Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New TestamentActs 17
The continuation of the second missionary tour is the theme of Acts 17, in which Luke relates the success of Paul's mission in Thessalonica (Acts 17:1-9), even greater success in Berea (Acts 17:10-15), Paul's arrival in Athens where he was invited to speak in the Areopagas (Acts 17:16-22), and the account of Paul's address on Mars' Hill (Acts 17:23-34).
Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where was a synagogue of the Jews.
The passing by of certain towns to visit others gives a clue to the plan Paul was following. It was that of "planting the gospel in strategic cities ... he did not aim to preach wherever he could find an audience ... but had a program for establishing churches in key centers." F1 Dummelow observed that:
His plan was first to evangelize the
seats of government and the trade
centers, knowing that if Christianity
was once established in these places
it would spread throughout the
When they had passed ...
The use of the third person pronoun "they" in this verse is significant. As Wesley said, "Luke seems to have been left at Philippi." F3 Apparently Luke continued there, preaching throughout that area until Paul returned (Acts 20:5,6), upon which occasion Luke again referred to himself as in Paul's company, continuing to do so until the end of Acts.
It was also concluded by McGarvey that due to the grammatical antecedent of "they" being "Paul and Silas," "it is implied that Timothy also remained with Luke, to still further instruct and organize the church." F4
At least as far back as the fourth century B.C., there was a city called Therma (named after hot springs in the area) "situated at the junction of the main land route from Italy to the East with the main route from the Aegean to the Danube." F5 Cassander, the son of Antipater who governed Macedonia while Alexander the Great was campaigning in the East, was the man "who refounded and embellished Therme, and called it after his wife Thessalonica, Alexander's sister." F6 This was in 315 B.C., eight years after Alexander died. It became the capital of Greek Macedonia and, under the name of Salonika, has continued until today as "one of the principal seaports of southeastern Europe, population 217,049 (1951 census)." F7
Synagogue of the Jews ...
As always, Paul first addressed the beloved chosen people, turning away from them only when compelled to do so by their rejection. "To the Jew first" (Romans 1:16) was a controlling principle with Paul.
And Paul, as his custom was, went in unto them, and for three sabbath days reasoned with them from the scriptures.
Three sabbath days ...
does not indicate the length of Paul's stay in Thessalonica, but the period of preaching primarily to Jews in the synagogue. "This was followed by an indefinite period of preaching in the house of Jason, his host." F8
Acts 17:2 must be understood to mean
that he worked for three weeks among
the Jews, and afterward turned to the
Gentiles, among whom he labored for
three or four months. F9
Where a knowledge of the Scriptures permitted it, Paul always founded his preaching upon the prophetic utterances of the Old Testament, as he did here.
Opening and alleging that it behooved Christ to suffer, and to rise again from the dead; and that this Jesus, whom, said he, I proclaim unto you, is the Christ.
That Jesus of Nazareth was the long-awaited Messiah promised in the Old Testament is the fundamental Christian truth, attested by some 333 Old Testament prophecies fulfilled in him. This appeal to the Old Testament is still the best beginning for teaching people who believe the Bible.
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.
Some were persuaded ...
By the very nature of the gospel, some believe it, others do not; but the difference lies in the hearts of the hearers. The gospel is a message of life to some, death to others (2 Corinthians 2:16).
The devout Greeks ...
"Not necessarily proselytes, but persons who had given up idolatry, attended synagogue services and worshiped God." F10 Some have pointed out that this was the first place where Paul gathered a congregation which included socially prominent people.
But the Jews, being moved with jealousy, took unto 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.
Such jealousy is easily understood. The devout Jews had been teaching in that city for generations with minimal results; then Paul and Silas in the space of three weeks or a little longer had moved a "great multitude" to accept the gospel. The unbelieving element in the synagogue retaliated by organizing a mob and assaulting the house of Jason, where Paul was living, hoping no doubt to find him there; which, if they had succeeded, might have resulted in Paul's death.
The house of Jason ...
There is no reason why this Jason might not be the same person mentioned as one of Paul's "kinsmen" (Romans 16:21), although, of course, it is not certain.
And when they found them not, they dragged Jason and certain brethren before the rulers of the city, crying, These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also.
The rulers of the city ...
The Greek word here is [politarch], which is not found anywhere in Classical Greek literature; and, of course, there was a time when the radical critics were baying to the moon about "Luke's error"; however, the excavation of one of the arches that led to the ancient city has exposed an old inscription which uses the very title Luke employed here, even giving the names of the seven politarchs, which included the names "Sosipater, Gaius, and Secundus," F11 all of which were common names of that day, and are found in Acts. The significance of Luke's accuracy in this lies in the fact that:
Aristotle, whose POLITICS well nigh
exhausts the list of all known
official titles of Greek cities, does
not mention it .... It occurs nowhere
else in the New Testament, nor,
indeed, in any classical writer. F12
Having been proved correct where all the evidence seemed to be against him, Luke's accuracy is again, as invariably, certified. But, as Walker noted:
Despite all these facts corroborative
of the truthfulness of the New
Testament, some who still call
themselves scholars continue to repeat
the libelous statements that the New
Testament books are full of historical
These that have turned the world upside down ...
The apostles were not "revolutionaries" in the modern sense of that word; but their teachings did entail a reversal of pagan value-judgments. "How greatly the world fears the kingdom of God! How it dreads lest its own works, which are of clay, should be overthrown." F14
Whom Jason hath received: and these all act contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, one Jesus.
The decrees of Caesar ...
In all probability, Claudius was the emperor referred to. F15 Since that ruler was an avowed enemy of the Jews (Acts 18:2), these Jews were guilty of the same mistake as those who crucified Christ, saying, "We have no king but Caesar" (John 19:15).
This verse is important as showing that Paul believed in the present kingdom of Christ over which Jesus was then and still is ruling. Note that the charge was not that "in the Second Advent, Jesus would become a king"; but that "there is another king, one Jesus." Those who assert that Paul was here teaching the immediate return of Christ should read this passage again.
Another king ...
This was a skillfully planned charge. At that time, treason was interpreted in a wide sense and was severely punished." F16 Of course the Jews perverted Paul's meaning, ignoring completely the spiritual nature of the kingdom Paul preached as being then in existence and ruled over by Jesus. This situation reveals two key facts which explain Paul's subsequent shift of emphasis from "King Jesus" to "Lord Jesus" in his preaching to the Gentiles. These were: (1) emphasis of the kingship of Jesus could be easily perverted by the Jews into a charge of treason, and (2) at that particular point in history, the Gentile representatives of Caesar were unusually sensitive to such charges. The allegation that the evident shift of Paul's public teaching away from the "kingship" emphasis was due to his misunderstanding the Second Advent was due to occur quickly, and that he changed his teaching when it failed to come (as evidenced by 2 Thessalonians) is absolutely in error. Paul did not change his teaching at all on the kingship of Jesus, except in situations like those prevailing in Thessalonica and other Gentile cities with Jewish elements. For example, he wrote Timothy, "He shall show who is the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings, and Lord of lords" (1 Timothy 6:15).
We are gratified that Harrison also perceived the above truth, and gave us this comment:
This incident illustrates why the
epistles of Paul as well as Acts have
relatively little to say about the
kingdom of God ... It was because
these ideas (of the kingdom), familiar
and precious (to believing Jews), were
subject to misunderstanding by
Verses 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.
The seriousness of the charges against the apostles was such that the politarchs dared not ignore it; but the evidence presented to sustain them was so scanty that the official action was minimal.
Security of Jason and the rest ...
They were probably compelled to put up large sums of money, perhaps their homes and businesses, as a guarantee of no further disturbances, which, of necessity, would have meant that Paul could not remain in the city. As Bruce said:
This probably meant that Paul had to
leave the city and that his friends
guaranteed that he would not come back
- at least during the present
magistrates' term of office. It is
probably to this situation that Paul
referred in 1 Thess. 2:18 ... that he
greatly desired to go back, but "Satan
hindered us." F18
It was indeed one of Satan's victories. Paul could have gone back, of course; but it would have resulted in the spoilation of the Christians through the loss of their property. Paul had not consented to such an arrangement, the details having been arranged by his friends on his behalf in his absence! It was a neat little victory for the devil.
Before leaving this record of Paul's preaching in Thessalonica, it should be observed, as Wesley pointed out, that "Paul maintained himself by his own labor (1 Thessalonians 2:8,9), assisted by friends in Philippi (Philippians 4:15,16). F19
And the brethren immediately sent away Paul and Silas by night unto Beroea: who when they were come thither went into the synagogue of the Jews.
Sent away Paul and Silas ...
This journey to Berea was some "sixty miles," F20 and the urgency of their departure is seen in their leaving at night. They no longer traveled the main road, the Via Egnatia, but took a less-traveled route to a somewhat out-of-the-way place called Berea.
This relatively unimportant place has given its name to Bible classes all over the world. This city is "the modern Verria" F21 and was probably founded in the fifth century B.C. In Paul's day, it was a prosperous center with a significant center with a significant Jewish population and a synagogue. It was the home of Sopater (Acts 20:4).
Here Paul followed his usual manner of beginning work in the synagogue, but this time with significantly greater than usual success.
Now these were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, examining the scriptures daily, whether these things were so.
What Bible school student ever escaped memorizing this verse? The Bereans were "more noble" than others. In what way? "They were more noble minded, not in the fictitious nobility of earth, but in their generous sympathies of piety and humanity with the divine will." F22
One of the epic principles in evidence here is that even the word of an apostle is properly studied and verified in the light of the Bible, the same being not the word of men, but of God. In these days when religious people are solicited to accept the word of so-called "successors" to the apostles regardless of obvious conflict with the sacred Scriptures, the example of these Bereans has an amazing relevance. Any teaching, even that of a genuine apostle, to say nothing of alleged "successors," that fails to harmonize with the Bible is to be rejected.
Many of them therefore believed; also of the Greek women of honorable estate, and of men, not a few.
Here, as at Thessalonica, there was a widespread acceptance of the truth by many of the leading members of the community.
means that they accepted Christianity, believing in Christ, repenting of sins, and being baptized into Christ. To understand this differently is to violate everything the New Testament teaches.
But when the Jews of Thessalonica had knowledge that the word of God was proclaimed of Paul at Beroea also, they came thither likewise, stirring up and troubling the multitudes.
The fundamental antipathy between darkness and light, the implacable hatred of Satan for the truth, was there evidenced by those relentless foes of the gospel, who at such trouble and expense to themselves exploited every opportunity to slander and oppose Paul's preaching of the gospel. As Walker said, "The hounds of persecution bayed on Paul's trail from Thessalonica to Berea." F23 They tracked him from city to city; and, as Paul thought upon this, he must have remembered his own days as a persecutor.
Verses 14, 15
And then immediately the brethren sent forth Paul to go as far as to the sea: and Silas and Timothy abode there still. But they that conducted Paul brought him as far as Athens: and receiving a commandment unto Silas and Timothy that they should come to him with all speed, they departed.
There is a certain ambiguity in these verses, leading to differences of scholars as to how they should be understood. The words "as to the sea" seem to indicate that this was a feint to foil pursuing enemies; and the fact of Paul's being "conducted and brought" as far as Athens, suggests an overland journey.
Others, however, translate the words "as to the sea" simply "to the sea." "They suppose that Paul embarked at Dium and went by sea to Athens." F24 If that was the case, "The brethren sailed with him all the way to Athens." F25 Either way, the brethren went to considerable expense; and the fact of a sea-voyage requiring only three days to Athens, contrasted with about a month overland, forces the conclusion that they would have gone by sea, if possible. Milligan thought that it was their uncertainty, upon such abrupt notice, about the availability of shipping, that resulted in the ambiguous "as to the sea" phrase used by Luke. He said, "The place of his destination was not determined when he left Berea." F26 In that event, they would also have been ignorant of the means of travel to be used. The decision to go by sea, if that was the way they went, would have been confirmed at once if a ship was available at Dium.
The somewhat different strategy employed by Paul at Thessalonica and Berea in his not waiting until physical violence forced his departure, but moving forward as soon as it was threatened, probably developed from fear that he would be killed by his bitter enemies; and certainly it was protection against that very thing which prompted the brethren to accompany Paul wherever he went.
MeGarvey also agreed with the view that the exact destination of Paul and the means of his reaching it had not been fully formulated when they left Berea, and "The decision that he should sail to Athens made it necessary for him to send back word to Silas and Timothy." F27
J.R. Dummelow traced the movements of Silas and Timothy thus: "As per instructions, they joined Paul in Athens; but, filled with anxiety for the churches, he promptly sent them back, Timothy to Thessalonia and Silas to Philippi." F28 When they returned to Athens, they found Paul had gone on to Corinth, where they rejoined him (Acts 18:5). See 1 Thessalonians 3:1. Hervey concurred in this explanation. F29
Now while Paul waited for them in Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he beheld the city full of idols.
How differently the great apostle viewed Athens, when contrasted with the attitude of the ordinary tourist who would have been enraptured by the magnificent architecture and artistic glory of the city. This great citadel of Gentile intellectualism was, in Paul's view, a pile of idols; and his holy heart was filled with indignation. However, "On this account, Paul did not seize an axe and destroy the images of the gods, and the altars, like the iconoclastic Puritans." F30 Paul was not concerned with removing the idolatrous art from the city, but with removing the worship of idols from men's hearts.
"Petronius satirically said that it was easier to find a god than a man in Athens; and Zenophon called Athens one great altar to the gods." F31 It was a situation to arouse indignation in any spiritual person.
Here in the great pagan, metropolitan Athens, Paul found a disgusting confirmation of what he already knew, namely, that "The world through its wisdom knew not God" (1 Corinthians 1:21).
So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with them that met him.
As Bruce put it, "Paul was not the kind of man who could take a complete holiday from the main business of his life." F32 While he waited for the return of Silas and Timothy, he preached the gospel, just as he did always, "to the Jew first, and also to the Greek."
And certain also of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers encountered him. And some said, What would this babbler say? others, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached Jesus and the resurrection.
Epicurean and Stoic philosophers ...
In Athens there were: (1) the Academy of Plato, (2) the Lyceum of Aristotle, (3) the Porch of Zeno, and (4) the Garden of Epicurus. Followers of Zeno, called Stoics, took their name from "Stoa," the Greek name of the painted porch where he taught. The groups mentioned here by Luke were the most powerful and popular at that time. The Stoics believed that the good life was obtained through resignation and the pursuit of what they thought was virtue, glorifying human reason and self-sufficiency. The Epicureans made pleasure the end and all of human existence.
Both philosophies, however, were outcroppings of a single basic error, that of the deification of humanity, an error that blinds the present generation no less than theirs. As Ramsay noted:
Practically, both philosophies made
man and not God the ruler of life; and
this denial of divine government
issued in making the city of
philosophers also the city where idols
were most numerous. Those who made
light of God were willing to accept
and recognize any number of gods. F33
Naturally, Paul's preaching of Jesus Christ and the resurrection would have challenged and denied such philosophies.
And they took hold of him, and brought him unto the Areopagus, saying, May we know what this new teaching is, which is spoken by thee?
Took hold of him ...
implies a friendly compulsion, not an arrest. There was, as yet, no appreciation for any truth Paul might declare; their judgment on that having already been uttered in Acts 17:18, where they referred to him as a babbler, the word actually meaning "seed picker." F34 It had the meaning, as applied to Paul, of one who picks up bits and scraps of information and passes them off before others as learning. Their true purpose in bringing Paul to the Areopagus was that of curiosity seekers (see Acts 17:21).
Verses 20, 21
For thou bringest certain strange things to our ears: we would know therefore what these things mean. (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 Areopagus ...
"may stand either for the Hill of Mars, simply as a locality, or for the Court which sat there, the oldest and most revered tribunal in Athens." F35 It is likely that some of the members of the Court were there, perhaps many of them, when Paul spoke.
Mars' Hill ...
was named after the mythical god of war who "was tried here for murdering the son of Poseidon (Neptune) the sea-god, in one of the many squabbles of the gods." F36 A temple dedicated to Mars had been on this hill in very ancient times. Strange that the Prince of Peace should have been proclaimed on that ancient hill of the war god.
Either to tell or to hear some new thing ...
This grave fault of the Athenian populace in regarding things simply for their novelty was denounced by their own greatest orator. "In his first Philippic, Demosthenes said that when they should have been up and doing, they went around asking, Is there any news?" F37
And Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, Ye men of Athens, in all things I perceive that ye are very religious.
PAUL'S SPEECH ON MARS' HILL (THE AREOPAGUS)
Very religious ...
is an alternate meaning of "very superstitious," as in the KJV; and, as Paul's purpose at the outset was one of rapport with his hearers, the English Revised Version (1885) rendition is far preferable.
Verses 23, 24
For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship, I found an altar with the inscription TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. What therefore ye worship in ignorance, this I set forth unto you. The God that made the world and all things therein, he, being Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands;
Polytheism is here manifested in one of its most pitiful characteristics. Some poor worshiper, having placated all the gods that he knew, still felt no certainty or confidence, but went out and erected an altar to the god who was unknown. The proliferation of idols in Athens, coupled with the amazing example of it here, prompted Alexander Campbell to write:
They had gone beyond their
contemporaries in erecting an altar to
"the unknown God." ... No other
people or city had thus confessed
their ignorance and their devotion.
It was a grand conception to erect an
altar to the GREAT UNKNOWN in the
center of Greek civilization. F38
It was the inspired genius of Paul that seized upon such a circumstance and made the inscription the text of his address.
That Paul should have placed a proper construction upon words which were obviously, in context, of pagan intention is remarkable. "Paul treats the worship of deities by pagans as a misdirected form of a natural and correct religious impulse." F39
Dwelleth not in temples made with hands ...
Paul who had learned from Stephen's dying words that God's true temple was not a physical house at all but a living community of believers in Christ (Acts 7:48) first applied the words to the ornate temple of the Jews, a far greater temple than any in Athens; but here he applied the principle to the idol temples of Athens; they, even more than the temple of the Jews, failed of being suitable as a residence of God.
Neither is he served by men's hands, as though he needed anything, seeing he himself giveth to all life, and breath, and all things.
Here God is proclaimed, not only as Creator of all things, but as also the sustainer of all things. Not the dumb idols of pagan history, but the living personal God; only he is a fit object of human worship.
Those frivolous Athenians, intent on hearing some tantalizing new thought, were here treated to one of the most profound addresses ever uttered on earth, and one which most of them were extremely unworthy of hearing.
And he made 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.
Wesley and others have supposed that Paul here referred merely to seasons of climate and to such natural boundaries as "mountains, seas, rivers, and the like"; F40 but we believe much more is intended, namely, that there is a providence with regard to races and nations of men. Certainly there was a providence in the ascendancy of Israel in the long pre-Christian ages; and there skill is, the continuity of the secular majority who rejected Christ until "the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled" being prophetically promised (Romans 11:25), this fact alone demanding the view of a providence regarding Israel even at the present; and what is true of Israel is true of all.
Made of one every nation ...
No matter how one reads it, whether "one race," "one blood," or "one family," the meaning is the same: all men are descended from a single ancestor. "Eve was the mother of all living" (Genesis 3:20); and the proof of this is evidenced by many things, one of these being the ability of a man of any race to provide a blood transfusion for a man of any other race. The oneness and brotherhood of the whole human race are affirmed here; and this was a principle as far above anything the Greek philosophers ever dreamed of as the sun in heaven is above the dwelling place of their gods on Mount Olympus. Of course, the physical oneness of all men is the unity in view here.
Paul thus challenged the snobbishness of every major division of ancient civilization. The Jews classified all men as Jews and Gentiles; the Romans classified them citizens and non-citizens; and the Greeks viewed the whole world as either Greeks or barbarians. All of these classifications were the same, meaning " US and everyone else!"
That they should seek God, if haply they might feel after him, though he is not far from each one of us.
That they should seek God ...
The purpose of God's exalting some races or nations for a season, and then debasing them and raising up others, is revealed as a device for bringing them to faith in God. Repeatedly throughout history, nations in the ascendancy forgot God and turned their backs upon his word; whereupon God cast them down and raised up others. We may only pray that America heeds this fact before it is too late.
Not far from each one of us ...
As Plumptre noted:
In this Paul taught the truth which
the apostle John afterward proclaimed,
that Christ is the "true Light that
lighteth every man coming into the
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.
The nearness of God to all, the fact of every man's being "in him" as the basis even of physical life, and the truth that men are God's offspring (in the spiritual sense) - all these things reveal conclusively that the earliest Christian conception of God was that of his being invisible, eternal, spiritual, omnipotent, omniscient, and ubiquitous. Therefore the postulations of the radical scholar John A. T. Robinson, as advocated in his book HONEST TO GOD in which he criticized the concept of "a three-story universe," "God up there," etc., denominating such absurdities as "the usual Christian conception" of such things, are themselves founded upon even a greater absurdity, namely, that any Christian familiar with the New Testament ever believed any such things. Moreover, his confession that he himself had long held to such naive views must be construed as the result of ignorance of the New Testament, or as a flat failure to be "honest to men!" in his book.
As certain of your own poets have said ...
"These words are the first words of a hexameter found in Aratus, a Cecilian poet, whose poem antedates Christ some 270 years." F42
Being then the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and device of man.
This struck squarely at the idols of Athens, making the whole proposition that an idol, in any sense whatever, could by any degree, even the least, represent deity or even suggest it, much less "remind one" of the Lord, a fallacy. "The spirit of Christianity and the spirit of figurative art are opposed, because art cannot free itself from sensuous associations." F43
How could any form of art, itself created by one who himself is but a creature, in any way suggest or represent the Creator? How can that which is static, dead, immobile, perishable and decaying be any proper reminder of the true and living God? For a whole chapter on the subject of images, see this writer's work, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS YESTERDAY AND TODAY. F44
The times of this ignorance therefore God overlooked; but now he commandeth men that they should all everywhere repent.
This would have been a marvelous opportunity for Paul to expound salvation "by faith only" if he had ever believed or taught such a thing; but here he used "repent" in exactly the same manner as he often used "believe," that is, as a synecdoche for all of the things required of the alien sinner, namely, faith, repentance and baptism. Note too that in the very strongest language possible repentance is set forth as invariably demanded and required of "all men everywhere."
God overlooked ...
This is very like the teaching Paul gave before the pagans of Lystra (Acts 14:16-18), showing that the sophisticates in Athens were upon the same footing before God as the ignorant pagans of the outer provinces. There are a number of points in which Paul's speech at Lystra and this one correspond to each other.
Inasmuch as he hath appointed a day in which he will judge the world in righteousness by the man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.
Appointed a day ...
This refers to the final judgment of all men, sometimes called the "Great White Throne Judgment," but, in any case, the one and only judgment day mentioned in the New Testament. This is not the day of death, for "after this" cometh judgment (Hebrews 9:27). Christ will preside over the Great Assize, rewarding all men according to the deeds done in the body. For more on the judgment, see my Commentary on Hebrews, Heb. 6:2; also my Commentary on Matthew, Matt. 12:41-42 and Matt. 25:30.
The fact of the judgment's being scheduled for a day already "appointed" suggests that God has a timetable for the accomplishment of all things intended by his providing salvation for men. If this is the case, it will occur on time, exactly as scheduled; and the fullness of all God intended will be accomplished within the framework of time allowed for it.
Assurance unto all men ...
In this is one of the great purposes of Christ's death and resurrection. That God thus honored the Christ is intended as a means of assuring every man that God has the power to order and conduct just such a thing as the final judgment.
Verses 32, 33
Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked; but others said, We will hear thee concerning this yet again. Thus Paul went out from among them.
Paul's fearless proclamation of God's absolute demand of universal repentance on the part of men, plus the reference to a final judgment in which the righteous shall be rewarded and the wicked punished, plus the additional fact that Jesus Christ will be the final judge of all who ever lived - these are considerations which must evoke awe, apprehension, and even terror when fully understood and contemplated by sinful men. There is therefore in such preaching a move to awaken fear in the hearts of sinners. As McGarvey said:
The wicked man must be made afraid to
continue in sin, before the goodness
of God can lead him to repentance; and
the preacher of the gospel who
neglects to employ the thunders of
this heavenly artillery not only fails
to preach according to the divine
model, but he will preach a feeble
gospel that can never work deep-seated
Some of the Athenians mocked at the truth; but Paul never altered a word of it. He walked out of their presence.
The mockers would reap what they
sowed; the procrastinators never heard
Paul again, as far as we know; but the
vital nucleus of believers would
continue to preach the divine wisdom
in the center of Greek
Bruce commented that "Paul made few converts in Athens; and we are not told that he planted a church there." F47 However, Bruce himself admitted that Luke's account of Paul's speech at Athens is "a greatly shortened summary of his actual speech"; F48 and that's being true suggests also that his account of the results is a token report of far more conversions than are given. Note the following verse:
But certain men clave unto him, and believed: among whom also was Dionysius the Areopagite, and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.
De Welt reminded us that "History says that the church in Athens was one of the strongest congregations in the empire in the second and third centuries." F49 Lange also pointed out that "A Christian congregation in Athens flourished in an eminent degree." F50 Thus the historical record, as well as the mention of "certain men" and "others with them" in the verse before us points to a sufficient nucleus for the establishment of a strong congregation. Some scholars have a reason for belittling Paul's accomplishments in Athens, because it fits into their theory that after Paul's "failure" here, he shifted his preaching emphasis; but there is absolutely no evidence at all that Paul ever left off stressing such things as the unity of the living God, the brotherhood of man, the sin of idolatry, the doctrine of final judgment, the death, burial and resurrection of Christ, and the fact of Christ's being the judge of all on the last day. All of these major Christian doctrines were expounded fully by Paul on this occasion.
Dionysius the Areopagite ...
This man, according to Dummelow,
Was a member of the court of the
Areopagus. As all members of the
Areopagus had passed through the
office of Archon, Dionysius must have
been of high social position. F51
Her background is not given. There is no intimation that she was connected with the Areopagus in any manner; and the speculation of Bruce that she might "have been a God-fearer who heard him in the synagogue" F52 is not at all unlikely.
Among those converted, it is also probable that Stephanas was one of them (1 Corinthians 16:15). Although he and his house were evidently residents of Corinth, the naming of them as "firstfruits of Achaia" would seem to indicate the fact of their being converted at Athens at the same time as the converts mentioned at the conclusion of this chapter. Any other view would be incompatible with the fact of Dionysius and Damaris also being among the "firstfruits," which, it appears, they most certainly were. There was nothing unusual about people being converted at a place different from their normal residence, both Lydia and the Ethiopian eunuch being other examples of the same thing.
There were four great contrasting cities dominating the four quadrants of the Roman Empire, Alexandria in Egypt, Jerusalem in Palestine, Athens in Greece, and Rome itself over all. The history of any one of these cities would be a history of Western civilization, this being especially true of Athens and Rome. No such history of Athens will be included, since so much is written and known of it throughout the world.
It was the arrogant and sophisticated intellectual center of the whole empire; and the significant thing in this chapter is that Christianity was preached in the very eye of Greek culture, a culture which through absorption by Rome was destined to change the character of the whole empire. Even in such a center Christian truth was not without its fruit. Paul, not the philosophers, won that day in Athens. As Harrison declared:
It has often been maintained that in
Athens Paul attempted the intellectual
approach and tried to be a philosopher
among the philosophers, rather than
preaching the simple gospel of Jesus
Christ; but this is not a valid
Paul's message in Athens was identical with what it was everywhere he taught, allowing, of course, a few skillful words introduced in a move to enlist the attention and support of his audience. The doctrine he taught regarding God, the judgment, and the resurrection of Christ was identical with Paul's teaching everywhere.
Regarding the insinuation that Paul's intellectual approach was in any manner inadequate, it should be remembered that his epistle to the Romans is the most intellectual book ever written. In it Paul noted the intellectual objections to Christianity one by one, refuting them with a concise and unanswerable logic, and doing so in such an overwhelming and conclusive manner that none of the intellectuals of that day even dared to offer a rebuttal. His arguments are still valid after more than nineteen centuries, so valid in fact that it may be dogmatically affirmed that there are no intellectual objections to Christianity.
Footnotes for Acts 17
1: Everett F. Harrison, Wycliffe Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1971), p. 445.
2: J. R. Dummelow, Commentary on the Holy Bible (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1937), p. 841.
3: John Wesley, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House), in loco.
4: J. W. McGarvey, Commentary on Acts (Cincinnati, Ohio: Standard Publishing Company, 1892), ii, p. 109.
5: The New Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, Publishers, 1962), p. 1272.
6: E. M. Blaiklock, Cities of the New Testament (Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1965), p. 46.
7: The Encyclopaedia Britannica (Chicago: William Benton, Publisher, 1961), Vol. 19, p. 890.
8: E. H. Trenchard, A New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1969), p. 321.
9: J. R. Dummelow, op. cit., p. 841.
12: E. H. Plumptre, Elliott's Commentary on the Holy Bible (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1959), Vol. 7, p. 111.
13: W. R. Walker, Studies in Acts (Joplin, Missouri: College Press), ii, p. 42.
14: John Peter Lange, Commentary on Acts (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1866), p. 319.
15: Jack P. Lewis, Historical Backgrounds of Bible History (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1971), p. 144.
16: Sir William M. Ramsay, Pictures of the Apostolic Church (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1959), p. 189.
17: Everett F. Harrison, op. cit., p. 446.
18: F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, Publishers, 1954), p. 345.
19: John Wesley, op. cit., in loco.
20: F. F. Bruce, op. cit., p. 346.
21: The New Bible Encyclopaedia, op. cit., p. 142.
22: Alexander Campbell, Acts of Apostles (Austin, Texas: Firm Foundation Publishing House), p. 117.
23: W. R. Walker, op. cit., p. 43.
24: J. R. Dummelow, op. cit., p. 841.
25: Don DeWelt, Acts Made Actual (Joplin, Missouri: College Press, 1958), p. 236.
26: Robert Milligan, Analysis of the New Testament (Cincinnati, Ohio: Bosworth, Chase and Hall, Publishers, 1874), p. 376.
27: J. W. McGarvey, op. cit., p. 116.
28: J. R. Dummelow, op. cit., p. 841.
29: A. C. Hervey, The Pulpit Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, Publishers, 1950), Vol. 18, ii, p. 59.
30: John Peter Lange, op. cit., p. 328.
31: H. Leo Boles, Commentary on the Acts (Nashville: Gospel Advocate Company, 1953), p. 276.
32: F. F. Bruce, op. cit., p. 349.
33: Sir William M. Ramsay, op. cit., p. 195.
34: Orrin Root, Acts (Cincinnati, Ohio: Standard Publishing Company, 1966), p. 135.
35: E. H. Plumptre, op., cit., p. 114.
36: Orrin Root, op. cit., p. 136.
37: A. C. Hervey, op. cit., p. 61.
38: Alexander Campbell, op. cit., p. 119.
39: Sir William M. Ramsay, op. cit., p. 197. The God that made the world and all things therein, he being Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands.
40: John Wesley, op. cit., in loco.
41: E. H. Plumptre, op. cit., p. 118.
42: Alexander Campbell, op. cit., p. 120.
43: Henry Sloan Coffin, The Ten Commandments (New York: Hodder and Stoughton, George H. Doran Company, 1915), p. 39.
44: James Burton Coffman, The Ten Commandments (Abilene, Texas: ACU Press) pp. 30-38.
45: J. W. McGarvey, op. cit., p. 129.
46: E. H. Trenchard, op. cit., p. 323.
47: F. F. Bruce, op. cit., p. 364.
48: Ibid., p. 362.
49: Don DeWelt, op. cit., p. 243.
50: John Peter Lange, op. cit., p. 331.
51: J. R. Dummelow, op. cit., p. 843.
52: F. F. Bruce, op. cit., p. 364.
53: Everett F. Harrison, op. cit., p. 449.