“Turning The World Upside Down” - Acts 17. 1-9

William Trott, London

Gospel preacher! DON’T READ ON unless you are prepared to ask yourself some uncomfortable questions.

(All quotations are from the Revised Version.)

THESE words describe the effect of Apostolic preaching. Have they a message for us in the 20th century? This is to be our enquiry.

Our enquiry will follow four lines:

1. What had these preachers done?

2. What kind of a world was it?

3. How did they turn the world upside down?

4. What are we to do?

To the answering of these four questions let us now turn.

1. WHAT HAD THESE PREACHERS DONE?

They are accused of having “turned the world upside down.” The word translated “turned upside down” is a strong word—it originally meant, to devastate or destroy as when an army invades a country. It came to mean to upset, disturb, throw into commotion. The message created a disturbance, upset the recognised order, and did so by introducing a new order which ran counter to the accepted world order. In other words, it was revolutionary, and, if unchecked, would create a new manner of conduct in all spheres of life—political, business, religious, and private. The hearers had no delusions as to the tremendous power inherent in Christianity. Already it had created such a disturbance at Philippi (Acts 16) and this was well known to the people of Thessalonica, as the word “also” indicates. At Philippi the Gospel overthrew false religion and the satanic power which lay behind it; overthrew a corrupt commercial gain resulting from the services of a demon-possessed maiden. In addition, it revealed a new power at work, one which caused men in prison to sing praises unto God, and a jailor to cry out for salvation. Truly, things were being turned upside down.

2. WHAT KIND OF A WORLD WAS IT?

Politically, it was a military dictatorship. A world bludgeoned into peace by the victorious armies of Rome. A conquered and possessed country. Religiously, there existed the combination of many religions and creeds; the gods of the vanquished countries were all included in the Roman Pantheon and worshipped. Socially and morally the condition was bad. Slavery abounded; amusements were depraved and cruel; moral laxity was manifest in private life and religious practice (see 1 Thess. 4. 1-8). These things received a shock by the preaching of the Gospel and were in danger of experiencing a reversal. Hence the intense opposition.

Do we not recognise several of the characteristics of this old world present with us to-day? Is it a more difficult task for us than it was for these two preachers, Paul and Silas? No.

3. HOW DID THEY TURN THE WORLD UPSIDE DOWN?

This question is important. Two lines of enquiry are suggested: (a) The Method. (b) The Message.

(a) Method. We shall find this described in verses 2 to 3. The message is based upon the Scriptures, the inspired record of a Divine Revelation. Of this fact we must be certain, for if the Scriptures are not this, then all that we base upon them is speculative and has no authority. We, therefore, accept the Scriptures for what they claim to be. Now what is interesting, is the method Paul used in handling the Scriptures. This is described by four words, reasoned, opening, alleging, and proclaiming. He reasoned—discoursed, discussed. This he did in the three ways as indicated by the remaining three words. Let us examine them. Opening, simply means “to open out by explaining.”

Weymouth translates by “clearly explained.” The same word is used in Luke 24. 32, to describe our Lord's explaining of the Scriptures to the two disciples on their way to Emmaus.

Paul, like our Lord, did not merely quote Scripture texts, but explained their meaning. The second word is alleging, and means “to set or lay before.” It is used of the act of setting food before a person—see Luke 11. 6 and Acts 16. 34. The suggestion is that of laying the truth before the hearers for consideration and assimilation. The third word is proclaiming—“to bring word down upon anyone.” The idea is that of presenting the message with emphasis and force, so as to destroy resistance. It suggests irresistible authority.

The process described by these three words requires much on the part of the preacher. Opening involves the study of the Scriptures (2 Tim. 2. 15). Alleging involves preparation and thought given to the message. Beware of the person who advises that one should rely upon the Holy Spirit suggesting the message when the preacher mounts the platform. This is presumption—“thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.” God may so act in an emergency, but I doubt very much whether He gives guidance when this attitude is a deliberate policy. If no thought is given to the preparation of the address it is not likely to provoke thought. Out of nothing, nothing comes. How can we expect the mind, heart, and conscience of the hearer to be awakened when such a course is adopted? I agree that the Spirit is the power, but do not presume upon His activity. Proclaiming involves conviction and courage based upon a sense of authority. From these considerations three facts emerge—effective preaching consists in explanation, application, and appeal. The type of preaching at Thessalonica was that of Evangelistic Exposition, or, to put it the other way round, Expository Evangelism. This is the great need of to-day.

(b) Now we turn to the Apostolic Message. It consisted of four facts concerning Jesus:—

(i) The necessity of His Death. They preached no theory of His death, but proclaimed the fact, and its relation to the purpose of God, human responsibility, and sin.

(ii) Jesus is risen and living. “It behoved the Christ to suffer, and to rise again from the dead.” He is living and able to make effective the deliverance He died to secure.

(iii) Jesus is the Christ. “This Jesus, whom, said he, I proclaim unto you, is the Christ.” The fulfiller of all promise and revealer of God; the one in whom the hope of Israel and the world is centred, for to be without Christ is to be without hope (Eph. 2. 12).

(iv) Jesus is King. “There is another king, one Jesus” (verse 7). Jesus, the despised and crucified is now Lord of all, the centre of all authority, claiming the right to rule men’s lives.

What a message! Jesus is Redeemer, Revealer, and Ruler!

This message is dynamic; it is “the power of God unto salvation.” This message is revolutionary, it changes lives and conditions. Many are trying to change lives by changing conditions and things. This is working the wrong way round. The people who opposed this message declared it was turning the world upside down, but Paul believed it to be putting the world the right way up. In his judgment it was already upside down. Listen to his words when de- scribing the power of the Gospel at Thessalonica, “Ye turned unto God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven” (1 Thess. 1. 9, 10).

This message stresses obedience to Christ as Lord—Loyalty to a Person not a Creed. Christianity is not a matter of accepting certain beliefs, important though they be, but of a surrender to Christ as Lord.

4. WHAT ARE WE TO DO?

Let us admit that much of to-day’s preaching is weak: we are not turning the world upside down. Why? At this point I wish to refer to certain bad practices, which, in my opinion, should be dropped. Will you bear with me if I appear to be somewhat critical. At the risk of being misunderstood I must be, for the presentation of the Gospel is of such importance that no place should be given to fanciful or slip-shod methods. First of all I will deal with some negative aspects. Don’t make a habit of using the ready-made “points for preachers.” This is sheer laziness. The points may have been useful to the compiler, and served their purpose. Work out your own theme; make your own points; what you gather yourself is more likely to have power than that which is borrowed. Don’t fall into the practice of turning the Gospel meeting into a Bible searching occupation. I was present at a Gospel meeting where the preacher turned us to nine scattered passages of varied length! This is very embarrassing to the unconverted hearer who knows almost next to nothing of the Bible, and it becomes more embarrassing when some dear old soul whose zeal outstrips knowledge assists the poor bewildered hearer to find the passages. Ah, you smile! And well you might; but I have seen it done. The hearer becomes distracted and uncomfortable, and decides not to come again. Don’t indulge in the hyper-spiritualising of certain Old Testament incidents. This causes the hearer to pay more attention to your ingenuity than to your message. In fact he often rejects the message because he cannot follow this jig-saw process. Don’t become a victim to the subtle super-mystic connecting of various passages of Scripture. Such refinements do not belong to the Gospel meeting. These things can only be appreciated by spiritually minded Christians, and then not by all. Methods such as I have described tax the thought of the unconverted to the extent of bewilderment. The message, therefore, fails to grip.

We turn, next to some positive aspects.

Personal need. A Spirit filled life, and a real living experience of Christ. To many Christ is only a historic person, who taught in Palestine, and was crucified by his enemies nineteen hundred years ago. What is Christ to you? What is He to me? Just a historic figure or an ever present Saviour? There can be no evangelism apart from a Christ experienced.

Personal Evangelism. Every Christian must have a burning desire to make known His message, not necessarily by preaching, but yearning to tell of Him in life’s normal contacts. We need the urgency which mastered the Apostle Paul, as indicated in Rom. 1. 15 and Acts 17. 16—“I am ready,” “his spirit was provoked within him.” The readiness of Rom. 1. 15 is not that of equipment but desire. The word so translated means “forward in mind”; it was a passion urging him forward, compelling and impelling him to make known the glad tidings to all. The pas- sage in Acts 17. 16, reveals a man who was set on fire. The ignorance and darkness around him threw him into a paroxysm, for that is the word used. He had mixed feelings of anger and pity. Anger, because God had been so degraded. Pity, because man had be- come so debased. No wonder he longed to preach Jesus and the Resurrection. How pathetic is the cold indifference of to-day.

Preaching Evangelism. Let the message be definite, direct, to the point. Many Gospel addresses are much too long and cover too much ground. In fact they are theological compendiums. So much ground is covered that one cannot see the wood for the trees. A shorter and more direct message is more likely to grip. Also, the message, must be presented as having a relation to the hard facts of life, not as a series of detached... abstract doctrinal propositions. Many hearers do not understand our theological terminology. Will you give thought to this aspect?

I am convinced that we must return to the apostolic emphasis. They preached “Christ and Him crucified” and “that God hath made Him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom ye crucified” (Acts 2. 36). Three aspects of the Cross mark the preaching of the Apostles. (1) The Criminality of the Cross (Acts 2. 22-24; 3. 13-15; 4. 8-12, etc.). (2) The Cross as the ground and expression of Forgiveness (Acts 13. 38, etc.). (3) The Cross as a victory vindicated by the Resurrection (Acts 2. 29-36; 3. 13; 13. 28-39). These facts need to be emphasised to-day. The Cross is still a witness to man’s criminality. We should so preach this fact that the hearers of to-day will become aware of the same potentialities operating within their own heart.

This is a noble work and demands the best we can give. If any of us have the gift of preaching let us give it to the Lord. Preaching is not based upon human learning, but ignorance is not a special qualification. It is not based upon the enticing words of man’s wisdom, but inability to speak clearly and logically is not a qualification for this work. God has chosen the base things to bring to nought the things that are, but the fact of being among the base things gives me no right to the platform.

I cannot do better than close this address with three quotations from the Holy Scriptures.

“Because the Preacher was wise, he still taught the people knowledge; yea he pondered, and sought out, and set in order many proverbs. The Preacher sought to find out acceptable words, and that which was written uprightly, even words of truth” (Eccles. 12. 9, 10).

“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in baskets of silver” (Prov. 25. 11).

“I charge thee in the sight of God, and of Christ Jesus, who shall judge the quick and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom; preach the word, be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with all long-suffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure the sound doctrine; but, having itching ears, will heap, to themselves teachers after their own lusts; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and turn aside unto fables. But be thou sober in all things, suffer hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfil thy ministry” (2 Tim. 4. 1-5).