Thessalonica in Paul’s Day

By Stephen Terry


Commentary for the July 21, 2012 Sabbath School Lesson


“The goat became very great, but at the height of its power the large horn was broken off, and in its place four prominent horns grew up toward the four winds of heaven.” Daniel 8:8, NIV

The story of Thessalonica begins in the loins of Philip II of Macedon. Philip not only fathered the well-known son, Alexander the Great. He also fathered a daughter, Thessalonike. Philip fought many enemies to consolidate his power over Macedonia. At the time of one of those battles he had a daughter by Nicesipolis of Thessaly; perhaps their union had cemented the alliance between Macedon and Thessaly to stand against the Phocians. After winning the victory over the Phocians at the Battle of Crocus Fields, he received news of the birth of this daughter and named her “Thessalian Victory” or Thessalonike.

Thessalonike’s half-brother by Olympias, Alexander, set out to defeat the Persians after his father was assassinated.  In doing this, he was simply continuing with the invasion plans his father Philip, had set in motion. Much of Alexander’s later success was founded upon Philip’s careful preparations. Alexander did not realize that later generations would identify him with the he-goat of Daniel, chapter 8, and the Persians with the ram. He only seized his father’s vision as a useful political tool for building an empire and ran with it. While he succeeded in destroying the power of Persia and conquered far more than any before him, he died prematurely in Mesopotamia and the empire he secured was up for grabs. Like the four horns of the he-goat, four of his generals carved out sections of it for themselves. Ptolemy claimed Egypt, Seleucus claimed Syria, Lysimachus claimed Thrace, and Cassander claimed Macedon. To solidify his claim on Macedon, Cassander married Thessalonike thereby making himself Philip’s heir by marriage. She was not a willing bride and Cassander had to take the city of Pydna to claim her. She bore him three sons to assure the succession to the throne, and in return, he honored her by renaming the city of Therma, in her honor, Thessaloniki (Thessalonica).

Pydna also becomes an important battlefield later in 168 BC. The Romans defeat the Greek king, Perseus, there and end virtually all Greek resistance to Roman rule. It is at that time that the importance of Thessalonica begins to grow and the city eventually becomes the Roman administrative center for all of Greece. Its location at the nexus of both the East-West trading route and the North-South route made it ideally situated for this important role. By the time Paul arrived with the Gospel, it had been an important capitol of trade and government for over two hundred years. One could probably say that as it is said for the Empire all roads lead to Rome, in Greece all roads led to Thessalonica. After the fall of the city of Rome in 476 AD, Thessalonica became second only to Constantinople in importance in the Empire. But this was over four centuries after Paul’s visits. In his day, the Caesars still ruled from Rome, and Roman influence was dominant in Thessalonica, even though they did not rule the city with a heavy hand as they did in Jerusalem. The relative independence of the city surely contributed to the health of the local economy and its cosmopolitan culture. It was no backwater but throbbed with the pulse of the Empire from every direction. Naturally, the Gospel could not come to the Roman Empire without also entering Thessalonica.

When Paul came to the city, he found that it not only had people from every corner of the Empire visiting and transacting business there, it also had a thriving synagogue. Even as Christian travelers often seek out fellow believers, today, he sought out the synagogue to fellowship with those he had much in common with, both culturally and spiritually. Recognizing a traveler with similar faith to their own, the Jews welcomed him into their fellowship. It quickly became apparent that Paul was an adherent of a new understanding of the Jewish faith. Some welcomed that understanding, but others did not. Perhaps most alarming to these latter individuals was what Paul had to say about circumcision. Paul had recently met with the church leaders in Jerusalem and fresh from that meeting advocated that the Gentiles did not need to be circumcised. No doubt, this was welcome news to those Gentiles who were attracted to the Jewish faith but put off by this onerous requirement. However, those who may have previously submitted to this, and those who advocated circumcision would have reasons to be opposed to such a teaching. The Bible tells us that because of jealousy, opposition arose to Paul and his message.

It is not hard to imagine why there would be jealousy. Those who had been working to encourage Gentiles to convert to Judaism apparently had several interested proselytes, but according to the account in chapter 17 of Acts, many seem to have chosen to follow Paul. Then as now, the accusation of “sheep stealing” may have been put forth as these Jewish teachers saw their flocks dwindling. Sadly, the Christian church has a long history of persecuting fellow-believers when church members, finding something they are not hearing in their local churches wander off after other shepherds. Far too often we have replaced the gentle influence of the Holy Spirit with the strong arm of coercion when dealing with matters of control over doctrine. Even sadder, when the church lacks the power to coerce, it turns to this strong arm of the civil authorities to accomplish its aim. This is what the Jewish Sanhedrin did when dealing with Jesus; it is also what the church does even today, willingly drawing members into court. Counterproductively, the practice usually ends up driving conscientious members further from the fold and embarrasses the church in the eyes of non-believers. Nonetheless, this is what the synagogue also tried to do with Paul in Thessalonica. They attempted to locate him and haul him before the civil authorities. Since they would certainly not prevail on religious grounds, they sought to bring a charge of treason against him. Echoing the cry of the Jews of Jerusalem at Christ’s trial before Pilate, the Jewish leaders in Thessalonica also proclaimed that they had no king but Caesar.

In this they chose to reject their special relationship with God as a chosen people for one with no higher authority than humanity. As the Jews had rejected a theocracy to follow King Saul in Samuel the Prophet’s day, they reaffirmed their rejection of God by once again proclaiming their allegiance to only an earthly king. Perhaps they did not understand that they were rejecting God, but as God told Samuel in words that would surely apply to Paul as well, “…it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you.” 1 Samuel 8:7-8, NIV. Still we struggle with this, today. Little do we realize that by turning to the power of the civil authorities to support the power of the church to control its membership, we are proclaiming that we have no king but Caesar. We reject the idea of turning the matter over to God for resolution, and in so doing, we reject God as well. We then wonder why the church appears enfeebled and defective, full of divisions and strife. When the church as an organization results to civil control over its members, it should be no surprise that the members would follow the same practice when dealing with the church as an organization and with each other. In doing so, whether members or church administrators, we reject the unifying power of the Holy Spirit and instead appeal to the state as our deliverer.

In spite of this, the Holy Spirit is still working in Christianity. His power to unify and strengthen is manifest in those who are still willing to listen to His voice. Jesus tells us how to identify this church within the church. He said “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:35, NIV  When we see the spirit of self-sacrificing love active among the brothers and sisters fellowshipping together, we can know that God has not forsaken His people and that the Holy Spirit is continuing to speak to hearts as He did in Paul’s day. This is when the Kingdom of God comes near. The Kingdom of God is not an organizational goal. It is not a data element on a progress chart. It is not something to be measured and analyzed. God may even be against such attempts based on 1 Chronicles 27:23-24. Instead, the Kingdom of God is the soft, gentle wind of the Holy Spirit blowing through the hearts of those who are open to Him. Like throwing open the windows to let the fresh air into the house in the Spring, we can open our hearts to the presence of God and the wind of His love will enter in and remove the staleness from our lives, lifting our hearts by His presence and filling us with love for our Creator and His creation. This is so much more than any earthly power can offer.



This Commentary is a Service of Still Waters Ministry


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