Mid-way through their second missionary journey, Paul and Silas left Phillipi where they had been jailed for the Gospel, and went on to Thessalonica (Acts 17:1-10a). The interchange of Paul [Silas is assumed] and the local people is a study in missionary strategy and fortunately 1 and 2 Thessalonians also provides more background material. This short piece will examine if Paul was a failure in finding common ground due to the commotion that was caused there, and eventually being ousted from the city.
What is common ground?
‘Common ground’ could be defined as trying to find motifs and items in a local culture that might permit one to build bridges–or things in common— to the Gospel message. Just how far to build the bridge, and from what direction is the open question. Thus the approach ranges from those who affirm philosophical commonness of Christianity and other religions, to those who affirm that Christians can have only common ‘conversation opportunities’ with other fellow humans. Frequently the common ground approach tries to anticipate barriers to the Gospel and find creative ways to address them. Again, just how creative, is the open question. In this case, Paul would have to anticipate that Graeco-Roman culture called the Christian message a novelty and ‘michevous superstition’ and that Christians were ‘atheists’, as well as Jews who saw Christians as followers of a charlatan who said he was God.
The audience at Thessalonica
Paul’s audience in this case was Jews and Gentiles, with the former entrenched in Judaism, although the text refers to some Greeks who had an appreciation for Judaism and thus they were called ‘devout.’ For them, the law was the way to save themselves. The Greeks meanwhile were immersed in their local religions which rallied around the figure of the Emperor who even bore the name ‘SOTER’ or Savior. Thus we have Paul coming as an ambassador of Jesus Christ to a situation of two religious groups content to furnish their own saviors.
The use of reason
Paul, the former rabbi and terrorizer of Christians made the synagogue his first stop. Likely he delivered a similar message as at the synagogue of Pisidian Antioch (ch. 13) where he systematically used the Hebrew Testament to bring his audience to an accurate knowledge of Jesus. He could do this because the Old Testament, contrary to any other religious text, can actually lead people to Jesus. Thus we read that by having a discourse or reasoning [the Gk verb is used 9x in the book of Acts and always implies a verbal means to give a detailed account of something]from the Scriptures he clearly demonstrated that it was a divine necessity [i.e. the word ‘must] that Jesus the Messiah had to suffer and be resurrected because it was due–as Peter had said–to “the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23).
The text says that he made his clear presentation by “explaining and giving evidence” (NASB), (v.3) which clearly shows that he did this methodically, thoroughly, and acted as a witness of who Jesus was, and what he did and taught. Paul is following exactly in the footsteps of Jesus who also clearly expounded the Scriptures on the Emmaus road (Lk 24:25-27, 44-46) and likewise “opened their eyes.” Additionally, the introductory words that Paul entered the synagogue “as was his custom” hearken back to Luke’s words (Lk 4:16) about Jesus going to the synagogue “on the Sabbath day…as was his custom.” What Paul was not doing, however, was “incarnating the gospel”–a term much in vogue today. He knew that Incarnation was for Jesus alone. Yet, in following Jesus, Paul encountered persecution at virtually every stop on his tour, and thus showed himself to be walking in the footsteps of his Master.
The offense of the gospel
To the Jews in his audience, the very thought of a dying and suffering Messiah (cf. Acts 24:46) or a prophet who is a failure was offensive. To the Greeks, Paul did not come across as much of a rhetoritician with wise sayings. To them resurrections were good fairy-tale parts of miracle-story resuscitations, but their ideas did not permit someone to be raised from the dead and then to live immortally especially in a glorified body. Rather they focused on the Caesars achieving divine status when they ascended to heaven after death. Yet to both of them Paul spoke as the authorized divine herald and told them “that this One is the Christ (of the Scripture promises), the Jesus whom I on my part, am proclaiming to you.” In 1 Thess 2:13 he affirm that his words had divine warrant when he tell them that they had accepted his words “not as a word of human beings, but as what it really is, the word of God.”
A miraculous movement? Sort of :
This is where Luke could well have made great publicity with just how well Paul had followed the principles taught at the Antioch (A.D. 48) “common ground conference” and that because he had employed them, “some were persuaded and joined…” his movement–not to mention the leading women of the city and the God-fearing Greeks. The second verb won’t allow us this delicious temptation, however. The verb which has the roots of receiving something by lot or inheritance conveys the fact that it was the sovereign grace of God that opened the people’s hearts, just as when God had “opened Lydia’s heart” to receive the words that Paul had spoken, and that “as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48). Paul’s job was bring the gospel “not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1 Thess. 1:5) and it was the Spirit of God who would bring it home. No new and improved method, no 7 signs–of Jewish or Greek wisdom–in this case, no gospel parallels in the worship of Caesar could do the job.
The charges brought against Paul and Silas
The success of Spirit-empowered, bold and systematic proclamation of the whole Christ from the whole Scriptures, for the whole person, was too much for the members of the synagogue and they went crazy with jealousy. Very likely they saw their numbers as well drop as it would be rather doubtful that Paul would have encouraged the new converts to remain in the synagogue for long, or they would have been kicked out for showing just a bit too much of Gospel freedom to those enslaved by the law. Slaves never appreciate the freedom and status of sons. Thus we read that a group of under-employed rabble were used to cause trouble in the city, ironically where the reputation of a city was always linked to its keeping peace and order.
Thus the city was thrown into confusion by the lynch mob who in contrast to Paul’s clear and authoritative use of words were said to be shouting or yelling. They gave the apostles a backhanded compliment by calling them subversives or revolutionaries, and some translations colorfully describe this as “turning the world upside down.” The book of Acts describes the fact that everywhere they went, the apostles did so, but not for the sake of rebellion against the local authorities, but as a result of obedience to King Jesus. Obviously their ministry had been public enough to warrant this kind of a charge.
2. Illegal hospitality
There is a text which shows that in order to receive the benefactions (handouts or honors) of the Emperor; various cities had to show that they would keep any kind of questioning of his authority in check. One means was to forbid the housing of any kind of revolutionaries, and this is what Jason was accused of, even though he was likely a Christian who had offered shelter to Paul and Silas, possibly even at his house church. For Jason, conviction on this charge could be punishable by death.
3. Another King, namely Jesus
Part and parcel of Paul’s proclamation had been the Kingship of Jesus [i.e. …to the King, immortal…] (1 Tim 1:17). Thus the charge leveled was that “They all act contrary to Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, namely, Jesus” (v.7). Clearly what was charged was that the apostles were proclaiming another king, who was not Claudius the Emperor, but it was Jesus. As much as Paul and the apostles were law abiding citizens they did not hide the fact that their allegiances were no longer to the Caesar and everything he stood for. Even though he called himself savior, they proclaimed another. Even though his victories were called ‘good news’, they announced another set of even better news, namely the Gospel. As much as the Caesar was said to usher in ‘peace and security”–which was all over the coinage of the day, Paul says in 1 Thess 5:3 that only Jesus can bring such. As much as the Caesars like to be called god, or lord, Paul and the apostles proclaimed Jesus as Lord. Clearly they were not following the common ground textbook that suggested that finding bridges was the way. It looked more like they were exploding false bridges, than building them.
A King with a kingdom
Clearly Paul came not only talking about a kingdom (1 Thess 2:12), but also a King, namely Jesus. He did not communicate to the Jews and Greeks that somehow by virtue of being religious human beings they were somehow already in the kingdom, but he called for a radical disjunction of their former lives. Thus he recognizes in 1 Thessalonians: 9-10 that they had:
…turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.
This turning clearly is the language of conversion. It is the language of turning from something to something. It implies that their former worship was idolatrous, and could only be completed in the Son, Jesus. The eager anticipation for the arrival of the Son flew in the face of the waiting for the arrival of the Emperor and could well be said to be seditious language. For this reason Paul says that his Thessalonian readers are suffering for “the kingdom of God”(2 Th 1:5). This brings us back to the opening question:
Did Paul fail to find ‘common ground’ at Thessalonica?
The answer to this question reveals the presupposition of the inquirer.
- If one looks for Paul’s appreciation of all the religiosity of the Jews and Greeks one could say Paul failed.
- If one looks for Paul’s use of their, non-Old Testament, religious texts to buttress his arguments one could say Paul failed.
- If one objects to authoritative proclamation due to the fact that it might be found to be offensive to the ears of other religionists, then one could say Paul failed.
- If one determines success by keeping peace at all costs in a community by being culturally sensitive at all costs, then again causing an uproar and getting ousted from the city this would indicate Paul failed.
Perhaps the answer was that Paul failed to find common ground with his audience: but not so fast. I would like to suggest that the fact that Paul was in union with Christ, gave him common ground with his Master and that is what was important. The indicators of this union were as follows:
- Paul followed the footsteps of Jesus: “as was his custom” even if it led to suffering.
- A willingness to patiently and thoroughly open the Scriptures to the person of Jesus.
- A knowledge that it was not his techniques, his incarnational witness, nor his bridge-building ability that brought the message home. He knew that God had appointed people to eternal life, and it was his job to open his mouth. Thus later in Corinth he would be comforted by the words of the Lord (Acts 18:9-10) that “”Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.”
- A willingness to be labeled a subversive and one who challenged the majority religion of the day, namely the worship of Caesar and all that went with it, as well as Graeco-Roman polytheism. As well, his willingness to challenge Jewish religion was the cause of the mob disturbance in Thessalonica.
As much as the example of Paul the Apostle will be used in some conferences to try to tell the audience that he was the model bridge builder; that he showed that he valued the texts of other religions; that he had an incarnational ministry by being all things to all people; along with affirming that they should “remain where they are”; the picture of the Apostle Paul’s ministry is being mis-represented by selective, and often twisted readings of the text. This author would challenge the reader to examine Paul’s strategy in Thessalonica as only one example of many others where he, at a cost to his physical comfort, was willing to challenge the local religion. Think of stonings at Lystra where he challenged the local worship, getting jailed at Phillipi as well as being scoffed at and denigrated at Athens, not to mention Corinth and Ephesus. Paul had a Biblical view of other religions and knew his calling as a fearless ambassador for Jesus. Will this be true of the teaching of upcoming conferences? As always: Caveat emptor–’buyer beware.’
For further reading and other views on some of the material that will be presented at the upcoming Little Rock, Arkansas; Snellville, Georgia; and the Minneapolis, Minnesota Common Ground Conferences, please take the time to be a good Berean Christian to study the Word of God to see if the teachings are in line with the whole counsel of God.
Further material is available on request to the editor of Biblical Missiology.
- Incarnational witness— “Questioning the incarnation as a model for mission” by Tim Chester
- Kingdom Circles—John Span, THE CRITICAL KINGDOM QUESTION:CAN ONE BE IDENTIFIED WITH THE KINGDOM OF GOD AND WITH ISLAM AT THE SAME TIME? (PART 1 OF 2) —St. Francis Magazine, 6.2 (April 2010) 296-326
- For a YouTube video see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bu3Lnaj7M_k
- Acts 15— Salaam Corniche, “Acts 15: The Jerusalem Council Revisited” St. Francis Magazine 6.5 (October 2010) 837-869.
- Acts 17– John Span, “The Areopagus: A Study in Continuity and Discontinuity” St. Francis Magazine 6.3 (June 2010) 517-582.
- 1 Corinthians 9–”That By All Means I Might Win Some” by D.A. Carson | Apr 23, 2009 | 1 Corinthians 9:19-23
- The ekklesia– Salaam Corniche, “Corporate Identity Formation: The Ekklesia in Ephesians” St. Francis Magazine 7.1 (February 2011) 157-214.
- Oikos– John Span, “Towards a Biblical Theology of Oikos” St. Francis Magazine 6.1 (February 2010) 237-259.
- Common Ground Conferences
- Jay Smith, Common Ground Consultation, Atlanta, January 2009, and response by Jay Smith, “An Assessment of the Insider Movement Principle Paradigms” St. Francis Magazine 5:4 (August 2009)
- William Steele, “The Insider Movement as a Strategy for Evangelizing Muslims” St. Francis Magazine 5.4 (August 2009) 127-132.