Acts: Chapter 17
Let’s begin by reading (Acts 17:1-9).
(Verse 1) “Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where was a synagogue of the Jews”
After leaving Philippi (Ch. 16), Paul (and Silas) continued his 2nd Missionary Journey by traveling along the Egnatian Way to Amphipolis, then to Apollonia, then to Thessalonica.
Amphipolis – (From the “Nelson’s Illustrated Dictionary of the Bible”) – “Amphipolis was situated about 50 kilometers (30 miles) southwest of Philippi. It was almost completely surrounded by a bend in the River Strymon. Situated on a terraced hill, the city was highly visible from land and sea. A large monument, the Lion of Amphipolis, commemorating a military victory, stands guard today at the ancient site, as it did in Paul’s time.” (The “Lion” was erected in the early part of the fourth century B.C.)
Apollonia – (meaning – “belonging to Apollo”) One of a number cities given this name, we know virtually nothing about this particular city. It was located about 30 miles west of Amphipolis. From here, it was about another 40 miles to Thessalonica. (Therefore, making the distance between Philippi and Thessalonica about 100 miles.)
***Note: It appears that Paul and Silas only stopped for the night in these two cities before going on. This may have been because they didn’t have a synagogue.
Thessalonica – “In the first century, Thessalonica was the largest city in Macedonia (pop. about 200,000). It was made the capital of the Roman second district of Macedonia in 167 B.C. (there were 4 Roman districts). About 20 years later, Macedonia became a single Roman province, with Thessalonica becoming its capital.
It was given its name in 315 B.C. when Cassander (son of Antipater), a general of Alexander The Great, rebuilt and enlarged the city of Therma. He then renamed it after his wife Thessalonica (Greek= “victory of Thessalians”), who was the step-sister of Alexander The Great. She got her name because her father Philip II first heard of her birth on the day of his gaining a victory over the Thessalians.
Thessalonica had a very spacious and prominent harbor, which was the main seaport for Macedonia. It was situated on the northernmost point of the Thermaic Gulf (Gulf Of Salonica) at the head of the Aegean Sea. In addition, it was located on the great Roman road called the Egnatian Way (Via Egnatia), the major east-west trade route connecting Rome to the east, and also had a trade route leading north from the Aegean Sea to the Danube. These things made Thessalonica, along with Corinth, the two most important and wealthy commercial centers in Greece.
It was a “free city,” meaning its citizens could govern themselves (those who governed called Gr. = “politarches”) (Acts 17:6,8).
As with most major cities, they had a stadium, forum, public baths, a gymnasium, and a number of temples (i.e. the temple of Serapis). A mint has also been found in the ruins of the city, meaning they created their own currency. Mt. Olympus, where the famous Greek Parthenon was located, could be seen from the city.
Thessalonica has never ceased being a city. Today, it is called Salonica or Saloniki. It is still the capital of Macedonia, and a prosperous city, with a population of over 350,000, the vast majority being Christians. Most of the ancient city is covered by the current city, with only few remains visible (i.e. parts of the wall which surrounded the city, and parts of the forum).
(Verse 2) “And Paul, as his manner was, went in unto them, and three sabbath days reasoned with them out of the Scriptures,”
As we first mentioned in (Acts Ch. 13 & 14), even though God had called Paul to be an Apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15)(Gal 1:15-16)(Gal 2:7), as a Jew, Paul had a great love for his people, and a strong desire to see them saved (Rom 9:1-5)(Rom 10:1). This being the case, Paul had a pattern of heading to Jewish synagogues whenever he arrived in a new city i.e. (Acts 14:1)(here in verses 1-3,10,17)(Acts 18:4,19)(Acts 19:8). This followed a tradition of taking the “word of God” to the Jews first (i.e. see Mt 10:5-6, Mk 15:24, Lk 24:47, Rom 1:16).
***Note: “Three Sabbath days” would actually be two weeks. However, most scholar agree that they were actually in Thessalonica for much long than this (about 4-6 months).
(Verses 3-4)(NKJV) “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.” (4) 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.”
The “Scriptures” that Paul used to “reason with” the Jews were, of course, the books of the Old Testament. He used prophetic Scriptures foretelling that “the Christ” (the “Messiah”) would suffer” (i.e. Ps 22:7-8,16, Isa Ch. 53), and “rise from the dead” (i.e. Ps 16:10, Isa 53:10). Then, he told them that these prophetic Scriptures were fulfilled by Jesus!
“Were persuaded” = became believers. “Some of them” = Jews, “devout Greeks” = Jewish proselytes, and some “leading women” of the city = likely wives of well-known men. (1 Th 1:9) tells us that some of these converts had “turned to God from idols.”
***Note: We learn from (1 Th 2:9)(2 Th 3:7-9) that while Paul was in Thessalonica, he (and those with him) also worked a job to support himself (Paul was a tentmaker: Acts 18:1-3), so that he would not be a financial “burden” to the Thessalonians. In addition, the church at Philippi sent him financial support twice while he was in Thessalonica (Phil 4:15-16).
(Verses 5-7)(NKJV) “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. (6) 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. (7) Jason has harbored them, and these are all acting contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying there is another king – Jesus.”
The “Jews” who were “not persuaded” here is likely talking about the Jewish leaders, who as we have seen in previous chapters in Acts (i.e. Acts 13:44-52 – at Antioch, Acts 14:1-4 – at Iconium, )(and with Jesus in Mk 15:10) became “jealous” or “envious” when Christians, and their message became more “popular” than theirs, and threatened their positions. They gathered a “mob of evil men from the marketplace,” had them go with them to the place where they thought Paul, and those with him were staying, and drag them out. (We are not told if they had actually been staying there or not.)
When they did not find Paul, or his companions there, they “dragged out of the house” its owner named “Jason,” as well as some other “brethren,” and took them to the “rulers of the city.” (Interesting note From the “Zondervan NIV Study Bible”) – “The Greek term politarch (lit. “city ruler”), used here and in v. 8, is found nowhere else in Greek literature, but it was discovered in 1835 in a Greek inscription on an arch that had spanned the Egnatian Way on the west side of Thessalonica. (The arch was destroyed in 1867, but the block with the inscription was rescued and is now in the British Museum in London.) The term has since been found in 16 other inscriptions in surrounding towns of Macedonia, and elsewhere.”
The charge they made to the “rulers,” that Paul and Silas were “turning the world upside down” (similar to a charge made in Acts 16:20), was actually a backhanded compliment, showing just how effectively they had been in spreading the Gospel, and winning converts.
The charge that Paul and Silas were saying there was another king was treason, and was the worst charge that could be brought against a Roman. This charge was also brought against Jesus (Jn 19:12-15).
***Note: (From the “Liberty Bible Commentary”) – “Ladd (p. 446) very vividly notes that this may explain why there is such little reference to Christ as king or to the “kingdom” in the epistles since the term “king” was the common Greek designation for the Roman emperor and could be easily misunderstood. Rome was tolerant of many things but not rebellion against the emperor. This may explain Paul’s preferred usage in the Gentile epistles of the term “Lord.”
(Verses 8-9) “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(s), they let them go.”
“Taken security” – This differs from “bail,” in that when “security” was taken from a person, that person was pledging that they would not cause any more trouble, and if they did, it could cost them money, property, or possibly even their life. Because of this, and the danger to Jason and the brethren, this is likely why we see Paul and Silas leaving in the next verse.
***Note: We will hear of “Jason” later, when Paul mentions that he is with him while he is writing to the church at Rome (the book of Romans) from Corinth (Rom 16:21).
Next, let’s read (Acts 17:10-21).
(Verses 10-12)(NASB) “The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews. (11) Now these people were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so. (12) Therefore, many of them believed, along with a significant number of prominent Greek women and men.”
While Paul and Silas likely left to protect “Jason and the brethren,” the fact that they went “away by night” indicates that there was some concern for their safety as well.
“Berea” – (From the “New Unger’s Bible Dictionary”) – “A Macedonian city at the foot of Mt. Bermius, once a large and populous city and the residence of many Jews. Berea is now known as Verria, a place of more than thirty thousand people.” It was about 50 mi west of Thessalonica. “Berea” is mentioned nowhere else in the New Testament, except for in (Acts 20:4), where we find a companion of Paul’s named “Sopater of Berea.”
Again, as we mentioned in (verse 2), Paul follows his pattern of heading to the synagogue when entering a new city. What the Bereans do in (verse 11) should be a life verse for each Christian. I “IMPLORE” you not to take my word, your pastor’s word, or any Bible teacher’s word for what they say the Bible says. Take what I, or they say, and “examine the Scriptures to see whether the things that are being taught are so.” (Also see: 1 Cor 10:15, 1 Th 5:21, 1 Jn 4:1)
“Many of them (from the “synagogue” – Jews) believed,” as well as a good number of “prominent” Gentiles.
(Verses 13-14) “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.”
As had happened at Lystra (Acts 14:19-20 – where they stoned Paul), when the Jews who had previously persecuted Paul found out that he was somewhere else preaching the same message that made them angry, they traveled to that new place to persecute him again. How much hatred do these Jews have to have to travel such long distances just to persecute someone again??
Therefore, they sent Paul away again. The fact that Silas and Timothy remain seems to indicate that most of the anger and hatred was directed at Paul alone.
(Verse 15) “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.”
“So those who conducted him” – When the “brethren sent away Paul,” we learn here that they sent some of their own to accompany him. This was likely so that Paul was not traveling alone, since Silas and Timothy had remained behind. The journey from Berea to Athens was a long one (about 20 miles from Berea to the seacoast, and then about another 250 miles sailing to Athens), so the dedication of these men to travel so far with Paul should be noted. Once they had “conducted” Paul safely to Athens, they returned back home Berea. Paul sent a message back with them to have Silas and Timothy join him in Athens as quickly as possible.
“Athens” – (From the “MacArthur Study Bible”) – “The cultural center of Greece. At its zenith, Athens was home to the most renowned philosophers in history, including Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, who was arguably the most important philosopher of all. Two other significant philosophers taught there: Epicurus, founder of Epicureanism, and Zeno, founder of Stoicism – two of the dominant philosophies in that day.” Athens was captured by the Romans in 146 B.C., therefore, it was under Roman control at this time.
Today, Athens (named after the Greek goddess Athena) is the modern capital of Greece. Things that Paul saw in Athens are still visible today such as: the Acropolis, which is home to the Parthenon (dedicated to Athena), the Erechtheion (dedicated to Athena and Neptune), and the Propylaea (the entrance). In addition, there is: the temple of the Wingless Victory, the Temple of Zeus, the Agora (marketplace), a large theater, and more. The Athens museum is filled with remnants of the many idols they had.
(Verses 16-17)(NASB) “Now while Paul was waiting for them in Athens, his spirit was being provoked within him as he observed that the city was full of idols. (17) So he was reasoning in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be present.”
While the architecture and art of Athens was (and is) undeniably beautiful, for Paul, that beauty was negated by the fact that most of it was tied to idolatry (dedicated to false gods).
***Note: The Bible ties “idols” and “demons” together over and over: i.e. (Deut 32:17)(Lev 17:7)(Ps 106:37)(1 Cor 10:20)(Rev 9:20).
“his spirit was provoked (“stirred” – KJV) – “Provoked” comes from the Greek word “paroxuno.” “Barnes” gives this definition: “His mind was greatly excited. The word used here denotes “any excitement, agitation, or paroxysm of mind,” 1 Corinthians 13:5. It here means that the mind of Paul was greatly concerned, or agitated, doubtless with pity and distress at their folly and danger.”
Many ancient writers comment on just how many idols were found in Athens:
Petronius: (in Athens) “you will easier meet with a god than a man.”
Pausanias: “there were more images in Athens than in all Greece besides (combined).”
Livy: “(Athens) was full of the images of gods and men, adorned with every variety of material, and with all the skill of art.”
Lucian: “At Athens, on every side, there are altars, victims, temples, and festivals.”
Sophocles: “This city exceeds all others in worshipping and honouring the gods.”
Paul spent his time in Athens sharing the Gospel in two places: (1) in the synagogue, witnessing to Jews and God-fearing Gentiles (likely Jewish proselytes), (2) in the marketplace (the Agora), witnessing to anyone who would listen.
(Verse 18)(NKJV) “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.”
The Epicureans and the Stoics were the leading schools of thought in Athens at this time. Both views were founded around 300 B.C., and focused on the “senses,” with Epicureans wanting to enhance the senses, and Stoics wanting to crush the senses. Here is a brief explanation of both views taken from the “Liberty Bible Commentary.”
Epicureans – They believed in a god or gods, but the world was not made by god (it was formed by chance), nor governed by god. They also believed that body and soul died together, therefore, there was no immortality. Their primary focus was the avoidance of pain, and to live for pleasure. We might say, “Eat, drink, and be merry.”
Stoics – Like Epicureans, they believed in a god or gods, but they believed the world was created, and governed by a god. They also believed in immortality. Their primary focus was self-denial, attempting to rid themselves of all emotions (i.e. joy, grief, pain).
“Babbler” – (From the “Nelson’s NKJV Study Bible”) – “Some of the philosophers in Athens mocked Paul, calling him a “seed picker” or gutter sparrow, a small bird that snatches up scraps of food. Paul was being accused of grabbing at bits of knowledge without fully digesting or thinking through what he taught. Because Paul did not speak eloquently (1 Cor 2:1), some philosophers in Athens arrogantly ridiculed him, arguing that he was not sophisticated enough to be taken seriously. Others thought that Paul was advocating foreign gods named Jesus and Resurrection, incorrectly understood to be a male and female deity.”
(Verses 19-21) “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.)”
“Areopagus” – (meaning “hill of Ares” – the Greek god of thunder and war) The Areopagus was/is a hill in Athens made out of limestone, located between the Acropolis and the Agora, which can still be seen today. A court, much like our Supreme Court used to meet there, but in Paul’s time no longer did so. However, the court still retained that name.
The “Zondervan NIV Study Bible” adds, “Earlier the Council governed a Greek city-state, but by NT times, the Areopagus retained authority only in areas of religion and morals and met in the Royal Portico at the northwest corner of the Agora. They considered themselves the custodians of teachings that introduced new religions and foreign gods.”
Paul was not being brought before the Areopagus on any charges, but simply to explain to the court, and others what he was teaching.
Verse 21 is somewhat humorous. Putting it another way, “The Athenians constantly spent their days wanting to either tell people something new, or hear something new.” The “Believer’s Bible Commentary” says, “The Athenians loved to stand around and talk, and to listen to others. They seemed to have an unlimited amount of time for this.”
(Verses 22-23)(NKJV) “Then Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; (23) 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”
“very religious” – The Greek word used here is “deisidaimonesteros,” and Strong’s gives this definition: “more religious than others.” This person has a conceit that God is well-pleased by an overdoing in external things and observances and laws of men’s own making.” (This word is used nowhere else in the NT.)
“TO THE UNKNOWN GOD” – Again, from the “Nelson’s NKJV Study Bible,” – “In the sixth century B.C. it was said that a poet from Crete named Epimenides turned aside a horrible plague from the people of Athens by appealing to a god of whom the people had never heard. An altar was built to honor this god, whom the Athenians now called the UNKNOWN GOD.”
Paul is acknowledging several somewhat positive things about the Athenians in these two verses. What is he acknowledging? Why is this important?
Paul then used their belief in the UNKNOWN GOD as a platform to tell them that he knew the God that they did not know.
(Verses 24-25) “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”
When witnessing to the Jews, we see Paul focus on the Old Testament Scriptures, particularly ones pointing to Jesus. But here, when speaking to Gentiles, especially ones who know nothing at all about the Scriptures, or even who God is, Paul starts with things they could grasp: i.e. a God who “creates.”
***Note: The Bible tells us that God has made His presence known to all men through the testimony and light of “creation” (Rom 1:18-20)(Ps 19:1-2), and “conscience” (Rom 2:12-16).
The God they did not know “created” the world, and ALL things. This was in opposition to the “gods” (plural, not singular) they believed in. The Epicureans did not believe their “gods” created anything (everything was created by chance), and while the Stoics did believe in creation “gods,” they falsely believed that the world itself was a god.
While Paul did not reason with them from the OT Scriptures, everything he said is found in the OT.
God created all things: – (Gen 1:1)(Ps 146:5-6)(Isa 40:28)(Isa 45:18)(Jer 10:12)(Jer 32:17)
God is: “Lord of heaven and earth” – (Deut 10:14)(Gen 14:19,22)(Isa 66:1)
God does not: “dwelleth in temples made with hands” – (1 Kin 8:27)(2 Chr 6:18)(2 Chr 7:48)
God does not: “need anything” (He already owns everything) – (Ex 19:5)(Job 41:11)(Ps 50:12)(Isa 40:14-18)
God: “giveth to all life, and breath, to all things” – (Gen 2:7)(Dan 5:23)(Isa 42:5)(Job 33:4)
(Verses 26-27) “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”
Everyone in the world came from “one blood” (one man): Adam. Why is this such an important thing to know?
God has also determined exactly when each person will be on the earth (“the times before appointed”), and where they will live (“the bounds of their habitation”). Why is this also important to know?
(Verses 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.”
In this verse, Paul quotes two well-known Greek poets: “For in him we live, and move, and have our being” is from the Cretan poet Epimenides (mentioned above in verses 22-23) (sixth century B.C.), in his work Cretica. “For we are (indeed) his offspring” is from the Cilician poet Aratus (315-240 B.C.), in his work Phaenomena.
***Note: Paul also quotes poets in (1 Cor 15:33 – Menander) and (Titus 1:12 – Epimenides again).
(Verse 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.”
“offspring of God” – There is a Biblical difference between being the “offspring of God,” and a being “child of God” (a member of His family). God is responsible for creating each person, and in this sense, we are all the “offspring of God.” However, we do not become a member of God’s family until we place our faith in Jesus Christ (Gal 3:26)(Rom 8:14-17)(Jn 1:12-13). When we do this, God the Father becomes our Father, and we are “adopted” into His family (Eph 1:5-6)(Rom 8:15)(Gal 4:5-7). We cannot get to the Father (in prayer, or in Heaven) without Jesus (Jn 14:6)(1 Jn 2:2-23)(Mt 11:27)(Lk 10:22)(Heb 7:25)(1 Jn 5:22)(Acts 4:12).
In essence, what Paul is saying here is that it is ridiculous to believe that something created by a man’s hands: “gods” (“idols”), could also be the creator of all life.
***Note: For a great Biblical explanation of the foolishness of idolatry, I would like us to turn to and read (Isa 44:9-20).
Can you think of some examples of this type of idolatry today?
(Verse 30) “And the times of this ignorance God winked at (“overlooked”); but now commandeth all men every where to repent”
In the past, the Gentiles were ignorant of the truth, therefore God overlooked their ignorance, but now that the Gospel is here, He commands all men to repent (see: Rom 3:25, Acts 14:16, Lk 12:47-48).
This is one of “many” verses showing the necessity of “repentance” in salvation. (Also see: Acts 3:19, 2 Cor 7:10, Lk 13:3,5, Mt 4:17, Acts 11:18, 2 Pet 3:9).
(Verse 31)(NKJV) “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.”
The “Man whom He has ordained” to “judge the world” is speaking of Jesus Christ (Jn 5:22-27)(Acts 10:42)(Ps 96:13)(2 Cor 5:10)(1 Pet 4:5). This will occur at Christ’s Second Coming (Mt 25:31-46)(Rev 20:11-15).
We have assurance that this will happen because Christ was “raised from the dead” (Rom 1:4)(Acts 13:29-33)(1 Cor 15:12-19)(Rom 10:9).
(Verses 32-34)(NASB) “Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some began to scoff, but others said, “We shall hear from you again concerning this.” (33) So Paul went out from among them. (34) But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.
(From the “Nelson’s NKJV Study Bible”) – “Paul’s reference to the resurrection of the dead ignited a reaction among the Athenians. The Greeks repudiated the idea of a bodily resurrection. Though they embraced the concept of the soul living forever, they were repulsed by the idea of a bodily resurrection because they considered the body to be evil, something to be discarded. This idea, known as dualism, was derived from the teachings of the Greek philosophers Socrates and Plato. It held that everything physical is evil and everything spiritual is good, and that it makes no difference what one does with one’s body so long as the spirit is good. Tragically, the Athenians’ adherence to this philosophy blinded them to the truth of the gospel.”
These 3 verses show us 3 of the primary reactions we will face when we share the Gospel:
1. People will “scoff,” or refuse it.
2. People will be interested, but not want to make a commitment yet.
3. People will “believe” it, and “join” us as believers.
An “Aeropagite” means that Dionysius would have been a member of the “Supreme Court” that we mentioned in verse 19. We know nothing about “Damaris,” but it is interesting that we are given her name (along with Dionysius), but not the names of anyone else.
Athens was perhaps the least successful mission field that Paul ever went to. He left with few converts, no church left behind, he later wrote no letter to them, and there is no evidence that he ever returned. It is also interesting to note that he faced no persecution there.
***Note: Several sources mention that there is tradition which says that Dionysius was made a “bishop” over Athens by Paul, but this cannot be proven.
Lesson: Even when only a “few” are converted in our mission field, our efforts are not wasted, and “the angels in Heaven rejoice over one sinner who repents” (Lk 15:10). There is NOTHING better than seeing a life saved from Hell, and changed for ETERNITY! And, what a privilege it is that God uses us in a small way to win souls (1 Cor 9:22-23)(Prov 11:30)(1 Cor 7:16)(Prov 14:25)(Rom 11:13-14)(Jude 1:22-23)(Prov 23:14)(Ezek 33:8-9)!