When Paul and his companions had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead. “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah,” he said. Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women.
But other Jews were jealous; so they rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city. They rushed to Jason’s house in search of Paul and Silas in order to bring them out to the crowd, But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some other believers before the city officials, shouting: “These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.” When they heard this, the crowd and the city officials were thrown into turmoil. Then they made Jason and the others post bond and let them go. (Acts 17:1-9, NIV)
Paul and company have traveled about 100 miles in the first sentence of this chapter. He arrives in Thessalonica and “reasoned with” the Jews. This verb translates from the original language as dialegomai, the same word that English speakers today use as dialogue, the conversation between at least two people. Paul’s dialegomai with these Jews extended beyond greetings and small talk; he “explained and proved” the real concept of Messianism, not as a political savior but as a suffering savior.
The common view among first century Jews of the messianic hope was especially informed by the Roman occupation. During the intertestimental period, the Jews living in Palestine were subjected to various ruling empires, depending on the century. Persia, Greece, Egypt, at one point the Jews themselves again, and finally Rome. Also, the prophetic literature of the post-exilic Jews began to narrow down the concept of God’s redemption into messianism; God would redeem the descendants of Abraham through a single person who would restore political control to the throne of David.
What the Jewish people and especially teachers of the scriptures did not expect was that the messiah would return to overthrow the tyranny of sin, not the tyranny of Rome. No political solution would be given — give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s. When Peter attacks the soldier arresting Jesus, his rebuke is simple: they that take the sword shall perish with the sword. If Jesus had come to fight a war, his disciples would be killed in that battle.
Instead, they would all die in a different way, many years later, some at the hands of the very same ruling elites. But not now, not yet. Jesus goes on trial before the Roman governor over Palestine and says that “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders.”
So then, the messiah did not meet expectations. He acted outside of, parallel to the political system. He didn’t come to establish a kingdom on earth; he came to establish the kingdom of heaven.
Buried deep in this analysis lies the assumption that the kingdoms of heaven and earth are separate.
The Jewish people never expected the suffering Messiah whom Paul explains in verse 3. They never conceived of resurrection for the Messiah himself; of all people, he should be immutable, unchanging, representative in some way of God’s own character. Imagine the shock on their faces as they first hear teachers of Jesus of Nazareth — that treasonous villager whom someone mentioned years earlier, and whom they promptly forgot as another failed messiah.
Paul and his company then face a pre-trial for defying the decree of Caesar. Caesar had allowed any religion to exist, so long as among their various gods they included him. To polytheists this was not an issue; to the monotheists, the tension was between imminent government persecution and worshiping the one true God. Note that the Jews were totally comfortable undermining Paul’s public credibility by pointing this out, which clearly implies that the Jews themselves had been complying with the emperor worship in some way.
I think that the Jewish accusers accidentally misrepresent Paul more favorably than they intended. Paul, in making the point that Jesus is king, doesn’t discount that Caesar also is a king. Caesar being the emperor of Rome is just a fact. But Paul isn’t merely placing Jesus as a second parallel king; Jesus is a second, superior king. Though their domains are established adjacent, Jesus’s power extends far beyond and even within that of Caesar’s rule. This undermines the autonomous authority of the emperor.
There is indeed another king, one called Jesus. His citizens are not of this world, because his kingdom is not of this world. We hold dual citizenship and every day must tease out the boundary lines between our allegiance to Christ and our subjection to the earthly rulers. But whenever these priorities conflict, we know which to follow — and which is supremely greater.