A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 17:1-9. The mission in Thessalonica (continued).
Luke goes on to describe the divided response which Paul’s ministry received. On the one hand, because the gospel was preached ‘not simply with words, but also with power’ (1 Thess. 1:5), many believed. For example, *some of the Jews were persuaded*, convinced by Paul’s careful arguments, *and joined Paul and Silas*, perhaps withdrawing from the synagogue to become members of a Christian house church, *as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and not a few prominent women* (4). Because ‘God-fearing Greeks’ seems tautologous (all ‘God-fearers’ being Gentiles), Luke may be referring to two groups (God-fearers and Greeks) rather than one, as the Western text indicates and William Ramsay argued. In this case the converts were drawn from four sections of the community – Jews, Greeks, God-fearers and well-known women. Among them were Aristarchus and Secundus, who later became Paul’s fellow-travellers, and even, in the case of Aristarchus, his fellow-prisoner (20:4; 27:2; Col. 4:10).
On the other hand, the unbelieving *Jews were jealous; so they rounded up some bad characters from the market-place* (louts or layabouts), *formed a mob and started a riot in the city. They rushed to Jason’s house in search of Paul and Silas*, Jason being their host or landlord (see verse 7), *in order to bring them out to the crowd* (5). ‘Crowd’ here translates *demos*, which may refer to ‘the People’s Assembly’ (JB) or citizens’ council, of which Thessalonica as a free city was justly proud. *But when they did not find them*, that is, the missionaries they were looking for, *they dragged Jason and some other brothers before the city officials (politarchas)* instead (6a). Luke’s accuracy in calling the city magistrates ‘politarchs’ has been confirmed by a number of contemporary Macedonian inscriptions. ‘From five inscriptions referring to Thessalonica, it appears that a body of five politarchs ruled the city during the first century AD’. The charge against Paul and Silas was very serious: ‘*These men who have caused trouble all over the world* [*oikoumene*, the known inhabited earth, in practice the Roman Empire] *have now come here (6b), and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus’ (7). When they heard this, the crowd and the city officials were thrown into turmoil* (8). The general accusation levelled against the missionaries was that they had *caused trouble* (6). This means not (in the familiar and appealing AV expression) that they had ‘turned the world upside down’, but that they were causing a radical social upheaval. The verb *anastatoo* has revolutionary overtones and is used in 21:38 of an Egyptian terrorist who ‘started a revolt’. In particular, Paul and Silas were charged with high treason. It is hard to exaggerate the danger to which this exposed them, for ‘the very suggestion of treason against the Emperors often proved fatal to the accused’. Just as Jesus had been accused before Pilate of sedition, of ‘subverting’ the nation by claiming himself to be ‘Christ, a King’, (Lk. 23:2), so Paul’s teaching about the kingdom of God (14:22) and about Christ’s *parousia* (the official term for an imperial visit), which we know from the letters to the Thessalonians he had emphasized when he was with them, were misinterpreted. Since the emperor was sometimes called *basileus* (‘king’), (e.g. John 19:12; 1 Peter 2:13,17)as well as *kaisar* (‘emperor’), how could the attribution of *basileus* to Jesus (7) not be a treasonable offence? The ambiguity of Christian teaching in this area remains. On the one hand, as Christian people, we are called to be conscientious and law-abiding citizens, not revolutionaries. On the other hand, the kingship of Jesus has unavoidable political implications since, as his loyal subjects, we must refuse to give any other ruler or ideology the supreme homage and total obedience which are due to him alone.
The politarchs’ alarm led them to *put Jason and the others on bail* and then *let them go* (9). The magistrates’ action was probably more than to release the accused on bail. Luke’s expression refers to ‘the offering and giving of security, in civil and criminal procedures’. ‘They bound over Jason and the others’ (NEB), in the sense of extracting an undertaking from them that Paul and Silas would leave town and not return, with severe penalties if the agreement were broken. It was probably this legal ban which Paul saw as Satan preventing him from returning to Thessalonica (1 Thess.2:18); ‘this ingenious device put an impassable chasm between Paul and the Thessalonians’.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts: Becoming a Christian. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.