Who’s in charge here? (part 1)

Today, California (where I live) and several other states are holding their presidential primaries. The primary process (for you psychoanalysts out there, no pun intended — well, not consciously anyway) will continue into June. By November, we’ll know who will bear the mantle of what some call the “leader of the free world.”

Can I be honest here? I can’t bring myself to call our president that, regardless of who sits in the big chair. Yes, I understand the importance of the role of the POTUS in world politics. But the title is unnecessarily arrogant. It smacks of empire.

And it’s imperial thinking that led to the persecution of Paul.

As we’ve seen in previous posts, Paul and Silas were beaten and jailed in Philippi. The magistrates who ordered their punishment didn’t care about justice, only about getting the growing lynch mob under control. The good news is that the evangelists’ unjust imprisonment led to the salvation of the Philippian jailer and his household, which should come as no surprise to Luke’s readers. The bad news is that throughout Acts, Paul will continue to clash with the empire.

And as if that weren’t enough, he’ll continue to clash with his fellow Jews at the same time.

Modern-day Thessaloniki

After encouraging Lydia and the other believers in Philippi, Paul and Silas left the city and headed west. eventually landing in the thriving port city of Thessalonica, the capital of the province of Macedonia. (At this point in the story, Luke’s pronouns shift back from “we” to “they,” which may mean that he stayed behind in Philippi.) Unlike Philippi, Thessalonica had a synagogue:

As was Paul’s custom, he entered the synagogue and for three Sabbaths interacted with them on the basis of the scriptures. Through his interpretation of the scriptures, he demonstrated that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. He declared, “This Jesus whom I proclaim to you is the Christ.” Some were convinced and joined Paul and Silas, including a larger number of Greek God-worshippers and quite a few prominent women.

Acts 17:2-4, CEB

Paul spent three Sabbaths (not necessarily in a row) reasoning with his fellow Jews, addressing their primary intellectual roadblocks to the gospel: How can we believe in a Messiah who suffered? How could one person be resurrected in advance of the grand resurrection that’s supposed to be for all of us faithful Jews? Paul showed them, no doubt from the writing of the prophets, that what happened to Jesus had already been foretold in Scripture — and then declared Jesus to be the prophesied Messiah.

Some were convinced, but more of the converts were Gentiles (those who believed in the God of Israel and attended synagogue) than Jews. Luke notes specifically that several prominent women believed; one thinks, of course, of Philippi and Lydia.

So far, so good.

But then, Luke tells us, “the Jews became jealous” (Acts 17:5), presumably with Paul’s success among the Gentiles — and prominent ones at that. We’ve seen this before. Paul had preached a crucified and risen Messiah in the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch. At first, the Jews there were receptive, and invited Paul and Barnabas to come back. But the following Sabbath, when a massive crowd of Gentiles also gathered to hear Paul, the Jews “were overcome with jealousy” (Acts 13:45), and undermined Paul’s preaching. They stirred up the local leadership to get Paul and Barnabas kicked out of town.

The unbelieving Jews in Pisidian Antioch had been able to recruit the prominent Gentile women in their synagogue to their cause; these women used their influence (possibly through their husbands) to pressure Paul. But the opposite seemed true in Thessalonica, where the prominent women became believers. That may be part of the reason the Jews who were resisting the gospel there had to resort to dirtier tactics. They “brought along some thugs who were hanging out in the marketplace. They formed a mob and started a riot in the city” (Acts 17:5).

Then they went looking for Paul and Silas.

Apparently, word had gotten out that Paul and Silas were staying with a local believer named Jason, where there may have been the beginnings of a house church. They stormed Jason’s house, but Paul and Silas were nowhere to be found. As a consolation prize, the mob grabbed Jason and some of the other believers and hauled them before the city officials.

On what charges? That they were enemies of the empire.

More on that in the next post.