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Bible Commentaries

William Barclay's Daily Study Bible
Acts 17

 

 

Verses 1-34

Chapter 17

IN THESSALONICA (Acts 17:1-9)

17:1-9 When they had taken the road through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica where there was a synagogue of the Jews. Paul, as his custom was, went in to them and, for three Sabbaths, he debated with them from the scriptures, opening the scriptures to them and presenting the evidence that Christ had to suffer and to rise from the dead, "and this man," he said, "is the Christ, Jesus whom I proclaim to you." Some of them believed and threw in their lot with Paul and Silas. Thus it was with many of the worshipping Greeks and with a considerable number of women who belonged to the most influential ranks of society. The Jews resented this. They got hold of some of the low characters who haunted the market place and they formed a mob and set the city in an uproar. They surged up to Jason's house and kept demanding that they should bring them before the people. When they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some of the brethren to the city magistrates, shouting, "These men who have upset the civilized world have arrived here too; and Jason has received them as his guests. These are all teaching against the decrees of Caesar for they say that there is another emperor Jesus." They disturbed the mob and the chief magistrates as they heard this. So they took surety from Jason and the others and let them go.

The coming of Christianity to Thessalonica was an event of the first importance. The great Roman road from the Adriatic Sea to the Middle East was called the Egnatian Way; and the main street of Thessalonica was actually part of that road. If Christianity was firmly founded in Thessalonica it could spread both east and west along that road until it became a very highway of the progress of the kingdom of God.

The first verse of this chapter is an extraordinary example of economy of writing. It sounds like a pleasant stroll; but in point of fact Philippi was 33 Roman miles from Amphipolis; Amphipolis was 30 miles from Apollonia; and Apollonia was 37 miles from Thessalonica. A journey of over 100 miles is dismissed in a sentence.

As usual Paul began his work in the synagogue. His great success was not so much among the Jews as among the Gentiles attached to the synagogue. This infuriated the Jews for they looked on these Gentiles as their natural preserves and here was Paul stealing them before their very eyes. The Jews stooped to the lowest methods to hinder Paul. First they stirred up the rabble. Then, when they had dragged Jason and his friends before the magistrates, they charged the Christian missionaries with preaching political insurrection. They knew their charge to be a lie and yet it is couched in very suggestive terms. "Those," they said, "who are upsetting the civilized world have arrived here." (King James Version: "these men who have turned the world upside down"). The Jews had not the slightest doubt that Christianity was a supremely effective thing. T. R. Glover quoted with delight the saying of the child who remarked that the New Testament ended with Revolutions. When Christianity really goes into action it must cause a revolution both in the life of the individual and in the life of society.

ON TO BEROEA (Acts 17:10-15)

17:10-15 The brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away to Beroea by night. When they arrived there they came into the synagogue of the Jews. These were men of finer character than those in Thessalonica and they received the word with all eagerness. They daily examined the scriptures to see if these things were so. Many of them believed, as did a considerable number of well-to-do Greek women and men. When the Jews of Thessalonica knew that the word of God was preached by Paul in Beroea they came there too in an attempt to stir up and disturb the people. The brethren then immediately sent Paul away as far as the sea coast, while Silas and Timothy remained there. Those who conducted Paul brought him as far as Athens; and, when they had received an order to tell Silas and Timothy to come to him with all speed, they went away,

Beroea was 60 miles west of Thessalonica. Three things stand out in this short section. (i) There is the scriptural basis of Paul's preaching. He set the people of Beroea searching the scriptures. The Jews were certain that Jesus was not the Messiah because he had been crucified. To them a man who had been crucified was a man accursed. It was no doubt in passages like Isaiah 53:1-12 that Paul set the people of Beroea to find a forecast of the work of Jesus. (ii) There is the envenomed bitterness of Jews. They not only opposed Paul in Thessalonica; they pursued him to Beroea. The tragedy is that undoubtedly they thought that they were doing God's work by seeking to silence Paul. It can be a terrible thing when a man identifies his aims with the will of God instead of submitting his aims to that will. (iii) There is the courage of Paul. He had been imprisoned in Philippi; he had left Thessalonica in peril of his life, under cover of darkness; and once again in Beroea he had had to flee for his life. Most men would have abandoned a struggle which seemed bound to end in arrest and death. When David Livingstone was asked where he was prepared to go, he answered, "I am prepared to go anywhere, so long as it is forward." The idea of turning back never occurred to Paul either.

ALONE IN ATHENS (Acts 17:16-21)

17:16-21 When Paul was waiting for them in Athens, his spirit was deeply vexed as he saw the whole city full of idols. He debated with the Jews and the worshippers in the synagogue and every day he talked in the city square with everyone he met. Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers took issue with him. Some of them said, "What would this gutter-sparrow of a man be saying?" Others said, "He seems to be the herald of strange divinities." This they said because he told the good news of Jesus and the resurrection. So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus saying, "May we know what is this strange new teaching you are talking about? For you are introducing things which sound strange to us. We want therefore to know what these things mean." (All the Athenians and the strangers who stay there have no time for anything other than to talk about and to listen to the latest idea).

When he fled from Beroea, Paul found himself alone in Athens. But, with comrades or alone, Paul never stopped preaching Christ. Athens had long since left behind her great days of action but she was still the greatest university town in the world, to which men seeking learning came from all over. She was a city of many gods. It was said that there were more statues of the gods in Athens than in all the rest of Greece put together and that in Athens it was easier to meet a god than a man. In the great city square people met to talk, for in Athens they did little else. Paul would have no difficulty in getting someone to talk to and the philosophers soon discovered him.

There were the Epicureans (see Epikoureios Greek #1946). (i) They believed that everything happened by chance. (ii) They believed that death was the end of all. (iii) They believed that the gods were remote from the world and did not care. (iv) They believed that pleasure was the chief end of man. They did not mean fleshly and material pleasure; for the highest pleasure was that which brought no pain in its train.

There were the Stoics. (i) They believed that everything was God. God was fiery spirit. That spirit grew dull in matter but it was in everything. What gave men life was that a little spark of that spirit dwelt in them and when they died it returned to God. (ii) They believed that everything that happened was the will of God and therefore must be accepted without resentment. (iii) They believed that every so often the world disintegrated in a conflagration and started all over again on the same cycle of events.

They took Paul to the Areopagus (Greek #697 -- the Greek for Mars' Hill). It was the name both of the hill and the court that met on it. The court was very select, perhaps only thirty members. It dealt with cases of homicide and had the oversight of public morals. There, in the most learned city in the world and before the most exclusive of courts, Paul had to state his faith. It might have daunted anyone else; but Paul was never ashamed of the gospel of Christ. To him this was another God-given opportunity to witness for Christ.

A SERMON TO THE PHILOSOPHERS (Acts 17:22-31)

17:22-31 Paul stood up in the midst of the Areopagus and said, "Men of Athens, I see that in all things you are as superstitious as possible. As I came through your city and as I saw the objects of your worship. I found amongst them an altar with the inscription, 'To the Unknown God.' So then, what you worship and do not know, this I preach to you. God, who made the universe and everything in it, this God is Lord of heaven and earth and does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is he served by the hands of men, as if he needed anything, but he himself gives to all life and breath and all things. He made of one every race of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and he fixed the appointed times and boundaries of their habitations. He made men so that they might search for God, if they might perchance feel after him and find him; and indeed he is not far from any one of us. For by him we live and move and are. As some of your own poets have said, 'We too are his offspring.' Since then we are the offspring of God we should not think that the Divine is like gold or silver or stone, engraved by the art and design of man. So then God overlooked the times of ignorance but now he gives orders to men that all men everywhere should repent. Thus he has fixed a day in which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he ordained for that task, and he has given proof of this by raising him from the dead."

There were many altars to unknown gods in Athens. Six hundred years before this a terrible pestilence had fallen on the city which nothing could halt. A Cretan poet, Epimenides, had come forward with a plan. A flock of black and white sheep were let loose throughout the city from the Areopagus. Wherever each lay down it was sacrificed to the nearest god; and if a sheep lay down near the shrine of no known god it was sacrificed to "The Unknown God." From this situation Paul takes his starting point. There are a series of steps in his sermon.

(i) God is not the made but the maker; and he who made all things cannot be worshipped by anything made by the hands of man. It is all too true that men often worship what their hands have made. If a man's God be that to which he gives all his time, thought and energy, many are clearly engaged in worshipping man-made things.

(ii) God has guided history. He was behind the rise and fall of nations in the days gone by; his hand is on the helm of things now.

(iii) God has made man in such a way that instinctively he longs for God and gropes after him in the darkness.

(iv) The days of groping and ignorance are past. So long as men had to search in the shadows they could not know God and he excused their follies and their mistakes; but now in Christ the full blaze of the knowledge of God has come and the day of excuses is past.

(v) The day of judgment is coming. Life is neither a progress to extinction, as it was to the Epicureans, nor a pathway to absorption to God, as it was to the Stoics; it is a journey to the judgment seat of God where Jesus Christ is Judge.

(vi) The proof of the preeminence of Christ is the resurrection. It is no unknown God but a Risen Christ with whom we have to deal.

THE REACTIONS OF THE ATHENIANS (Acts 17:32-34)

17:32-34 When they heard of a resurrection of dead men, some mocked and some said, "We will hear about this again"; but some attached themselves to him and believed. Amongst these were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman called Damaris. together with others.

It would seem on the whole that Paul had less success in Athens than anywhere else. It was typical of the Athenians that all they wanted was to talk. They did not want action; they did not even particularly want conclusions. They wanted simply mental acrobatics and the stimulus of a mental hike.

There were three main reactions. (i) Some mocked. They were amused by the passionate earnestness of this strange Jew. It is possible to make a jest of life; but those who do so will find that what began as comedy must end in tragedy. (ii) Some put off their decision. The most dangerous of all days is when a man discovers how easy it is to talk about tomorrow. (iii) Some believed. The wise man knows that only the fool will reject God's offer.

Two converts are named. There is Dionysius the Areopagite. As already said, the Areopagus was composed of perhaps not more than thirty people; so that Dionysius must have been one of the intellectual aristocracy of Athens. There was Damaris. The position of women in Athens was very restricted. It is unlikely that any respectable woman would have been in the market square at all. The likelihood is that she turned from a way of shame to a way of life. Once again we see the gospel making its appeal to all classes and conditions of men and women.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

 


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Bibliography Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Acts 17:4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dsb/acts-17.html. 1956-1959.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, October 15th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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