Acts 17 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
Witness at Thessalonica
Though absolute monarchies hold sway over very few peoples today, many still live under totalitarian rule. When the Christian gospel invades such an environment, an authority struggle automatically arises. For the Thessalonians, Theophilus and his fellow seekers, the call to bow to King Jesus in repentance directly challenged Caesar's absolute rule. Luke's account helps us all learn how to count the cost of citizenship in the kingdom of God.
Proceeding south and west along the Via Egnatia, Paul and Silas travel thirty miles to Amphipolis, the capital of the first district of Macedonia; a further twenty-seven miles to Apollonia; and finally thirty-five miles to Thessalonica, the capital of both the second district and the whole province. Though he may want to distance himself from Philippi in Macedonia's first district, Paul is also making a strategic choice by targeting Thessalonica. This city was uniquely situated to serve as a center for the spread of the gospel to the whole Balkan peninsula (see Rom 15:19; 1 Thess 1:7-8). A seaport on the Thermaic Gulf, Thessalonica linked sea and land routes to the rich agricultural plain of the interior of Macedonia. So today, missions strategists rightly target world-class cities and key cultural groups so that the gospel, once taking root there, may naturally spread to whole peoples and whole nations.
Instead of recounting a speech, Luke describes Paul's pattern of verbal witness through a series of clauses (Acts 17:3). They form a rhetorical syllogism, a pattern of persuasion familiar to any first-century schoolboy (Kurz 1980). By deductive logic, Paul propounds major and minor premises, using irrefutable proofs (tekmerioi: evidence from authoritative texts and witnesses; compare Acts 1:3). Taken together, these premises lead by necessary logic to the conclusion, the speaker's goal in persuasion. The witness pattern is
Major Premise: The characteristics of the Christ (Messiah) are that he must suffer and rise from the dead (17:3a).
Minor Premise: Jesus modeled these characteristics in his death and resurrection (Kurz [1980:179] believes this premise is referred to in the clause I am proclaiming to you, 17:3b).
Conclusion: This Jesus . . . is the Christ (17:3b).
What stands out here is the role of the Old Testament and the interconnected nature of argumentation and proclamation in the process of persuasion. It was a matter of explaining (dianoigo; Lk 24:32, 45-46) and proving [from the Scriptures] the major premise (the Greek word order permits us to take this phrase with these verbs instead of with reasoned, as the NIV). Proving (paratithemi) was "demonstrating by setting evidence side by side"--God's authoritative Word (such as Ps 2; 16; 110; Is 53) next to the premise that it was the divine plan that the Christ must suffer and rise from the dead (compare Lk 9:22, 44; 17:25; 18:31-33; 24:26, 46; Acts 2:31; 3:18; 13:27-29). Paul's argumentation aimed to overcome Jewish preconceptions about the Messiah as a victorious king with an eternal reign who neither suffers nor rises from the dead.
The proof for the minor premise comes in the form of proclamation (katangello, the solemn declaration of a completed happening; 16:21; 17:13, 23; Schniewind 1964:71). With boldness Paul bears witness to the historical events of Jesus' life, death and resurrection.
Witness must always be pursued in this way. There is a time for dialogue, a time to deal carefully with the questions and doubts of those who hear our witness. But there must also be proclamation. The gospel is, after all, good news from God about what he has done in Christ, not the distillation of the best of human religious reflection.
A few Jews, possibly Jason (17:7) and Aristarchus (20:4) among them, a large number of God-fearing Greeks (there is not a redundancy here separating the men into two groups, pagans and God-fearers; contrast Stott 1990:272; compare Acts 13:43) and not a few prominent women (compare 13:50; 17:12) were persuaded. By the power of the Spirit Paul's reasoning has helped them understand the situation for themselves. As a result, they are able to make a free decision, in this case to embrace Jesus as their suffering and risen Messiah (Kemmler 1975:133; compare 26:28). And they immediately changed identities and joined (literally, "their lot was cast with," implying divine saving choice; compare 13:48) Paul and Silas as brothers and sisters in the kingdom of King Jesus the Christ.
The Jews who did not believe, in their misdirected zeal for the glory of God and the law (compare Rom 10:2), take measures to thwart the gospel's advance. They "set the city in an uproar" (ethoryboun; compare cognate thorybos, Acts 20:1; 21:34; 24:18; Josephus Jewish Antiquities 18.65; it is more extensive than NIV's started a riot). They gather the rabble lounging in the marketplace and form them into a mob (compare Plutarch Parallel Lives: Aemilius Paulus 38.4, who represents the agoraioi as agitators).
The mob moves to Jason's house, looking for Paul and Silas with the intention of bringing them to trial before the free city's citizens' assembly. Not finding the traveling preachers, they drag some of their own citizens, Jason and some of the brothers, before the local city officials (politarchai, a term found only in inscriptions; Thessalonica had five or six). Possibly they feel it more appropriate to arraign their own citizens there. Maybe they suppose that the citizens' assembly would be more lenient with their own than the officials charged with public order. The charges are threefold: public disturbance--causing trouble all over the world; harboring disturbers of the peace; and defying Caesar's decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.
The forties had been a turbulent decade for Rome in dealing with the Jews. In A.D. 41 Emperor Claudius wrote a threatening letter to the Alexandrians, saying he would take measures against Jews who were "stirring up a universal plague throughout the world" (Sherwin-White 1963:51). In A.D. 44 there were public disturbances in Palestine in the wake of Herod Agrippa I's death. In A.D. 49 Claudius expelled Jews from Rome because of public disturbances in the Jewish community at the instigation of "Chrestus" (Suetonius Claudius 25.4; see comment at Acts 18:3). Though the Jews themselves had caused the uproar at Thessalonica, their trumped-up charges of public disturbance made sense within the Empire's current political climate.
The charge of defying Caesar's decrees is best understood against this background. "Augustus and Tiberius had been very sensitive about the activities of astrologers and other prognosticators and had issued decrees forbidding predictions and inquiries affecting the affairs of state or the emperor's personal well being" (Bruce 1988:325; Dio Cassius Roman History 56.25.5-6; 57.15.8; Tacitus Annals 6.20; 12.52; compare 14.9). Paul's eschatology could be easily twisted into declarations about a coming monarch who will displace Caesar (1 Thess 1:9-10; 2 Thess 2:5-8). Since Thessalonica would want to maintain its status as a free city through loyalty to the emperor, and since the local officials are charged with preserving order and making sure the imperial decrees are respected, the charges understandably throw the crowd and the city officials into turmoil (tarasso, 17:13; compare 12:18; 19:23).
From Acts 17:10 we can surmise the officials took bond from Jason and the others to ensure two things: there would be no more public disturbances, and Paul and Silas and their preaching would be gone from the city (Longenecker 1981:470). If either condition is not met, the bond will be forfeited (contrast Lake and Cadbury [1979:206], who see the bond involving Jason's denial of involvement with Paul and Silas; the forfeiture would occur if that were found not to be true). The practical result is Paul and Silas's forced departure from Thessalonica.
Although the persecutors had been the real disturbers of public order, the gospel always has an unsettling, even revolutionary effect on those who hear it. It calls for a repentance that means bowing to King Jesus in total allegiance. Totalitarian rulers, whether Caesar or modern-day overlords, cannot peacefully coexist with King Jesus or his kingdom subjects.