Acts 17 Bible Commentary

B. W. Johnson’s Bible Commentary

(Read all of Acts 17)
Paul at Athens.

SUMMARY.--The Journey to Thessalonica. Labors in the Synagogue. A Church Planted. The Jews Stir Up Persecution. Departure to Berea. Journey to Athens. The City Full of Idols. Paul's Evangelistic Labors. Taken to the Areopagus. His Address to the Athenians. The Diverse Results: Some Mock; Some Propose to Hear Again; Some Are Converted.

      1-4. Passed through Amphipolis . . . came to Thessalonica. They traveled along the great Roman military road, which passed through Macedonia and Greece to Dyrrachium on the Adriatic sea, and then beginning on the other side at Brundisium, extended to Rome. Amphipolis was about thirty miles, a day's journey, southwest of Philippi; Apollonia about the same distance farther on, and Thessalonica about twenty-eight miles west of Apollonia. Thessalonica was a rich commercial city, the seat of the Roman governor of Macedonia, and is still a city of about 70,000 population, of whom one-third are Jews. Its excellent harbor makes it a coveted object of Austrian diplomacy in the Balkan provinces. Paul, as his manner was. It was his custom always to begin his work in the synagogue if he found one. Here he showed from the Old Testament that the promised Messiah should die, and rise again, that Jesus complied with these conditions, and hence must be the Christ. This line of argument was continued in the synagogue for three sabbaths. This indicates how long he continued to argue in the synagogue, not how long he remained here. Some of them believed. Of the Jews who heard in the synagogue. Also, of the devout Greeks a great multitude. These were religious Gentiles who had departed from heathenism, attended the synagogue, but had not been circumcised. Of the chief women. Some of them, no doubt, the wives of the "devout Greeks." Some of the converts made during Paul's stay were idolators (1 Thess. 1:9). The result of these labors was the establishment of a flourishing church, the existence of which called out the two letters to the Thessalonians.

      5-9. But the Jews. As usual, a part believed and the others were filled with hatred. Certain lewd fellows. "Vile fellows of the rabble." The Jews called in the worst classes to aid them. Assaulted the house of Jason. Paul and Silas had abode there (verse 7), but were not found, probably from having a warning. Drew Jason . . . unto the rulers of the city. Called "politarchs" in the Greek text, and so called in an inscription of the first century still seen on an ancient arch in the city. These that have turned the world upside down. A strong tribute to the revolutionizing power of the new Faith. It did change the world. These all do contrary to the decrees of Cesar. A false charge, but the one most likely to secure the attention of the magistrates. Saying that there is another king. The Romans never called their ruler a king, but he was so called by subject nations. The Jews said to Pilate, "We will have no king but Cæsar." The only ground for the charge against Paul was that he preached the kingdom of Christ. They troubled . . . the rulers. Troubled, because it was a charge of disloyalty to the Roman Cæsar, and of an attempt to have another king. They were utterly ignorant of the nature of Christ's kingdom. 9. When they had taken security. Of those asserted. They received some kind of a guarantee that there would be nothing done contrary to the laws of the empire.

      10-12. Sent away Paul and Silas by night. By night so as to leave without a fresh disturbance. Unto Berea. Howson places Berea sixty, Hackett forty-five, miles west of Thessalonica. The first states that it now has 18,000 population, and is called Verria. Many of them believed. This would be the natural result. As elsewhere, the converts were Jews and devout Greeks, both men and women. Honourable. Of high rank.

      13-15. They came thither. The inveterate hatred of the Jews of Thessalonica pursued him. When they began to stir up a disturbance at Berea, as Paul was the chief object of hatred, it was thought best for him to leave, but Silas and Timothy were left to continue the work. To go as it were to the sea. He started as though to embark on the sea, Berea not being a seaport. Whether he did, or went to Athens by land, is not stated. The journey by land was about 250 miles. The sea voyage would be much the quicker route. They that conducted Paul. Some of the Berean brethren. When they returned they took a message to Silas and Timothy to join him at once. From 1 Thess. 3:1, 2, we learn that Timothy was at once sent to Thessalonica.

      16-18. While Paul waited. At first he seems to have intended to await the arrival of Timothy and Silas before he opened his work, but his spirit was too much stirred. Wholly given to idolatry. "Full of idols" in the Revision. This is confirmed by the Greek writers. The Greek historian Pausanias says that there were more idols in Athens than in all the rest of Greece combined. Many other writers bear the same testimony. Paul would see them wherever he turned his eyes. Disputed . . . in the market. There was in Athens one great "market place," or public square. The porches around it were favorite places for discussion. Epicureans and Stoics. Two of the philosophical schools then prevalent in Athens. The first held that the gods were careless about human affairs, and that a man's best course was to get as much pleasure out of life as possible. With them pleasure was the chief good. The Stoics were fatalists, believers in a sort of pantheism, and insisted on self-righteousness. Epicurus was the founder of the first sect; Zeno, of the second. What will this babbler say? A contemptuous expression. A setter forth of strange gods. He spoke of God and the risen Jesus. Some have thought that they mistook Anastasis, the Greek for resurrection, for the name of a goddess.

      19-21. Brought him unto the Areopagus. The Greek term for Mars' hill (verse 22). The hill was a place of assembly. There the supreme court of Athens met. There the courts that sat concerning religious matters convened. The associations had something to do, probably, with Paul being taken here to speak, though the meeting was informal and not official. The hill is about fifty feet high, and was then surrounded by the most glorious works of art in Athens. To tell or hear some new thing. Demosthenes himself speaks of this propensity of the Athenians (Philipp. 1:43). It was in harmony with the spirit of the city that he should be called on to speak to gratify the curiosity of the populace.

      22-31. Paul stood in the midst of Mars' hill. In the Areopagus. Let the reader keep in mind that this address was spoken in the literary capital of the ancient world, the most cultured city of the earth to which every Roman who sought a finished education resorted to complete his studies, the home of the philosophers, orators, sculptors, painters and poets, and the great university where many thousands of strangers were gathered for study. This ancient city of so glorious history is the modern capital of Greece, and has about 100,000 inhabitants. Ye men of Athens. The introduction of Paul has always been regarded as a masterpiece of skill. He does not say, "In all things ye are too superstitious" (see Revision in the margin), or ye are "more religious than others." His remark is a compliment, and he confirms it by a statement that he had found an altar to the unknown God. Besides thousands of altars and statues of deities whom they named, this altar was dedicated to the "Unknown," as if to some deity whose presence they felt, but whom they did not comprehend. This Unknown, he announces, I declare unto you. Ancient writers speak of altars at Athens to the unknown God, or gods. Such an introduction was well calculated to fix the attention of his critical audience. God that made the world. He now declares the attributes of that unknown God: (1) The God that made the world; (2) Lord of heaven and earth; (3) dwelleth not in temples; (4) not worshiped by human hands; (5) giveth life to all that lives; (6) made of one blood all nations; (7) appointed that men should seek the Lord; (8) we are his offspring; (9) hence, the Godhead is not like any idol made by human hands. It dishonors so glorious a being to liken him to man's device. Then comes the application. The times of this ignorance. The times when there was no revelation in to those in darkness. God winked at. Overlooked. Now commandeth. The gospel is world-embracing. (1) All men, (2) everywhere, are command to repent. This call to repentance is urged because God hath appointed a day; the day of coming judgment, when the world will be judged through Christ. Of this the resurrection of Christ is an assurance. Appointed times (verse 26). Athens had had her day. She was once the mistress of the seas. The same fact is true of every nation. Certain of your poets. Aratus, who wrote about 200 years before. Also Cleanthes, in his Hymn to Jupiter. Raised him from the dead (verse 31). If Jesus was raised, all men will be raised; hence, the assurance of a general judgment after death.

      32-34. When they heard of the resurrection. The Epicureans were materialists like the Sadducees. They no doubt mocked at the idea of a resurrection. The Stoics probably wished to hear again of this matter. There was a division of sentiment. So Paul departed. He regarded the field less fruitful than others. Certain men . . . believed. His labors were not without results. One of the judges of the court of the Areopagus, the judges which were chosen from the noblest men of the city, Dionysius, was converted, along with others. A church does not seem to have been founded at this time; at least it is not elsewhere mentioned in the New Testament. Even as late as the time of Constantine the Great, Athens was a rallying point of the dying Paganism.