From time to time, Luke records dual-episodes in Acts to show the similarities and contrasts between events in the life of Paul. We see this in Acts 17:1–9 and 17:10–15. In both instances (in Thessalonica and Berea), Paul and others evangelized (Acts 17:1–3, 10), people believed (Acts 17:4, 11–12), others persecuted the missionaries (Acts 17:5–7, 13), and Paul was forced to leave (Acts 17:8, 14–15). The contrast between the two is that the Berean “Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica” (Acts 17:11).1 That is, whereas the Thessalonian Jews were split in believing that Jesus was the Christ, the Berean Jews eagerly received the gospel at large.
Paul stayed in Thessalonica perhaps 3–6 months, and he was briefly in Berea as well. In both instances, just as the believers came to know the gospel, so also they had come to know Paul as a spiritual father who quickly had to leave. How did they process his departure?
1 Thessalonians was written shortly after Paul’s departure, and the letter is replete with how this quick departure was difficult. He had worked as a tentmaker in their midst and thus shared his very life with them (1 Thess 2:8–9). Paul mothered and fathered these believers in their newfound faith (1 Thess 2:7, 11). They believed the gospel in spite of the Jewish opposition and thus persevered together (1 Thess 2:13–16). Such bonds would have tightly tethered their hearts together as one.
Nonetheless, “We were torn away from you,” Paul recalled (1 Thess 2:17). What pain of heart this must have been. As a result, “We endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face… again and again, but Satan hindered us” (1 Thess 2:17–18). And why did he repeatedly attempt to see them again? Because these dear people were Paul’s glory, joy, and crown—his reward for service to show Jesus at His coming (1 Thess 2:19–20).
Unable to go himself, Paul sent Timothy in his stead, desperately wondering if the persecution was too much for them (1 Thess 3:1–5). Upon Timothy’s return, Paul found out that they were persevering, still thought of him kindly, and longed to see him (1 Thess 3:6–10). Of course they would. He had faithfully given them the gospel and nurtured them in the faith, taking nothing in return, and in spite of the persecution. In this was love—that Paul imitated Christ and gave himself in this way for his spiritual children. He prayed for them to persevere and for the Father and the Son to work in them until Christ came again (1 Thess 3:11–13).
Even though Paul could not return, as we saw, Timothy was regularly back and forth these early days (1 Thess 3:1–10; see also Acts 20:5). Besides this, the Thessalonians had respectable men who were over them, labored in study, and admonished them in the Word—in a word, elders (1 Thess 5:12–13). Thus, in Paul’s absence, God’s grace was to have other good men brace them up to keep running the race that their Lord had run before them. Perhaps we might assume that something like this situation was God’s grace to Berea as well.
From the above, we can see that, even when unexpected changes come about, and even when it concerns the leadership of the church, the Good Shepherd is not inattentive to His sheep. One man is not the church, and as gifted as he may be, Christ can guide His people through a change of leaders. What He did then He can do for us today. May God be likewise gracious to our own churches when we experience this kind of thing.
- All quotes ESV.