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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Acts 17

 

 

Verse 1-2

‘Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews, and Paul, as his custom was, went in to them, and for three sabbath days reasoned with them from the Scriptures.’

Moving down along the Via Egnatia from Philippi, parallel with the coast of the Aegean Sea, they came after thirty three miles to Amphipolis, were they may have remained overnight, unless they camped out by the roadside. But that was only intended to be a stop en route, so as soon as may be they moved on a further twenty seven miles to Apollonia, whose site is as yet unidentified (it was a popular name for cities). From there they then moved on to the port of Thessalonica, the capital of the whole province of Macedonia, the largest city of the area, on the Thermaic Gulf. If they travelled on horseback they might have done this one hundred mile journey with two overnight stops. If they were on foot it would have taken a good deal longer.

It would appear that the reason that Thessalonica was their intended destination was because they had learned that there was a synagogue there, and a synagogue meant not only Jews but God-fearers, people wide open to the Good News. Thus on arrival there they waited for the Sabbath day and then went to the synagogue. From what we have already seen it would seem that this was Paul’s usual strategy, and that he rarely employed open-air preaching except when it was forced on him by events. In those days such preaching could only too easily turn into a riot.

Paul makes clear in his letter how he was careful not to be a financial burden on anyone. Unlike many travelling preachers he supported himself (1 Thessalonians 2:9).

This ministry in the synagogue continued for three Sabbath days, during which, when the appropriate time came after the prayers and reading of the Scriptures, he reasoned with those present from the Scriptures.

‘Three Sabbath days.’ This may be specific, or it may have been using ‘three’ in its other meaning of ‘a good many’. (In common use ‘two’ could mean a few, ‘three’ a good many, and ‘ten’ a number of - compare 1 Kings 17:12; Genesis 31:41; Daniel 1:12. It is only the modern day who are more mathematically particular). Three also indicates a complete ministry.


Verses 1-14

Paul’s Ministry in Europe and Then In Ephesus (17:1-19:20).

Ministry in Europe (17:1-18:22).

Fruitful Ministry in Thessalonica and Berea (17:1-14).

Having been requested to leave Philippi, Paul and his party took the Roman Road, the Via Egnatia, out of Philippi, a road which went through Amphipolis, the capital city of the region, and Apollonia, before it came to Thessalonica, a city with a population of roughly 200,000. It would seem that the reason that he stopped at neither of these cities for any length of time was because he discovered that there was no synagogue there, and possibly even no recognised Jewish meeting place. Finally he arrived at Thessalonica, roughly one hundred miles from Philippi, where on discovering that there was a synagogue he remained.

Indirect confirmation of the accuracy of Luke’s narrative in this regard comes out in that we have no Pauline ‘letter to the Amphipolisians’ or ‘letter to the Appollonians’ but we do have letters to the Philippians and the Thessalonians.

However, being cityfolk in a busy port, and tied up with their own affairs the Thessalonians had to be ‘reasoned with’. This contrasts with the Bereans who lived in a more leisurely way and found time to look into the Scriptures in order to discover the truth of what Paul had said (Acts 17:11). They lived in a smaller city on a by-road off the Via Egnatia.

The alteration from ‘we’ to ‘they’, although not being conclusive, (the ‘they’ could simply have been a natural continuation of how the Philippian narrative ended) suggests that Luke remained in Philippi. What tends more to confirm this is that the ‘we’ narratives recommence when Paul arrives back in Philippi (Acts 20:5-6). The suggestion that Luke lived in Philippi must, however, be seen as doubtful, otherwise Paul would have stayed with him, but he may have been connected with the medical school, and he may well have lived elsewhere in Macedonia.

It is in fact noticeable that the ‘we’ narratives tend not to occur on missionary journeys, (although we must note that Luke was very much involved in the spiritual activity at Philippi), but rather on voyages and periods of continuous travel. His subsequent presence with the party may thus partly have resulted from the fact that he wanted to visit the destinations which Paul had in mind (Caesarea, Jerusalem), possibly partly with a view to building up accurate information about the past for his writings. He was, however, present at the briefing meeting in his own right (Acts 21:18). Thus he was more than just a fellow-traveller. So he may well have remained to minister in Philippi. Whatever the case it is certain that he later remained steadfast and loyal to Paul at the time of his deepest need when no one knew what might happen next (Acts 27:1 to Acts 28:16; 2 Timothy 4:11; Colossians 4:14; Philemon 1:24).

When reading these narratives we must always be aware of what lies beneath the surface, the continuing expansion of ‘the word’, which is brought out by constant reference to it, and by the special references such as Acts 19:20. But Luke is describing the vivid events make up the total picture, and sometimes we therefore read them and gain a first impression of failure, as though a work began and was blown away. But a careful reading soon brings out that even while these things are going on, much time passes, churches are being successfully established and taught, fellow-workers are left to continue ministering to churches, and what the opposition does is merely to ensure that the Good News continues to spread. In Acts 8:1 Paul had been the persecutor, ensuring that the word spread, now others were the persecutors of Paul, but again it ensured that the word spread. The word continues to grow mightily and prevail (Acts 19:20).


Verse 3

‘Opening and alleging that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer, and to rise again from the dead, and that this Jesus, whom, said he, I proclaim to you, is the Christ.’

The basis of his reasoning were those portions of Scripture which revealed that the Messiah would suffer, and rise again from the dead. These would include Isaiah 52:13 to Isaiah 53:12; Psalms 22:11-21; Psalms 16:8-11; Zechariah 13:7 and, once Jesus was established as the Lamb of God (Isaiah 53:6-7; John 1:49), may have included reference to the sacrificial system as pictures of the supreme sacrifice. The Psalms were Davidic, and therefore necessarily lent themselves to Messianic interpretation, and the servant song, with its background in Isaiah could soon be demonstrated as being the same. Compare Acts 8:32-35.

These he then connected with the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus and demonstrated from this that He was indeed the Messiah Who had fulfilled all these things (compare Acts 13:27-41).


Verse 4

‘And some of them were persuaded, and consorted with Paul and Silas, and of the devout Greeks a great multitude, and of the chief women not a few.’

As so often the hearers were divided. Some were persuaded by their reasoning and the Scriptures that they cited, taking their stand with Paul and Silas and associating with them. This includes ‘some’ of the Jews, large numbers of proselytes and God-fearers (compare Acts 13:43), and a good number of ‘the chief women’. In Macedonia and parts of Asia Minor prominent women had a freedom not known in most places elsewhere (compare Acts 17:12 and contrast here Acts 13:50). They would be wives of important officials and residents, and wealthy widows of status. Included among the converts were many who were still idol-worshippers for Paul would say of them, "You turned to God from idols, to serve the living and true God" (1 Thessalonians 1:9).

Thus the basis of a solid and prospering church was built up, with the attention of those converted turning from being fully focused on synagogue activities, to taking constant note of these two ‘strangers’ and their beliefs and way of living, and of the Christ of Whom they spoke. We can understand why those who saw the focus as being taken away from the synagogue should become jealous.


Verse 5

‘But the Jews, being moved with jealousy, took to them certain vile fellows of the rabble, and gathering a crowd, set the city on an uproar, and assaulting the house of Jason, they sought to bring them forth to the people.’

Thus ‘the Jews’, that is those who were not willing to respond to the new message, (note how here, as in John’s Gospel the term is used of those who are antagonistic to the Good News), set about trying to interfere with the ministry of Paul and Silas. In Pisidian Antioch this had been accomplished by utilising the influence of the chief women who were synagogue worshippers (Acts 13:50), but that was not possible here because so many of these chief women were now following Christ (Acts 17:4). So instead they turned to the mob.

The Jewish traders and merchants, or their employees, would know the right people to contact. They turned to ‘vile fellows of the rabble’, that is the low life in the marketplace and the docks, people who could always be bribed and depended on to cause an uproar. These then raised a crowd and set the city in an uproar, racing through the streets stirring up trouble and ending up by making a forced entry into the house of Jason, a prominent local Jew who was presumably known to be giving hospitality to Paul and Silas, in order to drag out Paul and Silas and make an example of them (‘the people’ being either a popular assembly, it was a ‘free city’, or the equivalent of a stirred up lynch mob).

Thessalonica was in fact infamous for being a city in which uproars easily occurred. Cicero tells how when he was sent to see the rulers of Thessalonica on official business the rulers were so unpopular with the masses that he had to sneak into the city at night in order to see them, and then, after some time, he had later to sneak out again and take refuge ‘in the out of the way town of Berea’ until the uproars had died down.


Verse 6-7

‘And when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and certain brethren before the rulers of the city, crying, “These who have turned the world upside down are come here also, whom Jason has received: and these all act contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, one Jesus.” ’

Not finding Paul and Silas they turned on Jason and some fellow-believers and hauled them before the politarchs (a term for city rulers local to Macedonia) declaring that Jason had received into his house treacherous people who were know to have caused trouble elsewhere, (they have ‘upset/thoroughly annoyed the world’), and who broke Caesar’s decrees, declaring that there was another King, even Jesus.

The charge was a serious one. There were no police, and the legal method in those days was to act on the basis of accusations brought. Thus this followed accepted legal practise in a way that had to be responded to.

‘Politarchs’ was the correct term for the city rulers in that area, as we know from inscriptions (in 1st century AD there appear to have been five such politarchs), and they, recognising that correct procedures were being followed, would feel impelled to investigate. Suggestions that Caesar was in some way being slighted were always a guaranteed way of obtaining legal attention. The charge in this case was of treason, of aiming to set up a rival to Caesar. It was similar to the charge that had actually been brought against Jesus.

Teaching about the Messiah, the son of David, and about the Kingly Rule of God, was always open to such misinterpretation and to being twisted by unscrupulous people, as in this case. But then on examination, as in the case of Jesus (John 18:36-37), it would be seen to be what it was, preaching concerning the other world. It was what happened meanwhile, and the effects on the peace of a city, that were the main problems that affected the ministry.


Verse 8-9

‘And they troubled the multitude and the rulers of the city, when they heard these things. And when they had taken security from Jason and the rest, they let them go.’

Both the crowds (those who had been used as pawns by the rabble-rousers) and the politarchs were troubled at the thought that such people might be in Thessalonica, and we may assume that they questioned Jason and his fellow-believers thoroughly. It is quite possible also that rumours had filtered through from Philippi, possibly coming from before the time when Paul and Silas had been declared innocent there. That being so it is clear that a compromise was reached.

They took large security from Jason and his friends, presumably as a bond against any further trouble, and let them go, possibly suggesting, or even specifically requiring, that it would be a good idea to get Paul and Silas out of town, with the recognition that they must not return. If they failed to do so they would lose their security. It was possibly this last that was the means by which ‘Satan stopped’ Paul returning to Thessalonica, although an alternative possibility is that it was an awareness of the volatile nature of the city and the constant danger of further uprising of which Paul was deeply aware (see 1 Thessalonians 2:18).


Verse 10

‘And the brethren immediately sent away Paul and Silas by night to Berea, who when they were come there went into the synagogue of the Jews.’

Recognising the unpleasant nature of some of the people who were at the root of the trouble, who were no doubt types of gang leaders, the believers recognised that it would be best to get Paul and Silas out of town discreetly. They could square the authorities, but dealing with the gangs was something different. So they arranged for them to leave by night and take refuge in Berea, a more out of the way town, sixty miles away and off the main highway, where they would be comparatively safe, and yet could be reached. It may well be that this was at the house of a sympathiser or willing relative.

This was not, however, to be the end of problems for Jason and his fellow-believers, for Paul later refers admiringly to the way that they faced up to and gladly endured persecution (1 Thessalonians 2:14). But he thanked God for the fact that they not only triumphed over it, but also continued to ensure the spread of the word in all the areas round about (1 Thessalonians 1:8). They had not left a church to die, they had left one which was full of vibrant life.

Meanwhile the irrepressible Paul and Silas could not be held down. For as soon as possible after their arrival in Berea they were back in the synagogue. They no doubt had in mind the Lord’s words which were a part of the tradition of ‘the Testimony of Jesus’, and which we now have recorded in Matthew 10:23, ‘when they persecute you in this city, flee to the next, for truly I say to you, you will not have gone through the cities of Israel until the Son of Man is come’. Each synagogue represented a ‘city of Israel’, and what a different experience Berea was going to be.


Verse 11

‘Now these were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of the mind, examining the Scriptures daily, whether these things were so.’

For the Bereans were of a different bent to the Thessalonians. Living in a quieter town they were more relaxed and less uptight and hardened. And when they heard the word, instead of some of them arguing and growing bitter, they turned to the Scriptures and examined them daily so as to find out for themselves whether these things were true. In Luke’s words they were ‘more noble’, more open to seeking truth.


Verse 12

‘Many of them therefore believed, also of the Greek women of honourable estate, and of men, not a few.’

The result again was that ‘many’ believed, including ‘many’ Greek women of honourable estate and (Greek) men ‘not a few’. Comparing this verse with Acts 17:4 we are probably to see the ‘many’ as contrasting with the ‘some’, and the remainder as parallel and more, the idea being that the ministry prospered more among the Jews in Berea as well as prospering equally among the important women and the God-fearers. The ‘of men’ probably additionally signifies ‘Greek men’ and thus indicates that here in Berea even out and out Gentiles responded to the message in good numbers. The new church was being multiplied.


Verse 13

‘But when the Jews of Thessalonica had knowledge that the word of God was proclaimed of Paul at Berea also, they came there in the same way, stirring up and troubling the multitudes.’

But news of what was happening gradually filtered through to Thessalonica (not immediately. There was time for a period of settled ministry) and those Jews whose hearts had been hardened arranged for the gangs to go to Berea to cause trouble, again seeking to stir up the crowds. They could not bear to think of ‘the word of God’ being proclaimed.


Verse 14

‘And then immediately the brethren sent forth Paul to go as far as to the sea, and Silas and Timothy dwelt there still.’

The believers, however, were well up to it, and recognising that Paul was the main target, and not wanting their fellow-townsmen to be over-disturbed, they smuggled him away to the coast, while Silas and Timothy remained in Berea. This smuggling of him to the coast may have been a ruse in order to deceive the Thessalonian gang-leaders, for his Berean companions then escorted him to Athens. Going by boat may all have been part of the ruse so that no one would know where he had gone. But it is equally possible that it was a red herring and that they then travelled overland.

The result of all this was that the believers in Berea were left untroubled, the work went on through Silas and Timothy, the people continued to ‘receive the word’ (Acts 17:11), Paul was safe, and instead of the word of God being silenced, it prospered. And Athens also received the Good News. Once again Satan had overstepped himself.

The situation here with regard to Thessalonica and Berea was very similar to that of Lystra and Derbe. There too they had had to flee from crowds in the larger city of Lystra, only to find in Derbe a ready reception for their message (Acts 14:19-21). Being removed from one city they simply moved on to the next, leaving behind a prospering church.

Note on the Movements of Silas and Timothy.

Luke does not always give us full details of the movement of ‘minor players’ and we therefore sometimes have to put them together from the information that we have. Thus when Paul arrives in Athens he immediately requests that Silas and Timothy join him (Acts 17:15). That Timothy did so we know from 1 Thessalonians 3:1-2. But Paul was so concerned for the Thessalonians that after some time he then sent Timothy back to Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 3:2). Meanwhile he also sent Silas somewhere else, presumably with equal concern, back to ‘Macedonia’, thus to Berea or to Philippi. This is apparent because both of them later returned to him ‘from Macedonia’ when he moved to Corinth (Acts 18:5). Thus while Paul was preaching in Athens, Timothy was at work in Thessalonica, and Silas elsewhere in Macedonia

End of note.


Verse 15

‘But those who conducted Paul brought him as far as Athens, and receiving a command to Silas and Timothy that they should come to him with all speed, they departed.’

His companions from Berea brought Paul to Athens, and on arrival there Paul clearly decided that he would begin a ministry there, for he sent back instructions to Berea that Silas and Timothy were to join him. In the event he commenced his ministry before they arrived. We do not know how long it then went on, but at some stage after Silas and Timothy arrived he clearly felt the urge to send Timothy back to encourage the church at Thessalonica (1 Thessaloniand Acts 3:2), and Silas to some other part of Macedonia, for it was from there that they would later join him in Corinth (Acts 18:5). Thus is made apparent that the ministry in Athens continued for some time. It is a reminder that we regularly only have glimpses of what was happening, sufficient for us to know something of its success, without knowing the full story. Luke is constantly seeking to give the impression of the swift advance of the word from place to place in a continuing forward movement.


Verses 15-34

Effective Ministry in Athens (17:15-34).

His Berean guides saw Paul safely to Athens. This had not been where he was originally aiming for. After Thessalonica his intention had probably been to proceed along the Via Egnatia towards Rome. But God had had other ideas. He had had Berea in His sights, and then Athens where a certain Areopagite was waiting (Acts 17:34), followed by Corinth. The whole of the province of Achaia had cause to be grateful to the persecutors.

With regard to the Areopagite it is typical of Luke’s writings to draw attention to particularly influential people whom God had determined to win for Himself, who would then go on to take His word to others. We can compare Simon the sorcerer, the Ethiopian official, Cornelius, Sergius Paulus (the pro-consul of Cyprus), Lydia, the Philippian jailer, and now Dyonisius the Areopagite and the woman, Damaris.

Athens was a city that was famous worldwide because of its past, but it was a fading city, and no longer large (around 10,000 inhabitants). Its glory days were long behind it. Its once great navy no longer existed as the dominant force in the Mediterranean Sea. The famous names of the past had long since gone. But its learning had spread throughout the Greek world first through Alexander, and then through Rome, and it still had a reputation for being a centre of philosophy and prided itself on being such. And it still despised others whom it saw as having less understanding than it did itself. Because of what it had been it was a designated ‘free city’, under its own rule. To it would come the sons of aristocratic Romans in order to further their education. And there were still prominent men there, among who was Dionysius the Areopagite.

The council of the Areopagus (‘court of Ares’) originally met on the hill of Ares (the name of the god of war and thunder), hence its name, but by the time of Paul it met in the Royal Porch (stoa basileios) in the Athenian marketplace (agora). Its reputation went back to ancient times, and in spite of the curtailment of its ancient powers, it was still respected and had some kind of special jurisdiction in the free city of Athens over matters of religion and morals. For this reason it therefore exercised some kind of control over visiting preachers and philosophers, presumably in order to ensure that they were genuine and not troublemakers or spreaders of sedition. So all visiting preachers were subject to ‘inspection’. Thus when Paul is called before the Areopagus it was not with any hostile intent, but with the purpose of discovering exactly what it was that he had come to proclaim. And at least one of those who were inspecting him was convinced and became a believer (Dionysius the Areopagite).

It was also a city full of statues and altars. It was said that there were more statues of the gods in Athens than in all the rest of Greece put together, and that because of this it was easier in Athens to meet a god than a man. But we must not thereby think of it as too religious a city. Apollonius, a philosopher contemporary with Paul, berated the Athenians because of their lascivious dances at the festival of Dionysius, and their thirst for human blood at the gladiatorial games. Philosophy went hand in hand with riotous living.

In the chiasmus Acts 12:25 to Acts 18:22 of which this is a part, this incident is paralleled with that at Pisidian Antioch. During the incident at Pisidian Antioch Luke gives a detailed summary of Paul’s preaching to the Jews and God-fearers, here at Athens he gives a detailed summary of Paul’s preaching to Gentiles. This follows the pattern, the Jew first and then the Gentiles. Both end up with enquirers saying that they wish to hear more, and both result in converts.


Verse 16

‘Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he beheld the city full of idols.’

While he was awaiting the first arrival of Silas and Timothy, Paul walked around the city, and as a result of all the evidences of pagan worship and idolatry his spirit was provoked within him. He no longer felt that he could wait until his friends arrived before commencing his ministry. He was on fire within, and stirred up at the sight of all the idols and false gods, he longed that these people might know the living and true God.


Verse 17

‘So he reasoned in the synagogue with Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who met him.’

So each Sabbath he went into the Synagogue and reasoned with the Jews, proselytes and God-fearers, and on other days he went into the marketplace and spoke with those who met him there. It is interesting to note that in Athens he met no violent opposition, even from the Jews. Athens was an unusual place in that many were there for the very purpose of entering into discussions on religious and philosophical topics, and all recognised that others might have different views than themselves .

Thus for some good period of time his ministry continued towards Jews and God-fearers on the one hand, and out and out Gentiles on the other, and while they argued with him there was no physical opposition. No crowds would be aroused here against strange teaching. Strange teaching was of great interest in Athens. We are not told at what stage Silas and Timothy arrived, nor how soon they left again. Luke did not consider it important. It is dangerous therefore to draw conclusions from Luke’s silences.

Nor are we given any idea of what positive impression Paul made until Acts 17:34. And there we are given an impression of satisfactory fruitfulness without it being exceptional (it was not a large city). It would be sufficient to establish a small church.

But Luke’s main concern here is to bring out Paul’s contact with the philosophers of Athens, and his message to them, a message which summarised his message to Gentiles. This detailed summary is intended to be contrasted with the detailed summary of his message to Jews in Acts 13:16-41 with which it is in parallel in this section of the Acts (see summary in the introduction to chapter 13). That, Luke is saying, is what Paul preached to Jews and this is an example of what he preached to Gentiles.


Verse 18

‘And some said, “What would this babbler say?” Others, “He seems to be a setter forth of strange gods”, because he preached Jesus and the resurrection.’

We can see then why these philosophers had a sceptical attitude towards what Paul was teaching. The word rendered ‘babbler’ was applied to ‘seed-picking birds’, and then to people who picked up random and second hand ideas without any consistency of thought or real understanding. In their conceit the idea of these philosophers was that others like Paul, were like birds who went around picking up a seed here and there at random, without having a consistent system and logic. They were smug in their own understanding.

Others were amused because he seemed to set forth ‘strange gods’, because he spoke of ‘Jesus’ and ‘Anastasis’ (‘Resurrection’). There were in Athens many altars, not only dedicated to gods, but to ideas, to philosophy and beneficence, to rumour and shame. Thus the personalising of the term ‘Resurrection’ would tie in with these ideas, and some may have seen that idea as being presented here. But this appears rather to be an after-comment by Luke, which militates against this interpretation. Luke’s point is rather that they were reacting to Jesus Himself, as presented, and then especially to the idea of resurrection (compare Acts 17:32). The charge of bringing ‘strange gods’ had also been made against Socrates. It may simply be a way of expressing disapproval of what they did not understand. As his ideas did not tie in with theirs, he must clearly be introducing ‘strange gods’. Neither Epicureans nor Stoics thought of any such gods as relevant to life.

In contrast this especially brings out what Paul’s emphases were. His first emphasis was Jesus. He ‘preached Jesus’ (compare Acts 8:35). This would have included all the different emphases as described previously including his life and death. His second emphasis was on the resurrection. And he kept stressing both. Thus he proclaimed the full central message that he always preached. Indeed he could not have proclaimed the resurrection without the cross. Thus we do him wrong if we suggest that here he did not preach the cross.


Verse 19-20

‘And they took hold of him, and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is, which is spoken by you? For you are bringing certain strange things to our ears. We would know therefore what these things mean.’

But they were interested to know what he was teaching, and indeed to check up on it so as to ensure that it could be allowed to be taught among the people in Athens, especially the students who were among them (who could report back anything that seemed seditious to their families). So they brought him to their historic meetingplace in the marketplace, the Areopagus, and their questioned him concerning his teaching. They wanted to know the detail of his system of philosophy, which was totally new to them and which they could see concerned what they looked on as strange ideas.

‘Certain strange things.’ Not just the resurrection. They were interested in a good deal more.


Verse 21

‘(Now all the Athenians and the strangers sojourning there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell or to hear some new thing.)’

The enquiry was not antagonistic. Indeed the lives of these people and the strangers who came among them consisted in examining new philosophies. They loved to hear of ‘new things’. It was what their lives were all about. Nevertheless if he wished to go on teaching in Athens he had no choice but to comply.


Verse 22-23

‘And Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus, and said, “You men of Athens, in all things, I perceive that you are very religious. For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. What therefore you worship in ignorance, this I set forth to you.’

That we have here only the bare bones of Paul’s words is obvious. He would hardly have been foolish enough to seek to dismiss the Areopagites with so few words. But we have no reason at all to deny that the ideas are Paul’s. Rather we must see Luke and his source as summarising the gist of what he said. Silas may well have been present at this speech and have conveyed its content to Luke when he went back to Macedonia. or Luke may have obtained the details from Dionysius the Areopagite.

Paul’s speech reveals that he had some knowledge of the teachings of these men and of the teachers whose writings they revered. He had been brought up in the University city of Tarsus. And he wanted to make quite clear that the message he brought was not something totally new, it was not ‘a novelty’ to be cursorily listened to and then discarded, but was related to aspects of things that they acknowledged but admitted themselves that they did not fully know and understand. He was speaking of things which they had admitted to being relevant, but which they agreed were not within their ken, for they had altars to ‘unknown gods’. He wanted also to find some common ground, and brought up aspects of the knowledge of God which are known to all men. Thus he begins by referring to what he has seen around them.

When speaking to the Jews he had always begun with their history which was the source of their religion (and no doubt had done with the Jews here). But here he has to begin with the basics of religion, while recognising that he was facing both idol worshippers and philosophers. He points out that he has noticed how ‘very religious’ they are. We can compare the use of the same word in Acts 25:19 where it refers respectfully to a religion which the speaker does not wish to deride (the man he was speaking to believed in it and he would not want to offend him) but which did not apply to himself. Thus while it can mean ‘superstitious’, it would be taken by his hearers rather as complimentary. They saw themselves as ‘religious’ men.

He points out that he has noticed many altars, and many shrines. Athens was full of altars and idols of all kinds and were proud of them. They proliferated. And as he had walked about he had noticed that they had an altar there with the inscription, ‘to an unknown god’. (Being unknown it could have had no image). Well, that is why he was there, to bring to their knowledge this God Whom some of them worshipped and whom they admitted was as yet unknown to them. It was after all an open admission by Athens that there was a void in their religion, and it was one that he wanted to fill.

Altars ‘to unknown gods’ seem to have been known in the ancient world because men sought to cover their admitted ignorance of the ways of the gods by making such offerings to ‘unknown gods’ in order to cover any gods they may have overlooked and not have covered in their normal sacrifices, lest they be thought to be failing to offer due reverence to some god of whom they were not aware and then find themselves later being dealt with accordingly. For it was their view that the failure to pay all gods due reverence, even unknown ones, might be disastrous. They were ‘catch-all’ altars, ensuring that they did not slight gods of whom they were not aware.

Mention is made of such altars in or near Athens by Philostratus and Pausanius, and an altar has been discovered at Pergamum possibly inscribed ‘to the unknown deities’ (or it may have been ‘to the holy deities’, but either way it was anonymous and imageless). Alternately in a city of altars like Athens it may be that there was an altar which had become buried, and had then been rediscovered, which may then have been dedicated to its ‘unknown God’. Or it may have been one that had been built or rededicated to appease the dead when an ancient burial site was discovered, the god of the deceased not being known. It would be a typically Athenian gesture.

Whether ‘to an unknown god’ (singular) was Paul’s interpretation of such altars, in view of the fact that he wanted to emphasise that he only spoke of one God, or whether he had actually seen that exact wording on an altar for one of the reasons mentioned, we have no way of telling. But either way his approach emphasised the oneness of the God of Whom he spoke, and their own self-admitted ignorance, and there is no reason for suggesting that he is inventing having seen such an inscription. He refers to it because he did not wish them to think that he was bringing to Athens something totally novel. He was, he said, in his preaching filling in the gap that they admitted that they had in their knowledge.

The use of this idea of the ‘unknown god’ would to some extent appeal to all his listeners. The idol worshippers would be drawn in by the fact that they did offer such worship, or at a minimum allowed it, the Epicureans because they saw all gods as unknowable, and the Stoics because they may well have agreed that the eternal Reason was ‘unknown’ and that they were seeking to know it. Thus all in one way or another believed in an ‘unknown God’.


Verse 24-25

“The God who made the world and all things in it, he, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands, nor is he served by men’s hands, as though he needed anything, seeing he himself gives to all life, and breath, and all things.”

But Paul does not intend for Him to remain unknown. His first emphasis is that his God is the One God Who is Creator of all things and is above all things and requires neither man’s buildings nor man’s service. He needs nothing from man. Indeed both man and all creatures owe all that they are and have to Him. Life, breath and everything else come from Him. He is the Lord of creation and the Lord of life.

‘He gives -- all things.’ Rather than men providing for Him, He is man’s provider so that all that benefits mankind comes from Him (compare Acts 14:17).

It will be observed that this is soundly based on Scripture, yet put in such a way as to appeal to men of all religions. It is totally Scriptural. For the oneness of God see Genesis 1:1; Exodus 20:11; Isaiah 45:5-6; Nehemiah 9:6; for creating all things and giving them life and breath see Acts 14:15; Isaiah 42:5; Genesis 1:26; Genesis 2:7; Genesis 7:22; Ecclesiastes 12:7; for possession of heaven and earth see Genesis 14:19; Genesis 14:22; for being above all things see Deuteronomy 10:14; 1 Kings 8:27; for not requiring service at men’s hands as though He needed anything see Psalms 50:12-13; for having made all things, possessing all things and not dwelling in houses made with hands see Isaiah 61:1-2, compare Acts 7:48. Compare also Matthew 11:25.

Zeno, the Stoic philosopher, also stressed that the deity did not live in temples made with hands and Plutarch upbraided men for forgetting it, so they would connect with this. The Epicureans certainly firmly believed that the gods, whom they saw as keeping totally apart from men, did not require men’s ‘service’ and provision. Thus both could sympathise with some of Paul’s references, but we must not see Paul as pandering to them, for he has made it quite clear that the One of Whom he speaks has created all things separately from Himself (as against the divine reason pervading all things), and he will stress that He very much involves Himself with the affairs of men.


Verses 26-28

“And he made out of one every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed seasons, and the bounds of their habitation, that they should seek God, if haply they might feel after him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us, for ‘in him we live, and move, and have our being’, as certain even of your own poets have said, ‘for we are also his offspring’.”

Furthermore he points out that God has made all mankind of every nation out of one man (Genesis 3:20), so that they may dwell on the face of the earth (Genesis 11:9; Exodus 33:16), and He has determined their times and seasons (Genesis 1:14; Genesis 8:22; Job 14:5; Daniel 2:21), and where they will live, and what land they will inhabit (Deuteronomy 32:8; Job 12:23).

So all nations spring from the one man whom He created, and He controls both what they possess (‘the bounds of their habitation’) and the benefits of nature which they receive (‘their appointed seasons’, compare Acts 14:17), And all this so that they might (out of gratitude and love because of His wonderful provision) seek Him, and feel after Him and find Him (Job 23:3). So that they might seek Him with all their might (compare Matthew 6:33).

Yet in spite of that He is not far from every one of us (Deuteronomy 4:7; Psalms 145:18; Jeremiah 23:23-24), for it is in Him that we live, and move and have our being (Job 12:10; Daniel 5:23). And this is even evidenced by their own poets, who have said, “For in Him we live and move and have our being” (found in the works of Epimenides as said by Minos concerning his father Zeus) And also “For we are also His offspring”, (said of Zeus by the Cilician poet Aratus, and also found in Cleanthes’ Hymn to Zeus)

It will be noted from this that as against the Epicureans he stresses God’s vigorous activity in the world, and as against the pantheistic Stoics that God is above, and over against, the world as its Creator. As against those Athenians who claimed to be made from the soil of Athens he states that all men come from the one man. Furthermore he applies ideas which were attributed by Stoic philosophers to Zeus, to the One God of Whom he speaks, the One Who is Lord over all. Yet both Epicureans and Stoics would agree with the idea of the oneness of the world, and the Stoics with the idea that He could be sought after and found (they would see it as by seeking to appreciate the eternal reason). Both would agree that He did not require the help of men’s hands.

Thus Paul is seeking to find points of contact with their beliefs, while at the same time transforming their significance so that they would reveal to them the truth about the living God. This would then give the Holy Spirit the opening by which he could seize their hearts through what they did believe, and then lead them into further truth. By the quotations he is declaring that what men have thought about Zeus is really true about the living God Who made the world and all that is in it, the God of Whom he is speaking.

‘Feel after.’ That is, feeling after like a blind man groping for understanding (Isaiah 59:10). That is certainly what the Stoics did with ‘reason’. They strove to be in conformity with the eternal reason, although aware that it somewhat eluded them. The Epicureans had simply given up on feeling their way to God at all. Both are now being stirred to take more positive action, and to allow themselves to be awakened from their philosophic drowsiness.

And the words are also emphasising the ‘ignorance’ that he will soon refer to. Men ‘feel their way’ because they do not know, and the point here is that men are feeling after God because they do not know Him. They are still seeking ‘the Unknown God’. As we have seen the Epicureans would deny feeling after God, but he is seeking to stir the thought in their hearts that perhaps they should be doing so in order to fill the blank in their lives of which they must sometimes be conscious.

‘Though He is not far from each one of us.’ This was a direct challenge to the Epicureans. Do not believe that He is far off, he is saying, for He is very near, waiting for them to reach out to Him. The Stoics would agree with him here for they saw the divine reason as pervading all things. What they needed to consider was that He was more personally near in order to act.

‘For ‘in him we live, and move, and have our being’, as certain even of your own poets have said, ‘for we are also his offspring’. As we have seen above he is citing here words from their own poets. These words repudiate the remoteness of the divine as believed by the Epicureans, emphasising that God seeks to enter into close relationship with man, and they repudiate the Stoic idea of the divine spark in man by pointing out that really we are in Him not He in us. At the same time he repudiates the idea that man is merely earthly, and therefore tied to idol worship. And he demonstrates that God very much desires to have dealings with us. He surrounds us, and He is here waiting for us, and the source of all we are is in Him. To all he is saying, ‘wake up, and recognise that God is now among you and working within you, and is this day calling you to Himself.’ That this is so comes out in his later call for them now to ‘change their minds and hearts’ (repent).


Verse 29

“Being then the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like to gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and device of man.”

He then further emphasises that to speak of men as the ‘offspring of God’, by which these writers indicated a close relationship between men and God as those whom He had in one way or another created, and to whom He has given life and reason, must exclude the idea that He can be made of wood and stone, or be designed by man. Athens may be filled with idols, but he wants it known that any idol worship is to be seen as denying the very thing that their poets taught. Their own poets have condemned them.

So in a masterly way Paul has reached out to all, letting them see that he understands their ideas, and yet having also made clear to all the deficiencies of their own beliefs. At the same time he has declared a positive message concerning the Creator and controller of all things, the Great Provider, Who is even now in contact with them, and is calling them to Himself, while demonstrating that He must be sought, not through idols, but as Lord of Heaven and earth Who is so close that He approaches each man’s heart (through His Spirit).


Verse 30-31

“The times of ignorance therefore God overlooked, but now he commands men that they should all everywhere repent, inasmuch as he has appointed a day in which he will judge the world in righteousness by the man whom he has ordained, of which he has given assurance (literally ‘faith’) to all men, in that he has raised him from the dead.”

Let them recognise that God has in the past overlooked the periods of their ignorance (compare Acts 14:16). This is firstly evident in that He has not again brought universal destruction on mankind as he did at the Flood. And why has he not done so? It is because He recognised that it was through ignorance that they did it. It is because of that ignorance and darkness that He has spared them the total catastrophe that they had deserved. But that this does not mean that men of the past will not be judged comes out in Romans 2, for there he tells us that all will be judged according to how they responded to their conscience (Romans 2:12-16).

To modern men and women that brings a sense of relief. Their consciences are hardened, and therefore they feel that they are really not so bad. They are sure that their consciences will excuse them. What they do not realise is that in that day when the secrets of their hearts are brought out, and all the truth is known, and the full records are opened, that obliging conscience will suddenly turn on them and become their accuser, and they will be judged according to their works and found wanting (Romans 2:16; Matthew 25:31-46; Revelation 20:11-15).

And secondly God’s overlooking of the periods of their ignorance is a guarantee that He will not hold the past against those who are now listening to Paul, if only they will hear him. It means that what those of past ages did and believed will not be held against the present generation, who must now make their own decision with regard to such things. They have been spared up to this day, and now they must make up their own minds about the truth. For the time has come when the truth has come to all men in a decisive way, so that God is commanding a change of heart and mind. Now is the accepted time. Now is the day of salvation. He is therefore calling on them to turn to Him and seek Him, and that because a day has been appointed when He will judge the world by the Man Whom He has now ordained. And what is more He has confirmed that this is so to all men by raising Him from the dead.

We need not doubt in this regard that he expanded on the fact that God is the judge of all the world (Genesis 18:25; 1 Chronicles 16:33; Psalms 82:8; Psalms 94:2; Psalms 96:13; Psalms 98:9; compare Job 31:4; Job 31:6; Job 31:14) and that in Jesus Christ He will call all men to account (John 5:22; John 5:26-27; John 5:29; Romans 14:11-12; Revelation 20:11-14), and that he stressed the cross and resurrection, and the evidences for that resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:3-8). For his emphasis on the resurrection, of which they were clearly aware, simply had to have included a reference to His death, and he would not expect them to accept the idea of the resurrection without evidence, as he himself makes clear in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8).

‘But now he commands men that they should all everywhere repent.’ They are now being called on to repent, that is, to have a change of heart and mind, and to turn to God from idols (Acts 17:29) to serve the living and true God and wait for His Son from heaven Whom He raised from the dead (Acts 17:31; compare 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10).

And this because ‘He will judge the world in righteousness.’ Compare Psalms 9:8; Psalms 50:6; Psalms 96:13; Isaiah 11:4; Isaiah 51:5. The point is that all will be done in accordance with perfect righteousness and justice, for He is the moral God of Israel and judges accordingly.

‘By that Man Whom He has ordained.’ They had already said of him that he had preached ‘Jesus’. He had already no doubt made clear therefore that Jesus was God’s ordained Man, ordained for the final fulfilment of His purposes. Now he re-emphasises it. He would already have informed them that that Man had lived among mankind, had died and had risen again, and He would one day be their judge on a day already appointed. Now he re-emphasises that very fact.

‘He has raised Him from the dead.’ Again he has already referred sufficiently to the resurrection for them to have seen it as an essential part of his teaching (Acts 17:18). This is not therefore said in a vacuum. But he would also have further expanded on it here. Jesus has been demonstrated as God’s approved Judge in that He has uniquely been raised from the dead.

Note that here therefore the resurrection is God’s ‘assurance (pistis)’ of coming judgment. For God is such that any future resurrection must result in judgment. But this raising of Jesus from the dead also arouses the ‘faith’ (pistis) of those who respond to it, with the result that they will receive salvation and escape that judgment.

It is wrong to portray this message as though somehow Paul let himself down by it. It is in fact a message which is both vibrant and life-giving. And its end is very soul searching. It contains all that men need to know, (given what must also have been said), starting from scratch, in their search to find God.

Thus Paul finally makes clear:

· That the coming judgment is definite - ‘he has appointed a day’ (compare Luke 17:24; Luke 17:30; Luke 21:34-36).

· That it will be universal - ‘he will judge the inhabited world’ (Genesis 18:25; Joel 3:12-14; Revelation 14:14-20; Matthew 25:32; Revelation 20:12-13; for the whole world compare Acts 11:28; Acts 17:6).

· That it will be fair - ‘He will judge the world in righteousness’ (Genesis 18:25; Deuteronomy 32:4; Psalms 96:13).

· That it will be personal - ‘by the Man Whom He has appointed’ (Acts 10:42; John 5:22; John 5:27).

· That it is intimately connected with the resurrection from the dead (John 5:25; John 5:28-29; John 6:33; John 6:39-40; John 6:44).

We can hardly say that he has not made the position clear.


Verse 32

‘Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked; but others said, “We will hear you concerning this yet again.” ’

Central to Paul’s message had continually been the resurrection, and it was on this point that his hearers were divided. Some mocked at the idea (for previous mockery of the Apostles compare Acts 2:13). Others said that they wanted to hear more. We can compare the latter with those in Acts 13:42 where the Gentiles again had asked to hear more. We should not see such a request as simply a means of dismissing the truth. In Acts 13:42 it was certainly very genuine. The parallels between Acts 13:14-42 and Acts 17:16-34 have already been noted in the analysis introducing chapter 13. Both give detailed summary speeches made by Paul, both result in continuing interest among Gentiles (Acts 13:42; Acts 17:32), in both the response of the Jews is not described (Acts 13:42; Acts 17:17). However, with regard to that lack of mention of response we must always beware of reading in from silence, for otherwise we would assume no conversions in Cyprus at all where there is also no mention of response (Acts 13:5). It is Luke’s practise to highlight what he wants to highlight, and to be silent otherwise. Here then also the non-mention of response need not be significant, and indeed Acts 17:34 may be intended to cover all.

So Athens in its wisdom is here seen as paralleling the rest of the world. The resurrection, proclaimed through the power of the Holy Spirit, is what has divided men from the beginning of the Apostolic ministry (Acts 2:24-36; Acts 3:15; Acts 3:26; Acts 4:10; Acts 5:31; Acts 10:40-41; Acts 13:30-37). It continues to do so, for it is central to the Christian message. It lies at the very heart of what the Good News is all about, salvation, and life, and hope. And only through belief in the resurrection (with its accompanying sacrificial death) can eternal life be found. It is that which divides up mankind.


Verse 33

‘Thus Paul went out from among them.’

Having completed his words Paul went out from among them. We are hardly right to suggest that he stopped short in order to do so. And there is no suggestion that they cut him short. It is rather that Luke finishes in this way because he wanted to emphasise that it was the resurrection that was at the root of their problems, and so that he can link a reference to the resurrection with the problems that they had with it. We can rightly assume that Paul had satisfactorily completed his address, before going out (indeed his last recorded words may well have been the climax with greater detail already having been given). What Luke wants us to recognise is that when he left they were discussing the resurrection.


Verse 34

‘But certain men clave to him, and believed, among whom also was Dionysius the Areopagite, and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.’

The result of Paul’s activity in Athens was a number of believers, which included prominent people. ‘They clave to him’. That is, they firmly took their stand with him. Dionysisus the Areopagite was presumably a member of the council. Damaris may have been the wife of an important official, one of the ‘honourable women’. She may have been in the Areopagus with her husband (in a place like Athens provision might have been made for important women to hear proceedings), or she may have been a God-fearer who was present in the synagogue earlier. She may even have become a prominent prophetess. Or she may have been a well known courtesan of the marketplace whose conversion was seen as outstanding and who was now a living example of walking with Christ. There must have been some reason for her mention, for whichever way it was, she was clearly expected to be known to many of Luke’s readers.

It should be noted that this statement is intended to indicate success, not failure. Note the ‘certain men’, linked with Dionysius, which suggests important figures, in contrast with the ‘others with them’. Luke found many different ways in which to express such success, which often, if taken literally, suggested limited response. We have to read behind the lines. In Cyprus it was by the conversion of a pro-consul. In Philippi it was by the conversion of two households and possibly a slave girl. Here, in a small city, probably without an influential synagogue, a number of outstanding people were converted, along with a number of others. The nucleus of a church had been formed, as at Philippi.

Thus whether we see the visit to Athens as a success or a failure depends largely on how we read it and where we put our emphasis. Luke gives no hint of failure here that has not been given in success stories elsewhere. He was much too honest to suggest that the Areopagus were all converted, any more than he had earlier made the suggestion about the Sanhedrin. He certainly does not give the impression of huge numbers, but we would not expect that in a place like Athens where people were more likely to think about things for a while, and there were here no large gatherings.

It is often pointed out that we hear nothing elsewhere of a church in Athens. But if we judged success on that basis we would assume failure at many places. It is in fact always assumed in Acts that where men have believed a church will be established in one way or another, and no first visit in Acts ever does record the establishment of a church. The actual establishing of churches is usually only referred to on a return visit, so as to explain the visit, and we know of no return visit to Athens. Paul was no doubt satisfied that the church at Athens, with prominent people in charge, could hold its own. There was certainly a flourishing church there in 2nd century AD and later (we know little about the mid 1st century AD apart from Acts), and it produced prominent members.

Some have suggested that Paul failed to gain the approval of the Areopagus and was therefore afterwards forbidden to speak. But that is purely surmise and assumes what is not proved, that the Areopagus could have prevented him from preaching. Two doubtful surmises do not make a strong case. More probably he simply recognised that a greater opportunity awaited in the much larger Corinth. (Like the Apostles he would surely have declared, ‘I cannot but speak the things that I have seen and heard’).

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Acts 17:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/acts-17.html. 2013.

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