introduction

My mother is an amputee who lost her leg due to a hit-and-run accident a number of years ago. She now walks very well by means of an artificial limb and a cane. My mother is also a very spunky woman. One day, as she and my father were arriving at a shopping mall and she was going through the main doors, some men came running toward the door passing very close by my mother and very much in a hurry. My mother sensed something was wrong. These men just were in too much of a hurry. As they passed her, Mother had to make a split-second decision … should she put out her cane and trip them, or let them pass by? Wisely, she opted to take no action without knowing the circumstances. In a matter of moments, the men were gone, and my mother learned why they were in such a hurry—they had just robbed the store which she was about to enter and which they were in such a hurry to leave. Tripping these men, possibly armed, could have led to violence and injury.

Sometimes people are in a hurry for the wrong reasons. Surely that was surely the case with the robbers my mother encountered. But being in a hurry is not always bad. As I continue to read the Book of Acts, I am inclined to conclude that Paul was a man who was constantly in a hurry. Certainly he did not stay in one place very long. Granted, he often left one town and went to another because of strong persecution on the part of unbelievers (often Jews, but also Gentiles). Such was the case at Pisidian Antioch (13:50-51), Iconium (14:4-6), Lystra (14:19-20), Philippi (16:19-40), Thessalonica (17:5-10), and Derbe (17:13-14). But Paul did not stay long at any one place in Cyprus, where no persecution is mentioned (13:4-12), or Athens (17:16–18:1), or Ephesus (18:19-21). Indeed, when Paul did spend a longer time than usual at Corinth, it was to some degree the result of a divine vision, instructing him to do so (18:9-11).

What was it that kept Paul moving about from city to city, not staying at any one place for very long, with the exceptions being just that—exceptions? What was the hurry? Was there something wrong? We shall seek to answer these questions as we proceed with our lesson.

The Context of our Passage

Paul and Silas and Timothy (but not Luke, it would seem) have left Philippi, where not only Lydia and her household and the jailor with his household, but a number of others have come to faith in Jesus as the promised Messiah. Acts 17 contains the description of the evangelistic efforts of Paul and Silas and Timothy in three cities: Thessalonica (17:1-10a), Berea (17:10b-15), and Athens (17:16-34). In all three of these cities Paul visited synagogues where he proclaimed Jesus as the promised Messiah. The focus of the campaigns in the first two cities is strongly Jewish, while the focus in the last campaign is Gentile. In his description of Paul’s ministry in the first two cities of Thessalonica and Berea, Luke dwells on Paul’s speaking in the synagogue, on the belief of some, and on the strong opposition of some of the Jews who rejected the gospel and who strongly opposed Paul and the others with him. In the last city, Athens, Luke only casually mentions that Paul went to the synagogue each Sabbath, but he gives much attention to the ministry of Paul in the streets and in the market place. He focuses on Paul’s ministry to the heathen, not to those familiar with Judaism.

Our Approach

Because Luke’s shift of emphasis is from a Jewish focus to a Gentile focus in this chapter, we will devote our attention in this lesson to only the first two cities, Thessalonica and Berea (verses 1-15), and save the campaign at Athens for our next study. We will study the preaching of the gospel in these first two cities, and then we will attempt to point out some major areas of emphasis found in our text and in the broader context of Acts.

The Birth of the Church in Thessalonica
(17:1-10a)

Now when they had traveled through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica,377 where there was a synagogue of the Jews. 2 And according to Paul’s custom, he went to them, and for three Sabbaths378 reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3 explaining and giving evidence that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you is the Christ.” 4 And some of them were persuaded379 and joined Paul and Silas, along with a great multitude of the God-fearing Greeks and a number of the leading women.380 5 But the Jews, becoming jealous and taking along some wicked men from the market place,381 formed a mob and set the city in an uproar; and coming upon the house of Jason, they were seeking to bring them out to the people. 6 And when they did not find them, they began dragging Jason and some brethren before the city authorities, shouting, “These men who have upset the world382 have come here also; 7 and Jason has welcomed them, and they all act contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.”383 8 And they stirred up the crowd and the city authorities who heard these things. 9 And when they had received a pledge from Jason and the others, they released them. 10 And the brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea; and when they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews.

We are not told directly why Paul and his party “passed through” Amphipolis and Apollonia, but we are given a strong inference as to the explanation—there seem to have been no synagogues in these two cities, while there were synagogues in Thessalonica, Berea, and Athens. It cannot be that Paul passes these cities by because they are small or insignificant, for they are neither, while Berea appears to have been an insignificant place, from a human point of view.384

I believe Paul’s actions to this point in the Book of Acts may raise a question in our mind: “How is it that this ‘apostle to the Gentiles’ (cf. Galatians 1:16; 2:7) is spending so much time in the synagogues and with the Jews?” There are several answers to this question.

(1) Paul was not called to preach the gospel exclusively to the Gentiles. At the time of his salvation, his “calling” was spelled out to Ananias, who, in turn, must have passed this on to Paul:

But the Lord said to him {Ananias}, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel” (Acts 9:15).

(2) Preaching in the synagogues was an effective means of reaching Gentiles. In nearly every synagogue there were Gentile “God-seekers” or “proselytes” of one kind or another. In Paphos, on Cyprus, was Sergius Paulus, the proconsul (13:6ff.).In Philippi, it was Lydia (16:14ff.). In chapter 17, we learn of a number of Gentiles who were saved through Paul’s preaching in the synagogues of Thessalonica and Berea (17:4, 12). These Gentile “God-seekers” had already come to the point of looking for salvation from a Jewish Messiah, and they also had some knowledge of the Old Testament. These converts would not need as much instruction as raw pagans, and thus they were potential leaders in the churches which were formed as a result of the evangelism of Paul and Barnabas and Silas and others.

(3) Paul’s ministry was conducted on the principle, “to the Jew first, and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16).

(4) Paul’s ministry, like that of the twelve apostles, followed the pattern set down by our Lord in Acts 1:8. We can see the Book of Acts developing in a way that follows the geographical sequence of Acts 1:8. The spread of the gospel begins at Jerusalem, spreads to Judea and Samaria, and then expands to the other nations of the world. It never struck me until now that Paul’s ministry did likewise:

“‘Consequently, King Agrippa, I did not prove disobedient to the heavenly vision, but kept declaring both to those of Damascus first, and also at Jerusalem and then throughout all the region of Judea, and even to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance” (Acts 26:19-20).

(5) In Paul’s ministry we can see a gradual transition, beginning with a strong Jewish focus and ending with a strong Gentile focus. As I understand the development of the Book of Acts, Paul’s ministry is predominantly Jewish, up until his final visit to Jerusalem, which resulted in his rejection and accusation by the Jews there and his appeal to Rome (Acts 21-26). Before Acts 21, evangelization of the Gentiles often happened providentially.

Paul’s preaching in the synagogue at Thessalonica was “according to his custom” (verse 2). Paul had a plan of action for his ministry, which he customarily followed at most of the cities where he sought to proclaim Christ. This “custom” was to find a city with a synagogue, and then to go there on the Sabbath where he was granted the opportunity to speak about the Old Testament Scriptures to those gathered.385 Paul would use this opportunity to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah. There were exceptions, of course, as in Philippi where there was no synagogue (although there was a “place of prayer”), but this was the norm.

And so it was at Thessalonica when Paul and the others went to the synagogue and were invited to speak. Here, as always, Paul preached of Jesus as Israel’s Messiah. His argument could be summarized: (1) The Old Testament prophets spoke of Messiah. (2) This Messiah must be rejected by His people, Israel, and be put to death for the sins of men. (3) This crucified Christ must, according to the Old Testament prophets, be raised from the dead. (4) Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, having fulfilled all of these prophecies. (5) Each listener must make a choice, either to accept Jesus as their Messiah, or to reject Him, as the Jewish leaders and people of Jerusalem had done. To receive Him was to obtain the forgiveness of sins and the assurance of eternal life; to reject Him was to await the future day when He will come to judge and to punish His enemies (cf. Acts 13:38-41).386

As almost always was the case, the response to Paul’s preaching was mixed (verse 4). Some of those who heard (who seem to be Jews, verse 4) believed, joining Paul and Silas. An even greater number of Gentiles believed, including a number of the leading women.

But there was also a strong negative response, not to the message of Paul, per se, but to the popularity of his message, to its reception. I would imagine the unbelieving Jews not only rejected Paul’s message, but they disliked it—and him. But Luke does not describe the strong opposition to Paul and his preaching as opposition to the message itself; rather he describes the jealousy arising out of its acceptance by so many. It was not just the numbers that bothered Paul’s opponents, but who it was who believed the gospel and followed Paul: the Gentiles, and, in particular, the influential ones. These Jews, like Jonah of old, like the people of Nazareth (Luke 4:16ff.), and like the Jews of Jerusalem later on (Acts 22:21-22), were greatly angered that a “salvation of the Jews” was being offered to the Gentiles and that many were placing their trust in Him, following Paul and the others. Sadly, the issue was not a matter of truth and not a matter of Scripture, but a matter of position and power.

In retaliation, the opposing Jews sought to “overpower” Paul and the other missionaries, by manipulating the crowds and the political system. Skillfully, a crowd was gathered and worked up into a very agitated mob. The “peace” was deliberately “disturbed,” with the city being set into an uproar. The angry mob stormed the house of Jason (verse 5), who apparently was a believer and who may have been providing food and lodging for the missionary party.

What a setback it must have been for this bloodthirsty crowd to find none of their intended targets at home. It was all rather anti-climactic—something like calling a person who has made you very angry with the intent of “giving them a piece of your mind”—and getting a recorded answer from their answering machine. In this case, however, Jason was home, even if neither Paul, nor Silas, nor any of the others were there. He would have to do, and so they drug Jason out of his house and before the city authorities, not unlike the way Paul and Silas had been unceremoniously seized and charged at Philippi (Acts 16).

These Jewish opponents of Paul and the gospel, these men who had stirred up the whole city, now accused them of upsetting the world, of inciting men to acts of violence and insurrection by advocating a King other than Caesar. And Jason, they charged, was guilty of “aiding and abetting” these men and their revolutionary movement. The crowd and the authorities were, due to the skillful moves of these Jewish resisters, duly impressed with this line of argumentation, even though they should have seen that the “pot was calling the kettle black” and that these Jews who were really the trouble-makers were calling the missionaries trouble-makers.

To insure that no further violence would occur, a pledge or a bond was secured from Jason.387 It is possible that it was either implied or clearly stated that Paul would be sent out of town as a part of the agreement. At least this was the immediate result of Jason’s release “on bond.” Paul and Silas left by night for Berea. The ministry of these men in Thessalonica was cut short, from a human point of view, thus “forcing” Paul to minister to these saints “by mail” (1 and 2 Thessalonians), so that in the providence of God we could profit from Paul’s teaching and exhortation, even as they did. How often reversals and setbacks, from a human point of view, prove to be advances from a divine and eternal perspective!

The Evangelization of Berea
(17:10b-15)

10 And the brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea;388 and when they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews. 11 Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily, to see whether these things were so. 12 Many of them therefore believed, along with a number of prominent Greek women and men. 13 But when the Jews of Thessalonica found out that the word of God had been proclaimed by Paul in Berea also, they came there likewise, agitating and stirring up the crowds. 14 And then immediately the brethren sent Paul out to go as far as the sea; and Silas and Timothy remained there. 15 Now those who conducted Paul brought him as far as Athens; and receiving a command for Silas and Timothy to come to him as soon as possible, they departed.

It would seem that the brethren in Thessalonica wanted to avoid any further confrontation with their hostile adversaries. This might be for any or all of the following reasons:

(1) This would comply with the terms agreed upon in conjunction with the bond that Jason posted.

(2) This would ease tensions and hostilities and enable the church at Thessalonica to go about its ministry with less opposition.

(3) This would keep Paul out of the hands of his enemies, who might not have been satisfied with “running him out of town” and may have wished to kill him, if the opportunity presented itself. They did what they could to prevent such an opportunity.

Luke seems to want us to view Berea in contrast to Thessalonica, rather than in terms of comparison. One contrast is to be seen in the size of these two places. Thessalonica was a large, major city; Berea, so far as we can tell, was a small, “sleepy town,” an “out of the way place” (see footnote 12 on Berea). Another contrast is that while Amphipolis and Apollonia seem to have had no synagogue, this town did. And finally, Luke draws out the contrast between the “more noble-mindedness” of the Jews in Berea than those in Thessalonica.

The first two contrasts pose somewhat of a problem. How is it that two major cities, Amphipolis and Apollonia, would not have a synagogue while a small town like Berea would have one? The answer may well be simple. We can rather quickly discern from the statements made about Jews by those at Philippi and that which was implied about Jews in Thessalonica, that Jews were not at all popular in this part of the world at this point in time (cf. fn. 7 above). The Jews did not seem to want to risk the exposure of public worship in Philippi, Amphipolis, or Apollonia, or racial bigotry was such that they chose not to live in these cities. In the “sleepy little out of the way town” of Berea, however, they may have been more tolerated; indeed, it could have been heavily Jewish in its racial makeup. Here, then, there may have been more Jews, more public Jews, and thus a synagogue. Here, the brethren in Thessalonica may have reasoned, was a perfect place for Paul to be sent, where a Jewish community could be found. Sending Paul to such a place would give him a place of ministry and would allow things to cool down at Thessalonica.

The noble-mindedness of these Berean Jews is a matter of emphasis with Luke, and thus we should seek to isolate what set these particular Jews apart from the Jews at Thessalonica (and elsewhere as well). What, then, did set these Bereans apart from the Jews at Thessalonica? What made these people “noble-minded”?

(1) The noble-mindedness to which Luke referred was characteristic of the Jewish community at Berea. Luke is contrasting the Jews in Berea with those in Thessalonica. This also suggests that he is speaking of the Jews as Paul found them; in other words, the Jews at Berea, before they had heard the gospel. Thus, “noble-mindedness” is characteristic of this Jewish community as unbelievers.

(2) The noble-mindedness which Paul found characteristic of this Jewish community was that which ideally would have characterized God’s people, Israel. The picture Luke paints of this Jewish community at Berea is one that depicts Judaism at its best, the way God intended for His people to be. Sadly, the Bereans were the exception and not the rule, but happily they did approach the ideal for the Old Testament people of God. The remaining characteristics of these Bereans is what set them apart from other Jews, as those who were, indeed, “noble-minded.”

(3) The noble-minded Jews of Berea were looking for Messiah and did not need to be convinced of anything other than the fact that Jesus was the promised Messiah. These Jews “received the word with great eagerness.” They obviously loved the Word of God and sought to live by it. Paul seemed to have to work hard to convince any Jews in Thessalonica. Luke speaks of Paul’s ministry there as “reasoning,” “explaining,” and “giving evidence,” and those who believed as having been “persuaded.” The same effort is not required at Berea.

Let me seek to illustrate this difference between these two groups of Jews. The Thessalonian Jews were somewhat like the reluctant housewife who does not wish to have her daily routine interrupted, and thus does not welcome the vacuum cleaner salesman who comes to the door. The salesman may be able to convince this woman to buy his product, but he will have to overcome all kinds of resistance. The Bereans were like the woman who is almost out of her favorite make-up and opens the door delighted to find the Avon salesperson standing there. This woman has her order ready and simply waits for the opportunity to place it. She does not need to be “sold” anything for she already wants to buy it.

This is the mood of the Bereans, as I see it. They were Jews, and they were, I believe, waiting for the Messiah to come. When Paul arrived, his words about the coming of the Messiah were eagerly heard, although very carefully checked out. They were waiting for Messiah. They did not need to be “sold” or convinced, only informed.

(4) The noble-minded Jews of Berea were Jews who loved the Word of God and who sought to live according to it. For these noble-minded Jews, it was not man’s word which they were to act upon, but God’s revealed Word. Thus, when Paul came to them, speaking to them from the Scriptures, they eagerly listened. But they did not let Paul do their thinking for them. They saw themselves as individually responsible to search out Paul’s teaching from the Scriptures, and to see if it was consistent with biblical revelation. This assumes that the Scriptures did speak clearly and sufficiently about the Messiah, and that individual seekers were capable of discerning what God said, without the help of some “expert” who did their thinking for them. These were people of the Word, who eagerly received that which was consistent with the Word, once they confirmed it from the Word, for themselves.

How different these Berean Jews were from many of their fellow-Jews in other places. Most Jews seemed to care little about truth or about what the Old Testament actually taught. What they cared about was their position and their power and prestige. They were motivated and driven, not by their hope of Messiah, nor by their love for and confidence in the Scriptures, but by their jealousy. They cared less about what the Bible taught than about what they wanted for themselves.

(5) These noble-minded Berean Jews were predisposed toward Paul’s teaching, while the Jews of Thessalonica were predisposed against it. This is simply a summation of what we have said thus far. Their hope and eagerness for the coming of Messiah, their confidence in the Scriptures, and their diligence in testing teaching by the Word predisposed them toward Paul’s message, while the self-seeking, self-righteous Jews of Thessalonica were predisposed against Paul’s teaching. No wonder only a few Thessalonian Jews believed Paul’s words and accepted Jesus as their Messiah, while many of the Berean Jews did (compare 17:4 and 17:12).

(6) Finally, the noble-minded Jews of Berea had a very different way of handling those with whom they differed. The Jews of Thessalonica, like those in other cities, were willing to resort to political manipulation and to mob violence. Not so with these Jews at Berea. It took outside instigators to create the disturbance which finally caused Paul to leave this city and the saints there. If there were to be any violence and unrest, the Berean Jews would not be the cause of it.

One way or another, word reached the Jews at Thessalonica that Paul had been very successfully preaching the gospel at Berea. The fact that many Jews believed and joined him must have been especially aggravating. A number of Gentiles, including some prominent Greek women, believed as well. These Thessalonican Jews, or at least a delegation of them, set out for Berea, where they proceeded to recreate the same unrest and turmoil which they had successfully instigated in their own city. The crowds were stirred up, and the saints of Berea quickly sent Paul away,389 hoping, it would seem, to put an end to this unrest before it reached ugly dimensions.

Paul alone was sent away. Silas and Timothy remained there. It would seem that Paul’s ministry caused more reaction than that of his colleagues. Perhaps Paul’s ministry was more apologetic and evangelistic, directed toward unbelievers, while the ministries of Silas and Timothy may have been directed toward the new converts, thus not precipitating as violent a backlash. Paul sent word by way of his escorts to Silas and Timothy, instructing them to join him as quickly as possible. Paul was ready to move on again, but he would have to wait for his teammates to return first.

Conclusion

As we conclude this lesson, I wish to highlight three important subjects which have a great deal of relevance and application to our own day and time.

(1) As Luke develops the transition of Christianity from a primarily Jewish to a predominantly Gentile phenomenon, he underscores the remarkable similarity between the response of the Jews to Jesus and the response of the Jews to Paul. Geographically speaking, Acts begins in Jerusalem and ends in Rome. It begins with Jesus, and it ends with Paul. It commences with a predominantly Jewish congregation in Jerusalem and ends with Gentile congregations in cities around the world of the Mediterranean. As we read of the opposition of these Thessalonican Jews to Paul, we cannot help but think of the similar opposition of the Palestinian Jews to Jesus. Consider, for a moment, some of the common characteristics.

Jealousy was the principle motivation behind the opposition of both groups of Jewish opponents to the Gospel. It was jealousy390 which prompted the Jewish religious leaders to accuse Jesus of treason and to demand His crucifixion (Matthew 27:28; Mark 15:10; cf. John 7:31-32, 45-49). So too it was jealousy which prompted the Jews to oppose Paul and his preaching of the gospel (Acts 17:4; cf. Acts 13:6ff., 45; 14:1-2ff.).

Both Jesus and Paul were accused by their opponents of creating unrest and of insurrection and revolutionary activity against the political power of Rome. The false premise on which Jesus was arrested and convicted was treason—of being a King who would assert Himself over the rulers of that day (Luke 23:1-5, 14; John 19:12, 14). Paul too was frequently accused of the same offense (Acts 17:7; cp. Acts 16:20-22).

Both groups of Jews resisted the gospel by stirring up a crowd and by putting pressure on the political leaders. The Jewish leaders could do little or nothing against Jesus so long as the crowds favored Him (Matthew 21:46), but finally they were able to enlist the multitudes in the process, and this got the attention of Herod and Pilate (cf. Matthew 26:55; 27:20). Such was the case with the opposition to Paul and his preaching (Acts 17:5, 13; cf. 13:50; 14:2-5, 19).

The opposition of the Jews to Jesus and Paul came to a head at Jerusalem. This point is a more debatable one, but I think it is true nonetheless. At the climax of His earthly ministry, Jesus had His face set toward Jerusalem (Matthew 16:21; 20:17-18; Luke 9:51-53). It was there that the Messiah would officially appear to Israel, which Jesus did at His “triumphal entry.” It was there that He must die. The major turning point in Jesus’ life and ministry, and in the history of Israel, came when Jesus arrived at Jerusalem. Paul too will find Jerusalem to be a turning point. The decision of the Jerusalem Council was a kind of turning point (Acts 15), but Paul’s appearance in Jerusalem (Acts 21:10ff.) will lead to his arrest and trials, and ultimately to his appeal before Caesar in Rome, where the Book of Acts leaves off. Jerusalem was, for both Jesus and Paul, a major turning point.

The response to both Jesus and Paul, and to the (same) gospel which they preached, was, by and large, rejection and opposition on the part of the Jews. This, of course, was a part of the eternal plan and purpose of God, resulting in the salvation of the Gentiles (cf. Romans 9-11). It would not be correct to stop here, however, and to suggest that rejection of the gospel is only a Jewish phenomenon. As we have already seen in Acts, the Gentiles too will act in a very similar fashion to the gospel, particularly when it threatens the self-interest of sinful men. Gentile economic self-interest is the cause of similar reaction to Paul and the gospel in Philippi (Acts 16) and in Ephesus (Acts 19).

The gospel is a double-edged sword. On the one side, it offers mercy, grace, forgiveness of sins, and eternal life to every sinner who trusts in Jesus Christ for salvation. On the other hand, it overturns values, attitudes, and lifestyles, in such a way as to threaten the self-interest of unbelievers (individually) and their culture (corporately). Peter spoke of this, particularly in 1 Peter 4. The Book of Hebrews is based upon the reality of resistance and persecution. Paul spoke of it as well, not as the unique or isolated experience of a few, but as the norm which is to be expected by all (Philippians 1:29-30; 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16; 1 Timothy 4; 2 Timothy 3). Our Lord Himself said much to His disciples of the certainty of opposition and persecution (cf. Matthew 10:16-33; 24:9-14; John 15:17-27).

The question which we must ask ourselves, then, is this: “Why is it that Christianity is so popular today, or at least that Christians and the gospel are not the focus of the kind of opposition and persecution of which our Lord and the apostles spoke? I fear the answer is both clear, and undeniable, by anyone who takes the Bible seriously: IN OUR MOTIVATION, IN OUR METHODS, AND IN OUR MESSAGE, CHRISTIANS LACK THE URGENCY WHICH MARKED JESUS AND HIS APOSTLES, AND WHICH PROVOKED STRONG REACTIONS.

With this premise in view, let me press on to my next major conclusion, based not only upon our text but upon the entire biblical revelation concerning Paul, his conversion, his ministry and message, and most of all, his intense sense of urgency, the kind of urgency which our Lord had and which we seem to lack.

(2) The apostle Paul, in his motivation, in his methods, and in his message, reflected a great and intense sense of urgency, an urgency which shaped his life and ministry and which shaped the course of church history.

Let me begin by trying to define, as briefly as possible, the nature of the urgency which Paul evidenced.

The urgency which Paul evidences is an urgency occasioned by the gospel, a “gospel urgency.” It was an urgency based upon the conviction that men are sinners, desperately lost, and destined for eternal punishment. It was the conviction that the gospel of Jesus Christ alone proclaims God’s way of salvation. Thus, Paul had an urgency to preserve the purity of the gospel (as seen in his response to those who would pervert it, in theory or practice, cf. Acts 15; Galatians 1 and 2), and he had an urgency to proclaim the gospel. Adding to this urgency was a deep sense of the command of Christ to preach the gospel (the great commission, Matthew 28:18-20), and his personal calling to do so (Acts 9:15-16; cf. 22:21). Finally, there was the urgency of the shortness of time. Mankind is eternally doomed, apart from faith in Jesus as Messiah (the gospel), and time is limited. Paul’s days were numbered, and he knew it. Thus he sought to make the most of every moment, every opportunity. Second, knowing that life is a vapor, and that the life of any man is uncertain (cf. James 4:13-17), there is the urgency of proclaiming the gospel to men who are dying. And finally, there is the added time urgency of the nearness of our Lord’s return, when there will be no further opportunity for salvation. There is a final urgency, and that is the urgency of knowing that someday each Christian must stand before our Lord to give an account of our stewardship of the gospel.

No wonder Paul had a “gospel urgency”!

Therefore also we have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad. Therefore knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men, but we are made manifest to God; and I hope that we are made manifest also in your consciences (2 Corinthians 5:9-11).

There was an additional source of urgency for Paul which provides us with a key to his strong commitment to and involvement in Jewish evangelism. As I read of Paul’s actions here in chapter 17 and elsewhere in the Book of Acts, I find a very close parallel between Paul’s evangelistic methodology and that methodology laid down by our Lord in the sending out of His disciples (cf. Luke 9:1-9; 10:1-11). In this same context of the sending out of the disciples, note these significant words of our Lord:

“But whenever they persecute you in this city, flee to the next; for truly I say to you, you shall not finish going through the cities of Israel, until the Son of Man comes” (Matthew 10:23).

When was the Son of Man to come, and why were the disciples to move quickly from city to city, without lingering long in any, and quickly departing when persecution began? I believe the answer is both clear and simple: Jesus’ “coming” was His arrival and presentation of Himself at Jerusalem at the time of His triumphal entry and afterward. The Old Testament prophets had prophesied the coming of Messiah, the last of whom was John the Baptist, who indicated that Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ. He was to formally present Himself on His arrival at Jerusalem. Jesus wanted all Israel to know of His identity and to be informed of this before His appearance at Jerusalem. This is why the apostles were not to linger long in any one city. They were to spread the gospel through all the cities, knowing that He had set His face toward Jerusalem and would present Himself formally there.

God’s plan for Israel and for the world was on a time schedule. The Messiah had to come first to His people and be rejected and put to death, and then resurrected from the dead. Israel’s last sign was the sign of His resurrection (Matthew 12:38-42). The deadline for Israel’s acceptance of Messiah was not the day of His execution, but 70 A. D., the day of her destruction, of her defeat and captivity as a nation, when Rome sacked Jerusalem, slaughtered thousands, and scattered most of the rest. That short period of time, from the public presentation of Jesus as Messiah to the destruction of Jerusalem, was Israel’s hour for repentance and turning to Messiah. At the point in time when Jerusalem was sacked in 70 A.D., God’s plan for Israel went into a holding pattern and the “times of the Gentiles” began. The time was short for Israel to hear the gospel and to turn to Jesus as the Messiah.

At this point in time, approximately 15 years have passed since the death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus took place. This means that the year would be somewhere in the vicinity of 47 to 48 A.D. It also means that Israel has less than 25 years to hear the gospel and repent and be saved, before the program for Israel is suspended for at least 20 centuries (till now). Jesus had His disciples cover the entire scope of Israel, as commanded in Luke 9 and 10. But now, after Jerusalem’s “hour of decision,” it is time for the Jews of the dispersion to decide. Paul’s urgency is based upon the revelation which God gave him of the setting aside of Israel and of the dispensation of the church age (Ephesians 3, Romans 9-11). He knew that Israel’s days were numbered, and thus he hurried about, from city to city and from synagogue to synagogue, telling the Jews about Jesus, their Messiah, and calling upon them to repent. When the Israelites around the world of that day heard about Jesus and the majority rejected Him and His messenger, Paul, time was up. Paul knew this and was thus prompted to an even greater sense of urgency to preach the gospel to the Jews first, and then to the Gentiles.

The urgency of the gospel, which dominated the life and ministry of the apostle Paul, can be seen in numerous places and instances in the New Testament. It helps to explain the very strong reaction which unbelievers had toward the gospel, and toward Paul in particular. It explains, I believe, the strong inclination of Paul to press on to other places, and to preach where the name of Christ was unknown (Romans 15:20-21). It also explains why Paul encouraged Christians to consider not being hindered by marriage and a family (1 Corinthians 7:25-35), and why Paul could not be hindered by taking along John Mark (Acts 15:36-41).

It is my strong conviction that North American Christianity desperately lacks the sense of urgency which characterized Christ and the apostles. We lack the urgency to proclaim the gospel. Many seem to think that we fail to evangelize because we do not know how, and thus we find class after class being taught on methods of personal evangelism. I am not opposed to such classes, but classes in methods do not make up for a lack in motivation. Indeed, when the motivation is present, we find the methods to do what we think is important.

I am going to state something here that many of you will not agree with and you surely will not like, but I believe it must be said. One of the most popular and prominent methods of evangelism today is that of “friendship evangelism.” I am not completely opposed to this method of reaching our neighbors by befriending them. What I am opposed to is the fact that I and many other Christians gravitate to this method as a cover-up for my lack of urgency, and as the pretext for obeying God when, in truth, I am not. I can go by, week after week, assuring myself that I will share the gospel with my neighbor “when the right time comes” or “when I have built a better relationship.” While Scripture nowhere forbids or condemns friendship evangelism, the instructions of our Lord in Luke 9 and 10 indicate that much more than this must be done, and that friendship evangelism can be a hindrance to evangelism if it becomes a substitute for methods which reach greater numbers more quickly and pointedly. Laid back evangelism can be a symptom of a lack of urgency, and this, my friend, is a most serious ailment. The Laodicean church was “laid back,” too (cf. Revelation 3:15).

Why is it that we lack Paul’s urgency concerning the gospel? What is it we lack? There are many reasons, I am sure, but I would like to suggest one for you to consider. I think the principle reason for my own lack of urgency is that I really do not believe the gospel; I really do not take it seriously. If I believed men are lost and dying, destined to eternity in hell apart from Christ; if time is short and the gospel is the only means of man’s salvation, then surely I would have a sense of urgency. It is not so much that I don’t believe the gospel, as it is that the glitter of this world dims the glory of eternity, and the cares of this world choke the grasp of the gospel on my life.

Think about those glorious days when you were first saved. How often new Christians are bold in their witness for Christ in the proclamation. Why do they stop? For one thing, they are chilled by the coolness of older saints, who have lost the glow and forgotten the reality of the gospel. We often look back on those early days of our lives, days when we were aggressive and outspoken, and sigh, as though we were young and foolish. I wonder if we would not be better off immature and foolish than to be “mature” and silent about the gospel. As the truth of the gospel grows dimmer, the urgency to proclaim it diminishes as well.

I want to be very clear that while every Christian should share Paul’s sense of the urgency of the gospel, we will all express that urgency differently. Every Christian must express this urgency in a way that is consistent with their individual gifts, status in life, and calling. How easy it would be for all of us to go on a guilt trip, because we do not live and preach like Paul. Paul was single, while most Christians are not. Paul was able to live by means of his own labors, and even to support others, and yet he affirmed the principle that the “laborer is worthy of his wages” (1 Corinthians 9:3-18; cp. Luke 10:7). Paul seldom stayed long in any one place, and yet this does not mean that everyone must be an itinerant preacher in order to express the urgency of the gospel. Paul was doing that which he was called of God to do. He was carrying out his unique gifts and calling. Silas and Timothy did not minister in exactly the same way as Paul, even though they accompanied him. While Paul manifested his sense of urgency by declining to take John Mark along, Barnabas manifested his sense of urgency by taking Mark with him.

Let us not seek to imitate Paul in his every action, but in his attitude of urgency. Every one of us must have a sense of urgency about the need to proclaim Christ to a fallen world, a world heading for eternal death, but every one of us is gifted to contribute toward the evangelization of the world by doing different tasks, as a part of the body of Christ. Thus, I challenge you to seriously reflect on your sense of urgency, and then to seek God’s guidance in that which you should be devoted to doing, for the sake of the gospel.

Perhaps you do not share Paul’s urgency concerning the gospel because you have not come to grips with your own need of a Savior and of the urgency of your receiving Jesus Christ as your Savior. Apart from Him, you will die in your sins and spend eternity apart from God in eternal suffering. The gospel of Jesus Christ informs you that God has provided for the forgiveness of your sins through the death of Jesus Christ in your place, bearing your condemnation, and offering you His righteousness. Time is limited. He may return at any moment, or your may die before He comes. Accept Him today:

And working together with Him, we also urge you not to receive the grace of God in vain—for He says, “AT THE ACCEPTABLE TIME I LISTENED TO YOU, AND ON THE DAY OF SALVATION I HELPED YOU”’; Behold, now is “THE ACCEPTABLE TIME,” behold, now is “THE DAY OF SALVATION” (2 Corinthians 6:1-2).

(3) Finally, our text challenges us to be “Berean Christians.” The noble-mindedness of the Berean Jews is surely set before us an ideal, as a goal for every Christian. There is much that could be said about the characteristics of the Bereans, but let me set down those primary characteristics which I believe we should strive to have as characteristic of our lives as well.

The Berean Attitude

The Berean attitude can be summarized by two words: confidence and distrust. The Bereans were characterized by a great confidence in the Word of God, as God’s authoritative source of revelation, and as the standard by which all teaching and conduct should be appraised. Second, though not stated directly, the Bereans had a confidence in their own ability to understand and interpret the Bible. The Bible (the Old Testament at this point in time) was not only God’s authoritative revelation and standard, but it was one which every individual was to study for himself in order to come to his own doctrine and practice.

The second characteristic of the Berean attitude was that of distrust. While God’s Word is perfect, men are not. Thus, the Bereans did not assume that the teaching of the Bible was what some man said it taught. Even a teacher as great as Paul was not assumed to be “right” because he sounded authoritative. Every man’s teaching must be tested by the Word of God. No one’s teaching or viewpoint was to be accepted on the basis of his confidence, his methodology, his claims, his academic pedigree, or his reputation. The only final basis of authority is God’s Word, pure and simple.

Now these words are indeed “music to the ears” of some people, who are autonomous Christians. They quickly point to texts like this one in John’s first epistle:

These things I have written to you concerning those who are trying to deceive you. And as for you, the anointing which you received from Him abides in you, and you have no need for any one to teach you; but as His anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you abide in Him (1 John 2:26-27).

I could not agree more with this verse. It does confirm the confidence of the Bereans in the simple teachings of God’s Word, as they are led to understand them by the Holy Spirit. But our confidence is in God’s Word and in His Spirit, not in ourselves. If we cannot trust other men as being infallible, neither can we trust in our own interpretations as infallible (cf. 2 Peter 1:20-21). Thus, we must be aware of our own tendency to use the Scriptures to confirm and proof text our sinful inclinations and desires. This is why we need gifted teachers, like Paul and others, who will challenge us and our interpretations, who will make us uneasy, and urge us to go back to the Scriptures to test our own thinking and interpretation of Scripture.

There are two great tests for the Christian when it comes to the teaching of others. The first test is the test of teaching which challenges our own thinking, which indicates that we are wrong and need to change. It is a difficult thing to admit we are wrong, but the teaching of others should serve to change some of our own thinking and actions. But the second and even greater test for the Christian comes when the teaching of another confirms our own viewpoint, attitudes, doctrines and actions. Just because someone (or a great number of people) has the same view as we do does not prove we are right. The false teachers have great followings, not because they are right, but because they say what people want to hear, and they advocate what people want to do.

How I hate introductions! Too long a time is spent, telling us why we ought to listen to and believe the one who will teach. We are told of his place of study and of his years spent in training. We are told of his accomplishments, of his great esteem and standing in the Christian community, of his world-wide travels. But the fact is, we do not know ahead of time that God will speak through any man (unless Old Testament prophets still exist). We do not know that a man’s teaching will be correct because of who he is, of where and how much he has studied, or any other factor, until he has spoken and we have studied the Scriptures for ourselves to see if his teaching squares with the Word of God as a whole. Introductions tell us what we cannot know until after one has spoken. That is why the Bible says,

And let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment (1 Corinthians 14:29).

Do not quench the Spirit; do not despise prophetic utterances. But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil (1 Thessalonians 5:19-22.

Let us, then, seek to be Berean in our handling of the Word of God. Let us ask God to give us the love and eagerness to study God’s Word, and to test the teachings of all men. Let us see ourselves as responsible for discerning what the Bible teaches and not let others do our thinking for us. Let us listen to faithful men carefully, and then do our own homework, daily studying the Word as the only authoritative source of doctrine and practice.

Follow-up Questions
(17:1-15)

As a rule, I have given out study questions to be considered before the next lesson. With this lesson, in the light of the text, I wish to suggest some questions for you to consider so that you may test the teaching of this lesson. Ideally, you should provide your own questions, but this week I want to give you some questions to “prime the pump” of your study. May you be a Berean this week.

(1) What tensions of the text, observations, or questions did you come up with, as a result of your study of this text?

(2) What dominant patterns, practices, principles or trends appear in our text?

(3) How does this text relate to its immediately preceding and following context?

(4) How does our text contribute to the argument of the Book of Acts?

(5) From a position of hindsight, looking back on the difference of opinion between Paul and Barnabas as to taking along John Mark (Acts 15:35ff.), how would you now view Paul’s position? In other words, does Luke’s account of the second missionary journey bear out Paul’s stance or question it? What would Mark have had to face on this journey which he had not handled well before?

(6) Do you think there are any guiding principles or critical factors for Paul’s choice as to whether or not to preach in a certain city? What factors, if any, do you see involved in the decision to preach at Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea, but not in Amphipolis and Apollonia?

(7) What made the Bereans worthy of the designation, “noble”? In what was their nobility? Was this “nobility” from God, like the “opening of Lydia’s heart,” or was this nobility a trait of these people, a part of their character? Were all the “noble” Bereans believers? If you were to be a “Berean” what changes would it require in your life?

(8) Who opposed Paul and Silas in Thessalonica and Berea? What was their real motivation for doing so? Why were they so intense in their opposition? What was their method of opposing Paul and those with him? Why did they seem to react more strongly to Paul than to those with him?

(9) Comment on the charges and techniques of the Jewish opponents of Paul and Silas?

(10) What light do we find shed on our passage by Paul’s first and second epistles to the Thessalonians? What light does our text shed on these Thessalonian epistles?

(11) Compare the response of the Jews at Jerusalem to our Lord’s appearance and claim to the throne of David, to the response of the Jews in cities like Salamis (13:6ff.), Pisidian Antioch (13:44ff.), Iconium (14:2, 4ff.), Lystra (14:19ff.), Thessalonica (17:4ff.), and Berea (14:12ff.) to the gospel as preached by Paul and those with him.

(12) Explain Paul’s calling as “an apostle to the Gentiles” in the light of his very strong Jewish involvement to this point in time. Just exactly what was his “call” as recorded in Acts 9?

(13) What was the basis for Paul’s sense of urgency? What were the manifestations of Paul’s sense of urgency, as seen in his ministry and message? Does Paul command others to have this kind of urgency too? Does our Lord? What form should it take? Is it the same for everyone? Consult all of Paul’s epistles here, especially the Thessalonian Epistles.

(14) How do we explain Paul’s command to the Thessalonians to, “lead a quiet life and attend to your own business,” in the light of his own life and ministry, which did not seem to be very “quiet”?


377 “Leaving Philippi, the party followed a southwesterly course for thirty-three miles over the Via Egnatia to Amphipolis, originally the Roman capital of one of the four districts of Macedonia, but now having taken second place to Philippi and being devoid of a synagogue or Jewish population and generally decadent, Paul passes it by as a field of missionary activity. . . . Thessalonica was founded by Cassander about 315 B.C. and named after his wife, Thessalonica, who was the sister of Alexander the Great. It was made a free city in reward for “its support of Antony and Actavian in the Battle of Philippi.” Thessalonica was the modern Salonika, an important Allied military base during the First World War, having a present population of about one-quarter million. It is located on the favored Thurmic Bay.” Charles W. Carter and Ralph Earle, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), p. 245.

“There was a synagogue here in this great commercial city {Thessalonica}, still an important city called Saloniki, of 70,000 population. It was originally called Therma, at the head of the Termaic Gulf. Cassander renamed it Thessalonica after his wife, the sister of Alexander the Great. It was the capital of the second of the four divisions of Macedonia and finally the capital of the whole province. It shared with Corinth and Ephesus the commerce of the Aegean. One synagogue shows that even in this commercial city the Jews were not very numerous. As a political centre it ranked with Antioch in Syria and Caesarea in Palestine. It was a strategic centre for the spread of the gospel as Paul later said for it sounded (echoed) forth from Thessalonica throughout Macedonia and Achaia (I Thess. 1:8).” A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930), III, pp. 266-267.

378 “Luke does not say that Paul was in Thessalonica only three weeks. He may have spoken there also during the week, though the Sabbath was the great day. Paul makes it plain, as Furneaux shows, that he was in Thessalonica a much longer period than three weeks. The rest of the time he spoke, of course, outside of the synagogue. Paul implies an extended stay by his language in I Thess. 1:8.” A. T. Robertson, III, p. 267.

379 “Some were persuaded” (v. 4), indicates the human dimension of evangelism, whereas the opening of Lydia’s heart (16:14) refers to the divine side. Both the divine and the human dimensions are present in Acts, and neither should be minimized or ignored.

380 “The latter are described as leading women, which may mean that they belonged to the upper class in the town; alternatively the phrase can mean ‘wives of the leading men’, a sense made explicit in some early textual witnesses. Either way, this would not be surprising, since we know that Jewish women were to be found in upper-class society, and even Nero’s mistress and wife, Poppaea, was reputed to have Jewish sympathies (Jos., Ant. 20:195).” I. Howard Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, reprint, 1987), p. 277.

“Literally, ‘And of women the first not a few.’ That is, a large number of women of the very first rank in the city, probably devout women also like the men just before and like those in 13:50 in Antioch in Pisidia who along with “the first men of the city” were stirred up against Paul. Here these women were openly friendly to Paul’s message, whether proselytes or Gentiles or Jewish wives of Gentiles as Hort holds. It is noteworthy that here, as in Philippi, leading women take a bold stand for Christ. In Macedonia women had more freedom than elsewhere. It is not to be inferred that all those converted belonged to the higher classes, for the industrial element was clearly large (I Thess. 4:11). In II Cor. 8:2 Paul speaks of the deep poverty of the Macedonia churches, but with Philippi mainly in mind. Ramsay thinks that Paul won many of the heathen not affiliated at all with the synagogue.” A. T. Robertson, p. 269.

381 Blaiklock writes, “The lewd fellows of the baser sort {KJV} (5) are literally, ‘bad men from among the market people’, the labourers, no doubt, and humbler trade-associates of the Jewish commercial houses. Mt. xx. 3 pictures those who stood ‘idle in the market-place’ awaiting work. The desperate have often become the tools and dupes of the evil. So they were at Thessalonica.” E. M. Blaiklock, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company {photolithoprinted}, 1966), p. 129.

A. T. Robertson has a similar view: “So the Jewish preachers gather to themselves a choice collection of these market-loungers or loafers or wharf-rats. The Romans called them subrostrani (hangers round the rostrum or subbasilicari).” A. T. Robertson, III, p. 270.

I am just not convinced that this “blue collar” explanation is acceptable. It seems to me that the manipulation of this crowd took a great deal of skill and involved more than just the street rabble. Some of the riots which occur today, which seem strikingly similar, involve young college students. I am not convinced that a lack of status, position, or education is the best explanation, or even a justified one.

382 “Turned . . . upside down is anastatosantes. The verb means ‘to stir up, excite, unsettle.’ In the New Testament it occurs only here, in 21:38, and in Galatians 5:12, Deissmann gives as its meaning: ‘incite to tumult, stir up to sedition, upset’. . . . These accusers appear to have had an inverted perspective of the world. Actually, it was already upside down, and the missionaries were simply turning it right side up. Men may become so accustomed to inverted circumstances and ways of life that wrong appears right, and right appears to be wrong.” Carter and Earle, pp. 248, 249.

383 “A most serious complaint was lodged against the missionaries and their hosts. Jason and his friends were charged with harboring Jewish agitators, political messianists such as had stirred up unrest in other cities of the Roman Empire. Rome and Alexandria had recently experienced such trouble; now, said the accusers, the troublemakers had come to Thessalonica. Their seditious and revolutionary activity was not only illegal in itself; they were actually proclaiming one Jesus as a rival emperor to him who ruled in Rome. This was a subtle charge; even an unfounded suspicion of this kind was enough to ruin anyone against whom it was brought.” Bruce, pp. 324-325.

384 “Beroea is described by Cicero as an “out-of-the-way town,” but all that he means is that it lay off the Egnatian Way. It is about forty miles west-southwest of Thessalonica, on a tributary of the Haliacmon at the foot of Mount Bermios. It was the first city of Macedonia to surrender to the Romans at the end of the Third Macedonian War (168 B.C.); it was then included in the third of the four districts into which Macedonia was divided. At Beroea Paul and Silas were rejoined by Timothy.” Bruce, p. 327.

385 Acts 13:15 seems to reflect the opportunity as it would be offered in virtually synagogue: “And after the reading of the Law and the Prophets the synagogue officials sent to them, saying, ‘Brethren, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, say it.’”

386 The same preaching of Paul which Luke has very briefly summarized here in chapter 17 has been recorded in much greater detail in 13:16-41.

387 “A Greek idiom = Latin satis accipere, to receive the sufficient (bond), usually money for the fulfillment of the judgment. Probably the demand was made of Jason that he see to it that Paul and Silas leave the city not to return. In I Thess. 2:17f. Paul may refer to this in mentioned his inability to visit these Thessalonians again. The idiom lambanein to hikanon now is found in two inscriptions of the second century A.D. . . . . In Vol. III Oxyrhynchus Papyri no. 294 A.D. 22 the corresponding phrase dounai heikanon (“to give security”) appears.” A. T. Robertson, III, p. 273.

388 “Paul and his company proceeded overland southwest from Thessalonica for a distance of about fifty miles to the small city of Beroea, now known as Verria or Veroia and presently having a population of about 6,000. The city lay on the eastern side of Mount Olympus near Pella, the birthplace of Alexander the Great. It had a community of Jews and a synagogue. It is thought that Paul resorted to Beroea for rest and comparative seclusion for a time, but if so, he had not long to enjoy it. Cicero designates the city as ‘an out of the way place.’” Carter and Earle, p. 251.

389 We are told by Luke that the saints in Berea sent Paul out “as far as the sea” (verse 14). Some think that Paul then sailed to Athens, while others feel that this was but a diversionary move, and that Paul then traveled by land to Athens.

390 In the Gospel of Luke, the Jews were jealous of the grace of God, which was to be manifested to Gentiles as well as Jews (4:16ff.), and which was evident by our Lord’s association with “sinners,” when the “righteous” Pharisees and scribes expected Messiah to dote over them (Luke 5:29-39; cf. 6:7).