Paul’s two epistles to the Thessalonians, the first two he wrote by inspiration, give such a shining character of that church, that we cannot but be glad here in the history to meet with an account of the first founding of the church there.
I. Here is Paul’s coming to Thessalonica, which was the chief city of this country, called at this day Salonech, in the Turkish dominions. Observe, 1. Paul went on with his work, notwithstanding the ill usage he had met with at Philippi; he did not fail, nor was discouraged. He takes notice of this in his first epistle to the church here (1 Thess. 2:2): After we were shamefully treated at Philippi, yet we were bold in our God to speak unto you the gospel of God. The opposition and persecution that he met with made him the more resolute. Note of these things moved him; he could never have held out, and held on, as he did, if he had not been animated by a spirit of power from on high. 2. He did but pass through Amphipolis and Apollonia, the former a city near Philippi, the latter near Thessalonica; doubtless he was under divine direction, and was told by the Spirit (who, as the wind, bloweth where he listeth) what places he should pass through, and what he should rest in. Apollonia was a city of Illyricum, which, some think, illustrates that of Paul, that he had preached the gospel from Jerusalem, and round about unto Illyricum (Rom. 15:19), that is, to the borders of Illyricum where he now was; and we may suppose though he is said only to pass through these cities, yet that he staid so long in them as to publish the gospel there, and to prepare the way for the entrance of other ministers among them, whom he would afterwards send.
II. His preaching to the Jews first, in their synagogue at Thessalonica. He found a synagogue of the Jews there (Acts 17:1), which intimates that one reason why he passed through those other cities mentioned, and did not continue long in them, was because there were no synagogues in them. But, finding one in Thessalonica, by it he made his entry. 1. It was always his manner to begin with the Jews, to make them the first offer of the gospel, and not to turn to the Gentiles till they had refused it, that their mouths might be stopped from clamouring against him because he preached to the Gentiles; for if they received the gospel they would cheerfully embrace the new converts; if they refused it, they might thank themselves if the apostles carried it to those that would bid it welcome. That command of beginning at Jerusalem was justly construed as a direction, wherever they came, to begin with the Jews. 2. He met them in their synagogue on the sabbath day, in their place and at their time of meeting, and thus he would pay respect to both. Sabbaths and solemn assemblies are always very precious to those to whom Christ is precious, Ps. 84:10. It is good being in the house of the Lord on his day. This was Christ’s manner, and Paul’s manner, and has been the manner of all the saints, the good old way which they have walked in. 3. He reasoned with them out of the scriptures. They agreed with him to receive the scriptures of the Old Testament: so far they were of a mind. But they received the scripture, and therefore thought they had reason to reject Christ; Paul received the scripture, and therefore saw great reason to embrace Christ. It was therefore requisite, in order to their conviction, that he should, by reasoning with them, the Spirit setting with him, convince them that his inferences from the scripture were right and theirs were wrong. Note, The preaching of the gospel should be both scriptural preaching and rational; such Paul’s was, for he reasoned out of the scriptures: we must take the scriptures for our foundation, our oracle, and touchstone, and then reason out of them and upon them, and against those who, though they pretend zeal for the scriptures, as the Jews did, yet wrest them to their own destruction. Reason must not be set up in competition with the scripture, but it must be made use of in explaining and applying the scripture. 4. He continued to do this three sabbath days successively. If he could not convince them the first sabbath, he would try the second and the third; for precept must be upon precept, and line upon line. God waits for sinners’ conversion, and so must his ministers; all the labourers come not into the vineyard at the first hour, nor at the first call, nor are wrought upon so suddenly as the jailer. 5. The drift and scope of his preaching and arguing was to prove that Jesus is the Christ; this was that which he opened and alleged, Acts 17:3. He first explained his thesis, and opened the terms, and then alleged it, and laid it down, as that which he would abide by, and which he summoned them in God’s name to subscribe to. Paul had an admirable method of discourse; and showed he was himself both well apprized of the doctrine he preached and thoroughly understood it, and that he was fully assured of the truth of it, and therefore he opened it like one that believed it. He showed them, (1.) That it was necessary the Messiah should suffer, and die, and rise again, that the Old-Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah made it necessary he should. The great objection which the Jews made against Jesus being the Messiah was his ignominious death and sufferings. The cross of Christ was to the Jews a stumbling-block, because it did by no means agree with the idea they had framed of the Messiah; but Paul here alleges and makes it out undeniably, not only that it was possible he might be the Messiah, though he suffered, but that, being the Messiah, it was necessary he should suffer. He could not be made perfect but by sufferings; for, if he had not died, he could not have risen again from the dead. This was what Christ himself insisted upon (Luke 24:26): Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory? And again (Luke 24:26): Thus it is written, and therefore thus it behoved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead. He must needs have suffered for us, because he could not otherwise purchase redemption for us; and he must needs have risen again because he could not otherwise apply the redemption to us. (2.) That Jesus is the Messiah: “This Jesus whom I preach unto you, and call upon you to believe in, is Christ, is the Christ, is the anointed of the Lord, is he that should come, and you are to look for no other; for God has both by his word and by his works (the two ways of his speaking to the children of men), by the scriptures and by miracles, and the gift of the Spirit to make both effectual, borne witness to him.” Note, [1.] Gospel ministers should preach Jesus; he must be their principal subject; their business is to bring people acquainted with him. [2.] That which we are to preach concerning Jesus is that he is Christ; and therefore we may hope to be saved by him and are bound to be ruled by him.
III. The success of his preaching there, Acts 17:4. 1. Some of the Jews believed, notwithstanding their rooted prejudices against Christ and his gospel, and they consorted with Paul and Silas: they not only associated with them as friends and companions, but they gave up themselves to their direction, as their spiritual guides; they put themselves into their possession as an inheritance into the possession of the right owner, so the word signifies; they first gave themselves to the Lord, and then to them by the will of God, 2 Cor. 8:5. They adhered to Paul and Silas, and attended them wherever they went. Note, Those that believe in Jesus Christ come into communion with his faithful ministers, and associate with them. 2. Many more of the devout Greeks, and of the chief women, embraced the gospel. These were proselytes of the gate, the godly among the Gentiles (so the Jews called them), such as, though they did not submit to the law of Moses, yet renounced idolatry and immorality, worshipped the true God only, and did not man any wrong. These were hoi sebomenoi Hellenes—the worshipping Gentiles; as in America they call those of the natives that are converted to the faith of Christ the praying Indians. These were admitted to join with the Jews in their synagogue-worship. Of these a great multitude believed, more of them than of the thorough-paced Jews, who were wedded to the ceremonial law. And not a few of the chief women of the city, that were devout and had a sense of religion, embraced Christianity. Particular notice is taken of this, for an example to the ladies, the chief women, and an encouragement to them to employ themselves in the exercises of devotion and to submit themselves to the commanding power of Christ’s holy religion, in all the instances of it; for this intimates how acceptable it will be to God, what an honour to Christ, and what great influence it may have upon many, besides the advantages of it to their own souls. No mention is here made of their preaching the gospel to the Gentile idolaters at Thessalonica, and yet it is certain that they did, and that great numbers were converted; nay, it should seem that of the Gentile converts that church was chiefly composed, though notice is not taken of them here; for Paul writes to the Christians there as having turned to God from idols (1 Thess. 1:9), and that at the first entering in of the apostles among them.
IV. The trouble that was given to Paul and Silas at Thessalonica. Wherever they preached, they were sure to be persecuted; bonds and afflictions awaited them in every city. Observe,
1. Who were the authors of their trouble: the Jews who believed not, who were moved with envy, Acts 17:5. The Jews were in all places the most inveterate enemies to the Christians, especially to those Jews that turned Christians, against whom they had a particular spleen, as deserters. Now see what that division was which Christ came to send upon earth; some of the Jews believed the gospel and pitied and prayed for those that did not; while those that did not envied and hated those that did. St. Paul in his epistle to this church takes notice of the rage and enmity of the Jews against the preachers of the gospel, as their measure-filling sin. 1 Thess. 2:15, 16.
2. Who were the instruments of the trouble: the Jews made use of certain lewd persons of the baser sort, whom they picked up and got together, and who must undertake to give the sense of the city against the apostles. All wise and sober people looked upon them with respect, and valued them, and none would appear against them but such as were the scum of the city, a company of vile men, that were given to all manner of wickedness. Tertullian pleads this with those that opposed Christianity, that the enemies of it were generally the worst of men: Tales semper nobis insecutores, injusti, impii, turpes, quos, et ipsi damnare consuestis—Our persecutors are invariably unjust, impious, infamous, whom you yourselves have been accustomed to condemn.—Apologia, cap. 5. It is the honour of religion that those who hate it are generally the lewd fellows of the baser sort, that are lost to all sense of justice and virtue.
3. In what method they proceeded against them. (1.) They set the city in an uproar, made a noise to put people in a fright, and then every body ran to see what the matter was; they began a riot, and then the mob was up presently. See who are the troublers of Israel—not the faithful preachers of the gospel, but the enemies of it. See how the devil carries on his designs; he sets cities in an uproar, sets souls in an uproar, and then fishes in troubled waters. (2.) They assaulted the house of Jason, where the apostles lodged, with a design to bring them out to the people, whom they had incensed and enraged against them, and by whom they hoped to see them pulled to pieces. The proceedings here were altogether illegal; of Jason’s house must be searched, it ought to be done by the proper officers, and not without a warrant: “A man’s house,” the law says, “is his castle,” and for them in a tumultuous manner to assault a man’s house, to put him and his family in fear, was but to show to what outrages men are carried by a spirit of persecution. If men have offended, magistrates are appointed to enquire into the offence, and to judge of it; but to make the rabble judges and executioners too (as these Jews designed to do) was to make truth fall in the street, to set servants on horseback, and leave princes to walk as servants on the earth—to depose equity, and enthrone fury. (3.) When they could not get the apostles into their hands (whom they would have punished as vagabonds, and incensed the people against as strangers that came to spy out the land, and devour its strength, and eat the bread out of their mouths), then they fall upon an honest citizen of their own, who entertained the apostles in his house, his name Jason, a converted Jew, and drew him out with some others of the brethren to the rulers of the city. The apostles were advised to withdraw, for they were more obnoxious, Currenti cede furori—Retire before the torrent. But their friends were willing to expose themselves, being better able to weather this storm. For a good man, for such good men as the apostles were, some would even dare to die. (4.) They accused them to the rulers, and represented them a dangerous persons, not fit to be tolerated; the crime charged upon Jason is receiving and harbouring the apostles (Acts 17:7), countenancing them and promoting their interest. And what was the apostles’ crime, that it should be no less than misprision of treason to give them lodging? Two very black characters are here given them, enough to make them odious to the people and obnoxious to the magistrates, if they had been just:—[1.] That they were enemies to the public peace, and threw every thing into disorder wherever they came: Those that have turned the world upside down are come hither also. In one sense it is true that wherever the gospel comes in its power to any place, to any soul, it works such a change there, gives such a wide change to the stream, so directly contrary to what it was, that it may be said to turn the world upside down in that place, in that soul. The love of the world is rooted out of the heart, and the way of the world contradicted in the life; so that the world turned upside down there. But in the sense in which they meant it, it is utterly false; they would have it thought that the preachers of the gospel were incendiaries and mischief makers wherever they came, that they sowed discord among relations, set neighbours together by the ears, obstructed commerce, and inverted all order and regularity. Because they persuaded people to turn from vice to virtue, from idols to the living and true God, from malice and envy to love and peace, they are charged with turning the world upside down, when it was only the kingdom of the devil in the world that they thus overturned. Their enemies set the city in an uproar, and then laid the blame upon them; as Nero set Rome on fire, and then charged it upon the Christians. If Christ’s faithful ministers, even those that are most quiet in the land, be thus invidiously misrepresented and miscalled, let them not think it strange nor be exasperated by it; we are not better than Paul and Silas, who were thus abused. The accusers cry out, “They are come hither also; they have been doing all the mischief they could in other places, and now they have brought the infection hither; it is therefore time for us to bestir ourselves and make head against them.” [2.] That they were enemies to the established government, and disaffected to that, and their principles and practices were destructive to monarchy and inconsistent with the constitution of the state (Acts 17:7): They all do contrary to the decrees of Caesar; not to any particular decree, for there was as yet no law of the empire against Christianity, but contrary to Caesar’s power in general to make decrees; for they say, There is another king, one Jesus, not only a king of the Jews, as our Saviour was himself charged before Pilate, but Lord of all; so Peter called him in the first sermon he preached to the Gentiles, Acts 10:36. It is true the Roman government, both while it was a commonwealth and after it came into the Caesar’s hands, was very jealous of any governor under their dominion taking upon him the title of king, and there was an express law against it. But Christ’s kingdom was not of this world. His followers said indeed, Jesus is a king, but not an earthly king, not a rival with Caesar, nor his ordinances interfering with the decrees of Caesar, but who had made it a law of his kingdom to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. There was nothing in the doctrine of Christ that tended to the dethroning of princes, nor the depriving them of any of their prerogatives. The Jews knew this very well, and it was against their consciences that they brought such a charge against the apostles; and of all people it ill became the Jews to do it, who hated Caesar and his government, and sought the ruin of him and it, and who expected a Messiah that should be a temporal prince, and overturn the thrones of kingdoms, and were therefore opposing our Lord Jesus because he did not appear under that character. Thus those have been most spiteful in representing God’s faithful people as enemies to Caesar, and hurtful to kings and provinces, who have been themselves setting up imperium in imperio—a kingdom within a kingdom, a power not only in competition with Caesar’s but superior to it, that of the papal supremacy.
4. The great uneasiness which this gave to this city (Acts 17:8): They troubled the people and the rulers of the city, when they heard these things. They had no ill opinion of the apostles or their doctrine, could not apprehend any danger to the state from them, and therefore were willing to connive at them; but, if they be represented to them by the prosecutors as enemies to Caesar, they will be obliged to take cognizance of them, and to suppress them, for fear of the government, and this troubled them. Claudius, who then held the reins of government, is represented by Suetonius as a man very jealous of the least commotion and timorous to the last degree, which obliged the rulers under him to be watchful against every thing that looked dangerous, or gave the least cause of suspicion; and therefore it troubled them to be brought under a necessity of disturbing good men.
5. The issue of this troublesome affair. The magistrates had no mind to prosecute the Christians. Care was taken to secure the apostles; they absconded, and fled, and kept out of their hands; so that nothing was to be done but to discharge Jason and his friends upon bail, Acts 17:9. The magistrates here were not so easily incensed against the apostles as the magistrates at Philippi were, but were more considerate and of better temper; so they took security of Jason and the other, bound them to their good behavior; and perhaps they gave bond for Paul and Silas, that they should be forthcoming when they were called for, if any thing should afterwards appear against them. Among the persecutors of Christianity, as there have been instances of the madness and rage of brutes, so there have been likewise of the prudence and temper of men; moderation has been a virtue.