The Apostle Paul at Thessalonica

Night view of Thessalonica from the exclusive ...

Night view of Thessalonica from the exclusive suburb of Panorama. Thessaloniki, Greece. Photo taken in 2006. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Sabbath school recently we were discussing Paul’s missionary endeavours to the city of Thessalonica (now known as Thessaloniki)and attempting to discover what manner of city it was, and who the Thessalonians were.

“Lonely Planet” in 2010 rated Thessalonica as the fifth best ‘party city’ in the world. For many reasons the city is today a major tourist magnet, and as we delve a little into her history, we find that such a reputation did not come about by accident.

In the book of Daniel, written some 500 odd years before the time of Paul, there is a well known prophetic passage concerning the Grecian Empire, which in Daniel’s day, had not yet evolved. The prophecy informs us that the empire, after the death of the first king, would divide into four. History reveals the veracity of this prophecy, for after the untimely death of Alexander the Great, the empire went through a series of battles and skirmishes between several warring contenders for the throne, settling eventually for a divided empire where four of Alexander’s generals proclaimed themselves ‘kings’ over their respective  territories. Ptolemy ruled over Egypt, Palestine, and a portion of Syria; Seleucus became ruler over Babylon and Assyria; Lysimachus became ruler over Thrace and portions of Asia minor, while Cassander ruled over Macedonia and Grecia.

It was in 315 BC that Cassander founded Thessalonica, naming the city after his wife, Thessalonike, who was Alexander’s half-sister and daughter to Philip 11. With this kind of heritage, it was inevitable that Thessalonica was destined to be more than a backwater village, and so it proved. It quickly became an important trade hub, dissecting as it did two very significant trade routes, and being a principal port at the head of a natural harbour. By Paul’s time, the city then being under the auspices of Rome, had grown to become a major cultural and military center as well as a business and political center, the Romans making it the capital of all the Greek territories within Rome’s province.  Today, she is still the capital of that region of Macedonia, and is Greece’s second largest city behind Athens.

Thus Paul was not entering a village of no repute, but a thriving major center for commerce, culture, and politics. And the residents of that city were as culturally diverse as you would expect from any modern cosmopolitan city. Jewish, Greek and Roman influences brought a mix that was always going to create an uneasy tension. Although Thessalonica enjoyed a state of independence from direct Roman rule, there were however problems.

However benign an occupying power may be, and no matter how generous and peaceful that power may act toward any of its defeated territories, any spirit of toleration that the vanquished may feel toward the conquerors is always going to be at best temporary. Taxes for example were siphoned off for the good of the greater empire. And the leaders of the city were chosen more for their loyalties toward Rome than for any love for Thessalonica , and more often than not, were from elsewhere. None of this  of course affected the wealthy too much for like today, they have long learned how to avoid taxes, and how to curry favour with the politicians. The working classes however, they were affected, the disparity between rich and poor growing daily, fomenting no little grievance. Jerusalem by contrast was even worse off. Having no independence whatsoever, the political and social situation there provoked many to rebel against the occupying forces, the Romans being required to bolster their armed forces there constantly. Jerusalem for the average Roman soldier was  the last place they wanted to be stationed at. Thus whatever lessons that we can learn from both Jesus, whose ministry in Jerusalem is of particular interest in this context, and Paul who travelled throughout Asia minor, Greece and elsewhere, will be of immense importance as consider todays global community and how we are to reach out to an even greater political, religious, racial and ethnic mix than any Jesus or Paul had to contend with.

So Paul was walking into a minefield, with the political situation simmering and threatening to boil over, the tensions mounting between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’, how was Paul to handle such a situation and promote the gospel? What was his attitude to the various social ’causes’ that were prevalent  in the city, how was he to approach the situation and teach the gospel impartially without alienating many of his intended disciples? In his letter to the Corinthians, a city a little to the south of Thessalonica, we find some clues as to Paul’s attitude. In his first letter to Corinth, Paul stated; 1 Cor. 2:2  For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.
Now surely we ought not think that Paul’s attitude would be any different elsewhere, his own testimony being that God sent him to preach the gospel, even to the point of not baptizing anyone. (1 Cor. 1:17). So in a cosmopolitan city such as Thessalonica, how was Paul to minister to such a diverse racial and social mix? Rich and poor, Greek , Roman and Jew, working class and politician, soldier, tradesman, and artisan, religious, philosophical, heathen and idolaters, masters and servants, all, without exception, potential candidates  for the kingdom of God.  Paul’s comment above to the Corinthians, that he was determined not to know anything among them save Jesus and Him crucified, is a powerful clue to Paul’s thinking. His focus was on the gospel, and nothing else. Elsewhere in that same letter to the Corinthians Paul has this to say:

1 Cor. 9:19 ¶  For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more.
20  And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law;
21  To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law.
22  To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.
23  And this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you.

Our discussion took on a personal turn as I contemplated my own thoughts regarding some political situations in my own country. For some time now I have favoured one particular political cause, which if successful, will be the harbinger of a great divisive time for our nation, however, in the light of our discussion, I have been forced to rethink my attitude. Jesus, in response to a challenge from a religious leader regarding the payment of taxes to Rome, replied with the now very well-known “render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and to God, that which is God’s”. New light dawned in my mind, and I realised that if I were to obey the call to preach the gospel to every creature under heaven, then as a Christian I could not afford to alienate a very large portion of potential candidates for the kingdom if I were seen as a supporter for one particular side of any political divide. The only hope for the unfettered preaching of the gospel in any situation regardless of which country one resides in, is to remain totally neutral in all political affairs, just as Paul and Jesus demonstrated. Neither curried favour with any civil or religious power, but treated all with equal magnanimity and a love that knew no favourites.

As the Christian church today is so immersed in the political machinations of several nations round the world, I would strongly suggest that they are working against the intents and purposes of the very gospel they claim they are promoting.. How so? By aligning themselves with one side of the political divide, making themselves protagonists against many who God would seek to have in His kingdom. Legislation supporting religious efforts to “Christianise” a nation are doomed to failure, for they do not and cannot change the hearts and minds of anyone. An outward obedience to Christian ethics does not a Christian make. Only a repentant heart an inward life-changing rebirth of the spirit of man will ever make a child of God.

We have such an ethnically mixed situation today in every major city in the world, perhaps to an even more marked extent. How is the church today reacting to the present situation of social mix that is so common today? How is the church today seeking to minister the gospel to such a wide rangesof racial, religious,  and social classes?

I think that we have to realise that we are not sent to minister to groups of people, but individuals, and we must show ourselves tolerant and accepting and impartial to every individual, regardless of that individual’s personal political, religious, or ethnic and cultural leanings. When we come to this point in our own experience in witnessing, the n we are allowing our Master full freedom to give His approbation and strength to our efforts.

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