From a Kalamazoo reader comes the following question:
“What is the meaning of Acts 17:5-6, especially the following words, ‘These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also?’
“These words have often been used as an example for the present day churches and Christians to inspire them to spread the gospel. However, verse 5 indicates that these words were spoken by ‘jealous Jews and certain vile fellows.’ (ASV) Was this a true or an exaggerated picture of the early church?
“I would be very interested in your interpretation of this portion of Scripture.”
Welcome to our Question Box. As you may notice, I have, as you requested, omitted your name,—something which will be done for any questioner, provided, of course, that the question as sent to me is signed.
A proper answer to this question requires, in the first place, that we consider the background. That background is that Paul and Silas went from Philippi to Thessalonica, “where was a synagogue of the Jews: And Paul, as his manner was, went in unto them, and three sabbath days reasoned with them out of the scriptures, Opening and alleging, that Christ must needs have suffered, and risen again from the dead; and that this Jesus, whom I preach unto you, is Christ.” The positive fruit upon this preaching of Paul is described in verse 4: “And some of them believed, and consorted with Paul and Silas; and of the devout Greeks a great multitude, and of the chief women not a few.”
Then follows the passage to which the question refers, verses 5 and 6, with which I would include verses 7 and 8: “But the Jews which believed not, moved with envy, took unto them certain lewd fellows of the baser sort, and gathered a company, and set all the city on an uproar, and assaulted the house of Jason, and sought to bring them out to the people. And when they found them not, they drew Jason and certain brethren unto the rulers of the city, crying, These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also; Whom Jason hath received: and these all do contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, one Jesus. And they troubled the people and the rulers of the city, when they heard these things.”
It seems to me, therefore, that the following is evident from this passage as a whole:
1) That Paul (and Silas) had done nothing more or less than go to church (synagogue) for three sabbath days; and there, as the opportunity was afforded them, they preached the gospel. This was the extent of their public activity. They did not go about in the city,—for example, to the marketplace; where the jealous Jews found these “lewd (vile, evil) fellows.” In other words, both from an ecclesiastical and a civil point of view, they engaged in preaching the gospel in a perfectly legal, orderly, quiet manner. Apart from this, judging from the fact that the house of Jason was assaulted, the activities and contacts of Paul and Silas had been private, i.e., confined to a private home. They created no uproar. They fomented no revolutionary activity. They conducted no protest-demonstrations. They led no marches. They incited no civil disobedience. They merely preached, and they did so in what we would call today a church building. And it is important, too, to notice what they preached. They preached two things: a) That Christ, the Messiah, of Whom the Old Testament Scriptures prophesied (the Scriptures which were read and supposed to be believed in the synagogue), must necessarily suffer and die and rise from the dead. b) That Jesus is that Christ.
2) That the Lord granted fruit upon this preaching, so that some of the Jews, as well as a great number of God-fearing Greeks, including, significantly, some “chief women,” believed; moreover, they manifested this faith by associating with Paul and Silas, consorting with them. This was the positive fruit upon their preaching, and was undoubtedly the beginning of the congregation of Thessalonica, for whom the apostle gave thanks to God, I Thess. 1:2-7.
3) That upon this same preaching there was also negative fruit, as always. Some did not believe. Some, under the same preaching of the same Christ, were hardened. And even as faith became manifest in the believers associating with Paul and Silas, so this unbelief became manifest in envy, or jealousy. Moreover, this jealousy was translated into deeds. And these deeds in this case were not limited to the confines of the synagogue either. These unbelieving, jealous Jews fomented a riot. In order to do this, they needed help. What did they do? They went to the idlers in the marketplace, and they enlisted the help of evil men. And when they had “gathered a company,” they had a demonstration, setting the city in an uproar. They engaged in civil disobedience, and that too, of a violent sort. They took the law into their own hands, assaulted the house of Jason, and apparently were intent upon some kind of lynching party. When they failed to find Paul and Silas, they vented their wicked jealousy on “Jason and certain brethren,” dragging them before the rulers of the city.
4) That they accused these brethren of revolutionary activity, first of all: “These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also.” This is a reference to alleged past activities of Paul and Silas, undoubtedly to their alleged revolutionary activities at Philippi, Acts 16:19-24 (cf. alsoActs 16:35-39). Evidently the Jews in Thessalonica had received word from Philippi; and now they claim that these revolutionaries, Paul and Silas, are come to Thessalonica to stir up trouble also. But notice especially that they accuse them of revolution. In the second place, they accuse Paul and Silas and the brethren of treason: “and these all do contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, one Jesus.” This is a familiar charge, the same one that was brought against Jesus Himself in Pilate’s judgment hall. (cf. John 18:29-38; John 19:7-12)
In conclusion, then, how must these questions be answered?
1) The meaning of the words in Acts 17:5-7 is that the apostles were accused of revolution by the unbelieving and jealous Jews, in an attempt to get the city, and especially the rulers of the city, against them.
2) If these words are used as an example for present churches and Christians to inspire them to spread the gospel in the sense so current today, namely, that the church must preach and work forrevolution (and organizations such as the World Council actually use this term “revolution”), then these words are wrongly used.
3) Was this a true picture of the early church? No. Was it even an exaggerated picture of the early church? No, it was not even an exaggerated picture: in exaggeration there is always an element of truth. These words of the unbelieving, jealous Jews and of the vile fellows whom they enlisted were anoutright false accusation. By no stretch of the imagination can preaching of the gospel in an orderly, peaceful, legitimate manner and in its proper and lawful place be equated with turning the world upside down and with treason. But when the gospel is preached according to the Scriptures, those who preach it may expect to be the object of this and similar false accusations and reproaches on the part of the enemies of the truth of the gospel.
4) Is there any kind of example given us in this passage? Yes, there is an example in the conduct of Paul and Silas. The example is one of steadfast persistence in preaching the gospel wherever the Lord called them and wherever the Lord gave them an open door, even in the face of bitter opposition and persecution.
I have answered this question rather at length because of the practical importance of this subject in this day when all kinds of wild claims are being made as to the duty of the church and the clergy to take the lead in social revolution, all in the name of the gospel. That social gospel and the gospel of Jesus Christ have nothing in common.
I hope that my questioner is satisfied. If not, he may call again.
One more thing. That, prince of exegetes, John Calvin, has some choice words to say about this passage in his commentary on Acts. Look it up if you have Calvin in your library.