Thessalonica — Upside Down

By J. L. Leifeste

“...These who have turned the world upside down have come here too” (Acts 17:6).

It was around the year 50 A.D. when these words were spoken about the apostle Paul and his companions. A crowd was provoked in a place called Thessalonica. Even today, it is a principal city on the northern end of the Aegean Sea. But the true seed of disturbance for this crowd was not so much those preachers. What was really turning the world “upside down” was the gospel that the preachers brought with them.

A City in Need of Teaching

According to most historians, it was about 350 years earlier when this spot had been known as Therma (“Hot Springs”). Then Cassander, a general in the army of Alexander the Great, rebuilt it and renamed it Thessalonica after his own wife (half-sister to Alexander). It was a good location on a gulf. And the surrounding area included a fertile plain and good rivers.

In 168 B.C., the Romans conquered the region. Over the next one hundred years, Thessalonica became one of the most important cities in the province of Macedonia. During the civil wars of the Roman Empire (42 B.C.), the city gave its allegiance to Augustus and Antony, while its harbor served as a strong naval base. In appreciation, the Romans declared Thessalonica a “free city” rather than “colonizing” it like they did the city of Philippi.

This declaration gave Thessalonica special rights. Perhaps the most appreciated of these was self-government of internal business. Even the Roman provincial governor avoided interfering in Thessalonica’s city administration. Philippi was ruled by Roman colonial “praetors” as magistrates (Acts 16:20, 22). But free status allowed Thessalonica the right to have native Thessalonian magistrates (probably 5 to 7 in number) and a people’s assembly. The authority of Thessalonica’s magistrates was more autocratic and included the power of life and death over the citizens.

We see the unique position of Thessalonica’s magistrates in Acts 17 verses 6 and 8, which refer to them with the Greek term “politarkos” (politarchs, or “city rulers”). This Greek word was not found in ancient Greek literature, so some scholars questioned the accuracy of the book of Acts. However, archaeologists have now found this title in at least 17 ancient inscriptions, particularly in Macedonia. This is one more proof of New Testament authenticity.

Thessalonica was also a place filled with energy and diversity. In those days, it was probably the most important seaport and the most highly populated town of Macedonia. It flourished with trade and travelers. Ships from nations all around the Mediterranean Sea anchored in its harbor. The great Egnatian Highway, running from Asia Minor toward Rome, passed through its gates. Visitors from untold countries, beasts of burden, chariots, and people of all interests added to the noise in the streets. In the bustling shops and markets, one might find nearly any item from food to wine, cloth to leather, pottery to glassware, copper to gold, or animal to slave. As with other great cities of the time, it probably also contained offices, public baths, a hippodrome (an arena for horse and chariot races), a theater, apartment dwellings, private homes, inns, stables, and worship places for the different religions.

There were many philosophies and religious beliefs in this city. Some of them were born from a desire for immortality. Some came from the desire for a more personal relationship with a divine being. Some were started simply by superstition. And some viewed death as the end of a person’s existence. Even the Jewish sect of the Sadducees rejected the concept of a resurrection and a reward or punishment for the soul (Matt. 22:23; Acts 23:8). Other Jews believed in life after death, but had a limited knowledge of it. Regardless of backgrounds and opinions, people without the truth are people without definite spiritual hope. And in that day, the people of busy Thessalonica, just as those of every city and village, needed the truth of Jesus Christ. So Paul and Silas arrived and began preaching spiritual hope.

An Account of the Teaching

The narration in Acts 17:1-15, with a study of the two letters from Paul to the Thessalonian Christians, gives us a picture of the reception of the gospel message in this city.

Many Jews lived in Thessalonica. Some of them must have been wealthy and influential. They could afford a synagogue, could help sway some city opinion, and could boldly approach the magistrates. We know they had taught their religion to others because “devout Greeks” were there (Acts 17:4). Ordinarily, the Jews had a knowledge of the true God and the Old Testament. This often led them to a quicker, easier understanding of the gospel. Therefore, Paul usually started his preaching among the Jews (Rom. 1:16). So we find that he began in Thessalonica by reasoning with the people in the synagogue. The discussions became deliberations and lasted over a period of at least three consecutive Sabbaths (fifteen days).

Acts 17:3 is one example of Paul teaching the gospel of Christ. In it we find two important things. Firstly, the apostle used the inspired Scriptures of the Old Testament. He demonstrated and explained their prophetic proof that the Christ must suffer, die, and be raised from the dead. Compare Isaiah chapter 53 to Mark 8:31; 15:19, 25, 37; 16:6-9. Also compare Psalm 68:18 with Ephesians 4:8. And see Luke 24:7-8, 15, and 25-27. Having told them of Jesus and of the prophecies being fulfilled, Paul proclaimed that this Jesus “is the Christ” (Acts 17:3; see Matt. 16:16-17; 1 Jn. 5:1). The Greek word “Christos” (“Christ,” or anointed one) corresponds with the Jewish word “Messiah,” pointing to His sovereignty over a kingdom. But for true spiritual hope, both Jew and Greek had to realize that the Messianic prophecies involved a spiritual kingdom, not an earthly one. Therefore, secondly, Paul emphasized the fundamental gospel principle of the resurrection. Christ’s death and resurrection occurred (Rom. 4:24-25). And that sacrifice and resurrection offers each person joyous immortality (1 Tim. 2:3-6; 2 Tim. 1:10; 2 Pet. 3:9). To accept that immortality, a person must believe (Jn. 8:24; Rom. 1:16), repent (Lk. 13:3; Acts 17:30), confess belief (Lk. 12:8; Rom. 10:9-10), and be immersed in water. This immersion is a likeness of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection (Rom. 6:3-14; Col. 2:12; and 1 Pet. 3:21). From that moment, the Christian looks forward to another resurrection, at Christ's return, to enjoy eternal life with God (Jn. 11:25; 1 Pet. 1:3-9). Many in Thessalonica, and the rest of the world, were searching for such spiritual certainty. And many today are searching as well.

It is interesting to note two other things about the gospel of Christ being preached in Thessalonica. The Holy Spirit confirmed the truth of the message with power and assurance (1 Thess. 1:5 and 2:4). And when we compare Paul’s teaching (see also 1 Cor. 15:3-4) to Peter’s sermon in Acts 2:14-40, we should easily see that the true gospel of Christ is the same message to all men everywhere. It is not different messages and different doctrines (see Gal. 1:6-10; Jude 3).

Some Jews turned to Christ, a large number of devout Greeks were persuaded of the truth, and many highly respected women became Christians (Acts 17:4). The majority of these new Christians of Thessalonica may have been from the Greeks rather than Jews. Notice Paul’s statement in 1 Thess. 1:9, saying, “...and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (also see 2:14 and 4:4-5). Whatever their background, people were accepting the truth about Jesus Christ.

Some time during this period of establishing the church in Thessalonica, Paul and Silas began staying at the house of a man named Jason. They also labored physically to help pay for their own needs so that they would not be a burden to the new Christians (1 Thess. 2:9 and 2 Thess. 3:8-12; compare Acts 20:33-35). This illustrates the care, sincerity, and desire of these preachers to be the right kind of examples to the new Christians. It also illustrates that energy and diligence are important Christian traits and are necessary for distributing the gospel.

There are some people in all places and times who will hear the truth but will not accept it, despite the best of proof and reasoning. Some Thessalonian Jews did not believe. Because of their stubbornness and pride, they grew very jealous and turned spiteful attention toward the Christian preachers.

In those days, nearly every Greco-Roman city had troublemakers who loitered in the “agora” (city center or market place). Such people were often hired by evil people to create disturbances. Cicero, the Roman statesman, called them “subrostrani” (under the rostrum) which suggests the ram under the prow of a Roman warship that smashed into other ships. It also points to concealing, slothful, and degenerate characteristics. The resentful Jews and these peace-wreckers assembled a mob, set the city in an uproar, and attacked the house of Jason. They wanted to take Paul and Silas “to the people” (Acts. 17:5). However, the two preachers were not found. So the crowd “dragged” Jason and certain other Christians before the politarchs. In Acts 17:6-7, we read the distorted charges that Paul and Silas were upsetting the world and were contrary to Caesar by teaching Jesus as king. It is ironic that the unbelievers used public disturbance to deliver their false claim that Christians were promoting disorder. However, the multitude and the magistrates became very troubled at the charges. They would not want to risk losing their “free city” status with Rome. The accusation against Jason and the brethren was simply that they had treated the preachers as guests. The rulers required a bond, or monetary security, from Jason and the brethren. For the moment, this probably calmed the crowd and helped prevent further civil unrest. Yet, this had been a great disturbance by a large mob. Persecution of the Christians had begun. So it was decided that Paul and Silas would leave. The brethren immediately sent them by night to the town of Berea.

A Furtherance of the Teaching

It was probably during the next couple of years, while he was in Corinth, that Paul wrote First and Second Thessalonians. In these letters we find important connections to the previous events and teachings.

The persecution in Thessalonica was started by unbelieving Jews and was first directed at Paul and Silas. After this, however, both Jewish and Greek unbelievers began causing trouble for Christians in the city and the surrounding area (1 Thess. 1:6; 2:13-16; 3:3-8; and 2 Thess. 1:4-5). Such problems for Christians are not so unusual (2 Tim. 3:12; Phil. 3:10).

For strength and endurance, Christians must keep certain things in mind. This was true for the church in Thessalonica just as it is for every congregation today. The Thessalonian Christians needed to remember that they had turned from the old life of sin to Jesus Christ (1 Thess. 1:9; 2:13 and 2 Thess. 2:13-14). This turning involved believing in Christ’s resurrection and in the joyous Christian resurrection when Christ comes again (1 Thess. 1:10; 2:19; 3:12-13; 5:23-24; 2 Thess. 1:6-10; and 2:1-12). “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words” (1 Thess. 4:16-18; see also Matt. 16:27; Jn. 6:40; and 2 Cor. 4:14).

With this belief, Christians must patiently wait for Christ’s return (1 Thess. 1:10). And while waiting, they must serve (1 Thess. 3:8, 12; 4:1-12; 5:6-22; and 2 Thess. 3:1-15). “Now may our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and our God and Father, who has loved us and given us everlasting consolation and good hope by grace, comfort your hearts and establish you in every good word and work” (2 Thess. 2:16-17). The importance and urgency of that service is seen in the work of the church in Thessalonica. Amid heavy persecution, their acceptance of the gospel and growth in the faith were widely known (1 Thess. 1:8).

Thessalonica was an old, important, and busy city. Amid its many discouraging, obscure, and unreliable beliefs, the wondrous assurance of a spiritual resurrection in Christ was introduced. Such teaching brought persecution. But Christians there, as elsewhere, served diligently while waiting for the final resurrection. Because of that, the message went forth, the church grew, and the world was turned “upside down.” Today, the gospel continues to supply wonderful assurance. And persecution continues to follow. Therefore, Christians must continue to serve diligently while waiting for the final resurrection, so that the gospel will still go forth, the church will still grow, and our world will be turned “upside down.”