These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also (Acts 17:6; ESV)
Evangelical Christians are often charged to follow the Apostles by going forth to “turn the world upside down” for Christ. This is a powerful injunction because it captures a great truth: that the gospel message is unexpectedly and delightfully powerful. After all, in 1 Corinthians 1:18, the Apostle Paul himself says “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Then, in v. 19, he quotes Isaiah 29:14, “For it is written ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” The history of redemption is that God has typically used the lowly and the unimpressive to accomplish his marvelous purposes. Noah and his family were only 8 people. Moses and the Israelites were hardly a threat to Egypt. David was a shepherd boy. The list goes on to include our Lord Jesus himself, who was born not in Rome but in a backwater. So. we should not be surprised to see the Lord acting against our natural expectations and doing marvelous things.
Nevertheless, when Christians invoke Acts 17:6 as a warrant for a cultural or political agenda or to imply that we should expect a future conversion of the world before the return of Christ, there are some things to bear in mind. First, in Thessalonica, the apostles were not turning the world upside down literally or even figuratively. Paul and Silas had come to Thessalonica from their adventures in Philippi. Paul had been lecturing, in the synagogue, in Thessalonica, on three successive Sabbath days (vv.1–2). He was arguing from the Hebrew Scriptures that Jesus is the Messiah and that the Messiah was not a political conqueror but the Suffering Servant promised in Isaiah (v.3).. We might say that Paul was trying to help the Jews see the difference between the theology of glory and the theology of the cross. Some Jews who heard him were persuaded and some were not but a “great many” of the Gentiles (Greeks) who were known as “God fearers,” i.e., they were on the fringes of Judaism but had not entered fully, believed as did “not a few” of the “leading women (v.5). This infuriated some of the unbelieving Jews. They formed a mob and attacked the house of Jason and some of the other Christians and hauled them before the city officials (vv. 5–6). It is in this context that we read the words quoted above. Now the mob cries that the Christians are turning the world (οἰκουμένην) upside down (ἀναστατώσαντες).
Luke uses some subtle irony here. Let us go back and read vv. 5 and 6 more closely. Luke says that the Jews rounded up some “wicked men” out of the “rabble” (ἀγοραίων) or “loafers,” who spent their days doing nothing in the city market, and it was this mob who “upset the city” (ἐθορύβουν τὴν πόλιν). Note this well. It is the jealous, angry, unbelieving Jews who first disturbed Thessalonica. Paul and Silas did nothing but teach and preach Christ in the Synagogue. Evidently, the leaders of the Synagogue were fascinated enough with Paul that he was allowed to lecture there for three successive Sabbaths. After he was finished, there was no tumult even in the Synagogue. The social disruption happened only after unbelieving Jews began agitating against the Christians. Notice too the scope of the tumult. It was the city of Thessalonica. It was not the entire “world” or even (and more precisely) the civilized world. It was only Thessalonica. It was not the Christians who were forming mobs. It was not the Christians who were attacking houses or grabbing people off the street. It was unbelieving Jews who were furious that some Jews and more Gentiles adherents and some leading women had been brought by the Spirit to new life and true faith in Jesus the Messiah. The Spirit is working mysteriously and quietly but his opponents were working loudly and even violently. They bring Jason and other Christians before the civil authorities (πολιτάρχας).
Thus, when they begin crying out (βοῶντες) against the Christians that they are “upending the civilized world” (τὴν οἰκουμένην ἀναστατώσαντες) it is not true. It is entirely ironic. The Christians have done nothing but preach the gospel from Isaiah and other parts of the law, the prophets, and the writings. They have challenged not at all the civil order. They have not all disturbed the peace. It is those who reacted jealously (ζηλώσαντες) against Christ and his Christians who have disturbed things.
It is true that there was some upset in Philippi prior to their arrival in Thessalonica. Again, if we read closely Luke’s carefully written narrative we see that Paul and the others were placed in an awkward situation not by their preaching but by a “slave girl” who had a “spirit of divination” who made for her owners a good bit of money (Acts 16:16). She followed them around for days announcing that Paul and company were proclaiming the way of salvation (v.17), which Paul did not approve. He wanted to conduct his ministry quietly. Finally, he cast out the demon (v.18). Again, this is remarkable is a variety of ways. Paul’s initial response was to ignore a demon-possessed girl and to go about his work quietly. He only cast out the demon when it became necessary. This defies our expectations. The church growth experts I have read would not approve. It would have been a much more effective strategy to cast out the demon first and then to preach Christ. When the businessmen saw that their source of revenue had dried up they got up a mob, attacked Paul and the others and threw them in jail unlawfully. Toward the end of the episode in Philippi, Paul complained to the authorities:
“They have beaten us publicly, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and do they now throw us out secretly? No! Let them come themselves and take us out.” The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens. So they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city. So they went out of the prison and visited Lydia. And when they had seen the brothers, they encouraged them and departed (Acts 16:37–40; ESV).
So, yes, there had been some controversy associated with Paul’s ministry prior to Thessalonica, but it was not of his making. There is no evidence that he set out to “turn the world upside down.” In both Philipi and Thessalonica, Paul’s intent had been to conduct his ministry quietly, pointing sinners to Christ. In both cases, the upset to civil society was the result of the violent and unreasonable reaction by the pagans.
Indeed, the more natural way to translate the verb often translated “turn upside down” (ἀναστατόω) would be to translate it as “upset” or “disturb.” They were being accused of disturbing the established social order. They were not being charged with transforming the culture or the like. The “civilized world” in 17:6 is hyperbole for Thessalonica and perhaps Philippi but in any case it was not true.
Some attention to the context shows us that Luke’s narrative is not meant to serve as a blueprint for cultural engagement as much as an illustration of the surprising power of an unlikely message. The social tumult that followed gospel ministry of Paul was not the result of the Christianization nor the transformation of the culture but the violent reaction by the predominantly pagan culture to the gospel and to the work of the Holy Spirit among his elect. In Thessalonica in particular we do not even see Paul preaching to Gentiles outside the synagogue. We was preaching Christ in a relatively small setting.
As a matter of history, Christians remained a small, culturally marginal movement until after Christianity was legalized (early 4th century) and Christians did not become socially influential until the later development of the church-state complex known as Christendom. The earliest post-apostolic Christians did not campaign for the transformation of the surrounding culture. What they asked from the pagan magistrates and other cultural elites was to be left alone. Justin Martyr and the writer to Diognetus protested that they were no threat to the civil and cultural powers of this age. They only asked not to be arrested, tortured, and martyred. They asked to be allowed to distinguish between the sacred and the secular, a distinction that the pagans had allowed the Jews to make but which they did not allow to others. Typically, the pagans practiced a civil religion. They required pagan religious observance as a matter of good citizenship. For refusing to go along, they criticized the Christians as “haters of humanity” and uncivilized. When they began arresting and torturing Christians in the early 2nd century, one of the conditions they imposed was that the Christians should pour out a drink offering (or some other sacrifice) to the gods and to “swear by the genius of Caesar,” i.e., to affirm his deity. They did not expect the Christians to believe it, but they expected them to say it, to conform to the civil religion as good citizens. Those who did not (e.g., Polycarp, Ignatius et al) paid for their fidelity to the Savior with their lives.
On their own terms, beginning with Paul and the Apostles, the Christians were not seeking to “upend” the world but to preach Christ and him crucified. They were not seeking to accumulate cultural or civil power or influence and Luke’s use of this language in Acts 17 was not intended to be taken to mean that Christians should go forth and “turn the world upside down” but rather to understand the power of the Spirit working through the gospel is such that pagan reaction to the Christian resulted in violence and local tumult despite Paul’s best efforts. In short, the point of the language is exactly the opposite of the way it is often interpreted. Luke’s point is not that the Christians were turning the world upside down but that it was a pagans who were causing havoc despite the best efforts of the Christians to avoid controversy.