Explaining the Book

Bible Study Guide

Acts

Acts 17 Commentary Verses 1-3

We’re going to be embarking on a teaching series through the New Testament book of 1 Thessalonians.

And so, I hope it’s not a disappointment to any of you that we’re going to be starting in a completely different book for the first two messages in this series. The plan for this message and the next one is to work through Acts chapter 17 and verses 1 through 9.

And really, there’s no reason to be disappointed because it’s in Acts 17:1-9 where we see the founding of the church in the ancient Greek city of Thessalonica by the Apostle Paul and his helper Silas.

I think that getting a handle on how this church was founded will be helpful as we work through the book of 1 Thessalonians in the weeks to come.

So, let’s turn to Acts 17 and read verses 1-9. Acts 17:1-9

Acts 17:1–9 AV 1873

1 Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where was a synagogue of the Jews:

2 and Paul, as his manner was, went in unto them, and three sabbath days reasoned with them out of the scriptures,

3 opening and alleging, that Christ must needs have suffered, and risen again from the dead; and that this Jesus, whom I preach unto you, is Christ.

4 And some of them believed, and consorted with Paul and Silas; and of the devout Greeks a great multitude, and of the chief women not a few.

5 But the Jews which believed not, moved with envy, took unto them certain lewd fellows of the baser sort, and gathered a company, and set all the city on an uproar, and assaulted the house of Jason, and sought to bring them out to the people.

6 And when they found them not, they drew Jason and certain brethren unto the rulers of the city, crying, These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also;

7 whom Jason hath received: and these all do contrary to the decrees of Cesar, saying that there is another king, one Jesus.

8 And they troubled the people and the rulers of the city, when they heard these things.

9 And when they had taken security of Jason, and of the other, they let them go.

So, what we see here in Acts 17:1-9 is God advancing the gospel. And we’re going to see four means by which God is advancing the gospel.

•     In verses 1 and 2 we see the messengers of that gospel

•     In verses 2 and 3 we see the message of the gospel.

•     In verse 4 we see a positive reception of the gospel.

•     And in verses 5-9 we’ll see the negative reaction to the gospel.

That’s what lies ahead of us in this portion of Scripture. But for this message we’ll be focused only on verses 1-3. So, let’s look at the details.

Acts 17 Commentary Verse 1

We begin in verse 1 where we see God advancing his gospel using messengers.

Acts 17:1 AV 1873

1 Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where was a synagogue of the Jews:

A Brief Overview of Luke-Acts

Now, we’re just jumping right into the book of Acts in the 17th chapter. But as you know there is a lot of material that preceded this moment.

Gospel of Luke

The book of Acts is the second book penned by Luke. And Luke starts this book by addressing a man named Theophilus. He mentions a “former treatise” – a previous writing – that he wrote to this man in which he told him “all that Jesus began to do and teach” (Acts 1:1). And that former treatise, of course, is the book that we know as the Gospel of Luke.

The Church in Jerusalem

And so, the book of Acts picks right up where the Gospel of Luke left off. And the first 7 chapters of Acts are centered in the city of Jerusalem.

Jesus Christ commissions his people to proclaim the good news about him (Acts 1:4–8) and then he ascends to heaven (Acts 1:9).

After that, Peter and the other apostles in Jerusalem proclaim the gospel in that city.

The Church Scattered

Then in Acts 7 Stephen suffers a martyr’s death and as a result the church is scattered from Jerusalem to all sorts of geographical locations. It’s also at Stephen’s martyrdom that we meet this man named Saul who is agreeing to the persecution (Acts 8:1).

Saul’s Conversion & First Missionary Journey

But amazingly, Saul is converted to Christ in Acts 9 and begins to preach this Christ (Acts 9:20) whom he once persecuted.

Eventually Saul ends up in the church in Antioch. And it’s from there that he and Barnabas are sent on what we call their First Missionary Journey starting in Acts 13.

The Second Missionary Journey

That journey ends and so then Paul starts his Second Missionary Journey toward the end of Acts 15. It’s on that second journey of his where he receives what we call the Macedonian Vision (Acts 16:9) where during the night a man from Macedonia appears to him and tells him to come and help them. And so, Paul and his crew decide to go there and proclaim the gospel in Macedonia – which is in modern-day Greece.

Philippi

Well, the first stop of Paul and his company is in the Macedonian city of Philippi. It’s there that Paul and Silas see some success of the gospel. Some people trust Christ as a result of their ministry.

But then there’s an uproar in the city after Paul casts a demon out of a slave girl (Acts 16:18). Her owners then bring Paul and Silas to be beaten by the city officials and thrown into jail (Acts 16:19–24).

But later that night, the Lord miraculously causes all the doors to open in that prison and all the chains to fall off of the prisoners (Acts 16:26). That results in the conversion of the Philippian jailer and his family (Acts 16:27–34).

At the end of that episode, Paul and Silas are set free and urged by the local government to leave (Acts 16:35–40).

And that’s where we come to our text in Acts 17:1-9.

Amphipolis and Apollonia

So far then, we have the ancient city of Philippi in our minds in terms of where Paul and Silas have been up to this point.

But now in Acts 17:1 we’re introduced in passing to these two cities named Amphipolis and Apollonia. And of course ultimately Paul and Silas are on their way to Thessalonica.

So, we have these three cities to consider. So, I’d like us to get a visual of the geography and the layout of the area under discussion. So, let’s start out with a wide view of the area we’re talking about.

You can see Italy on the west and Turkey on the east. And then modern-day Greece is right in the center. Athens is to the south of the area we’re dealing with.

Now, let’s zoom in. Philippi – which is spelled a little differently these days – is on the northeast side of the map. And Thessalonica is on the southwest – labeled as “Ancient Agora Square” in this map. And in between those two cities you have Amfipoli (Amphipolis) and Apollonia. You can see that Thessalonica is on what is called the Thermaic Gulf.

And just kind of as a funny side note, you can see the city of “Drama” to the north of Philippi. And of course, the Apostle Paul and his crew experienced a lot of drama in this area of the world.

Distance and Travel

But more closely related to this message, it’s also interesting that Google Maps suggests it should take under two and a half hours to traverse from Philippi to Thessalonica. Because in Paul’s day it would have taken days to get from one city to the other on foot. But we’ll talk about the time potentially involved later in this message.

Now, the journey between these two cities would have been shorter on horseback. And that’s
 the mode of transportation that some people think that Paul and Silas would have used because of their weak physical condition after being beaten in Philippi.

But whatever the case, it would have been a much longer journey for Paul than it would be for someone today with a motorized vehicle.

Via Egnatia

One thing that would have been true of Paul’s day is still true today concerning travel in this area. And that is that Paul and Silas would have used a road to get from one city to another. And that’s because there was a Roman Road called the Via Egnatia that connected these four cities and beyond.

Thessalonica, Finally

Well, Paul and Silas eventually make their way from Philippi through Amphipolis through Apollonia and to Thessalonica.

A Synagogue of the Jews

And unlike Philippi, in Thessalonica they find a Jewish synagogue.

They say that at least 10 Jewish men would have been needed in order to start a synagogue in a city. The idea there is that each man is giving ten percent of his income in order to support the ministry.

A synagogue would be the equivalent of our church building. These gathering spots are mentioned numerous times in the New Testament gospels. But after that, we really don’t hear much about them – with just one mention in James and two references in the book of Revelation. In this book of Acts there are 19 mentions of this type of building.

Now, you can probably recall that there was no Jewish synagogue in Philippi. Paul and Silas had to find the few religious folks in that city by the river where they were praying (Acts 16:13).

Amphipolis and Apollonia – I suppose – could have had a synagogue. But we hear nothing about it.

But now in Thessalonica there is a synagogue, which would indicate a relatively sizeable Jewish presence (at least 10 Jewish men). The strength of their opposition to Paul later on in this text also would argue for a decent amount of Jews in this city.

Acts 17 Commentary Verse 2

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.

Silence

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?

Three Weeks?

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.

Reasoned

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.

Acts 17 Commentary Verse 3

Let’s move on to verse 3 to see what else Paul was doing while he visited this synagogue in Thessalonica for three sabbath days.

Acts 17:3 AV 1873

3 opening and alleging, that Christ must needs have suffered, and risen again from the dead; and that this Jesus, whom I preach unto you, is Christ.

Opening

So, Paul was “opening  (διἀνοίγω) … that Christ must needs have suffered” What does that look like?

This word is used elsewhere regarding the two disciples who walked with Jesus to Emmaus after he was raised from the dead. These men had their eyes opened (Luke 24:31). They recalled that Jesus had opened Scripture to them which made their hearts burn (Luke 24:32).

Then you recall that when those two men gathered with the rest of the disciples in Jerusalem, Jesus opened the understanding of them all so that they could understand the Scriptures (Luke 24:45).

Now, typically when this word is used, it’s God himself who is doing the opening. But in this one case in the New Testament, God is using a man – the Apostle Paul – to open the scriptures to these Jews in the synagogue.

And this reality that it is God himself who is behind Paul’s verbal witness would indicate that these Thessalonian Jews in the synagogue actually got the message that Paul was presenting. It wasn’t oblique. Paul wasn’t confusing them. These Jews were brought to understand the message plainly.

Alleging

And then Paul was also “alleging (παρατίθημι) that Christ must needs have suffered.”

This is the only time (out of 19 uses) where this word is translated as “allege” in the KJV. Elsewhere it’s translated as set or set before (7), commit (4), commend (3), put forth (2), set before (2).

Paul is then setting his message before these Jews with the expectation that they would receive it.

So, we’ve heard that Paul is verbally communicating a message with persuasion and God’s own working behind it.

Now, let’s look at Paul’s message itself. What is Paul reasoning about and opening and alleging in the synagogue?

Necessities Concerning the Christ

Paul asserts that the Old Testament makes two claims concerning the Christ.

In fact, the Old Testament portrayed these two realities as absolute necessities. That’s what that phrase “must needs” indicates.

According to Paul, the Old Testament leaves no room for argument concerning the following two facts. They are settled.

Suffering Christ

So, first, the Christ “must needs” have suffered.

Do you believe that? Do you really believe that the Old Testament presents the suffering of the Messiah as an absolute necessity?

Well, where would you go to find such claims?

Let me just walk us through a few of the many texts of Scripture that, taken all together, make the claim that the Messiah needed to suffer.

•     Back in Genesis 3:15 it was foretold that the seed of the serpent would bruise the heel of the seed of the woman – the Messiah.

•     The Messiah would be rejected by his close friend (Psalm 41.9).

•     He would be rejected by the builders (Psalm 118.22-23).

•     He would be the suffering servant (Isaiah 53:3).

•     He would be rejected for 30 shekels (Zechariah 11.12-13).

•     He would be forsaken by God and his murderers would divide his clothing (Psalm 22.1,18).

•     God’s sword would be turned against him (Zechariah 13:7).

•     Yet, even though he would be forsaken by God, he still committed his spirit into God’s hands (Psalm 31:5).

•     The Jews will look on him whom they’ve pierced (Zechariah 12:10).

•     He was cursed for us (Deuteronomy 21:22-23).

•     The Gentiles and Jews took counsel together against the Lord and his Anointed (Psalm 2:2).

These are several of the many texts in the Old Testament that declare it to be a necessity that the Christ would suffer.

And it’s not only Paul that made this point. Jesus himself also claimed that the Old Testament portrayed it as a necessity for the Messiah to suffer (Luke 24:26,46).

Peter also made this same assertion, as well (Acts 3:18).

Jews – even of today – tend to view the idea of a suffering Messiah as a stumblingblock or an offense (1 Corinthians 1:23). It’s actually something that on a human level keeps them from receiving Jesus as their Messiah. And yet, if they read their Old Testament with eyes of faith they would see that this was part of God’s plan all along.

Rising Christ

Well, the second reality that Paul wanted these Jews in Thessalonica to be persuaded of was that the Old Testament portrayed it as a necessity that the Messiah rise again.

Just as sure as it was that the Messiah would suffer – and suffer to the point of death – he would just as surely rise again.

•     The Christ would not be left in the grave or experience decay (Psalm 16:10).

•     He would sit at God’s right hand (Psalm 110:1).

•     He would ascend on high (Psalm 68:18).

And more passages could be brought in as evidence of this requirement of the Messiah – that he would rise from the dead.

The Identity of the Messiah

Well, Paul established that the Old Testament presented it as being a necessity that the Messiah would suffer and rise again.

So, the question would turn to the identity of this one. Who is this suffering and rising Messiah?

Paul’s answer – it is none other than Jesus of Nazareth.

There are over two hundred verses in the New Testament in which the words “Jesus” and “Christ” appear together. Every single book of the New Testament makes this claim.

Messiah/Christ

And as you know, “Christ” is not Jesus’ last name – like you have a first name and a last name. His last name just happens to be “Christ” – no. That’s not how that works.

It’s a title for a God-ordained office or position. Jesus fills the office of Messiah.

To discover just what it means that Jesus is the Christ, let’s allow the people of Jesus’ day to define that term.

•     Matthew identified the Christ as the son of both David and Abraham, hearkening back to promises that God made with those men concerning their “seed” – their ultimate descendant (Matthew 1:1).

•     When the wise men came to worship the child Jesus, they were seeking the King of the Jews. In response to that inquiry, King Herod asked the Jewish religious experts of his day – not where the King of the Jews was to be born – but rather where the Christ was to be born (Matthew 2:1-6).

•     In that same passage, those religious experts pointed Herod to Micah 5:2 which speaks of a governor who would rule God’s people Israel. So, the Christ is the King of the Jews.

•     The angels who proclaimed Jesus’ birth announced that the Christ would be the savior (Luke 2:11). He would deliver his people from their sin.

•     According to the High Priest Caiaphas who served as a judge in one of the Jewish trials of Jesus, the Christ was the Son of God (Matthew 26:63).

•     The unbelieving Jews who watched Jesus’ crucifixion made the claim that the Christ was “the chosen [elect] of God.” (Luke 23:35).

•     The Samaritan woman at the well fully expected that the Christ would be able to tell all things (John 4:25). He would be omniscient.

•     In terms the origin of the Christ, the Jews of Jesus’ day seem to have had some conflicting thoughts. Some of them thought that no one would know where the Christ was from (John 7:27). But they were quite sure it wasn’t from Galilee (John 7:41). And they ultimately knew that he would come from Bethlehem (John 7:42). They also seemed to expect that Christ would do miracles (John 7:31).

Jesus is the Messiah

So, let’s put it all together. The Messiah would suffer and die. He would rise again. He would be David’s son and Abraham’s son. He would be the Son of God, God’s chosen one. He would perform miracles. His origin would be unknown in some ways and yet he would be born in Bethlehem. He would know everything and deliver his people from their sin.

Who else would fulfill all of these prophecies – and more – than Jesus of Nazareth?

And so, that’s exactly the conclusion that Paul led these Jews to – that this Jesus whom Paul preached unto them is Christ.

Let’s Preach It!

And that should be our heartbeat as well.

We can follow in the footsteps of Paul the Apostle in our community. With God’s help we can see God advancing his gospel through us as we serve him without quitting. And as we do this we go forward with the biblical message of a suffering and rising Messiah.

So, in this message we’ve seen the messengers and the message of the gospel. And next time, Lord-willing, we’ll see the two very different responses that people have to this message, as we finish this section in Acts before we move on into the book of 1 Thessalonians itself.

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