Acts 17

Paul and Silas leave Philippi and continue their journey by going to Thessalonica, Berea and then to Athens.  They leave Philippi after being released from prison and encounter troubles again in each of the next two cities where they preach.  In both Thessalonica and Berea, the problems come from the Thessalonian Jews who become jealous of the popularity of the gospel with the Jews and Gentiles.  In Athens – where Paul goes alone – the gospel does not arouse opposition as much as scorn from the intellectuals there.  In each of the cities the difficulties faced by the missionaries show how the Enemy opposes the gospel through any means at his disposal.

After the city officials of Philippi release Paul and Silas from prison and beg them to leave quietly, the missionaries travel just over 100 miles southeast to Thessalonica.  Thessalonica is the capital city of Macedonia with a population between 40,000 and 65,000 people (five to ten times larger than Philippi with its population of 5000-10,000).  Thessalonica is a key city for the spread of the gospel in Europe because of its size and importance and as the largest port in the province.

Unlike Philippi, Thessalonica has a synagogue, so Paul and Silas go there first and for three Sabbaths reason with the Jews from the Scriptures and proclaim that Jesus was in fact the Messiah.  Though they teach in the synagogue for three weeks they are likely in Thessalonica for much longer, as Paul later thanks the Philippians for sending support more than once to him there (Phil 4:15-16) and says that many turn to Christ from idolatry (meaning that Gentiles not associated with the synagogue believe the gospel – I Thess 1:9).  We also know that Paul supports himself while in Thessalonica, which again implies that he and Silas are there for some time (I Thess 2:9).

As a result of the teaching some of the Jews are persuaded and join Paul and Silas, along with a great multitude of the God-fearing Greeks and a number of the leading women.  The gospel preaching is effective and convinces some Jews, but it convinces even more God-fearing Gentiles who attend the synagogue.  The size of the group that believes the gospel overall is very large, and largely made up of Gentiles.

The success of the gospel does not sit well with the Jewish leaders.  The gospel leads its adherents away from the Law and, in the case of the Gentiles, likely away from the synagogue.  The Gentiles now have no need of the Jewish teachers as they do not depend on the Law for salvation (and have no cultural precedent to follow it).  Consequently, the Jewish leaders stir up the city by inciting a riot against the teachings of the gospel.  They take along wicked men from the market place and go looking for Paul and Silas.

Paul and Silas are staying at the house of a man called Jason (interestingly, Luke does not tell us this until he says the mob goes to Jason’s house looking for the missionaries – he also does not say who Jason is or give any context for him at all).  The mob comes to Jason’s house and when the people do not find Paul and Silas they drag Jason and some other believers before the city officials.  They accuse Jason of harboring men who have upset the world (they perhaps have heard of what happened in Philippi – this accusation is certainly an exaggeration but is not totally inaccurate – disturbance seems to follow Paul wherever he preaches) and who declare that there is another king besides Caesar – Jesus.

The accusations are serious and the officials and others in the crowd react accordingly.  Disrupting society and preaching against Caesar are typically capital offenses.  It is not clear, but either the officials decide a pledge by Jason is enough or Jason has some kind of influence that allows him to deflect the worst of the accusations and get the officials to agree to a pledge.  Whatever the case, Jason and the other believers give security – some kind of property – that guarantees Paul and Silas will no longer disturb the peace and probably also guarantees they will leave the city (perhaps this is what Paul refers to in I Thess 2:18 as Satan thwarting him from coming back to Thessalonica).

Paul and Silas leave Thessalonica by night (the believers in the city apparently knew how to find them even if the mob did not) and travel to Berea.  Once there they enter the synagogue – which they do in every city that has one – and begin to proclaim the gospel.  Unlike in Thessalonica, however, the Jews receive the word with great eagerness and examine the scriptures daily to see if what Paul and Silas proclaim is true (Paul and Silas explain Jesus using the Old Testament so the Berean Jews examine the OT Scriptures to see if what they say makes sense).  These Jews are not jealous of the gospel as the Thessalonian Jews were – they are eager to understand the salvation Yahweh has brought through His Son.

As a result of Paul and Silas’ proclamation and their own study of the scriptures, many of the Jews believe (unlike Thessalonica where only a few of the Jews converted).  Also – just as in Thessalonica – a number of prominent Greek women and men believe also.  The gospel is effective and, amazingly, is received by all – Jews and Gentiles.  The city is not thrown into a riot and no officials are called on to condemn the missionaries.  The Berean Jews are certainly more noble-minded than their Thessalonian brethren and welcome the new teaching.

Everything is great until the Jews of Thessalonica hear that Paul and Silas are preaching in Berea.  They come into town and immediately stir up the crowds against the missionaries.  Once the city is stirred up, the believers in Berea send Paul away (apparently the wrath of the Thessalonians is targeted mostly at him instead of Silas and Timothy [interestingly, nothing is said after they leave Philippi about Luke – no first person accounts are recorded – some commentators surmise from this that Luke stays in Philippi – perhaps his home – and rejoins Paul when he travels back through that city in 20:6]).  The brethren from Berea escort Paul out of the city to the sea and presumably board a ship for Athens.  Once there, Paul gives word to have Timothy and Silas come to him (it is not clear if he means for them to come to Athens or to Corinth where he will go next – they actually rejoin him in Corinth – 18:5) from Berea, and the Berean brethren return home.

The city of Athens was five hundred years past its prime when Paul arrived in AD 50.  The golden age of Athens was the so-called Pentekontaetia, the Great Fifty Years from the end of the campaign of Xerxes (479 BC), who burned the Acropolis and almost completely destroyed the lower city, to the beginning of the Pelopponesian War (431 BC).  After Augustus emerged victorious from his civil war (30 BC), he visited Athens repeatedly and helped finance the rebuilding of the temples and civic buildings.  In gratitude, the Athenians erected a temple of Roma and Augustus on the Acropolis between 27-17 BC, honoring the emperor with an inscription that describes Augustus as “Savior and Benefactor.”  Some estimate the size of the population of Athens in the first century at 30,000 people.  Jews lived in Athens since the fourth century BC. – Eckhard J. Schnabel, “Acts”, Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, 722.

While Paul waits for Timothy and Silas, he observes all the pagan statues and temples throughout the city.  Athens is known for its amazing number of monuments and temples to many different gods.  As he sees the rampant idolatry, Paul’s spirit is provoked within him.  This could mean he is angry – perhaps over the dishonor the idols bring to the one true God – or even that he is motivated to preach the gospel by the ignorance the idols represent.  It could also be a combination of the two  (as usual Paul’s emotions are centered on the gospel – he does not get angry over personal hardship or even horrific persecution – he gets angry when the gospel is compromised or restrained).

Paul goes to the synagogue where he reasons with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles as is his custom.  He also goes to the market place each day and teaches and debates with those who happen to be present.  Among these are Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, some of whom seem to take him seriously while others think he is an idle babbler (one who does not have his own ideas and instead uses the scraps of others).  Some misunderstand him and think he preaches multiple deities because he proclaims Jesus and the resurrection (they apparently believe he presents the resurrection itself as a god).

The Epicureans, or ‘philosophers of the garden’, founded by Epicurus (died 270 BC), considered the gods to be so remote as to take no interest in, and have no influence on, human affairs.  The world was due to chance, a random concourse of atoms, and there would be no survival of death, and no judgment.  So human beings should pursue pleasure, especially the serene enjoyment of a life detached from pain, passion and fear.  The Stoics, however, or ‘philosophers of the porch’ (the “stoa” or painted colonnade next to the agora where they taught), founded by Zeno (died 265 BC), acknowledged the supreme god but in a pantheistic way, confusing him with the ‘world soul’.  The world was determined by fate, and human beings must pursue their duty, resigning themselves to live in harmony with nature and reason, however painful this might be, and develop their own self-sufficiency.  To oversimplify, it was characteristic of Epicureans to emphasize chance, escape and the enjoyment of pleasure, and of the Stoics to emphasize fatalism, submission and the endurance of pain.  – John R.W. Stott, “The Message of Acts”, The Bible Speaks Today, 280.

The philosophers bring him to the Areopagus (“the hill of Ares”, also known as Mars Hill) where they ask him more about the message he has been proclaiming.  The council of the Areopagus is probably not the ruling body for the city but rather the guardian of the city’s culture – its religion, morals, and education.  As Luke recounts Paul going before the Areopagus he mentions that all Athenians spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new.  This is a group that loves promulgating and debating ideas so they want very much to hear from Paul if he is in fact bringing a new message to the city.

How intimidating would it be to come to Athens and proclaim the gospel?  Athens is not the most powerful city in the empire but is likely its intellectual center.  This is where all the leading philosophers and intellectuals reside – and have for hundreds of years.  This is the city of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.  Preaching and debating here are different than debating in the synagogues of Galatia and Macedonia.  Amazingly, it does not seem to faze Paul at all.  He obviously feels comfortable presenting and defending the gospel whether before Jews, God-fearing Gentiles, or hyper-intellectual pagans.  He does not back away from anyone because his goal is to fulfill the Great Commission and glorify his Creator.  He does not fear man because he does fear God.

Paul rises to speak to the gathered Athenians and compliments them on their religious zeal because they not only have many idols but also have an altar in the city dedicated to the ‘UNKNOWN GOD.’  This unknown God is who Paul wants to tell them about.  By saying this Paul does not justify their pagan worship but rather reminds them of their admission that there could be a deity beyond their comprehension and experience.

He goes on to make five points about God:

  1. God created the world and is Lord of all and thus does not dwell in temples made with hands.
  2. God does not need anything from man since He Himself gives to all life and breath and all things.
  3. God made all people from one man and rules over man’s history and determines the power and boundaries of the nations.
  4. God made man to seek God, and though man has a hard time finding Him, He is not far from each one of us (man’s problems with finding God are not God’s fault), for in Him we live and move and exist (this could be a quote from a hymn to Zeus by Epimenides of Crete in 600 BC – this is not certain, however). That the Athenians do not know God – the Unknown God – is not because of God but their own sin.
  5. God is the father of human beings (man is made in God’s image) – as some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His offspring’ (a quote from Aratus of Soli in Cilicia in 300 BC – referring to Zeus). Since we are God’s children God cannot be an image formed by the art and thought of man.  We are flesh and blood, how can our Father be made of gold or silver or stone?

Paul explains the Unknown God as supreme to all other gods and truly alive – unlike all other gods.  The idolatry of the Athenians makes no sense in light of who and what God is.  God is not a god to be added to their list of gods but the one true God who eliminates all other gods.  This God now calls on them to repent because having overlooked the times of ignorance, He will now judge the world in righteousness through a Man He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.

Paul makes a similar point here to the one he made to the Zeus worshipers in Lystra (14:16-17).  God has to this point overlooked the ignorance and idolatry of nations other than Israel (He did not immediately judge them as He did Israel), but that time is past now that His Son has come and died.  God’s Son died and rose again and will someday judge the people and nations of the world based on their acceptance or rejection of Him (He is equal to God because He judges all people as God).  This day is already appointed (so in that respect it is the same as the immediate judgment God spared them from because of their ignorance).  God is not just the God of the Israel but God of all men.

Paul’s speech to the Athenians is different from his other recorded sermons.  His audience is exclusively Gentile and pagan so he does not refer at all to the Law or Israel’s history.  He spends a significant part of his speech showing idolatry to be wrong because of the rampant idolatry in the city.  He also shows that God is in fact the Creator who is very much alive and involved in the history and lives of His Creatures.  The world is not here by chance as the Epicureans believe and is not ruled by a capricious and pantheistic world force as the Stoics believe.  And God will someday judge the world based on its acceptance of the Savior He sent to earth and who died and rose again.  Paul tailors his defense of the gospel to the cultural background of his audience and shows that ultimately neither of the predominant philosophies of the day in Athens are correct.  God is not limited or defined by man.

Paul’s reference to resurrection proves to be too much for some of his listeners.  When they hear this part of his speech they effectively stop the proceedings.  Some of them sneer – resurrection is a bit much to believe – but others invite him to speak to them again concerning this.

Paul leaves the council apparently without convincing most to follow the now knowable God (the best proclamations of the gospel are still dependent on the Spirit to move – we are responsible for the message, not results).  However, some do join him (it could be that Luke intends verse 34 to be a summary of Paul’s whole mission in Athens and not just his address to the Areopagus).  Two people are mentioned – Dionysius the Areopagite (apparently a member of the council – this is a notable conversion) and a woman named Damaris (no reason given for why she is mentioned – perhaps she is prominent in Athens and in that way is like the prominent women who believed in Thessalonica and Berea).

Paul rarely leaves a town the same way he comes into it.  He comes in peacefully but almost always leaves either with a mob who wants to kill him on his tail or the mob itself throwing him out.  Spreading the gospel is dangerous and disruptive work.  It is a rare city that just accepts it and goes along.  It is a mark of how revolutionary its message is that it is feared and hated by so many.  The Enemy despises the gospel and arrays his forces against it everywhere it seeks to spread.  Nothing shows the supernatural power of the gospel more than the constant opposition it arouses anywhere it is proclaimed throughout the world.

Note also how many different means the Enemy uses to thwart the spread of the gospel.  In Thessalonica and Berea he uses the jealousy of the religious leaders – the very men who are closest to the truth and who should be most welcoming to it – to stir up the city and cause rioting and violence against the missionaries.  In Athens he adopts an entirely different tack and uses the intellectualism of the philosophers to cause them to arrogantly dismiss any message that includes claims of resurrection.  Violence and righteous indignation in the first two cities and peaceful apathy in the third.  In all three cases, however, the common denominator is pride – the most effective weapon in his arsenal.  Satan knows what is at stake with the proclamation of the gospel and uses any and every resource at his disposal to blind men to its truth.

Lastly, it pays to note again the fearlessness of Paul.  He is the consummate embodiment of his charge to Timothy to preach the word in season and out of season (II Tim 4:1-2).  In Thessalonica and Berea he preaches to Jews, God-fearing Gentiles and idolatrous Gentiles.  In Athens he reasons with Jews in the synagogue, debates with anyone who is around in the market place, and speaks to the philosophers at the Areopagus.  It doesn’t matter who his audience is or what the conditions are – he preaches the gospel.  He knows he has the truth of the Supreme Creator and Sustainer and Redeemer of the world and so does not worry about the ramifications of preaching it.  He is so driven by the good news and truth of the gospel that he is blind to the potential persecution, opposition, embarrassment, or personal difficulty it could provoke.  Paul shows what it means to live in a world that is strangely dim in the light of God’s glory and grace.

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek (Rom 1:16).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s