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David Guzik :: Study Guide for Acts 17

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Paul in Thessalonica, Berea, and Athens

A. God's work in Thessalonica.

1. (Act 17:1-4) Paul finds more ministry success in the city of Thessalonica.

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. As his custom was, Paul first went to the synagogue, and preached Jesus crucified and risen again to the Jews (explaining and demonstrating that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead). He also explained that Jesus was the Messiah ("This Jesus whom I preach to you is the Christ.")

b. In response, some of them were persuaded; most of them were devout Greeks, but also many prominent Jewish women (not a few of the leading women).

i. By all accounts, the work was a success, a great multitude believed. We can be sure that this work was bathed in prayer, and God was leading Paul to open, prepared hearts in his evangelistic work.

c. 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. (Act 17:5-9) Envious Jews instigate a mob to riot 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. So when they had taken security from Jason and the rest, they let them go.

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 in Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:45, 50), Iconium (Acts 14:2, 5), and Lystra (Acts 14:19) on the first missionary journey, here also Paul is opposed by a mob incited by envious people among the Jews.

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." God willing and blessing, people would say such things about the effectiveness of Christians today!

i. Jesus did not come only to be our teacher, but to turn our world upside-down. The powerful and the eminent of this world are at the top of the power pyramid and look down on the weak and insignificant; but Jesus comes and turns that pyramid around and says, "If you want to come to Me, you have to come like a little child." As Paul says, God has chosen the foolish and weak things of the world to confound the wise (1 Corinthians 1:27), and so God turns the world's power-pyramid upside down.

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 would 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 get his life right with God. (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. The evil men from the marketplace made an even more serious accusation: "these are all acting contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying there is another king; Jesus." This troubled the crowd and the rulers of the city when they heard these things, because this raised the fear that their city might become a hotbed of political rebellion against Caesar.

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 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. Why is it that all too many churchgoers miss this message 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)

e. 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. Basically, the Roman magistrates did not care what you believed. But 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 instigate the riot.

B. God's work in Berea.

1. (Act 17:10-12) More evangelistic success in the city of Berea.

Then the brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to 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. Then the brethren immediately set Paul and Silas away by night to Berea: Paul and Silas flee Thessalonica quickly, not wanting to bring more persecution on the Christians there or to jeopardize Jason's security deposit.

i. After they had left suddenly after spending only a few weeks in Thessalonica (Acts 17:2), Paul felt he had so much more to say to these Christians, so he wrote the letter of 1 Thessalonians. Many feel 1 Thessalonians was Paul's "first" letter.

b. When they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews: In Berea, they follow 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 were taught by 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 word at face value, but wanted to know if these things were so. When they 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? Is this man teaching us the truth? Let's search the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things are so."

ii. Their research was not casual. 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.

iii. 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 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.

iv. We should be more fair-minded than the Bereans. We should receive the word with all readiness, with open hearts. But we must also have clear heads, and when we hear a preacher, be those who search the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things [are] so. If the great apostle Paul was worthy of this kind of close examination, how much more should teachers and preachers today be carefully compared with the Scriptures!

c. 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. (Act 17:13-15) 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. The Jews from Thessalonica were not satisfied to force Paul out of their own city. They even followed Paul to Berea to disrupt his work there also.

b. These troublemakers stirred up the crowds against Paul, just as had been done before in Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:45, 50), Iconium (Acts 14:2, 5), and Lystra (Acts 14:19) on the first missionary journey, and in Thessalonica (Acts 17:5-8) on the second missionary journey. This is now the fifth city Paul has been 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 take care of new Christians in Berea.

i. Why didn't they all go? Because Paul had a passion for planting churches, not just making converts. If Paul could not stay in the city and strengthen the Christians there, he wanted his trusted associates to stay and do the job.

C. God's work in Athens.

1. (Act 17:16-17) 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 earnest in Athens. But when he saw that the city was given over to idols, he was compelled to preach the gospel immediately.

i. Paul had probably never been to Athens before, and like any tourist, he was ready to be very impressed by this incredibly famous and historical city. But when Paul toured the city, he was only depressed by the incredible idolatry he saw all around him.

ii. The idea behind given over to idols (kateidolos) is really under idols, or swamped by idols. So 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. 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 in England. 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. (Act 17:18-21) The novelty 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 derided Paul because he did not communicate 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. However, the essence of Paul's message did not change in Athens. They all understood that he preached to them 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 lusted after the latest, just like we today.

i. In the early nineteenth century, Adam Clarke described the situation of his day, and it sounds like it is even more true 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. (Act 17:22-31) Paul's sermon 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: 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. 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. Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious: Paul does not begin with an exposition of Scripture, which was his custom when dealing with Jews or Gentiles who would be familiar with the Old Testament. Instead, Paul begins with general references to religion.

b. In all things you are very religious: The religious character of Athens was noticed by many ancient observers, some of whom thought that Athenians were the most religious of all human beings. But when Paul says this of the Athenians, he doesn't necessarily mean it in a positive way. Religion can lead a man 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 will now reveal to them 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 would sacrifice that sheep to the god that had the nearest shrine or temple. If a sheep lay down near no shrine or temple, they would sacrifice the sheep TO THE UNKNOWN GOD.

d. God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth: Paul proclaims to them the God who created everything, yet He is distinct from His creation. Paul proclaimed 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 bringing an understanding of who God is to these people, 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 who God is according to what He tells us about Himself in the Bible

e. And He has made from one blood every nation of men: Paul proclaimed that we are all descended from Adam through Noah, and that there is one God who created us all and we are all obligated to. Since God created us all, we should seek the Lord … though He is not far from each one of us.

f. For in Him we live and move and have our being … For we are also His offspring: These two quotations Paul uses from Greek poets are attributed to Epimenides the Cretan [600 BC] (who Paul quotes again in Titus 1:12) and Aratus [310 BC].

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.

g. 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 proclaimed 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)

h. Now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness: Paul progresses 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 wasn't preaching a "soft" gospel. He boldly confronted the wrong ideas the Athenians had about God, and confronted them with the reality of coming judgment.

i. He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man who He has ordained: Now, for the first time, Paul refers to Jesus. His first mention of Jesus considers 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 will be stopped short before he can tell them everything he wants to about Jesus. Probably, all that Paul said before was introduction; now he gets to what he wanted to speak about: The person and work of Jesus.

j. He has given assurance of this by raising Him from the dead: The emphasis on the resurrection is important. Paul sees the resurrection of Jesus as the assurance of this; it demonstrates that the person, teaching, and work of Jesus were all perfectly approved by the Father.

i. Paul seemed unable to preach a sermon without bringing in the resurrection of Jesus. For him, none of the Christian life made sense without the triumph of Jesus' resurrection.

4. (Act 17:32-34) 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 concept 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 heart 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."

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. 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, the 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 belive. Among those believing were a man named Dionysius (who must have been a member of the "court" of the Areopagus) and a woman named Damaris.

5. Assessing Paul's sermon on the Areopagus.

a. Some have criticized this sermon 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.

i. The idea continues 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, he saw much better results.

ii. 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.

b. But Paul's sermon here is 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)

c. As well, Paul did preach Christ crucified in Athens. In Acts 17:30-31 he specifically mentions 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.

i. "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)

d. In addition, it is dangerous to judge the content of the message by the magnitude of the response.

i. "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)

© 2006 David Guzik - No distribution beyond personal use without permission

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