The Gospel Comes to Thessalonica (Acts 17:1-8)
Acts 17:1–4 (ESV) Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. 2 And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3 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.” 4 And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women.
After he left Philippi, Paul travelled to Thessalonica. The city was large at the time Paul visited the city with a diverse population culturally. The city of Thessalonica was located on the Egnatian Way, about 100 miles from Philippi. The journey would take at least three days if they were on mule or horse, with stops in Amphipolis and Apolloinia.
The city of Thessalonica had been granted “free city” status in 42 B.C. because the city sided with Octavian and Marc Anthony in the civil war. This status was revoked, however, in AD 15 by the emperor Augustus (Octavian) because of unrest over taxes. As an imperial city, at least one legion was stationed in the area. The city was granted free city status once again in 44 AD by the emperor Claudius. It is only ten years after this that Paul arrives in the city and begins his ministry. There was a strong imperial cult in the city as well. Thessalonica minted coins declaring Julius as a god before Christ, and Zeus was replaced by Augustus on coins in the early first century. The city had a population of between sixty-five and one-hundred thousand at the time of Paul, making it one of the largest cities in Macedonia.
When Paul arrived in Thessalonica, he reasoned with the Jews in the Synagogue. As was his custom, Paul first went to the synagogue. For three consecutive Sabbaths, Paul went to the synagogue and explained from the Old Testament scriptures that Jesus was the Christ. Luke describes Paul’s ministry as “reasoning from the Scriptures” in the Synagogue. Luke does not say that he went immediately to the synagogue; Likely Paul initially established himself in the agora as a tentmaker in order to support his ministry while in the city. We know from the letter to the Thessalonians that Paul did not accept hospitality from the church or individuals in the church, (1 Thess 2:9). He claims that he worked “night and day” so as not to be a burden to the church.
We imagine Paul preaching an evangelistic message like an ancient Billy Graham. But that is not the way it is described in Acts 17. The word Luke chose to describe Paul’s ministry is uses has the sense of presenting an argument. Paul “opens up” and “lays out” a rational argument from Scripture. Luke uses the same language in 17:17, 18:4 and 19, as well as for Paul’s dispute in the temple (24:12) and his teaching in the school of Tyrannus (19:9). Similarly, it is used when Jesus taught in the synagogue in Matt 4:23 and Mark 1:21.
The word does not imply a lecture or sermon, but rather a dialogue which engages two (or more) people on a topic. In Acts 17:3 Paul is explaining the scripture, the same word Luke used to describe Jesus “opening the minds” of his disciples in Luke 24:31, 45, as well as the Lord opening Lydia’s heart to believe in Acts 16:14. As he explains the scripture, he “proves that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead.” Again, Luke uses vocabulary that shows that Paul is presenting a rational argument.
When Paul preached the Gospel, he focused clearly on the fact that the Messiah had to suffer and die, and then rise form the dead. The content of Paul’s teaching in the synagogue would have taken the form of a close reading of the prophets in order to show that Jesus was in fact the Christ despite the fact that he suffered. Although Luke leaves this unstated, it is probable that a major point in Paul’s presentation was his own eye-witness account of the resurrection.
Luke uses three episodes in this section of Acts which show that Paul presenting the gospel with rational arguments based on the scriptures (in Thessalonica and Berea), and using material drawn from the Greco-Roman world (at Mars Hill). The gospel is not preached using emotion to manipulate people into a decision, but presented rationally in order to persuade them to make a decision.