“For we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake.” 1 Thessalonians 1:4-5, NIV
A Parable Loosely Based on Acts 17 and Modern Evangelism
Theophilus was excited! This weekend was the big event! All of Thessalonica would be there! He had seen the painted billboards for weeks. They were a sight to behold. Large, frightening beasts leaped out at him from the signs. With razor-sharp teeth they devoured other beasts and threatened with their fierce wrath. He trembled when he looked at them. Were these beasts threatening Thessalonica? Theophilus and most of the city wanted to know. The signs promised answers, so everyone planned on attending the upcoming meeting. Besides, a well-known speaker was going to be doing the presentation.
The signs announced that the Apostle Paul, fresh from speaking engagements in Asia Minor would be explaining the pictures on the signs and much more. The program also promised a presentation of pictures from Palestine. There would be pictures of Jesus healing, preaching and performing miracles. Theophilus didn’t know much about Jesus, but he looked forward to finding out more. Some of the signs had His picture painted on them and in contrast to the ferocious beasts, He seemed kind and compassionate.
While Theophilus was Greek, he had friends who were Jews. Since Paul seemed to be from Jerusalem, he consulted them. It seemed that the Jews wanted to win more converts to Judaism and since they had heard Paul was successful at winning converts, they would ask him to come and present a series of meetings. When they contacted him, he responded by letter that he would be happy to come in response to this Macedonian request. However, he would need a thousand drachmas to cover expenses for him and his team. When the leaders of the local synagogue balked at paying such a sum, he suggested they contact church headquarters in Jerusalem to see if they could help fund the series. After several letters were exchanged by all parties and the Jerusalem Council, the money was raised and Paul was invited to come.
Next, Paul’s team forwarded instructions for advance preparation for the meetings. Synagogue members were urged to go door to door to hand out invitation scrolls to the meetings. Those invitations would have more pictures of the beasts, Jesus, and also Paul in a fine suit of clothes. He looked like a real celebrity, someone everyone would like to meet. With a huge, welcoming smile, he also looked warm and friendly. Theophilus was inviting his friends. Besides, even if Paul turned out to be a boring speaker, the travelogues would still be interesting.
When the night of the first meeting came, so many people came that the synagogue was filled to capacity. The local fire marshal was not amused and told them they would have to come up with a better solution. Afraid that they would have to cancel the meetings, they were saved when at the last minute a well-to-do citizen named Jason offered his home for the overflow crowd. He had previously offered his home for Paul and his companions to stay in as well, so those who were interested would have the opportunity to see Paul outside the synagogue in addition to the regular meetings.
Theophilus noticed some rather burly fellows at the entrances to the synagogue as he went in to take his seat. Asking around, he discovered that the priests of the local pagan temple had hired some hooligans to disrupt the meetings. Those thugs had been heard boasting in the local taverns that they would hang dead cats from the doors of the synagogue and worm their way inside to heckle the speaker. The men at the entrances were there to thwart their plans, and if anyone should attempt to disrupt the meeting from inside, they would quickly usher him out. While they were initially successful in keeping the meetings orderly and Theophilus learned a lot about the painted beastly images and many other things, eventually the pagan priests managed to hire enough hooligans to completely overwhelm the meetings and bring them to an end. They even disrupted the overflow crowd at Jason’s house, and managed to make the city officials believe that it was Jason’s fault and not theirs, so that he was charged with disturbing the peace.
Theophilus was disappointed that the meetings ended so soon, he was hungry to learn more. Several were baptized during the meetings and continued to meet in Jason’s house in spite of the previous problems. Theophilus continued to attend synagogue and the meetings at Jason’s, but found himself gradually attending more at Jason’s and less at synagogue. Paul, who had received a contractual commitment to cover the expenses for another series of meetings in Berea, moved on. After he left, there were mutterings in the synagogue about the group meeting at Jason’s place. Some maintained that they could not be properly grounded in Judaism with such a short series of meetings. Others began to point out to those who tried to attend the synagogue how their understanding was flawed compared to real Judaism. As a result, several of those stopped coming to synagogue although they continued to visit Jason who accepted everyone without restrictions as long as they weren’t hooligans trying to disrupt everything and genuinely were seeking answers.
Other new converts, when confronted about their shortcomings compared to the Judaic system, set about becoming more Jewish than the Jews, if such a thing were possible. They quoted from the inspired writings in addition to Torah. If the Jews wore tassels on their garments, theirs would be longer. If the Jews prayed three times a day, they would pray four. However, eventually, the burden became too great and most of these fell away. Those who remained would quickly latch on to anyone who showed interest in attending synagogue and try to make them over into their image. (See Matthew 23:15)
While this parable represents an attempt to portray evangelism as it is practiced today in the context of Paul the Apostle’s time, it differs considerably from actual events. In reality, Paul never had his expenses or those of his companions guaranteed anywhere he traveled with the exception, perhaps, of his free trip to Rome when he appealed to Caesar after he was imprisoned at Caesarea in Palestine. Paul did not arrive in Thessalonica as a well-known celebrity with a tailor-made suit and a winning smile. His meetings in the synagogue were not peaceful discussions but sparked contention and opposition.
When Paul arrived in Thessalonica it was with the wounds of a flogging fresh upon his back. Probably, he was still in pain from his flogging and imprisonment in Phillipi. While the believers in Phillipi may have provided him some clothes to wear, they probably were not what you would find a popular leader wearing to impress the crowds. Being a new person in town in an unfamiliar city, he looked for common fellowship with those of his own culture and the place to find that was the synagogue. Seventh-day Adventists as well as those of other denominations can understand this. When they travel the world for vacation or business, they can always find fellowship in a church even in a foreign location where the church service is conducted in an unfamiliar language. There is a commonality of spiritual experience that overrides those differences. In that regard, the experience of Paul then was not unlike the experience of Christians today. When you are hurting, lonely, or have had a bad experience far from home, you turn to the church you know for comfort.
The synagogue in Thessalonica opened its doors to him as a fellow Jew from a distant country. As it is today, I can imagine the members of that synagogue asking about his travels and experiences, perhaps over a fellowship meal. As Paul began to share his experiences, some drew closer wanting to hear more, but others, perhaps put off by his encounter with the authorities in Phillipi or rumors from other quarters, drew back and resisted entertaining someone they saw as a threat to a comfortable peace they had established with their non-Jewish fellow citizens in Thessalonica. When not only some in the synagogue but also many Greeks began to seek out Paul, they felt the line had been crossed, and they actively opposed Paul, even bringing the authorities to Jason’s house where Paul was meeting with interested people. With such opposition from the synagogue in Thessalonica making it impossible for him to continue working there, he moved on to the synagogue in the city of Berea, where he found a more hospitable reception.
A stark contrast exists between how evangelism is conducted in the present day, and how it was handled by Paul. Some might say that modern times require modern methods. Perhaps this is so. However, the results do not seem to support that argument. For instance we take pride in the Seventh-day Adventist Church being the fastest growing Protestant denomination in North America. Yet, our growth rate is only in the lower single digits. While we compare ourselves to other denominations in this way, we overlook that the population is growing faster than we are. In reality, we are actually losing ground. Even if we weren’t, a snail which takes pride in being the fastest among the snails is still a snail. The rabbit will snicker at the snail’s delusions of speed. While a snail will never become a hare, the power of God is greater than either snail or hare can appreciate.
Perhaps there is a greater result to be obtained from a Pauline model of evangelism that we have yet to understand. Perhaps the Gospel coming to Thessalonica is more than simply an account of Paul’s persecution while winning converts. Perhaps there is a model for evangelism that can reignite the passion of Christianity.
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