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"Turning the World Upside Down"
Acts 17:1-34

Wednesday Evening Home Bible Study
November 12, 2008

Theme: This portion of Paul's second missionary journey shows how the world reacted to the remarkable proclamation that Jesus Christ has risen from the dead.

This chapter in Acts—a part of the continuing story of Paul's second missionary journey—begins with Paul's further activities in the region of Macedonia, and ends with the beginning of his ministry in Achaia. It involves the story of his ministry in three major cities. And it has three things that tie it all together. First, it features Paul emphasis on the announcement of the resurrection of Jesus Christ in his preaching (vv. 2-3, 7,18, 3 0-32; with verse 11 being a possible reference). Second, it describes the ways God used the reactions to this remarkable proclamation on the part of the Jewish opposition. And finally, it demonstrates the variety of ways the Gentile people heard and responded to the gospel in light of the Jewish rejection of it.


A. Fresh from their release from the Philippian prison (16:24-40), Paul and Silas continued their southwesterly route through Macedonia—passing through the cities of Amphipolis and Apollonia (v. 1). Now, however, they had the protection of recognized Roman citizenship (16:37-39). Apparently, the two missionaries didn't feel led to preach in Amphipolis and Apollonia—or if they did, we're not told of it. Perhaps it was because there was no synagogue in either of these cities. It seems instead that they made their way directly to Thessalonia and to the the synagogue that was there. As was Paul's “custom”, he sought to bring the gospel to the Jews first—“and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures” (v. 2). When we consider the depth of instruction that Paul was able to affirm that the Thessalonians knew (see 1 Thessalonians 4:1-2, 9; 5:1-2; 2 Thessalonians 2:5-6, 15; 3:7, 10), these must have been three remarkable weeks of teaching! Note that the main content of Paul's instruction to them was the person of Jesus Christ; and specifically the proof of the resurrection of Jesus from the Old Testament scriptures (v. 3). He was able to assert, “This Jesus whom I preach to you is the Christ”.

B. As a result of Paul's preaching, some of the Thessalonians from among the Jewish community were “persuaded”. So also were a great multitude of “the devout Greeks” (that is, Greek people who believed on the God of Israel). Even “not a few” of the leading women of the city joined Paul and Silas (v. 4). Clearly, the impact of the gospel in the city of Thessalonica was significant. Later, in his letters to them, Paul was able to affirm that their repentance from idols through faith in Christ became a tremendous testimony of the power of God (1 Thessalonians 1:2-10; 2:13; 2 Thessalonians 1:3-4).

C. Not all the Jews were “persuaded”, however. Many became “envious” of the influence Paul's gospel preaching was having on the Thessalonian community—perhaps primarily over the Jewish people there; but possibly over the Greeks as well, since these things were being proclaimed from the synagogue (see Acts 13:45). In response, these unbelieving Jews recruited “evil men from the marketplace”, gathered a mob, and set the who city in an uproar (v. 5). They specifically targeted the house of a man named Jason, because it was in his house that Paul and Silas had become guests; and they sought to bring the two missionaries out of the house to the people. Being unable to find them, they dragged Jason and some of the Christians out to the rulers of the city; and brought an accusation against them that gives us some important insight into the way the implications of the gospel message was being received: “These who have turned the world upside down have come here too. Jason has harbored them, and these are all acting contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king—Jesus” (vv. 6-7). There was certainly nothing in the preaching of the gospel that demanded disobedience to Caesar. In fact, if anything, the gospel preaching they heard would have taught the Thessalonian believers to be model citizens (see 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12; 5:14-22). But it certainly did require allegiance to a King greater than Caesar (see Acts 17:31). What's more, we see in this that the word about the proclamation of the gospel had gotten around, and that its reputation for changing lives had spread.

D. These accusations “troubled the crowd and the rulers of the city” (v. 8). And as a result, they took “security” from Jason and the rest. This was a “bond” taken from Jason to ensure that the missionaries would leave town and not return (v. 9). As a result, the missionaries were allowed to go. This effectively brought an end to Paul's and Silas' ability to be present to minister to the Thessalonians. But clearly—as evidenced by Paul's two letters to them—the work went on. He was even able to reference the Thessalonian's continued steadfastness in times of persecution and trial (1 Thessalonians 2:14-16; 3:3-5; 2 Thessalonians 1:3-8).

II. IN BEREA (vv. 10-15).

A. The brethren in Thessalonica sent Paul and Silas away “immediately”, as would have been required by the bond taken from Jason. But they apparently thought it best to send the two missionaries away “by night”—no doubt because of the threats on their lives. From there, they went to the city of Berea, which lay about fifteen miles southwesterly from Thessalonica. Again, as was according to their plan, they went directly to the synagogue (v. 10). We're told, however, that the Jewish people in Berea were more “fair minded” (literally “of noble birth” [eugenās]; but metaphorically, “of high social status” or “open minded” ) than the Jewish people in Thessalonica; in that they first received the word Paul and Silas gave them with readiness, and then followed up with a daily searching of the Scriptures to discover whether the things the missionaries were telling them were so (v. 11). The result was that many of the Jews in Berea believed; and also many Greeks—“prominent women as well as men” (v. 12).

B. Soon, however, the Jews from Thessalonica learned that the very word that they had rejected had now come to Berea—and it's understandable that they would hear this, given the short distance between the two cities. The Thessalonian Jews who had rejected the gospel in their own city now came to another city to put a stop to it. They “stirred up the crowds” (v. 13), much as they had done in their own city (v. 8). This may have been what Paul was talking about when he wrote to the Thessalonians that the Jews of that city “do not please God and are contrary to all men, forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they may be saved” (1 Thessalonians 2:15-16).

C. In response, the brethren of that city did as had been done in Thessalonica and “immediately sent Paul away”—only this time, it was only Paul who was sent away “to go to the sea”; while Silas and Timothy remained in Berea (v. 14). It may be that, in this case, Silas and Timothy were better able to advance Paul's work among the Bereans with Paul gone. Berea was a coastal city; and so, they arranged to put Paul aboard a ship and sail him down the eastern coast of Achaia to the city of Athens. And before they left him in Athens, Paul entrusted them with the command for Silas and Timothy to come to him “with all speed” (v. 15). And with this, they departed.

D. Why it was that the Berean Jews were so much more receptive to the gospel than the Thessalonian Jews is a mystery attributable, ultimately, only to the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit in accordance with the gracious choice of God. The sovereign God permits some to hear the message, only to be further hardened by it (Romans 9:18). But with regard to others, Paul was able to say, “But we are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God from the beginning chose you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth, to which He called you by our gospel, for the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thessalonians 2:13-14). If we have believed, we owe praise and thanks to God that He had grace upon us. And we should continue to proclaim the resurrected Lord Jesus with the prayer that He would also show the same grace to others that He has chosen for Himself.

III. IN ATHENS (vv. 16-34).

A. It's hard not to have a picture of Paul in one's mind as he waited for the arrival of Silas and Timothy—to see him walking along the avenues of the city distressed in his heart. We're told that “his spirit was provoked within him when he saw that the city was given over to idols” (v. 16). In this respect, he was like Lot living in the midst of the wicked people of Gomorrah; of whom Peter wrote that “that righteous man, dwelling among them, tormented his righteous soul from day to day by seeing and hearing their lawless deeds” (2 Peter 2:8). A godly man can't keep quiet about the sin he sees around him. And so—beginning with the synagogue with the Jews and the Gentile worshippers; and then moving out into the marketplace with those who happened to be there—Paul began to “reason” with the Athenians about the resurrected Lord (v. 17). It's instructive that Paul didn't attack the idolatry directly; but rather spoke directly of the resurrected Christ —and the matter of the sinfulness of idolatry couldn't help but come up.

B. Some of the thinkers of that culture—the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers—heard him and wanted to know more. He was referred to—in a somewhat demeaning way—as a “babbler”. Literally, he was called a “seed picker”; that is, someone who made their living traveling around picking scraps for a living. This was meant to be a figure of speech for someone who wandered around picking pieces of this philosophy and that philosophy—collecting philosophic sayings as one would collect scraps of cloth, and patching them together into a philosophy all his own. But this doesn't mean that his reasoning with them was indiscernible; because others heard him proclaim Jesus and the resurrection to them and said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods” (v. 18). They became so eager to hear what he had to say that they took him to the “Areopagus” (that is, “The Hill of Ares [Mars]”), which was a public forum; and said, “May we know what this new doctrine is of which you speak? For you are bringing some strange things to our ears. Therefore we want to know what these things mean” (vv. 19-20). Luke adds that the Athenians, and the people who came there, “spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing” (v. 21). Plainly, a door was being opened to Paul through a cultural distinctive of the Athenian people; and Paul was quick to take advantage of it.

C. Paul's presentation to the Athenians is a model of gospel preaching to a heathen people. Note that:

1. Paul made reference the elements of the culture in order to catch the attention of its people. He said, “Men of Athens, I perceived that in all things you are very religious; for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you . . .” (vv. 22- 23). Can you imagine what a startling announcement that must have been? How eager they would have been to hear more from him!

2. Having caught their attention, he then trusted in the inward testimony that we all have of the existence of our Creator (Romans 1:19-20); and reminded them of what they inwardly knew by God's common grace: that (a) the God who made all things could not be confined to a temple made with hands (v. 24); that (b) since He made all things and gives life to all things, He is not worshiped by men's hands “as though He needed anything” (v. 25); that (c) He made all people on the earth from “one” [or, as some manuscripts have it, “one blood”; that is from Adam and his wife Eve]; and that (d) He has acted sovereignly over the history of the nations of humanity that were born from our first parents—“and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, 'For we are also His offspring'” (vv. 26-28).

3. To that point, Paul had not said anything that would have been found controversial by them. But then, he reasoned with them of the uselessness of man's efforts to reach this God through religious idolatry. “Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man's devising” (v. 29). He implied by this that man cannot reach up to God; and can only know God if God reaches down to man.

4. And it was then that Paul presented Christ as God's gracious effort to reach down to man through the incarnation of His Son. He said that God had overlooked “the times of ignorance”, but now commands “all men everywhere to repent" (and note here how he boldly calls them to repent of one of the main features of their culture—that is, their idolatry), "because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead” (vv. 30-31).

D. Paul's approach, then, was (1) to observe the culture and learn how it was that they felt after God, (2) to appeal to the inherent sense of God we have as created in His image, (3) to show that man cannot reach God except that God first reach down in mercy to man, and (4) to declare that God has done so through the Person of Jesus Christ and has given proof of this by the resurrection of Christ from the dead. The reaction was mixed. Some mocked; but others said that they wanted to hear more later (v. 32). Paul doesn't appear to put much stock in their expressed desire to hear more; because it seems that his ministry to the Athenians had come to an end and he departed from them (v. 33)— probably with Silas and Timothy. But it was not without some fruit; because we're told that “some mean joined him and believed”. One of them was Dionysius; who was called an Areopoagite—that is, a member of the court of Areopogus. Another was a woman named Damaris—who must have been of some significance for her to have been mentioned by name (v. 34).

* * * * * * * * * *

A key verse of this chapter would be verse 6; in which the Jewish opponents to the gospel protested, “These who have turned the world upside down have come here too.” May God see fit to use us to turn our world upside down also by the same faithful proclamation of the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ!

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