Early Christianity’s Shocking Message

Opposition to early Christianity’s message had solid grounds for its anxiety.

The apostle Paul preaching, by Raphael, 1515

I’ve been reading in the Acts of the Apostles. It brought me a few days ago to the passage on the apostle Paul’s work in the Greek city of Thessalonica (Acts 17:1-11).

His evangelistic work there follows his normal pattern. He begins in the Jewish synagogue. There for three weeks he preaches his message about Jesus. He apparently made several converts from among the Jews and the God-fearers, those Gentiles who attended the synagogue regularly but did not convert to Judaism.

However, as in other cities where he had preached, his message provoked strenuous opposition from some of the synagogue’s congregation. These opponents incited civic unrest in an effort to get the city’s officials to take action to stop this subversive preacher.

A Window for Understanding the Opposition

What I find interesting is how this account opens a window on what made the Christian message so offensive to both Jews and Gentiles.

The text says that Paul spent considerable effort in the synagogue trying to persuade his fellow Jews that the Messiah (Christos in Greek) had to suffer and rise from the dead. He argues his case by appeal to the Old Testament.

Why was this so important to Paul’s preaching? Because Paul declares that Jesus is the promised Messiah that Judaism has long awaited.

Most Jews would have been skeptical of such a message, because Jesus had died by crucifixion. That fact clearly demonstrated to them that Jesus was either a false Messiah or a failed Messiah.

We now know that in first-century Judaism there were many differing views about who the Messiah would be and what he would do. In fact, some Jews of the era believed there would be two Messiahs, one royal, the other priestly.

But all these differing views agreed that the Messiah would deliver Israel from domination from foreign imperial empires and usher in God’s kingdom and its reign of prosperity and peace. None these viewpoints envisioned this happening through a Messiah dying, and especially through death by crucifixion.

We know from what Paul writes in Galatians 3:13-14 that for some Jews crucifixion was an ignominious death. They believed that any one crucified was cursed by God. Paul was among them before his encounter with the risen Jesus on the Damascus road.

They believed this because of what was written in Deuteronomy 21:22-23:

When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse. You must not defile the land that the Lord your God is giving you for possession.

Originally this passage had a compassionate motive. It was concerned about the unnecessary exposure of the body of an executed criminal overnight. But some first-century Jews interpreted it as a divine curse on someone who was crucified. With that understanding in mind, then Jesus could not be the Messiah because his death meant he was cursed by God. And God would never curse the true Messiah.

What changed this assessment for Paul as well as for Jesus’ original disciples was Jesus’ resurrection and ascension into heaven to reign as lord over the cosmos. Through these acts God was ratifying Jesus’ status as the true Messiah.

So it was crucial for Paul in his approach to Jews to show that the Old Testament did indeed foresee that the Messiah would work his work of deliverance through his death and resurrection.

But we also see why many Jews would see such a message about Jesus as total nonsense and as a subversive force in the world of Judaism.

Potential Subversion of the Roman Imperial Order

In Acts’ account of Paul’s work in Thessalonica, we also glimpse why many Gentiles would also find the Christian message shocking and dangerous. When the rioters bring these disturbing Christians before the city’s governing officials, they charge that these Christians are turning the world upside down.

Why? Because, they say, “they are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus” (Acts 17:7).

The earliest Christian confession about Jesus was that Jesus is Lord (Kyrios in Greek). Now the title of Kyrios was one that Roman imperial propaganda claimed for the Roman emperor. He was Kyrios over the whole of the civilized world. And that fact was seen as key to the peace and prosperity that Roman rule was then bringing to the Mediterranean world (the Pax Romana).

When Christians confessed Jesus as Kyrios, they primarily had in mind Jesus’ present sovereignty in heaven and his future sovereignty on earth when the kingdom of God came in its fullness. But at its core that confession was a challenge to Roman propaganda. The rioters clearly understood the political import of the Christian message and recognized it as the subversive message it in essence was.

No wonder Gentiles who benefitted from the Pax Romana and Roman officials saw the Christian message as dangerous. It could indeed potentially turn their world upside down.

Why Governments Want to Control the Christian Religion

What we see in this Acts passage are two substantial reasons why so many Jews and Gentiles were so hostile to the message preached by early Christians. That message challenged fundamental first principles of their political, social, and religious mindsets.

This also gives us a glimpse into why secular authorities have always wanted to exercise some form of control over the expression of the Christian religion. We see example after example in Christian history, whether in the Caesaropapism of the Byzantine Empire, the great investiture dispute between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor in medieval Europe, the assertion of royal supremacy by Henry VIII over the Church of England, or efforts by the Chinese government to control Christian churches in China today.

When Christianity is true to its own founding spirit (and Spirit), it can indeed turn established mindsets and social orders upside down. And that can make a lot of people nervous.