Acts 17:1-9 – Paul and the Empire in Thessalonica

After a successful time in the synagogue in Thessalonica, charges are made against Paul before the local Roman authorities (Acts 17:1-9). The charges against Paul are significant: he is accused of “defying the decrees of Caesar” and “advocating another king, Jesus.”  Given the recent history of Thessalonica, these are dangerous charges indeed.

Augustus-Caesar-StatueFirst, Paul and his companions are troublemakers. This could be standard rhetoric, although it does seem that wherever Paul goes there is trouble. But Rome did not particular care for trouble-makers. In fact, this phrase (οἱ τὴν οἰκουμένην ἀναστατώσαντες οὗτοι) literally means the ones who are turning the world upside down.” C Kavin Rowe uses this phrase as the title for his excellent book subtitled “Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age.” As he points out in his chapter on Acts 17, to “turn the world upside down” is a grave accusation in the Roman world (p. 96). Luke used the phrase later in Acts to describe the revolutionary activities of the Sicarii, actions that will result in the Roman destruction of Jerusalem (Acts 21:38). It is possible to take this phrase not as “they are troublemakers” but rather as “they are rebels against the Roman Empire.”

Second, they subvert the decrees of Caesar. In 1 Thess 1:9 Paul says that the congregation has “turned form idols.” Obviously any pagan Gentiles saved during Paul’s time in the city would have turned from whatever idols they worshiped. But this “turning from idols” must have included the Roman cult.  If this is the case, then turning from the Roman cult could be understood as an act of disloyalty.  It is possible then that Gentile God-fearers still participated in some form of official cult, despite worshiping in the synagogue.

Third, they advocate another king, Jesus.  In 1 Thess 4 and 5 Paul clearly teaches that Jesus is coming back in power and he will establish his own glorious kingdom (1 Thess 2:19, for example).  This could easily be understood in terms of a change of emperors, that the empire of Rome was about to be supplanted with the empire of Jesus. It is clear, at least for Kavin Rowe, that “the figure to whom King Jesus is juxtaposed is beyond a doubt the Roman emperor” (p. 99).

Fourth, Paul’s preaching of the gospel challenges the truth of pax Romana. In 1 Thess 5:3, Paul says that when Jesus returns, it will be at a time when people are saying “peace and safety,” but they will in fact be destroyed.  Peace and security is exactly what was promised by the Empire, pax Romana meant that the empire was a safe and peaceful place to live.  Paul says there that the peace of Rome is an illusion.

All of this points to the radical nature of Paul’s gospel from a Roman perspective.  After the Jerusalem Council, we are well aware of how radical the gospel is from a Jewish perspective.  But now we see how dangerous the idea of Jesus can be from a Roman imperial perspective.  Paul is declaring that Jesus is the Real King and that his empire of peace is going to overwhelm the so-called peace of Rome.  This alternative way of viewing the world provoked violent reactions from Rome.

16 thoughts on “Acts 17:1-9 – Paul and the Empire in Thessalonica

  1. Yes and it’s easy to see a threat, as a Roman leader, to your own power. Paul is essentially claiming that Rome has no power or authority and will eventually come to ruin. It is only Jesus Christ and the Gospel that will last. As well, as those who are “in Christ.” Paul and the other Christian leaders speak a message of anti-imperialism indirectly because of the message of Christ. Rome intertwines with that of idolatry and pagan worship, thus is condemned by Paul. I find it fascinating that Rome saw Paul as a troublemaker. Usually, I see Paul as a laid-back, humble, severely persecuted, old man. When it reality he was all of those, yet spoke a powerful Gospel. It was this preaching that got him into trouble and caused leaders at the time to persecute him.
    Advocating another king, in and of itself, is anti-imperial. It’s stating that the current king is not fit to rule and that a better one is coming. That is not what Paul meant, but it is how people took it. For believers it was a comfort, to Roman leaders it was a disturbance. They wanted to secure their power and their peace. These followers of The Way were creating mayhem and would have to be removed before more citizens chose to follow them. Paul’s message is indeed radical to the Romans.
    However, in all of this, Paul never encourages those who are “in Christ” to live out radically, instead, he encourages the Thessalonians to, “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody” (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12). It is his belief that by your actions AND your words, people will come to understand the Gospel.

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  2. Paul’s preaching from a Greek perspective is very radical- as it was seen as a direct threat to the Roman Empire. As stated in the post, Paul is preaching about the ultimate king, Jesus, coming to establish his kingdom (Acts 17:7). His power far surpasses that of any Roman official. If Paul’s words did not lead to any action, I wonder if his message still would have been such a threat to the Roman Empire. His message did lead to action though, which resulted in many who believed and then left the Roman cult (Acts 17:32-33). With Paul’s preaching centered around Jesus as the Savior and King, it is no doubt that it was anti-imperial. However; as kholstad98 stated, Paul does not encourage believers to revolt against the Romans. Because of this, Paul’s message seems to be more anti-imperial by nature rather than intent.

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  3. I admire Paul’s bravery in doing this. Considering how well versed he was in the cultures of the various places he went, he must have known how it could be taken by the Romans. He was always able to use the subtleties of culture and experience of wherever he was to make his message understood by its recipients. So here it would’ve been just as easy for him to water down his Gospel and misrepresent Jesus. He could have down played Jesus’ role as the ultimate, legitimate, and returning king over all the earth, but didn’t compromise to safeguard his own safety. Perhaps seen as unwise to some, but respectable in my book.

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  4. Paul’s preaching was a threat to the Roman Empire. Paul preached about how Jesus was going to come back and take over everything, instead of Roman Emperor. People started to listen to Paul too, they took action and caused riots, and mobs after hearing Paul speak. Even though Paul could be considered a rebel against the Roman Empire, he still had enough courage to keep going, and use the message of the gospel. He still kept preaching the same thing. He never dialed down the message so that he could get out of the city safe. As David Eastman stated, Paul never compromise his safeguard his own safety to dial down the gospel to people, but he didn’t. As it says in 2nd Samuel 22:31 “This God his way is perfect; the word of the Lord proves true; he is a shield for all those who take refuge in him” Paul knew this and he knew that God would protect him anywhere he went, when he went to go preach the gospel to people. Was Paul considered a rebel? In the eyes of the Roman Empire yes, but he was doing everything what God told him to do.

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  5. I like Emily’s last statement quite a bit. Describing Paul’s message as “more anti-imperial by nature rather than intent” is spot on. The content of Paul’s preaching may be anti-imperial, but he never calls up a revolt against Rome, or encourages armed resistance of any kind. In fact, Paul, as well as Peter, calls for submission to political authorities (Romans 13:1-4; 1 Peter 2:13), and Paul later teaches that we are to pray for all those who are in authority over us so that we may live in peace (1 Timothy 2:1-2). (This raises some interesting questions about just how Biblical the American Revolution was, doesn’t it?)
    You certainly could not be a good Roman citizen as far as the government was concerned while obeying the teachings of Paul. However, Christianity was never intended to be group of hot-headed insurrectionists, either. A balance needs to be achieved, combining an unyielding loyalty to the truths of the Gospel with a deep-rooted love for others and desire for peace.

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    • What would happen if “being a good citizen” required you to attended a public event held at the temple of a god and to venerate that god in some way, and to participate in a meal that was food sacrificed to that god? This is something that happened frequently and would have been difficult if not impossible to avoid for the socially elite Christian. Christians will struggle to be good Roman citizens and live out a Christian life that avoids worship of gods.

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  6. For Paul to go against the Roman Empire must have taken a great deal of bravery and trust in Jesus Christ. By preaching the gospel, he was denying everything that the Roman culture stood for. The gospel was very radical compared to the Roman world’s culture and traditions. When Paul preached the gospel he was basically saying that Jesus was the true King and that the empire would one day be destroyed. Somebody preaching this to the people would definitely stir up some trouble. Acts 17:7-8 says, “…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”. The gospel that Paul was preaching was so radical for the Roman’s that it caused turmoil with the people and also the city officials. Although there were many people upset with Paul’s preaching, it still brought many people to Christ. Acts 17:4 says, “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”.

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  7. There is no doubt that Paul’s gospel from a Roman perspective is exceptionally radical. Polhill even describes Paul’s abrupt departure from the church in Thessalonica due to the rise of the jealous Jewish mob which directly correlates to the bond paid by Jason in Acts 17:5-9 (Polhill, 191). Consequently, Paul had to not only consider the very safety of his own life, but the church in Thessalonica as well, forcing him to flee. There is a major reason why trouble followed Paul everywhere he went—likely because of his gospel.
    Moreover, the book of Thessalonians can be understood as having strong anti-imperialistic implications and inferences. The fact that Paul was challenging the very decrees of Caesar (just as it is written above) put Rome in a state of paranoia. Furthermore, there is good evidence that Jesus could have been crucified because he was seen as an imperial threat (for Crucifixion was mostly used by the Romans in order to imply their obsession to an anti-imperial menace). Therefore, the fact that Paul mentions the coming of the Lord and his future establishment of a new kingdom in 1st Thessalonians 5 could have very well raised suspicions from the Roman counterpart. In the end, it is with no doubt that Paul’s gospel was extremely radical to the Romans, if not, much more than the radicalism the Jews experienced.

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  8. Paul caused a raucous while he was in Thessalonica; it is an especially big deal because his teachings are questioned as anti-Rome which was a very dangerous position for him to be. It seems that because Paul was successful in Thessalonica some Jews are jealous and stir up an angry mob to turn against Paul and his companions (Acts 17:1-8). The charges against Paul are significant because they are politically sensitive (Polhill, 183). Paul and his companions are troublemakers which goes against the peace that the Roman officials want to keep and Paul is clearly teaching and preaching against the mainstream Roman culture including pagan idolatry and preaching that Jesus is King. This kind of public teaching cannot go un-scrutinized. It must be dealt with and the magistrates reach a compromise where Paul and his companions are not killed but this incident is telling of how serious the nature of Paul’s message was to Roman eyes.

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  9. 3/20
    Upon reading this post I cannot help but think about how God raised Paul up to preach the gospel to the nations and gave him the words to speak and the courage to continue to strive towards the goal which was to spread the saving grace of God with those who were lost. There are without a doubt dangers to Paul’s mission. In Acts 17:1-9 the people of Thessalonica oppose Paul, saying he is a trouble maker and that he is claiming that there is another king which is not Caesar. During this time Rome was the ultimate power and to oppose it was asking for huge problems. Thessalonica was, without a doubt under the influence of Roman leadership and for the people to say that Paul was preaching against their king meant trouble. He was asking people to turn away from their idols (one of the traditions of Roman religion) and to follow the one true King Jesus. The courage it must have taken Paul to be able to be so bold in his faith really challenges me to take a look at my courage level and drives me to be more of a troublemaker. Our world claims that we need to accept any idea and thought and to not challenge anyone’s belief system. Well maybe we should follow Paul’s lead and challenge peoples beliefs and truly take a stand for Christ and the Gospel. What a privilege it would be to be called a trouble maker by challenging peoples thoughts and ideals about God and Christianity!

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  10. It is interesting that in Acts 17, the Jews are fundamentally still the people rejecting the gospel message. They are the ones who bring up the dangerous accusations against Paul and his companions (Jipp 92). Due to their jealously, they wanted to have Paul removed from their city, and apposing the Roman government would be an effective way of doing that. It is was true that Paul proved as a threat to the Roman rule. He was turning people from the Roman cult, claiming there was another king, and suggesting that there was no peace in Rome (Long). These things were very threatening to them, but they were brilliantly impacting the mission of the church. People were believing and following, and this threatened both the Jewish and Roman leaders. Paul and his companions were shaking things up and were often acknowledged as trouble makers, but in reality, they were just rebelling against the leaders who were opposing the mission of Christ in Thessalonica (Long). This seems to reflect Jesus’ ministry when He was on earth. Both the Jewish and Roman leadership was threatened by His mission as well. They saw that He brought real change to people and that he was the true source of “peace and safety” (1 Thess. 5:3). This scared them and they attempted to do away with Him. The same thing occurs to Paul and due to that he had to flee, but his ministry was still prospering in the city, despite the rulers’ best efforts.

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  11. After reading this blog, I can better appreciate Paul’s boldness in preaching the gospel. Sometimes it can be hard to connect the words on a page, to real life events in history. When thinking about what Paul went through, I am some what surprised that it wasn’t worse. All things considered, he essentially was attacking the empire. Although he many not have directly state that, the gospel presented a reality against Rome. I think the strong offense against Rome is to claim that there is another King. Which means that the emperor of Rome, was weak, and could be over thrown. Having this perspective from a Greek enables us to see that life, after conversion would have been dangerous. Everything you had was essentially at risk. This may, or may not be a good comparison, but when a individual in a Islamic community converts, they are often outcast, and even physically beaten. I think it is fair to say that in the Roman world, that was similar for those who converted to Christianity.

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  12. After hearing about the charges that were brought against Paul, it sounds pretty bad. From the Roman authorities perspective, I can see why they made these charges against Paul, but from Paul’s perspective he wasn’t directly trying to undermine the Roman authorities. However, Paul was convincing people to turn away from the Roman idols which was defying the Roman authorities, and disobeying the decrees of Caesar.
    Secondly, they were talking about a new King coming back, Jesus, which would obviously be threatening to the current Roman emperor. Paul talks about how Jesus is coming back and will establish his own kingdom.
    All of this shows how bold Paul was in his mission and preaching. He was not scared and did not care about the consequences of what he was doing. He knew that what he was preaching was right and he was willing to lose his life over it. This is how bold we are supposed to be about our faith. Most Christians, especially in the United States do not come anywhere close to life threatening circumstances because of our faith, yet often times we are much more scared to share our faith. We need to take a lesson from Paul and be bold with our faith.

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  13. The charges against Paul remind me of the charges he himself charged against the followers of the Way that he was actively persecuting prior to his conversion/call. Through out the journey of sharing the gospel with the Jews, there always seemed to be opposition of some form against the disciples. Paul faced Jews who did not understand the good news of the gospel and adhered to traditional Judaism, much like the life he lived as a Pharisee. Jipp claims Paul probably encountered jealous and violent Jews in nearly every city he approached (113). It is as if the tables have flipped and Paul is now receiving the consequences that he once delivered to early believers of Christ. Acts 9:16 also leads me to think about the reason behind the struggle and potential suffering that Paul is facing while he is striving towards Gentile understanding and acceptance of the gospel.

    Another interesting change of scenery for Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica is that in Acts 17:6, a private home is the center for early Christian interaction and not the synagogue (Jipp 92). I am trying to picture how something happening in a private residence is able to “turn the world upside down” and cause the participants to be labeled as rebels of the city. I think this speaks to the volume and credibility of the gospel message and how it challenged cultural ideas and complacency of the people.

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  14. In Paul’s time Rome was seen as the world super power and had authority over people. The government of Rome promised peace and safety to its citizens. Back in the biblical world times were tough and dangerous even worse than today. So for a city to promise peace and safety meant survival for people. And in order for there to be peace and safety in the city, people didn’t have many rights unless you were a Roman citizen. To be a Roman citizen was to pledge your life to Rome and the Caesar. You did everything the emperor said to do. That meant making sacrifices in the temples to the Roman gods and to Caesar if he said to. And follow every law of the Roman empire. And so for the Roman empire to promise such things as peace and safety, Rome controlled almost everything. In order to promise such things as peace and safety you have to be able to control those things. Like for example God promised Noah that he would never flood the earth again and gave Noah the covenant of the rainbow as his promise (Gen. 9:13-15).” God can promise that because he controls the ability to do so. But as the Roman’s promised peace and safety, things were not peaceful or safe. There was much corruption and greed along with crime. City officials could be bought, so could citizenship.

    By sharing the Gospel Paul was seen as a trouble maker because he was talking about things that went against Roman ideas and practices. And for those loyal to Rome they considered Paul to be rebelling against Rome; which in a way he was because he was telling them things that went against Roman practices and customs. Paul spoke against worshipping false idols and making sacrifices to them. which was a big part of the Roman culture. Paul also spoke about another king who was higher than all the kings of the world. What he meant was Jesus as king, the true king. But not in a way as to say that Jesus ruled in the same was as Caesar. People though Paul was a troublemaker because he was preaching about the kingdom of God. And when the time comes Jesus will come back and rule as king in his kingdom. And for those hearing this they might have though that some greater king was gonna come and conquer Rome and that he (Jesus) will rule in Caesar’s place.

    Paul preached that only peace, true peace will only happen after Christ comes back. And this challenged the Pax Romana of Rome because Rome already claimed that peace has been achieved. And to those who believed the lies told to them by the Roman government; or those who were blind to the truth. and for those hearing might’ve become fearful that there peace and security were in jeopardy because Paul was saying that his king was going to establish his kingdom and so the Roman’s became angry and they wanted Paul silenced.

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