The Book of Acts is packed full of accounts of the apostles witnessing that Jesus Christ is the saviour, and of the Holy Spirit moving in power. But the message of the gospel wasn’t received everywhere with glee. In fact some of the places where they preached, they met opposition rather than people interested in meeting with Jesus.
In Acts 17:1-9, we have the account of Paul and Silas in Thessalonica for the first time. They’ve just experienced the power of the Holy Spirit in amazing ways in Philippi, and as Tim described on Sunday, they’ve left an unusual but effective church plant team in Lydia, the slave girl and the jailer. So they come to Thessalonica, no doubt expecting to see God work in similar ways.
But things don’t always go as we hope, do they? Paul preached the message of Jesus Christ, and ‘some of the Jews were persuaded... and a great many of the Greeks.’ So far, so good. But the Jewish leaders were jealous of people listening to Paul, so they stirred up a mob to attack them and accuse them falsely. There was such an uproar that ‘city authorities were disturbed.’
On this occasion, Paul and Silas managed to escape without a beating or imprisonment, and they moved on to Berea where ‘the Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica. They received the word with all eagerness, examining the scriptures daily to see if these things were so.’ (Acts 17:11) In other words, the Bereans were the ideal audience for a preacher or a missionary, while the Thessalonians were the opposite.
And yet, from which of these beginnings grew the stronger church? Within just a few years, Paul wrote two letters to the Thessalonian church, saying that ‘your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing.’ Indeed he goes on to say, ‘Therefore we boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions.’ (2 Thess 1:3,4) How much do we hear anywhere else in the Bible about the church in Berea?
So what does this mean for us? It is a good example of how we shouldn’t give up hope if someone doesn’t want to hear our message. Few of us are called to be missionaries in foreign cities, but we are all called to be witnesses to Jesus Christ among our friends, neighbours, work colleagues and people we meet as we go about our daily lives. Some people might seem receptive, others might not. Sometimes the Holy Spirit will work miraculously in people when we pray or when we witness. Other times we might encounter aggression or abuse.
But we shouldn’t judge by what we see. And we shouldn’t limit our witness to those situations that seem comfortable. As our society in Britain today is turning ever more hostile to the gospel of Jesus Christ, so we should expect more opposition if we stay true to our calling. Paul was called to preach to the gentiles, and he went from town to town doing so, regardless of the reception he met. Our calling is to be witnesses to Jesus, and we should keep on doing so (in grace) regardless of the reception we meet from other people.
It may not always be easy, but let’s not shy away from our call, because as Paul wrote to the Thessalonians when he was reflecting on his first visit there, ‘we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts.’ (1 Thess 2:4)