Turning the World Upside Down
Topic: Missions & Evangelism Passage: Acts 17:1–17:15
Rachel and I finally watched Black Panther the other night. There’s a scene where the cinematography conveys a clear message about the villain. Basically you’ve got this kingdom called Wakanda. There’s a villain named Killmonger. As Killmonger takes the throne, the screenshot begins upside down and then slowly rotates. Killmonger is about to turn Wakanda upside down. It’s not good.
In our passage today, we encounter a crowd of people who charge some Christians with turning the world upside down. They see the gospel of Christ as threatening the Roman world, as threatening their king. But what we learn in the process is this: it’s not that Jesus’ followers turn the world upside down. The world is already upside down. The gospel reveals a Savior who’s turning the world right-side up.
To the world, this appears to be an awful thing. But to those who know Christ, it’s the greatest thing for the world. Only we must see this too: the world’s transformation doesn’t come by jealous defiance and political upheaval. It comes through the humble, patient preaching of the gospel. Watch for these themes as we read. Acts 17:1…
1 Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. 2 And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3 explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.” 4 And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. 5 But the Jews were jealous, and taking some wicked men of the rabble, they formed a mob, set the city in an uproar, and attacked the house of Jason, seeking to bring them out to the crowd. 6 And when they couldn’t find them, they dragged Jason and some of the brothers before the city authorities, shouting, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, 7 and Jason has received them, and they’re all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there’s another king, Jesus.” 8 And the people and the city authorities were disturbed when they heard these things. 9 And when they had taken money as security from Jason and the rest, they let them go. 10 The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. 11 Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. 12 Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men. 13 But when the Jews from Thessalonica learned that the word of God was proclaimed by Paul at Berea also, they came there too, agitating and stirring up the crowds. 14 Then the brothers immediately sent Paul off on his way to the sea, but Silas and Timothy remained there. 15 Those who conducted Paul brought him as far as Athens, and after receiving a command for Silas and Timothy to come to him as soon as possible, they departed.
Jesus Keeps Advancing His Kingdom
What is Acts? Acts is an account of the risen Jesus advancing his kingdom through the Holy Spirit empowering his people to spread the gospel to all nations. That’s Acts in a nutshell. And since chapter 13, we’ve witnessed Jesus advancing his kingdom to the ends of the earth. Roman cities hear the good news. A wealthy business woman, an oppressed slave girl, a harsh jailer—each hear the good news.
Jesus now leads Paul and his team further west in Macedonia. They enter two new cities, Thessalonica and then Berea. We find them sharing the good news once again. But if we want to grasp Luke’s message here, we need to see how Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica parallels his ministry in Berea. Setting these two accounts side by side bring out meaning we may not have noticed otherwise.
So here’s what I want to do. I want to walk you through these two episodes and compare them to each other, see what Luke’s message is for his readers. Then I want to tease out six further implications this passage has for our lives.
The Gospel Mission in Thessalonica & Berea
So, first things first, let’s see how this section works. How does Luke set it up? What’s he trying to convey by setting Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica next to his ministry in Berea, and outlining them in the same manner? You’ll see what I mean on the screen. Luke wants us to contrast these accounts. Check it out…
Travel summary/Paul enters synagogue (vv. 1, 10)
He begins with a travel summary and Paul entering the synagogue. Verse 1, “Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews.” Then verse 10, “The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue.” Luke takes us from one city to the next. Then he highlights Paul’s usual practice of finding a synagogue.
Paul preaches Christ from Scriptures (vv. 2-3, 11)
What’s the point? He finds a venue to share Christ. That’s the next parallel: Paul preaches Christ from the Scriptures. Verse 2, “And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.’”
We don’t get everything Paul teaches. Luke gives a summary. Paul opens up what we call the Old Testament, and he explains how the Christ, their Messiah, had to suffer and rise from the dead. He’s following Jesus in this. Luke 24:45, “[Jesus] opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.’” Paul is not only following the way Jesus taught the Scriptures, he’s fulfilling the way Jesus said the Scriptures would be fulfilled as he speaks.
Paul proclaims Christ to all nations and offers forgiveness in his name. We don’t have to guess what the content of his message was. Just in Acts 13 alone, Paul quotes from Exodus, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1 Samuel 7, Psalm 2, Psalm 16, Isaiah 49, Isaiah 55, Habakkuk 1—and he shows how Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection culminates and fulfills the whole storyline. Christ had to suffer in order to glorify God in saving his people. Christ had to rise to defeat death, take the throne, and guarantee the final kingdom and restoration of all things.
More than that, we have two letters he wrote to the church in Thessalonica; and there he outlines what he taught them. Paul reasoned with them about how God saves through his Christ. Then he says, “Okay, that Christ in the Old Testament, his name is Jesus. How do I know that? Unlike anybody else, God raised Jesus from the dead; and here’s what that means for your life. Renounce your idols, rest in his grace.”
He does the same in Berea, but this time it’s implied. Verse 11, “Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” Again, Paul preaches Christ from the Scriptures. They receive it. Then they examine the Scriptures to see if he’s right, to see if these things really add up.
Why does that make them “more noble” than the Jews in Thessalonica? Because they responded with rational examination instead of jealous defiance—which we’ll see in a minute. The contrast is meant to send you a message: the best response to the gospel isn’t jealous, irrational defiance but rational examination.
We’ll see in a minute—the response of the Jews in Thessalonica is totally irrational. The charges they bring against the church aren’t grounded in reality. They just want to bully people around; that’s how the world works. Here’s the more noble response: consider the claims of Christianity seriously. Our faith isn’t irrational but very rational and built on sound evidence. It corresponds with reality. Examine the gospel message charitably and rationally, and you may very well find yourself persuaded.
Some believe the gospel (vv. 4, 12)
That’s next on the agenda: some people believe the gospel. Verse 4, “Some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women.” Likewise verse 12, “Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men.”
So some believe in Thessalonica; more believe in Berea. And notice, it’s not just what some of your atheist friends might call “the uneducated masses.” You hear people talking like this: “that Christianity is just a crutch for the less educated; it’s for the weak in society.” Actually, it says here that many leading women, and many men and women of high standing in society embrace Christ as Savior too.
Even the wealthy and more educated were finding the gospel compelling; and God builds his church among them in Thessalonica. You can see how this might play rather nicely into Luke’s message to the most excellent Theophilus: “Hey Theophilus, even people of your rank find the gospel persuasive. These aren’t the masses in revolt. These are rather influential people who find the message good, right, true. Consider it, seriously.” But not everyone believes.
Some oppose the gospel (vv. 5-8, 13)
The next parallel is that some people oppose the gospel. Look at verse 5: “But the Jews were jealous, and taking some wicked men of the rabble, they formed a mob, set the city in an uproar, and attacked the house of Jason, seeking to bring them out to the crowd. And when they couldn’t find them, they dragged Jason and some of the brothers before the city authorities, shouting, ‘These men who’ve turned the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has received them, and they’re all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying there’s another king, Jesus.’”
Now, just stop for a minute. The deep irony is comical. Everything is peaceful until these Jews get wicked men from the rabble—the rabble would be like the lazy lowlifes with nothing better to do than cause trouble. They get these guys, form a mob, set the city in an uproar, attack an innocent man, and then accuse the Christians of turning the world upside down. If that wasn’t bad enough, the same guys do it again, but in a different city: “When the Jews from Thessalonica learned that the word of God was proclaimed by Paul at Berea also, they came there too, agitating and stirring up the crowds.” Question: who’s really turning the world upside down?
That’s what Luke wants you to ask. It’s not Jesus’ followers who “turn the world upside down” in that negative, destructive sense. It’s those enslaved to sin who do so. Sin turns the world upside down; the gospel announces the true King who comes to turn the world right-side up. What you have here is a collision of two kingdoms.
The church is a counter-cultural kingdom. It’s not that we’re morally superior; but that Christ makes us new. We center our lives round a King who says the first will be last and the last will be first; round a King who says the greatest among you must become slave of all; round a King who was rich, yet for your sake he became poor; round a King who commands legions but wraps himself in a towel and washes feet; round a King who pursues his joy in serving his neighbor and clothing the filthy with honor; round a King who loves his enemies by sacrificing everything; round a King who speaks truth in the face of lies. Truly, his kingdom is upside down to the way the world operates.
Accepting Jesus’ kingship consistently and seriously will in fact transform your personal relationships and your business ethics and your social ambitions and so on, and in that sense will appear to others like you’re “turning the world upside down.” But that’s because the world, as it is, needs to be turned right-side up. Caesar couldn’t turn it right-side up. No president has the power or moral uprightness to turn it right-side up. No one political ideology gets everything right. But Jesus does.
Don’t get me wrong. Jesus isn’t vying for a throne on earth; he already has the highest throne in heaven. Now it’s a matter of bringing everyone else beneath his perfect rule. But that happens not by embracing the world’s ways of doing things. It doesn’t happen through jealous defiance and political upheaval—which is how the world here combats Christianity. Rather, as we see in the lives of the disciples here, Jesus’ kingdom advances through the humble, patient preaching and application of the gospel.
The apostles patiently endure evil while speaking truth. Jason patiently endures evil. He’s treated unjustly and yet still pays the fees to go free. They’re goal isn’t to defy Caesar. Unless Caesar asks them to defy Jesus, they’re peaceful. Who’re the real troublemakers here? It’s those who refuse to submit their lives to King Jesus. It’s not the followers of Christ—and brothers and sisters, it shouldn’t ever be the followers of Christ.
Sadly, history has its share of troublemakers who also professed the name of Jesus. May it not be so among any of us! Christ’s kingdom advances through those who, like their King did for them, willingly sacrifice all to see others joyful in God.
Apply wisdom to preserve gospel witness (vv. 9, 14-15)
The final parallel is with Luke wrapping up each ministry with some kind of resolve. In verse 9, Jason posts bail to keep things peaceful for the church. In verses 14-15, the brothers send Paul off to Athens rather quickly. In both cases, they apply wisdom that best serves the gospel’s ongoing witness.
So in the end, when we contrast Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica with that in Berea, two major points stand out. One is that sin turns the world upside down. The gospel announces a King who comes to turn the world right-side up. But he does this not through political upheaval, but with the humble, patient preaching of the gospel. Then two, when you’re confronted with the gospel’s claims, the most noble response for any community is rational examination, not jealous defiance.
Six Implications for Our Mission
That’s the bigger picture. But what else might we take away from these verses? I want to develop six further implications.
1. Renew your confidence in the gospel of Christ to save.
Number one, renew your confidence in the gospel of Christ to save. The church has one message: the good news of what God has done in Christ to reconcile sinners to himself. Jesus isn’t just a hero who died for his own convictions. The gospel isn’t just a philosophy to make yourself a better person. The gospel is historically true and offers the person of Jesus himself who wins all God’s saving promises for his people.
Paul preached Christ. How he gets people to Christ differs depending on his missionary context. But preaching Christ remained central to his mission. Preaching Christ must remain central to our own mission too. The gospel saves here. It’s the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. Would you be able to reason with Jews and Muslims and others like them who have some awareness of the Old Testament? Would you be able to show them how the Christ had to suffer and rise again? Could you point a Jewish friend to Christ from Isaiah 53? Could you show a Muslim how the promise to Abraham culminates in Christ?
Know your Bible well so you can point people to Christ. There are hundreds of ways the biblical story connects to people’s lives and offers them salvation in Christ. Our primary mission is to get the gospel message to our neighbors and the nations. I know there’s lots to discuss in the news. I know your Facebook wall is filled with all kinds of debates and fears. But when was the last time you shared the gospel? Are you preaching it to yourself, to each other? Are you sharing it with those who’ve never heard? If not, what does this say about your confidence in the gospel? What do you think saves the world, your next snarky Facebook retort? How much stock do you put in worldly institutions to transform communities versus the gospel? Paul knew the message that saves. Let’s imitate his ways in Christ, and not get derailed by all the noise.
2. Renounce worldly means & embrace the humble means of the cross.
Number two: in spreading the gospel, we must renounce worldly means and embrace the humble means of the cross. We must embrace the “upside-down” nature of Jesus’ kingdom. To be great is to become slave of all. Notice the stark contrast between the world’s way of doing things and Christ’s way of doing things.
Luke brings it up often. Peter and John preach and heal; the world threatens them. The apostles teach and show generosity to the poor; the world imprisons them. Stephen offers salvation; the world stones him. Paul and Silas deliver a slave girl from oppression; the world wants its money, so it lies and beats them. They preach the gospel again; the world slanders them, stirs up a mob, and takes their money unjustly.
What do we see here? On the one hand, we see how the world accomplishes its agenda. The world uses hatred, lies, and violence. On the other hand, we see how Christ accomplishes his agenda: love, truth, and self-sacrifice. You see, when we look into the lives of these early disciples we see Christ himself. Who was crucified to appease an angry mob in Luke 23:5? It was Jesus going to the cross to claim victory over sin and save his people. This same Jesus lives in his people. He calls us to take up our cross.
Christ doesn’t advance his kingdom through worldly means—through fear-mongering, through political one-upmanship, through arguments not grounded in truth. No, beloved, we’re called to humbly preach the gospel, even if it means our death. The gospel doesn’t just thrive when there’s a fair playing field politically; it thrives when it’s completely disadvantaged. So don’t stoop to the world’s ways. Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Jesus in laying down your life to see others joyful in God.
3. Find venues to spread the gospel & focus on anyone willing to listen.
Number three: find venues to spread the gospel and focus on anyone willing to listen. Paul has the habit of finding a Jewish synagogue in whatever city he enters. It may be that Paul develops this strategy from theological convictions. He knows from Scripture that the Jews hold a privileged place in God’s redemption story. In Romans 1:16, he says the gospel is for the Jew first and also the Greek.
But several other reasons justify his practice. For starters, Paul himself is Jewish. Also, those attending the synagogue would be familiar with the Scriptures. Then he’s also got a unique calling to carry the gospel to the Gentiles, and many Greeks and other God-fearing Gentiles would meet at the synagogue. In other words, it’s a rather fitting venue where he can spread the gospel quite easily to others.
Once he does, he then focuses his ministry on anyone willing to listen. He gathers them into local churches and disciples them. Imitate Paul’s pattern. What venues would allow you to spread the gospel? What venues fit your skillsets and giftings? It doesn’t have to be a synagogue. But could it be a classroom at a local school? Could it be a ladies group in the neighborhood? Could it be an exercise class, or a gym you frequent to befriend people? Maybe you’d serve best from your own home, while showing hospitality to others. Maybe it’s your workplace. Maybe it’s your hospital room.
Whatever venue is appropriate, find one; and then focus your efforts on those willing to listen and hear more about Christ. But let me also add this: if you’re physically unable—if there are things out of your control preventing you from doing this in the way you’d like to do so—then would you pray for those who’re able. Your prayers are just as vital to the spread of the gospel.
4. Expect opposition & apply wisdom that best serves the gospel’s ongoing witness.
Number four: expect opposition & apply wisdom that best serves the gospel’s ongoing witness. Opponents to the gospel won’t always attack for the same reasons. In 16:19 it was greed. Here, it’s jealousy. But when the gospel is opposed, don’t be surprised. Peter says, “Beloved, don’t be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings…” (1 Pet 1:13).
Are we willing to be viewed negatively by others for the gospel’s sake? Are we willing to be opposed as “turning the world upside down” even though we know Christ has come to turn the world right-side up?
That doesn’t mean we’re called to endure every instance of opposition the same way. There are times when Christians can’t escape persecution—they’re in jail for example—or when Christians choose to stay and endure persecution. Yet there are other occasions when they discern it’s best for the gospel’s sake to leave a region. That happens twice here with Paul. Now, churches were already planted. But for whatever reason, his presence provoked more opposition than was necessary. But that wasn’t the case for the others who stayed behind and solidified the churches. Whether to stay or go, who stays or goes, requires great wisdom.
Christians must pray through these decisions. They must seek counsel from others involved in the work, which would especially include their local church and their sending agency. In every situation we must decide what will best serve the gospel’s ongoing witness, and then trust the Lord to build his church.
5. Expect the Lord to save others & add them to his church.
Number five: expect the Lord to save others and add them to his church. Yes, some will oppose the gospel. But it’s also true that others will believe the gospel. Isn’t that what God did for many of us? He opened our heart to believe the gospel. He added us to his church. And now we gather to celebrate his glory, his salvation.
Do you expect the Lord to save others? Paul expected it; and not because he was such a persuasive evangelist. But because he knew God was passionate to spread the enjoyment of his glory among a people from every tribe, tongue, and nation.
6. Celebrate how the gospel unites all kinds of people into one body.
And that’s where we’re heading next with number six: celebrate how the gospel unites all kinds of people into one body. In verse 4, Jews believe. Greeks believe. Leading women believe. In verse 12, Jews believe. Greeks believe. Men and women of high standing believe. The gospel saves people from both genders, different ethnicities, and different levels of society and unites them into one body.
In a day when our culture seeks to drive a wedge between races, classes, and gender, the gospel gathers from all of them into one body, united to one Lord, and who share one passion to glorify God’s name. How do we know the gospel continued such a work? Because Paul writes them a letter months down the road and boasts this way: “You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia…your faith in God has gone forth everywhere…” (1 Thess 1:6-8). May the same be said of us!
In coming to the Lord’s Supper, we have an amazing opportunity to celebrate how the gospel unites all kinds of people into one body. One day we will stand with a host of countless others, saying “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, for by your blood you did ransom for God a people from every tribe, tongue, language, and nation.” Eat and drink to celebrate that day and renew in us a passion to live together in light of that day.