Acts 17 – Paul in Thessalonica, Berea, and Athens
A. God’s work in Thessalonica.
1. (1-4) Paul preaches in Thessalonica over three Sabbaths.
Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. Then Paul, as his custom was, went in to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and demonstrating that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus whom I preach to you is the Christ.” And some of them were persuaded; and a great multitude of the devout Greeks, and not a few of the leading women, joined Paul and Silas.
a. They came to Thessalonica: This was an important port city, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) and a three-day walk from Philippi. Modern Thessalonika is still a large, thriving city.
b. As his custom was: Paul first went to the synagogue, and preached Jesus crucified and risen again to the Jews and God-fearing Gentiles there. There were several notable aspects to his presentation of Jesus.
i. Paul reasoned with them from the Scriptures; “The Greek word translated ‘reasoned’ is the root for our English word dialogue. There was exchange, questions and answers. He dialogued with them ‘from the Scriptures.’” (Hughes)
ii. Paul did the work of explaining; “This word literally means ‘opening’…Paul opened the Scriptures with clarity and simplicity.” (Hughes)
iii. Paul did the work of demonstrating that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead; “’Giving evidence’ (NASB; ‘proving,’ NIV), which means ‘to place beside’ or ‘to set before.’” (Hughes) The idea is of presenting persuasive evidence to listeners.
iv. Paul emphasized in all this who Jesus is (This Jesus whom I preach to you is the Christ) and what He did for them (suffer and rise again from the dead).
c. Some of them were persuaded: Among the hearers, there was a good response from some. Most of those – actually, a great multitude – were devout Greeks, but also many prominent Jewish women (not a few of the leading women). By all accounts, the work was a success: a great multitude believed… not a few.
i. When Paul was in Thessalonica, he received financial support from the Christians in Philippi (Philippians 4:15-16). They helped with this successful work among the Thessalonians.
2. (5-8) More mob violence against Paul and Silas.
But the Jews who were not persuaded, becoming envious, took some of the evil men from the marketplace, and gathering a mob, set all the city in an uproar and attacked the house of Jason, and sought to bring them out to the people. But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some brethren to the rulers of the city, crying out, “These who have turned the world upside down have come here too. Jason has harbored them, and these are all acting contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying there is another king; Jesus.” And they troubled the crowd and the rulers of the city when they heard these things.
a. The Jews who were not persuaded, becoming envious, took some of the evil men from the marketplace, and gathering a mob, set all the city in an uproar: As happened at Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:45, 50), at Iconium (Acts 14:2, 5), and at Lystra (Acts 14:19) on the first missionary journey, here also Paul was opposed by a mob incited by envious people among the Jewish people.
b. And attacked the house of Jason: Jason was a Christian in Thessalonica whose house seems to have been a center for the church. When the evil men from the marketplace did not find Paul and Silas there, they attacked Jason himself, and some brethren who were with him.
c. Crying out, “These who have turned the world upside down have come here too.” When accusing these Christians before the rulers of the city, the evil men from the marketplace gave an unintended compliment to the effectiveness of God’s work through Paul and Silas. To complain that the Christians were these who have turned the world upside-down have come here too was to say, “these men have radically impacted our world and nothing seems the same.”
i. God willing and blessing, people would say such things about the effectiveness of Christians today. One might say that Jesus did not come only to be our teacher, but to turn our world upside-down. Jesus turns the thinking and the power structures of this world around.
ii. Jesus gave a great example of this upside-down thinking when He spoke of a rich man who amassed great wealth, and all he could think about was building bigger barns to store all his wealth. We might make the man a civic leader or recognized him as a prominent man; Jesus turned it all upside down and called the man a fool, because he had done nothing to make his life matter for God’s kingdom (Luke 12:16-21).
iii. Actually, God was working through Paul and Silas to turn the world right side-up again. But when you yourself are upside-down, the other direction appears to be upside-down!
d. These are all acting contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying there is another king; Jesus: This was the serious accusation made by the evil men from the marketplace. The charge was serious enough that it troubled the crowd and the rulers of the city when they heard these things, because this raised the fear that their city might become known for opposition against Caesar and Rome.
i. Their fears were unfounded. Even though the gospel has definite political implications, it makes Christians better citizens than before, and their prayers for officials of government are more helpful than most people imagine.
ii. Even the unfounded accusation of political revolution had a compliment hidden inside. Even the evil men from the marketplace understood that Christians taught that Jesus was a king, that He had the right to rule over His people. This is a message that seems to be missed on many churchgoers today.
iii. “It may be for this reason that Paul avoided the use of ‘kingdom’ and ‘king’ in his letters to his converts, lest Gentile imperial authorities misconstrue them to connote opposition to the empire and emperor.” (Longenecker)
3. (9-10a) Paul and Silas leave Thessalonica by night.
So when they had taken security from Jason and the rest, they let them go. Then the brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea.
a. When they had taken security from Jason and the rest, they let them go. Jason and the others were released once they left a security deposit, to guarantee against any future riots.
i. In general, Roman officials did not care what the people believed. Yet when the public order was disrupted by riots, they came down with an iron hand. If things got out of hand, it wouldn’t be long until the Emperor dispatched his legions to restore order, and no one wanted that. So Jason had to post the bond even though he did not start the riot.
b. Then the brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea: Paul and Silas left Thessalonica quickly, not wanting to bring more persecution on the Christians there or to jeopardize Jason’s security deposit.
i. Paul only spent a few weeks in Thessalonica (Acts 17:2) and it seems he wished he could have taught them more. He decided to teach them more in a written letter, and many believe that 1 Thessalonians was his first letter written to a congregation.
B. God’s work in Berea.
1. (10b-12) More evangelistic success in the city of Berea.
When they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews. These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so. Therefore many of them believed, and also not a few of the Greeks, prominent women as well as men.
a. When they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews: In Berea, they followed their familiar strategy, and found that their audience was more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica. Two things earned this compliment for the Bereans: first, they received the word with all readiness. Second, they searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.
i. The Bereans heard the teaching of the most famous apostle and theologian of the early church, and the human author of at least 13 New Testament books. Yet, they searched the Scriptures when Paul taught, to see if his teaching was truly Biblical. They would not accept Paul’s teaching without checking for themselves, so they could know if these things were so.
ii. When the Bereans heard Paul teach, their settled reaction wasn’t “My, he’s a fine speaker.” It wasn’t “I don’t like the way he talks.” It wasn’t “What a funny preacher” Instead, the Bereans wanted to know, “Are these things… so? Does this man teach the truth? We must search the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things are so.”
iii. Their research was not casual; it had a certain character.
· They searched the Scriptures. It was worth it to them to work hard at it, and investigate what the Word of God said, and how Paul’s teaching matched up with it.
· They also searched the Scriptures daily to find out. It wasn’t a one time, quick look. They made it a point of diligent, extended study.
· Also, they searched the Scriptures daily to find out. They believed they could understand and find out truth from the Bible. For them, the Bible was not just a pretty book of poetry or mystery or nice spiritual inspiration for thoughts-for-the-day. It was a book of truth, and that truth was there to find out.
iv. But with all their diligent searching and concern for the truth, the Bereans did not become skeptics. They received the word with all readiness. When Paul preached, they had open hearts; but also clear heads. Many people have clear heads but closed hearts, and never receive the word with all readiness. It was both of these things that made the Bereans more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica.
b. Therefore many of them believed: Paul had nothing to fear by the diligent searching of the Scriptures by the Bereans. If they were really seeking God and His Word, they would find out that what Paul was preaching was true. This is exactly what happened among the Bereans, and therefore many of them believed.
2. (13-15) Paul is forced to leave Berea.
But when the Jews from Thessalonica learned that the word of God was preached by Paul at Berea, they came there also and stirred up the crowds. Then immediately the brethren sent Paul away, to go to the sea; but both Silas and Timothy remained there. So those who conducted Paul brought him to Athens; and receiving a command for Silas and Timothy to come to him with all speed, they departed.
a. TheJews from Thessalonica: They were not satisfied to force Paul out of only their own city. They even followed Paul to Berea to disrupt his work there also.
b. Stirred up the crowds: The same had happened at Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:45, 50), at Iconium (Acts 14:2, 5), at Lystra (Acts 14:19) and at Thessalonica (Acts 17:5-8) This was the fifth city Paul was run out of by an angry mob, stirred up by envious Jewish leaders.
c. Then immediately the brethren sent Paul away: The Christians in Berea sent Paul away to Athens, fearing for his life and a total disruption of the work going on there. But both Silas and Timothy remained there, because Paul wanted to leave them behind to teach and take care of the new Christians in Berea.
i. The fact that both Silas and Timothy remained there showed again that Paul had a passion for planting churches, not just making converts. It also showed that Paul didn’t believe that he alone could do the work of teaching and strengthening Christians; men like Silas and Timothy also could.
C. God’s work in Athens.
1. (16-17) Paul is provoked to preach in the city of Athens.
Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him when he saw that the city was given over to idols. Therefore he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and with the Gentile worshipers, and in the marketplace daily with those who happened to be there.
a. Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him: The sense is that Paul would have preferred to wait until Timothy and Silas came from Berea before he began ministry in Athens. But when he saw that the city was given over to idols, he was compelled to preach the gospel immediately.
i. As Paul sailed to Athens from the sea near Berea, he came to a city he had probably never been to before, and like any tourist, he was ready to be impressed by this famous and historic city – which, hundreds of years before, was one of the most glorious and important cities in the world. But when Paul toured Athens, he was only depressed by the magnitude of the idolatry he saw all around.
ii. The idea behind given over to idols (kateidolos) is really under idols, or swamped by idols. Paul saw the beauty of Athens, having the best that Greek sculptors and architects could offer; but all that beauty did not honor God, so it did not impress him at all.
b. Therefore he reasoned in the synagogue… and in the marketplace daily: Paul’s practice was to preach wherever he could get an audience. Here it was both in the synagogue and in the marketplace.
c. Those who happened to be there: Paul faced a challenging audience in Athens. It was a cultured, educated city that was proud of its history. It was an intellectual center, much like Oxford or Cambridge. Paul spoke to a city perhaps different than any other city he had preached in.
i. “Although Athens had long since lost the political eminence which was hers in an earlier day, she continued to represent the highest level of culture attained in classical antiquity.” (Bruce)
ii. “By now the greatest days of Athens were behind it, but it could still be fairly described as the intellectual capital of the Greco-Roman world and, at the same time, the religious capital of Greece.” (Williams)
2. (18-21) The novelty of his message earns Paul an invitation to preach at the intellectual center of the city, the Areopagus.
Then certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers encountered him. And some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods,” because he preached to them Jesus and the resurrection. And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new doctrine is of which you speak? For you are bringing some strange things to our ears. Therefore we want to know what these things mean.” For all the Athenians and the foreigners who were there spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing.
a. Then certain Epicurean… philosophers encountered him: The Epicureans pursued pleasure as the chief purpose in life, and valued most of all the pleasure of a peaceful life, free from pain, disturbing passions and superstitious fears (including the fear of death). They did not deny the existence of gods, but believed that they had nothing to do with man.
b. Then certain… Stoic philosophers encountered him: The Stoics were pantheists who put great emphasis on moral sincerity and a high sense of duty. They cultivated a spirit of proud dignity, and believed that suicide was better than a life lived with less dignity.
i. The Stoics believed that everything was god, and god was in everything. So they believed that all things, good or evil, were from “god,” and so nothing should be resisted, and they believed there was no particular direction or destiny for mankind.
c. And some said: Some mocked Paul because he did not speak with the philosophical niceties popular in Athens (What does this babbler want to say?). Others thought Paul was an exotic proclaimer of foreign gods.
d. He preached to them Jesus and the resurrection: Though Paul spoke in a different place, to a different kind of audience, his message did not change in Athens. He focused on Jesus and the resurrection.
e. For all the Athenians and the foreigners who were there spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or hear some strange new thing: It was the novelty of Paul’s message that earned him the invitation to the Areopagus. These ancient Greeks loved a constant and always changing stream of news and information.
i. In the early nineteenth century, Adam Clarke described the situation of his day, and it sounds like it is even truer of our own time. “This is a striking feature of the city of London in the present day. The itch for news, which generally argues a worldly, shallow, or unsettled mind, is wonderfully prevalent: even ministers of the Gospel, negligent of their sacred function, are become in this sense Athenians; so that the book of God is neither read nor studied with half the avidity and spirit as a newspaper…It is no wonder if such become political preachers, and their sermons be no better than husks for swine. To such the hungry sheep look up, and are not fed.”
3. (22-23) Paul begins to speak on Mars’ Hill (the Areopagus).
Then Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you:
a. Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious: Paul did not begin with an exposition of Scripture, which was his custom when dealing with Jews or Gentiles who were familiar with the Old Testament. Instead, Paul began with general references to religion.
b. In all things you are very religious: Many ancient observers noticed the religious character of Athens, and some thought that Athenians were the most religious of all people. But when Paul said this of the Athenians, he didn’t necessarily mean it in a positive way. Religion can lead one away from God, and if we trust in a false religion, it is little credit to say of us that we are “religious.”
c. I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD: Paul understood that in their extensive pantheon, the Greeks had an UNKNOWN GOD, who covered any god that may have been neglected. Paul wanted to reveal the identity of the UNKNOWN GOD.
i. Athens was filled with statues dedicated TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Six hundred years before Paul, a terrible plague came on the city and a man name Epimenides had an idea. He let loose a flock of sheep through the town, and wherever they lay down, they sacrificed that sheep to the god that had the nearest shrine or temple. If a sheep lay down near no shrine or temple, they sacrificed the sheep TO THE UNKNOWN GOD.
4. (24-29) Paul tells the Athenians who God is.
God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things. And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’ Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising.
a. God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth: Paul spoke about the God who created everything, yet is distinct from His creation. Paul told them that God was bigger than any temple men’s hands could build (does not dwell in temples made with hands), and could not be represented by anything men could make with their hands (Nor is He worshipped with men’s hands).
i. In explaining God to them, Paul started at the beginning: God is the Creator, and we are His creatures. “This view of the world is very different from either the Epicurean emphasis on a chance combination of atoms or the virtual pantheism of the Stoics.” (Stott)
ii. Paul recognized that these philosophers had to change their ideas about God. They had to move from their own personal opinions to an understanding of who God is according to what He tells us about Himself in the Bible
b. And He has made from one blood every nation of men: Paul told them we are all descended from Adam through Noah, and that there is one God who created us all and to whom we all are obligated. Since God created us all, we should seek the Lord… though He is not far from each one of us.
c. For in Him we live and move and have our being…For we are also His offspring: These two quotations Paul used from Greek poets are attributed respectively to Epimenides the Cretan [600 B.C.] (who Paul quotes again in Titus 1:12) and Aratus [310 B.C.].
i. Paul did not quote these men because they were prophets or because all their teaching was of God. He quoted them because these specific words reflected a Biblical truth, and by using them he could build a bridge to his pagan audience.
d. Therefore since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone: Paul told them of our responsibility to God because we are His offspring. Since we are His offspring, we are responsible to have right ideas about God, and therefore must reject the wrong idea that gold or silver or stone could represent God.
i. “The Athenians have acknowledged in their altar inscription that they are ignorant of God, and Paul has been giving evidence of their ignorance. Now he declares such ignorance to be culpable.” (Stott)
5. (30-31) Paul tells the Athenians what they must do because of who God is.
Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead.”
a. Now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness: Paul went from knowing who God is (our Creator), to who we are (His offspring), to our responsibility before Him (to understand Him and worship Him in truth), to our accountability if we dishonor Him (judgment).
i. Paul didn’t preach a “soft” gospel. He boldly confronted the wrong ideas the Athenians had about God, and confronted them with the reality of coming judgment.
b. He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man who He has ordained: Now, for the first time in his message to the Athenians, Paul referred to Jesus. His first mention of Jesus presented Jesus as a righteous judge.
i. Certainly, Paul did not want to leave the Athenians with the idea that Jesus was only a righteous judge. However, he was stopped short before he could tell them everything he wanted to about Jesus. Probably, all that Paul said before was introduction. He would now begin at what he really wanted to speak about: The person and work of Jesus.
c. He has given assurance of this by raising Him from the dead: The emphasis on the resurrection is important. Paul saw the resurrection of Jesus as the assurance of this; it demonstrated that Jesus Himself, His teaching, and His work were all perfectly approved by the Father.
i. Paul seemed unable to preach a sermon without focusing on the resurrection of Jesus. For him, none of the Christian life made sense without the triumph of Jesus’ resurrection.
6. (32-34) The reaction of the listeners at Areopagus.
And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked, while others said, “We will hear you again on this matter.” So Paul departed from among them. However, some men joined him and believed, among them Dionysius the Areopagite, a woman named Damaris, and others with them.
a. When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked: The resurrection was not a popular idea among Greek philosophers. Some though Paul foolish for even believing such a thing, and other wanted to hear more about this new teaching (others said, “We will hear you again on this matter”).
i. The Greeks were fond of the idea of the immortality of the soul, but not of the idea of the resurrection of the body. They felt that anything material was inherently evil, so there really could be no such thing as a glorified body. They thought the ultimate form of glory would be pure spirit.
ii. “All Greeks thought that man was composed of spirit (or mind), which was good, and matter (or body), which was bad. If there was to be a life to come, the one thing they certainty did not want it cluttered up with a body.” (Boice)
b. So Paul departed among them: Paul wanted to talk about Jesus. He could have, if he wanted to, stayed there and discussed Greek philosophy all day long. But Paul was not interested in that; if he couldn’t talk about Jesus, he didn’t have much to say.
i. Without doubt, Paul was really just beginning his sermon. Far more than wanting to quote Greek poets, he wanted to tell them about Jesus. But as soon as he mentioned the resurrection, they stopped him short. Certainly, Paul discussed more with people one-on-one. But he was prevented from saying all he wanted to in his speech at the Areopagus.
c. However, some men joined him and believed: The results at the Areopagus seemed small, yet some did believe. Among those believing were a man named Dionysius (who must have been a regular participant at the Areopagus) and a woman named Damaris.
i. Some criticize Paul’s sermon in Athens because there is no detailed reference to the cross or specific quotes from the Old Testament. Some think Paul compromised his message for an intellectual audience, and therefore there were few conversions.
ii. This idea continues, saying that when Paul went next to Corinth, he decided to preach the cross and the cross only, even if it seemed foolish (1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5). Because Paul preached this way in Corinth, the thinking goes, he saw much better results.
iii. Ramsay popularized the theory that Paul was disappointed by his “meager” results in Athens, and went on to Corinth preaching the gospel with a pure focus on the cross, and without any attempt at philosophical explanation.
iv. Yet Paul’s sermon here was eminently Biblical. “Like the biblical revelation itself, his argument begins with God the creator of all and ends with God the judge of all…The speech as it stands admirably summarizes an introductory lesson in Christianity for cultured pagans.” (Bruce)
v. As well, Paul did preach Christ crucified in Athens. In Acts 17:30-31 he specifically mentioned the resurrection, and how could he preach the resurrection without preaching the cross which came before it? This is obviously a short extract of Paul’s speech on the Areopagus; what is recorded takes barely two minutes to say.
vi. “We learn from Paul that we cannot preach the gospel of Jesus without the doctrine of God, or the cross without the creation, or salvation without judgment.” (Stott)
vii. In addition, it is dangerous to judge the content of the message by the magnitude of the response. “The reason the gospel did not take root there probably lay more in the attitude of the Athenians themselves than in Paul’s approach or in what he said.” (Longenecker)
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