Teaching Acts in Prison: Part 7, Another King Named Jesus

So why did the early church turn the world upside down?

As Acts makes clear, the Roman Empire couldn't find anything insurrectionary or seditious in the Christian movement. And yet, as Acts also makes clear, Roman city after Roman city was thrown into civic chaos after the Christian missionaries arrived.

So what was going on?

(I'm still borrowing here from C. Kavin Rowe's book World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age.)

The answer to the political paradox at the heart of Acts is idolatry.

To understand this, we have to understand that idolatry was an entire way of life. More precisely, idolatry was the sacred fabric that stitched the Roman Empire together. Idolatry sacralized the entire system. Idolatry was the cultural worldview that sat at the foundation of social life--morally, socially, politically, and economically.

Consequently, abandoning idol worship wasn't just a matter of changing where and how you worshiped. It wasn't just about a change of church addresses, going to the house meeting of the Way rather than to the Temple of Zeus. In turning from pagan idolatry the entire Roman way of life would be upended, with drastic social, economic and political consequences. And in Acts, Luke recounts the civic disruption in city after city.

So we're back to the big theme of Acts: The Ascension. The issue at the heart of Acts is the lordship of Jesus, which crashed into the idolatry at the foundation of Imperial Rome. This clash is illustrated when Paul makes it to Athens:
While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, his spirit was greatly upset because he saw the city was full of idols.
"Greatly upset" can be translated as "greatly provoked," "greatly distressed" or "greatly angered."

Seeing all those idols, Paul was pissed.

And in the face of this idolatry Paul's sermon on Mars Hill wasn't about the atoning death of Jesus upon the cross, it was about the lordship of Jesus. The climax of Paul's sermon:
Therefore, although God has overlooked such times of ignorance, he now commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has set a day on which he is going to judge the world in righteousness, by a man whom he designated, having provided proof to everyone by raising him from the dead.
Here's how Luke describes what's going on earlier in Acts 17, when a riot breaks out in Thessalonica. The crowd makes this accusation against the early Christians:
These people who have stirred up trouble throughout the world have come here too...They are all acting against Caesar’s decrees, saying there is another king named Jesus!
That was the gospel message turning the world upside down: There is another king named Jesus.

And as becomes clear by the end of Acts, the crowd in Thessalonica is both right and wrong. The early church was not acting against Caesar's decrees. Again, time after time in Acts the Roman state can find nothing insurrectionary or seditious in the church. That said, the crowd in Thessalonica did get this right: The church was proclaiming another king. And that king did cause Roman citizens to abandon the gods and patterns of worship that sacralized and sustained the Empire.

In short, the early church was innocent of sedition, but guilty as charged for turning the world upside down.

This wasn't an armed rebellion against Caesar.

This was the great campaign of sabotage.

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