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This chapter begins with St. Paul's travels to Thessalonica, the chief city of Macedonia, where this apostle gathered a famous church, unto which he wrote two excellent epistles. Coming to Thessalonica at this time, he went (as his manner was) into the synagogue, not into a private house. As Christ taught daily in the temple, so did his apostles teach in the synagogues: it was the false apostles that crept into houses, and led captive silly women, as St. Paul complains, 2 Timothy 3:6 Truth seeks no corners, but rejoices to be publicly seen; besides, the gospel was first to be preached to the Jews, and, upon their rejection, to the Gentiles.
Accordingly the apostle takes the advantage of the synagogue, where all the Jews were gathered together, and preaches to them Jesus and the resurrection.
Where observe, The first grand point which the apostle insisted upon, was to demonstrate, that this Jesus, whom he preached, was the long expected Messias. Now to prove this, he produces the prophecies of the Old Testament, and compares them with what was both done and suffered by Christ, making all things as plain and obvious to the eye of their understanding, as if they had been seen with bodily eyes; satisfactorily demonstrating to their judgments, that Jesus is the Christ.
Observe, lastly, How the gospel is like the sea; what is lost in one place, is gained in another; St. Paul is sent away from Philippi, but by that means the gospel was preached at Thessalonica. God overrules the motions of his ministers, and the madness and malice of their persecutors, for the furtherance and spreading of the gospel.
The foregoing verses acquaint us with St. Paul's preaching at Thessalonica in the Jewish synagogue, as also with the argument he insisted upon; namely, that the Messiah, according to the scriptures, was to die, and rise again from the dead; and that Jesus, whom he preached, was that Messiah.
Now these verses before us, acquaint us with the different success which this sermon had upon the hearers: some believed, others were blinded; some were converted, others enraged.
O the different and contrary effects which the word has upon its hearers! opening the eyes of some, closing the eyes of others; to some it is a savour of death unto death. Those to whom the clearest light is afforded, who sinfully shut their eyes against it, and say they will not see; how just is it with God, to close their eyes judicially, and say they shall not see!
Observe, 2. How the apostle specifies, and particularly declares, the success which the preaching of the gospel had upon the people of Thessalonica, both good and bad.
The good success in the fourth verse; some (though few) of the Jews were converted; but many proselytes, and not a few of the Gentiles, and a considerable number of the devout women, and honourable matrons of the city.
The bad event and success is recorded, ver. 5. The unbelieving Jews called the lewd fellows of the city together into a confederacy with them, and raised a persecution against the apostles.
Thence note, 1. That the progress and prosperous success of the gospel ever was, is, and will be, a grievous eye-sore to the devil and his instruments.
Note, 2. That the worst enemies which the gospel ever met with in the world, are the unbelieving Jews. Here, the Jews which believed not, engaged the rabble on their sides, who are the fittest tools to raise persecution against the ministers of Christ: The Jews which believed not took certain lewd fellows of the baser sort, and assaulted, & c.
Note, 3. That the devil's old method for raising persecution against the ministers and members of Jesus Christ, has been and still is, to lay the most grievous crimes falsely to the Christian's charge. Here the apostles are charged with innovation and sedition, with turning the world upside down.
Thus afterwards, in the primitive times, whatever calamities came upon the state and kingdom, whatever commotions or tumults did arise in nations, presently Christianity was blamed, and instantly the Christians were cast to the lions; whereas it is not the gospel, but men's corruption, which breeds disturbances: as it is not the sea, but the foulness of the stomach, that makes the man sea-sick.
Note, 4. How mercifully and marvellously the Lord delivered the apostles, Paul and Silas, at this time, out of the hands of their persecutors: They sought them in the house of Jason, but found them not. The devil now missed of his prey, for the Lord hid the apostles here, as he did the prophets bbefore, Jeremiah and Baruch, Jeremiah 36:26 having more work and farther service for them to do. The wise husbandman doth not commit all his corn to the oven, but reserves some for seed.
Note, lastly, That as the panther, when it cannot come at the person, will fly upon and tear the picture in pieces, so these enraged persecutors, finding that the apostles were escaped their hands, fall foul upon Jason who had entertained them, and drag him before the rulers and magistrates, charging him as an abettor of treason; yet observe, how God overruled the hearts of these rulers, that they did offer no violence to Jason, but only took security of him, for his own and others' appearance before them when called for: Thus the Lord knows how to deliver the godly out of tribulation, and to make a way for escape.
Observe here, 1. The pious and prudential care which the brethern took of the holy apostles, and the means which they used for their preservation: They presently sent them away unto Berea. The devil seeks nothing so industriously as the lives of the ministers of the gospel; (they making the greatest opposition to him and his kingdom;) but God finds out ways and means for their preservation, to reserve them for further work and future service: The apostles came by night unto Berea.
Observe, 2. St. Paul makes again the Jews' synagogue his preaching place here at Berea, as he had done before at Thessalonica, ver. 2 and did afterwards at Athens, ver. 17.
O how close did the apostle keep to his commission, to preach Jesus Christ first to the Jews, and to wait upon them with the repeated tender of the gospel, till they put it far from them, and judged themselves unworthy of eternal life, before he turned to the Gentiles.
Observe, 3. The honourable character which the Holy Ghost here gives of these Bereans: They were more noble than those of Thessalonica; that is, of a more ingenuous, mild, and pliable temper of mind; they were not so possessed with prejudice and obstinacy against the gospel; they did not meet it with rage, but thought it worthy their search and serious enquiry; for which they are styled more noble.
Thence learn, That to be of a teachable temper, and tractable towards the gospel of Jesus Christ, is the best sort of gentility and nobleness. The Bereans were better bred, and better descended than the Thessalonians, yet not by civil human dignity, but by spiritual and divine dignation; God gave them this preparation of their heart, and made them differ from their neighbours: These were more noble than those of Thessalonica.
Observe, 4. What it is these Bereans are so highly commended for; namely, for searching the scriptures.
Where note, 1. That the scriptures then were in the vulgar tongue.
2. That as they were in their own tongue, so the laity had them in their own hands.
3. That the common people did read them, and heard them read, searched, and examined them; and yet were so far from censure and blame, that they met with commendation for it from God himself.
From the whole note, That a diligent reading of, and daily searching into, the holy scriptures, is a duty incumbent upon all those in whose hands the scriptures are or may be found. These Christians at Berea searching the scriptures, were a noble pattern for all succeeding Christians to imitate and follow.
Observe, lastly, How the inveterate malice of the unbelieving Jews at Thessalonica pursues the apostles as far as Berea, ver. 13. When the Jews at Thessalonica had knowledge that the word of God was preached of Paul at Berea, they came thither also, and stirred up the people.
As Christ sends his ministers, so the devil sends his messengers from place to place; and as the ministers of Christ are never weary of his service for the good of souls, so persecutors are restless, they will compass sea and land to harass and drive the faithful ambassadors of Christ from city to city, and if it were in their power, to banish them out of the world.
Lord! help all thy faithful ministers to execute this piece of holy revenge upon Satan, that we may be even with him for all his malice and spite against us. O let us endeavour to do all the possible service, and the utmost good we can, wherever we come.
The prudential care which the believing brethren took of the holy apostle, was observed before, ver. 10. His life being in danger at Thessalonica, they sent him to Berea; being pursued to Berea, they sent him to Athens, and detain Silas, and Timotheus; not that St. Paul was more fearful than the other two; but more useful, and consequently more hateful to the unbelieving Jews, and his life more sought after. To preserve which, his friends use an innocent policy: they make as if they sent him away to sea, but really he goes on foot to Athens: Immediately the brethern sent away Paul to go as it were to the sea.
Hence learn, That human policy and prudence may lawfully be made use of, in subserviency to divine providence. It was good policy and great providence in the apostle and his friends to look one way and go another; to look towards the sea, and to go to Athens by land.
There is a wise and holy subtilty in foreseeing the evil, and hiding ourselves: a serpent's eye is a singular ornament in a dove's head.
Piety without policy, is too simple to be safe; and policy without piety, is too subtle to be good. The sagacity of the serpent, and the innocency of the dove, both may and ought to go together.
Observe, 2. The place which the apostle comes to: Athens, a sovereign city, a famous university; the eye of Greece, as Greece was reputed the eye of the world. Yet, notwithstanding all their scholarship, they were ignorant of God in Christ; all their learning could not teach them to attain any saving knowledge, but both city and university are wholly given to idolatry.
Learn hence, That human learning alone can never teach any place or people the divine truths of Christ and his gospel. 'Tis a good handmaid, but a bad mistress; 'tis good in itself, but when corrupted by a busy devil and a base heart, it degenerates into the worst instrument in the world; for Corruptio optimi est pessima; "The sweetest wine makes the sourest vinegar."
Observe, 3. The temper of the men of Athens described to us: they were great and greedy newsmongers, they spent their time in telling and hearing news of any sort. All which was the effect of an itching curiosity; a disease which has descended from age to age, from place to place, from person to person, occasioning a sinful expense of time, which can never be recalled; the neglect of our necessary affairs, which can never be redeemed; spreading false stories of others, and provoking displeasure against ourselves.
O how wise and happy were it, if we enquired after news, not as Athenians, but as Christians; that we might know the better how to manage our prayers and praises for the church and nation.
Observe, 4. How the wickedness and idolatry of this place did vehemently affect this great apostle: His spirit was stirred, when he saw the city full of idols, and wholly given to idolatry. Their idolatry put him into a paroxysm, as the word signifies; his mind was in a concussion by contrary passions: he was affected first with sorrow and grief, that a city should be so learned, and yet so blind; next with indignation and anger, at the superabounding idolatry of that knowing people; and lastly, with fervent zeal, and an ardent desire to undeceive them, and better inform them.
In order to which, he takes all opportunities, both in the city, in the synagogue, and in the market-place, to preach to the people, to dispute with the philosophers, particularly the Epicureans, who denied the providence of God, and the immortality of the soul; who placed all their happiness in pleasure, and held nothing to be desirable but what delighted their senses: a doctrine which made them rather swine than men. And also with the Stoics, who placed all happiness in want of passion, denied all freedom of will, and ascribed all events to an absolute and irrevocable fate. And having disputed with them, he preaches Christ crucified, risen, and glorified to them: but he seemeth a babbler to them, and a setter forth of strange gods.
Whence learn, That Christ and his doctrine, the gospel, was the grand stumbling-block both to Jew and Gentile, learned and unlearned. St. Paul took most pains to convert Athens, yet here his success was least; though it was a learned university, where, no doubt, were many men of excellent natural accomplishments.
From whence we may infer, that if moral dispositions and improvement of natural abilities had fitted men for grace, we might have expected the greatest number of converts at Athens, where many were mocking but very few believing. Surely the apostle's plantations there were different, not so much from the nature of the soil, as from the different influences of the Spirit.
Observe, 5. How wonderfully the overruling providence of God concerned itself for the apostle's preservation here at Athens: they hauled him away to their high court of judicature, which sat upon Mars'-hill, (so called because the temple of mars stood upon it,) where the most learned men assembled, and hear and determine what new god was to be worshipped.
Here note, 1. How the providence of God brought St. Paul to a public place to preach in, Mars'-hill, where was a confluence of all the people, and a congregation of the most learned Gentile philosphers. This gave the apostle a mighty opportunity for the service of preaching.
And, 2 note, How tenderly the apostle was treated in this cruel court: although this court had condemned Diagoras, Protagoras, and Socrates himself, for undervaluing their gods, and bringing in new deities; yet the apostle's life is not only spared by these judges, but they speak candidly and kindly to the apostle, and court him to gratify their curiosity, by informing them of this novelty, which they were so inquisitive after, and desired to hear more of his divine discourse.
Thus the Lord eminently shows, how the hearts of men are in his hand, and that without his permission all the bitter enemies of his church shall not move a tongue, nor lift up a finger, against any of his ministers and members.
As if the apostle had said, "Ye men of Athens have a great number of gods, whom ye ignorantly worship: the God, therefore, whom ye acknowledge not to know, and yet profess to worship, is he that I preach unto you; for as I passed up and down in your city, beholding your altars and images, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD."
Here observe, 1. The light of nature discovered: the altar is inscribed, TO A GOD. The true God of the Jews was an unknown and uncertain God to the wisest of the Gentiles.
Learn, That some discoveries of God may be made even by the light of nature: these heathens who had nothing but the dim light of nature to guide and direct them, do yet own a God, and acknowledge a worship due unto him, by the erection of an altar.
Observe, 2. The darkness of nature declared: the altar, though erected to a God, yet it is to a God unknown.
Thence learn, That natural light, in its most elevated and raised improvements, can make no full and saving discoveries of God. The true God was but an unknown God, even to the wisest of the heathens, to the men of Athens, who were the most famous, in their day, for the severest wisdom and gravity.
Here begins St. Paul's famous sermon to the men of Athens; in which the first thing that occurs to our observation is, how the preacher doth adapt and accommodate his discourse to the capacity of his hearers, as also to their sentiments and opinions. His auditory consisted of philosophers, particularly of Epicureans and Stoics; the former instead of a God and a wise Providence to make and govern the world, brought in Fortune or blind Chance, to bear all the sway. The latter though they acknowledged a God, yet introduced a rigid fatality, as superior to the Deity, denying to man all freedom and liberty of choice.
Accordingly, St. Paul addresses himself, first to prove a God and a Providence, to the exclusion both of Fate and Fortune; and then, secondly, from the very nature and notion of God, he infers the folly and absurdity of their Pagan superstition.
Observe next, The apostle's arguments to prove the being of a God, and a Providence:
1. From the work of creation: He made the world and all things therein; he giveth life, and breath, and all things. The whole universe is his work, and he planted the earth, and replenished it with inhabitants. The invisible God is more visible in his creatures, and the being of God demonstrated from the formation of a world of creatures.
2. From the formation of man in particular: In him we live, and move, &c.
Here are three great benefits enjoyed by human nature; life, motion, and being, all derived from God, and demonstrating the being of God.
1. Life: this is valuable above all blessings, because it renders us capable of enjoying all blessings.
2. Motion: a great mercy, but little considered. How uncomfortable would life be without it! Were we staked down to the earth as trees, or did we move by a constant law of nature, as the sun and moon do move, it had been a favour beyond our desert; but to move as we do at pleasure, with choice and ease, to help ourselves, and to assist others, is at once a demonstration of God's being, and an evidence of his bounty.
3. Being: this is essential and necessary to none but God. To us it is an act of divine favour, and this being is a mercy; then being what we are, is a double mercy, that we do not creep and crawl upon the earth, as worms and toads, but are built high upon the earth, with wonderful wisdom and care; and that a soul, which is an immortal and an eternal being, inhabits within us; a being which shall continue when heaven and earth shall be consumed.
Observe next, The apostle having proved the being of a God, next demonstrates the certainty of a divine Providence: He hath determined the times that are fore-appointed, and the bounds of their habitation.
That is, God has, as it were, chalked out, and drawn a line, where the bounds and habitations, whither the dominions or possessions of men should be extended, and where they shall be confined. The common blessings of God are not dispensed without a special providence; and the special providence of God, in upholding, disposing, and governing the world, doth as much prove the being of a God, as the general creation of it. Every hour's preservation is virtually a new creation, and both of them sufficient demonstrations of the divine being and bounty.
Observe, lastly, The duty which the apostle infers on man's part, for all this goodness and bounty demonstrated on God's part; That they shall seek the Lord, who shall find him, who is not far from every one of us. It is the duty of all men to follow after God; that God hath made man, should draw men after God; inasmuch as we are his offspring, (ver. 29) our hearts should spring and rise up to him in love and thankfulness; as the rivers, because they come from the sea, go back thither, so we being the offspring of God, and derived from him, should be always returning to him.
And if it be the duty of all men to follow after God, because they have natural life, breath, and motion from him, how much more should the new creature, who has a spiritual life breathed into him and bestowed upon him, follow hard after God, in the enjoyment of whom his present happiness and future felicity doth consist? To follow God in his way, and to propose God as our end, contains the sum of all duty.
Observe here, 1. How our apostle quotes one of the heathen poets in his divine discourse. This poet was Aratus; what he attributes to Jupiter, St. Paul attributes to the true God; We are his off-spring.
Where note, for the honour of human learning and the lawfulness of making use of it in our sermons, the Holy Ghost is pleased several times in the New Testament to make mention of the heathen poets; of Aratus here, Acts 17:28 of Menander, 1 Corinthians 15:33 of Epimenides, Titus 1:12. Truth is God's wherever it is found; as a mine of gold is the king's on whose ground soever it is discovered.
Observe, 2. The force of the apostle's argument: seeing we are God's off-spring: that is, seeing God is our Creator, we cannot suppose him to be the workmanship of our hands, as an image of gold, silver, or stone is; and consequently how irrational it is for a man to adore an image made by his own hands, for and instead of God.
Learn, That there is a strong propensity and inclination in the heart of man to the sin of idolatry.
2. That the sin of idolatry is not only a very great sin, but a very unreasonable and absurd sin; it is not only sacrilegious but silly for a man to worship his own workmanship, and to fall down upon his knees to the work of his own hands.
That is, "Though God of his infinite patience hath long borne with the world lying in darkness and ignorance; yet how, by causing his gospel to be preached to all nation, he calls and invites them to repentance, to forsake their idols, and to serve the true God."
Here observe, 1. The censure of the past times; they were times of ignorance, and God winked at them, or overlooked them; not that God did allow or approve of their idolatry, but did not destroy and cut them off for the same; nor afford them such helps and means as now he did, having brought his gospel among them.
Observe, 2. The duty of the present time declared: to repent. This is a commanded duty, and an universally commanded duty: Now he commands all men every where to repent.
From the whole note, 1. That the times of paganism were times of ignorance.
2. That it is an unspeakable misery to be born and brought up in such times.
3. That to live impenitently in times of knowledge, is a sin that God will by no means wink at.
4. That the great purpose and design of the gospel wheresoever it is sent and preached, is to invite men to repentance: Now he commandeth all men every where to repent.
These words are an argument or motive to enforce the foregoing duty of repentance; God requires every man, every where, and that now immediately, to forsake their idols and sinful ways; because he hath appointed a day wherein he will judge the world in righteousness by his Son Christ Jesus, of which he hath already given assurance, by raising him from the dead.
Where note, 1. A judgment to come asserted: He (that is, God) will judge the world; he that hath now an observing eye, will hereafter have a rewarding hand.
Note, 2. That there not only is a judgment to come, but the day or time of it is determined and fixed: He hath appointed a day. As the precise time of Christ's first coming was fixed by an unalterable, though unknown, decree, so is also the time of his second coming: that not knowing the hour, we may be upon our watch every hour.
Note, 3. That as the day of judgment is determined, so the person of the judge is also constituted and ordained: He will judge the world by that man whom he hath ordained. This is an act of justice to our Saviour, that he, having humbled himself to take our nature, should, as the reward of his humiliation, judge that world which he died to save. And an act of kindness towards us, that he should be our judge, who took upon him our nature, and had so much love to choose our own judge, what choice could we make better for ourselves, than that man whom God hath ordained?
Observe, 4. The assurance which God hath given us of having Christ for our judge; namely, his raising him from the dead.
But how doth that assure us of Christ being our judge?
Answer. Our blessed Saviour, when he was in the world, often declared that he was appointed by God to judge the quick and the dead, and appealed to his resurrection as the great proof of what he said.
Now when Almighty God did accordingly raise him insuch a wonderful manner, (as we know he did,) what is it less than God's setting his seal to his commission, and openly proclaiming him to be the judge of all the world?
Observe, 5. The manner of this judgment, or the measures which this judge will proceed by, at the great day; and that is, according to righteousness: He will judge the world in righteousness. Not in rigour and severity, taking all the advantages that power can give him; nor yet arbitrarily and upon prerogative, but according to known laws; nor yet partially with respect to persons; but every man's doom shall depend upon the holiness or unholiness of his heart and life.
Farther, Our Judge will candidly interpret men's actions, and make the very best of things that the case will bear; principally looking at the sincerity of men's intentions, and making all favourable allowances for their failings and infirmities that can consist with justice; and will distribute his rewards and happiness and glory to good men in the other world. Now having this high and full assurance of a judgment to come, let us seriously believe it, daily expect it, and duly prepare for it; let neither profit tempt us, nor pleasure allure us, nor power embolden us, nor privacy encourage us, to do that thing which we cannot answer at the great tribunal.
When St. Paul preached of judgment, Felix, though a Pagan, trembled at the sermon.
Lord! what shall we say to those worse than Pagan infidels amongst ourselves, who ridicule a judgment to come, and cry before-hand, God judge me! yea, God damn me! Alas, unhappy men, he will judge you sure enough, and damn you soon enough, if a serious repentance prevent it not.
Here we have the success of Paul's sermon declared; it was various and different: some of his hearers derided, others doubted, and a few believed.
Those that derided and mocked, it is very probable, were Epicureans, who denied that the world was either created or governed by God; as also that there were any rewards or punishments for men after death: therefore they ridiculed St. Paul's doctrine of the resurrection of the dead.
The sublimest doctrines, and most comfortable truths of the gospel are matter of derision and mockery to sensual minds.
Those that doubted, probably were the Stoics, who did own the resurrection and a state of rewards and punishments in another world; and therefore for obtaining better satisfaction to their doubts, desired to hear the apostle again discoursing farther of that matter.
Those that believed are few indeed, if no more than are here mentioned, which are Dionysius and Damaris, with some others.
Dionysius was a famous person, one of the great council, mentioned ver. 19 whose conversion probably might afterwards have a great influence upon many others; and it was no small honour and advantage to the gospel to be owned by such an honourable person as this Dionysius was: not many wise, not many noble, were called.
Blessed be God that any were, that any are, that any of the great ones of the world stoop to the sceptre of Jesus Christ, and pay their homage and subjection to him.
Thus ends the apostle's divine sermon at the famous university of Athens, which yielded few, very few converts, to St. Paul; for we read of no church founded here, as we did before at Philippi, and in the next chapter at Corinth.
What reason can be assigned but this, That these grave philosophers, profound scholars, venerable senators and citizens, who had a name for wisdom throughout the world were too wise to be saved by the foolishness of preaching!
As the wisdom of the world is foolishness with God, so the wisdom of God in the gospel is accounted foolishness by the wise men of the world; according to that of the apostle, 1 Corinthians 1:21. "When the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching, to save them that believe.
We preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling-block, and unto the Greeks foolishness, but unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God; because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men."
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Burkitt, William. "Commentary on Acts 17". Expository Notes with Practical Observations on the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/
the First Week of Advent