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Bible Commentaries
Acts 17

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Verses 1-3

Preaching of Paul in Thessalonica

When Paul, Silas and Timothy have left Philippi, they travel south to Amphipolis and Apollonia. In Apollonia they head west and then arrive in Thessalonica. The special mention that there is a synagogue of the Jews there may be an indication that there was no synagogue in the two previous cities and that he therefore passed those cities. We know that Paul acts as much as possible according to the principle ‘first the Jew and then the Greek’. It is his “custom” (Acts 17:2; cf. Luke 4:16) to first look for a synagogue in a city where he comes.

A synagogue has the advantage that there are not only Jews but also Gentiles who are interested in the God of Israel. It is a nice springboard to bring the gospel to prepared people. The synagogue is a place of learning where the Jews not only meet on Sabbath, but also on other days. It is therefore plausible that Paul, although he mainly maintains himself on the Sabbaths with the visitors of the synagogue, but also on other days reasons with interested people.

The fact that Luke speaks of “three Sabbaths” also gives an indication of Paul’s time in Thessalonica. That must be between three and four weeks. In those more than three weeks he reasons with them from the Scriptures. He opens these to them and quotes from them to show that the Christ, that is the Messiah, had to suffer at His coming and rise from the dead. He must first make this clear to them because they were looking for a messiah who, as their political leader, would free them from the yoke of the Romans. However, the Scriptures speak a different language and that is what he first tells them. Then he can simply point to the Lord Jesus as the Messiah and say that in Him He has come.

The Christ of Whom he has just shown from the Scriptures what should happen to Him, is none other than “Jesus”, the subject of his proclamation. This one verse summarizes the core of the gospel, as it can be proclaimed today especially to the Jews. That core is that the Messiah Jesus came, suffered, died and rose again from the dead.

In these few weeks that Paul has been in Thessalonica, he has not only preached the gospel, but has also spoken about prophetic truths in which he has emphasized the second coming of Christ. His letters to them bear witness to this. In his second letter to them he reminds them of his oral teaching when he was with them (2 Thessalonians 2:5).

Verses 4-9

Reactions to the Preaching

The conviction with which Paul and Silas spoke is not without result. They spoke the Word with force (1 Thessalonians 1:5). This made such an impression on three groups of people that they joined Paul and Silas. The first group consists of “some of them”, that is some of the Jews, because in their synagogue they have spoken (Acts 17:1). The second group is formed by “a large number of the God-fearing Greeks”. These are not proselytes, but worshippers of the God of Israel who adhere to the Noahite covenant. The third group is “a number of the leading women”.

Even today, women are often in the majority when it comes to responding to the gospel. This may have to do with the fact that a woman is by her nature more familiar with the suffering in the world. She experiences this personally, for example in giving birth to children to which pain is connected (Genesis 3:16). She also wonders, more than men do, why suffering is in the world and therefore often opens herself more to the gospel. Men are more often insensitive to the consequences of sin.

After the three groups that joined Paul and Silas, a group that strongly opposes the gospel comes forward. The majority of the Jews does not want the message that Paul brings. As we always see, they reject the gospel and begrudge others to hear about it as well. They take along people who hang around – this is the literal meaning of the word “mob” – in the marketplace. These idlers are easily persuaded to cause a popular uproar and bring the city in an uproar.

They head for Jason’s house, assuming they will find Paul and Silas there. Apparently Jason has given shelter to both preachers. Their intention is to bring Paul and Silas to the people, that is to say, to have them sentenced by a people’s assembly. But they do not find Paul and Silas in Jason’s house.

In their frustration about this they seize Jason and some brethren and drag them before the city authorities, while shouting against them the accusation they had intended for Paul and Silas. In this way Jason and the brethren share in the persecution for the sake of the gospel because they identified with it; because they accommodated Paul and Silas. Luke speaks more often about hospitality (Acts 16:15; Acts 18:3Acts 21:16). The Lord Jesus expresses His appreciation about it (Matthew 25:38-:; cf. 1 Peter 4:9; 3 John 1:5-Ruth :).

The accusation is that they upset the world. Thus they give unintentional testimony of the power of Christendom. At the same time they also say that Christendom is dangerous to the state. Nowadays Christians who are faithful to the Bible are also increasingly confronted with such an accusation. They are quickly called fundamentalists, people who are a danger to society. The uproar of the world – by which is meant the Roman world empire (cf. Luke 2:1) – finds its origin, according to the prosecutors, in the preaching of another king than the emperor: “Jesus”.

The word “another” has the meaning of “another of some other kind”, i.e. not of the kind of Caesar. It does not refer to just another person than Caesar, but to Someone Who is different according to His Being. If it is Someone Who has all the power in heaven and on earth, He is the greatest threat to the empire imaginable. We see here, just like when the Lord Jesus stood before Pilate, that it is about the contrast between Christ and the Roman Empire, which will also be seen in the end times.

The Jews still prefer to acknowledge the emperor as their king rather than accept Jesus as their King. After all, they already told Pilate that they had no king but Caesar (John 19:15). In the end time the apostate people will confirm that choice by accepting the antichrist as their messiah and with him the dictator of the restored Roman Empire (Revelation 13:11; Revelation 13:1).

The accusation shows that Paul and Silas spoke about the kingship of the Lord Jesus. This kingship is also central in the two letters that Paul wrote to the Thessalonians. He mentions it in almost every chapter. The kingship of Christ means that He has a kingdom. That kingdom is not yet public on earth, but it is present. It is in the hearts of those who acknowledge Him as Lord over their lives (Romans 14:17). However, it will also be openly established on earth when the Lord Jesus returns from heaven and takes His place on His throne on earth.

The first part of the accusation is not justified. Paul and Silas have nowhere acted against the emperor’s ordinances. Nowhere are Christians called upon to build the kingdom of God through political activities, but to wait for Him Who will do so.

With their actions, the Jews – and not the preachers of the gospel – stir up all those who hear their accusations. Opponents of the gospel never bring peace. Nor can they because the arguments they put forward against the gospel are flawed. Opponents of the gospel never have a clear story, but are vague in their language, no matter how self-confident they may speak.

Jason and those who were dragged with him before the city authorities are released after having paid a pledge. There is nothing else to do against them. It seems that they can’t be punished for dealing with the subversive preachers. However, the city authorities do want a guarantee in the form of a pledge that they will not continue to support these intruders.

Verses 10-15

Paul and Silas in Berea

The brethren think that Paul and Silas should leave Thessalonica. It is far too dangerous for them to stay there. Paul and Silas listen to the brethren. They recognize the voice of the Lord in what the brethren say. The brethren also decide where to go because they send them away to Berea. Paul and Silas leave unnoticed in the night. When they arrive in Berea, they act in the same way as always and go first to the synagogue of the Jews.

Luke calls the Jews they find in the synagogue “more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica”. They are not noble by origin, but the nobility of these Jews is the willingness with which they receive the Word. It is a nobleness of mind, of spirit.

The fact that they willingly accept the Word does not mean that they accept it blindly. They examine it in the light of the Scriptures. They hear all kinds of things about the Messiah, but they want to examine in the Old Testament whether what they hear is in accordance with what is written there. Examining means comparing Scripture with Scripture; it is a thorough examination. They don’t just do that on a certain occasion, but “daily”. Because of that examination many people come to faith. That faith has the solid foundation of the Word.

We see in the order – first receiving with great eagerness and then examining – an important clue for fruitful Bible study. It begins with an eagerness to learn; then comes the study of the Bible. Doing Bible study without the eagerness to do what the Bible says leads to formalism and legalism. It does not lead to knowing God’s thoughts, but to pride.

In addition to the many Jews who come to faith, many prominent Greek women and men also come to faith. The women are mentioned first, which may indicate that they are in the majority, or that they are more quickly convinced than the men.

This victory through the gospel in Berea is brought to the attention of the Jews in Thessalonica. That message is a bomb. The effect is consequently explosive. The Jews from Thessalonica go to Berea. Their jealousy of and hatred against the gospel are so great that they are willing to travel the distance of seventy to eighty kilometers to oppose the gospel also in Berea. They manipulate the crowds with their false ideas about the gospel, which also causes turmoil and confusion there. Also in Berea the brethren consider it advisable that Paul leaves.

The hatred of the Jews concentrates on Paul. Silas and Timothy can stay to teach the believers in Berea further in the faith. The brethren tell Paul to travel as far as the sea. Some of the brethren also go with him to accompany him. These brethren accompany him all the way to Athens. The accompaniment over such a long distance also proves their willing participation in the gospel. They are willing to do something for it. From there they return to Berea.

Paul gives them the message for Silas and Timothy that they will join him in Athens as soon as possible. By this he does not mean to put pressure on their service, but he expresses his desire for their company. He is very fond of their company because of the support in the service they give him. It is important that servants do not go their way like loners, but acknowledge that they need each other. It is an acknowledgment of the diversity of the gifts that the Lord has given and that complement each other.

Verses 16-18

Paul in Athens

The message Paul gave to the brethren concerning Silas and Timothy is very much alive in him. He is waiting for them in Athens. This seems to be the main purpose of his stay in Athens, but that does not mean that he will sit quietly in a hotel room waiting for the arrival of his two co-workers. This time he doesn’t immediately go looking for a synagogue, but makes a tour through the city. During that tour he is deeply touched by the many idols he observes.

Athens is the great center of Greek civilization, learning and philosophy. It is also a city with a past glory that is full of idols. It has been said that the city had more idols than people and that it was easier to find a god than a human being. Unfortunately, God once had to speak about Israel in such a way (Jeremiah 2:28; Jeremiah 11:13).

Because of what Paul sees, he cannot take rest. His spirit is provoked within him when he sees so much that is false and makes people walk on the wrong path. He is forced to give his testimony. After all, he is not a tourist in the city, but a preacher. His first course when it comes to preaching is to go to the synagogue again to meet the Jews and God-fearing Gentiles. He can also be found in the marketplace because there are always many people there as well.

He “reasons” with them, that is, he does not give a speech, but has a conversation, a dialogue, with them. Such a manner of discussion keeps the listeners sharp and involved. It forces them to think with him. Reasoning with somebody also asks to listen yourself carefully to what the other person is busy with.

The inhabitants of Athens are characterized by an enormous spiritual activity and an insatiable hunger for new ideas, for the latest philosophical views. Under Paul’s hearing there are two groups of philosophers who attack him. They do not listen, but begin to argue.

One group consists of followers of the enjoyment doctrine of a certain Epicurus. This man taught that the highest virtue of a human being lies in the satisfaction of one’s own desires. If he can satisfy his wishes, he is happy. They are materialists and atheists and the purpose of their lives is enjoyment (1 Corinthians 15:32). This also means that they flee suffering because suffering prevents enjoyment. Their way of life elevates them above others. It is essentially complete selfishness. There is no place for God. As a group they no longer exist, but today they have countless kindred spirits.

The other group consists of followers of a doctrine that implies that someone is only happy when he is completely free of mental disorders, of emotions. This doctrine is opposed to that of the Epicurus. The Stoic philosophers – named after the space, the Stoa poikile, where this doctrine was taught – say on the contrary that all earthly enjoyments as well as suffering must be suppressed completely. It is about being insensitive, to go through joy and suffering undisturbed. Whoever does not allow himself to be influenced by inner feelings or outer circumstances, has complete control over himself and enjoys the highest happiness in this. This, of course, feeds pride and makes them independent of God.

In both groups there is no interest at all in Paul, who they belatedly call “idle babbler”. By ‘idle babbler’ they mean someone who has collected different ideas from others – has picked grains everywhere; the literal meaning of the word translated with ‘idle’ is ‘grain picker’ – and then passes them on as if they were his own ideas. With this they want to ridicule the truth that Paul preaches and strip it of its originality. They deny its Divine origin.

Ridiculing the truth or presenting it as an unoriginal story is often a means in the hand of the enemy to turn people away from the truth. In doing so, he responds to people’s fear of identifying with something that is despised by a lot of people.

For others, what Paul preaches is a novelty. In “Jesus and the resurrection” that he preaches to them, they see idols about whom they have never heard anything so far. They understand from his words that he speaks about two gods: Jesus and Anastasis, the Greek word for ‘resurrection’. Such a view shows their total blindness to the revelation of God in Christ. Not only do they see Jesus as an idol, but they also see the resurrection as an idol. The resurrection from the dead is unknown to them, which is why they think that the resurrection is also an idol. To their understanding Paul preaches a god and a goddess.

Verses 19-21

Paul Brought to the Areopagus

Curious as they are, they want to know more. There is no enmity, rather a benevolent permission they give him to give his testimony. They even politely ask Paul if they are allowed to know “what this new teaching is” he is talking about. For this they take him to the Areopagus, where ‘the Department of Religion’, in the presence of many interested people in the ‘public gallery’, wants to deal with these things. They want to hear Paul about what they judge to be “new teaching” and “strange things”. For them, these are words with an unknown meaning.

Paul will certainly have spoken in plain Greek, but still the meaning of what he says escapes these highly gifted thinkers. They think they are enlightened in their thinking, but in reality they are darkened in their minds. Therefore they understand nothing of what Paul says (1 Corinthians 2:14). In order to be able to do so, they must first repent. Paul’s speech therefore culminates in a call to repentance that is connected to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus (Acts 17:31).

Before that happens, Paul is given the opportunity to explain what he is teaching. Offering this opportunity is in keeping with the attitude of the Athenians, for they like nothing more than to talk. Athens is a real city of talk. All they do is talk all day long. When a novelty presented itself, it was a rewarding occasion for a conversation.

Verses 22-29

Speech to the Men of Athens

Paul begins his speech by connecting with the world of the Athenians. He knows what audience he has in front of him. Among the Jews he appeals to the Scriptures because the Jews also refer to them for they know them. The Athenians do not know the Scriptures and Paul does not quote from them, but everything he says is based entirely on the Scriptures. He does not begin with a condemnation of their idolatry (cf. Romans 1:22-Isaiah :), but with a neutral observation. He does not express any appreciation or reproach.

He tells what he noticed when he went through the city. Among the many objects of worship, he had also found an altar dedicated “to an unknown God”. An altar for an unknown god had been erected for fear of having overlooked a god who had to be honored after all. It could also be that it was a kind of ‘garbage can god’, where one would go if one had a business for which one could not go to the ‘known gods’.

Starting from this gap in their cult of idols, Paul starts preaching to them the true God. He does not say that he is going to preach that unknown god to them, as if he is filling a gap in their arsenal of idols. He does not say ‘who you worship in ignorance’, but “what you worship in ignorance”. What Paul is going to preach overthrows their entire system of idolatry. He does not correspond to their ignorance of a particular god, but to their ignorance of everything that has to do with the true God. Paul does not proclaim a new god, but the God of gods.

The first thing he says about God is that He is Creator. If we don’t know Him like that, we don’t know Him at all. In this intellectual city, Paul must descend to the lowest rung of the ladder of truth. That is the result of intellectual civilization without God. Paul addresses the basic questions that every thinking person asks: Where do I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going?

God made everything, the whole world and everything in it (Psalms 146:6; Isaiah 42:5). This is at odds with the Greek thinking that assumes that matter is eternal. God made the world, the world came into being out of Him. He has called things that are not as if they were (Romans 4:17; Hebrews 11:3). That means that everything that is, came forth from that one God. God is not part of creation or united with creation. He is there and is above creation.

Although He is above His creation, He is concerned with it. He is not a God at a distance, separated from His creation. He is also not a prisoner of His creation, as if He were locked in it. He is too big to live in something that made human hands, but not too big to deal with people’s needs. People have to carry, nurture and even take their gods into captivity (Isaiah 46:1-Exodus :), but the true God Himself serves man and carries His own (Isaiah 46:3-Numbers :).

God needs nothing from man, but man depends on Him for everything he needs. The temples don’t contain God, but the service in those temples doesn’t add anything to God either. God cannot be limited spatially, He is omnipresent. Solomon, who built a temple for God, was aware of this (1 Kings 8:27). Gentiles have only local gods.

With these arguments Paul sweeps their whole system off the table. God is the Source of every good gift. He is so interested in man that He gives to all “life and breath and all things” (Acts 17:25; Psalms 50:12). To Him, all men are also equal, for He made them all come forth from one blood, that is, from one ancestor. To all those people God makes His gospel known. And God has not only given people life and breath and all things as individuals, He has also placed those people together in nations and given each nation its own territory. God leads the history of all nations and each of those nations He has given its own place on earth, taking His people Israel as a starting point (Deuteronomy 32:8).

God did not make man to leave him to himself, but that he might seek Him. In the deepest being of man there is a craving for God. This is how he was created by Him. God is not far from man. In the gospel He comes close to man. The sincerely seeking man will find Him. God has done everything to make it easy for man to find Him.

How much man is in darkness about God, Paul indicates by saying that people “grope” for God. Someone does something by groping when he has no light. Man lives in darkness, his understanding is blinded by the god of this age (2 Corinthians 4:4). That is why he does not perceive God and that while God can be seen everywhere man looks.

To make this fact of God’s nearness clear to the Athenians, Paul appeals to some of their famous poets who have said that humans are God’s offspring. What those poets said, they said with Zeus in mind, but Paul applies it to the real meaning for God. Adam was born of God, created by Him and therefore of His offspring. In that sense he is also called “son of God” (Luke 3:23; Luke 3:38). Man is created in God’s image and resembles Him in the qualities He has, through which man can act as a responsible being. Wherever people are, we see the image of God.

We can also recognize Him in creation, that is, His eternal power and divinity are seen therein (Romans 1:20). In this sense, it is perfectly true that He is not far from each of us because we live and move in Him and exist in Him. The fact that man does not find Him despite all that, shows how great man’s alienation from God is. In reality, man is not looking for God either. There is no one seeking God because they have all deviated from God’s original plan with man (Romans 3:11-2 Kings :).

Paul subtly points out that deviation by pointing out that they should not think that the Godhead can be portrayed by people. He has seen that Athens is full of that foolishness. If we are ‘His offspring’, that is, if God made us in His image, it is foolishness for us to make images of God in our own imagination. Anyone who makes an image of God does so according to his own image of God. The consequence of this can only be that the greatness of God as far as man’s knowledge of Him is concerned is completely nullified. If man sets to work with this, he cannot but destroy this image.

Verses 30-31

Call to Repentance

Paul comes to his actual message. The ignorance which they have admitted with the image of the unknown god is not merely a gap in their knowledge, but reflects their total ignorance. This ignorance extends over all the times that have passed. Paul puts an end to this ignorance. God is a God of patience Who has allowed all those times to pass without intervening. He still does not intervene, but in His grace He lets the gospel be proclaimed also now, in this day and age.

It means that people must repent, that is: totally change their minds. They think they have everything under control, but they have to realize that they are completely wrong. This is a sign of weakness for those who have always done everything in their own strength, from faith in themselves. It is also a proof of self-conquest when one bows down to the command of God. It is about obedience to faith (Romans 1:5).

God commands all people, without exception, good and evil, wherever they are, including in Athens, to repent. He also places a limit on preaching. God says to man that he must repent in view of a day fixed by Him that will come, which is the day of judgment. God’s patience will come to an end and He will make Himself known as the God of righteous judgment. Righteousness is established by judgment (Isaiah 26:9). Before there can be peace, both on earth and in the heart of a human being, righteousness must first have taken place in view of all that the judgment deserves.

This judgment will make God come over the world through a Man, a Human. Paul does not mention the name of that Man, but merely gives a characteristic. This characteristic is of decisive importance and establishes beyond doubt that the judgment will come. That characteristic of this Man is that He is resurrected by God. Again Paul speaks of the resurrection. The Man Who was resurrected by God has a resurrection body. Also in the resurrection He is Man. And precisely because He is the Son of Man, He will exercise judgment (John 5:27). God has given the proof that this Man will exercise judgment, by raising Him from the dead.

Verses 32-34

Reactions to the Preaching

Until his remark about the resurrection, his audience listened attentively. But when he starts talking about the resurrection, the tongues loosen. For these Greek thinkers, the body is a dungeon in which the spirit is held captive and limited in its unfolding. It is therefore the greatest foolishness for them to think that the body would once again serve as a dungeon for the mind. The thought alone leads some to sneering remarks.

Others go away with a not too serious intention: “We will hear you concerning this”. Those are the people who put a decision on the back burner. Thus Paul goes out of their midst, out of the midst of those who are mocking and hesitant.

However, there are also men and women who join him and believe. It’s not a big harvest. Where the mind and philosophy prevail, the heart is not receptive to the gospel (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:26).

Bibliographical Information
de Koning, Ger. Commentaar op Acts 17". "Kingcomments on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/kng/acts-17.html. 'Stichting Titus' / 'Stichting Uitgeverij Daniël', Zwolle, Nederland. 2021.
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