Acts 17 - Outline of Acts (Book Notes menu page)
In the previous chapter (Acts ch. 16), we watched as the Holy Spirit called Paul, Silas, Timothy and Luke over into Macedonia with the message of salvation. Their ministry in Philippi was not easy. At every turn there was spiritual conflict. But the Spirit of God had opened opportunities against all odds, and had given them victory over opposition from evil spirits and from men offended by the Gospel and its power to deliver from those evil spirits.
     Paul and Silas had been beaten, scourged and cast into prison. Yet, they prayed and sang praises, for they knew the Lord was with them, and they could see Him opening hearts, delivering those bound under darkness, and drawing whole families to faith in Christ.
     Near the end of our study (in ch. 16), we referenced Philippians ch. 1, where Paul (writing to the Philippian believers, from prison in Rome, about 10 or 15 years after his first visit to Philippi) wrote "I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making request with joy, for your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now..."
     From that first day in Philippi, when Lydia had received Christ, and through all the trials that had followed, the Lord had continued to work within and among the believers there. Therefore, as Paul looked back at what God had done in the past, he was also encouraged concerning the future: "...being confident of this very thing, that He which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ..." (Php 1:3-6)
As we come to Acts ch.17, Paul, Silas, Timothy and Luke, have departed from Philippi at the request of the city magistrates, and have made their way to Thessalonica.
Paul's first letter to the Thessalonian church, written a few months after this visit, is also full of confidence and joy. The first chapter of that letter (1Thessalonians ch. 1) reflects on the change which had taken place in the lives of the Thessalonian believers who had "turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God; and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come" (1The 1:9,10).
Here (in Acts ch. 17), we have the record of those first believers in Thessalonica...
1. Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia,
they came to Thessalonica, where was a synagogue of the Jews:
2 And Paul, as his manner was, went in unto them,
and three sabbath days reasoned with them out of the scriptures,
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.
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.
Philippi... Amphipolis... Apolonia... Thessalonica...-
The group traveled overland, to the west, about 100 road miles from Philippi to Thessalonica.
...where was a synagogue...-
When Paul entered any city, where there was a Jewish synagogue, it was his practice to begin presenting the Gospel message there.
     Why? Wasn't he the apostle to the Gentiles? Wasn't his work to establish churches which consisted primarily of Gentile believers? Why should he begin teaching at the Jewish synagogue?
     Because unto the Jews were committed the oracles of God (Rom 3:2). They had been entrusted with God's Word. Although they did not fully understand the scriptures, they had some knowledge of them. The knowledge of God's Word is foundational to the church of Christ. Therefore, to establish churches and to provide them with adequate leadership, Paul needed men who knew God's Word.
In the synagogue, Paul "reasoned with them out of the scriptures."-
He entered into a two way conversation, a serious discussion about what the Bible says.
"Opening and alleging..." (v.3) - This means, he was...
...'introducing something new which they had not seen before,' and
...'laying it out in order before them'...
  • "...that {the} Christ {ie., the Messiah} must needs have suffered and risen from the dead."-
    This is exactly what Jesus had made clear to those disciples on the road to Emmaus, following His resurrection (read Luke 24:25-27,44-46). The Old Testament scriptures spoke prophetically (hundreds of years in advance) and specifically (in great detail) of the Messiah and the work that He would accomplish through His life, death and resurrection. It is noteworthy that every sermon recorded in Acts, places an emphasis upon the resurrection of Christ, which is presented: as foretold by Bible prophecy... as well attested fact... and as essential to the Gospel message.
       The prophecies about the Messiah are plain enough. But since the scriptures speak both of the Messiah's sufferings and also of His future glory as King upon David's throne, many could not reconcile the conflicting pictures, and doubted whether a Messiah would ever come.
       Paul explained what the Bible taught about the first coming of the Jewish Messiah, in order to demonstrate...
  • that "this Jesus, whom I preach unto you, is {the} Christ {the Messiah}."
    (This is consistent with Paul's first sermons. Acts 9:20,22)
The result was that some of the Jews believed,
and also many Gentiles, and a great many influential women. (Luke's "not a few" is an understatement, suggesting that there were many in this latter category.) cp. 1The 1:5,6
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.
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;
7 Whom Jason hath received:
and these all do contrary to the decrees of Caesar,
saying that there is another king, [one] Jesus.
8 And they troubled the people and the rulers of the city,
when they heard these things.
9 And when they had taken security of Jason, and of the other,
they let them go.
Here also, as in Philippi, there was strong opposition.
There, it had been fomented by Gentile men, when the Gospel impacted their wallets. Here, it was spurred by Jewish unbelief of Bible prophecy, and by their "envy" or "zeal" to protect their traditional understanding. Such zeal had also moved the opposition in Antioch of Pisidia, eight years earlier (Acts 13:45). Fifteen or twenty years earlier, before he had met Christ, Saul also had stood zealously against this way, "breathing out threatenings, and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord" (Acts 9:1; Php 3:6). For him, no holds had been barred in the fight against what he had considered blasphemous error.
     So, here, the unbelieving Jews enlisted "lewd" {ie., wicked} men "of the baser sort" {GK=agoriaos, ie., the kind of men who hung about the market place with nothing to do}. Such vulgar 'no good' men were easily hired to do their dirty work.
     The uproar which these men caused, though it had its root in differing religious views, was recast in political terms. Jason, a Jewish man, who had shown hospitality to Paul and Silas, was dragged before the rulers {ie., the politarchs} of the city, when the mob did not find them in his house.
The complaint was that Paul and Silas had "turned the world upside down."
Was it true? Yes, for the Gospel is revolutionary truth, that is contrary and unsettling to the world's customs and ways (cp. the accusation in Philippi, Acts 16:20,21). Yet, in reality, the Gospel only 'rights' what is already 'wrongside up.' If we are comfortable in the world, and if the world is comfortable with us, perhaps we have not been "opening and alleging" God's truth to them.
     Of course, when we do, the world may twist our words to find a punishable accusation. The charge here was not that Paul taught that Jesus is the Christ, but rather that he threatened Caesar by proclaiming Jesus as the King. (Compare the charges brought against Jesus before the Sanhedrin versus those presented before Pilate, in Luk 22:66 - 23:2.)
Having not found Paul and Silas, they took "security" of Jason.
That is, they forced him to post bond to assure his future appearance in court, or, they fined him heavily as a penalty for harboring those who were the cause of this disturbance. In Rom 16:21, written about 7 years later, Jason is mentioned as one of Paul's believing kinsmen (ie., a Jewish believer).
10. And the brethren immediately sent away Paul and Silas by night unto Berea:
who coming [thither] went into the synagogue of the Jews.
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.
12 Therefore many of them believed;
also of honourable women which were Greeks, and of men, not a few.
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.
14 And then immediately the brethren sent away Paul to go as it were to the sea:
but Silas and Timotheus abode there still.
The Jews, at the synagogue in Berea, had a "readiness of mind" {ie., enthusiasm} to "search" {ie., examine, scrutinize} the scriptures,
to verify for themselves the teachings concerning Christ, which Paul proclaimed. This is in keeping with what Jesus said in Joh 5:39,46: "Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me... For had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me: for he wrote of me."
What about you? Do you believe everything you hear... everything the preacher says?
or, do you test it against the testimony of scripture?
     The study of God's Word is not just for preachers. It is the personal privilege and responsibility of everyone of us, to determine for ourselves what it says. For each of us, who have access to the Bible, will be held accountable for what we did with it. How many believers rob themselves of the timeless treasures contained within these pages by setting it aside in pursuit of temporary toys and pastimes?
The Berean Jews "searched the scriptures daily"... with what result?
"Therefore many of them believed..." in contrast to only "some" (ie., "certain ones") in Thessalonica (v.4). In addition, "not a few" Gentiles, both men and women, believed (v.12)
But the unbelievers from Thessalonica came and stirred up {ie., agitated, as wind drives waves} the people of Berea.
The believers, recognizing that it was unsafe for Paul to stay there, sent him out of town with some local believers, who chose a route that would confuse Paul's pursuers.
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.
16. Now while Paul waited for them at Athens,
his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry.
17 Therefore disputed he in the synagogue
with the Jews, and with the devout persons,
and in the market daily with them that met with him.
18 Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans,
and of the Stoicks, 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.
19 And they took him, and brought him unto Areopagus,
saying, May we know what this new doctrine, whereof thou speakest, [is]?
20 For thou bringest certain strange things to our ears:
we would know therefore what these things mean.
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.)
Athens, about 200 miles south-southwest of Berea,
was a center of higher learning, philosophy and Greek culture.
The name of the city, which means "uncertainty," reflects the conflicting philosophies taught in its schools.
Paul's spirit was "stirred" {ie., irritated or provoked} by a city which was "wholly given to idolatry" {or, 'full of idols'}.
Are you and I provoked by the idolatry of our nation? or, are we caught up in it? We do have American Idols, you know... and not only on TV. The passing fads and latest electronic gadgets are not without appeal, even to believers. But are we given to them? or, are we given to eternal things? Paul was provoked by the idolatry. So, what did he do about it?
"Therefore..." he reasoned with the Jews in the synagogue (v.17, cp. v.2).
He also reasoned in the market place... perhaps while selling tents, or purchasing supplies...
He reasoned in the market place with devout Gentiles whom he chanced to meet there. "Devout" means that they exhibited a reverence for spiritual things. Yet, like the woman at the well (Joh 4:22,23), they "knew not what they worshipped." Paul sought to lead them to worship God in Spirit and in truth, through faith in Jesus, who died for us, and arose from death.
Paul's message caught the attention of "certain philosophers."
A "philosopher" is literally "a lover of wisdom." These were what we might call "professional students" who enjoyed nothing better than the intellectual entertainment of hearing new (ie., novel) theories (v.21).
     There were two conflicting schools of thought in Athens. (Their thinking is summarized succinctly in the margin of the Scofield Reference Bible, from which the two points below are adapted.)
  • The Epicureans were disciples of Epicurus, who lived from 342-271 BC.
    Epicurus had abandoned, as hopeless, the search by reason, for pure truth. [Remember Pilate's sarcastic question to Jesus: "What is truth?" Joh 18:38] If truth was unknowable, they reasoned, they would instead seek true pleasure in personal experience.
  • The Stoics were disciples of Zeno (c. 280 BC) and other teachers who followed him.
    They regarded themselves as self-sufficient, and capable of repressing fleshly passions for the good of society.
The philosophies which divided the ancient world still divide the unsaved world today. Yet, whether men live in self-indulgence for the moment, or with self-control for the legacy that they will leave behind... To the natural mind, the teachings of God's Word are "new" and "strange" {ie., foreign}. The teacher of God's Word is a "babbler" {GK=spermologos, one whose speech pecks at insignificant and scattered seeds}. To their ears, the preacher of the Gospel of Christ, proclaims foreign divinities (or, foreign demons).
     But, considering such talk to be entertaining... they brought Paul to Areopagus {GK= 'Areios Pagos', ie., 'Mars Hill'}, the outdoor court where legal and philosophical matters were routinely argued.
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.
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.
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;
25 Neither is worshipped with men's hands, as though he needed any thing,
seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things;
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;
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:
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.
29 Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think
that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man's device.
30 And the times of this ignorance God winked at;
but now commandeth all men every where to repent:
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.
Paul presented his message to the secular intellectuals in a different way than in the synagogues.
In the synagogue, he argued from scripture.
Here, he quotes no scripture, although he does paraphrase the thought of several Bible passages. He starts where they are (in religious uncertainty), and argues from self-evident truth (as supported by their own thinkers), to show: that their view of God is inadequate, that the God, who created mankind, must be able to communicate, and that, indeed, He has clearly demonstrated His truth for all to see, and He requires everyone to make a decision based on that truth.
"Ye men of Athens, I perceive that... ye are too superstitious." (v.22) -
ie., You are exceedingly 'religious.' You are exceedingly reverential in regard to divinities. ("Too superstitious" is one GK compound word, which describes 'a high degree of reverence, towards divinities and/or demons.') Mankind is naturally given to worship. However, the natural man does not know the One who deserves worship (Joh 4:22).
     I spoke recently with a man who is moved with reverence toward the Cosmos, by the supposed billions of years, and by the marvel of the supposed evolutionary process. There are many who revere the human body for its athletic abilities, or for its esthetics (the beauty of its outward appearance), or for the satisfaction of its various appetites. The question is: What is the object of your worship?
"For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions {ie., your objects of worship}, I found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD." (v.23)
'Unknown,' is GK=agnostos. They were agnostics, not in the modern sense that 'there might be a god but I cannot be sure'; but rather, in the sense that besides the hundreds of deities which they recognized, they might have forgotten one.
     This altar might have been a sign of open mindedness: 'See, we have an altar to your god, whoever you may worship.' Or, it might have been placed 'to cover all the bases,' out of fear of retribution from some neglected divinity.
"Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship {or, revere without understanding}, Him declare I unto you."
Who is this unknown God?
  • Paul states, right at the outset, that God is a Person ("whom... Him..."), and that
    there is but one true and living God, for he does not say "them declare I unto you."
  • (v.24a) He is the creator God who fashioned the world and every thing in it.
    The 'world' is GK=kosmos, the order of things. This word often refers to the order of human society: the world system. But it can also refer to the universe. Notice what this Cosmos contains: "Heaven and Earth." As Creator of all, He is naturally the Lord {GK=kurios, the possessor and master} of all.
  • (v.24b) The Creator and Lord of the universe cannot be contained within man made temples,
    for He is above and beyond all that He has made.
  • (v.25) The Creator and Lord of the universe is necessarily the self-sufficient God.
    • He does not need the service of man's hands.
    • Rather, man is utterly dependent upon Him, for "life and breath and all things."
  • (v.26a) The Creator and Lord has made mankind of one humanity,
    though He has divided them into ethnicities.
  • (v.26b) The Creator and Lord has set limitations upon mankind.
    He has determined the times (eg., man's limited lifespan (eg., Psa 90:10); the ages of history, the duration of kingdoms; etc.), and the boundaries of their habitation (eg., the demarcation between habitable and uninhabitable places; the territories occupied by various nations...).
  • (v.27) In all of this, the Creator and Lord has a purpose: "That they {mankind} should seek {in order to find} the Lord, if haply they might feel after Him {ie., grope in the darkness as blindmen}, and find Him."
    Men, intelligent men, are groping today... Is there intelligent life in the universe? Are there clues, whether in heaven above or in earth beneath, to show us where we came from? or, what our purpose is?
  • Yet, the Creator God is not far from us. "For in Him we live, and move and have our being."
    Paul's thought is not pantheistic (ie., that god is in everything), but rather that the God who created us, and upon whom we are dependent, is indeed knowable. Paul cites the writings of Aratus (c.270BC) and Cleanthes (c.300BC) who both incorporated the line: "For we are his offspring."
  • (v.29) "Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like..." some inanimate man made object.
    When Paul speaks of the "offspring {GK=genos, race, kin}" of God, he is not referring to the new birth that is necessary for salvation. He is simply arguing that since God created men as intelligent creatures, it would be foolish to think that we have sprung from a Creator who is any less intelligent than we. See Gen 1:26,27.
       Yet, men remain "willingly ignorant" of His Person, Power and Purposes (2Pet 3:5-7).
Paul closes his message to these intellectuals by applying three periods of time to his hearers.
  1. (v.30a) The "times" of ignorance which God "winked at" {GK=hupereido, overlooked, took no notice of}.
    Where there is spiritual darkness, it is understandable that men will grope after truth but cling to falsehoods.
  2. (v.30b) The "now" of repentance.
    Now that light has come into the world, God commands "all men every where to repent..." to turn to God from following false gods, and false philosophies, "to serve the living and true God" (1Thes 1:9).
       "That was the true light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not" (Joh 1:9,10).
       "...Now is the the accepted time; behold now is the day of salvation" (2Cor 6:2).
  3. (v.31) The "day" of judgment...
    • The standard of judgment is righteousness.
    • The appointed Judge is "that man..."
      • who Himself is both the standard and the source of righteousness. Heb 4:15; 2Cor 5:21
      • who God has identified by raising Him from the dead. (Rom 1:4)
        Again, the resurrection of Christ is essential to the Gospel message. We dare not hold back from proclaiming it, for fear that some might find it difficult to accept. For if Christ be not raised, He is neither our Savior, nor the righteous Judge. But, having been risen, He is declared to be both. (1Cor 15:12-20)
32. And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked:
and others said, We will hear thee again of this [matter].
33 So Paul departed from among them.
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.
The response to the message, was divided into three groups:
  1. (v.32a) Scoffers -
  2. (v.32b) Procrastinators -
    With his departure from Mars Hill (v.33), some say that Paul failed, since his argument proved inadequate to convince the skeptics. We should never let fear of failure prevent us from telling all that we know. For there were also...
  3. (v.34) Believers -
    Dionysius the Areopagite and Damaris (perhaps his wife), and others with them, were saved out of the uncertainty of their agnostic intellectualism. They "clave to" or 'joined company with' Paul, in order to learn more about the God who had made Himself known, through the Man who had become their Savior.
In which category are you? Scoffer... Procrastinator ("Now is the day of salvation...")... or, Believer?
Believer, ask the Lord to stir your spirit for those given to false gods, until He makes the Savior known to them through you.

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