On Turning The World Upside Down

When Christians invoke Acts 17:6 as a warrant for a cultural or political agenda or to imply that we should expect a future conversion of the world before the return of Christ, there are some things to bear in mind

Some attention to the context shows us that Luke’s narrative is not meant to serve as a blueprint for cultural engagement as much as an illustration of the surprising power of an unlikely message. The social tumult that followed gospel ministry of Paul was not the result of the Christianization nor the transformation of the culture but the violent reaction by the predominantly pagan culture to the gospel and to the work of the Holy Spirit among his elect. In Thessalonica in particular we do not even see Paul preaching to Gentiles outside the synagogue. He was preaching Christ in a relatively small setting.

 

“These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also (Acts 17:6; ESV)

Evangelical Christians are often charged to follow the Apostles by going forth to “turn the world upside down” for Christ. This is a powerful injunction because it captures a great truth: that the gospel message is unexpectedly and delightfully powerful. After all, in 1 Corinthians 1:18, the Apostle Paul himself says “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Then, in v. 19, he quotes Isaiah 29:14, “For it is written ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” The history of redemption is that God has typically used the lowly and the unimpressive to accomplish his marvelous purposes. Noah and his family were only 8 people. Moses and the Israelites were hardly a threat to Egypt. David was a shepherd boy. The list goes on to include our Lord Jesus himself, who was born not in Rome but in a backwater. So. we should not be surprised to see the Lord acting against our natural expectations and doing marvelous things.

Nevertheless, when Christians invoke Acts 17:6 as a warrant for a cultural or political agenda or to imply that we should expect a future conversion of the world before the return of Christ, there are some things to bear in mind. First, in Thessalonica, the apostles were not turning the world upside down literally or even figuratively. Paul and Silas had come to Thessalonica from their adventures in Philippi. Paul had been lecturing, in the synagogue, in Thessalonica, on three successive Sabbath days (vv.1–2). He was arguing from the Hebrew Scriptures that Jesus is the Messiah and that the Messiah was not a political conqueror but the Suffering Servant promised in Isaiah (v.3).. We might say that Paul was trying to help the Jews see the difference between the theology of glory and the theology of the cross. Some Jews who heard him were persuaded and some were not but a “great many” of the Gentiles (Greeks) who were known as “God fearers,” i.e., they were on the fringes of Judaism but had not entered fully, believed as did “not a few” of the “leading women (v.5). This infuriated some of the unbelieving Jews. They formed a mob and attacked the house of Jason and some of the other Christians and hauled them before the city officials (vv. 5–6). It is in this context that we read the words quoted above. Now the mob cries that the Christians are turning the world (οἰκουμένην) upside down (ἀναστατώσαντες).

Luke uses some subtle irony here. Let us go back and read vv. 5 and 6 more closely. Luke says that the Jews rounded up some “wicked men” out of the “rabble” (ἀγοραίων) or “loafers,” who spent their days doing nothing in the city market, and it was this mob who “upset the city” (ἐθορύβουν τὴν πόλιν). Note this well. It is the jealous, angry, unbelieving Jews who first disturbed Thessalonica. Paul and Silas did nothing but teach and preach Christ in the Synagogue. Evidently, the leaders of the Synagogue were fascinated enough with Paul that he was allowed to lecture there for three successive Sabbaths. After he was finished, there was no tumult even in the Synagogue. The social disruption happened only after unbelieving Jews began agitating against the Christians. Notice too the scope of the tumult. It was the city of Thessalonica. It was not the entire “world” or even (and more precisely) the civilized world. It was only Thessalonica. It was not the Christians who were forming mobs. It was not the Christians who were attacking houses or grabbing people off the street. It was unbelieving Jews who were furious that some Jews and more Gentiles adherents and some leading women had been brought by the Spirit to new life and true faith in Jesus the Messiah. The Spirit is working mysteriously and quietly but his opponents were working loudly and even violently. They bring Jason and other Christians before the civil authorities (πολιτάρχας).

Thus, when they begin crying out (βοῶντες) against the Christians that they are “upending the civilized world” (τὴν οἰκουμένην ἀναστατώσαντες) it is not true. It is entirely ironic. The Christians have done nothing but preach the gospel from Isaiah and other parts of the law, the prophets, and the writings. They have challenged not at all the civil order. They have not all disturbed the peace. It is those who reacted jealously (ζηλώσαντες) against Christ and his Christians who have disturbed things.

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