When I was a fairly new Christian, someone described the early church as a group that turned the world upside down. I don’t remember who that was or when I heard it, but the speaker’s point was that the early church really made things happen for God in the world. The idea enamored me, but it was only later that I discovered this phrase was drawn from Scripture. Specifically, it is found in Acts 17:6, where Paul and Silas are described by locals in Thessalonica in this way: “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also” (NRSV).
As time went on, and I read the book of Acts more closely, I realized it wasn’t that the disciples were so good that they were described as turning the world upside down, but rather that they were causing so much difficulty to be described in this way. The phrase was, in fact, applied to the church in a derogatory manner. The NIV translates the Greek along these lines when it says: “These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here.”
The other day I read this passage again in my morning time in prayer, and something new caught my attention. It is something that ties in quite clearly with something I preached on this past weekend at Eastbrook Church in my message “The Multi-Everything Church: a Multi-Ethnic, Kingdom-Oriented Community.” Let’s look at that passage once more, this time in the ESV:
These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has received them, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus. (Acts 17:6-7)
Notice the specific thing that bothers the locals in Thessalonica. While certainly they are upset that one of their own, Jason, has extended hospitality to these trouble-makers, Paul and Silas, the primary concern is that “they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar.” How are they doing that? By “saying that there is another king, Jesus.” This is a good reminder that the fundamental declaration of faith for the early Christians was “Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10:9; 1 Corinthians 12:3). This declaration of faith was counter-cultural in the face of the fundamental declaration of allegiance to Rome, which was “Caesar is Lord.”
For the early church, the primary allegiance to Jesus as king superseded all other calls of allegiance, including that to Rome and its emperor. Such an approach to life could be nothing but trouble for the empire and would, certainly in the ears of the hearers, eventually turn the world upside down. This echoes Paul’s resounding claims in Philippians when he writes “Whatever happens, as citizens of heaven live in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Philippians 1:27, TNIV) and “our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ” (3:20).
Disciples who turn the world upside down are so troublesome to the world order because the speak and live as if there is a new king in town, whose name is Jesus. His kingdom reigns over all kingdoms, and He graciously calls for the allegiance of all to Him and His new kingdom. The kingdoms of the earth feel the shaking of their foundations now before such a king, but one day “at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (2:10-11).