Paul’s ministry throughout the cities of the Mediterranean world was marked by his deep affection not only for the local believers but also for Jews and Gentiles who did not yet believe the gospel. As Paul traveled and preached the gospel, he repeatedly endured severe persecution from people who rejected his message. Paul shows us that loving well comes at a cost; no sacrifice is too great in light of the worth of Christ. As elsewhere, Paul’s experience in Thessalonica provides an example of sacrificially loving well.
Located on the Macedonian coast overlooking the Aegean Sea, ancient Thessalonica was the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia. As the intersection of two major trade routes, it was strategic in the spread of the gospel across the region and was significant to Paul’s second missionary journey.
In Acts 17, Paul went first to the local synagogue to expound from Scripture why Jesus is the Messiah. For three consecutive Sabbaths, Paul preached the death and resurrection of the Messiah, bringing a mixed response. However, jealous Jews allied with anyone who would join their opposition to Paul and his message. They sought government intervention, exposing their preference for prosperity and the status quo through loyalty to Caesar. The crowd cried out to the authorities: “They are all acting against Caesar’s decrees, saying there is another king named Jesus!” (Acts 17:7). These words capture the city’s political tensions.
As a free city within the Roman Empire, Thessalonica enjoyed the privileges of minting its own currency, codifying its own laws, and governing itself under local authorities rather than Roman officials. This freedom came from Thessalonica’s loyalty to Rome and opposition to rebellion. Any challenge to Rome’s authority would threaten to disrupt the favor that the empire bestowed on the city.
The Thessalonians expressed their loyalty to Rome through their participation in emperor worship. In the second and third centuries, the Romans constructed a new forum over the previous Greek agora. The forum was the center of city administration and business, and evidence suggests that a terrace adjacent to the northern end of the forum was dedicated to the imperial cult. Excavations in this area reveal evidence of what are believed to have been cultic structures. In the twentieth century, archaeologists discovered statues of emperors, further validating the area’s possible use for the imperial cult. First-century inscriptions mention the existence of a temple of Caesar.
These remains help us understand Paul’s hardships as he proclaimed the gospel. Jews who rejected Paul’s message of Christ as the Messiah stirred up a mob. Others in the city who pursued prosperity through loyalty to Caesar and the imperial cult were drawn into the conflict. Thanks to the intervention of friends, Paul escaped to Berea. He spent only three weeks in Thessalonica, but his affection for the people endured. His steadfast care and desire to give the gospel and his very life to those people who had driven him out (1 Thess 1:8) emulate the example of the sacrifice of Christ. In Paul’s example, we see the foundation of loving well.
i Apostolos F. Kralidis, “Evidence for the Imperial Cult in Thessalonica in the First Century C.E.” European Association of Biblical Studies, Thessaloniki Meeting, 2011, 93–95.
About the Contributors
Makay is an MBTS student and web content coordinator at DTS. She graduated with a BA in history from the University of Missouri-Kansas City in 2019 and participated in graduate studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem before joining DTS. Currently, she and her husband live in Kansas City, MO, and are honored to partner with their local church in furthering the gospel in their community.