Well, the mention of a Jewish synagogue can portend only one thing. And that is that Paul is going into that synagogue and telling these folks about Jesus – their Messiah!
Acts 17:2 AV 1873
2 and Paul, as his manner was, went in unto them, and three sabbath days reasoned with them out of the scriptures,
As His Manner Was
So, it was Paul’s manner or custom to go into any synagogue he could find and proclaim Jesus. He didn’t start with the Gentiles. He would start with the Jews.
This comports with Paul’s famous statement in Romans 1:16 – that the gospel is the power of God to save people from their sins. And in that verse he gives a kind of order in his philosophy of ministry. He says that this gospel is “to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.”
Order of Operations
That was Paul’s order of operations.
It’s like in math where we have that acronym PEMDAS. Or maybe you remember the order of operations by a phrase like “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally.” That stands for Parenthesis, Exponents, Multiplication, Division, Addition, and Subtraction. It’s an orderly system whereby you know which mathematical calculation to do first when you have an equation with multiple calculations to perform.
Well, Paul had his order of operations when it came to proclaiming the gospel. It was: Jews first. And also, Greeks.
And so, we see Paul and Silas going in to speak with those Jews in that synagogue – because those Jews were to be – by God’s design – the first in that community to hear the gospel of their Messiah.
Jesus’s Manner/Custom As Well
And Paul I think is simply following the example set by our Lord Jesus in visiting God’s chosen people the Jews first with the gospel message of their Messiah who came especially for them.
In fact, out of the 57 times that a synagogue is mentioned anywhere in the New Testament, a full 21 of those references are to Jesus doing something in one of these buildings.
In fact, even this word “manner” that describes Paul’s approach to ministry in this verse is used of Jesus as well to describe his common practice of typically visiting a synagogue on the Sabbath (Luke 4:16).
Three Sabbath Days in the Synagogue
Well, Paul and Silas were at that synagogue for three Sabbath Days. They went to the synagogue when it was in session which would have been our modern Saturday – the seventh day of the week.
And the concept of the Sabbath is closely tied to that of the synagogue in that in the New Testament we find this word used numerous times in the Gospels and in Acts – 66 times in those five books. But only twice does it appear outside of those books – once in 1 Corinthians and once in Colossians.
Well, Paul and Silas apparently visited this synagogue in Thessalonica for three weeks.
Now, let me just note something that we’re going to need to keep an eye on as we deal with the book of 1 Thessalonians in the coming weeks.
The fact that Paul and Silas entered the synagogue for three Sabbath days doesn’t necessarily mean that they were in Thessalonica for only three weeks. It does mean that they showed up that synagogue for three consecutive sabbath days. But they could possibly have been in the city for maybe a few months even.
In Thessalonica Longer
And there are at least three realities that could allow for their being in Thessalonica for longer than three weeks.
The first reason is an argument from silence, I suppose. But that piece of evidence would be the fact that we’re not explicitly told how long Paul and Silas were in the city between those three sabbath days of proclaiming the gospel and then the response of faith on the part of some (v 4) and further then the response of violent resistance on the part of others (vv 5-9).
In other words, there could be a chronological space of a few weeks or maybe months between verse 3 and verse 4 in this text.
So, that’s one reason to not hold too dogmatically to the idea that Paul and Silas were in Thessalonica only three weeks.
The Gifts from Philippi
Another reality that might support Paul and Silas being in Thessalonica longer than three weeks is a statement that Paul makes in Philippians 4:16. There he reminds those Philippian believers that they had sent him some provision for his need on more than one occasion. And he says that he received those multiple gifts while he was in this city of Thessalonica.
Philippians 4:16 AV 1873
16 For even in Thessalonica ye sent once and again unto my necessity.
So, think about that. The believers in Philippi – the city that Paul and Silas had just recently left in order to come to Thessalonica – they sent a gift more than once to Paul while he was in Thessalonica.
How long would it have taken for one tranche of those gifts to come from Philippi to Thessalonica?
Well, the distance between those two cities is estimated at about 167 km – as you saw on that Google Map earlier. If a person walks on average 5 km/h (about 3 mph) then it would have been 33 hours of straight walking to get from one city to the other. People at this time in history may have walked up to 8 hours in one day. So, you have at least four days of straight walking to get from Philippi to Thessalonica.
So, it’s possible that one gift came four days there, a night of rest in between, and then four days back. And then at least one more gift came four days there – one night of rest – and then four days back. That total journey for those two gifts would have taken over two weeks.
And so, while it’s technically possible that the Philippians sent Paul at least two gifts within the span of three weeks, I see it as more likely that a gift came toward the beginning of Paul’s time in Thessalonica. And then another one came a bit later. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be scrunched into a three-week period of time.
The Breadth of Theological Teaching
The third consideration that seems to indicate that Paul was in the city of Thessalonica longer than he was in the synagogue of Thessalonica (3 Sabbaths) is the depth of theological knowledge that apparently the Thessalonian believers had, as is alluded to especially in the book of 2 Thessalonians.
In that book, Paul says that he addressed the believers in Thessalonica concerning the coming of the Anti-Christ while Paul was with them. That’s a rather deep discussion to have with converts who have been saved a mere three weeks or less. Really, it’s probably not what you would think to discuss with a new believer in the first few weeks of his being saved.
But then Paul even indicates that the Thessalonians knew what is restraining that Anti-Christ (2 Thessalonians 2:6). I think that today the average Christian would have no idea what is restraining the Anti-Christ from being revealed. Even the most studied and intelligent and devoted Christian these days would be able to supply options for exactly what Paul is talking about in that passage after years of study. But to be dogmatic about any one position on that is probably more than most would feel comfortable with.
2 Thessalonians 2:6 NET
6 And so you know what holds him back, so that he will be revealed in his own time.
But somehow in three weeks Paul and Silas could instruct these believers in the basics of personal holiness – which we see in 1 Thessalonians – all the way up through the really complex matters of eschatology in both 1 and 2 Thessalonians?
My point is that – of course – anything is possible with God and if he enabled Paul and Silas to have a tremendously effective ministry with the Thessalonians, he could have done it in three short weeks.
But it’s not a necessity from the text that Paul and Silas were there in Thessalonica for only three weeks. They were in the synagogue only three weeks, but they could have been and likely were in the city a bit longer. I’m not talking about years – but maybe months.
God is advancing the gospel through the biblical message
Well, what was Paul doing those three Sabbaths among the Jews?
That’s where we get to the second way that God is advancing his gospel in this world. God is advancing the gospel through his biblical message.
We see that at the end of verse 2 and also in verse 3.
At the end of verse 2 we see Paul’s method.
Paul reasoned with the Jews for three Sabbaths. That word is also translated by the KJV in other passages as dispute (6), preach (2), and speak (1).
Paul is speaking with the aim and intent of persuading these Jews of his message.
Out of the Scriptures
Then we see Paul’s material. He reasons with the Jews out of the Scriptures.
So, what were the scriptures for Paul and his first century Jewish audience?
Jesus explicitly identified the following as “Scripture”:
• Psalms (Matthew 21:42)
• The book of Exodus (Matthew 22:29)
• The Old Testament Prophets, and especially those that foretold of the Messiah’s suffering (Matthew 26:54-56)
• The book of Isaiah (Luke 4:21)
• And everything from Moses (Genesis) through to all the prophets (Luke 24:27). So, from Genesis to Malachi for those with an English Bible or from Genesis to 2 Chronicles for those with a Hebrew Bible – Jesus affirmed it all as Scripture.
So, what Paul is using here in the synagogue in Thessalonica would have been the entire Old Testament.
Paul is attempting to verbally persuade these Jews from his and their shared Old Testament.
Back to Acts 17 Commentary Verses 1-3.