ACTS CHAPTER 17.
Paul and Silas in Thessalonica and Berea. Acts 17, 1-14.
Preaching at Thessalonica: V.1. Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where was a synagog of the Jews; v.2. and Paul, as his manner was, went in unto them, and three Sabbath-days reasoned with them out of the Scriptures, v.3. opening and alleging that Christ must needs have suffered and risen again from the dead; and that this Jesus, whom I preach unto you, is Christ. V.4. And some of them believed, and consorted with Paul and Silas, and of the devout Greeks a great multitude and of the chief women not a few. As the change of pronouns at this point indicates, Luke remained at Philippi, and it may be that Timothy remained there with him. There was much to be done in establishing the congregation and in organizing it for successful work, and these two disciples labored with great success in bringing about stable conditions. But Paul and Silas traveled toward the southwest, first of all to Amphipolis, thirty-three miles from Philippi, the capital of this district, but second in importance to the metropolis. The missionaries did not, stop in this city, probably because there was no synagog there, but pushed on, first to Apollonia, thirty miles farther along the coast, and then to Thessalonica. They went along the Roman military road, the famous Egnatian Way, which ran for a distance of five hundred miles from the Hellespont to Dyrrachium on the Adriatic. The two intermediate places are probably mentioned as Paulís resting-places for the night. Thessalonica, formerly called Thermae, situated at the head of the Thermaic Bay, was during Roman times the capital of the second of the four districts of the province of Macedonia, the largest as well as the most populous city in the province, a great commercial center. The city, now known as Saloniki, is important to this day. Paul, with his usual wisdom and foresight, chose this center of civilization and government in the district as a place from which the Gospel-message might radiate in every direction. Here was also a synagog of the Jews, and the apostle continued his method of choosing the Hellenist Jews as the medium through which he might reach the Gentiles. According to his custom, therefore, Paul went in unto them, he visited their congregation in the synagog. For three Sabbaths, and during the week when there was an assembly of the Jews, and thus for a matter of almost four weeks, he reasoned or argued with them from the Scriptures, basing all his remarks upon the acknowledged canonical text of the Old Testament. His method was to open up the meaning of the Scriptures, to explain them by bringing forward the proof-passages, and thus to set forth clearly the connection between prophecy and fulfillment. He showed the progress of prophecy concerning Christ; he proved clearly that Christ had to suffer, that this was predicted, and was an essential mark of the true Messiah; and he explained that, according to prophecy, it was just as necessary for Christ to rise from the dead. Then he applied the prophecy to Jesus of Nazareth, showed the exact fulfillment, and presented the conclusion that this same Jesus whom he preached could be none other than the Messiah. This form of argument, effective at all times in preaching the Gospel, was especially demanded by the position of the Jews, to whom the cross and the crucifixion was an offense and a stumbling block, and their prejudices had to be removed by a convincing presentation based upon their acknowledged Scriptures. And Paulís method was fully justified by the results: some of the hearers were persuaded and associated with Paul and Silas as disciples of the faith, not only Jews, but also of the God-fearing Greeks, the proselytes of the gate, a large multitude, and even a considerable number of the leading women of the city, such as were socially prominent. The prominence assigned to women in Macedonia is altogether in accord with the best historical accounts. The preaching of Jesus Christ, the Crucified and Resurrected, on the basis of the Bible, is the one means of gaining true converts for Christ and His kingdom, and must never be replaced by the methods in vogue at the present time, by which Jesus Christ is relegated to a very hazy and obscure background, methods which are altogether out of harmony with the dignity of the Gospel, and will never result in real additions to the Church.
The tumult raised by the Jews: V.5. But the Jews which believed not, moved with envy, took unto them certain lewd fellows of the baser sort, and gathered a company, and set all the city on an uproar; and assaulted the house of Jason, and sought to bring them out to the people. V.6. And when they found them not, they drew Jason and certain brethren unto the rulers of the city, crying, These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also; v.7. whom Jason hath received; and these all do contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, one Jesus. V.8. And they troubled the people and the rulers of the city when they heard these things. V.9. And when they had taken security of Jason and of the other, they let them go. The experience which Paul had had in Pisidian Antioch, chap. 13, 50, was here repeated. The great mass of the Jews refused to believe his message, and these men became violently jealous, not only on account of the preaching of the Messiah, but also because of the success which attended the efforts of Paul and Silas. So they resorted to methods which are often employed by men of their stamp. They went to the forum and got hold of some of the idle, pettifogging lawyers, a pest then as now, market-place agitators, 66) always ready for any kind of mischief. With their aid they soon gathered a mob of hoodlums and set the city in an uproar. It was a typical case of mob rule, with the authorities indifferent or helpless. They stormed the house of Jason, where the apostles were lodging, or where the Christian assemblies were held; their main intention was to bring out Paul and Silas to the people, to the free assembly of all the people as a political party with executive rights. The thoughts upon which this movement was based may well have been that the entire populace could be swayed to take summary vengeance on the missionaries then and there. But since they did not find Paul and Silas, they dragged Jason and some of the other Christians out before the politarchs of the city (for that is the title which the rulers of this city bore). 67) Their charge against these men, which they literally bawled out in their baffled rage, was given a political tinge, namely, that Jason had received into his house and was harboring some dangerous political agitators, men that had upset the whole world, caused disturbances throughout the Roman Empire, and had now come here. Insurrectionists all of them were, men that were always acting contrary to the decrees of Caesar pertaining to treason by declaring that another man is king, one Jesus. It was the same accusation which had been made in the case of Jesus, Luke 23, 2, and it came upon the disciples in accordance with the prediction of Jesus that His disciples must expect to share the lot of the Master. The fact that the kingdom of Christ is not of this world, and that its subjects never interfere with temporal power and government so long as they are conscious of their distinction, was not understood or was deliberately ignored by the accusers. And their bold statement succeeded in exciting both the people and the politarchs, since the charges pointed to the possibility of a revolution unless measures were taken at once to suppress the movement. The result was that Jason, having only entertained the missionaries, was not punished personally, but the politarchs obliged him to give bond in a large amount to keep the peace of the city, as also the other disciples that had been haled into court, after which they were released. The enemies of Christ use both subtlety and force in their ceaseless endeavor to hinder the preaching of the Gospel; but the Lord directs the affairs of His kingdom for the salvation of men.
Preaching in Berea: V.10. And the brethren immediately sent away Paul and Silas by night unto Berea, who, coming thither, went into the synagog of the Jews. V.11. These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the Word with all readiness of mind, and searched the Scriptures daily whether those things were so. V.12. Therefore many of them believed; also of honorable women which were Greeks, and of men, not a few. V.13. But when the Jews of Thessalonica had knowledge that the Word of God was preached of Paul at Berea, they came thither also and stirred up the people. V.14. and then immediately the brethren sent away Paul to go, as it were, to the sea; but Silas and Timotheus abode there still. If Paul and Silas had continued their work in Thessalonica after the events of that day, they would not only have risked personal violence to themselves, but would also have caused Jason and the other disciples to forfeit their bond. And so they suffered it that the brethren quickly, that very night, sent them off to Berea, a small city in a mountainous district, almost fifty miles southwest of Thessalonica. The reception of the Gospel in this city differed very radically from that which had been accorded to it in the metropolis of the province; for when the apostles arrived there, they went in, they betook themselves to the synagog of the Jews, the Jewish population being strong enough to support such a n institution. And here the people, both Jews and Greeks, were more generous of mind than in Thessalonica; they were not possessed of the strife and envy of the Thessalonian Jews, they entertained nobler sentiments, they made use of greater tact and fairness. This fact they showed not only by their cheerful, unconditional willingness to accept the Word which Paul brought, but also by the earnestness and zeal with which they carefully searched the Scriptures every day, comparing prophecy and fulfillment and satisfying their own minds that the doctrine, as represented by Paul, agreed with the revelation of God. As a result of this conscientious examination, under the Lordís guidance, many of them came to faith in Jesus the Savior, together with a considerable number of prominent Greeks, both women and men. Note: The fault which must be deplored more than any other in our days is the refusal of unbelievers and critics to examine the claims of the Gospel patiently and candidly. Their ignorance, therefore, will not be accepted as an excuse, but will prove all the more damaging in their final condemnation. And for those that profess to be disciples of Christ it affords the greatest joy to search the Scriptures and find the manifold evidences of Godís truth and power.
But this pleasant and profitable relationship in Berea was soon disturbed. The news of Paulís activity came to the attention of the Thessalonian Jews that had created the uproar in that city. The fact that Paul was proclaiming the Word of God in Berea was evidently a crime of the first magnitude in their estimation, just as it is in the eyes of many enemies of the Gospel today. They therefore made a special trip to Berea in order to agitate the crowds, to create uproar and disturbance. Down to the present day, as recent events have shown, this method seems to enjoy great favor with such as would stamp out the pure preaching of the Gospel. Before the riots, however, were actually incited, before any serious outbreaks of mob-rule took place, the brethren, the members of the little congregation that had been formed, quickly sent Paul off on his journey to the sea. It was against him that the attacks were chiefly directed, and he must be spared for further work in the Lordís vineyard. It was some consolation to Paul, then, to have Silas and Timothy remain in Berea and do further work in establishing the young congregation.
Paul in Athens. Acts 17, 15-34.
The arrival and the first discussions: V.15. And they that conducted Paul brought him unto Athens; and receiving a commandment unto Silas and Timotheus for to come to him with all speed, they departed. V.16. Now, while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was stirred in him when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry. V.17. Therefore disputed he in the synagog with the Jews and with the devout persons and in the market daily with them that met with him. V.18. Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans and of the Stoics encountered him. And some said, What will this babbler say? other some, he seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods; because he preached unto them Jesus and the resurrection. V.19. And they took him and brought him unto Areopagus, saying, May we know what this new doctrine, whereof thou speakest, is? V.20. For thou bringest certain strange things to our ears; we would know, therefore, what these things mean. V.21. (for all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing.) The solicitude of the Berean disciples would not permit them to leave their beloved teacher travel without an escort, and some of them therefore volunteered to accompany him to a place of safety. The original intention seems to have been to conduct Paul down to the coast and have him wait there in some port until Silas and Timothy could join him once more. There he could be ready for flight across the sea at a momentís notice. But this plan for some reason did not prove feasible, and therefore Paulís friends conducted him all the way to Athens. This city was one of the most famous cities of the world, situated in Greece, the Roman province of Achaia, on the Attic peninsula, five miles northeast of the Saronic Gulf, and connected with its seaport Piraeus by long walls. On the hill, called the Acropolis, stood the famous temple Parthenon, and other beautiful public buildings crowned other eminences. Athens was no longer the political capital of Greece at that time, but continued to be its literary center, as it was that of the entire civilized world for several centuries after. But in spite of all its learning and philosophy, which was the boast of its proud citizens, the city had fallen a prey to social decay and moral rottenness. ďIn Athens itself, where flourished the most profound philosophy, the most glowing eloquence, the most exquisite poetry, and the most refined creative art which the world has ever seen, there was the most complete and studied abandonment to every vice which passion could prompt or imagination invent.Ē68) Having arrived at Athens, Paul dismissed the brethren that had accompanied him with the charge to Silas and Timothy to join him as quickly as possible. But while Paul was waiting for his assistants in Athens, he was by no means idle. As he wandered up and down the streets of the famous city, he was violently agitated and filled with anger, severely provoked, his spirit was so stirred up in him, because he saw that the entire city was full of idols; it was a feature which distinguished Athens among all the cities of Greece. Thousands of figures of gods and goddesses were erected along the streets, and many altars invited the sacrifices of such as still believed in the ancient form of Greek religion. The apostleís extreme vexation over these conditions, and his earnest desire to expose such heathenish errors, caused him to reason and argue not only in the synagog, with the Jews and the proselytes whom he could meet there, but also daily on the forum, in the market-place of the city. This was not a bare or vacant lot in the middle of the town, but was surrounded with beautiful porticoes ornamented with sculpture work by famous artists, where the learned men of the day came together for philosophical discussions, and the philosophic schools had their meeting halls. The Stoa Poikile was on one side, where the philosophic school of the Stoics met, and the gardens of Epicurus were not far away, the one school teaching absolute resignation to fate, the other proclaiming intellectual and sensual enjoyment in every form. But it made no difference to Paul, who reasoned with chance comers on the market-place as well as with the members of these philosophical schools. The disputes sometimes took the form of formal encounters, heated debates, as Paul tried to convince these philosophers. And their comments upon his efforts were not at all flattering. Some jeeringly inquired what this babbler was trying to say. The meaning of this strange epithet which was applied to Paul has been made clear by recent discoveries, for it is applied to one that picks up scraps and crumbs thrown into the streets. ďIt evidently meant to these learned Athenians that Paul, notwithstanding his claims, was not an original philosopher, but was a picker-up of certain scraps of philosophy which had been thrown away by authorized and properly educated teachers.Ē 69) Others sneeringly remarked that Paul seemed to be a proclaimer of foreign demons, of novel and strange divinities, of gods that had never been heard of before. This last remark was occasioned by the fact that the apostle had preached to them the Gospel-news: Jesus and the resurrection. Note: whether we are dealing with the self-righteousness of Jews or with the wisdom of Greeks, there is always and only one duty before us, to preach the Gospel of the crucified and resurrected Christ. Finally the matter came to a crisis. The men with whom Paul was debating took him and brought him to the Areopagus, with the remark in the form of a question whether it would be possible for them to find out what this novel teaching as proclaimed by him was about. Paul did not speak about a doctrine, but he actually preached the Christian doctrine. Strange, novel matters they were which he was bringing in to their ears, startling and bewildering to people proud of their human philosophy; they were therefore determined to know what meaning they wanted to convey. Luke adds, by way of explanation, that all the Athenians, the natives of the city as well as the foreigners who resided in the city for a time, had leisure for nothing else, found no occupation more pleasant or fascinating, than that of reporting or hearing something new, novel, out of the ordinary, something to tickle their jaded intellects; the very latest news in philosophy and science was their choicest morsel. Note: The world of letters in our days has changed in appearance, but not in kind. The eternal verities of the Bible are despised as stale prattling, but every new theory of true and false science, he its argumentation never so tenuous, is hailed with delight and all too often set up as an irrefutable law.
The first part of Paulís speech: V.22. Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars Hill and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious. V.23. For as I passed by and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, To the Unknown God. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, Him declare I unto you. V.24. God, that made the world and all things therein, seeing that He is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands, v.25. neither is worshiped with menís hands, as though He needed anything, seeing He giveth to all life and breath and all things; v.26. and hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation, v.27. that they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after Him, and find Him, though He be not far from every one of us; v.28. for in Him we live, and move, and have our being, as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also His offspring. Paul had been placed by those men that conducted him and now stood in the midst of the Council, or Court, of Areopagus. ďThe Areopagus was, in ancient times, a judicial council of Athens which held its meetings on the Ďhill of Mars,í a little west of the Acropolis, which is in full view from its summit. On the top of this hill can still be seen the rock benches on which the Areopagites sat in the open air, and the two great rocks on which the accused prisoners sat. But it is not certain that Paul was officially tried before this ancient court. He may have been taken to this place as the most appropriate spot at which to address quietly an interested audience, or this may have been merely an informal inquiry made by the members of the court concerning his teaching. Yet from all the evidence available it seems certain that this council had the right to pass upon the qualifications of all lecturers either in the university or in the city, and the official arrest of this unauthorized lecturer is by no means impossible.Ē 70) But whether the council heard Paul formally or informally, whether he spoke on the hill adjoining the Acropolis or in one of the great halls near the forum (Stoa Basileios), where the people had a better opportunity of hearing him, his address before this select company of the worldís foremost wise men was an uncompromising stand for repentance and faith. He addresses the assembly in the customary manner as ďMen of Athens.Ē That they were a very religious people (literally, demon-fearing in a very high degree) he had observed, so it appeared to him to be; they carried their religious reverence very far. For as he was wandering through the streets of their city and making it a point to consider with attentive interest their objects of religious veneration, the temples, groves, altars, statues which they considered sacred, he had found also an altar with the inscription: To an Unknown God; an epigraph since found on at least one altar, and referred to occasionally in ancient writings. There can be no doubt, on the basis of Rom. 1, 18-20, for which many parallels from secular sources may be adduced, 71) that many heathen felt the insufficiency and the inadequacy of their religion. Their natural knowledge of God led them to doubt, and often to condemn, the idolatry as practiced by their own people, and should have prompted them to search so long until they had found the revelation of the true God; for there never was a time in the history of the world in which the worship of the God of heaven was not proclaimed somewhere. The altars to the unknown God seem to have been a semiconscious admission of the vanity and emptiness of idolatry. The Athenians thus worshiped what they knew not; they acknowledged with reverence a divine existence which was nameless to them. But what they thus worshiped devoutly, without knowing it, Paul proclaimed to them.
After this short introduction, Paul set forth the true God to them, that they might both know His name and knowingly reverence Him. The God that made the world, the created universe, and everything it contains, He, natural Lord as He is of heaven and earth, does not make His dwelling in temples made by the hands of men. Paul deliberately contrasts the true God with the idols whose dwelling was in temples made with hands, and whose statue often filled only a small niche of such a temple. The true God is also not served or worshiped with gifts or sacrifices made by the hands of men, as though He did not possess perfection and a full measure of everything, but was still in need of something. It is rather, on the contrary, He Himself who gives life and breath to all men, and all things which they are in need of. To attempt to dispense to the Giver of all good gifts what He Himself has always possessed is obviously a foolish proceeding, since the very life of men, as well as their continued existence, depends upon Him alone. And this almighty Creator made out of one, by making Adam the father of the entire human race, every race of people for the purpose of dwelling on the entire face, in every part, of the earth. There is no need of theory and guess-work, of false philosophy; Adam is, by the will of God, the ancestor of the entire human race. And this same God has also fixed, determined, the times that were appointed beforehand and the boundaries of the abodes of men. By His will and arrangement there are periods during which nations may retain possession of the territory which they have occupied, and there are points of time when they shall be dispossessed. Thus God, who has created all men, also controls the history of all nations. And the purpose which God has in thus manifesting His almighty power and providence is that men should seek the Lord, if by any means their minds might grasp some of His essence and they might thus find Him. They should be induced to obtain the very knowledge of God which Paul is here trying to impart to them. It may be a groping, as that of a blind man, and with all efforts it would result in only partial recognition of the essence of God; but it would lead onward, and should then be supplemented by the knowledge of revelation. For He, the Creator, is not far from every single human being, His personal presence is with every one of His creatures, not with any idea of pantheism, but with a personal relationship which shows His tender care for every single life. It is in Him that all men live, and move, and exist, are personal beings. If it were not for God who sustains us, we could not give evidence of life, it would be impossible for us to move, we could, indeed, not even exist. The knowledge which Paul thus advanced might be gained even by a contemplation of the works of God, as passages from the Greek poets tended to show, which Paul briefly quotes: For we His offspring are. The words are found in the poems of Aratus and of Cleanthes, and were familiar to all that knew anything of Greek poetry. That Paul here applied words from a heathen poem to the true God should give all the less offense since the poets were undoubtedly voicing the natural knowledge of God, which they had strengthened by a careful observation of the world and its government. Thus Paul, basing his remarks upon the natural knowledge of a divine being which is found in the hearts of men even after the fall of man, had given his hearers some idea of the true God and of their relation to Him in creation and preservation. The same arguments may well be applied under similar circumstances to this day.
The conclusion of Paul and the effect of his sermon: V.29. Forasmuch, then, as we are the offspring of God, we ought pot to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and manís device. V.30. And the times of this ignorance God winked at, but now commandeth all men everywhere to repent, v.31. because He hath appointed a day in the which He will judge the world in righteousness by that Man whom He hath ordained; whereof He hath given assurance unto all men in that He hath raised Him from the dead. V.32. And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked; and others said, We will hear thee again of this matter. V.33. So Paul departed from among them. V.34. Howbeit, certain men clave unto him and believed, among the which was Dionysius, the Areopagite, and a woman named Damaris, and-others with them. If his hearers have kept the facts in mind concerning the essence of God and the relation of men to God, so the argument of Paul runs, and if they accept the statement that men are the offspring of God, that they, as creatures of God, are sustained by His providence, then it follows that idol worship is altogether unworthy of the lofty descent of human beings. They must conclude not only against the worship of images, but also against the habit of thought which made such worship possible, as both foolish and senseless. It is not only an affront to God, but an insult to sound common sense to think that the Godhead is like gold or silver or stone, fashioned and sculptured by the art and produced according to the deliberation of a man. What a manís mind, his imagination, had designed, what the skill of his fingers had then executed in metal or marble, this surely could not be reasonably endowed with the qualities of the Deity! And in addition to this his hearers were to know that God had indeed overlooked the times of ignorance, not as though He had not punished the sins of the heathen, but that He showed great patience with and forbearance toward them in not punishing them in the degree which their idolatry had merited. Now, however, since the full revelation of God has been made in Jesus Christ, God demands a change of mind and of life, complete repentance on the part of all men; this message comes in the nature of an emphatic demand. They should give heed, therefore, since God has fixed, or set, a day in which He intends to judge the entire world, all men without exception, in righteousness, in such a way that every one will receive full justice. This judgment will be executed in the person of a Man, through a Judge whom God has appointed for that purpose, John 5, 22. But in the mean time God is offering faith to all men, having raised this man, Jesus Christ, from the dead. To all men without exception faith is brought near, is offered, the faith based upon the resurrection of Jesus Christ, made possible by that great miracle of Godís grace. So the address of Paul ends in a triumphant burst of Gospel-preaching, intended to impress these Gentiles with the wonderful beauty of this message and to open their hearts for Christ. But the idea of a resurrection of the dead, so indissolubly connected with Christian teaching, was to these wise Athenians the acme of foolishness. As long as Paul had demonstrated the folly of their idolatrous worship, they had listened with respectful attention, but now that he brought the essential teaching of Christ, some of the men in the audience interrupted him with cries of derision, while others, rendered thoughtful by the powerful exposition, did not merely express a cold interest in the matters presented, but voiced their willingness to hear him again at some other time. They wanted some time to think over the truths which they had heard so far. So Paul left the assembly of the Court without further opposition. And the Word also in Athens was not without immediate fruit, for there were several people in the audience in whose hearts faith had been kindled, and who therefore joined Paul as his companions and as disciples of the Lord. Among these was a member of the Athenian Council, a man of distinction in the city, by the name of Dionysius, and a woman, very likely a foreign woman, well educated and influential, and a few others with them. In the midst of His enemies Christ reigns and gains victories, though proud Athens yielded only a few converts, 1 Cor. 1, 26. 27. Let all the wisdom and art of this world proudly exclaim in denunciation of the Gospel-truth, yet the foolishness of God is wiser than men; it teaches the heavenly wisdom which was revealed in Christ.
Summary. Paul and Silas preach the Gospel in Thessalonica and Berea, Paul traveling ahead of his companions from the latter city to Athens, where he also preaches the truth of the Scriptures and faith in Jesus.