The Apostle Paul is by far one of the most inspiring characters in the New Testament outside of Jesus himself. Through the Apostle Paul, God did what we typically think is impossible. He took a national terrorist and turned him into a worldwide evangelist; he planted upwards of thirteen or more churches throughout the middle east and modern-day Europe; and he also wrote two-thirds of the New Testament.
Alongside those amazing achievements, the Apostle Paul also faced severe persecution, heart wrenching loneliness, physical and emotional trauma, loss of close friends, extreme depression, and unbelievable opposition until he was beheaded for his ministry (2 Cor. 11; 2 Tim. 4:9 – 18).
This great apostle once said that it is Christ whom “we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this reason, I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (Col. 1:28 – 29). Paul was a man who had been radically transformed and he was also a man who was dead set on the calling to be a disciple who picked up his cross daily for the sake of preaching the gospel to the lost.
On top of all this, the Apostle Paul also had the audacity to challenge his listeners to “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). He literally challenged people to be just like him to the extent that he was just like Jesus. I imagine the Apostle Paul saying along with C.T. Studd, that even though “some people want to live within the sound of a church or chapel bell” (he was not interested in comfort or safety) because he was “running a rescue mission within a yard of hell”. And furthermore, he expected his disciples to imitate his life and ministry.
Years later, while writing to the Thessalonians (whom we see him ministering to today in the first portion of our text) he basically says “Do not get caught sitting around waiting for Jesus to come back while you complain about how bad the world is. Get to work giving your life away as an act of sacrificial worship on behalf of the ministry of the gospel” (1 Thess. 5:1 – 19; Rom. 12).
Some of you may wonder why I get so forceful with my words sometimes – especially in regard to the Western church in light of the description of the church that we see in the book of Acts. I would submit that the reason for my passion and forcefulness is rooted in what I see in men like the Apostle Paul. I want desperately to see a church full of men and women who hear and obey the call to “imitate me as I imitate Christ” so that we might “toil, struggling with all his [God’s] energy” to make disciples who proclaim the gospel to everyone so “that we may present everyone mature in Christ”. Paul was literally a man who turned the world upside down through the preaching of the gospel (v. 6). And if we are to become disciples who, just like Paul, turn the world upside down through the preaching of the gospel, then the question we must ask is: “What should we imitate from Paul’s life and ministry?” Let’s look at the text together…
1Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. 2And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.” 4And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. 5But the Jews were jealous and taking some of the wicked men of the rabble, they formed a mob, set the city in an uproar, and attacked the house of Jason, seeking to bring them out to the crowd. 6And when they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some of the brothers before the city authorities, shouting, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, 7and Jason has received them, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.” 8And the people and the city authorities were disturbed when they heard these things. 9And when they had taken money as security from Jason and the rest, they let them go.
10The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. 11Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. 12Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men. 13But when the Jews from Thessalonica learned that the word of God was proclaimed by Paul at Berea also, they came there too, agitating and stirring up the crowds. 14Then the brothers immediately sent Paul off on his way to the sea, but Silas and Timothy remained there. 15Those who conducted Paul brought him as far as Athens, and after receiving a command for Silas and Timothy to come to him as soon as possible, they departed.
#1: PAUL PREACHES THE WORD (VV. 1 – 3)
In our previous study of Acts 16:11 – 40, we saw Paul and his crew planting the church in Philippi, getting beaten and tossed in jail for their ministry, and then getting chased out of town by some lowlife posers. But amidst the hardship, God planted a church that started with a wealthy businesswoman, an ex-snake girl who became the saved girl, a cop from the local prison, and probably a couple ex-cons.
The moral of the story is that if you do not shed some literal blood, sweat and tears in your ministry, you probably will not see miraculous results. If comfort is what you seek, then mundane is what you will get. If safety is what you prefer in your spiritual life, then your relationship with a dangerous God will be boring at best. If minimal sacrifice is what your heart desires, then it will be impossible to draw close to the Savior who gave everything on your behalf. If pain free is what you want, then bondage is what you will get. If half in is what you like, then a divided heart is what you will have. If human reasoning rules the way you invest your time, your talent, and your treasure, then say goodbye to God’s protective presence in your life.
The Apostle Paul was a man who shed literal blood, sweat, and tears and witnessed miracles happening on the daily. There was nothing mundane about this man because comfort was not his God. His relationship with God was vibrant and alive because he did not settle for the tempting lure of personal safety. He continuously drew close to the crucified, risen, and returning Jesus and as a result he gave his entire life for the cause of the gospel. Even when he was in chains, he knew he was truly free because he knew that a pain-filled life prepared him to live and die like Christ. His heart was fully committed to the cause of knowing Christ and making Christ known. While human reason is a good thing, Paul did not allow that good thing to trump his obedience to the Word of God.
At the end of the day, Paul’s love for the Word of God (knowing the Word and preaching the Word) turned him into a man who was “fully alive with interest compounded” according to one author.2 That same author noted that “There is an instinctive fear in most of us, I think, to travel with our energies at full throttle. [In other words, we are afraid to give God everything]. We prefer, for the sake of safety, to take life in small and dainty doses.”3 Paul was a full throttle man who did not allow comfort, safety, or control to dominate his calling to know the Word of God and to preach the Word of God. He was a full throttle preacher who loved screaking down the highway with his throttle twisted wide open.
And though it may appear as though he fled Philippi, I think he strategically followed the Father into the city of Thessalonica, not to take a break from all his suffering, but to preach the Word some more so that people could meet the same crucified, risen, and returning Savior that he knew so well. In Thessalonica, he spent some time reasoning, explaining, and proving from the Bible “that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead” and that “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ”or the Messiah (vv. 2 – 3).
The bottom line here is that Paul was totally sold out for preaching the Bible in a way that pointed everyone to Christ crucified, risen, and returning. This kind of radical commitment is certain to shake things up a bit! Can you imagine if only half of the so-called believers in the Western church today had the same tenacity that the Apostle Paul had when it comes to preaching the Word of God? It would probably turn the world upside down!
#2: PAUL TURNS THE WORLD UPSIDE DOWN (VV. 4 – 9)
Paul’s tenacious commitment to preaching the Word of God no matter the cost, produced some amazing results as well as some painful results. Again, without risk there is no reward. Without pain, there is no gain. The church is not a social club, it is a military unit designed for battle. Victory does not come without some loss, and it always comes with a great cost. If the Western church could catch the vision for this, she too would be accused of turning the world upside down.
As the Apostle preached the Word of God in Thessalonica, Luke tells us that many people became believers (v. 4), but he also explains that as the victory of people becoming new believers is taking place, some religious folks get jealous and they gather up a horde of lowlife street thugs who attempt to “set the city in an uproar” (v. 5), and since Paul and his crew had already moved on, these lowlife thugs drag some of the new disciples into the public courthouse with an accusation that “these men who have turned the world upside down have come here also… and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus” (vv. 6 – 7). In response to this, the authorities exact some heavy financial fines on the believers in hopes that it will curb their ministry (vv. 8 – 9).
Now, the accusations against these new believers were exaggerated for sure and these new believers certainly were not advocating for some kind of civil disobedience against Caesar. But they were turning the world upside down through their preaching of the gospel because the gospel will always appear to be upside down to a truly upside-down world; the gospel takes what was broken in the Fall and restores it right side up in an upside-down world which leads to the impression that the gospel itself turns the world upside down.4
We are lucky today if the church is even viewed as a mere nuisance in our culture. We are typically viewed as a hypocritical, fundamental, fanatical, political, social club that exists to amass great wealth for our private jets, our large homes, and our lavish lifestyles. It is always encouraging when the church flips these notions on their heads through a radical commitment to the gospel.
How awesome would it be if the church in the West rose up with the power of the gospel through the preaching of the Word and actually gained the reputation of being a people who are turning the world upside down? With that kind of reputation, there would definitely be people who would listen to and receive the message of the gospel with eagerness.
#3: THE BEREANS RECEIVE THE WORD WITH EAGERNESS (VV. 10 – 12)
As things were heating up in Thessalonica, Luke tells us that “The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea” (v. 10) and upon their arrival they went into the synagogue (the local gathering of Jewish believers) where Paul immediately began preaching the gospel in God’s Word and as a result, many people came to believe in Jesus as “they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so [to see if what Paul was preaching was true]” (vv. 11 – 12).
Let us not miss the fact that even though Paul got run out of town in Philippi last week and even though he got run out of town yesterday in Thessalonica, he never wavered in his commitment to turn the world upside down through the preaching of the Word of God. When opposition arose, he did not look for a new social club to get comfortable in, he did not trim back the sacrificial giving of his time, talent, and treasure, and he certainly did not begin to rely more on human reasoning or pop culture strategies of building big businesses.
He remained fully committed to knowing Jesus through the study of the Bible and making Jesus known through the preaching of the Bible. And the beautiful part of what Luke tells us here is that his Berean listeners received the Word with eagerness, and they tested Paul’s preaching by checking the Word of God for themselves.
One of my original visions for this church when we began planting over eleven years ago is that this church – like the woman at the well and her friends – is that this church would be a church where people who were far from God could come and hear from Jesus for themselves and then turn around and share the Jesus they now know with others who were just like them (Jn. 4).
The only prerequisite to seeing that vision come to life is that there needs to be people who hear the Word of God with eagerness, who test the Word of God carefully, who obey the Word of God faithfully, and then preach the Word of God courageously. Hearing the Word of God will have no impact if you are not eager to hear it. Why would you show up a couple times per week for church gatherings if you are not eager to hear the Word of God? I would submit that this is the reason why so many people are so inconsistent with their participation in church gatherings – they are not eager to hear the Word of God preached.
Testing the Word that you hear preached, must be done carefully as you resist the enemy’s voice who seeks to stop you from hearing. Faithfulness to the Word you hear preached, is measured by your actual obedience to it, and you can only give what you have received; which is why I think the church in the West is so impotent at turning the world upside down through the preaching of the Word, because we people like to get our ears tickled rather than challenged to obey the Word and then continue preach the Word we are eager to hear, test, and obey.
I am encouraged that over the last eleven years, the Lord seems to have filled this church with a lot of people who are eager to hear the Word, are quick to test the Word, are ready to obey the Word, and are excited to preach the Word. I cannot tell you how encouraged I was at the number of phone calls and text messages I received from last week’s sermon from people who eagerly heard the Word, tested it, are making adjustments in repentance, and are actively sharing the Word with others.
If you are not in that group of people who are actively engaged in eagerly hearing the Word of God, be forewarned, you may be in bondage right now as you turn a deaf ear to the preaching of the Word; in bondage to your love for comfort, safety, acceptance, control, and a whole host of other idols that creep in so easily.
Are you eager to hear the Word? Are you carefully testing the Word you hear preached? Are you faithfully striving to live obediently to the Word you hear? And are you courageously preaching the Word you have received? If so, you never know where your journey will lead next!
#4: PAUL WINDS UP IN ATHENS (VV. 13 – 15)
When you reach a point in your relationship with Jesus and his calling upon your life where you are fully committed to knowing him through the study of his Word, obeying him with eagerness as you hear his Word preached, and making him known through the preaching of his Word, no matter what obstacle is in front of you, when you arrive at this place, you might be surprised to see where you wind up at.
In Paul’s case, his tenacious commitment to the Word of God resulted in his enemies from Thessalonica following him to Berea because they heard “that the word of God was [being] proclaimed by Paul at Berea” (v. 13). So, they show up in Berea and they start “agitating and stirring up the crowds” which leads to Paul and his crew getting whisked away to the city of Athens (vv. 14 – 15) where Paul will continue preaching the Word some more in one of his most famous dialogues on Mars Hill (Acts 17:16 – 34).
The bottom line is this, you never know where you will wind up if you become radically committed to the Word of God. You might lead a relative to Jesus. You might start a home Bible study. You might begin discipling a couple of new believers. You might lay aside your fear of people and replace it with a genuine concern and love for people who are living within a yard of hell. Never know, you might become a missionary to a third world country or a church planter in rural Nebraska!
In conclusion, by my count, the church in Philippi gets planted, the church in Thessalonica gets planted, the church in Berea gets planted, and now the church in Athens is about to get planted too, all because of Paul’s commitment to know Jesus through the eager study of his Word, to obey Jesus as he heard the Word, and to proclaim Jesus through the preaching of his Word.
Simply stated, turning the world upside down is rooted in a relentless commitment to the Word of God. That commitment literally took Paul to the edges of hell and back in his mission to know God and to make him known among the lost. This is the same man who said, “imitate me as I imitate Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).
My closing question for us is this: Are we committed to turning the world upside down for Jesus? The answer to that question lies at the heart of our eagerness to hear the Word preached, our commitment to test the Word we hear, our desire to obey the Word we hear, and our boldness to preach the Word among the lost so that they too may say “I have heard from Jesus for myself, and you need to hear from Jesus too”. – Amen!
1 Unless otherwise specified, all Bible references in this paper are to the English Standard Version Bible, The New Classic Reference Edition (ESV) (Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, 2001).
2 Kent, Hughes, Acts: The Church Afire, (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 1996), 222.
4 Ibid., 224 – 225.