Our discouragement over our apparent lack of success in telling others about Jesus Christ, or in living our Christian life reveals our lack of faith. We must remain obedient to Jesus and continue to share who Jesus is, even in the face of no success.
In our Scripture this morning, Paul, Silas and Timothy take the Egnatian Way to Thessalonica which was the principal city of Macedonia. Thessalonica was founded in 315 BC. It was named after the half sister of Alexander the great and was about 62 miles west of Philippi, where the men had just been.
This is a very strategic move on their part. Much like our hometown, Anchorage, Thessalonica was also a multicultural city. As a port city Thessalonica was a crossroad of trade and culture. Since people were always moving in and through the city, if the Gospel is planted in Thessalonica, it would then spread to the surrounding region.
This is a strategy still used today, because it works and this is how it is still used today: A friend of mine, Bill, was a bible translator for Wycliff Bible Translators in some very remote mountains in Bolivia. Bill was on the second Wycliff team. The first Wycliff team went into the most prominent village in the area and learned the local Bolivian language. They then developed and alphabet and a written language. This took approximately 25 years.
Through the work of the first translation team a very small Christian church came into being. The people of this church struggled and were not generally well treated by the other people in the village.
Bill then went in with his Wycliff team, which was Bill, his wife Evangeline, and their three toddler age children. Bill and his wife would then take the newly developed written language, and translate the Bible into that local language. This would take another 25 years. As Bill and Evangeline translated the Scriptures, they taught the members of the local church to read and write in their own native language.
After many years Bill and Evangeline finally produced a full New Testament Bible in the local language and they sent it off to the printer. Now, remember after almost 50 years of work, there are only a handful of Christian believers. Bill told me that as they sent the manuscript off to the printers they couldn’t help but wonder if all their had work and the hard work of the team before them would be a waste, because there we so few believers to receive it.
Now, many of the people of the area knew Spanish as their second language and some could even read a little Spanish, but for these local Bolivian people, Spanish was not their language, it was only one of the 39 different languages in Bolivia.
Finally, the day arrived when the newly printed bibles arrived at the village. To Bill’s great surprise, hundreds of cheering people arrived - You see, everyone wanted a book written in their own native tongue, whether they could read it or not. This bible was the only book on the entire planet that was written in their language. It became the prized possession to everyone who was able to get their hands on one.
Bill and Evangeline’s literacy classes filled to overflowing...and the church exploded. New churches appeared overnight in the closest villages and people were becoming Christians left and right. To Bill’s delight, a second printing had to be ordered. People who had learned how to read were spontaneously heading out to share the Gospel in the more remote villages in the area. Bill and Evangeline felt a little ashamed for their lack of faith, they should have known the power of the Word of God
So this team of Paul, Silas and Timothy enter the city of Thessalonica. For three weeks straight Paul was able speak at the synagogue. Paul’s topic was how Jesus was the prophesied messiah. Paul showed this by going through all the Scriptures in the OT and showing how the life of Jesus fulfilled the scriptures. Remember, Paul was not only a rabbi, but a rabbi educated in the best rabbinical school of the day, by the best teacher of the day. A teacher of Paul’s caliber would be wonderful for these people to hear and they would be eager to hear his teachings.
Some Jews believed, but many more Greeks believed - both men and women believed. Women are especially highlighted here for Macedonian women were well known for their independence and for their enterprising spirit. In other words, the women of the region had a reputation for having a mind of their own - something unheard of at this time. Today here in America, we take this for granted, but in the ancient world women like this were rare indeed.
I went to Israel with some of the other pastors from Alaska in 2006. One evening we all sat down for dinner in Tiberias and I found myself sitting at a table with three ladies. When the time came to take our order for dinner, the waiter addressed me, the only man at the table and asked what each of the women would be having for dinner that evening. The waiter, a local man, refused to speak to the women at the table and acted as if they did not exist when they spoke to him. The result was dinner with three angry women and one teeny, tiny, tip for the waiter.
Remember, at that time, as a rule, whatever god the head of household worshiped, the rest of the household worshiped - and men were almost exclusively the heads of household. For a women to follow Jesus Christ independent of her husband, in most places in the ancient world this was a scandal. In fact, this was a major objection thrown at Christianity - Christianity created women who were independent thinkers and women who were independent thinkers would certainly create social unrest.
To some extent this criticism was true. Women all over the Roman Empire independently gave their life over to Jesus Christ and worshiped Jesus instead of the pagan god their husbands or father’s followed - even more slaves worshiped Jesus Christ instead of the god that their master’s followed. This was a very disturbing development in many households. Many men felt that they had lost control when the women and slaves became Christian. This could have been the root of some of the anger against Paul and Christianity.
Sometimes today you hear folks say that Paul oppressed women and that Paul attempted to make women less of Christians than men. How ironic. I’m sure Paul would just have to laugh, the ancient world saw Paul as elevating women too high, just the opposite of what some folks claim today.
The full meaning here (verse 4) is that not only did these women come to believe on their own, but that some of the leading women believed on their own, NOT on the initiative of their husbands. These women would be influential women in the city, probably women of means and education.
Many potential proselytes to Judaism were lost when Paul came to town and this incensed some of the Jews who hand’t believe the Gospel. (verse 5) They would especially see that the conversion of these women without their husbands as causing trouble in society. They go to Jason’s house because Jason is allowing Paul and the gang to stay there. Paul is not there so they bring Jason and other believers to the city officials.
Now this is a different type of city official than the ones Paul and Silas were dragged in front of in Philippi. We see in the original Greek we see that Thessalonica’s city officials are called Politarchs and not Duoviri as in Philippi. The Politarchs were recruited from the wealthier class of citizens and one had to pay a decent sum of money to hold the office of Politarch.
This differentiation of titles is an important distinction, because for years people claimed that this verse was in error because this name ‘Politarch’ could not be attested to anywhere in any ancient Greek literature. It wasn’t found anywhere. Since the name Politarch could not be found it was assumed that Luke had made the name up - and perhaps the whole story in Thessalonica. Some would go as far to say that the whole account of Paul’s mission was fiction, or or at et very least, details of Paul’s missionary work were greatly exaggerated.
However, about 150 years ago archeologists found Macedonian inscriptions using the name Politarch. Then about 100 years ago, many more inscriptions were found, over nineteen in all. One of these inscriptions was found on an arch in the city of Thessalonica itself, the arch dates back to as far as 30 BC, years before Paul entered the city. The arch now sits in a museum in London. The arch is a dedication to the Politarchs for all their hard work and dedication to the city.
So it turns out that Luke is accurate after all….
Again, Paul and Silas have to leave a city that has so much potential for the Gospel. How discouraging. Three weeks is hardly enough time to get the young church of the ground. These agitators are ruining Paul and Silas’ effectiveness.
It seems that at every turn Paul and Silas are confronted, attacked and persecuted, and by all physical evidence, they are not very successful. I mean when only a handful of people believe in a city of several hundred thousand, the outcome is more of a failure than a success. How can these men not be discouraged? But notice, there is no mention of discouragement.
When you attempt to tell others about Jesus, expect trouble. When you are found out to be a Christian expect trouble. Expect the trouble to always be there until the day you die, expect the trouble to increase in intensity when there is success, expect at least one great failure after every success you have in presenting the Gospel and in your own spiritual walk. Trouble will come and trouble will stay when you are living your life for the Lord Jesus.
Paul is not an exception in his ministry, Paul is the rule and remember this each time you become discouraged in your Christian walk: Your discouragement reveals how much more you need to grow in your faith, it reveals your lack of faith.
When discouragement comes your way, do what Paul and Silas do, thank God for the opportunity he presented before you whether you failed or succeeded; Then move on to the next issue like Paul and Silas move on to the next city.
Our Christian walk is not built upon success over failure, and either is our relationship with Jesus Christ and neither was Paul and Silas’ - our walk is built upon our obedience to our Lord Jesus Christ.
So the men head out for Berea. There they find quite a different reception to the Gospel….at first. At the synagogue (verse 11) the Bereans were of more noble character - that literally means that the Bereans were ‘more open minded’ when we look at the Greek text. Over the years much has been said about the nature of the Bereans and their eagerness, but why are the Bereans at the synagogue so open to the Gospel?
Verse 11 tells us why. See, the bible isn’t describing our modern way of being open minded, that we are willing to consider any idea no matter of ridiculous or contradictory the idea is, no, this open mind is specifically rooted in something, it is not simply a state of being.
This open mind, see there in verse 11, this open mind is rooted in the study of the Scriptures. Do you see that? Paul taught what he knew about who Jesus was, and the response of the Bereans was to...what? Argue about it, discuss it, think about it? These Bereans look to the Word of God for answers. God’s Word confirms what Paul is saying is true, so they believe.
It this idea true, or that idea true? What is the spiritual nature of things? Do we live after we die? If we live do we stay here on earth or go somewhere else? The bible has answers to life’s questions, the bible gives us so much information about life and how to live life well. I can surmise all day long about life, I can have all kinds of opinions about how life is, but they are meaningless in the end, because they are just my opinion. However, with the bible, I can find answers that are real, answers that are effective, answers that stand the test of time.
Never underestimate the power of the Word of God.
The agitators from Thessalonica arrive in Berea. Paul is on the run again.
At this point you should have surmised that the harassment of Paul is not a random event. Wherever Paul goes, trouble follows. This happened to Paul, this will happen to you. This happens because our battle is not against flesh and blood alone, but against the powers of evil as well. As sure as the Gospel brings joy and peace, the enemy will arrive with turmoil and discouragement - it is a very, very effective response against the Gospel.
We see failure, we see little movement, we see people become angry with us, simply because we talk about Jesus.
Notice that these attacks against Paul are relentless. They are relentless for a very specific reason - to produce discouragement. Relentlessly attack someone and over time they will become discouraged and ladies and gentlemen, when we are discouraged, we become utterly ineffective - for the powers of evil, mission accomplished.
For nine years I had worked with the same group of men on a loading dock, loading and unloading trucks. It was hard physical work, but very mundane and we all found it quite boring. Since the work was so mindless, I would find myself in philosophical conversations everyday. I was the only Christian, and so I found myself on the opposite end of matters of faith, and worldview than everyone else I worked with. Quite often, they saw my views as nonsensical and preposterous.
I found it very frustrating that after nine years not a single one of these men were the slight bit interested in Jesus Christ. Well, I have to admit, these men knew me well. After nine years, they knew my flaws, they knew my hot buttons, they knew my sins, they knew I was a far cry from what a Christian should be. I knew God had placed me in this job to be his representative to these men in particular; I was discouraged by my own personal failure. I came to believe that it was because of me, because I could not live a perfect life in front of these men, that they had no interest in Jesus Christ.
One afternoon, out of the blue, Phil took me aside and wanted to talk. Phil was a very large man who played football as a linebacker for the college I had attended. Phil was a happy go lucky guy, who never had a care in the world, but that day he was uncharacteristically, serious and a bit jumpy.
We sat down and Phil and blurted out, “Tell me all about Jesus.”
I thought he was kidding, I was thinking that I had told these guys about Jesus for nine years and at very turn they rejected whatever I had to say, I seriously thought Phil was just messing with me, like he did quite often with everyone on the loading dock.
It turns out Phil had a cousin who was getting into serious trouble in Oakland California. I think he was in the county jail or something. Phil thought his cousin needed Jesus. Phil wanted to know all about Jesus so he could tell his cousin and his cousin then could straighten his life out. So….I told Phil, AGAIN, all I could about Jesus.
Phil insisted that I give him a bible, Phil said that he felt that he could only tell his cousin about Jesus if he was holding a bible in his hand. So I gave him an old bible of mine, knowing I would never see it again.
Then, as odd as it sounds, Phil who was not a Christian shared Jesus with his cousin who was in serious trouble. Phil’s cousin immediately gave his life over to Jesus and became a Christian. His conversion was so powerful that several other family members also gave their lives over to Jesus Christ. These family members saw the change in this cousin, and the cousin said talk to Phil, he knows all about Jesus. When these family members found out that Phil, who had led them all to Christ wasn’t a Christian they were dumbfounded, and so they worked on Phil - who gave his life over to Jesus a few weeks later.
About a year later I quit my job and I left for Seminary, and now Phil, as imperfect as he was, was now telling these men how Jesus had changed his life and that they needed this change to.
On my last day of work, as I said goodbye to those men whom I worked with for ten years, I realized how little faith I had for the last ten years. I had imagined that who I was in Jesus Christ would change the lives of the men I worked with. When all this time it was Jesus who was going to change their lives.
How faithless of me to be discouraged. I should have known the power of God’s Word.