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Bible Commentaries

Mark Dunagan Commentary on the Bible
Acts 17

 

 


Introduction

THE BOOK OF ACTS | CHAPTER 17a

OUTLINE AND COMMENTARY - MARK DUNAGAN

I. OUTLINE OF CHAPTER

THE BOOK OF ACTS | CHAPTER 17b

I. OUTLINE OF CHAPTER

I. Paul In Thessalonica:

II. Paul Among The Bereans:

III. Paul Among The Athenians:

"There is something enthralling about Paul in Athens, the great Christian apostle amid the glories of ancient Greece. Of course he had known about Athens since his boyhood. Everybody knew about Athens. Athens had been the foremost Greek city-state since the fifth century B.C. Even after its incorporation into the Roman Empire, it retained a proud intellectual independence. It boasted of its rich philosophical tradition inherited from Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. What should be the reaction of a Christian who visits or lives in a city which is dominated by a non-Christian ideology or religion, a city which may be aesthetically magnificent and culturally sophisticated, but morally decadent and spiritually deceived or dead?" (Stott p. 276). "Athens, although she had long since lost her political eminence of an earlier day, continued to represent the highest level of culture attained in classical antiquity. In all fields Athens retained unchallenged prestige. In consideration of her splendid past, the Romans left Athens free to carry on her own institutions as a free and allied city within the Roman Empire" (Bruce pp. 348-349). From Paul"s presence in Athens we learn a very valuable lesson. Culture (including sculpture, literature, oratory, philosophy, and art) cannot make us right with God, even in a highly advanced culture. The cultured Athenians found themselves just as lost as the barbarians which they despised.


Verse 1

"Now when they had traveled through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica" The use of the term "they" infers that Luke had remained in Philippi to work with that new congregation (16:10 "we"). Luke will once again join Paul in Acts 20:5. "Departing from Philippi, Paul and his party traveled by the Egnatian Way one hundred miles to Thessalonica, capital of the province of Macedonia. Apparently nightly stops (or stops) were made at Amphipolis (33 miles from Philippi), Apollonia (30 miles from Amphipolis) until they reached Thessalonica" (Kent p. 137). "Came to Thessalonica" This was the seaport for the second district of Macedonia, it served as the capital not only for this district but also for the whole Roman province of Macedonia, and it was the largest city in this province. "It was a harbor town, situated at the head of the Thermaic Gulf. Commanding trade by sea across the Aegean and by land along the east-west Via Egnatia, it was a flourishing commercial center, and was proud of having been made a free city in 42 B.C." (Stott p. 270).

"Where there was a synagogue of the Jews" The Greek construction here might imply that a synagogue existed here while synagogues did not exist in Amphipolis and Apollonia. Such a synagogue always gave Paul a place to begin preaching the gospel "among people who had been brought to a readiness for Christ by the "tutor" (Galatians 3:24)" (Reese p. 611).


Verse 2

"And according to Paul"s custom" His regular habit in preaching was to preach to the Jews first (Acts 13:14-15; Romans 1:16). "We may learn from Paul"s methods some methods for evangelism in our own day. The evangelist will have or develop a prospect list, indicating what people are the nearest ready to accept the Gospel. He will approach these first, using their present level of understanding to build Christian teaching and commitment. He will seldom win all of them, and in the process he will probably win some whom he did not expect to be receptive. Somewhere in the process he will probably reach a point where responsiveness becomes negligible and opposition sets in. The wisest worker will then shift his approach to take advantage of greater responsiveness in others, and will go on to reap and glean the greatest possible harvest" (Reese p. 612). "For three Sabbaths" This does not mean that Paul thought that the Sabbath Day was still a law that he had to keep, rather he is in a Jewish synagogue on the Sabbath not for the purpose of keeping the Old Law but for the purpose of trying to save those who are lost! The people who were keeping the Sabbath in the synagogue were lost. Remember, Paul also would have worked and preached during the week to others as well.

"Reasoned with them from the Scriptures" This would have involved citing Old Testament passages and seeing how they found their application in Jesus. Notice that Paul presents a very logical and orderly presentation of Scripture.


Verse 3

"Explaining" He was unfolding the passages; make the passages plain and understandable for all. Compare this section with how Jesus taught in Luke 24:25-27. "And giving evidence" That is, to bring forth passages and use them as proof or to build a case, and what Paul is proving is found in the next statement. "That the Christ had to suffer" The Jews needed to hear this because they were under the false impression that the Messiah would simply be a glorious earthly king like David or Solomon. They needed to hear the Scriptures that clearly predicted Jesus" death (Isaiah 53:1-12; Psalms 22:1-31; Psalms 69:1-36). "And rise again from the dead" The Old Testament had equally taught that the Messiah would be raised from the dead (Isaiah 53:10; Psalms 16:10; the example of Jonah, Matthew 12:40; Psalms 2:1-7). "Saying, "This Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you is the Christ" Paul first outlined in detail what the Old Testament said about the Messiah and then connected all those specific and amazing details to what had actually happened to Jesus.

Notice that Paul sought to convince people with the Scriptures and evidence. No emotional appeals to feelings or a better felt than told experience, but rather, faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ (Romans 10:17).


Verse 4

"Some were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, along with a great multitude of the God-fearing Greeks" It looks like that a few Jews from the synagogue were persuaded ("some") but far more converts were gained among the God-fearing Gentiles. Such people were proselytes. The letter back to this congregation informs us that a number of idolaters were converted as well (1 Thessalonians 1:9). In chapter 20:4 Aristarchus and Secundus are mentioned as being two members from Thessalonica. "And a number of the leading women" Compare with 13:50. "In the Macedonian towns, Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea, there is a specific mention of women among the converts. Women were freer to take part in public activities in Macedonia than in many parts of the Roman empire" (Reese p. 613). This also reveals that one can be a prominent woman in the community and still have a love for the truth.


Verse 5

"But the Jews becoming jealous" Repeatedly the Bible mentions Jewish jealousy as the reason why Jesus was executed and why the early Christians were persecuted (Acts 13:50). The jealousy appears to be connected with the fact that Paul and Silas through their preaching were taking families away from the synagogue and at times growing into a bigger group than the local synagogue. "Taking along some wicked men from the market place" The term "wicked" here implies a delight in doing harm to others. "They would be men who had no steady jobs and who just loafed around the forum. Such men are always ready to earn a quick dollar" (Reese p. 614). "Formed a mob and set the city in an uproar" Such wicked men were hired to stir up trouble. They probably had no true convictions of their own, except for the conviction to make a quick and easy dollar. Again notice that the Jewish leadership does not offer to meet Paul in a public debate concerning the Scriptures and Jesus. "Coming upon the house of Jason" We are not told much about Jason, but see Romans 16:21. But apparently, Paul and Silas had been staying in the home of this Christian and the Jewish leaders thought they might be here. "They were seeking to bring them out to the people" This may refer to bringing Paul and Saul out to an assembly of the citizens for a trial and a hopeful stoning or other punishment. The city of Thessalonica was a free city and did have a citizen"s council.


Verse 6

"When they did not find them" Paul and Silas were actually somewhere else. "They began dragging Jason and some brethren before the city authorities" "Someone usually suffers the wrath of a mob like this; and since they did not find Paul and Silas, they pick on Jason and some Christians who happened to be there when the mob arrived" (Reese pp. 614-615). Of course, the word "drag" indicates violence and rough treatment. "City authorities" The Greek term here is politarchs and is a very usual term that occurs nowhere else in the New Testament. For a long time critics of the Bible had accused Luke of inaccuracy here because this term was also unknown in secular sources as well. Yet the existence and accuracy of this term has been confirmed from a number of contemporary Macedonian inscriptions. "From five inscriptions referring to Thessalonica, it appears that a body of five politiarchs ruled the city during the first century A.D." (Stott p. 272). Was usual, Luke is right and the critics are wrong---again. "These men who have upset the world have come here also" The accusation is that Christians are disturbers of the peace and now they have come to this city. More specific accusations will be noted in the next verse. Yet, Christianity is supposed to "upset" the world, because the world is in the grasp of Satan and needs to be made uncomfortable (1 John 5:19).


Verse 7

"And Jason has welcomed them" That is, Jason (who appears to be a well known person in the community), has been aiding and abetting such men. "They all act contrary to the decrees of Caesar" Notice the word all. They are "all" like this. "Saying that there is another king, Jesus" To this charge the city authorities would have to take note, because only Rome could give the permission for the name "king" to be used. The religious leaders who pressed for Jesus" death made a similar accusation (Luke 23:2; John 19:12). Apparently Paul had been preaching the truth that Jesus is presently a king and ruling at God"s right hand.


Verse 8

"And they stirred up the crowd and the city authorities who heard these things" The ironic thing is that the Jews and their thugs had actually caused more disturbance when they dragged Jason and the other Christians before the court, than Paul and Silas had caused. The citizens and rulers in this city might have been worried about what the Roman government might do if they heard a rumor about a new king in Thessalonica.


Verse 9

"And when they had received a pledge from Jason and the others, they released them" Apparently this pledge was in the form of a monetary bond or some other security they were forced to put up. Now Jason or any other Christian could never accept the condition that one must simply stop talking about Jesus (Acts 5:29). Therefore, the "pledge" probably included the condition that unless Paul and Silas left town, Jason and these Christians would forfeit the bond or surety. Paul and Silas could leave town, and the gospel could still spread in Thessalonica through the preaching of others, like Jason. Notice that God does not except Paul to stay in a town if he is not wanted or it his presence is becoming too distracting.


Verse 10

"By night" The new Christians here get Paul and Silas out of town at night, probably because Paul"s enemies in Thessalonica would have still harmed him if they could find him. We are not sure how long Paul was in Thessalonica but he was here long enough to receive monetary support twice from the church in Philippi (Philippians 4:15-16). He was also here long enough to preach on a number of different topics (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-5; 2 Thessalonians 3:7 ff). "To Berea" This city was 50 miles SW of Thessalonica. "They went into the synagogue of the Jews" Even after being forced to leave a town, Paul goes right back to work.


Verse 11

"Now these were more noble-minded" The word noble often means "well born" or "of noble birth". But here the word applies to a noble attitude. Unlike the Jews in Thessalonica who were only willing to listen to three sermons, the Jews in Berea were far more receptive to the gospel message. "For" This is why God calls them noble-minded. "They received the word with great eagerness" They were very eager to listen and learn. Notice that such people are not saved, yet neither are they depraved. How we approach the initial study of the Bible is important. Are we eager to learn or are we hesitant? Observe that the receptiveness and honesty of people can vary from town to town. "Examining" Instead of attacking the preacher, they examined carefully with critical thinking and the Old Testament Scriptures what he was presenting. "They combined receptivity with critical questioning" (Stott p. 274). The word translated examine here is used of judicial investigations. "It implies integrity and absence of bias. Ever since then, the adjective "Berean" has been applied to people who study the Scriptures with impartiality and care" (p. 274). "The Scriptures" Truth has nothing to fear when the Bible is opened. Such Scriptures could be examined daily in the synagogue, or Paul may have had with him a copy of various Old Testament books as well. "Daily" When salvation is on the line one cannot spend too much time in study, there is an urgency to resolve this issue. "To see whether these things were so" They were not gullible but neither did they have a closed mind. Their primary concern was "what do the Scriptures teach?" The gospel will always have good success when people have the same attitude.


Verse 12

"Many of them therefore believed" Because faith is the natural result of such an honest investigation (Romans 10:17). Please note that unbelievers or atheists are not produced by a honest investigation of the facts and the Scriptures, but Christians are produced. "Along with a number of prominent Greek women and men" This would include city leaders, businessmen, and apparently the spouses of such. Observe that Paul never writes a letter specifically to the Berean congregation, yet it is clear that they would have read the letters to other churches (Colossians 4:16).


Verse 13

"Jews of Thessalonica found out that the word of God had been proclaimed by Paul in Berea also, they came there likewise" The same evil zeal that characterized the unbelieving Jews on the first journey in Antioch and Iconium is also found among the Jews in Thessalonica. They claim that Paul is stirring up trouble, yet Thessalonica and Berea both were at peace until they got agitated. They wanted so badly to silence Paul that they were willing to travel 50 miles to do it. Compare with 1 Thessalonians 2:15.


Verse 14

"As far as the sea" The journey from Berea to the nearest seaport would have been around 20 miles. "Silas and Timothy remained there" The last time that Timothy was specifically mentioned, he was in Philippi (16:40). It was Paul"s custom to leave someone with a new congregation for a while. Thus Luke stays in Philippi, Silas and Timothy stay in Berea.


Verse 15

"Now those who conducted Paul brought him as far as Athens" brethren escorted Paul to Athens. The distance between Berea to Athens by land was 250 miles, or about 12 days, but it was only 3 days by sea. "Receiving a command for Silas and Timothy to come to him as soon as possible" Acts 18:5 will inform us that Silas will not catch up to Paul until Paul is in Corinth. From 1 Thessalonians 3:1, we learn that Timothy did come to Athens, but Paul sent Timothy back to Thessalonica to strengthen that congregation.


Verse 16

Acts 17:16 "Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he beheld the city full of idols"

"Paul waited for them at Athens" The word them refers to Timothy and Silas (). "The distance between Berea and Athens by land is about 250 Roman miles; this would take about twelve days to make the journey, whereas three days would have been sufficient for the voyage by sea" (Boles p. 276). "The city is located about five miles from the Aegean Sea on the narrow plain between Mount Parnes to the N, Mount Pentelicus to the E and Mount Hymettus to the SE. The classical and Roman city was located within roughly circular walls. The Acropolis occupied the S central portion. The Areopagus Hill lay to the NW, the Pynx Hill to the W and the marketplace to the N. Visitors to Athens such as Paul would have entered through the Diplyon Gate just beyond the old potter"s quarter cemetery and traveled along the Panathenaic Way through the agora to the Acropolis" (Zond. Ency. p. 403). "His spirit was provoked with him" The word provoked means to exasperate, stir and irritate.

Athens was the city of Perciles, Demosthenes, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles and Euripides. "In its Agora Socrates had taught, here was the Academy of Plato, the Lyceum of Aristotle, the Porch of Zeno, the Garden of Epicurus. Here men still talked about philosophy, poetry, politics, and religion. It was the art center of the world. The Parthenon, the most beautiful of temples, crowned the Acropolis" (Robertson p. 277). As Stott notes, Paul was no "uncultured Philistine. In our own terms he was a graduate of the universities of Tarsus and Jerusalem" (p. 277). Carefully note that Paul was not struck or awed by any of the above things. Paul realized that if culture does not bring one to God then that culture has failed, despite whatever accomplishments it may boast. Here was probably one of the greatest "wastes" of the human mind and intellect in the ancient and modern world, a city that had been filled with such "talent", and yet a city in bondage to idolatry. There is a great lesson here for the United States. Progress is not true progress if it fails to include God. The centers of higher learning need to take note that an education that fails to bring young men and women to God is a very limited education indeed. Notice what "provoked" Paul, when he saw men giving idols the worship, devotion, and attention that the true God solely deserves. We need to have such a zeal for God"s honor. In like manner we should become irritated or upset when we see people pouring their talents and energies towards the devotion of material things.

"Full of idols" "Completely steeped in idolatry" (Wms). "First and foremost what he saw was neither the beauty nor the brilliance of the city, but its idolatry. We might say that it was "smothered with idols" or "swamped" by them. Paul saw "a veritable forest of idols"" (Stott p. 277). Paul was not a shallow thinker. He was not stirred by the beauty of the statues, rather, he clearly understood what these images represented, false religion! Paul saw absolutely no artistic merit in objects that were leading people away from the true God. "Paul knew well the reputation of Athens, but he could not have realized, until he saw it, the extent to which it was given to idolatry" (McGarvey p. 119). Other ancient writers had noted the same thing. "It is said that Athens had more idols or images than all the rest of Greece. Pretonius satirically said it was easier to find a god than a man in Athens; Xenophon calls the city one great altar" (Boles p. 276). "Pliny states that in the time of Nero Athens had over 3,000 public statutes besides countless ones in the homes" (Robertson p. 278). Athens was probably the classic example of the statement, "in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom knew not God" (1 Corinthians 1:21).


Verse 17

Acts 17:17 "So he reasoned in the synagogue with Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with them that met him"

"Reasoned" "Paul was not a man to take a complete holiday from the main business of his life" (Bruce p. 349). The term reasoned means to "say thoroughly", and infers that Paul gave thorough arguments both for the gospel and against idolatry. Note Paul"s reaction. He did not give up. "Though a lonely stranger, who might have been awed into silence by the magnificence with which sin had fortified itself in this great city, his soul was stirred to make a mighty struggle for the triumph of the gospel even here" (McGarvey p. 119). "Paul"s reaction to the city"s idolatry was not negative only (horror and dismay) but also positive and constructive. He did not merely throw up his hands in despair, or weep helplessly, or curse and swear at the Athenians" (Stott p. 280). Even though Paul had been treated terribly by the Jews in the last towns he had visited (Acts 17:5; Acts 17:13), he continues to preach to them first. Notice also that he "reasons" with them. He believed that the Scriptures were sufficiently clear that an honest man or woman could see that they had found their fulfillment in Jesus of Nazareth (Acts 17:2-3). "In the synagogue" An audience which included Jews and Gentile converts to Judaism. "And in the marketplace everyday with them that met him" What is known as the "marketplace" (agora) was been fully excavated and restored. "It was a large area, rectangular, with covered walks (porches) along the sides. Temples, public buildings, statues, fountains, and monuments filled the area. Each day, for several hours in the early forenoon, the place swarmed with people who came to buy and sell. The rest of the day, the philosophers and teachers would find a raised stone from which to teach, or they might be found walking along the porches with their pupils. Paul took his place daily in the market place, likely competing with other teachers" (Reese p. 622).

Paul"s practice in Athens serves as a good example to Christians today. Paul simply used whatever avenue was open to him for spreading the gospel. If preaching to one group did not work, he would try another. Paul realized that the superstition and false religion in Athens was deeply entrenched, but he also understood the "power" of the message he was preaching (Romans 1:16; 2 Corinthians 10:4).


Verse 18

Acts 17:18 "And certain also of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers encountered him. And some said, What would this babbler say? others, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached Jesus and the resurrection"

"Epicurean" Those who belonged to the school of philosophy founded by Epicurus (c. 306 B.C.). This system of thought included the following beliefs: 1. The gods were so remote that they took no interest in the affairs of this life, and thus exercised absolutely no providential control over the affairs of men. 2. The world was due to chance. 3. No existence was beyond death and hence no judgment. Human beings should pursue pleasure, "especially the serene enjoyment of a life detached from pain, passion and fear" (Stott p. 280). "By pleasure, Epicurus meant good pleasure (and it pleasured him to be generous, kindly, and patriotic). But his followers formed their own standards of pleasure, and too often they lived lives indulging the pleasures of the flesh" (Reese p. 622). Hence the Epicurean philosophy is often summed up in the words, "Let us eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die". "Stoic" "It took its name from the Stoa Poikile, the portico or lecture place in Athens where its founder, Zeno, taught" (Nelsons p. 1012). The basic beliefs of this system were: 1. They believed in god but in a pantheistic way, that is the world was god and god was the world. 2. Everything was governed by fate. 3. While the Epicureans handled life with pleasure, the Stoics emphasized self-sufficiency, which meant simply to resign yourself and submit to enduring the pain of this life, a kind of a grin and bear it attitude. They also emphasized apathy or indifference to either pleasure or pain and mastery over all desires and lusts. Spock on Star Trek would have been a hero to the Stoics.

Erdman notes that we find the same basic philosophies still among us today. The modern counterpart to the Epicureans are the materialists who insist that "he who dies with the most toys wins", while Hinduism and other Eastern religions are good examples of Stoic thought, that is absolute apathy is the highest moral attainment. Before we move on let us note that Paul"s sermon will seriously undermine the premises underlying both of these popular theories.

"What would this babbler say" The word rendered babbler, lit., a seed-picker, was applied to men ""Who picked up scraps of information here and there and then tried to palm them off as their own" (Reese p. 623). "Particularly to describe teachers who, not having an original idea in their own heads, unscrupulously plagiarize from others, "zealous seekers of the second-rate at second hand", until their system is nothing but a ragbag of other people"s ideas and sayings" (Stott p. 282). We should be impressed with how versatile Paul was. He was able to speak effectively in a Jewish synagogue, among the common folk in the marketplace, or even when among highly sophisticated philosophers. The gospel message makes you qualified to carry on an intelligent discussion with individuals from any social class or level of education (2 Timothy 3:16-17). "He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods" The word "strange" in this passage means "foreign". "A proclaimer of foreign gods" (ABUV). "Because he preached Jesus and the resurrection" Some writers think that the Athenians misunderstood Paul and initially thought that "Jesus" was a male deity and "resurrection" (Anastasis) in the Greek was a female deity. Stott notes, "It is interesting, as Dr. Conrad Gempf has pointed out to me, that both Paul"s speeches to pagans in the Acts seem to have been occasioned by a misunderstanding. "The Athenians imagine two new gods, while the Lystrans think they are seeing two old ones! (Acts 14:12). Could Luke be warning his readers of ways in which pagans misunderstand?" (p. 282). Yet this much is clear, when Paul preached Jesus, people understood Paul to be saying that Jesus was Divine.


Verse 19

Acts 17:19 "And they took hold of him, and brought him unto the Areopagus, saying, May we know what this new teaching is, which is spoken by thee?"

"Took hold of him" Not in a hostile sense, but rather, escorted him. "Areopagus" Pronounced (air ee OP ah gus) (hill of Mars). "A limestone hill in Athens situated between the Acropolis and the Agora; by association, also the council which often met on the hill" (Nelsons p. 96). "It was formerly the place where the most venerable judicial court of ancient Greece met. For this reason the name came to be transferred from the place to the court. By Paul"s day, although cases were sometimes heard there, the court had become more a council, with its legal powers diminished. Its members were rather guardians of the city"s religion, morals and education, and it normally met in the "Royal Porch" of the Agora" (Stott p. 283). "The hill was almost in the middle of the city, but little remains on its summit to help us determine what it looked like in Paul"s day. There are benches cut in the rock on which the judges sat. Sixteen worn steps led to the summit from a plateau between the Areopagus and the Acropolis. Some have suggested the Areopagites (judges) merely wanted a quiet place, away from the crowd and the noise of the forum, where they could listen undisturbed to what Paul was saying" (Reese p. 624). Nothing in the context suggests that Paul was "on trial" before these men, for he is allowed to leave their presence with ease ()


Verse 20-21

Acts 17:20-21 "For thou bringest certain strange things to our ears: we would know therefore what these things mean. (Now all the Athenians and the strangers sojourning there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell or to hear some new thing)"

"Now" This is a statement that Luke adds to help the reader understand the state of mind that existed in Athens. "Spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell or to hear some new thing" This verse balances the statements just made by these Athenians. Luke is informing us that they were not as receptive as their question seems to indicate. They were not interested in the gospel because it was the truth, but rather because it was something they had not heard before. The Athenians were infected with the craving to hear something "new" or "novel". This was more important to them than hearing something important or truthful. "The Athenians themselves admitted this; the orator Demosthenes, for example, four hundred years earlier, had reproached them for going about asking if there was any fresh news in a day when Philip of Macedon"s rise to power presented a threat which called for deeds, not words" (Bruce p. 352).

Many people in the religious world, and unfortunately some professed Christians are infected with the same attitude. What is important to them is not the truth, but what is the latest fad or teaching. "Such an attitude leads men to regard anything old as obsolete and worth little. People with such a philosophy will have a difficult time being interested in the everlasting Gospel (which does not change) for any length of time" (Reese p. 626). The advocates of the New Hermeneutic are spiritual brothers with those in Athens, because they too are not content with the simple truth that remains unchanged (Matthew 24:35), but insist upon always finding some "new" truth. At some point in life "religious" people make a decision to pursue truth or novelty. Like some people today, the Athenians had made "study" and learning its own religion, rather than realizing that the object of all learning should be to come to a knowledge of the truth, so that one can find favor with God (1 Timothy 2:4; John 8:32). Like many of the "learned" among us today, the Athenians could have informed you concerning hundreds of different views. They were probably full of quotes, speculations and stories, but one thing they could not tell you - "What is God like and how do I have favor with Him?" They remind us of Paul"s statement concerning certain individuals, "always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth" (2 Timothy 3:7).


Verse 22

Acts 17:22 "And Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus, and said, Ye men of Athens, in all things, I perceive that ye are very religious"

"Paul stood" So that all could see and hear him. "In the midst of the areopagus" "The benches on which the judges sat formed three sides of a quadrangle, and in the midst of these men Paul stands" (Reese p. 626). "Ye men of Athens" Notice the respectful introduction. "In all things, I perceive that ye are very religious" The word rendered "very religious" can, depending on the context be either a compliment or a rebuke. In many circles the Athenians were considered the most religious of all the Greeks, but what some took as "being religious", this Christian sees as being rather superstitious.

"It served as an attention-getter. The hearer would think, "Did he just compliment us, or did he take a slap at us?" It is not easy to express the exact force of the Greek word because there is no exact English equivalent. "Superstitious" is, perhaps, too strong on the side of blame; "religious" is too strong on the side of praise" (Reese p. 627). Paul understood that the rampant idolatry inferred an important truth, that being the religious nature of man cannot be suppressed. It may be perverted into false religion, but these Athenians were manifesting by their extreme interest in "spiritual things", the fact that they were created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). Carefully note that superstition is also a corrupted form of religion, just as much as idolatry. When one starts attributing powers to black cats, broken mirrors, salt, cracks in the sidewalk, the movements of the stars, and the number 13, one has become enslaved to an invented "god". Such superstitions detract from the trust that one should have in the power of the Creator.


Verse 23

Acts 17:23 "For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. What therefore ye worship in ignorance, this I set forth unto you"

"For as I passed along" Walking through the streets of your town. "Observed the objects of your worship" Their temples, shrines, images, and statutes. "There were from 2000 to 3000 notable idols in the city, some have calculated" (Reese p. 627). Various professed "Christian" religious bodies claim that their images, representations of Jesus and so on are not objects of worship, but rather they help the worshipper identify better with God, that is they are aids in worship. Paul did not accept that argument, for the pagans had made the same argument in justifying their images. Paul realized that when people make an image or representation of what they worship that they end up attributing powers to the image itself. "I found also an altar with this inscription, to an unknown God"

Such altars actually did exist! "Pausanias who traveled extensively in about A.D. 175 and wrote in his "Tour of Greece" that he found near the harbor a number of temples, together with "altars of the gods named Unknown"" (Stott p. 284). Many people in our "modern" enlightened society treat God in the same way. They will pray to God will the following attitude, "God, if you exist, if you are there, I have never been much of a religious person, but if you do exist, I just want you to know that I do believe--if you are there". The Athenians had an altar to an "Unknown God", just in case they had missed one, and a good number of people have always professed faith in God, not out of conviction, but their lip-service to God is rather a kind of spiritual life-insurance policy - "Just in case God really does exist, I want to make sure it is on record that I did believe in Him". This altar to "the Unknown God" did not make them right with God. Worship offered in ignorance is not a substitute for true worship. Hence we cannot say that the sincere religious actions of the Hindu, Buddhist, Moslem, Native American Indian, Protestant or Catholic excuses them from believing and practicing the truth.

"What therefore ye worship in ignorance" The very fact that such an altar had been erected in Athens was a concession by the Athenians that they did not know all truth. In fact, it said more than that. The presence of the altar admitted that the Athenians were not sure if they had found all the gods or the true God as yet. The altar admitted the short-comings of their own religious systems--for it had not revealed all the truth to them. Their own gods could not tell them if others gods existed. "What Paul picked out for comment was the Athenians" open acknowledgement of their ignorance" (Stott p. 285). "This I set forth unto you" The true God that you have missed. "In these words there is an answer to the slander that he was just a seed-picker. If he is explaining something that they admitted they did not know, he could hardly have picked up this information from them" (Reese p. 628). In addition, Paul could not be charged with introducing a "new religion", for he was only telling them about the God that they had already been worshipping in ignorance. Paul did not have the attitude that is popular among mainline liberal denominations that the sincere religious person outside of Jesus Christ is saved. Paul did not leave these people in their ignorance, and he did not view them as saved either. Rather, the gospel is the message that all (even the religiously sincere but mistaken), must hear to be saved (Mark 16:15-16).

THE SERMON

As we examine this speech, consider how much of the sermon contradicts the basic belief"s of both the Epicureans and Stoics. Notice where Paul begins with these people. Since these people did not believe that the Scriptures were the Word of God, Paul must begin with them at a very basic level. Before he can talk to them about Jesus, he must start with the basic concept of One True God.


Verse 24

Acts 17:24 "The God that made the world and all things therein, he, being Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands"

"The God that made the world and all things therein" First, the true God is the Creator of the Universe (Genesis 1:1). Paul speaks of God (singular). In contrast to the pagan concept of gods of the sea (Neptune), forest, sky and mountains. Paul presents One Creator. This statement contradicts the Stoic concept that God is inseparable from the world. Such systems as Hinduism and Buddhism are based on the same false philosophy, that God is the world and the world is God (the tree is god, I am god, the rock is god, and so on). Paul presents a personal Creator who is distinct from His creation. This statement also contradicts the idea that matter is eternal. God "made". The world, the world had a definite beginning and it will also have a definite end (Hebrews 1:10-12; 2 Peter 3:10). The statement "all things therein" reveals that whatever exists in the world is also a creation of God. Many people are of the opinion that God created a basic world but then allowed evolution (chance) to develop the various life forms found in the world. In contrast, Jesus was not a believer in evolution, for He believed that God had "created" the first man and woman (Matthew 19:4). "He" God is not an impersonal force or an "it", and neither is the true God a goddess. "Being Lord of heaven and earth" "This assertion would have been contrary to Stoic beliefs (they held that the Fates governed everything)" (Reese p. 628). "As He had made all things, this made Him Lord, not of the sea, as Neptune, nor of the sky, as Jupiter, but "Lord of heaven and earth"" (McGarvey p. 126). "Dwelleth not in temples made with hands" Various writers try to argue that Jesus and the apostles accommodated themselves to the myths and errors of the age in which they lived. This passage completely destroys such a concept. Paul was probably within a stone"s throw of the Parthenon (the preeminent place of temples and shrines), the pride and glory of the Athenian people, and completely undermined the necessity of their most prized national treasure. Obviously, if God is the Creator of all things, then any temple constructed with human hands (regardless of its size, building materials, architecture or beauty), cannot be the dwelling place of the true God. "Any attempt to limit or localize the Creator, to imprison Him within the confines of manmade buildings, or structures is ludicrous" (Stott p. 285). Paul is much less "tolerant" of error than many denominational people would concede. Paul is saying to these Athenians, "All these beautiful temples are a waste of time and effort". Thus, the Holy Spirit rebukes all the ornate temples and says, "What are you trying to do, build a house in which God can?"


Verse 25

Acts 17:25 "neither is he served by men"s hands, as though he needed anything, seeing he himself giveth to all life, and breath, and all things"

"Neither is He served by men"s hands, as though He needed anything" Paul is not saying that men cannot serve Him or that God does not want people to serve Him (Galatians 2:20). Rather, he is condemning a certain concept of "service": "Worshippers used to set offerings of food before the idols of the gods, the worshippers would leave food and offerings on the raised platforms over night, in the thought that the gods would come and eat to their satisfaction" (Reese p. 629). "Any attempt to tame or domesticate God, to reduce Him to the level of a household pet dependent on us for food and shelter, is again a ridiculous reversal of roles" (Stott p. 285). Yet many in our society, and some within the church, treat God as if God"s relevance is dependant upon our faithfulness. When we start thinking that God is surely lucky to have us on His side and that the members need to be careful about how they treat us--or we might leave. We are then becoming just as confused about the true nature of God as were the Athenians. With or without my belief in Him, God will continue to exist. God will enjoy the future with His people in heaven with or without me. "Seeing He Himself giveth to all life, and breath, and all things" This is one reason why God is eternal. He is completely self-sustaining and self-existent. God"s existence is completely independent. He is not dependant upon anything or anyone for His existence, meaning or happiness. God gives life. He also enables life to continue (breathe), and He provides all other things for the continued existence of that life as well (Acts 14:17). Here again we find One God. The same God who created the universe is the same God who gives abundant harvests, and who brings sunshine and rain. He is the God over all seasons, climates and differences in terrain.


Verse 26

Acts 17:26 "and He made of one every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, having determined {their} appointed seasons, and the bounds of their habitation"

"He made of one" The particular one was Adam. Paul again finds himself contradicting the theory of Evolution. Paul agrees with the Genesis record that from Adam and Eve, this pair, all the nations of the earth have sprung. Jesus also agreed with Genesis (Matthew 19:4). It must take a lot of nerve (or unbelief) on the part of certain professed Christians, to assert that the early chapters of Genesis are mythical. The Bible is clear, Adam was the first man (1 Corinthians 15:45). "To deny the Creation is not just to deny the Genesis record only. It is to deny all the Scripture" (Reese p. 630). "Every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth" "This statement of the origin of the human race was in direct opposition to the Athenian"s notion of their own origin as being different from that of other men. The national pride held by various races (their gods were better than others; their origins were superior to other men"s) tended to make the races alien to each other, and led to a haughty attitude toward foreigners and cruelty toward slaves" (Reese p. 629). This statement completely destroys any notion that one race is morally superior to another. Christianity and racial prejudice are two incompatible concepts. "This removed all imagined justification for the belief that Greeks were innately superior to barbarians" (Bruce p. 358).

"Having determined their appointed seasons, and the bounds of their habitation" "Having determined their appointed times, and the boundaries of their habitation" (NASV). "Fixing a time for their rise and fall" (TCNT). "Their territorial boundaries" (Rieu).

The God of Creation is also the God of human history. "Although, God cannot be held responsible for the tyranny or aggression of individual nations (their abuse of freewill), yet both the history and the geography of each nation are ultimately under His control" (Stott p. 286). Thus only a believer can really understand the true meaning of human history. Notice how Paul insists that God is in control of history, without lapsing into the false doctrines of predestination, determinism or fate (Acts 17:30 "repent"). This statement is in contrast to popular pagan beliefs. McGarvey notes, "He next shows that this God, instead of being the god of some single nation, over whose destiny He presides, while He defends it against all other nations, actually created every nation and further, that the seasons of prosperity and adversity of all these nations, together with their national boundaries, instead of being regulated, as the heathen supposed, by separate national gods, were all controlled by this one God" (p. 127). See Daniel 5:21 and Jeremiah 18:6-10.


Verse 27

Acts 17:27 "that they should seek God, if haply they might feel after Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us"

"That they should seek God" This is the reason why God created mankind (Ecclesiastes 12:13). "What is the greatest good? It is not pleasure (as the Epicureans taught) nor apathy ( as the Stoics taught), but it was to be found in seeking God!" (Reese p. 630). "They"-Individuals in every nation. Hence all have always been accountable to God. This verse also suggests that people in every nation have the ability to start such a search (Romans 1:20). "If haply they might feel after Him and find Him" "If perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him" (NASV). "They might feel their way to Him" (TCNT). "Feel" To verify by contact, to search for. "The verb "grope for" pictures one groping in the dark (Jeremiah 10:23)" (Reese p. 631). "All things which God has given to man should encourage man to seek to know his Creator" (Boles p. 281). "Though He is not far from each one of us" "Epicurus had taught that the gods, in their eternal tranquility were too far off from man to trouble themselves about his needs" (Reese p. 631). Paul notes that one does not have to spend their entire lifetime groping for God. God can be found! God is actually very near! God is "near" in the sense that: (a) We receive His blessings on a daily basis (Matthew 5:45). (b) We are created in His image (Genesis 1:26). (c) The evidence of His existence is seen daily (Romans 1:20; Psalms 19:1). (d) The preaching of His truth has been sent to all nations (Mark 16:15). Carefully note that Paul is saying that all nations have equal access to finding God. Since the whole creation is God"s creation, and since every nation descends from Adam, and seeing that God has been involved in the past and future of all nations, then God can be found by the native in Africa, those of the South Sea Islands, etc..


Verse 28

Acts 17:28 "for in Him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain even of your own poets have said, For we are also His offspring"

"For" Expanding upon the last statement made. "In Him we live, and move, and have our being" Indicating that God is concerned about every person (2 Peter 3:9). Everyone is dependent upon Him for life. God is not distant, uncaring or unfeeling, and everyone has received physical blessings from Him. "Our being" This God is the origin of both our bodies and souls and we are continually dependent upon Him for "being". "As certain even of your own poets have said""The precise expression is found in the writings of Aratus (270 B.C.) who was from Tarsus, as was Paul); and though not the exact words, still the idea is found in the writings of Cleanthes (300-220 B.C.). This quotation of the heathen poets would at once quicken the attention of the hearers. This was not an illiterate Jew, but a man of culture, acquainted with the thoughts of their own great poets" (Reese p. 632).

From the fact that Paul quotes from a heathen poet, we can learn that there are times that even secular authors stumble upon and state one of God"s truths. Preachers can use such quotations in preaching. Such quotations do not establish truth (God"s word does that), but the purpose of such quotations proves that the idea being presenting is not that far-fetched or radical, even some of your own famous writers have conceded the same point. Carefully note, that being the offspring of God (by creation) does not automatically make us children of God in the spiritual and saved sense. Various liberal denominations maintain that "we are all children of God". Paul did not buy into such a concept. Paul will tell these people, created in the image of God, to repent ().


Verse 29

Acts 17:29 "Being then the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and device of man"

"Godhead" The Divine nature, "Lit., that which is divine" (Vincent p. 545). Paul is trying to get the Athenians to contemplate the real nature of God. Paul"s argument is very simple. Since we are the offspring of God, it is absurd to think that the God who created us is a stick or stone or can even be adequately resembled by such lifeless things. Since it was conceded that God made man, then how can anyone think that lifeless material can be viewed as a god? The various idols in Athens were all made out of the above lifeless substances by human hands. "Saul quotes their own poets to expose their own inconsistency" (Stott p. 287). Stott further notes, "All idolatry, whether ancient or modern, primitive or sophisticated, is inexcusable, whether the images are metal or mental. For idolatry is the attempt either to localize God, confining Him within limits which we impose, whereas He is the Creator of the universe; or to domesticate God making Him dependent on us, taming and taping Him, whereas He is the Sustainer of human life; or to alienate God, blaming Him for His distance and silence, whereas He is the Ruler of nations, and not far from any of us; or to dethrone God, demoting Him to some image of our own contrivance or craft, whereas He is our Father from whom we derive our being" (p. 287).


Verse 30

Acts 17:30 "The times of ignorance therefore God overlooked; but now he commandeth men that they should all everywhere repent"

"The times of ignorance" The times previous to the preaching of the gospel. "God overlooked" Paul is not saying that ignorance was an excuse or that before Gentiles hear the gospel they are without sin, because we find many cases (in time past) which God held Gentiles accountable for their actions (the Flood, Genesis 20:7; the Canaanites, Genesis 15:16; Leviticus 18:1-30; and Gentiles in general, Romans 1:18-32). But the thought is that God generally allowed the Gentile nations to walk in their own ways of ignorance, without bringing immediate judgment upon them. At various times God punished the Gentiles (the Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, Egypt, Canaanites, Babylon, and Nineveh), but this was the exception and not the rule, compare with Acts 14:16 "And in the generations gone by He permitted all the nations to go their own way". McGarvey notes, "By saying that God had overlooked the times of ignorance, Paul does not mean that He had excused it; for this would be inconsistent with this call to repentance" (p. 128). The call to repentance demonstrates that, while God had not immediately judged Athens for its sins, God does hold them presently accountable. Stott notes, "It is not that He did not notice it, for that He acquiesced in it as excusable, but that in His forbearing mercy He did not visit upon it the judgment it deserved" (p. 287).

"But now He commandeth men that they should all everywhere repent" The word repent infers that all men can change. Therefore the doctrines of predestination, total hereditary depravity and irresistible grace are false, because such doctrines are based upon the premise that man is too depraved to change, and that the gospel message is insufficient to convict the heart of the sinner. Without miraculous intervention from God on man"s mind, no man would ever change. God has not predetermined who can be saved, and none have been excluded from salvation, apart from their own freewill choice (2 Peter 3:9). Any sin can be forsaken. There exists no sin that is impossible to flee (2 Timothy 2:22). Non-Christians are accountable to God"s law and have sins of which they need to repent. Repentance is not an option for salvation, and person cannot be saved prior to repentance (Acts 2:38). All other religious systems are devoid of salvation. The Athenians were very religious, and yet they were commanded to repent. "The Epicurean might later regret some of the ways he had sought for pleasure but he would not repent. The Epicurean mind had little time for sorrow. The Stoic was ready to accept the consequences of his actions with a serene apathy. Either school of philosophy had little room for any idea that they needed repentance" (Reese p. 634). Note that many people want a substitute for repentance. They want to be able to say, "I"ll accept the physical consequences of my sin so leave me alone", or, "I"m not whining or complaining due to the trouble my foolishness has caused me, I should get some credit for that". God will not accept anything, but true godly sorrow (2 Corinthians 7:10-11; Psalms 51:17).


Verse 31

Acts 17:31 "inasmuch as He hath appointed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness by the man whom He hath ordained; whereof He hath given assurance unto all men, in that He hath raised Him from the dead"

"Inasmuch" Or, "because". A number of motivations for repentance exist, but one of them is the coming judgment (2 Peter 3:4-9). "Appointed a day in which He will judge the world" The God that created all men, has the moral right to judge all men, and a definite day for judgment exists. "In righteousness" "Judge the world with justice" (TCNT). "Justly judged" (NEB). "All secrets will be revealed. There will be no possibility of any miscarriage of justice" (Stott p. 288) (2 Corinthians 5:10). "Not only did they not have an idea of a coming judgment, they did not even have an idea of a righteous God. The mythological deities were thought to share every human sin and foible found among man, only to a greater degree" (Reese p. 634). "By the man whom He hath ordained" The specific day of judgment is not mentioned, but we are informed concerning the specific Judge (John 5:27; Matthew 25:31 ff). "Wherefore He hath given assurance" "Given proof" (Mof). "Made this credible" (Wms). "He has given everyone a good reason to believe" (Beck). Thus the resurrection becomes the "proof" of a coming judgment. Consider God"s perspective concerning the evidence behind the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He says that the proof is so clear that our proof of the coming judgment day is the resurrection of His Son.


Verse 32

Acts 17:32 "Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked; but others said, We will hear thee concerning this yet again"

"Some mocked" "Sneered" (Mof). "Laughed outright" (Phi). "Laugh ironically" (Rieu). Neither party (Epicurean or Stoic) believed in the resurrection of anyone, not to mention the resurrection of Jesus. "To the Greeks, the body was a prison house for the soul, and they looked forward to getting rid of the body" (Reese p. 635). "But others said" We do not know if this was a sincere offer or simply a polite way of ignoring what Paul was saying. "People have a way of saying "I know I ought to obey Christ, and one of these days I"ll do it"" (Reese p. 636) (Acts 26:28). Here we have two classic examples of how people wrongly react to the Gospel. Some try to ignore truth by ridiculing it or the messenger. Others convince themselves that they are indeed honest individuals, but now the time to change is not right.


Verse 33-34

Acts 17:33-34 "Thus Paul went out from among them. But certain men clave unto him, and believed: among whom also was Dionysius the Areopagite, and a woman named Damaris, and others with them"

"But certain men clave unto him, and believed" Various writers have suggested that Paul"s efforts in Athens virtually amounted to failure. "Ramsay popularized the notion in his day that Paul "was disappointed and perhaps disillusioned by his experience in Athens", since the results were negligible" (Stott p. 289). Yet we must reject such a theory: First, it overlooks the type of people converted and mentioned in the above verse. Paul actually converted one of the judges who heard him, a very prominent woman and others who are not mentioned. When the gospel is preached, and it was on this day, the only failure is found among those who do not respond. Paul did not fail this day rather, he presented God"s truth clearly, boldly and in simplicity. Some say Paul failed, because we never hear about a "church" in Athens, but let it quickly be noted and we never read about the "church" in Berea either! (Acts 17:11-12). "Dionysius" (die oh NISS e us). "Areopagite" (air e OP uh ghyte). That is, a member of the Areopagus. "In order to become an Areopagite, one had to serve in a high magisterial function. Another qualification was age. To be eligible, one had to have passed his 60th birthday" (Reese p. 636). "A woman named Damaris" (DAM uh riss). "The fact that she was singled out along with Dionysius the Areopagite, one of the court judges, may indicate she was a woman of distinction" (Nelsons p. 273).

 


Copyright Statement
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Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Dunagan, Mark. "Commentary on Acts 17:4". "Mark Dunagan Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dun/acts-17.html. 1999-2014.

Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, November 28th, 2020
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34
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