Acts 17 -23

Acts 17: Turning the World Upside Down

When Adam and Eve sinned, the world that God had created in perfection became trapped in the dark world of sin. It   came under the power of the enemy. In fact John writes in I John 5, ‘ the whole world is under the control of the evil one.’( NIV) When Jesus came centuries later as the prophesied ‘Seed of the Woman ’, John describes who Jesus was in the opening verses of the gospel of John. John tells us in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. Then the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. In Him( Lord Jesus) was life and that life was the light of men. ( John 1).

The Lord Jesus came to set the world back in order.   So the reference of these city officials in Thessalonica that ‘these men have turned the world upside down’ is from the unbelieving world’s perspective. For in fact, Jesus who was God in flesh, came to crush the head of serpent and to enable and empower these men and the Gospel to turn the world right side up. For you see the unbelieving world who are under the control of the evil one call evil-good, and light- dark. So it is no surprise that when the message of the Gospel began to change things for good and set them aright- they called right side up- upside down. For to them- down was up and up was down.

You see we live in a world system that conforms us to believe up is down and down is up. It is a condition which in flying is called ‘spatial disorder’. It is a deadly condition for pilots. They become disoriented when flying by VFR and if they are not instrument rated it can be fatal. We maintain balance by our vision, our inner ear and certain nerves throughout our body that sense our position based on gravity, sight and feel. However deprived of instrumentation and visual reference a pilot can become quickly disoriented and not tell up from down for example when flying over water on a dark, moonless night.

Surely we live in a spiritually upside down world where the majority of the people around us suffer from spiritual spatial disorder. It feels right to them- but an experienced pilot trusts his instruments, not his feelings.  There is a way that seems right to man- but it leads to destruction.

Paul along with Timothy and Silas have journeyed from Philippi to Thessalonica. Dr. Luke is apparently not with them as the story continues now in the third person.

Paul’s preaching and teaching is described in this manner: “ he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ.” (Acts 17:3) Remember Paul was telling people how to be saved. To be saved one must believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. Believe who He is- the Son of God, the Christ; and what he did- died for our sins; suffered, and resurrected from the dead.

The message of the gospel began to have success in the synagogue and the city and win conversions so it is no surprise they were attacked. Note in verse 5- the Jews were jealous.  Success always brings opposition and attacks because success always breeds jealousy.   These jealous Jews arouse the city to attack Paul and Silas and company- but they escape in the night and are sent to Berea.

It is interesting that the Bereans are described as having a more noble character than the Thessalonians.  Character is an internal trait developed over years. Character is revealed in one’s actions. They received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. They were not close minded. A close minded person will not look for truth. Most people who deny the Bible as God’s Word or Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection have NEVER READ THE BIBLE.  They do not seek the truth. They do not investigate the claims. Surely, if ever there was a truer statement it is this:  “ You can’t judge a book by looking at the cover.”

Let us discuss how we can better examine the Scriptures for ourselves. There are directions given to us in the Word of God.

First we must prepare to study the Scripture, the Holy Word of God with confession of sin. Read I Peter 1:23- 2:3.  “ For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring Word of God. For all men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the Word of the Lord stands forever. And this is the Word we preached to you. Therefore rid yourselves(lay aside KJV)  of all malice and deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. Like newborn babies crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it( the Word of God) you may grow up  in your salvation, how that you have tasted that the Lord is good.” Do you see that rid yourselves of all those sins described here is done by confessing those sins and repenting?  This is done before the  intake of the pure spiritual milk which is the Word of the Lord. Have you ever thought to confess your sins before you begin to read and study the Word of God?  It’s similar to what your mother always told you to do before you came to the dinner table—wash your hands.

Next we are commanded to ‘ study to show yourselves approved, a workman who needeth   not to ashamed rightly dividing the word of God.’( 2  Timothy 2:15)  We have to be diligent- not lazy- workmen.

Thirdly- we must implement the Word. Put its truths and principles into action. Be doers not hearers only, lest we deceive ourselves. James 1:22

And lastly, we must teach the Word of God to others. I can guarantee you will retain more when you study to teach, rather than just study to learn.  Listen to what the prophet Ezra did:  “ Ezra set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, to practice it, and teach the statutes and ordinances to Israel.” ( Ezra 7:10)

Again Paul’s enemies are relentless and they sent men from Thessalonica to stir up the crowds against him. Paul leaves for Athens, leaving Silas and Timothy to join him as soon as possible.

In Athens, while Paul awaits the arrival of Silas and Timothy he is looking around. Paul is like a tourist inspecting this famous city. He is distressed because of the abundance of idols. This is a city with idols to every kind of god that one can imagine. Paul is reasoning with the Jews and God-fearing Greeks in the synagogue but also doing some street evangelism as he reasons with the people day by day in the marketplace.  This attracts the attention of two groups of philosophers in Athens. Athens was famous for its idols, arts, Greek culture, university and intellectuals.  They heard of Paul and invited him to debate and discuss with them this new religion or philosophy he was teaching. They called him a ‘ babbler’, meaning one who was like a small bird picking as specks of truth.

First let us learn more about these two schools of thought that formed the thinking of these two distinct groups.  The Epicureans were mostly agnostic or atheistic and believed the main purpose of life was to avoid pain and enjoy pleasure. Not believing in life after death, theirs was a ‘eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die’ philosophy.  The Stoics were pantheists in that they believed God was in everything- the rocks, the trees, the oceans, etc. They were indifferent to pain and pleasure, considering  the master of self- discipline to be of highest importance. Even today the epicurean is one known for their finely developed taste in wine and food and the stoic is the self disciplined person indifferent to pain and pleasure. What is interesting is both of these philosophies are attempts to come to term with life and its uncertainties.

So with their different philosophies, their intelligence and education these Greek philosophers loved to debate. They viewed  Paul and his philosophy as something they would like to hear more about. Of course you realize that even today, the intelligent unbeliever likes to debate the believer and attempt to ridicule the believer’s faith. Ridicule is the weapon of the proud to make one feel inferior. Paul, however, it is not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God unto salvation to all who believe.  No wonder the enemy wants to ridicule us and make us fearful  to keep our mouths shut for the enemy knows the power of the gospel to change the hearts and minds of men.

Paul is a keen observer of his surroundings . He is looking for the best way to approach his audience. The city of Athens was full of idols. The KJV states it was ‘ given wholly to idols.’ I find it interesting where there is great learning and much human wisdom there is much idolatry. The Harvard’s, Yale’s and Oxford’s of academia where IQ’s are high and philosophers abound are places given wholly to idols.  What kind of idols?  The idols of the long impressive resume, advanced learning, writing, science, medicine, finances, law and much human wisdom and accomplishment are numerous. In other words, their idols are  human accomplishments. Paul would write- the world through its wisdom did not know God. When Paul wrote to Timothy later, perhaps it was these very men he had in his mind when he wrote: ‘ ..ever learning but never able to come to the truth.’

By the way, what troubled Paul so much and should trouble us today- is these idols took the place  of the True and  Living God. Paul could see how desperately these people wanted something to worship and how they had been deceived by the enemy who used the proud intellects to lead  them astray with their false gods. We see the same thing happening today. Have you ever known of a young man or woman, a professed believer, who goes off to college to be influenced by an intelligent professor who ridicules the Christian faith and belief in the Bible as some divine book? It happens all the time.

However,Paul sees an idol to the unknown god and knows he has found  his point of interest to attract their attention and launch his message of the Gospel.

Paul stands up  in the midst of the intellectual philosophers of Athens at Mars Hill, surrounded by  them, as it were like Daniel in the lions’ den.  But he has no fear. He would later write to Timothy- ‘ the Lord has not given us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power, of love and a sound mind. Enabled by the very power of the Holy Spirit, enriched by His love shed abroad in our hearts and of sound mind,a mind that has been transformed by the Word of God by the Truth that sets one free.  Paul was ready in season and out to proclaim the truth of the Gospel.

What a brilliant  opening statement:  “ Men of Athens I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked  around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription:  TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as unknown I am going to proclaim to you.

First, Paul proclaims that God is creator of all things. “ The God who made the world and everything in it..” Paul knew these intelligent men knew of cause and effect. If there is a creation- there must be a creator. If there is a design there must be a designer. Hebrews 3:4 states: “ Every house is built by someone but the builder of all things is God.”  Evolution attempts to explain creation without a creator.  However it defies logic. It also defies science which is why it is still a theory. Science is observable, repeatable and testable. Evolution also believes order came out of disorder, when our own observations tells us disorder comes from order.  Simply watch a garden not kept, or a house not cared for or a building left vacant and you will see disorder arise from order.

Second, God is Sovereign Ruler. “…is the LORD of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands.”  He is the Lord of all and in all and over all.

Third , God is a Giver of Life.”..He Himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.” You and I exist because God gave us life and breath and everything else. We exist because of the will of God.

Fourth truth, God is Controller.  “From one man He made every nation of men, that should inhabit the whole earth; and He determined the times set for them and the exact places they should live.” Even today science tells us there is only one race of men, one species: homo sapiens. There are differences in skin pigmentation, stature and features but we all have the same chromosomes. But notice the extent of His Control: He determined the times set for us; the place where we would be born and live, placing certain nations in certain geographical regions; and He determines the rise and fall of nations.

Next truth Paul tells them is God is a Revealer. He reveals Himself to men. He had them born at the time and place they were born as to best draw that specific person to Him. God has revealed Himself through creation and the conscience.

In other words you are here today because God willed for you to exist. And in your family history God intervened before your great, great somebody died before having the child that was in your direct lineage. For example- my great grandfather,John Wesley Phillips was severely wounded in the Civil War, but not only survived; but lived and was married a second time after his first wife died. His last son, whom he fathered in his late 50’s- was my grandfather.

Do you not see how foolish it is to believe we can live without God? For in Him we live and move and have our being. Then Paul quotes one of their own poets who wrote,”  We are His offspring.”

Paul’s reasoning that follows is simple: if we are God’s offspring, it is foolish to think His divine being is like gold, or silver or stone, an image made by human hands.

Now Paul closes his carefully constructed teaching with the Gospel.  Paul calls them to repentance. “  In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now He commands all people everywhere to repent. For He(God) has set a day when He will judge the world with justice by the Man He has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising Him( Jesus) from the dead.”

In the KJV, verse 30 says: “And  the times of this ignorance God winked at;” . This at first glance sounds like God overlooks sin or even winks at sin- taking it less serious.  This is not true for in that same statement, Paul says God will judge the world with justice.

Let us understand this statement and be clear about God’s stand on sin. The wages of sin is death. Look at Paul’s audience and the context of his teaching. He is talking to an audience of Greek Athenian philosophers who are idolaters.

He would not have made this statement to Jews. For Jews knew they should not have idols or make graven images. And God having told them this – punished them harshly and immediately in the past.  The stories of the Old Testament tell of these occurrences. God has not dealt with these Greek idolaters harshly- but it does not mean God will not judge their sin ultimately. But in fairness is giving them an opportunity to repent. For God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked and is not willing that any should perish but that all would come to repentance.

Now watch the reaction of the audience to Paul’s preaching.  It is the same you will get today when you preach and teach about sin, repentance, the coming judgment and the One who will judge all- the Resurrected Lord Jesus.

At the mention of the Resurrection, some immediately mocked Paul. Remember mocking or ridicule is the weapon of the proud. Others said we will hear this again, they delayed. And others believed and committed to Christ their lives.

Yes to the unbeliever, Paul’s message was a message that was turning their world upside down and they did not like it. No one likes to be told they are wrong, living wrong, doing wrong and will be judged by none other than the Lord Jesus.

The message that turns the world right side up- first turns a person’s world upside down.

And so we who are Christians find ourselves on an ever increasing basis- walking right side up in upside down world.

And it is difficult keeping your balance in an upside down world. The only way we can keep our balance is to walk in the Spirit in a world that is upside down. The Spirit is our inner gyro who keeps us in balance, and the Word of God is our instrument panel that tells us when we are right side up or upside down.

Copyright © 2010 Linda Benthal
Last modified: 08/12/14