Our late afternoon journey from Berea to Thessaloniki found us travelling under sunny skies through vast agricultural land arrayed with apricots, peaches and kiwi fruit. The following day, the summer solstice, we began our exploration of the city. Storm clouds hung menacingly over the bay of Salonika. In a matter of minutes morning turned to night as rain drenched the largely empty Sunday morning streets. The world acclaimed Byzatine Museum was both a refuge from the weather and a remarkable display of more than 1000 years of Christian history. The storm having passed, we ascended to Thessaloniki's old city, which in the first century connected Europe to the East both by trade and travel. From its Byzantine walls we had a panoramic view of the city and its harbor. Paul and Silas arrived here from Philippi. Were we Paul, travelling from Asia to Europe, planting a church, being brutally beaten, imprisoned and surviving an earthquake, we might need counselling, or at least a doctor's certificate to recuperate on a Mediterranean island! Luke describes how 'they passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia [and] came to Thessalonica.' What was the secret of their ability to persevere and their willingness to suffer? Paul tells us! 'I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel.' (Philippians 1:12) 'We had previously suffered and been treated outrageously in Philippi, as you know, but with the help of our God we dared to tell you his gospel in the face of strong opposition.' (1 Thessalonians 2:2) Where the first Christians traveled, how they lived and what united and motivated them, was the Gospel - the good news of forgiveness of sins in Jesus, deliverance from death, eternal life, the gift of the Spirit and the certainty and finality of judgment for those who do not believe. John Calvin comments that the apostles possessed 'unconquerable mental courage and the indefatigable endurance of the cross.' Like their Savior, they were willing 'to suffer great things out of faith and submission to God's will.' (Thomas Manton) Paul and Silas travelled 150 kilometres west along the Via Egnatia to Thessaloniki, the capital of the whole province of Macedonia. Named after the half-sister of Alexander the Great, this city was uniquely situated for the spread of the gospel to the Balkan Peninsula.
Scholars once doubted the historicity of Acts because Luke, in describing how a Thessalonian named Jason was dragged before the 'city officials' (Acts17:6), uses a word (politarchs) found nowhere else in Greek literature. 'Luke is telling lies,' the critics said. 'The Bible can't be trusted!' But as H.V.Morton writes in his book, 'In the Steps of St Paul', '...the word has been discovered on a Greek inscription in Salonika and also in one of the papyri thus helping to confirm the minute historical accuracy of Luke.'
Paul went into the Jewish synagogue and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. 'This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ!' The word Paul proclaimed opened minds and hearts to the reality that Jesus is Lord. 'Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and not a few prominent women.' We know two of them, Aristarchus and Secundus (Acts 20:4). Aristarchus became a lifelong friend and fellow prisoner with Paul (Acts 27:2; Colossians 4:10). The life of this church was, Paul said, a consequence of the Gospel coming to them 'not simply with words, but with power, with the Holy Spirit…with deep conviction…in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit…..you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. The Lord's message rang out from you...your faith in God has become known everywhere…you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.' (1 Thessalonians 1:4-9)
Whenever the Gospel is preached there is polarization. 'The Jews were jealous...formed a mob and started a riot. They rushed to Jason's house in search of Paul and Silas in order to bring them out to the crowd.' Paul says they 'set the city in an uproar', gathering rabble rousers (agoraioi) from the marketplace into a mob 'to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved.' (1Thessalonians 2:14-16) The Jewish belief that God belonged exclusively to them led them to exclude others. Not finding the missionaries in Jason's house, they dragged him and some brothers to the city officials. 'These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are all defying Caesar's decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.' When they heard this, the crowd and the city officials were thrown into turmoil.' What a testimony! These men have turned the world upside down.' Literally, 'they set the habitable world in confusion…..these men have radically rearranged our world.' People were delivered from idolatry and refrained from immorality. Husbands loved their wives. Children respected their parents. The rich cared for the poor. Masters were kind to their slaves. This was the beginning of the transformation of Europe. There were more accusations. 'They are all defying Caesar's decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.' So they were charged not just with causing trouble but with treason - violating the imperial decree that there is only one Lord. Since Thessaloniki wanted to maintain its status as a free city through loyalty to Caesar, and since the local officials were charged with preserving order, these charges threw the city officials into turmoil. They decided to 'put Jason and the others on bail and let them go….As soon as it was night, the brothers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea.'
Thessaloniki challenges both our faith and our fervor. Everywhere we travel in this city we see Jehovah Witnesses evangelizing. The cults are active and their deception is attractive in a country where life is difficult. How far will we go and what are willing to do to advance the gospel? In the first century false teachers claimed that the Lord Jesus had already returned. Rumors were rife in Thessaloniki that some believers had missed the resurrection. Yet, like the summer solstice, the longest day, Paul reassured the Christian community that they must 'wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.' (1 Thessalonians 1:10) The Day of the Lord might seem long, but that is only so that we might be found at work while waiting, defining our life by the gospel and doing all that we can to bravely call the world to believe.