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Lesson 43: Upsetting the World for Christ (Acts 17:1-15)

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In America, we live in comfortable times. Most of us have far more material possessions than the vast majority of the world’s population. We live in spacious homes or apartments. We own at least one car, if not more, per family. We have telephones, computers, TV sets, VCR’s, and many more modern gadgets to make life comfortable. If we need something, we go to stores stocked with many choices of goods and buy what we want. Our supermarkets overflow with many varieties of food and drink.

Living in such a world, it is easy to fall into a comfortable, convenience style Christianity. We shop around for a church that provides the services that we want. If it meets our needs and makes us feel good, we attend, unless, of course, we have something better to do on the weekend.  A cartoon (Leadership [Summer, 1983], p. 81) poked fun at the way the church has played down commitment to attract attenders. It showed a billboard in front of a church that read, “The Lite Church: 24% fewer commitments, home of the 7.5% tithe, 15 minute sermons, 45 minute worship services; we have only 8 commandments—your choice. We use just 3 spiritual laws and have an 800-year millennium. Everything you’ve wanted in a church … and less!”

We may chuckle, and yet George Gallup contends that fewer than 10 percent of evangelical Christians could be called deeply committed. He says that the majority that profess Christianity don’t know basic teachings and don’t act differently because of their Christian experience (cited in SWCBA briefing, 9/94).

Jesus called people to take up their crosses and lose their lives if they wished to follow Him (Mark 8:34-35). The life of the apostle Paul gives us a concrete example of what that means. In our text, having just been mistreated in Philippi, he comes to Thessalonica and has the boldness to speak to them the gospel in the face of much opposition (1 Thess. 2:2). Driven out of Thessalonica, he does the same thing in Berea. Driven from Berea, he moves on to preach to the intellectuals in Athens. In Thessalonica, an angry mob accuses him and Silas of upsetting the world, or as some translations put it, of turning the world upside down and of proclaiming a king other than Caesar (17:6, 7).

In one sense, both charges were exaggerated and false. It was Paul’s accusers that were upsetting the world by stirring up mob violence. Paul exhorted his followers to live quiet and tranquil lives in all godliness and dignity (1 Tim. 2:2). And he also instructed believers to be subject to the governing authorities (Rom. 13:1-7). But there is another sense in which both charges are true, or at least ought to be true. Christians should upset the world or turn it upside down by confronting it with the gospel. And Christians do proclaim that Jesus is King or Lord of all, even of Caesar. Thus God wants us to upset the world for Jesus Christ.

To upset the world for Jesus Christ, we need to be men and women who are committed to Christ and the gospel.

1. The world needs to be upset.

Ever since the fall of the human race into sin, people have been in rebellion against the Creator and Lord of the universe. We are born in sin and we continue in sin unless we are upset by the gospel that confronts our sin. Sin has made the world stand on its head, and only Jesus Christ can turn it upside down, which makes it right side up again.

We live in a world that has brazenly cast off God. We have cast Him off as the Creator, insisting that science proves that we all evolved from pond slime through sheer chance billions of years ago. If God is not the Creator, then He does not need to be obeyed (Rom. 1:18). If man is the product of millions of years of chance, then he need not fear judgment or eternity ahead, because at death he simply ceases to exist. And so we can determine for ourselves what is right and what is wrong. There is no absolute moral truth, binding on everyone, except for the absolute truth that there is no absolute truth! Thus tolerance becomes our chief virtue.

On the common man’s level, “Dear Abby” epitomizes the world’s so-called “wisdom” apart from God. It is an evolving wisdom, blowing with the winds of the times. Years ago, Abby was against divorce, until the world voted for no-fault, easy divorce. Now, Abby even calls it a necessary good at times, and counsels women to leave their husbands out of self-respect. Forty years ago Abby would never have defended homosexuality. But when public opinion shifted toward tolerance, she now defends it and chastises any narrow-minded people who think that it is wrong. Just last week, I noticed that Abby was defending some people who invited their neighbors over to go nude into their hot tub. She acknowledged that a few may think that group nudity is morally wrong, and that others are hung up about the appearance of their bodies. But the implication was that those who are mature and sensible shouldn’t have any problem with it!

On a more intellectual level, the ACLU and the U.S. Supreme Court reflect a world in rebellion against God. These dear folks have made it legally acceptable to dance nude as an expression of free speech, but not to pray at high school football games! They have made it legal to kill perfectly good babies in the womb right up to the moment of birth, but to spare murderers on death row! A world that is so complacent in its brazen sin and rebellion against God needs to be upset or turned upside down!

2. To upset the world for Christ, God uses men and women committed to Christ and the gospel.

As you know, the apostle Paul was a man committed to stamping out Christianity as a false cult until, he was confronted by Jesus Christ. After that day, he was fully committed to Christ and to proclaiming the gospel of grace that had transformed his life. Christianity is first and foremost not a commitment to a religion or a bunch of religious rules; rather, it is a relationship with the person of the risen Lord Jesus Christ. Paul said that he had counted as loss everything in his life that had formerly been gain in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus his Lord (Phil. 3:8).

As a result of knowing Jesus Christ personally, Paul said that he did all things for the sake of the gospel (1 Cor. 9:23). He got beat up in Philippi, and rather than taking a break, he traveled 100 miles to Thessalonica, went into the synagogue, and began arguing that Jesus is the Christ. When he was forced to leave Thessalonica, he moved on to Berea and did the same thing! The man was unstoppable in his commitment to preach the gospel of Christ!

Many have a false idea that there are two optional tracks in the Christian life. One track is the committed discipleship track. This track is for gung-ho types who have a masochistic bent. They give up the comforts of life, they live without many of the gadgets and toys that the rest of us enjoy, they give large portions of their income to the cause of Christ, and they devote themselves and their time totally to Jesus.

If that track is a bit much for you, then you can choose the comfortable Christian track. Comfortable Christians usually go to church on Sundays, unless one of their hobbies has a big event that day. They give a bit to help out the church. They volunteer some of their time to the cause, when time permits. For them, Christ and the church are a nice slice of life that help to make life more pleasant. But Christ and the church aren’t the center of life, touching every area. These folks wouldn’t think of being inconvenienced for the sake of the gospel. But I never find Jesus offering this second track to any of His followers.

We’re not all gifted to preach the gospel in the same way that Paul was. We’re not all called to serve as missionaries in foreign lands. But we all are called to be fully committed to Jesus Christ. He commanded us all, not just missionaries and pastors, to seek first His kingdom and righteousness (Matt. 6:33). He warns us about the church in Laodicea, which He will spew out of His mouth because they are lukewarm in their commitment (Rev. 3:14-22). To be nominal in our commitment to Jesus is not to be His followers at all!

But notice how much the Lord can accomplish with just a few committed followers! Paul, Silas, Luke, and Timothy were just four men traveling in an almost completely pagan world. They left behind fledgling churches that were decisively in the minority. And yet they upset the entire world for Jesus Christ! As John Wesley put it, “Give me fifty men who love nothing but God and fear nothing but sin, and I’ll change the world!”

3. To upset the world for Christ, God uses the message of the gospel.

Paul said, For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16). Here, as was his custom, Paul went first to the Jews in the synagogue. When they rejected the message, he turned to the Gentiles. His heart’s desire was for the salvation of his own people, the Jews. If they repented and believed in the gospel, then they would fully embrace his efforts to reach out to the Gentiles. If they rejected the gospel, as they often did, then they had no basis for criticizing Paul for taking the message to those who would welcome it.

The gospel by its very nature is divisive. As Jesus said, “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10:34). When the gospel is clearly proclaimed, it draws a line in the sand. People cannot be neutral. So here, as everywhere Paul went, he stirred up controversy and divided people. Some believed and followed Paul; others rejected the message and out of jealousy stirred up opposition. In fact, they were so vehement in their opposition that they followed Paul the 46 miles to Berea to stir up that city against him. They were especially jealous because Paul was drawing away from the synagogue the God-fearing Gentiles who were formerly attending the synagogue.

Before a person can believe in the gospel, he first must understand the content of the gospel.

A. The content of the gospel centers on the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Paul reasoned with the Jews from the Scriptures (17:2). The word “reasoned” indicates a dialogue, where Paul presented the truth and then responded to questions or challenges from the congregation. He explained and gave evidence “that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead” (17:3). “Explained” means to open. Luke used the same word of God opening the eyes of the men on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:31). “Giving evidence” literally means “to place before or alongside.” Paul would take one Scripture and place it alongside another Scripture to support and prove his point.

We learn several useful things here. First, the Scriptures are the sole basis for the gospel. When you witness, take people to the Bible. Sometimes we share a gospel booklet with people, and that’s okay. But make sure that they know that the verses come from the Bible. Have them read the verses out loud. “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing from the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). If a person has never done so, encourage him to read the gospels, and as he reads to ask, “Who is Jesus Christ?”

That’s the second thing, that Jesus Christ is the center of the gospel. Jesus’ question to the twelve is the key question for every person, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matt. 16:15). That is the main issue that people need to face. If Jesus is who He claimed to be, everything else follows. If He is not, then nothing else follows. It’s easy when you’re witnessing to get distracted with extraneous matters: What about the heathen who have never heard? What about evolution? Why is there so much evil and suffering in the world if God is good and all-powerful? Etc. But the answers to those questions will not get a person saved. To be saved, a person needs to understand who Jesus is and what He came to do.

Paul reasoned with them from the Scriptures, which in his time was the Old Testament. Could you take your Old Testament and show a person that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead, and demonstrate that Jesus is the Christ? Paul probably took them to Psalm 22, a description of crucifixion written hundreds of years before that was known as a means of execution. He probably went to Isaiah 53, where the prophet shows Messiah despised and forsaken of men, pierced through for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities. The Lord caused our iniquity to fall on Him. He was cut off from the land of the living for the transgression of Isaiah’s people. He rendered Himself as a guilt offering, justifying the many by bearing their iniquities. But His resurrection is implied at the end of that great chapter, where God says, “Therefore, I will allot Him a portion with the great, and He will divide the booty with the strong; because He poured out Himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors” (53:12).

Paul probably also took them (as he did in his sermon in Acts 13:35) to Psalm 16:10, where Messiah says, “You will not abandon my soul to Sheol; nor will You allow Your Holy One to undergo decay.” He probably explained how the sacrificial system pictured Messiah’s death. He may have taken them to Abraham’s receiving Isaac back from the brink of death as an illustration of Messiah’s being raised up after He became the sacrificial lamb. So he argued forcefully from Scripture that Jesus is the Christ, the promised Savior, who had to suffer for our sins and rise from the dead.

Why does the gospel upset people so much? When it is proclaimed rightly, it confronts people with their sin and it calls them to surrender their lives fully to Jesus as Lord. Unless God softens a sinner’s heart, he doesn’t like to be confronted by his sin or the thought of surrendering to Jesus as Lord.

B. The confrontation of the gospel centers on our sin and rebellion against Jesus as King.

The Jews thought that Messiah would be a conquering King who would deliver them from Rome and other enemies, but they didn’t like the notion of Him suffering and dying for sinners. That implied that they were sinners, but they viewed the Gentiles as the sinners! They liked the idea of a King who would make life comfortable for them, but they didn’t like the notion of a King who would confront their sin! But the gospel proclaims Jesus as both the Savior of sinners and the Lord of all of our lives. We have not faithfully proclaimed the gospel if we give out an easy message that dodges sin and lets the sinner continue as his own lord, “using” Jesus to make life more comfortable.

4. The proper response to the gospel is first to verify its truth, then to believe in Jesus as Savior and follow Him as Lord, no matter what the cost.

We see the proper response to the gospel by those that believed both in Thessalonica and especially at Berea.

A. We must verify the truth of the gospel by examining the Scriptures.

The Bereans “were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily, to see whether these things were so” (17:11). They did not examine it as proud skeptics, trying to find reasons not to believe. They came at it with an open attitude, seeking after the truth.

Faith in Jesus Christ is not a matter of closing your eyes and leaping into the dark. Rather, it is based on the revelation that God has given concerning His Son. Neither is faith in Christ an emotional decision based on good feelings after a concert or an evangelistic sermon. If your faith is based on good feelings, it will not stand up under trials. Faith should rest on the revelation of the Bible regarding the person of Jesus Christ.

B. We must believe in the gospel by personally trusting in Jesus as our sin-bearing Savior.

We must recognize what the Bible declares, that we have sinned and stand guilty before the Holy God. But in His great mercy, He sent Jesus to justify all that would believe in Him by bearing the penalty that they deserved (see Isa. 53:4-12; Rom. 3:23-26). Thus the Bible commands us to believe in the Lord Jesus, promising that we will be saved (Acts 16:31).

C. We must submit to the truth of the gospel by following Jesus as Lord, no matter what the cost.

Jesus is the rightful King, even over Caesar! We must obey Him with every area of our lives, beginning on the thought level. Jason and the new believers in Thessalonica faced immediate persecution for their faith. But Paul had taught them before he was forced to leave town that as believers, we are destined for affliction (1 Thess. 3:3-4). We err if we lead people to think that receiving Jesus as Savior will give them a life of comfort and ease. It will give them much joy and peace, but only in the context of much tribulation (1 Thess. 1:6). This is why we must be convinced of the truth about Jesus before we put our trust in Him. A flimsy, emotional decision won’t stand up if persecution hits.

Conclusion

In 1961, 25 students drew up a Christian manifesto for world evangelism. In part they wrote:

Literal adherence to the principles laid down by Jesus Christ would, without a doubt, result in worldwide revolution—a revolution motivated by love, a revolution executed by love, and a revolution culminating in love!

And we are revolutionaries! We are only a small group of Christian young people…, yet we have determined by God’s grace to live our lives according to the revolutionary teachings of our Master. Within the sphere of absolute, literal obedience to his commands lies the power that will evangelize the world. Outside this sphere is the nauseating, insipid Christianity of our day.

We have committed ourselves in reckless abandonment to the claims of Christ on our blood-bought lives. We have no rights! Every petty, personal desire must be subordinated to the supreme task of reaching the world for Christ. We are debtors. We must not allow ourselves to be swept into the soul-binding curse of modern-day materialistic thinking and living. Christians have been “willing” long enough to forsake all—the time has come (and is passing) when we must forsake all! Christ must have absolute control of our time and money. We must yield possessions, comforts, food and sleep; we must live on the barest essentials, that his cause might be furthered. The propagation of the faith we hold supreme! Christ is worthy of our all! We must be ready to suffer for him and count it joy, to die for him and count it gain. In the light of the present spiritual warfare, anything less than absolute dedication must be considered insubordination to our Master and mockery of his cause!

This is our commitment, and we will press forward until every person has heard the gospel. We will soon be in many different countries, engaged in combat with all the forces of darkness. We look beyond the thousands to the millions; beyond the cities to the countries. The world is our goal! And our primary targets are the seemingly impenetrable areas of the Communist and Moslem countries which can only receive freedom as they have opportunity to receive the Truth. These countries will be reached for Christ no matter what the cost. The ultimate victory is ours! (George Verwer, Come! Live! Die! [Tyndale House], pp. 14-16.)

This was the beginning of Operation Mobilization, which now has missionaries all over the world, often in the most difficult places to reach for Christ. Even if the Lord does not call us to go to other countries, He does call us all to the same revolutionary commitment to Christ and the gospel. He wants us to upset our world for Jesus Christ.

Discussion Questions

  1. Ralph Winter suggests that every Christian adopt a “missionary lifestyle” and give the difference to the cause of missions. What do you think about this idea?
  2. What does total commitment to Christ and the gospel look like in a person who is not gifted as an evangelist or missionary?
  3. Why is faith not a leap in the dark? Could it rightly be called “a step” rather than “a leap”? Why/why not?
  4. Discuss: Is every follower of Christ called to radical commitment, or just those called into missions?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2001, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Discipleship, Spiritual Life