« Prev Lecture XIX. Paul and Silas in Thessalonica and… Next »

LECTURE XIX.

PAUL AND SILAS IN THESSALONICA AND BEREA.

Chap. xvii. 1-12.

THE treatment which Paul and Silas had met with in Philippi, gave them no encouragement to continue their labours in Macedonia. They had been accused of violating the laws, scourged in an ignominious manner, and committed to prison. From this specimen of the dispositions of the people and their rulers, they had cause to reckon upon persecution in every city; and had they consulted their personal safety, they would have speedily retired from a country, in which it was manifestly dangerous to remain. But Paul and Silas were men of bold and intrepid spirit. Their call to visit this region of the earth was express. They were certain, from their commission, as well as from their experience at Philippi, where some persons had been converted, that their exertions should not prove altogether vain; and they were willing to contribute to the glory of Jesus Christ, and the salvation of souls, at the hazard of their lives. Hence, upon leaving Philippi, they went forward to Thessalonica the capital of Macedonia.

“Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where was a synagogue of the Jews.” This verse has been supposed to throw light upon the account which Paul gives of his travels, in the Epistle to the Romans. “From Jerusalem and round about unto Illyricum, I have fully preached the gospel of Christ.” Illyricum was a province, or rather the common name of several provinces, stretching along the Danube, from the Hadriatic gulph to the confines of Macedonia. It has been inquired at what time that country was visited by the Apostle, as there is no express mention of it, in the history of his peregrinations by Luke. His words now quoted, do not necessarily imply, 249that he actually preached in it, but only that in the course of his journey he approached its borders. This happened in his way to Thessalonica; for Apollonia stood in the vicinity of Illyricum, if it was not, as some have affirmed, one of its cities. The range of the labours of this zealous and indefatigable missionary, extended over a surface of many hundred miles in length, among nations of different languages and manners, some more, and others less advanced in civilization, but all, in consequence of their heathen prejudices, and the depravity of their hearts, disaffected to the gospel, and disposed to contemn and persecute its preachers. How pleasing is it to follow him in this tour of benevolence; to contemplate a man who has renounced the ease and comforts of home, not to amass wealth, or gratify curiosity, or acquire knowledge, which he may ostentatiously display on his return, but to perform the unsolicited offices of love to strangers; to impart to them the best of all gifts, the blessings of salvation; to do good to others, not only at the expense of time and labour, but at the risk of his life! It was thus that Paul, like his Master, “went about doing good.”

In Thessalonica, Paul and Silas found a synagogue of the Jews. In all countries, into which that people were dispersed by the Babylonian captivity, and by subsequent events, they retained the faith of their fathers, and openly professed it, when they were permitted by the governments, to which they were subject. At a distance from Jerusalem, it was not lawful to offer sacrifices, because there was only one altar, which was erected by divine appointment in the temple; but they could assemble in any place to hear the law expounded, to join in prayers and thanksgivings to God, and to inflict censures on such of their brethren as were guilty of offences against religion. For these purposes, when there was a sufficient number of Jews in the city, they built a synagogue, which was fitted up like the Churches of Christians, for the performance of public worship.

“And Paul, as his manner was, went in unto them.” It appears from these words, to have been the custom of Paul to go into the synagogues, and preach the gospel to the Jews. Although he calls himself the Apostle of the uncircumcision, signifying that the Gentiles were the chief objects of his ministrations, yet he did not consider himself as precluded from addressing the Jews; in the same manner as Peter, who was the Apostle of the circumcision, occasionally 250preached to the Gentiles, and was, indeed, the person first employed to make known to them the way of salvation. Within a few years, the Jews were to be rejected for their unbelief; but the hour of judgment and vengeance was not yet come. In the mean time, they were so far from being overlooked, that Paul, and the other Apostles, we may presume, adopted the same plan, when he found any of them in heathen countries, disclosed to them first the purpose of his mission. This preference was due to them as descendants of the patriarchs, the people whom God had long acknowledged as his own, to whom the promise of the Messiah was made, and who professed themselves ready to receive him, as soon as he should appear. Besides, there were many of the elect among them, who were to be separated, by means of the gospel, from their impenitent brethren, before the latter should be cast out of the pale of the Church. As our Lord had commanded the Apostles “to preach in his name repentance and remission of sins, among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem,” they probably considered this order as an intimation, that they should, in every instance, offer salvation to their own countrymen, before they turned to the Gentiles.

In the synagogue of Thessalonica, “Paul reasoned with the Jews three sabbath days out of the Scriptures.” The Jewish sabbath was now virtually abolished, and the Lord’s day was substituted in its room. The Apostles might occasionally observe it from the same motive, which led them to comply with some of the ceremonial institutions; and, at the same time, it afforded them a favourable opportunity of preaching to their countrymen, who were assembled on that day to worship God according to the law. The subject upon Paul chiefly insisted, in his discourses to the Jews and to the Gentiles, was “Christ crucified.” Although it was offensive to both, yet he made it his favourite theme. There was a particular reason for introducing it. in an assembly of Jews. The death of the Messiah was the point at issue between them and the Apostles. The former objected to it as inconsistent with the design which, they supposed, the Messiah was to accomplish, and consequently as a proof, that the person, whom it had befallen, was a deceiver; the latter affirmed it to be the only mean of effecting what was the real object of his mission, the spiritual redemption of the people of God. The objections of the Jews arose from their own misconceptions. They were a carnal race, attached to the covenant which God 251made with their fathers, chiefly on account of the temporal advantages which it promised. Looking into the Scriptures, under the influence of this temper, they found predictions of the glory of the Messiah, the splendour of the Church under his reign, and the felicity of his subjects, expressed in language, borrowed from the pomp and transactions of worldly kingdoms. Of those prophecies they adopted a literal interpretation, and conceived the Messiah to be a temporal monarch, under whose dominion wealth and honours should abound. In this imaginary system, the sufferings and death of the principal actor could find no place. They deranged the whole scheme, and levelled with the dust the ambitious hopes, which it had been contrived to support.

The gospel could not be believed by the Jews, unless their erroneous ideas respecting the Messiah and his work were corrected. The method which Paul employed for this purpose, was to reason with him out of the Scriptures, “opening and alleging, that Christ must needs have suffered, and risen again from the dead; and that this Jesus whom I preach unto you, is Christ.” In every controversy, it is necessary that there should be some common principle, in which both parties agree, because without such agreement, arguments may be multiplied, and the dispute may be prolonged, without end. The Scriptures of the Old Testament were received by the Jews as the oracles of God, the infallible standard, by which all opinions and practices in religion should be tried. Paul appealed to this standard, and showed, that the prevailing ideas of the character and office of the Messiah, were completely at variance with it. He pursued the same plan, which our Lord followed in his conversation with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, proving from Moses and the Prophets, that the Christ must have suffered, before he could enter into his glory. The prophecies of Isaiah alone were sufficient for his purpose, as they contain descriptions of the humiliation and death of the Messiah, so minute and plain, that it is not easy to conceive how the Jews could overlook or misunderstand them. The necessity of the sufferings of our Redeemer was an obvious inference from the prophecies, because what God has expressly foretold must be accomplished; and this proof was all that was requisite for the conviction of his audience. But the Apostle would farther show that his sufferings were necessary, from the justice of God, which required the blood of our Saviour to be shed, as the meritorious cause of the remission of sins. They would have 252been necessary, although they had not been predicted; for the necessity of events does not properly arise from the prophecy which announces them, but from the nature of things, or the divine constitution. Prophecy is merely a declaration of what God has purposed to do.

The arguments which Paul deduced from the Scriptures, were intended to prove not only the death, but also the resurrection of Christ, which it was predicted with equal clearness, and was, with great propriety, submitted to the consideration of the Jews, to reconcile them to the idea of his death, as not inconsistent with the design of saving his people, nor fatal to their hopes, because he had been restored to life, and invested with supreme authority over heaven and earth. It was the decisive evidence that he was the true Messiah. It refuted the calumnies of the Jews, who charged him with imposture and blasphemy; and was the testimony of God himself, that he was his beloved Son.

From this general reasoning concerning the death and resurrection of the Messiah, the transition was easy to the particular proof, that “this Jesus, whom Paul preached, was Christ.” The Apostle had only to show, that the prophecies, which he had cited, were fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth.

The effect of his discourse is pointed out in the fourth verse. “And some of them believed, and consorted with Paul and Silas,” leaving the synagogue, and forming a new religious society, which professed faith in Jesus Christ, and observed the ordinances of the gospel. It is plain, however, that all the Jews did not believe, although they all heard the reasoning of the Apostle. To what, then, should we attribute this difference? Not to the superior discernment of those who were convinced, nor to their greater candour and docility, but to the grace of God, from which the efficacy of the truth is derived. “I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase. So then, neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth: but God that giveth the increase.” These Jews were not the only converts. “Of the devout Greeks a great multitude believed, and of the chief women not a few.” The devout Greeks were those persons who are commonly called proselytes of the gate. The appellation is founded on the words of the law, “the stranger that is within thy gates,” and was given, in the first instance, to Gentiles living among the Jews, who remained uncircumcised, but acknowledged and worshipped the God of Israel. It was afterwards 253extended to all the Gentiles, in whatever part of the world they resided, who renounced idolatry, and observed the moral precepts of the law.2727Medes’s discourse on Acts xvii. 4. Of these there were many in Thessalonica, for “a great multitude” is said to have believed, and there is no reason to suppose, that they were all obedient to the faith. “The chief women” were women of rank in the city. In the twelfth verse, females of the same class are called “honourable women.” They were already proselytes, and they now became disciples of Jesus. In the most favourable seasons, when a profession of religion exposes to no danger, and demands no extraordinary sacrifice, it seldom succeeds in gaining the attention and sincere attachment of the great and opulent. It is therefore no inconsiderable proof of the divine power which accompanied the first publication of the gospel, that some of the higher orders were found in the number of converts, at a time, when Christianity was generally despised, and the probable consequence of openly embracing it, would be the forfeiture of worldly honours and enjoyments.

The success of Paul was contemplated by the unbelieving Jews, with great dissatisfaction. They were offended at the doctrine which he preached, and the more displeased, because it was favourably received by some of their own countrymen, and by many of the Greeks. With th6 zeal of religionists, therefore, and the jealousy of rivals, they bestirred themselves to arrest its progress. “But the Jews which believed not, moved with envy, took unto them certain lewd fellows of the baser sort, and gathered a company, and set all the city on an uproar, and assaulted the house of Jason, and sought to bring them out to the people.” The associates of the Jews are described as “lewd fellows of the baser sort,” or worthless persons of the lowest class, who sauntered about the market place, and other places of public resort, and having nothing to do, were prepared to assist in any kind of mischief. They were choice materials, of which to compose a mob, ready, at the instigation of its leaders, to commit violence upon persons and property. It is the complaint of one of the Fathers, that the most active enemies of the Christians, were the off-scouring of society, the vile rabble, the unjust, the impious, and the base, who were abhorred by the Gentiles themselves. With the assistance of such friends, he Jews assaulted the house of Jason, in which Paul and Silas 254had taken up their residence; but, through the care of providence, they were not at home, or they must have fallen a sacrifice to the rage of the populace. A body so tumultuous, so susceptible of every casual impression, is not easily governed, and wants only a signal, or an accidental word, to hurry it into excesses far beyond its original intention.

Disappointed in their design against Paul and Silas, “they drew Jason and certain brethren unto the rulers of the city, saying, These men that have turned the world upside down, are come hither also, whom Jason hath received.” The men of whom they complain, were Paul and Silas, whose doctrine, they affirm, had caused disturbance and disorder wherever it was preached, and would produce the same effects, if they were permitted to remain in Thessalonica. In a certain sense, it was true, that the Apostles “did turn the world upside down.” The gospel professed an intention to change the face of human affairs; to overthrow all the religions which existed in the earth; to abolish idolatry, and withdraw the worshippers of the Gods from the temples; to put an end to barbarous shows and licentious festivals; to make the slaves of vice sober, chaste, just, and merciful; to call off the thoughts and affections of men from the vanities of time, and to raise them to eternal and invisible objects. This is the grand revolution which it proposed to accomplish, and which it did actually effect in many regions of the earth. Compared with the advantages resulting from it to mankind, as inhabitants of this world, and expectants of another, those which have arisen from the happiest political changes, are unworthy to be mentioned.

The accusation of the Jews, however, was of a different nature. “These all do contrary to the decrees of Cesar, saying, That there is another king, one Jesus.” Paul and Silas had transgressed the law of the senate, and emperor of Rome, which enacted, that no person should assume the title of king without their permission. But this was not the whole of their crime. By calling Jesus of Nazareth a king, they set up a rival monarch, and persuaded the subjects of the emperor to transfer their allegiance to him. They proclaimed another king besides Cesar, whose authority was to be established upon the ruins of the existing government. Who is not shocked at the deliberate malice of these Jewish zealots? They knew well, that the royalty which the Christians ascribed to their Lord, did not interfere with the claims of earthly princes and 255magistrates; and it was chiefly on this account that they refused to acknowledge Jesus to be the Messiah. Had he, indeed, been such a king, as should have been a rival to Cesar; had he delivered his country from the Roman yoke, and ascended the throne of Judea, they would have welcomed him with acclamations of joy. But finding that his kingdom was not of this world, and that he offered to save them, without freeing their country from the domination of foreigners, and loading them with wealth and honours, they loudly demanded his punishment. “Crucify him, crucify him.” Yet, when they wanted to awaken the jealousy of the Romans against his disciples, they took advantage of the ambiguous title of king, to assert that it recognized in Jesus of Nazareth a right to reign, incompatible with the supreme authority of the emperor. It would have been easy to retort the accusation; for who did not know, that the Jews waited with impatience for the coming of the Messiah, to restore their national independence?

Religion is artfully loaded with false imputations, because it is only by this expedient that its adversaries can hope to expose it to hatred and contempt. Were it exhibited in its genuine character, it might not command the sincere esteem, and cheerful submission of all to its authority; but scarcely any man would be bold enough to avow opposition to it. In the first ages, Christianity was malignantly represented as an innovation, which threatened to subvert the whole system of human affairs, to overthrow civil establishments, and to propagate faction and rebellion. Insinuations, and public charges of the same nature, have since been advanced, not indeed against religion itself, of which even its worst enemies know how to speak with respect; but against every attempt to free it from corruptions, and restore it to its primitive purity. The exertions of reformers have been associated with the movements of sedition; and magistrates have been called upon. to watch and to repress them, as dangerous to the peace of society. If, indeed, a false religion were so closely interwoven with a particular form of government, that they could not be separated without dissolving the complex system; the general reception of pure Christianity, and the fall of that government, would be connected as cause and effect. But such a revolution would be purely accidental. In other circumstances, the government would sustain no injury by the change. The gospel does not intermeddle with the constitution 256of states, but contents itself with enjoining obedience to lawful authority, as a sacred and indispensable duty. Nothing would afford such security to governments as the religion of their subjects; and the purer is the religion, the greater would be the security. Men would then quietly submit to their rulers, “not only for wrath, but also for conscience’ sake.” The laws would be obeyed, not from constraint but from principle. The fear of God operating upon the heart in every situation, and in all the occurrences of life, would prevent crimes, against which no human vigilance could guard, and which, under the shelter of secrecy, are committed in the hope of impunity. It is evident, therefore, that the introduction of Christianity into countries where it is unknown, and the correction of those abuses which have impaired its influence, and counteracted its spirit, among nations by whom it is professed, would be productive of the greatest advantages, in respect of their temporal welfare. Religion may be made the pretext for insubordination and rebellion, but it is only the pretext. It condemns such practices, and disowns those who are engaged in them.

The Jews, by their false accusation of Paul and Silas, “troubled the people and the rulers of the city,” who were probably afraid of being punished for allowing another king to be proclaimed in Thessalonica. As the offenders themselves, however, could not be found, they were satisfied with taking security from Jason and the other brethren, that they would behave like good subjects, and exert themselves to preserve the peace of the city.

It being no longer safe for Paul and Silas to remain in Thessalonica, “the brethren immediately sent them away by night unto Berea; who coming thither, went into a synagogue of the Jews.” “These,” the historian adds, “were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the Scriptures daily, whether those things were so.” He compares the Jews of the two cities, and gives the preference to those of Berea, whom he calls more noble than the others. He does not allude to their birth, or their rank in life, but to the qualities of their understandings and hearts. The Jews gloried in their extraction as noble, because they were descended from Abraham, a man illustrious among his contemporaries, and a distinguished favourite of Heaven. But the boast of ancestry is a vain thing; and true nobility consists, not in an honourable pedigree, but in integrity of heart, and the love of truth. The Jews of Berea were 257more noble, because they were not so prepossessed against every opinion contrary to their own, as to refuse to give it a candid examination. They were desirous of instruction, and willing to receive it, from whatever quarter it came. Hence, “they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the Scriptures daily whether those things were so.” According to the arrangement of the sentence, it seems to be suggested, that they first received the word preached by Paul and Silas, and then searched the Scriptures of the Old Testament for the proof of it. But this, undoubtedly is not the idea which was meant to be conveyed; for it would discover no nobleness of mind to embrace a doctrine, and afterwards to inquire into its evidence. The order in which those Jews proceeded was exactly the reverse. When Paul and Silas affirmed that Jesus was the Christ, they turned to their sacred books; and finding that all the marks of the Messiah were united in his character, they immediately acknowledged him.

But why, it may be asked, did they adopt this procedure? If Paul was an inspired ambassador of Christ, was he not entitled to the same ready and undoubting assent as the Prophets? Whence, then, was it necessary for those whom he addressed, to compare his doctrine with theirs, before they should believe it? I answer, that to such as acknowledged the Apostolical authority of Paul, the comparison was not absolutely necessary, although even their faith must have been confirmed, by observing the exact correspondence between the gospel and the law. This correspondence would afford them, and it still affords us, a pleasing and satisfactory proof, that both have proceeded from the same author, “the Father of lights, with whom there is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.” But, there is no evidence, that the divine commission of Paul was, at this time, recognised by the Jews of Berea. We are not told, that he had performed any miracles before them. As they could not, therefore, regard him in any other light than as a person, who delivered what he honestly conceived to be the truth, both prudence and piety required them to appeal to the Scriptures, and to bring his doctrine to the test of that infallible standard. It was by the argument from prophecy, that they were convinced of the. divine authority of the gospel.

The conduct of the Berean Jews must be commended, and ought to be imitated, by us all. The clear and unequivocal declarations of Scripture demand our assent, without inquiry or hesitation. 258But, the doctrines which men found upon Scripture, should be investigated with great care and caution, because they are only their inferences from it, in deducing which they may have erred through precipitance, inadvertence, or the influence of prejudice. “Prove all things, hold fast that which is good.” To yield up our judgment in religious matters to any individual, or to any Church, is to invest that individual, or that Church, with the attribute of infallibility; and consequently, while we retain the character of Protestants, is practically to adopt one of the worst errors of popery. You can have no certainty, that any doctrine which you hold, is true, unless you have seen it, with your own eyes, in the Scriptures. The faith of those who submit to be guided by the sentiments of others, however learned, and wise, and holy, is downright presumption; a venture, in the most momentous of all concerns, upon the diligence, impartiality, and capacity of others, of which they can never be fully assured. Let them seriously consider, that, although their creed should happen to be right, its orthodoxy will not recommend them to God who perceives, in their undue respect for human authority, a criminal indifference to truth, and a virtual rejection of his testimony as the only foundation of faith.

The result of the inquiry instituted by those Jews, was the conversion of many of them; and, at the same time, the gospel was believed by a considerable number of the Greeks. The news of this success having reached Thessalonica, the Jews of that city came to Berea, and so inflamed the inhabitants against Paul, that he was compelled to withdraw to another place. Passing these events without farther notice, I conclude with the following reflections.

First, The difficulties which we may encounter in the course of our duty, will not justify us in abandoning it. When Paul and Silas found it necessary to leave Philippi, they repaired to Thessalonica; and upon meeting with opposition in Thessalonica, they went to Berea. Persecuted in one city, they fled to another, not to remain there in concealment and inactivity, but to persist in the perilous work of preaching the gospel. Christians are not, indeed, required to disregard the suggestions of prudence, and to expose themselves wantonly to danger; but in the way which Providence has clearly marked out to them, they should resolutely advance, without turning to the right hand or to the left. If we perform our 259duty when it is easy and safe, but neglect it, when accompanied with trouble and danger, it is manifest, that the principle of our obedience is wrong. Sincere love to God, and reverence for his authority, would operate with a steady influence upon our minds, in all the diversified situations and occurrences of life.

Secondly, The opposition which has been made, in past ages, to the gospel, reflects honour upon it. Its excellence may be inferred from the character of the men, by whom the opposition has been conducted. It has not proceeded from the sober, the humble, and the candid, from such as were in earnest about religion, and spent their days in piety and holiness: but from persons full of prejudice, and governed by interest, like the Jews; from “fellows of the baser sort,” the gross vulgar, immersed in ignorance and low habits of vice; or from men conceited of their fancied wisdom, rioting in luxury, engaged in the pursuit of wealth and honours, and hostile to religion in any other view than as an engine of state. It is a strong presumption in favour of the gospel, that such men have condemned it. That religion, surely, has descended from heaven, which pride, sensuality, and covetousness, have united to oppose.

Thirdly, We should beware of forming our opinion of men, and parties, from the representations of enemies. Were we to judge of Christianity itself by this rule, we should conclude, that, instead of being worthy of all acceptation, it deserved to be rejected by the universal suffrage of mankind. The Jews affirmed, that it was calculated “to turn the world upside down.” Prejudice is apt to misapprehend, and malice is disposed to misrepresent. Without being conscious of any unfair intention, we observe the character and conduct of our opponents with a partial eye; and too often, we allow ourselves to paint their actions with colours purposely shaded, to impute motives to them which charity would not suspect, and to condemn them with a degree of severity, which our consciences do not approve. By a person, therefore, of candour and prudence, the testimony of an adversary will not be received, unless it be favourable, or be supported by unquestionable evidence. We hear, almost every day, reports circulated to the disadvantage of sects and individuals, which we find, upon inquiry, to have no foundation, or to have taken their rise from circumstances wilfully exaggerated, or hastily misunderstood. Let us, on all occasions, strictly adhere to 260the rule which our Lord has prescribed. “Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment.”

In the last place, There is a perfect harmony between the law and the gospel, between the religion of Moses and that of Jesus Christ. The latter, indeed, is only a continuation of the former, with such alterations and improvements, as were adapted to the progress of events. The external form is different, but the substance is the same. In both, the object of worship, the foundation of hope, the spiritual promises, and the moral precepts, are the same; and they are chiefly distinguished by the degrees of light, and the measures of divine communication, under each. Christianity was not a new religion to those who understood the design of the institutions of Moses, and had given attention to the instructions of the Prophets. The Jews who examined their ancient Scriptures with discernment and impartiality, immediately embraced the gospel as the completion of the law. We have seen an instance in the conduct of those of Berea. From the beginning of the world, God has been carrying on one consistent scheme for the salvation of mankind by his Son Jesus Christ, who was first revealed in promises, types, and predictions, and was afterwards manifested in human nature, “to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” There is but one Church under a diversity of administrations, composed of believers in every age; and, for this reason, the admission of the Gentiles into the Christian Church is described by their “sitting down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” The work of God in our redemption is great and wonderful, comprehending all time, embracing all events, which, in one way or another, are rendered subservient to it, and in its consequences stretching into eternity. It is worthy to be studied, and cannot be contemplated without admiration and praise. “Of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory, for ever. Amen.”

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