RPM, Volume 17, Number 39, September 20 to September 26, 2015

To the Ends of the Earth
The Resurrection: Is It Such a Big Deal?

Acts 17:1-15

By Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas

Please be seated. Now turn with me once again to The Acts of The Apostles. We were in Acts 16 last Sunday evening, in the great city of Philippi. And Paul and Silas had been imprisoned, you remember, in the prison, and the jailer had been converted. And we left Paul and Silas being escorted out of Philippi—actually, being urged and begged and pleaded to, by the officials of the city, once they had learned that Paul was in fact a Roman citizen and that the treatment he had endured in Philippi was contrary to Roman law. Well, tonight we pick up the reading in chapter seventeen. We follow now the journey south towards the city of Thessalonica, and then from there to the city of Berea. Before we read the passage together, let's ask the Lord's blessing.

Lord, again, this is Your word holy men of old wrote as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. Help us now to draw from this passage all that you would have us learn. Come, be our teacher; instruct us, we pray. Challenge us. Help us to see what this story that we read together of an incident in the life of Paul and Silas and some others, what all of this has to do with us. Father, this we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.

This is God's holy and inerrant word:

Now when they had traveled through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And according to Paul's custom, he went to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and giving evidence that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, "This Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you is the Christ." And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, along with a large number of the God-fearing Greeks and a number of the leading women. But the Jews, becoming jealous and taking along some wicked men from the market place, formed a mob and set the city in an uproar; and attacking the house of Jason, they were seeking to bring them out to the people. When they did not find them, they began dragging Jason and some brethren before the city authorities, shouting, "These men who have upset the world have come here also, and Jason has welcomed them, and they all act contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus." They stirred up the crowd and the city authorities who heard these things. And when they had received a pledge from Jason and the others, they released them.

The brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea; and when they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews. Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so. Therefore many of them believed, along with a number of prominent Greek women and men. But when the Jews of Thessalonica found out that the word of God had been proclaimed by Paul in Berea also, they came there as well, agitating and stirring up the crowds. Then immediately the brethren sent Paul out to go as far as the sea; and Silas and Timothy remained there. Now those who escorted Paul brought him as far as Athens; and receiving a command for Silas and Timothy to come to him as soon as possible, they left.

Amen. May God add His blessing to that reading of His word.

Well, as we've been seeing in the last week or so Paul and Silas have been asked to leave the city of Philippi, having experienced a night in prison in the stocks; before that having been beaten—possibly the 39 lashes, one of the incidents recorded in Paul's epistle to the Corinthians.

Paul now, and Silas, head southward. It's a long journey, about a hundred miles or so. They pass through two important and significant cities, Amphipolis and [Apollonia]. It would be an interesting question to ask why Paul and Silas didn't stay there. They may well have stayed the night there. It probably would have taken them three whole days of journeying to get from Philippi to Thessalonica, traveling upwards of thirty-plus miles a day, perhaps on foot—that would be quite a trek!—perhaps using a donkey, or a mule or a horse. Luke doesn't give us those interesting details.

They traveled along the Via Egnatia—still there, of course, and you can see the Egnatian Way. The Romans built these magnificent roads. It's what enabled them to march their troops from one end of Europe to the other. It's said that their roads, upwards of 30-40 feet wide, were magnificent roads… roads down which you could drive vehicles today. They were as good a road… and probably better than any road built up until the middle of the nineteenth century in Europe. They were phenomenal in terms of their ability.

And Paul and Silas are traveling down this highway, passing all kinds of people, no doubt. A thoroughfare… it was a fairly safe way to travel. The Romans maintained their highways and kept them free from marauders and bandits. Eventually they come to Thessalonica. Thessalonica is an important city. It's a Roman city of government administration, like Corinth was, like Ephesus was… Philippi, to a smaller extent… of course, Rome itself.

There are lots of studies as to why Paul goes one place and not another. Of course the ultimate reason is the leading and guiding of the Spirit. We saw that the reason Paul is in Macedonia in the first place is because the Holy Spirit has constrained him, and no doubt that's a large and significant factor as to why Paul goes one way (in this case, south) and through two principal cities and on to Thessalonica. Lots of studies suggest that perhaps there's more to it than that, that Paul didn't do anything without a reason, and without weighing the reasons why he went to one city and not another. Of course, there is an immediate lesson here that Paul always eventually went to the city, to urban centers, to places where there were lots of people, for obvious reasons: in order that he might maximize the spread of the gospel.

But there is also not insignificant evidence to suggest that some of the cities that Paul chose were cities where Roman administration would take place, and therefore a lot of coming and going in terms of big business and in terms of government. We saw in Philippi how Lydia, a woman from Thyatira, has a business in Philippi. Later possibly we find her in Rome, if we identify a certain greeting at the end of his epistle to the Romans as coming, in fact, from Lydia. Maybe that's part of the strategy that Paul has. He has this burden to be the apostle to the Gentiles, to go to the great cities of the Gentiles. Eventually, of course, it will take him all the way to the city of Rome.


As he comes into this city of Thessalonica, I want us to see three things. I want to ask three questions by way of a structure of analysis of what Paul is doing here in Thessalonica. I want to ask first of all what he did; and secondly, what he said; and thirdly, what he experienced by way of results.

First of all, what he did. What he did was he made a bee-line for the synagogue. We've seen that so many times now. It was a natural place, of course, to go — to where people were gathered for worship, if there were any believers (Old Testament believers, of course…believers who hadn't yet trusted in Christ, but they believed, and they believed the promises of the Old Testament). If there were any believers in any town, they'd be found not in the pagan Roman temples, they'd be found in the synagogue.

It perhaps needs to be underlined that Paul is still going to the synagogue even though in many respects he has turned away from the synagogue. He had made a very deliberate turning away from the Jews to become the apostle to the Gentiles. He had won a significant victory in terms of the administration of circumcision in the case of converted Gentiles in that great decision that had been made in Jerusalem, in the Council of Jerusalem.

But still he goes to the synagogue in Thessalonica. He goes, Luke tells us, with Silas for three successive Sabbath days. This is a short-term mission trip. It's a month. It's astonishing what he accomplished in a month…no, what the Holy Spirit accomplished in a month. You wonder what the value of a short-term mission trip is. I have to confess, I've often belittled the idea myself. I always thought that you should be a missionary for life. Well, of course we do need missionaries for life, but here's one example, here's one illustration of what can be accomplished in a city with those filled with the Spirit, with those whose vision is the glory of God, with those whose aim is the conversion of sinners, under the blessing of God… under the benediction of God.

First, of course, they needed a place to stay. Now the text isn't absolutely clear. It looks as though in verse 7 with the mention of Jason (and we'll come back to him in a minute), but it looks as though they're staying in the house of Jason. It also looks as though Jason was some kind of hotelier. Paul probably didn't know anybody in Thessalonica; neither did Silas. So they went to an inn. They went to what we might call the Holiday Inn Express. (Knowing Paul, it was more likely to have been Motel 6 than the Holiday Inn Express!) And it's Jason's house that he goes to. This man — there's no mention of a wife, but he couldn't have done this work without a wife. So this home in Thessalonica…in the providence of God it just so happens that Paul and Silas would stay in his home. By the end of the visit, in a month's time, he's one of the brothers. It looks as though he has been converted as a result of Paul and Silas staying in his home.

Paul and Silas also needed the wherewithal to support themselves. Luke doesn't give us any of this information here, but in Paul's letter to the Thessalonians, which he will write almost immediately on returning from this second missionary journey, he'll fill you in with some of the details. He'll talk about some of the things that happened in Thessalonica: the way in which he was treated so badly in Thessalonica; the way he had dealt with the Thessalonians as a nursing mother, gently with them; but also informing us that in Thessalonica, Paul now resorts to making tents. He engages in what we call "tent-making ministry." That is, he wasn't paid. There was no stipend. There was no Faith Promise mission budget in Antioch or Jerusalem, or anywhere else for that matter. It looks as though in Philippi perhaps Lydia had supported them while they were there. But "in order that they might not prove to be a burden," Paul says, to the Thessalonians, he makes tents—night and day, perhaps. Extraordinary thing in itself, and worthy of some contemplation as we think of what kind of person Paul was.

But it's the synagogue that Luke focuses upon—these three successive Sabbath days in the synagogue. The synagogue in the first century had a very specific liturgy, and we know exactly what the liturgy was. We know the kind of things that went on in a typical synagogue worship service as they would gather together on the Jewish Sabbath. We know that Scripture was read. We know that Scripture was preached and proclaimed and explained. We know that at least in some of the synagogues (it probably didn't take place in all of the synagogues, but in some of the synagogues) they sang the Scriptures. They sang the Psalms. It depended, I think, on the size and musicianship of those who attended the synagogue as to how much music there actually was in the synagogue. They read the Scriptures, and they preached and explained the Scriptures, and they sang the Scriptures. And they prayed. And there were lots of prayers. And we know something of the exact form of those prayers. And that's all that they did. There was no "visiting Clown for Moses troupe." There were no mime artists doing parodies of the life of Elijah. There were no super-stadium Olympian pizza extravaganzas. Well, I tease you, but we do know exactly what kind of worship service Paul and Silas would have been attending in a typical synagogue in Thessalonica. It was written down. It was codified. There were strict measures to ensure that what took place in one synagogue took place in all the synagogues. They were deeply, deeply rooted in tradition and style. You can do the research for yourself.

And there is Paul, and there had been opportunity for him. He'd be asked, as a rabbi—someone with training under Gamaliel in Jerusalem—he would be asked to explain one of the readings, and he would do so gladly and begin to elaborate now on much more than they had asked for, and focus now in upon Jesus, and the life of Jesus, or the death of Jesus and the resurrection of Jesus.

So what did he say? If that's what he did, what did he say?

And there are five things that Luke, I think, emphasizes here: one by way of the foundation for all that he said, and one by way of the manner in which he said it, and then three things about what he actually said.

As for the foundation, Luke tells us that what Paul did was that he explained the Scriptures. He preached the Scriptures. He took the sacred writings. He took them to the Bible; he took them to their Bible — the Old Testament Bible, the canon exactly the same canon as we have for our Old Testament. Oh, the books may have been ordered differently, but it was the same message. It was the same set of books. It was the same Old Testament; and for Paul, what the Bible said, what the Old Testament said, God said it. And you remember he writes to Timothy. (Timothy is with them; he appears only in Berea. No mention of him, of course, in Thessalonica. He may have been left behind in Philippi and joins them down in Berea again and bypasses Thessalonica. It's hard to be sure where Timothy was during this period.) But you remember that when Paul writes to Timothy, what does he say to Timothy? That "from a child he had known the sacred Scriptures, the sacred writings." The Old Testament. He'd known them under his mother and under his grandmother. They are "able to make him wise unto salvation." "All Scripture is given by inspiration (or better, the out-breathing) of God." It's the Old Testament Paul is speaking of, of course: that all Scripture, all the 39 books of the Old Testament, they're a product of the out-breathing of God. That's the foundation. That's the basis. Paul wasn't preaching himself. He took them to the Bible.

Now, Luke tells us four words. He gives us four words as to how he explained the Scriptures, in verses 3 and 4. You notice at the end of verses 2 and 3, at the end of verse 2: "…three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and giving evidence…." And later, "This Jesus I am proclaiming to you…." Four different words. A rich vocabulary now. He's using actually very technical words, words out of classical Greek rhetoric with very specific meaning and intent and import. Some of the words are suggesting a reasoning process, a process of deduction, a logical process of argumentation involving premises and conclusions, gathering evidence, marshaling arguments, answering all kinds of counter questions, proclaiming as an ambassador, as a messenger, as an angel from God the word of truth in a variety of ways, all designed to bring the word of God home to the consciences and hearts and souls and minds of his hearers, and address the culture in a counter-cultural way…engage in apologetics with the foundation stone of the written word of God. You get the impression here, as Luke describes this using these four verbs, of a kind of feverish activity, reminding us a little of Robert Murray M'Cheyne, who died when he was 29 years old, saying that he "preached as a dying man to dying men." That was the urgency of it. That was the intensity of it.

Notice that he preached Jesus to them. He preached Jesus. "This Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you…." He spent a month with Paul. Imagine a month with Paul. And somebody says to you afterwards…you know, you've been on a mission trip with Paul for a month, and somebody says, "What's he like? What's he talk about?" "Jesus." "You know, in the middle of the night, what's Paul talk about?" "Jesus." That's all he talked about. It was a preoccupation of his mind. It was the focus of his heart. It was the goal of his life to make Jesus known to Gentiles, pagan Gentiles. And Jews. Jews here in the synagogue. To proclaim Jesus…. Do you remember when he writes to the Corinthians? What does he say? "We preach not ourselves." We're a little frustrated at times, not knowing the answer to some of these little questions that we have about — you know — what did Paul eat on this journey? What kind of accommodation was it, this place that Jason had? We have a million questions to fill in, and yet the focus of all the activity is Jesus.

I've been reading denominational magazines recently…(don't get the wrong idea, now!) …the want ads. You know, they're advertising for ministers. (Don't get the wrong idea!) This is the kind of thing that I've been reading: They're looking for men who are innovative; progressive; church-initiating; team building; a coach; a man's man; someone women respect; a people developer, with strong organizational skills; relates well to fast-track commuters; design and build infrastructure; envision and create ministry delivery teams (I have no idea what that means…); approachable; dynamic; able to lead worship through drama, audio-visual, banners and dance (well, that leaves me out!); and there's more. I wonder what kind of ad you'd place if you were looking for a Paul in the first century.

Wanted: A man full of the Spirit, giftedness acknowledged by his peers, prepared to go anywhere, for no compensation. Must be ready to suffer and possibly die in the course of his work, with nowhere to call home, except heaven.

He preached Jesus. And he preached…yes, do you notice especially for Easter Sunday? He preached Jesus—that it was necessary for Him both to die and to rise again. The necessity…do you know that? The necessity of Jesus' death and resurrection? It was necessary for Jesus to die and to rise again.

I rather think Luke is recalling something else when he remembers this little incident in Thessalonica. I think he's thinking about the resurrection story of the two on the road to Emmaus…you know, Cleopas and whoever the other one was. Was it Cleopas' wife? Or, as some suggest, Luke himself? And they're looking down, you remember. They're looking sad. And they hear footsteps coming up behind them, and this person asks them, "What are you talking about?" And they describe the events that have befallen them and the city of Jerusalem in the past week, and you remember what Jesus says to them? 'O foolish men…you should have known. You should have realized…don't you know what the Scriptures teach?' "And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, He began to teach them the things…that it was necessary for Christ to die and afterward to enter His glory." It's almost exactly the same word. It was necessary for Him to die. If sins are to be forgiven, it was absolutely necessary for Him to die, to become our substitute and sin-bearer, to bear in His own body the curse that our sins deserved, to die in our room and stead.

We may not know, we cannot tell
What pains He had to bear;
But we believe it was for us
He hung and suffered there.

And to rise again…and to rise again! Because without the resurrection there'd be no validation of who He was. There'd be no validation of His identity. There'd be no validation of all the words that He had spoken, because everything that He said and everything that He did and everything that He prophesied is shown to be true by virtue of the resurrection: that the grave could not hold Him; that sin could not hold Him; that Satan could not hold Him.

There have been two Bible theories in the twentieth century to account for the origins of Christianity. One is a somewhat psychological idea that arises from the world of psychology and therapy, and it's called cognitive dissonance—you know, why do people believe things even though the evidence says something contrary? Because they want to believe it. You know, why do people—forgive me, now—but why do people smoke when it says on the packet, you know, this will kill you? It says it in bold letters, especially if you're in Europe. Because you convince yourself it has nothing to do with you. It's for somebody else. Or why, when your football team loses (Clemson!), what's the explanation? "The referee." How ever do people come to believe that six million Jews were not put to death, gassed in Nazi Germany during the Second World War? Because they don't want to believe it. And that's the origin of Christianity, according to some.

And then there are other views — that Peter had some kind of enlightened experience. He saw and experienced something that just overwhelmed him, and stories began to emerge about a tomb, and perhaps an empty tomb, and people began to put words in the mouth of Jesus that He had said before the resurrection, only they began to put it into His mouth after the resurrection. So the story grows and develops, and so on.

And we've got our friend James Cameron and his documentary, "Lost Family Tomb of Jesus." You know, Ian Wilson… Ian Wilson is no friend of Christianity. He once professed to be a Christian and now professes to have been "de-converted." Ian Wilson, a notorious historian in our time, and no friend of Christianity, but he got this right. He was talking about Cameron's movie, and he said, "Christianity hangs or falls on the reality of the resurrection." He got that right. He was dead right. Christianity hangs or falls on the reality, the truthfulness, the physical truthfulness of the resurrection. Because if there was no resurrection, we might as well all go home and watch the end of the Master's, if it hasn't finished already, because this is just a waste of time. It's nice, but it's a waste of time. I trust none of us in here tonight believe it's a waste of time, because the Bible tells us with good and solid evidence that Jesus rose from the dead, and the tomb was empty, and Peter saw Him, and the two on the road to Emmaus saw Him, and Mary Magdalene saw Him, the ten in the upper room saw Him. Then, the following week, the eleven…and Thomas… "Thrust forth your finger into My side, and do so believing…" "My Lord and my God!" he said. And folk up in Galilee saw Him eating fish, of all things, for breakfast in His resurrection body. And Paul says 500 all at once saw Him, and many of them are still alive and could negate the fact, if they wish to.

And that's what Paul did. For three Sabbath days in the synagogue in Thessalonica he preached the necessity of the death and resurrection of Jesus. And what did he experience? Wonder. Glory. Blessing.

Luke tells us in verse 4 that some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, along with a large number of the God-fearing Greeks and a number of the leading women. In three weeks they responded to the proclamation of the gospel. You know, it was the work of the Holy Spirit. It was the power of God, a demonstration of the reality of the Holy Spirit at work in the lives of men and women.

And then violence erupts all of a sudden. "Death is at work in us, so that life may be at work in you," Paul says later. A rent-a-mob from the city…they try and find Paul and Silas, and they go to where he is staying...only Paul and Silas apparently are not there. And they arrest Jason and others and drag them to the city, and eventually they get Jason to post bail — money — in lieu of Paul and Silas's good conduct to leave the city. They were troublemakers. And James says they "turned the world upside down." Perhaps that's a little too nice. Actually what the charge that is being made, that they were just troublemakers. They were acting contrary to the dogma, the decree of Caesar. You see, the Caesars were notoriously given to conspiracy theories. They were unstable characters, especially Claudius. And apparently they had banned all talk and prophecy of take-over's and demise; and when Paul proclaims that Jesus is King, they see in that a threat to the Roman Empire and they charge him with sedition. And Paul and Silas leave by night and head for Berea. And we'll pick up Berea at the beginning of next week.

You know, I was going to read to you—my time is gone—I was going to read to you an extraordinary account of John Wesley in 1743, in the town of Wednesbury, being assaulted by a mob. Stones raining down upon him, some striking his head, striking some nearby him, blood coming out of ears and noses, some falling to the ground, John Wesley being taken to the outskirts of the city with the mob following him shouting insults and profanities, throwing all kinds of things — excrement and other things — at him. It's an extraordinary description of the kind of thing that Paul is going through here.

I wonder tonight on this glorious Easter Day, what are you willing to pay in order to name the name of Jesus? "If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me," Jesus said. Let's pray together.

Father, we thank You for this Your word, and ask that You would write it upon our hearts. Help us again to count it our greatest joy and greatest privilege to know Christ and to follow Him wherever He leads us, asking of us whatever He demands. For Jesus' sake. Amen.

Please stand, receive the Lord's benediction.

Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.

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