Audio Only (with the Old Testament Scripture Reading)
When We Want Change in the World
If you ever read an honest history book, you’ll discover that history is filled with ordinary men who turn the world upside down because they read and explain the Bible when the world needed it most. You could think of the story we read from Nehemiah 8—how Nehemiah and the priests brought Israel into deep repentance, faith, and joy simply by reading and explaining the Bible to the people. More recent examples like Calvin, or Edwards, or Billy Graham might also come to mind. Men with the Bible and faithful teaching are dangerous.
It’s good for us to know this, by the way. It’s no secret that many Christians are praying desperately that God would turn our culture and nation upside down, and bring Biblical truth back into the spotlight. Families, churches, cultures and nations seem to be in short supply of an earth-shattering revival, and it’s left many Christians with sighs of frustration and uncertainty. How on earth are we going to turn the tides, for the good of our families and cultures in America? Or, to get closer to home, how might we trust and ask God to turn our own families and lives upside down?
The point worth seeing in our passage, from the outset, is that God has and does invoke movements of his salvation that are obvious to everyone, that even God’s opponents must say something about it. I absolutely love verse 6 of our passage. The Jews who were upset with Paul and his companions dragged some of the new converts out of their houses and said (referring to Paul and his companions), “these men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has received them…”. God had so moved his grace through Rome that his enemies were acknowledging that the world had been flipped upside-down.
No doubt, it was a unique time in history. This is Acts—when God first advanced his kingdom to the nations through his apostles. If God so pleased to move like that today, I’d call it a great mercy. He could if he pleases. We should pray for it, and desire it to happen.
While the Spirit’s work during the time of the apostles was certainly unique to that time, it’s worth noting that the apostle’s tactics in evangelism is no different than what ours ought to be, today. When we desire to turn our world upside down with God’s blessings, we’d do well to learn from the apostles’ examples. Paul literally tells us to imitate him. We talked about that for 2 months in our Wednesday night Bible study. “Join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us” (Philippians 3:17). Throughout many his letters, Paul invites us to imitate him. Imitate him in his personal devotion to Christ—you just might turn your life upside down. Imitate him in his outreach and love toward others—you just might turn your neighborhood or your family upside down. Imitate Paul in every way possible, he’s a great example for us, as he imitates Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1).
5 Ways We Can Imitate Paul for World-Shattering Faith
So this morning, as we desire to turn our families and our churches and our culture upside down in the name of Christ’s kingdom and salvation, we’ll look to Paul’s example who did just that throughout all of Rome. I see five ways we can imitate Paul, here—and, this applies to us as a church and as individuals. It applies to us as parents, as grandparents, as workers in the secular world. These are five descriptions of faith that changes people, of Christians who make a difference. Let’s just walk through the story, and I trust we’ll see them come out as we go along.
1. Turning the World Upside-Down with "Anti-Fragile" Faith
Let’s first look at the opening verse of our story, this morning. Verse 1 says, “Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews.”
So, that’s setting us up for the greater story that we read. Paul, Silas, and Timothy made their way from Philippi to Thessalonica in order to continue their ministry of proclaiming the gospel to the gentiles. I said the same point last week that I’m about to make right now. Paul’s commitment and seemingly exhaustless strength and energy should continue to amaze us, and challenge us, as we continue reading about his journeys.
Imagine it, as we are coming off the heels of last week’s passage in chapter 16. Last week, I pointed out that Paul finishes up his first missionary journey where he was beaten up a number of times, and left for dead in the countryside on one occasion. After traveling hundreds of miles on foot and sea, he makes it back to his home church in Antioch. There, he discovers a pastoral problem—people were challenging the gospel of God’s free grace, saying that circumcision was necessary for salvation. The matter was so severe that Paul journeyed down to Jerusalem to resolve the matter. When he returned with a fresh and authoritative gospel message from the Jerusalem council, he then decides to have another “go” at the whole thing. He commences on a second missionary journey, in which Christ directs him further up and further into gentile territory. More traveling, more beatings, more tribulations and distress. As we discovered last week, Paul was unlawfully beaten and thrown in prison in Philippi (one of the biggest cities in Macedonia).
This week, after being sent off by the church in Philippi, Paul decides to do the same in the other big city in Macedonia. Philippi was one leading city, and Thessalonica was the capital district. There’s no reason to believe they’d be any more welcoming than the folks at Philippi. Yet, Paul keeps moving. In fact, his tactics don’t even change. As God called him, he goes to the Jew first, and then to the gentile. Again, verse 1 (leading into verse 2) “they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom…”.
When I read those words, I can almost picture Paul entering the synagogue with a sense of wonder and anticipation. “What surprises does God have planned for me this time?”. No doubt, Paul was well aware that it very well could be nothing short of another riot, another beating, more jail time. It’s like a pitcher who gets hit by a baseball. The next time he goes up to bat—eyeing up the same pitcher the next inning—he can’t flinch. If he’s going to hit the ball, he must keep form and focus.
What keeps Paul going? What keeps him from flinching? Last week, we talked about the difference between being a malleable Christian, and an anti-fragile Christian. Malleable metal bends, it dings—but, it never breaks. It’s not brittle. It doesn’t break. Many Christians say they want to be malleable—unbreakable. I mentioned last week how that’s not what we want. Christians should be what one author calls “anti-fragile”. It’s a made-up word because there’s no word to really capture this idea. Christians should be anti-fragile, they should get stronger when hit. We should grow, and mature, and rejoice, when we’re bumped around. That’s the power and grace of the gospel at work, as God works his strength and joy into us through trials.
Think about how Paul’s confidence in God’s faithfulness might have been strengthened from what he encountered in Philippi. Yes—he was thrown in prison and beaten. But, God delivered him and saved the jailer through it all. Yes—he was falsely accused. But, God gave him the opportunity to demand the Roman officials apologize, and publicly escort him in order to vindicate the name of Christ and the church in Philippi. If that’s what you just experienced in Philippi, I imagine walking into another potentially hostile synagogue in Thessalonica would be a breeze. God has a way of confirming and strengthening his people through trials, so they might be ready for what’s next.
I pray it’d be true for us as well. I mentioned last week that temptations tend to grow in their intensity the longer you resist them. It may be easy to say “no” today, but when the temptation peaks its head in a few hours, or a few days—it may not be so easy. What do we do, in that situation? We remember God’s faithfulness, his peace, and his Word. We remember what fruit and goodness came out of resisting temptation earlier—the joy and peace that God gave in that situation. We remember that fellowship and peace with God is far better than any fleeting promise a temptation offers. We remember what boldness and strength God promises to us in his word and Spirit, and how he has provided strength in the past.
Paul, no doubt, had his thoughts on God’s faithfulness and promises to him as he entered that potentially hostile synagogue in Thessalonica. If you turn to 1 Thessalonians 2, you actually see Paul talk about this. You may want to keep your finger in 1 Thessalonians 2, because I’m going to reference it a few times this morning. In chapter 2, verses 1–2, Paul recalls of this moment when he says—
For you yourselves know, brothers, that our coming to you was not in vain. But though we had already suffered and been shamefully treated at Philippi, as you know, we had boldness in our God….
We’ll read the rest of that in a moment. But, I simply want you to see that Paul acknowledges the difficulty. He acknowledges that being beaten and shamefully treated at Philippi wasn’t easy—it’s something to bring up. Although, he brings it up to make a point. “Even though we were treated this way, nevertheless we had boldness”. The boldness is unexpected. It’s from God—“we had boldness in our God”. Paul, there, is using his afflictions to prove that his coming “was not in vain”. His coming was a divine appointment, it was inspired, empowered, and orchestrated by God—and, Paul’s peculiar, divinely-inspired boldness proves it. After Paul was beaten in Philippi for proclaiming Jesus, he literally travelled a 100 miles’ journey on foot to do the same in Thessalonica, with the same rigor, the same boldness. Paul was anti-fragile. He was strengthened through trials because he sought boldness and strength in God rather than in himself. “We had boldness in God…”, Paul says there in 1 Thessalonians 2:2.
This, of course, is our first lesson on what it means to turn the world upside down. We don’t do it on our own strength. Turning the world upside down—resisting the world’s temptations, living counter-culturally and standing up for truth—means we’re going to be mocked, misrepresented, shamed. It also means we’re going to be exhausted, by worldly standards. But, we’re Christians. By faith, we draw from the limitless supply of grace and strength in Christ. That means we must drink deeply from the wells of grace. We’re forgiven through Christ’s blood and righteousness. Let that land afresh upon you every day. We’re free from guilt and shame. We’re in fellowship with the author of life, who freely gives strength and boldness when we ask for it, as we earnestly and vigorously trust him and his word through prayer.
So all that serves to reiterate much of what we saw last week. Last week—and now in this first point for this morning—we’ve seen that Paul is antifragile as he draws strength from God, through the gospel. That’s where we start turning this world as we know it upside down—our lives, families, neighborhoods. Now, in light of his strength and boldness “in God”, what does Paul do?
2. Turning the World Upside Down with Patience and Gentleness
Keep reading the next few words of our story, there in Acts 17:2. Paul went into the synagogue, “as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures…”.
So, notice that this wasn’t an itinerate preacher who came and left over the course of one Sunday. Paul stayed much longer than this—this verse mentions proactive teaching for three weeks. Some say Paul actually stayed longer. The point, though, is that Paul stuck around. He was working hard on the Sabbath day when the Jews gathered—although, I imagine there was a lot more deliberating going on during the week as well. I’m reminded of what happened when he taught in Antioch Pisidia, during his first missionary journey. We’re told that as the people made their way out of the synagogue after the service, “the people begged that these things might be told them the next Sabbath. And after the meeting of the synagogue broke up, many Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas” (i.e., in order to learn more). The people, there in Antioch Pisidia responded positively to the word, begging to hear more. Here in Thessalonica, as we’ll see, there may have been a bit more suspicion. Nevertheless, Paul stayed three or more weeks, patiently reasoning with them from Scriptures that Jesus is the Christ.
Paul was patient sticking around for at least three weeks as this church was being built up. Although—alongside his patience was a similar virtue that’s often paired with patience. If your patient, your usually gentle. Paul was gentle. If you flip back to First Thessalonians 2, we see that Paul wasn’t a bull in a china shop during these three weeks. While we already read in verse 2, there, that Paul came with “boldness in our God”, look at what he says only a few verses later in verse 7. “But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children.” Isn’t that interesting? Verse 2, “we were bold!”. Verse 7, “but we were gentle.” How does that work?
We have a tendency to pit boldness and gentleness against one another, but Paul didn’t. Paul was bold in his message, yet he was ever-so-often gentle in his approach. The actual point that he’s making, there, in 1 Thessalonians 2, is that he didn’t use fancy words or hard-to-understand arguments that nobody can answer to. He didn’t appeal to emotions. He simply explained the word to them in simple lay-terms, and trusted that the Spirit would do the rest of the work. There in 1 Thessalonians 2, he says in verse 5 “we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with pretext for greed—God is witness. Nor did we seek glory from people…”. Paul’s approach was patient over three weeks, gentle, and humble.
Far too many popular preachers and people seeking revival are bold in their approach, but they’re completely consumed with themselves, or with their numbers and results. Our churches today often get consumed with the production of Sunday morning, and little attention is given to the word. If attention is given to the word, it’s expected that the sermon is a motivational message that gets the people feeling good, perhaps even laughing. This was not Paul’s approach. D. A. Carson once said something I thought rings true to this—
One of the tests that can be applied to determine whether a movement is of God… is to observe to what degree those affected are making it their aim to be known for gentleness.
When you think through the history of revivals, do you find that the characteristic mark and fruit of the movement is one of gentleness? Sadly, I think many movements produce bull-headed (often young) people who are affected by a dynamic preacher rather than the Spirit of Christ. That doesn’t last, much less turn the world upside down.
Paul’s approach was much more simple. It was patient, simple, clear reasoning and explaining from the Scriptures. He trusted in the power of the word, and the Spirit’s providence. He wanted God’s word, God’s power, God’s salvation to remain the centerpiece of attention during his stay with the Thessalonians. In fact, in his letter to the Thessalonians, he even reminds them that he committed himself to manual labor so that he wouldn’t be a financial burden on them. Verse 9 says, referring to manual labor, “For you remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.” They weren’t itinerate ministers appealing to their emotions; and they weren’t itinerate preachers appealing to their pocketbooks. They came in gentleness and humility, appealing to the power of God. The result, of course, would mean people who were affected by the Spirit and word, and who would continue trusting in Spirit and the word rather than in Paul. Paul’s approach involved a patient, gentle resting upon God’s providence to turn the world upside down—and, he got out of the way in every way possible so that God’s power might shine all the brighter through him.
There’s one more quick observation in all this, that pertains to Paul’s patience and gentleness. Yes, he stuck around for three weeks (again, maybe longer). Yes, he spoke simple words and worked manual labor in order that God’s power would shine all the brighter. More than this, however, look. back at 1 Thessalonians 2:8. He got involved in their lives, and gave himself over to them. Verse 8—“So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us”. Paul adorned the gospel with rich affection and fellowship toward the new converts as the Lord brought them into the fold.
So, Paul’s ministry was effective, turning the world upside down, because (1) Paul received supernatural strength from God through every affliction, and (2) Paul’s approach was marked by patience and gentleness so that God’s power might shine through him. God loves boldness with truth, but boldness isn’t obnoxious. God loves simplicity, patience, and gentleness in our witness. It keeps us humble before him (rather than anxious and frustrated), and the simplicity and gentleness is the perfect conduit for his power and glory to shine through more powerfully.
Now, what else can we see in Paul’s ministry that turned his world upside down?
3. Turning the World Upside-Down with Clear and Wise Exposition of God’s Word
We already touched on it, but I want to be more clear on the matter. In First Thessalonians 2:2 he says that he “had boldness in our God”—specifically—“to declare to you the gospel of God in the midst of much conflict”. Then, Paul goes on to say that in his boldness, he kept his words simple and clear. He didn’t use academic, confusing language.
Then in our passage, we read this in verse 2—“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”.
The patience that we talked about, there, involved explaining the matter of Christ in Scriptures over the course of three weeks. The boldness is Paul’s proclaiming that Jesus is the Christ promised in Scriptures. That was, no doubt, a bold claim that would continue to get Paul accused of high treason, and beaten, and thrown into prison.
Although, before we go to the suffering and mistreatment, I simply want us to think more specifically about what Paul said in his reasoning and explaining. This is evangelism 101, here. Perhaps some of you get tongue-tied at the thought of evangelism, and you wouldn’t know exactly how to “prove” that Jesus is the Messiah. Perhaps you’re not certain what it would look like for you to open the Scriptures with a non-believer, and convince that person that Jesus is the promised Savior. There are a lot of curriculum, a lot of approaches to evangelism. I remember going through Evangelism Explosion in middle school, and feeling completely inadequate and afraid. I had to memorize verses, and memorize what order to say them in, and memorize certain questions to say in this situation or the other situation. It wasn’t a bad program, necessarily. It walked people through Bible verses. It proclaimed truth with Scripture. That’s something God can use, no doubt.
Although, when it really comes down to it, the greatest method in evangelism is to feel a certain freedom in God’s twin-tower commands: Love God, and love your neighbor. This all comes down to a matter of love. “We were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves”, Paul reminded the Thessalonians. Don’t get caught up in methodology. Listen to what God says. Love God—be true to his word in proclaiming his forgiveness—and love your neighbor. Meet their needs. Help them, give yourself over to them as Christ gave himself to you. Let love be genuine. Listen to people and meet them where they’re at. That’s what Paul was doing, here.
He was in a synagogue, where God’s people were already wholly focused on God’s word. They knew God’s word. They wanted to test any claims against God’s word. So, Paul goes to God’s word with an assumption that they already know something about it. He reasons from scripture, proving from their Scriptures that Jesus is the Messiah. Next week, when we look at the next chapter where Paul is in Athens, Paul takes a totally different approach because the people didn’t know or care about God’s word. Paul met them where they were at, as we’ll see. He “loves his neighbor”, so to speak. In some ways, next week’s passage about Paul in Athens is incredibly applicable to us, today, as people seem not to revere or know Scriptures.
Either way—whether they revere God’s word or not—get the word out and show them the very scriptures that make your heart beat with joy and life. Turn to Ephesians 2:8–10, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Tell them that there’s no qualifier there. God’s grace alone saves, so that no one may boast. Show them John 10:10, “apart from me [Christ], you can do nothing” for your salvation. Show them Romans 3:24, “we are justified”—made righteous and acceptable before God—"by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus”. Show them what God did with their sins—“He appeared once for all… to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26). Show them what this all means, as a result, in Romans 5:1, “since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God”. People need to hear that, whether they know it or not.
Paul, no doubt used several Old Testament verses with these Jews to illustrate the same exact points I just made. John Stott specifically mentions Psalms 2, 16, 110, 118, and Isaiah 52–53 as passages which are readily used throughout the New Testament to demonstrate these matters concerning Christ’s salvation.
So, (1) Paul sought strength from God—he was antifragile—(2) he was gentle, and (3) he brought the word with clear and wise exposition. He knew his audience, and he brought connected God’s word and Christ together for them in the most fitting way he could.
4. Readiness to Suffer Like Jesus (Misrepresented and Pursued)
This all, of course, brings us to the turning point in the story. Verse 4 tells us, “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.” Many people believed—and in the words of one jealous Jew, Paul and his missionary team had literally “turned the world upside down”.
I want you to notice how similar the chain of events that follows parallels Jesus’s own sufferings. This was instigated by jealous Jews—Jews who didn’t want to give their place of prominence to another. Verse 5 of our passage says “But the Jews were jealous”–although, jealousy doesn’t quite capture what’s happening very well. The greek word could be translated as “zealous”—they had passion built up, and it was directed against the Christians. You might better call this passion “envy”—or better yet, “malice”. You want to tear down the other guy because you don’t like what he has.
That was the impetus behind Jesus’s crucifixion. As you read through the gospels, you can see the envy grow to rivalry and resentment, culminating in a murderous malice that desires to destroy. Even Pilate knew it. In Matthew 27:18, we’re told that Pilate “knew that it was out of envy that they had delivered him up.” Although, they didn’t just deliver Jesus up. They delivered him up without a just trial, and they delivered him up in mob hysteria. So also Paul and his companions in Thessalonica.
The malicious Jews stirred up a riot, looked for Paul and his companions in the house of a man named Jason, and they dragged Jason and others out before the city authorities when they couldn’t find Paul. The charge was a charge of high treason. Verse 7, “they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.” Jesus, of course, was charged with a similar charge. Jesus claimed there was another king other than Caesar in town.
More than this, of course, Paul and his companions suffered like Jesus in yet another way. They were pursued by their enemies. When we get to Berea in a quick moment’s time, here, we’ll find that the Bereans were “more noble” than the Thessalonians. They were willing to hear Paul out. Yet, the story again ended in malicious crowds—but, the crowds weren’t stirred up by Bereans. Verse 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”. Malicious enemies are persistent and ruthless. They pursue. There were a number of times in Jesus’s ministry when Pharisees would travel hundreds of miles just to catch Jesus in his words, to condemn him.
The point in all this is simple—if you want to turn the world upside down, you need to remember that you are not greater than your master. In Jesus’s words, “A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” (John 15:20). It doesn’t matter how gentle and patient you are—if you’re likewise bold with the truth of God’s word, we can expect as God’s people to be pursued, wrongfully accused. The glory in it all, though, is that God is in charge. God is the great judge, and he will leave no accounts of injustice unsettled in glory. He’ll settle them on the cross, or in his wrath. Until then, “pray for your enemies”, no matter how ugly they get.
Men and women who change the world—who change our families, our communities, our churches—(1) get their strength from God, (2) are patient and gentle, (3) clearly and wisely proclaim God’s word, and (4) are ready to suffer as Jesus suffered. There’s one last one, real quick.
They’re persistent. I love that, after all that happened in Thessalonia and Phillipi, Paul goes to the next town and does it again. He goes to Berea (verse 10), “and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue.” Here we go again, right?
Paul was met with a “more noble” group—folks who really wanted to learn and weigh the claims against God’s word. You never know what you’ll meet, folks. You may meet a rioting, malicious crew—or, you may meet a noble crew like the Bereans. In some ways, it’s comforting to know that God might put a Berean in front of us in our outreach efforts. Although in other ways, it doesn’t matter. God is in control—and, God created a church in all three of these different cities (Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea). God can use humble, patient, bold men and women to overcome the greatest odds. It’s his hands. Our job is to be patient and faithful, resting in his mighty work of salvation through Christ and his Spirit.
As you commit yourself to turning our world, families, and lives upside down—remember to imitate Paul in these five ways. (1) Get your strength and encouragement in the gospel, in knowing your forgiven and in fellowship with God. (2) Love your neighbors and family members with patience and gentleness. Our call to be bold with truth doesn’t mean “be annoying”. (3) Speak God’s word clearly and winsomely. (4) Be ready to suffer as Jesus did—knowing there’s glory to follow. (5) Be persistent. Don’t give up. Be persistent in prayer, in patience, in gentleness, in love, and in bringing God’s word to light at every wise opportunity.
You never know. You might just see sin exposed, forgiveness received, and worlds turned upside down. Let’s pray.