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Amphipolis - This was the capital of the eastern province of Macedonia. It was originally a colony of the Athenians, but under the Romans it was made the capital of that part of Macedonia. It was near to Thrace, and was situated not far from the mouth of the river Strymon, which flowed around the city, and thus occasioned its name, around the city. The distances laid down in the Itineraries in regard to these places are as follows: Philippi to Amphipolis, 33 miles; Amphipolis to Apollonia, 30 miles; Apollonia to Thessalonica, 37 miles. “These distances are evidently such as might have been traversed each in one day; and since nothing is said of any delay on the road, but everything to imply that the journey was rapid, we conclude (unless, indeed, their recent sufferings made rapid traveling impossible) that Paul and Silas rested one night at each of the intermediate places, and thus our notice of their journey is divided into three parts. The position of Amphipolis is one of the most important in Greece. It stands in a pass which Traverses the mountains bordering the Strymonic Gulf, and it commands the only easy communication from the coast of that gulf into the great Macedonian plains, which extend, for 60 miles, from beyond Meleniko to Philippi. The ancient name of the place was ‘Nine Ways,’ from the great number of Thracian and Macedonian roads which met at this point. The Athenians saw the importance of the position, and established a colony there, which they called Amphipolis, because the river surrounded it.
And Apollonia - This city was situated between Amphipolis and Thessalonica, and was formerly much celebrated for its trade.
They came to Thessalonica - This was a seaport of the second part of Macedonia. It is situated at the head of the Bay Thermaicus. It was made the capital of the second division of Macedonia by Aemilius Paulus, when he divided the country into four districts. It was formerly called Therma, but afterward received the name of Thessalonica, either from Cassander, in honor of his wife Thessalonica, the daughter of Philip, or in honor of a victory which Philip obtained over the armies of Thessaly. It was inhabited by Greeks, Romans, and Jews. It is now called Saloniki, and, from its situation, must always be a place of commercial importance. It is situated on the inner bend of the Thermaic Gulf, halfway between the Adriatic and the Hellespont, on the sea margin of a vast plain, watered by several rivers, and was evidently designed for a commercial emporium. It has a population at present of 60,000 or 70,000, about half of whom are Jews. They are said to have 36 synagogues, “none of them remarkable for their neatness or elegance of style.” In this place a church was collected, to which Paul afterward addressed the two epistles to the Thessalonians.
Where was a synagogue - Greek: where was the synagogue (ἡ συναγωγὴ hē sunagōgē) of the Jews. It has been remarked by Grotius and Kuinoel that the article used here is emphatic, and denotes that there was probably no synagogue at Amphipolis and Apollonia. This was the reason why they passed through those places without making any delay.
His manner was - His custom was to attend on the worship of the synagogue, and to preach the gospel to his countrymen first, Acts 9:20; Acts 13:5, Acts 13:14.
Reasoned with them - Discoursed to them, or attempted to prove that Jesus was the Messiah. The word used here (διελέγετο dielegeto) often means no more than “to make a public address or discourse.” See the notes on Acts 24:25.
Out of the scriptures - By many critics this is connected with the following verse, “Opening and alleging from the scriptures that Christ must needs have suffered, etc.” The sense is not varied materially by the change.
Opening - διανοίγων dianoigōn. See Luke 24:32. The word means to explain or to unfold. It is usually applied to what is shut, as the eye, etc. Then it means to explain what is concealed or obscure. It means here that he explained the Scriptures in their true sense.
And alleging - παρατιθέμενος paratithemenos. Laying down the proposition; that is, maintaining that it must be so.
That Christ must needs have suffered - That there was a fitness and necessity in his dying, as Jesus of Nazareth had done. The sense of this will be better seen by retaining the word “Messiah.” “That there was a fitness or necessity that the Messiah expected by the Jews, and predicted in their Scriptures, should suffer.” This point the Jews were unwilling to admit; but it was essential to his argument in proving that Jesus was the Messiah to show that it was foretold that he should die for the sins of people. On the necessity of this, see the notes on Luke 24:26-27.
Have suffered - That he should die.
And that this Jesus - And that this Jesus of Nazareth, who has thus suffered and risen, whom, said he, I preach to you, is the Messiah.
The arguments by which Paul probably proved that Jesus was the Messiah were:
(1) That he corresponded with the prophecies respecting him in the following particulars:
- He was born at Bethlehem, Micah 5:2.
- He was of the tribe of Judah, Genesis 49:10.
- He was descended from Jesse, and of the royal line of David, Isaiah 11:1, Isaiah 11:10.
- He came at the time predicted, Daniel 9:24-27.
- His appearance, character, work, etc., corresponded with the predictions, Isaiah 53:1-12.
(2) His miracles proved that he was the Messiah, for he professed to be, and God would not work a miracle to confirm the claims of an impostor.
(3) For the same reason, his resurrection from the dead proved that he was the Messiah.
And consorted - Literally, had their lot with Paul and Silas; that is, they united themselves to them, and became their disciples. The word is commonly applied to those who are partakers of an inheritance.
And of the devout Greeks - Religious Greeks; or, of those who worshipped God. Those are denoted who had renounced the worship of idols, and who attended on the worship of the synagogue, but who were not fully admitted to the privileges of Jewish proselytes. They were called, by the Jews, proselytes of the gate.
And of the chief women - See the notes on Acts 13:50.
Moved with envy - That they made so many converts, and met with such success.
Certain lewd fellows of the baser sort - This is an unhappy translation. The word “lewd” is not in the original. The Greek is, “And having taken certain wicked people of those who were about the forum,” or market-place. The forum, or market-place, was the place where the idle assembled, and where those were gathered together that wished to be employed, Matthew 20:3. Many of these would be of abandoned character, the idle, the dissipated, and the worthless, and, therefore, just the materials for a mob. It does not appear that they felt any particular interest in the subject; but they were, like other mobs, easily excited, and urged on to any acts of violence. The pretence on which the mob was excited was, that they had everywhere produced disturbance, and that they violated the laws of the Roman emperor, Acts 17:6-7. It may be observed, however, that a mob usually regards very little the cause in which they are engaged. They may be roused either for or against religion, and become as full of zeal for the insulted honor of religion as against it. The profane, the worthless, and the abandoned thus often become violently enraged for the honor of religion, and full of indignation and tumult against those who are accused of violating public peace and order.
The house of Jason - Where Paul and Silas were, Acts 17:7. Jason appears to have been a relative of Paul, and for this reason it was probable that he lodged with him, Romans 16:21.
These that have turned the world upside down - That have excited commotion and disturbance in other places. The charge has been often brought against the gospel that it has been the occasion of confusion and disorder.
Whom Jason hath received - Has received into his house, and entertained kindly.
These all do contrary to the decrees of Caesar - The charge against them was that of sedition and rebellion against the Roman emperor. Grotius on this verse remarks that the Roman people, and after them the emperors, would not permit the name of king to be mentioned in any of the vanquished provinces except by their permission.
Saying that there is another king - This was probably a charge of mere malignity. They probably understood that when the apostles spoke of Jesus as a king, they did not do it as of a temporal prince. But it was easy to pervert their words, and to give plausibility to the accusation. The same thing had occurred in regard to the Lord Jesus himself, Luke 23:2.
And they troubled the people - They excited the people to commotion and alarm. The rulers feared the tumult that was excited, and the people feared the Romans, when they heard the charge that there were rebels against the government in their city. It does not appear that there was a disposition in the rulers or the people to persecute the apostles; but they were excited and alarmed by the representations of the Jews, and by the mob that they had collected.
And when they had taken security of Jason - This is an expression taken from courts, and means that Jason and the other gave satisfaction to the magistrates for the good conduct of Paul and Silas, or became responsible for it. Whether it was by depositing a sum of money, and by thus giving bail, is not quite clear. The sense is, that they did it in accordance with the Roman usages, and gave sufficient security for the good conduct of Paul and Silas. Heuman supposes that the pledge given was that they should leave the city. Michaelis thinks that they gave a pledge that they would no more harbor them; but if they returned again to them, they would deliver them to the magistrates.
And of the other - The other brethren Acts 17:6 who had been drawn to the rulers of the city.
And the brethren immediately sent away Paul and Silas - Compare Acts 9:25. They did this for their safety. Yet this was not done until the gospel had taken deep root in Thessalonica. Having preached there, and laid the foundation of a church; having thus accomplished the purpose for which they went there, they prepared to leave the city.
Unto Berea - This was a city of Macedonia, near Mount Cithanes. “Bercea is on the eastern slope of the Olympian range, and commands an extensive view of the plain which is watered by the Haliacmon and Axius. It has many natural advantages, and is now considered one of the most agreeable towns in Rumili. Plane trees spread a grateful shade over its gardens. Streams of water are in every street. Its ancient name is said to have been derived from the abundance of its waters; and the name still survives in the modern Verria, or Kara-Verria. It is situated o the left of the Haliacmon, about 5 miles from the point where that river breaks through an immense rocky ravine from the mountains to the plain. A few insignificant ruins of the Greek and Roman periods may yet be noticed. It still boasts of 18,000 or 20,000 inhabitants, and is placed in the second rank of the cities of European Turkey” - Life and Epistles of Paul.
These were more noble - εὐγενέστεροι eugenesteroi. This literally means more noble by birth; descended from more illustrious ancestors. But here the word is used to denote a quality of mind and heart. They were more generous, liberal, and noble in their feelings; more disposed to inquire candidly into the truth of the doctrines advanced by Paul and Silas. It is always proof of a noble, liberal, and ingenuous disposition to be willing to examine into the truth of any doctrine presented. The writer refers here particularly to the Jews.
In that - Because.
They received the word ... - They listened attentively and respectfully to the gospel. They did not reject and spurn it as unworthy of examination. This is the first particular in which they were more noble than those in Thessalonica.
And searched the scriptures - That is, the Old Testament. See the notes on John 5:39. The apostles always affirmed that the doctrines which they maintained respecting the Messiah were in accordance with the Jewish scriptures. The Bereans made diligent and earnest inquiry in respect to this, and were willing to ascertain the truth.
Daily - Not only on the Sabbath, and in the synagogue, but they made it a daily employment. It is evident from this that they had the Scriptures; and this is one proof that Jewish families would, if possible, obtain the oracles of God.
Whether those things were so - Whether the doctrines stated by Paul and Silas were in accordance with the Scriptures. The Old Testament they received as the standard of truth, and whatever could be shown to be in accordance with that, they received. On this verse we may remark:
(1) That it is proof of true nobleness and liberality of mind to be willing to examine the proofs of the truth of religion. What the friends of Christianity have had most cause to lament and regret is, that so many are unwilling to examine its claims; that they spurn it as unworthy of serious thought, and condemn it without hearing.
(2) The Scriptures should be examined daily. If we wish to arrive at the truth, they should be the object of constant study. That man has very little reason to expect that he will grow in knowledge and grace who does not peruse, with candor and with prayer, a portion of the Bible every day.
(3) The constant searching of the Scriptures is the best way to keep the mind from error. He who does not do it daily may expect to “be carried about with every wind of doctrine,” and to have no settled opinions.
(4) The preaching of ministers should be examined by the Scriptures. Their doctrines are of no value unless they accord with the Bible. Every preacher should expect his doctrines to be examined in this way, and to be rejected if they are not in accordance with the Word of God. The church, in proportion to its increase in purity and knowledge, will feel this more and more; and it is an indication of advance in piety when people are increasingly disposed to examine everything by the Bible. How immensely important, then, is it that the young should be trained up to diligent habits of searching the Word of God. And how momentous is the obligation of parents, and of Sunday school teachers, to inculcate just views of the interpretation of the Bible, and to form the habits of the rising generation, so that they shall be disposed and enabled to examine every doctrine by the sacred oracles. The purity of the church depends on the extension of the spirit of the nobleminded Bereans, and that spirit is to be extended in a very considerable degree by the instrumentality of Sunday schools.
Therefore many of them believed - As the result of their examination. This result will commonly follow when people search the Scriptures. Much is gained when people can be induced to examine the Bible. We may commonly take it for granted that such an examination will result in their conviction of the truth. The most prominent and usual cause of infidelity is found in the fact that people will not investigate the Scriptures. Many infidels have confessed that they had never carefully read the New Testament. Thomas Paine confessed that he wrote the first part of the Age of Reason without having a Bible at hand, and without its being possible to procure one where he then was (in Paris). “I had,” says he, “neither Bible nor Testament to refer to, though I was writing against both; nor could I procure an” (Age of Reason, p. 65, ed. 1831; also p. 33). None, it may safely be affirmed, have ever read the Scriptures with candor, and with the true spirit of prayer, who have not been convinced of the truth of Christianity, and been brought to submit their souls to its influence and its consolations. The great thing which Christians desire their fellow-men to do is candidly to search the Bible, and when this is done they confidently expect that they will be truly converted to God.
Of honourable women - See the notes on Acts 13:50.
Stirred up the people - The word used here σαλεύειν saleuein denotes properly “to agitate” or “excite,” as the waves of the sea are agitated by the wind. It is with great beauty used to denote the “agitation and excitement of a popular tumult,” from its resemblance to the troubled waves of the ocean. The figure is often employed by the Classic writers, and also occurs in the Scriptures. See Psalms 65:7; Isaiah 17:12-13; Jeremiah 46:7-8.
The brethren - Those who were Christians.
Sent away Paul - In order to secure his safety. A similar thing had been done in Thessalonica, Acts 17:10. The tumult was great; and there was no doubt, such was the hostility of the Jews, that the life of Paul would be endangered, and they there fore resolved to secure his safety.
As it were - Rather, “even to the sea,” for that is its signification. It does not imply that there was any feint or sleight in the case, as if they intended to deceive their pursuers. They took him to the seacoast, not far from Berea, and from that place he probably went by sea to Athens.
Unto Athens - This was the first visit of Paul to this celebrated city; and perhaps the first visit of a Christian minister. His success in this city, for some cause, was not great, but his preaching was attended with the conversion of some individuals. See Acts 17:34. Athens was the most celebrated city of Greece, and was distinguished for the military talents, the learning, the eloquence, and the politeness of its inhabitants. It was founded by Cecrops and an Egyptian colony about 1556 years before the Christian era. It was called “Athens” in honor of Minerva, who was chiefly worshipped there, and to whom the city was dedicated. The city, at first, was built on a rock in the midst of a spacious plain; but in process of time the whole plain was covered with buildings, which were called the lower city. No city of Greece, or of the ancient world, was so much distinguished for philosophy, learning, and the arts.
The most celebrated warriors, poets, statesmen, and philosophers were either born or flourished there. The most celebrated models of architecture and statuary were there; and for ages it held its preeminence in civilization, arts, and arms. The city still exists, though it has been often subject to the calamities of war, to a change of masters, and to the mouldering hand of time. It was twice burnt by the Persians; destroyed by Philip II of Macedon; again by Sylla; was plundered by Tiberius; desolated by the Goths in the reign of Claudius; and the whole territory ravaged and ruined by Alarie. From the reign of Justinian to the thirteenth century the city remained in obscurity, though it continued to be a town at the head of a small state. It was seized by Omar, general of Muhammed the Great, in 1455; was sacked by the Venetians in 1464; and was taken by the Turks again in 1688. In 1812 the population was 12,000; but it has since been desolated by the sanguinary contests between the Turks and the Greeks, and left almost a mass of ruins. It is now free; and efforts are making by Christians to restore it to its former elevation in learning and importance, and to impart to it the blessings of the Christian religion. In the revolutions of ages it has been ordered that people should bear the torch of learning to Athens from a land unknown to its ancient philosophers, and convey the blessings of civilization to them by that gospel which in the time of Paul they rejected and despised.
And receiving a commandment - They who accompanied Paul received his commands to Silas and Timothy.
With all speed - As soon as possible. Perhaps Paul expected much labor and success in Athens, and was therefore desirous of securing their aid with him in his work.
Now while Paul waited - How long he was there is not intimated; but doubtless some time would elapse before they could arrive. In the meantime Paul had ample opportunity to observe the state of the city.
His spirit was stirred in him - His mind was greatly excited. The word used here (παρωξύνετο parōxuneto) denotes “any excitement, agitation, or paroxysm of mind,” 1 Corinthians 13:5. It here means that the mind of Paul was greatly concerned, or agitated, doubtless with pity and distress at their folly and danger.
The city wholly given to idolatry - Greek: κατέιδωλον kateidōlon. It is well translated in the margin, “or full of idols.” The word is not used elsewhere in the New Testament. That this was the condition of the city is abundantly testified by profane writers. Thus, Pausanias (in Attic. 1 Corinthians 1:24) says, “the Athenians greatly surpassed others in their zeal for religion.” Lucian (t. i. Prometh. p. 180) says of the city of Athens, “On every side there are altars, victims, temples, and festivals.” Livy (45, 27) says that Athens “was full of the images of gods and men, adorned with every variety of material, and with all the skill of art.” And Petronius (Sat. xvii.) says humorously of the city, that “it was easier to find a god than a man there.” See Kuinoel. In this verse we may see how a splendid idolatrous city will strike a pious mind. Athens then had more that was splendid in architecture, more that was brilliant in science, and more that was beautiful in the arts, than any other city of the world; perhaps more than all the rest of the world united.
Yet there is no account that the mind of Paul was filled with admiration; there is no record that he spent his time in examining the works of art; there is no evidence that he forgot his high purpose in an idle and useless contemplation of temples and statuary. His was a Christian mind; and he contemplated all this with a Christian heart. That heart was deeply affected in view of the amazing guilt of a people who were ignorant of the true God, who had filled their city with idols reared to the honor of imaginary divinities, and who, in the midst of all this splendor and luxury, were going down to destruction. So should every pious man feel who treads the streets of a splendid and guilty city. The Christian will not despise the productions of art, but he will feel, deeply feel, for the unhappy condition of those who, amidst wealth, and splendor, and outward adoring, are withholding their affections from the living God, and who are going unredeemed to eternal woe. Happy would it be if every Christian traveler who visits cities of wealth and splendor would, like Paul, be affected in view of their crimes and dangers; stud happy if, like him, people could cease their unbounded admiration of magnificence and splendor in temples, and palaces, and statuary, to regard the condition of mind, not perishable like marble of the soul, more magnificent even in its ruins than all the works of Phidias or Praxiteles.
Therefore disputed he - Or reasoned. He engaged in an argument with them.
With the devout persons - Those worshipping God after the manner of the Jews. They were Jewish proselytes, who had renounced idolatry, but who had not been fully admitted to the privileges of the Jews. See the notes on Acts 10:2.
And in the market - In the forum. It was not only the place where provisions were sold, but was also a place of great public concourse. In this place the philosophers were not infrequently found engaged in public discussion.
Then certain philosophers - Athens was distinguished, among all the cities of Greece and the world, for the cultivation of a subtle and refined philosophy. This was their boast, and the object of their constant search and study, 1 Corinthians 1:22.
Of the Epicureans - This sect of philosophers was so named from Epicurus, who lived about 300 years before the Christian era. They denied that the world was created by God, and that the gods exercised any care or providence over human affairs, and also the immortality of the soul. Against these positions of the sect Paul directed his main argument in proving that the world was created and governed by God. One of the distinguishing doctrines of Epicurus was that pleasure was the summum bonum, or chief good, and that virtue was to be practiced only as it contributed to pleasure. By pleasure, however, Epicurus did not mean sensual and groveling appetites and degraded vices, but rational pleasure, properly regulated and governed. See Good’s “Book of Nature.” But whatever his views were, it is certain that his followers had embraced the doctrine that the pleasures of sense were to be practiced without restraint. Both in principle and practice, therefore, they devoted themselves to a life of gaiety and sensuality, and sought happiness only in indolence, effeminacy, and voluptuousness. Confident in the belief that the world was not under the administration of a God of justice, they gave themselves up to the indulgence of every passion the infidels of their time, and the exact example of the frivolous and fashionable multitudes of all times, that live without God, and that seek pleasure as their chief good.
And of the Stoics - This was a sect of philosophers, so named from the Greek στοά stoa, a porch or portico, because Zeno, the founder of the sect, held his school and taught in a porch, in the city of Athens. Zeno was born in the island of Cyprus, but the greater part of his life was spent at Athens in teaching philosophy. After having taught publicly 48 years, he died at the age of 96, that is, 264 years before Christ. The doctrines of the sect were, that the universe was created by God; that all things were fixed by Fate; that even God was under the dominion of fatal necessity; that the Fates were to be submitted to; that the passions and affections were to be suppressed and restrained; that happiness consisted in the insensibility of the soul to pain; and that a man should gain an absolute mastery over all the passions and affections of his nature. They were stern in their views of virtue, and, like the Pharisees, prided themselves on their own righteousness. They supposed that matter was eternal, and that God was either the animating principle or soul of the world, or that all things were a part of God. They fluctuated much in their views of a future state; some of them holding that the soul would exist only until the destruction of the universe, and others that it would finally be absorbed into the divine essence and become a part of God. It will be readily seen, therefore, with what pertinency Paul discoursed to them. The leading doctrines of both sects were met by him.
Encountered him - Contended with him; opposed themselves to him.
And some said - This was said in scorn and contempt. He had excited attention; but they scorned such doctrines as they supposed would be delivered by an unknown foreigner from Judea.
What will this babbler say? - Margin, “base fellow.” Greek: σπερμολόγος spermologos. The word occurs nowhere else in the New Testament. It properly means “one who collects seeds,” and was applied by the Greeks to the poor persons who collected the scattered grain in the fields after harvest, or to gleaners; and also to the poor who obtained a precarious subsistence around the markets and in the streets. It was also applied to birds that picked up the scattered seeds of grain in the field or in the markets. The word came hence to have a twofold signification:
(1) It denoted the poor, the needy, and the vile the refuse and offscouring of society; and,
(2) From the birds which were thus employed, and which were troublesome by their continual unmusical sounds, it came to denote those who were talkative, garrulous, and opinionated those who collected the opinions of others, or scraps of knowledge, and retailed them fluently, without order or method. It was a word, therefore, expressive of their contempt for an unknown foreigner who should pretend to instruct the learned men and philosophers of Greece. Doddridge renders it “retailer of scraps.” Syriac, “collector of words.”
Other some - Others.
He seemeth to be a setter forth - He announces or declares the existence of strange gods. The reason why they supposed this was, that he made the capital points of his preaching to be Jesus and the resurrection, which they mistook for the names of divinities.
Of strange gods - Of foreign gods, or demons. They worshipped many gods themselves, and as they believed that every country had its own special divinities, they supposed that Paul had come to announce the existence of some such foreign, and to them unknown gods. The word translated “gods” (δαιμονίων daimoniōn) denotes properly “the genii, or spirits who were superior to human beings, but inferior to the gods.” It is, however, often employed to denote the gods themselves, and is evidently so used here. The gods among the Greeks were such as were supposed to have that rank by nature. The demons were such as had been exalted to divinity from being heroes and distinguished men.
He preached unto them Jesus - He proclaimed him as the Messiah. The mistake which they made by supposing that Jesus was a foreign divinity was one which was perfectly natural for minds degraded like theirs by idolatry. They had no idea of a pure God; they knew nothing of the doctrine of the Messiah; and they naturally supposed, therefore, that he of whom Paul spoke so much must be a god of some other nation, of a rank similar to their own divinities.
And the resurrection - The resurrection of Jesus, and through him the resurrection of the dead. It is evident, I think, that by the resurrection τὴν ἀνάστασιν tēn anastasin they understood him to refer to the name of some goddess. Such was the interpretation of Chrysostom. The Greeks had erected altars to Shame, and Famine, and Desire (Paus., i. 17), and it is probable that they supposed “the resurrection,” or the Anastasis, to be the name also of some unknown goddess who presided over the resurrection. Thus, they regarded him as a setter forth of two foreign or strange gods, Jesus, and the Anastasis, or resurrection.
And brought him unto Areopagus - Margin, or “Mars’ hill.” This was the place or court in which the Areopagites, the celebrated supreme judges of Athens, assembled. It was on a hill almost in the middle of the city; but nothing now remains by which we can determine the form or construction of the tribunal. The hill is almost entirely a mass of stone, and is not easily accessible, its sides being steep and abrupt. On many accounts this was the most celebrated tribunal in the world. Its decisions were distinguished for justice and correctness; nor was there any court in Greece in which so much confidence was placed. This court took cognizance of murders, impieties, and immoralities; they punished vices of all kinds, including idleness; they rewarded the virtuous; they were especially attentive to blasphemies against the gods, and to the performance of the sacred mysteries of religion. It was, therefore, with the greatest propriety that Paul was brought before this tribunal, as being regarded as a setter forth of strange gods, and as being supposed to wish to Introduce a new mode of worship. See Potter’s “Antiquities of Greece,” book 1, chapter 19; and Travels of Anacharsis, vol. i. 136, 185; ii. 292-295.
May we know - We would know. This seems to have been a respectful inquiry; and it does not appear that Paul was brought there for the sake of trial. There are no accusations; no witnesses; none of the forms of trial. They seem to have resorted thither because it was the place where the subject of religion was usually discussed, and because it was a place of confluence for the citizens, and judges, and wise men of Athens, and of foreigners. The design seems to have been, not to try him, but fairly to canvass the claims of his doctrines. See Acts 17:21. It was just an instance of the inquisitive spirit of the people of Athens, willing to hear before they condemned, and to examine before they approved.
Certain strange things - Literally, something pertaining to a foreign country or people. Here it means something unusual or remarkable - something different from what they had been accustomed to hear from their philosophers.
What these things mean - We would understand more clearly what is affirmed respecting Jesus and the resurrection.
For all the Athenians - This was their general character.
And strangers which were there - Athens was greatly distinguished for the celebrity of its schools of philosophy. It was at that time at the head of the literary world. Its arts and its learning were celebrated in all lands. It is known, therefore, that it was the favorite resort of people of other nations, who came there to become acquainted with its institutions and to listen to its sages.
Spent their time in nothing else - The learned and subtle Athenians gave themselves much to speculation, and employed themselves in examining the various new systems of philosophy that were proposed. Strangers and foreigners who were there, having much leisure, would also give themselves to the same inquiries.
But either to tell or to hear some new thing - Greek: “something newer” - καινότερον kainoteron. The latest news; or the latest subject of inquiry proposed. This is well known to have been the character of the people of Athens at all times. “Many of the ancient writers I bear witness to the garrulity, and curiosity, and intemperate desire of novelty among the Athenians, by which they inquired respecting all things, even those in which they had no interest, whether of a public or private nature (Kuinoel). Thus, Thucydides (3, 38) says of them, “You excel in suffering yourselves to be deceived with novelty of speech.” On which the old scholiast makes this remark, almost in the words of Luke: “He (Thucydides) here blames the Athenians, who care for nothing else but to tell or to hear something new.” Thus, Aelian (5, 13) says of the Athenians that they are versatile in novelties. Thus, Demosthenes represents the Athenians “as inquiring in the place of public resort if there were any news” - τι νεώτερον ti neōteron Meurslus has shown, also, that there were more than 300 public places in Athens of public resort, where the principal youth and reputable citizens were accustomed to meet for the purpose of conversation and inquiry.
Then Paul - This commences Paul’s explanation of the doctrines which he had stated. It is evident that Luke has recorded but a mere summary or outline of the discourse; but it is such as to enable us to see clearly his course of thought, and the manner in which he met the two principal sects of their philosophers.
In the midst of Mars’ hill - Greek: Areopagus. This should have been retained in the translation.
Ye men of Athens - This language was perfectly respectful, notwithstanding his heart had been deeply affected by their idolatry. Everything about this discourse is calm, grave, cool, argumentative. Paul understood the character of his auditors, and did not commence his discourse by denouncing them, nor did he suppose that they would be convinced by mere dogmatical assertion. No happier instance can be found of cool, collected argumentation than is furnished in this discourse.
I perceive - He perceived this by his observations of their forms of worship in passing through their city, Acts 17:23.
In all things - In respect to all events.
Ye are too superstitious - δεισιδαιμονεστέρους deisidaimonesterous. This is a most unhappy translation. We use the word “superstitious” always in a bad sense, to denote being “over-scrupulous and rigid in religious observances, particularly in smaller matters, or a zealous devotion to rites and observances which are not commanded.” But the word here is designed to convey no such idea. It properly means “reverence for the gods.” It is used in the Classic writers in a good sense, to denote “piety toward the gods, or suitable fear and reverence for them”; and also in a bad sense, to denote “improper fear or excessive dread of their anger”; and in this sense it accords with our word “superstitious.” But it is altogether improbable that Paul would have used it in a bad sense. For:
(1) It was not his custom needlessly to blame or offend his auditors.
(2) It is not probable that he would commence his discourse in a manner that would only excite prejudice and opposition.
(3) In the thing which he specifies Acts 17:23 as proof on the subject, he does not introduce it as a matter of blame, but rather as a proof of their devotedness to the cause of religion and of their regard for God.
(4) The whole speech is calm, dignified, and argumentative - such as became such a place, such a speaker, and such an audience. The meaning of the expression is, therefore, “I perceive that you are greatly devoted to reverence for religion; that it is a characteristic of the people to honor the gods, to rear altars to them, and to recognize the divine agency in times of trial.” The proof of this was the altar reared to the unknown God; its bearing on his purpose was, that such a state of public sentiment must be favorable to an inquiry into the truth of what he was about to state.
For as I passed by - Greek: “For I, coming through, and seeing, etc.”
And beheld - Diligently contemplated; attentively considered ἀναθεωρῶν anatheōrōn. The worship of an idolatrous people will be an object of intense and painful interest to a Christian.
Your devotions - τὰ σεβάσματα ta sebasmata. Our word devotions refers to the “act of worship” - to prayers, praises, etc. The Greek word used here means properly any sacred thing; any object which is worshipped, or which is connected with the place or rites of worship. Thus, it is applied either to the gods themselves, or to the temples, altars, shrines, sacrifices, statues, etc., connected with the worship of the gods. This is its meaning here. It does not denote that Paul saw them engaged in the act of worship, but that he was struck with the numerous temples, altars, statues, etc., which were reared to the gods, and which indicated the state of the people. Syriac, “the temple of your gods.” Vulgate, “your images.” Margin, “gods that ye worship.”
I found an altar - An altar usually denotes “a place for sacrifice.” Here, however, it does not appear that any sacrifice was offered; but it was probably a monument of stone, reared to commemorate a certain event, and dedicated to the unknown God.
To the unknown God - ἀγνώστῳ Θεῷ agnōstō Theō. Where this altar was reared, or on what occasion, has been a subject of much debate with expositors. That there was such an altar in Athens, though it may not have been specifically mentioned by the Greek writers, is rendered probable by the following circumstances:
(1) It was customary to rear such altars. Minutius Felix says of the Romans, “They build altars to unknown divinities.”
(2) The term “unknown God” was used in relation to the worship of the Athenians. Lucian, in his Philopatris, uses this form of an oath: “I swear by the unknown God at Athens,” the very expression used by the apostle. And again he says (chapter xxix. 180), “We have found out the unknown God at Athens, and worshipped him with our hands stretched up to heaven, etc.”
(3) There were altars at Athens inscribed to the unknown gods. Philostratus says (in Vita Apol., Romans 6:3), “And this at Athens, where there are even altars to the unknown gods.” Thus, Pausanius (in Attic., chapter i.) says, that “at Athens there are altars of gods which are called the unknown ones.” Jerome, in his commentary Titus 1:12, says that the whole inscription was, “To the gods of Asia, Europe, and Africa; to the unknown and strange gods.”
(4) There was a remarkable altar raised in Athens in a time of pestilence, in honor of the unknown god which had granted them deliverance. Diogenes Laertius says that Epimenides restrained the pestilence in the following manner: “Taking white and black sheep, he led them to the Areopagus, and there permitted them to go where they would, commanding those who followed them to sacrifice τῶ προσήχοντι θεῷ tō prosēkonti theōto the god to whom these things pertained or who had the power of averting the plague, whoever he might be, without adding the name and thus to allay the pestilence. From which it has arisen that at this day, through the villages of the Athenians, altars are found without any name” (Diog. Laert., book i, section 10). This took place about 600 years before Christ, and it is not improbable that one or more of those altars remained until the time of Paul. It should be added that the natural inscription on those altars would be, “To the unknown God.” None of the gods to whom they usually sacrificed could deliver them from the pestilence. They therefore reared them to some unknown Being who had the power to free them from the plague.
Whom therefore - The true God, who had really delivered them from the plague.
Ye ignorantly worship - Or worship without knowing his name. You have expressed your homage for him by rearing to him an altar.
Him declare I unto you - I make known to you his name, attributes, etc. There is remarkable tact in Paul’s seizing on this circumstance; and yet it was perfectly fair and honest. Only the true God could deliver in the time of the pestilence. This altar had, therefore, been really reared to him, though his name was unknown. The same Being who had interposed at that time, and whose interposition was recorded by the building of this altar, was He who had made the heavens; who ruled over all; and whom Paul was now about to make known to them. There is another feature of skill in the allusion to this altar. In other circumstances it might seem to be presumptuous for an unknown Jew to at tempt to instruct the sages of Athens. But here they had confessed and proclaimed their ignorance. By rearing this altar they acknowledged their need of instruction. The way was, therefore, fairly open for Paul to address even these philosophers, and to discourse to them on a point on which they acknowledged their ignorance.
God that made the world - The main object of this discourse of Paul is to convince them of the folly of idolatry Acts 17:29, and thus to lead them to repentance. For this purpose he commences with a statement of the true doctrine respecting God as the Creator of all things. We may observe here:
(1) That he speaks here of God as the Creator of the world, thus opposing indirectly their opinions that there were many gods.
(2) He speaks of him as the Creator of the world, and thus opposes the opinion that matter was eternal; that all things were controlled by Fate; and that God could be confined to temples. The Epicureans held that matter was eternal, and that the world was formed by a fortuitous concourse of atoms. To this opinion Paul opposed the doctrine that all things were made by one God. Compare Acts 14:15.
Seeing that ... - Greek: “He being Lord of heaven and earth.”
Lord of heaven and earth - Proprietor and Ruler of heaven and earth. It is highly absurd, therefore, to suppose that he who is present in heaven and in earth at the same time, and who rules over all, should be confined to a temple of an earthly structure, or dependent on man for anything.
Dwelleth not ... - See the notes on Acts 7:48.
Neither is worshipped with men’s hands - The word here rendered “worshipped” (θεραπέυεται therapeuetai) denotes to “serve”; to wait upon; and then to render religious service or homage. There is reference here, undoubtedly, to a notion prevalent among the pagan, that the gods were fed or nourished by the offerings made to them. The idea is prevalent among the Hindus that the sacrifices which are made, and which are offered in the temples, are consumed by the gods themselves. Perhaps, also, Paul had reference to the fact that so many persons were employed in their temples in serving them with their hands; that is, in preparing sacrifices and feasts in their honor. Paul affirms that the great Creator of all things cannot be thus dependent on his creatures for happiness, and consequently, that that mode of worship must be highly absurd. The same idea occurs in Psalms 50:10-12;
For every beast of the forest is mine;
And the cattle upon a thousand hills.
I know all the fowls of the mountain;
And the wild beasts of the field are mine.
If I were hungry, I would not tell thee;
For the world is mine, and the fulness thereof.
Seeing he giveth - Greek: he having given to all, etc.
Life - He is the source of life, and therefore he cannot be dependent on that life which he has himself imparted.
And breath - The power of breathing, by which life is sustained. He not only originally gave life, but he gives it at each moment; he gives the power of drawing each breath by which life is supported. It is possible that the phrase “life and breath may be the figure hendyades, by which one thing is expressed by two words. It is highly probable that Paul here had reference to Genesis 2:7; “And the Lord God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” The same idea occurs in Job 12:10;
In whose hand is the life (margin) of every living thing;
And the breath of all mankind.
And all things - All things necessary to sustain life. We may see here how dependent man is on God. There can be no more absolute dependence than that for every breath. How easy it would be for God to suspend our breathing! How incessant the care, how unceasing the providence, by which, whether we sleep or wake - whether we remember or forget him, he heaves our chest, fills our lungs, restores the vitality of our blood, and infuses vigor into our frame! Compare the notes on Romans 11:36.
And hath made of one blood - All the families of mankind are descended from one origin or stock. However different their complexion, features, or language, yet they are derived from a common parent. The word blood is often used to denote “race, stock, kindred.” This passage affirms that all the human family are descended from the same ancestor; and that, consequently, all the variety of complexion, etc., is to be traced to some other cause than that they were originally different races created. See Genesis 1:0; compare Malachi 2:10. The design of the apostle in this affirmation was probably to convince the Greeks that he regarded them all as brethren; that, although he was a Jew, yet he was not enslaved to any narrow notions or prejudices in reference to other people. It follows from the truth here stated that no one nation, and no individual, can claim any pre-eminence over others in virtue of birth or blood. All are in this respect equal; and the whole human family, however they may differ in complexion, customs, and laws, are to be regarded and treated as brethren. It follows, also, that no one part of the race has a right to enslave or oppress any other part, on account of difference of complexion. No one has a right because:
He finds his fellow guilty of a skin
Not colored like his own; and having power
T’ enforce the wrong, for such a worthy cause to
Doom and devote him as his lawful prey.
For to dwell ... - To cultivate and until the earth. This was the original command Genesis 1:28; and God, by his providence, has so ordered it that the descendants of one family have found their way to all lands, and have become adapted to the climate where he has placed them.
And hath determined - Greek: ὁρίσας horisas. Having fixed, or marked out a boundary. See the notes on Romans 1:4. The word is usually applied to a field. It means here that God “marked out,” or “designated in his purpose,” their future abodes.
The times before appointed - This evidently refers to the dispersion and migration of nations. And it means that God had, in his plan, fixed the times when each country should be settled, and the rise, the prosperity, and the fall of each nation. The different continents and islands have not, therefore, been settled by chance, but by a wise rule, and in accordance with God’s arrangement and design.
And the bounds of their habitation - Their limits and boundaries as a people. By customs, laws, inclinations, and habits he has fixed the boundaries of their habitations, and disposed them to dwell there. We may learn:
- That the revolutions and changes of nations are under the direction of infinite wisdom;
- That people should not be restless and dissatisfied with the place where God has located them;
- That God has given sufficient limits to all, so that it is not needful to invade others; and,
- That wars of conquest are evil.
God has given to people their places of abode, and we have no right to disturb those abodes, or to attempt to displace them in a violent manner. This strain of remark by the apostle was also opposed to all the notions of the Epicurean philosophers, and yet so obviously true and just that they could not gainsay or resist it.
That they should seek the Lord - Greek: to seek the Lord. The design of thus placing them on the earth - of gang them their habitation among his works - was, that they should contemplate his wisdom in his works, and thus come to a knowledge of his existence and character. All nations, though living in different regions and climates, have thus the opportunity of becoming acquainted with God, Romans 1:19-20. The fact that the nations did not thus learn the character of the true God shows their great stupidity and wickedness. The design of Paul in this was doubtless to reprove the idolatry of the Athenians. The argument is this: “God has given to each nation its proper opportunity to learn his character. Idolatry, therefore, is folly and wickedness, since it is possible to find out the existence of the one God from his works.”
If haply - εἰ ἄρα γε ei ara ge. If perhaps - implying that it was possible to find God, though it might be attended with some difficulty. God has placed us here that we may make the trial, and has made it possible thus to find him.
They might feel after him - The word used here ψηλαφήσειαν psēlaphēseian means properly “to touch, to handle” Luke 24:39; Hebrews 12:18, and then to ascertain the qualities of an object by the sense of touch. And as the sense of touch is regarded as a certain way of ascertaining the existence and qualities of an object, the word means “to search diligently, so that we may know distinctly and certainly.” The word has this sense here. It means “to search diligently and accurately for God, to learn his existence and perfections.” The Syriac renders it, “That they may seek for God, and find him from his creatures.”
And find him - Find the proofs of his existence. Become acquainted with his perfections and laws.
Though he be not far ... - This seems to be stated by the apostle to show that it was possible to find him; and that even those who were without a revelation need not despair of becoming acquainted with his existence and perfections. He is near to us:
(1) Because the proofs of his existence and power are round about us everywhere, Psalms 19:1-6.
(2) Because he fills all things in heaven and earth by his essential presence, Psalms 139:7-10; Jeremiah 23:23-24; Amos 9:2-4; 1 Kings 8:27. We should learn then:
(1) To be afraid of sin. God is present with us, and sees all.
(2) He can protect the righteous. He is always with them.
(3) He can detect and punish the wicked. He sees all their plans and thoughts, and records all their doings.
(4) We should seek him continually. It is the design for which he has made us; and he has given us abundant opportunities to learn his existence and perfections.
For in him we live - The expression “in him” evidently means by him; by his originally forming us, and continually sustaining us. No words can better express our constant dependence on God. He is the original fountain of life, and he upholds us each moment. A similar sentiment is found in Plautus (5, 4,14): “O Jupiter, who dost cherish and nourish the race of man; by whom we live, and with whom is the hope of the life of all men” (Kuinoel). It does not appear, however, that Paul designed this as a quotation; yet he doubtless intended to state a sentiment with which they were familiar, and with which they would agree.
And move - κινούμεθα kinoumetha. Doddridge translates this, “And are moved.” It may, however, be in the middle voice, and be correctly rendered as in our version. It means that we derive strength to move from him; an expression denoting “constant and absolute dependence.” There is no idea of dependence more striking than that we owe to him the ability to perform the slightest motion.
And have our being - καὶ ἐσμέν kai esmen. And are. This denotes that our “continued existence” is owing to Him. That we live at all is his gift; that we have power to move is his gift; and our continued and prolonged existence is his gift also. Thus, Paul traces our dependence on him from the lowest pulsation of life to the highest powers of action and of continued existence. It would be impossible to express in more emphatic language our entire dependence On God.
As certain also - As some. The sentiment which he quotes was found substantially in several Greek poets.
Of your own poets - He does not refer particularly here to poets of Athens, but to Greek poets who had written in their language.
For we are also his offspring - This precise expression is found in Aratus (“Phaenom.,” v. 5), and in Cleanthus in a hymn to Jupiter. Substantially the same sentiment is found in several other Greek poets. Aratus was a Greek poet of Cilicia the native place of Paul, and flourished about 277 years before Christ. As Paul was a native of the same country it is highly probable he was acquainted with his writings. Aratus passed much of his time at the court of Antigonus Gonatas, king of Macedonia. His principal work was the “Phoenomena,” which is here quoted, and was so highly esteemed in Greece that many learned men wrote commentaries on it. The sentiment here quoted was directly at variance with the views of the Epicureans; and it is proof of Paul’s address and skill, as well as his acquaintance with his auditors and with the Greek poets, that he was able to adduce a sentiment so directly in point, and that had the concurrent testimony of so many of the Greeks themselves. It is one instance among thousands where an acquaintance with profane learning may be of use to a minister of the gospel.
Forasmuch then - Admitting or assuming this to be true. The argument which follows is drawn from the concessions of their own writers.
We ought not to think - It is absurd to suppose. The argument of the apostle is this: “Since we are formed by God; since we are like him, living and intelligent beings; since we are more excellent in our nature than the most precious and ingenious works of art, it is absurd to suppose that the original source of our existence can be like gold, and silver, and stone. Man himself is far more excellent than an image of wood and stone; how much more excellent still must be the great Fountain and Source of all our wisdom and intelligence.” See this thought pursued at length in Isaiah 40:18-23.
The Godhead - The divinity (τὸ Θεῖον to Theion), the divine nature, or essence. The word used here is an adjective employed as a noun, and does not occur elsewhere in the New Testament.
Is like unto gold ... - All these things were used in making images or statues of the gods. It is absurd to think that the source of all life and intelligence resembles a lifeless block of wood or stone. Even degraded pagan, one would think, might see the force of an argument like this.
Graven - Sculptured; made into an image.
And the times of this ignorance - The long period when people were ignorant of the true God, and when they worshipped stocks and stones. Paul here refers to the times preceding the gospel.
God winked at - ὑπεριδὼν huperidōn. Overlooked; connived at; did not come forth to punish. In Acts 14:16 it is expressed thus: “Who in times past suffered all nations to walk in their own ways” The sense is, he passed over those times without punishing them, as if he did not see them. For wise purposes he suffered them to walk in ignorance that there might be a fair experiment to show what people would do, and how much necessity there was for a revelation to instruct them in the true know edge of God. We are not to suppose that God regarded idolatry as innocent, or the crimes and vices to which idolatry led as of no importance; but their ignorance was a mitigating circumstance, and he suffered the nations to live without coming forth in direct judgment against them. Compare the notes on Acts 3:17; Acts 14:16.
But now commandeth - By the gospel, Luke 24:47.
All men - Not Jews only, who had been favored with special privileges, but all nations. The barrier was broken down, and the call to repentance was sent abroad into all the earth.
To repent - To exercise sorrow for their sins, and to forsake them. If God commands all people to repent, we may observe:
(1) That it is their duty to do it. There is no higher obligation than to obey the command of God.
(2) It can be done. God would not command an impossibility.
(3) It is binding on all. The rich, the learned, the great, the frivolous, are as much bound as the beggar and the slave.
(4) It must be done, or the soul lost. It is not safe to neglect a plain Law of God. It will not be well to die reflecting that we have all our life despised his commands.
(5) We should send the gospel to the pagan. God calls on the nations to repent, and to be saved. It is the duty of Christians to make known to them the command, and to invite them to the blessings of pardon and heaven.
Because he hath appointed a day - This is given as a reason why God commands people to repent. They must be judged; and if they are not penitent and pardoned, they must be condemned. See the notes on Romans 2:16.
Judge the world - The whole world - Jews and Gentiles.
In righteousness - According to the principles of strict justice.
Whom he hath ordained - Or whom he has constituted or appointed as judge. See the Acts 10:42 notes; John 5:25 notes.
Hath given assurance - Has afforded evidence of this. That evidence consists:
(1) In the fact that Jesus declared that he would judge the nations John 5:25-26; Matthew 25:0; and,
(2) God confirmed the truth of his declarations by raising him from the dead, or gave his sanction to what the Lord Jesus had said, for God would nor work a miracle in favor of an impostor.
Some mocked - Some of the philosophers derided him. The doctrine of the resurrection of the dead was believed by none of the Greeks; it seemed incredible; and they regarded it as so absurd as not to admit of an argument, It has nor been uncommon for even professed philosophers to mock at the doctrines of religion, and to meet the arguments of Christianity with a sneer. The Epicureans particularly would be likely to deride this, as they denied altogether any future state. It is not improbable that this derision by the Epicureans produced such a disturbance as to break off Paul’s discourse, as that of Stephen had been by the clamor of the Jews, Acts 7:54.
And others said - Probably some of the Stoics. The doctrine of a future state was not denied by them; and the fact, affirmed by Paul, that one had been raised up from the dead, would appear more plausible to them, and it might be a matter worth inquiry to ascertain whether the alleged fact did not furnish a new argument for their views. They therefore proposed to examine this further at some future time. That the inquiry was prosecuted any further does not appear probable, for:
(1) No church was organized at Athens.
(2) There is no account of any future interview with Paul.
(3) He departed almost immediately from them, Acts 18:1. People who defer inquiry on the subject of religion seldom find the favorable period arrive. Those who propose to examine its doctrines at a future time often do it to avoid the inconvenience of becoming Christians now, and as a plausible and easy way of rejecting the gospel altogether, without appearing to be rude, or to give offence.
So Paul departed - Seeing there was little hope of saving them. It was not his custom to labor long in a barren field, or to preach where there was no prospect of success.
Clave unto him - Adhered to him firmly; embraced the Christian religion.
Dionysius - Nothing more is certainly known of this man than is here stated.
The Areopagite - Connected with the court of Areopagus, but in what way is not known. It is probable that he was one of the judges. The conversion of one man was worth the labor of Paul, and that conversion might have had an extensive influence on others.
In regard to this account of the visit of Paul to Athens probably the only one which he made to that splendid capital - we may remark:
(1) That he was indefatigable and constant in his great work.
(2) Christians, amidst the splendor and gaieties of such cities, should have their hearts deeply affected in view of the moral desolations of the people.
(3) They should be willing to do their duty, and to bear witness to the pure and simple gospel in the presence of the great and the noble.
(4) They should not consider it their main business to admire splendid temples, statues, and paintings - the works of art; but their main business should be to do good as they may have opportunity.
(5) A discourse, even in the midst of such wickedness and idolatry, may be calm and dignified; not an appeal merely to the passions, but to the understanding. Paul reasoned with the philosophers of Athens; he did not denounce them; he endeavored calmly to convince them, not harshly to censure them.
(6) The example of Paul is a good one for all Christians. In all places cities, towns, or country; amidst all people - philosophers, the rich, the poor; among friends and countrymen, or among strangers and foreigners, the great object should be to do good, to instruct mankind, to seek to elevate the human character, and to promote human happiness by diffusing the pare precepts of the gospel of Christ.
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Barnes, Albert. "Commentary on Acts 17". "Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany