Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36), and His followers are not called to foment political rebellion in His name against the governments of this world. Rather, we are called to submit to every human authority for the Lord’s sake (1 Pet. 2:13). So, why can’t Christians seem to avoid conflict with secular authorities and cultures? From the earliest days of the New Testament church to the present, Christians have experienced an uneasy, if not downright contentious, relationship with rulers of this age and with the surrounding non-Christian society. While this hostility may have been somewhat mitigated during the “Age of Christendom” in the West, it was certainly true for the early church and has been true for Christians in most non-Western countries for the past two millennia. Evidently, it is becoming increasingly true again for Christians in Western societies.
In Acts 17:1-9 we read of opposition that the apostles encountered in the Macedonian city of Thessalonica. Paul and Silas preached the death and resurrection of Christ with the result that some Jews and many Greeks believed their message. Provoked to jealously, a number of the unbelieving Jews incited a mob of wicked men to riot in the city and to forcibly apprehend Paul and Silas from the house of Jason where they were staying. Not finding the apostles there, they proceeded to drag Jason and some of the other believers with him before the city authorities and accuse them of harboring the apostles who, as they put it, have “upset the world” (NASB) or “turned the world upside down” (ESV).
Are Christians really such revolutionaries? What are we to make of this charge and how should we respond to it? A few lessons can be drawn from this episode in Acts 17 which instruct us on how to face hostility in our own day.
First, we must be prepared to endure unjust accusations. This indictment in Acts 17:6-7 is clearly concocted to trigger political retribution against the Christians. The accusers are motivated by jealousy and only begin their onslaught after the gospel has proved effective in the lives of a noticeable number of Thessalonians. Moreover, if historians are correct, this allegation is surely false inasmuch as the Christian church seems to have been a very small and relatively obscure institution in the first three centuries after Pentecost. The aim of the litigants in Thessalonica was to undermine Christian witness by vilifying them in the court of law as a threat to the state and the peace of society. This probably stemmed from either a genuine misunderstanding of the Christian proclamation regarding Christ’s kingdom or from a willful distortion of that message. Either way, we should be prepared for this sort of vilification of our persons and our gospel.
Even so, our commitment to hold forth the gospel cannot be subverted by our commitment to live at peace with all people.
Second, we must be prepared to respond graciously to those who treat us unfairly. The response of the Christians in Acts 17:9 is to give assurance to the authorities of their intention to keep the peace. Perhaps what makes this so difficult is that they were not the ones disturbing the peace—their accusers were. It can be deeply frustrating to have others project their own sins onto us. We preach a message of reconciliation to God and yet are incriminated as inciting unrest. In remarking on this passage, John Calvin counsels that “we must stand stoutly in maintaining the truth, being ready to hear evil for things well done” (“Commentary on Acts,” vol. 2). If we are to face such adversity faithfully, we cannot descend to the level of our naysayers, but instead must prove them wrong by patiently bearing their scorn.
Third, Christians cannot compromise the gospel in the face of opposition. The pledge given by the Thessalonians to the civic authorities in Acts 17:9 was apparently not a pledge to desist in proclaiming the gospel as Paul states in 1 Thess. 1:8 that the word of the Lord has sounded forth from them in every place. While we do not seek to upset governments or cultures as part of a revolutionary agenda, there is undoubtedly something upsetting and revolutionary about our message. We seek to turn sinners from the broad path of destruction to the narrow path of life (see Matt. 7:13-14), and we aim to awaken them from their deadly slumber (Eph. 5:14). But sinners love the broad way and the sleep of death and, apart from the supernatural work of God’s Spirit, will generally not take kindly to our declaration of Christ’s death and resurrection and the command to repent. Even so, our commitment to hold forth the gospel cannot be subverted by our commitment to live at peace with all people (Rom. 12:17-18). Indeed, these two obligations are not contradictory as the Thessalonian Christians demonstrate.
Finally, in encountering conflict with the state or with culture, we do not walk a path that our Lord Jesus Himself has not already walked before us. He also was falsely accused of sedition and gave offense when He called sinners to repentance. His purpose was not to upset human society or government, but to upset sinners from their destructive course of life and turn them to the path of life. Although it is certain that we will encounter troubles in the world, we are strengthened by the assurance that He has overcome the world (John 16:33), and that He Himself is with us, to the end of the age (Matt. 28:20).