World Upside Down: Part 3, They Say There Is Another King

This is our final post--Part 3 of 3--reviewing C. Kavin Rowe's book World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age.

In Parts 1 and 2 we reviewed the seemingly paradoxical material in the book of Acts. On the one hand, in the book of Acts whenever the gospel encounters Roman culture there is violent social upheaval. Such material suggests that Luke wants to show that the gospel is socially, politically and economically disruptive, that the gospel turns the world upside down.

But on the other hand, late in the book of Acts Luke also shows Paul and the Jesus movement appearing before various officials of Imperial Rome. And in each case Paul and the Jesus movement are vindicated. This suggests that Luke was keen to calm the fears of Rome regarding the Jesus movement by showing that the Way was politically inoffensive and innocuous.

So what is going on? Is the gospel socially disruptive or innocuous? As Rowe notes, people have tended to grab a hold of the material in the book of Acts that best supports the particular story they want to tell, the particular political theology they want to endorse. As a result Acts gets pulled back and forth in these debates.

Is there a better way to view the book of Acts? A way that doesn't pick and choose material from Acts but endorses the entire narrative?

Phrased another way, might Luke be presenting a coherent political theology rather than a confused and paradoxical one?

It is Rowe's argument that Luke really does want to portray the gospel as socially, economically and politically disruptive. For Rowe, the key text comes from Acts 17. According to Rowe, the events in Thessalonica are a key to Luke's political theology:
Acts 17.1-7
Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining 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.” And 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.

But the Jews were jealous, and taking some 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. And 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, and Jason has received them, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.” 
Luke really does want to say that King Jesus turns the world upside down. The Kingdom of God is socially, economically, and politically disruptive.

So then why does Luke show officials of Imperial Rome vindicating the movement of "King Jesus"?

According to Rowe, Luke is keen to ward off accusations that, in claiming Jesus to be King, that the Christians were violent insurrectionists. The gospel is socially, economically and politically disruptive--it turns the world upside down--but it is not calling for the violent overthrow of the government. In light of all the violent rioting caused by the spread of the gospel in the Roman world Luke, Rowe argues, was worried that Imperial Rome would get the wrong idea about what the Christians were up to. Luke wants to be clear that Christians, though proclaiming loyalty to King Jesus rather than to Caesar, were non-violent. And yet, while keen to make that claim Luke doesn't want to suggest that the gospel wasn't highly disruptive. Just the opposite in fact. Hence all the rioting in the book of Acts.

Rowe summarizing this argument:
[T]he Christian mission as narrated by Luke is not a counter-state. It does not, that is, seek to replace Rome, or to "take back" Palestine, Asia, or Achaia. To the contrary, such a construal of Christian politics is resolutely and repeatedly rejected...

Basic, then, to Luke's portrayal of the state vis-à-vis the Christian mission is a narratively complex negotiation between the reality of the state's idolatry and blindness--its satanic power--and the necessity that the mission of light not be misunderstood as sedition.
The satanic nature of the state is revealed in the insanity of how Imperial Rome evaluates and then treats the Christians. As narrated by Luke, the officials of Imperial Rome repeatedly say that Paul (and the movement he represents) has done nothing "worthy of death." This is the same verdict that Pilate gives to Jesus. And yet, Rome crucifies Jesus. And the same fate will come to Paul. Thus the insanity. Though declaring the Christians innocent the Empire will still kill them. This fulfills the OT prophecy Luke quotes in Acts 4.24-26:
"Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against his Anointed."
Though he is innocent, the kings of earth rage against King Jesus. And what happens to Jesus in the gospel of Luke happens to Jesus's followers in the book of Acts. As Rowe summarizes, "Christians do not deserve death and yet the gentiles rage."

And yet, isn't claiming Jesus to be King an act of treason? We recall the accusation of treason against Jesus in John 19.12, the same accusation against the Christians in Acts 17: "Everyone who claims to be a King sets himself against the Emperor." So isn't the proclamation of "King Jesus" seditious and treasonous?

According to Rowe, Luke argues both yes and no.

According to Rowe, the problem Luke discerns in the John 19.12 and Acts 17 accusations is that it makes the theological assumption that Jesus and Caesar are on an equal playing field, competitors for the same throne. But according to Luke, Jesus is "Lord of all" (Acts 10.36). Jesus is not a political rival for Caesar's throne. If so, Jesus's followers would be seeking a violent overthrow of the government. The situation is, rather, quite the opposite. The case isn't that Jesus is a rival for Caesar's throne, but that Caesar is idolatrously seeking to be Lord in the place of King Jesus. The theological problem, as Luke narrates Luke/Acts, isn't that the followers of King Jesus are seeking to place Jesus on Caesar's throne (that would be sedition) but that Caesar is usurping Jesus's throne.

The problem isn't that Christians are seditious but that Empire is idolatrous.

Rowe summarizing his argument:
...Luke's theological move requires us to reverse the customary thought patterns about Jesus and Caesar in NT scholarship...Jesus does not challenge Caesar's status as Lord, as if Jesus were somehow originally subordinate to Caesar in the order of being. The thought--at least in its Lukan form--is rather much more radical and striking: because of the nature of his claims, it is Caesar who is the rival; and what he rivals is the Lordship of God in the person of Jesus Christ...

From the perspective of the Graeco-Roman world, therefore, things are indeed upside down: Jesus's lordship is primary--ontologically and, hence, politically--not Caesar's.

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3 thoughts on “World Upside Down: Part 3, They Say There Is Another King”

  1. I especially liked this line as a powerful thought:

    "The problem isn't that Christians are seditious but that Empire is idolatrous".

    I was also glad that you used the word "ontology"- it's a word I use a bit skiddishly, but employ when it feels needed....I would draw a line from Luke's thinking here through Becker and then into your's.

    One thing I see in the Christ Event is that god doesn't give us the Messiah we want--he gives us the one we need. The one we wanted was a Caesar bigger than the Roman one. What we got was the one who could lead us into the experience of being human in the fullest sense possible.

    We commonly think of idolatry in political like terms where we're worshiping the wrong Emperor: We fail to see that god's concern in idolatry isn't about his due of adulation, but about our ontology as human persons- idolatry as understood on these pages results in a stunted experience of being human as they amount short cutting the work and wonder of being human. In the end, these short cuts make daily life easier, but they also diminish the fullness of being human in terms of our possible ontology. An ontology Jesus brilliantly embodies and hopes to lead us into.

    In today's setting, the question I'm asking is: "which are you more like- god or machine? When we answer god, the next question becomes: which looks more like god- a Roman Caesar or Jesus?

    Both claimed the title Son of God. Both proclaim an ontological view of ultimacy when it comes to our vision of being human. Only one leads us out of idolatry: in the end, this way Jesus leads us into, isn't to the best Caesar but to the fullest experience of being human possible.

    Maybe our meeting god isn't formalized in the "sinner's" prayer but in those moments when we let ourselves be open to the idiomatic nag "there's gotta be more than this" that haunts us when we've been in pursuit of a life less than fully human. The "sinner's prayer" feels like a repentance to a Caesar and centers on God's politic. The repentance I'm trying to describe here, feels like more like the god I witness in Jesus' life: one that lets me more into the ontology of being human and enjoy my company and the prospect of co-creating with me,

  2. Then, attempting to put Christ on Caesar's throne, which is the goal of the Christian Right, is to bring Christ down, is it not? Whereas, to embrace that part of society that has been made to wear the small "s" on its lapel as child of God is to bring the idols of position and supremacy within government, religion and culture face to face with those they have walked on, thrown their crumbs to, or simply ignored. Nothing turns the world upside down more than suddenly seeing the divine in those once thought beneath it.

  3. Yes, Luke was certainly walking a fine line. Perhaps too fine a line for most N. American Evangelicals...

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