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The Spreading Flame - Series 5: Episode 3

The ups and downs of church planting

| Martin Charlesworth
Acts 17:1-15

Paul and his team visits Thessalonica where there is open opposition from the Jews. He moves on to Berea where they are more receptive until men come from Thessalonica to disrupt the mission. Paul moves on to Athens but Silas and Timothy stay to strengthen the church.

Paul and his team visits Thessalonica where there is open opposition from the Jews. He moves on to Berea where they are more receptive until men come from Thessalonica to disrupt the mission. Paul moves on to Athens but Silas and Timothy stay to strengthen the church.


Welcome to this episode, Series 5 and Episode 3. Series 5 is about Paul’s mission into Europe as he moves across the Aegean Sea from what we would call Turkey to what we understand to be Greece and the Roman province of Macedonia, which is in northern Greece. That’s the location of the events that are happening at this particular time.

Background and Introduction

If you’ve been following through the story, you’ll see a progression that is going on all the way through the book of Acts - from the city of Jerusalem and out into Jewish and Samaritan territory, into the Gentile world, further and further afield. The Gospel is moving forward. That’s the major story of the book of Acts. It all starts at the very beginning with Jesus’ command and statement to the Apostles in Acts 1: 8:

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

That statement is being fulfilled; step-by-step, they’re moving further and further afield and Paul is not the only Apostle who is moving away from Jerusalem into other areas. Some of the other Apostles, according to Church traditions going back to the very early Church times, travelled to different countries and different places to Paul. What is recorded in the Bible, is Paul’s missionary activity. His Apostolic activity. That is what God has given us as a kind of template for us to understand how the Church can grow and develop. We’ve seen that as he landed in Macedonia, he had a spectacular experience of God’s grace and protection in Philippi - ending up in prison, being released miraculously - and having some amazing conversions like Lydia and her family, and the Philippian jailer and his family and household. Paul is moving on. He keeps going from place to place. This episode is entitled, ‘The Ups and Downs of Church Planting’, because we’re going to see two places, fairly near each other, where Paul got totally different receptions when he preached the Gospel. That is a common experience in the life of the Church. You get a different response to the same message in different locations, and often you can’t work out exactly why - but it happens. It happens in local churches. It happens in your situation and mine. Some people are not open and give you hostile reception; other people are more open than you thought they would be. That’s exactly what happens because Paul had a very positive surprise in the second city and a very difficult experience in the first city.


We are going to talk about the ups and downs of church planting starting in the city of Thessalonica. Acts 17: 1 - 9 is the first text we’re going to look at in this episode.

1 ‘When Paul and his companions had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. 2 As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3 explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead. “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah,” he said. 4 Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women. 5 But other Jews were jealous; so they rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city. They rushed to Jason’s house in search of Paul and Silas in order to bring them out to the crowd. 6 But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some other believers before the city officials, shouting: “These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, 7 and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.” 8 When they heard this, the crowd and the city officials were thrown into turmoil. 9 Then they made Jason and the others post bond and let them go.’

Acts 17:1-9, NIV

Paul is travelling along the main road near the coast in Macedonia. He starts in Philippi and he’s travelling west. He chooses to go through two cities, Amphipolis and Apollonia, about 40 or 50 km between each of these cities, until he gets to Thessalonica. He stops there because there is a synagogue there. Again, as always, Paul is looking for a place where he’s got a potential opportunity to build a bridge into the community, and probably there was no synagogue in Amphipolis and Apollonia. He thought, ‘I’ll go there’. Paul is always looking for what we might call ‘the man of peace’, the person who is receptive. The people who are most likely to be receptive are some of the Jewish people who know the Old Testament background. So, that is where Paul starts in Thessalonica.

He spent three sabbaths debating with them over a two-week period. In between times, he is around in the city with Silas. We don’t know what he’s doing, but Paul tends to go to the marketplaces and the points of social contact and get talking to people. Fairly soon, he’s getting known in the city and to the Jewish people he says, “I’ll be back next sabbath and we’ll carry on our conversations”. They gave him the opportunity to speak to their congregation in the synagogue. He was trying, as always with the Jews, to persuade them from the Old Testament that Jesus is the Messiah. We’ve discussed this on several occasions in earlier episodes. A notable example was in the city of Pisidian Antioch, where we have a long speech from Paul, recorded by Luke in Acts 13, where he goes through a number of the key Bible texts from Old Testament passages that apply to Jesus Christ. He explains to them how they indicate that Jesus is the Messiah. Something similar is happening here and these texts are the basis of his preaching.


As always with the Jewish congregation, we find a division comes. It doesn’t take long before people take sides. Some people said, “Yes, I believe. Yes, I really do believe. I can see the Messiah has come.” and they join Paul and Silas. They go to see them in their lodgings during the week and start praying with them and studying and talking to them. But most of the congregation said, “No, we don’t want this. This isn’t true Judaism. This isn’t true faith. This is a heresy. We don’t want these people here.” The conflict begins to develop in Thessalonica, based in the synagogue. But what the Jewish people who are opposed to him do, is something that we’ve seen them do in one or two other places. This became very dangerous for Paul very quickly. They got some people from the marketplace - troublemakers, people on the street who were causing difficulty, many criminals, black marketeers, people who were very happy to cause trouble - and they began to spread rumours about Paul and Silas. A riot starts literally in the city of Thessalonica. People start complaining that they don’t want these intruders coming to their city; they don’t want the turmoil it is causing; they don’t want all the difficulties. In particular, they latch hold of the idea that Paul is saying that Jesus is the King, and in one sense that’s true because the Kingdom of God has come. But some people interpret this as a challenge to the ruler of the Roman Empire, the Emperor himself. A crowd gets out of control and starts rioting in the streets. Paul and Silas are in real danger yet again. It happened in Philippi, and it happened to Paul in other places. Danger is never far away in Paul’s life; his life is at stake; martyrdom could face him; injury could come at any point and the same danger took place here.


But the crowd got hold of one of the converts. This sometimes happened with the rioting; they got hold of one of the representatives, rather than Paul himself, and this man was called Jason. I feel very sorry for Jason. He was obviously a convert who had opened up his house, and said, “Let’s have the church meetings in my house.” People were coming to his house and they had some great meetings in those few days. He might have been from the Jewish congregation in the synagogue. It became clear to the local residents that Jason’s house was the gathering place of these people. So, when the crowd is rioting, the obvious thing to do is go to Jason and blame him, and try and stop him. The city officials get involved and they’re trying to find a way of getting rid of Paul and Silas. They say to Jason, “Right, you need to give us money and other believers who were sponsoring this group needed to put money on the table and promise us that you’re going to get Paul and Silas out of this city and don’t give him any more hospitality or protection.” They basically paid money for bail. It became clear to Paul and Silas that they couldn’t hang around much longer in the city. They decided they had to go travelling again.

But there’s a new church starting there in Thessalonica. We know about this church, because Paul wrote two letters to them. There were some genuine believers; a great act of God had taken place in those precious few weeks that Paul had been allowed to stay there. The seed of faith had settled down in the city and there was a church being formed. We hear lots about it in the letters of 1 and 2 Thessalonians. We know there was a living community there. Paul has to pass on. It was a difficult experience in Thessalonica. Paul was treated very badly and he felt very sad about that and it was painful for him to have to leave so quickly.


But what happens next? I told you that this story has two parts and the second part is better than the first, in terms of the reception. We don’t know what reception the Gospel is going to get; it varies from time to time and from place to place. Paul travels along the road to another major city. Acts 17:10 - 15

10 ‘As soon as it was night, the believers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea. On arriving there, they went to the Jewish synagogue. 11 Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. 12 As a result, many of them believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men. 13 But when the Jews in Thessalonica learned that Paul was preaching the word of God in Berea, some of them went there too, agitating the crowds and stirring them up. 14 The believers immediately sent Paul to the coast, but Silas and Timothy stayed at Berea. 15 Those who escorted Paul brought him to Athens and then left with instructions for Silas and Timothy to join him as soon as it was possible.’

Acts 17:10-15, NIV

So, a very hasty departure from Thessalonica. It was even during the night. Jason basically said to Paul and Silas, “You can’t stay here any longer. The authorities are after me. They’ve got my money and they’ll confiscate it unless I get you out of this city. So, you have to go.” They went in the night. They didn’t even wait till the morning in order that they could get their money back from the authorities, and protect Paul and Silas from any further action.

Paul and Silas travelled along to the next major city on the main road west along the Macedonian coast. Paul was really pleased and surprised when he got into the synagogue in Berea, that the atmosphere was calm and people were humble, listening and respectful of him. This was probably because the synagogue leader was open to Paul and Silas and he would encourage the atmosphere in the synagogue. Every synagogue was influenced profoundly by the synagogue leader. If the synagogue leader turned against Paul, then he would turn his people against Paul and a controversy would come about. Probably, the synagogue leader here was actually very interested and kept asking Paul to tell them more.

Bible Studies with Paul

We find this amazing result that the Jews in Berea kept looking at the Old Testament Scriptures; they kept pondering the Scriptures that Paul would bring to them; they kept going over them and thinking about them. They were conducting Bible studies, it says here, every day - not just once a week on the sabbath. They would meet together during the day with Paul and say, “Paul, tell us more. Tell us more about this text in the Old Testament? How does this apply to Jesus?” You can imagine Paul going through some of the major texts. I’ll give you an example of one that he almost certainly would have taught them in detail. It’s one I’ve mentioned on a number of other occasions. There is a long passage in the middle of Isaiah’s prophecies, Isaiah 52: 13 - 53: 12, which speaks about a coming suffering servant who will suffer and die in the place of other people, to take their sins and then will rise again from the dead. It’s a remarkable poetic prophecy. This passage could have formed the basis of a Bible study. Paul could have spent a whole evening talking about this passage to those Berean Christians, and there’s plenty of others. There are a number of Psalms like Psalm 2, Psalm 16, Psalm 22, Psalm 110, that Paul might have mentioned. Some of these passages are discussed in other examples of Peter and Paul preaching to Jewish congregations in the book of Acts. Here’s a wonderful example of a group of people studying carefully to see if what Paul said was true. This reminds me of the atmosphere that is created in modern Bible study groups for enquirers - groups like the Alpha Course and many others that run in different countries around the world - where the atmosphere is encouraged to be one of steady consideration; you’re not in a hurry and you can go through all the ideas in the Bible text carefully and simply, to find out if it was true. Something like that was happening in Berea. It wasn’t just a Sunday, as it were, Sunday talk or a Sabbath talk, it was a personal engagement and discussion. This is a wonderful way for people to find out about Jesus in relationship with those people who are bringing the message. The result in Berea was lots of converts in the synagogue which was a great result for Paul.


If he thought it was going to be calm and easy all the way through, unfortunately, he would have been wrong because further trouble was coming. The Jewish communities between these cities, and in different parts of the Roman Empire, have very good communications with each other. They network together; there were commercial contacts; family contacts; religious contacts. When Paul was in Berea, almost certainly, the message would have gone back to Thessalonica, “Paul’s come to our synagogue too.” Some of his opponents in Thessalonica decided to intervene in Berea, because the people here were saying, “We’re having a great time with Paul; we think he might be on the right track. We’re doing Bible studies with him every day.” The people in Thessalonica have rejected Paul and they think he’s undermining Judaism so, they send a group over to stir up trouble. You can’t be more deliberate than that: ‘some of them went there too, agitating the crowds and stirring them up.’ They might have even put a group of people outside the synagogue on the Sabbath morning, as people were coming in to worship, to warn them not to go in to hear Paul. It’s that sort of thing that they might well have done. Trouble was brewing in Berea because outsiders had come in and created difficulty for Paul.

The new Christian community sat down with Paul and the rest of his team and said, “Paul, it’s you personally they don’t like and we think it’s safer if you leave the city quickly. It will be safer for you and it’ll be safer for us because you are the person they’re trying to stop.” Paul agreed. So, we find Paul’s team dividing at this point. This is a great example of where teamwork is really helpful. I’ve spoken about Paul’s teams and teamwork on a number of occasions but here we have three main participants, Paul, Silas and their assistant Timothy. They divided the team because Silas and Timothy were not so prominent; not so controversial. They reckoned they could stay in the city, just keep quiet for a bit and then keep speaking to the church and encouraging them quietly. It was Paul who was causing the controversy. So, they said, “Let’s split the team”. Paul went to the coast and then travelled a long way south to the major cultural and historical capital city of Greece, Athens. He wanted Silas and Timothy to join him there as soon as they were able. But Silas and Timothy stayed on for some time in Berea to strengthen this very new church.

It’s an up and down story, isn’t it? It’s never simple. The mission of Christianity in spreading the Gospel is never simple. In any culture there are opponents; there’s scepticism. There’s a good reception here; a bad reception there. There’s opposition; there’s communication problems; there’s the issue of building Christian community. All sorts of problems arise. These texts are here to encourage us. So, whatever the problems are, God seems to keep working as we’re obedient to him, and keep spreading the message. The Apostles were very determined to keep spreading the message. So, here are the ups and downs of church planting in this episode.


As I conclude it, I want to spend time thinking about things that we can learn, some reflections. The first reflection that I have is to come back again to the extraordinary reality of the courage of the Apostles. Paul says in writing to the Thessalonians, one of these two churches, in 1 Thessalonians 2: 2,

‘We had previously suffered and been treated outrageously in Philippi, as you know, but with the help of our God we dared to tell you his gospel in the face of strong opposition.’

That’s a very loaded phrase. He’s writing to his friends in Thessalonica and saying, “When I came to you, I’d had a terrible time in the previous city. I’d been beaten and forced out of the city. I came to you and I had terrible opposition in Thessalonica but still I dared to tell you the Gospel”. That is raw courage. A terrible experience in the previous city, a terrible experience now, and as it turns out, when he went to Berea, after a good start he was forced out of Berea as well, after a terrible experience there. That is sheer courage. There is no substitute for faith, courage and risk in order to share the Christian faith. There is a risk of strong opposition. There’s also the risk of financial uncertainty. For example, in 1 Thessalonians 2: 9,

‘Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel to you.’

Paul actually did some work for financial gain while he was there as well, in order to be self-sufficient.

Another reflection is that, sometimes in establishing the Gospel in difficult areas, in difficult circumstances, evangelists and people witnessing need to keep moving. Matthew 10: 14 when Jesus is talking to his Apostles,

“If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet.”

There’s a sense in which, at certain times, you just have to move on. Paul knew when he’d run out of opportunity and God’s grace in a particular place and he just left. That’s an important principle, even on an individual scale when we’re witnessing to people about Christ. There’s a time when you have communicated everything you can; you have to just leave that situation and move on to another person or another situation, if they’re not open. There are challenges, many challenges, and they’re illustrated in this episode, loud and clear.

In conclusion, I want to talk about teamwork and partnership because there’s something very beautiful in this text that I’d like to draw out as we come to a conclusion. I’ve already mentioned the great partnership between Paul, Silas and Timothy - a strong team, a stable team, as I indicated in a previous episode. These people are capable and willing to serve Paul and willing to do difficult jobs. The team got divided at Berea. Sometimes teamwork is a key. People do different jobs in the mission field but a second element of partnership I think is really interesting here. One of the churches that we’ve been talking about is Philippi, the subject of our last episode. Philippi became one of the key partner churches for Paul and his mission. The churches that are planted, the young believers, can become a resource for the ongoing mission. This happened in Philippi. In Philippians 1:4 - 5, Paul says,

4 ‘In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now,’

Philippians 1:4-5, NIV

‘The first day’ means when he arrived, those early days; ‘until now’ many, many years later. They’ve always been helping Paul and working with him wherever he’s gone. The ways they’ve helped are, sending finance and sending people. They’ve sent money, Philippians 4:16 refers to a financial gift from that church to Paul, and they’ve sent people, Philippians 2:25 refers to a man called Epaphroditus, who was a member of the church and sent to help Paul while he was in Rome, in prison almost certainly. He went there for a period of time and then he came back. Partnership is prayer, finance and people. Even out of this difficult situation, in the ups and downs of church planting, God produces partnerships. Across the world today, there are many extraordinary partnerships to advance the Gospel between people in different countries, between churches in different networks, between different mission agencies, and different types of resources and communications around the world. God is building partnerships to help us complete the task that was started 2000 years ago, in this exact time, by these early Apostles. That partnership enabled them to make remarkable strides in advancing the Gospel in their generation. Similarly, as we work in partnership today, we can see the Gospel advancing. As we share resources, finance, prayer, and people, so the Gospel can continue to advance and the commission that started in the time of the book of Acts can continue and advance in our generation, as indeed it is doing in many countries of the world. So, thanks for listening to this episode and do join us again next time.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. ‘Courage is no substitute for faith’. Is this true?
  • Discipleship
    1. How prepared are you to take risks in order to share your Christian faith?
    2. How do you know when it is time to move on - in terms of place and work.
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Paul works with teams of people. Note who he uses and how from this occasion and in the next few episodes. What can you learn from that?
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