By Argile Smith, Louisiana College
The account of Paul’s journey to Thessalonica in Acts 17 warms and breaks our hearts all at the same time.
A fountain of joy floods our hearts as we read about the way Paul started the church there (17:1-5). As soon as he arrived in Thessalonica, he visited the synagogue and shared the gospel with anyone who would listen to him.
Taking them to the Scriptures, he explained that Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God, the Messiah promised long ago. Some of them believed what Paul proclaimed, and they received Christ. Along with the Jewish people who listened to him at the synagogue, he shared the gospel with others in the city, and many of them gave their lives to Christ as well.
Gathering people he had led to Christ, Paul established a church. His congregation consisted of new believers who needed to grow so they would become healthy, vibrant, and resilient disciples.
Our hearts break, however, when we read about what happened next (17:6-15). A handful of jealous Jewish leaders who didn’t take Paul seriously got angry when they observed the success of his message. They put their rage to work by stirring up a mean mob that went after Jason, one of the people Paul had led to Christ.
These men crafted lies that inflamed the mob and put Jason in a precarious predicament by making him look like a traitor to Rome. Jailed because he belonged to the church Paul started, Jason had no choice but to guarantee the civil disturbance wouldn’t be repeated.
The mob activity didn’t leave Paul any other choice either. He and his fellow missionaries had to leave Thessalonica, and quickly. As much as they hated to do it, they had to leave behind the unfinished work in the church.
The heartbreaking account becomes even more distressing as we follow Paul’s steps from Thessalonica. He went on to Berea, shared the gospel in the synagogue, and saw many people give themselves to Christ.
However, trouble soon found its way to his doorstep again. The same jealous Jewish leaders who had caused problems in Thessalonica made their way to Berea with the same malicious intent.
Once more, Paul had to leave in a hurry. His missionary companions wanted to take him to a place where he would be safe. For that reason, they escorted him all the way to Athens and left him there until Timothy and Silas could join him.
In those days, the long journey from Thessalonica to Athens would have taken weeks or even months. Once in Athens, Paul diminished the vast distance between the two cities with intercessory prayer.
In 1 Thessalonians, a letter he wrote to the church he had to leave so suddenly, he affirmed that although he had been taken away from them geographically, he never left them spiritually (2:17).
Paul went on to assure them that he prayed for them and lived in the hope that he would see them again. His hope helped him to deal with his fear that they may have been trounced as they tried to take their stand for Christ in a hostile environment (3:5).
In due time, Timothy brought new joy to Paul’s heart. When he rejoined Paul, he brought with him a most promising report about the Thessalonian church. He told Paul that the budding congregation had blossomed into a strong fellowship of believers.
Instead of being beaten down by their adversaries, they had endured and had grown. Their love for the Lord had deepened, and they trusted Him now more than ever.
Timothy shared something else with Paul about the Thessalonian church. The news Timothy shared may have only been have been a side note in his report on Kingdom progress in Thessalonica, but it turned out to be a central source of personal contentment for Paul.
Timothy assured Paul that the Thessalonian Christians didn’t think harshly of him for leaving in a hurry and abandoning them when the mob attacked.
Instead, they thought “kindly” of him (3:6). He also told Paul that instead of resenting him, they missed him and the other missionaries who had come to their city and planted the church.
The believers in Thessalonica wanted to see Paul just as much as he wanted to see them again (3:6).
They loved the missionaries who had come to them with the gospel of Christ.
Keep in mind that Paul traveled to Thessalonica to promote the Kingdom of God.
He didn’t make the journey in order to build a kingdom for himself. Instead, he went there to share the gospel so people would have an opportunity to give their lives to Christ.
Paul’s ambition was centered on starting a church in which believers would love and serve the Lord exclusively.
How they felt about him took a back seat to how they felt about the Lord who had saved them.
At the same time, however, Paul couldn’t deny that he wondered about their attitude toward him, especially in view of his hasty departure. He had to leave them alone by themselves to face the harsh treatment at the hands of the angry mob. Without a doubt, he must have wondered if they would resent him for what he had to do.
Paul loved the church at Thessalonica, and his joyful reaction to Timothy’s report showed it. He treasured precious times of priceless fellowship as he helped them to grow in Christ. He would never forget their smiles and tears as they experienced God’s peace for the first time.
Paul would always rejoice as he reflected on their testimonies about the Lord’s mercy to them because of the gospel that he preached. Now he could also rejoice in the good news about how the church felt toward him. They loved the Lord, and therefore they loved Paul and his companions who had introduced them to Him.
Wise pastors can appreciate Paul’s reaction to Timothy’s welcomed news.
The Lord has called pastors and other ministers to lead His people to love Him more completely and to follow Him more consistently.
That’s a good pastor’s solitary ambition. He’s interested in growing a congregation that’s devoted to Christ, not a fan club that’s dedicated to him.
From time to time, however, a pastor can find himself wondering how his congregation feels about him.
Like a shepherd who takes his flock to green pasture and clear water in order to nourish the sheep, a pastor guides his congregation to nurture a maturing relationship with Christ for the purpose of becoming a healthy expression of His Body.
In so doing, he may lead his people to difficult and sometimes upsetting tasks. In those times especially, quietly he may wonder if they still love him.
The Thessalonian church’s attitude toward Paul offers a refreshing reminder to pastors and congregations. If a pastor works diligently to lead his congregation to love Christ, his folks will love him for it.
The frustration of congregational life may at times show on their faces. But even under the strain of leading and following, a pastor can trust his people to love him when he leads them to love and follow the Lord.
By the same token, church members would do well to tell their pastor that they love him so he won’t have to wonder about it.
Argile Smith Ph.D. is the chairman of Christian Studies, Dean of Chapel, and the associate Dean of Caskey Divinity School, all at Louisiana College.