At Thessalonica, in particular, the persecution was very severe and so his stay was cut short. Let’s read Acts 17:1-4 [READ].
Thessalonica was the most important city in Macedonia. It was a city like Washington, D.C. or New York. Like he often did, when Paul first went into a city for missions, he started at the synagogue. The result was miraculous. We read that “a great number of God-fearing Greeks, as well as a number of the leading women” were converted. Such an encouraging and promising start to a new church plant.
However, what we realize in the following verses is just how severe the persecution was in Thessalonica. The Jews obviously were bothered that this former Jew, now apostle, Paul, showed up on their turf, at the synagogue of all places and his preaching was effective and the Jews were losing members to this growing movement known as the Way, or Christianity.
I think we can apply the spiritual battle lens into this situation. Do you think Satan was happy that a great number of God-fearing Greeks, as well as a number of the leading women were leaving Judaism and becoming Christian? No, he was angry. If Satan can’t get you to bow down to pagan idols and participate in Satanic rituals, he will do the next best thing. He will offer up empty religion and legalism.
Judaism was a perfect setup for Satan. From the days of Abraham, the nation of Israel was chosen to be the people of God. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob became the personal God of the Jews. But along the way, they lost sight of God. God sent prophet after prophet, but they didn’t listen to the voice of God. It got so bad that after Malachi, there was 400 hundred years of silence where God literally stopped speaking. And the people, instead of crying out, God, where are you? God, why have you stopped speaking? Instead of repenting and crying out to the Lord, they just continued to observe their religious rituals and follow their traditions and they were too dull to notice that God had stopped speaking to them.
Isn’t that sad? 400 years went by and the people thought they were honoring God and responding to His voice, but they were just following a man-made, legalistic system of do’s and don’ts. A religion of rules. So it is not surprising that after the 400 year silence when Jesus burst onto the scene as the fulfillment of the entire Old Testament, the Jews who studied the Old Testament to the tee could not recognize Jesus as the promised Messiah.
What can we learn from Israel’s tragic history? We see that Satan loves it when God’s people settle for a religious system and miss out on encountering the Savior. In John 5:39-40, Jesus is persecuted by some Jews because Jesus was working on the Sabbath and therefore breaking Sabbath law and Jesus rebukes them, saying, you pore over the Scriptures, you study the Scriptures diligently “because you think you have eternal life in them [the words on the page], yet they [those very words] testify about Me. And you are not willing to come to Me so that you may have life.”
Brothers and sisters, don’t ever settle for religion. We are not saved by reading words on paper and nodding our heads in agreement. We are saved because we hear the voice of Jesus. He uses Scripture and he uses sermons, but those are only vehicles. The final destination is Jesus Christ. We have to hear His voice and respond to His voice, not my voice, not any pastor’s voice. It should be our desire to encounter the risen Jesus every moment. When we read Scripture or listen to a sermon, we should anticipate hearing the voice of Jesus. You should come to service with a heart of anticipation that I want to meet with Jesus through the worship, through the preaching of the Word.
The sheep hear the Good Shepherd’s voice. It’s when you are reading Scriptures and you have to stop because the words are leaping off the pages and the Holy Spirit is stirring your heart to consider what Jesus is speaking into your specific situation. It’s when you are listening to a sermon and you have to pause because it feels like you are the only person in the room and the spotlight is on you and Jesus has your undivided attention. Look for those moments. Those encounters. Don’t settle for tradition and rules and information. Religion is dead and Satan will keep you dead as a religious person because he knows that religion will keep you from meeting Jesus and inheriting eternal life.
At Thessalonica, God’s Word was preached and it came in power, in the Holy Spirit, the gospel transformed hearts and people repented and turned away from their idols and they placed their faith in Jesus, even though they knew that their faith in Jesus would lead to persecution and possible death. Still, they were emboldened by the Spirit of God. And no doubt, Satan was angry that people were being released from the bondage of religion and encountering the risen Jesus.
So what does Satan do? Acts 17:5 – Satan incites jealousy in the hearts of the Jews. The Jews, their group was losing membership and this new gathering down the street was stealing their members. On a human level, you can kind of understand if you were a Rabbi at the synagogue, you can understand how they may have felt a bit saddened or even a bit jealous toward the guy down the street whose ministry is growing at your own expense. But it wasn’t just jealousy. We read in Acts 17:5 that they gathered some scoundrels from the marketplace. Basically, they hired some hitmen to form a mob. They started a riot. And this riot showed up at the doorstep of a believer’s house named Jason. Jason was accused of hiding Paul and Silas and Timothy. Jason was brought out to the public assembly and accused of being disloyal to Caesar.
Just take a step back. Is this the kind of behavior that is consistent with a God of love and forgiveness? Throughout history and to this day, many things have been done in the name of religion that are exactly the opposite of God’s character. But the Jewish leaders were too blind to see how off they were. Clearly, Satan was at work in the hearts of the Jews. If Satan can’t prevent these God-fearing Greeks from leaving the prison of religion, he will do the next best thing. He will persecute the church. Based on the persecution at Thessalonica, Paul and SIlas moved south to the city of Berea. But the persecution from Thessalonica was so fierce that the mob followed them to Berea.
Acts 17:13 [READ]
Because the persecution was so intense, again, Paul leaves Berea and moves toward Athens and eventually to Corinth where the Corinthian church was founded in Acts 18.
The reason I am giving you this background is to point out one thing. Acts 17:2 – it says that Paul went to the synagogue for 3 weeks. In that short time, the church at Thessalonica was birthed and due to intense persecution, Paul had to leave this fledgling church. And he left this church, not in a good situation, but he left them in a fiery pit of severe persecution where the flames got so hot that Paul himself, at the advice of others, had to flee for his life.
Yet, despite it all, this church was unshakeable in their faith in the Lord. Their faith in Jesus was so transformative. Paul was there as short as 3 weeks, less than a month. He could have remained possibly for a few months, but we know for sure that it was a very, very short time. At some churches, Paul stayed at for years. In Acts 18, Paul founded the church at Corinth. Paul was at Corinth much longer than a month, he poured his heart out to them and what happened at Corinth? False teachers came to them and made the church turn their back on Paul.