Humorist Dave Barry once said, “The problem with writing about religion is that you run the risk of offending sincerely religious people, and then they come after you with machetes.” The Apostle Paul ran into this response many times in his ministry. Once, while preaching in Thessalonica, the leaders of the local synagogue became “…jealous; so they rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city…(Acts 17:5).”
They tore apart the house where the church was meeting and dragged the Christians they found through the streets to the city leaders. They falsely accused these Christians of subversion and sedition against Rome.
Often, the Bible describes sin in individualistic terms like we see in the Book of Judges: “In those days …everyone did as he saw fit (Judges 21:25).” But sometimes, we sinful, individualistic humans join forces in our sin. The murder of Jesus is an example of a mob at its worst.
The riot in Thessalonica reminds us of the sometimes exponential power of collective sin. If one man’s sin is destructive, how frightening it is when we join together in our sins. These mobs tend to coalesce around some sort of “ism”…anti-Semitism, racism, collectivism, communism, fascism, Nazism, nativism – left/right…doesn’t matter.
We’re seeing a rise in mob mentality (sometimes called herd mentality by sociologists) in our nation. Luke described it two-thousand years ago in Acts 17. Here are the characteristics.
The first thing we see about the mob is that there were ringleaders behind the scenes. In this account they were the religious leaders of the synagogue. They formed the mob. Who was the crowd? The Greek word (agorios from “market”) describes folks that hang out in the marketplace with no jobs; loafers, gangsters, scoundrels. Idle hands truly are the devil’s workshop (Prov. 16:27).
The ringleaders were adept at swaying opinion and manipulating these ne’er-do-wells. By tapping into their fears, they caused an uproar. There’s always someone with a bullhorn and catchy slogans.
The second thing we see: the reason for mob action is usually deceitful. Luke describes the reason as envy, but the outcry against Paul and Silas was that they wanted to dethrone Caesar and lead a coupe. Of course, Paul’s message wasn’t political and the claim was a false flag.
The ringleaders didn’t publicize their jealousy as that would not draw a crowd. Instead, they knew what would get people’s attention: fear – in this case fear of a Roman army marching down the streets to put down a rebellion. The herd had been manipulated.
Thirdly, there is usually a scapegoat as the mob picks a victim upon which to take out their grievances. In this case it was the home where the church was meeting…and the homeowner. Scapegoats can range from races or classes, businesses or political parties, police or adherents to religions.
Fourth, sociologists say the lure of the mob is the seeming anonymity that comes with a crowd. People will do things in a crowd they normally wouldn’t do on their own. Hiding in crowds and wearing masks is an increasingly common sight on news programs. Peer pressure is a powerful force. But Jesus reminds us: “There is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open (Luke 8:17).”
The irony of mob rule is often the hypocrisy involved. In this case, the ring leading synagogue leaders in Thessalonica had themselves been the targets of prejudice for years. Romans had always accused them of disloyalty and sedition to Caesar…now they were doing the same thing to Paul and Silas! These leaders had no love for Caesar. Yet here they were, acting as if they were Caesar’s biggest defenders! When you show up to a peace rally with weapons and shields, there may be a problem.
Finally, when mobs rule, they tend to believe the ends justify the means. Very often the mob uses tactics they would otherwise abhor. These synagogue leaders were not violent men in general…they weren’t typically liars – but we see them lying and inciting violence. Probably they vindicated themselves: “The matter is just too important, so if we have to bend the rules a little…” A young man at an Antifa protest said it this way: “Violence isn’t the worst outcome – letting the fascists win is.”
You may remember Jesus’ trial before the high priest, Caiaphas. Multiple rules were broken in that trial. But Caiaphas, who didn’t get to that exalted position by breaking rules, looked the other way. He reasoned: “… it would be good if one man died for the people (John 18:14).”
To be sure, there is much to be frustrated about in our country. People are angry. We have the God-given (and government protected) rights of redress and peaceful assembly. But let us be wise. Let us beware those who would use fear to manipulate us, who would lead us to do things we normally wouldn’t do, who would justify hurting others or destroying property for their “cause.”
I leave you with St. Paul’s advice: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone (Romans 12:18).” Don’t join the herd.