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Jamieson, Fausset & Brown :: Commentary on Acts 17

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The Acts of the Apostles

Commentary by DAVID BROWN

CHAPTER 17

Act 17:1-15. AT THESSALONICA THE SUCCESS OF PAUL'S PREACHING ENDANGERING HIS LIFE, HE IS DESPATCHED BY NIGHT TO BEREA, WHERE HIS MESSAGE MEETS WITH ENLIGHTENED ACCEPTANCE--A HOSTILE MOVEMENT FROM THESSALONICA OCCASIONS HIS SUDDEN DEPARTURE FROM BEREA--HE ARRIVES AT ATHENS.

      1. when they had passed through Amphipolis--thirty-three miles southwest of Philippi, on the river Strymon, and at the head of the gulf of that name, on the northern coast of the AEgean Sea.
      and Apollonia--about thirty miles southwest of Amphipolis; but the exact site is not known.
      they came to Thessalonica--about thirty-seven miles due west from Apollonia, at the head of the Thermaic (or Thessalonian) Gulf, at the northwestern extremity of the AEgean Sea; the principal and most populous city in Macedonia. "We see at once how appropriate a place it was for one of the starting-points of the Gospel in Europe, and can appreciate the force of what Paul said to the Thessalonians within a few months of his departure from them: "From you, the word of the Lord sounded forth like a trumpet, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place,"" ( 1Th 1:8 ) [HOWSON].
      where was a synagogue of the Jews--implying that (as at Philippi) there was none at Amphipolis and Apollonia.

      2-4. Paul, as his manner was--always to begin with the Jews.
      went in unto them--In writing to the converts but a few months after this, he reminds them of the courage and superiority to indignity, for the Gospel's sake, which this required after the shameful treatment he had so lately experienced at Philippi ( 1Th 2:2 ).

      3. Opening and alleging that Christ must needs have suffered, &c.--His preaching, it seems, was chiefly expository, and designed to establish from the Old Testament Scriptures (1) that the predicted Messiah was to be a suffering and dying, and therefore a rising, Messiah; (2) that this Messiah was none other than Jesus of Nazareth.

      4. consorted--cast in their lot.
      with Paul and Silas--Compare 2Cr 8:5.
      of the chief women--female proselytes of distinction. From the First Epistle to the Thessalonians it appears that the converts were nearly all Gentiles; not only such as had before been proselytes, who would be gained in the synagogue, but such as up to that time had been idolaters ( 1Th 1:9, 10 ). During his stay, while Paul supported himself by his own labor ( 1Th 2:9 2Th 3:7-9 ), he received supplies once and again from the Philippians, of which he makes honorable acknowledgment ( Phl 4:15, 16 ).

      5-9. the Jews. . . moved with envy--seeing their influence undermined by this stranger.
      lewd fellows of the baser sort--better, perhaps, "worthless market people," that is, idle loungers about the market-place, of indifferent character.
      gathered a company--rather, "having raised a mob."
      assaulted the house of Jason--with whom Paul and Silas abode ( Act 17:7 ), one of Paul's kinsmen, apparently ( Rom 16:21 ), and from his name, which was sometimes used as a Greek form of the word Joshua [GROTIUS], probably a Hellenistic Jew.
      sought to bring them--Jason's lodgers.

      6. And when they found them not, they drew Jason and certain brethren unto the rulers--literally, "the politarchs"; the very name given to the magistrates of Thessalonica in an inscription on a still remaining arch of the city--so minute is the accuracy of this history.
      crying, These that have turned the world upside down--(See on JF & B for Ac 16:20).

      7. all do contrary to the decrees of Caesar, &c.--meaning, probably, nothing but what is specified in the next words.
      saying. . . there is another king, one Jesus--(See on JF & B for Joh 19:12).

      9. And when they had taken security of Jason and of the other--"the others"--probably making them deposit a money pledge that the preachers should not again endanger the public peace.

      10-12. the brethren immediately sent away Paul and Silas by night--for it would have been as useless as rash to attempt any further preaching at that time, and the conviction of this probably made his friends the more willing to pledge themselves against any present continuance of missionary effort.
      unto Berea--fifty or sixty miles southwest of Thessalonica; a town even still of considerable population and importance.

      11. These were more noble than those in Thessalonica--The comparison is between the Jews of the two places; for the triumphs of the Gospel at Thessalonica were mostly among the Gentiles. See on JF & B for Ac 17:2-4.
      in that they received the word with all readiness of mind--heard it not only without prejudice, but with eager interest, "in an honest and good heart" ( Luk 8:17 ), with sincere desire to be taught aright (see Jhn 7:17 ). Mark the "nobility" ascribed to this state of mind.
      searched the scriptures daily whether those things were so--whether the Christian interpretation which the apostle put upon the Old Testament Scriptures was the true one.

      12. Therefore many of them believed--convinced that Jesus of Nazareth whom Paul preached was indeed the great Promise and Burden of the Old Testament. From this it is undeniable, (1) that the people, no less than the ministers of the Church, are entitled and bound to search the Scriptures; (2) that they are entitled and bound to judge, on their own responsibility, whether the teaching they receive from the ministers of the Church is according to the word of God; (3) that no faith but such as results from personal conviction ought to be demanded, or is of any avail.
      of honourable women which were Greeks, and of men--which were Greeks.
      not a few--"The upper classes in these European-Greek and Romanized towns were probably better educated than those of Asia Minor" [WEBSTER and WILKINSON].

      13. the Jews of Thessalonica. . . came thither also--"like hunters upon their prey, as they had done before from Iconium to Lystra" [HOWSON].

      14. immediately the brethren--the converts gathered at Berea.
      sent away Paul--as before from Jerusalem ( Act 9:30 ), and from Thessalonica ( Act 17:10 ). How long he stayed at Berea we know not; but as we know that he longed and expected soon to return to the Thessalonians ( 1Th 2:17 ), it is probable he remained some weeks at least, and only abandoned his intention of revisiting Thessalonica at that time when the virulence of his enemies there, stimulated by his success at Berea, brought them down thither to counterwork him.
      to go as it were to the sea--rather, perhaps, "in the direction of the sea." Probably he delayed fixing his next destination till he should reach the coast, and the providence of God should guide him to a vessel bound for the destined spot. Accordingly, it was only on arriving at Athens, that the convoy of Berean brethren, who had gone thus far with him, were sent back to bid Silas and Timothy follow him thither.
      Silas and Timotheus abode there still--"to build it up in its holy faith, to be a comfort and support in its trials and persecutions, and to give it such organization as might be necessary" [HOWSON]. Connecting this with the apostle's leaving Timothy and Luke at Philippi on his own departure (see on JF & B for Ac 16:40), we may conclude that this was his fixed plan for cherishing the first beginning of the Gospel in European localities, and organizing the converts. Timotheus must have soon followed the apostle to Thessalonica, the bearer, probably, of one of the Philippian "contributions to his necessity" ( Phl 4:15, 16 ), and from thence he would with Silas accompany him to Berea.

      15. Silas and Timotheus to come to him with all speed--He probably wished their company and aid in addressing himself to so new and great a sphere as Athens. Accordingly it is added that he "waited for them" there, as if unwilling to do anything till they came. That they did come, there is no good reason to doubt (as some excellent critics do). For though Paul himself says to the Thessalonians that he "thought it good to be left at Athens alone" ( 1Th 3:1 ), he immediately adds that he "sent Timotheus to establish and comfort them" ( Act 17:2 ); meaning, surely, that he despatched him from Athens back to Thessalonica. He had indeed sent for him to Athens; but, probably, when it appeared that little fruit was to be reaped there, while Thessalonica was in too interesting a state to be left uncherished, he seems to have thought it better to send him back again. (The other explanations which have been suggested seem less satisfactory). Timotheus rejoined the apostle at Corinth ( Act 18:5 ).

      Act 17:16-34. PAUL AT ATHENS.

      16, 17. wholly given to idolatry--"covered with idols"; meaning the city, not the inhabitants. Petronius, a contemporary writer at Nero's court, says satirically that it was easier to find a god at Athens than a man. This "stirred the spirit" of the apostle. "The first impression which the masterpieces of man's taste for art left on the mind of St. Paul was a revolting one, since all this majesty and beauty had placed itself between man and his Creator, and bound him the faster to his gods, who were not God. Upon the first contact, therefore, which the Spirit of Christ came into with the sublimest creations of human art, the judgment of the Holy Ghost--through which they have all to pass--is set up as "the strait gate," and this must remain the correct standard for ever" [BAUMGARTEN].

      17. Therefore disputed--or, discussed.
      he in the synagogue with the Jews--The sense is not, "Therefore went he to the Jews," because the Gentile Athenians were steeped in idolatry; but, "Therefore set he himself to lift up his voice to the idol city, but, as his manner was, he began with the Jews."
      and with the devout persons--Gentile proselytes. After that,
      in the market--the Agora, or place of public concourse.
      daily with them that met with him--or "came in his way."

      18-21. certain. . . of the Epicureans--a well-known school of atheistic materialists, who taught that pleasure was the chief end of human existence; a principle which the more rational interpreted in a refined sense, while the sensual explained it in its coarser meaning.
      and of the Stoics--a celebrated school of severe and lofty pantheists, whose principle was that the universe was under the law of an iron necessity, the spirit of which was what is called the Deity: and that a passionless conformity of the human will to this law, unmoved by all external circumstances and changes, is the perfection of virtue. While therefore the Stoical was in itself superior to the Epicurean system, both were alike hostile to the Gospel. "The two enemies it has ever had to contend with are the two ruling principles of the Epicureans and Stoics--Pleasure and Pride" [HOWSON].
      What will this babbler say?--The word, which means "a picker-up of seeds," bird-like, is applied to a gatherer and retailer of scraps of knowledge, a prater; a general term of contempt for any pretended teacher.
      a setter forth of strange gods--"demons," but in the Greek (not Jewish) sense of "objects of worship."
      because he preached Jesus and the resurrection--Not as if they thought he made these to be two divinities: the strange gods were Jehovah and the Risen Saviour, ordained to judge the world.

      19. they took him, and brought him to Areopagus--"the hill where the most awful court of judicature had sat from time immemorial to pass sentence on the greatest criminals, and to decide on the most solemn questions connected with religion. No place in Athens was so suitable for a discourse on the mysteries of religion" [HOWSON]. The apostle, however, was not here on his trial, but to expound more fully what he had thrown out in broken conversations in the Agora.

      21. all the Athenians. . . spent their time in nothing else but to tell or hear some new thing--literally, "newer thing," as if what was new becoming presently stale, they craved something still more new [BENGEL]. This lively description of the Athenian character is abundantly attested by their own writers.

      22. Then Paul stood. . . and said--more graphically, "standing in the midst of Mars' hill, said." This prefatory allusion to the position he occupied shows the writer's wish to bring the situation vividly before us [BAUMGARTEN].
      I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious--rather (with most modern interpreters and the ancient Greek ones), "in all respects extremely reverential" or "much given to religious worship," a conciliatory and commendatory introduction, founded on his own observation of the symbols of devotion with which their city was covered, and from which all Greek writers, as well as the apostle, inferred the exemplary religiousness of the Athenians. (The authorized translation would imply that only too much superstition was wrong, and represents the apostle as repelling his hearers in the very first sentence; whereas the whole discourse is studiously courteous).

      23. as I passed by and beheld your devotions--rather, "the objects of your devotion," referring, as is plain from the next words, to their works of art consecrated to religion.
      I found an altar. . . To the--or, "an"
      unknown god--erected, probably, to commemorate some divine interposition, which they were unable to ascribe to any known deity. That there were such altars, Greek writers attest; and on this the apostle skilfully fastens at the outset, as the text of his discourse, taking it as evidence of that dimness of religious conception which, in virtue of his better light, he was prepared to dissipate.
      Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship--rather, "Whom, therefore, knowing Him not, ye worship," alluding to "The Unknown God."
      him declare--announce.
      I unto you--This is like none of his previous discourses, save that to the idolaters of Lycaonia ( Act 14:15-17 ). His subject is not, as in the synagogues, the Messiahship of Jesus, but THE LIVING GOD, in opposition to the materialistic and pantheistic polytheism of Greece, which subverted all true religion. Nor does he come with speculation on this profound subject--of which they had had enough from others--but an authoritative "announcement" of Him after whom they were groping not giving Him any name, however, nor even naming the Saviour Himself but unfolding the true character of both as they were able to receive it.

      24, 25. God that made the world and all. . . therein--The most profound philosophers of Greece were unable to conceive any real distinction between God and the universe. Thick darkness, therefore, behooved to rest on all their religious conceptions. To dissipate this, the apostle sets out with a sharp statement of the fact of creation as the central principle of all true religion--not less needed now, against the transcendental idealism of our day.
      seeing he is Lord--or Sovereign.
      of heaven and earth--holding in free and absolute subjection all the works of His hands; presiding in august royalty over them, as well as pervading them all as the principle of their being. How different this from the blind Force or Fate to which all creatures were regarded as in bondage!
      dwelleth not in temples made with hands--This thought, so familiar to Jewish ears ( 1Ki 8:27 Isa 66:1, 2 Act 7:48 ), and so elementary to Christians, would serve only more sharply to define to his heathen audience the spirituality of that living, personal God, whom he "announced" to them.

      25. Neither is worshipped with--ministered unto, served by
      men's hands, as though he needed anything--No less familiar as this thought also is to us, even from the earliest times of the Old Testament ( Job 35:6, 8 Psa 16:2, 3 50:12-14 Isa 40:14-18 ), it would pour a flood of light upon any candid heathen mind that heard it.
      seeing he--He Himself.
      giveth to all life, and breath, and all things--The Giver of all cannot surely be dependent for aught upon the receivers of all ( 1Ch 29:14 ). This is the culminating point of a pure Theism.

      26, 27. and hath made of one blood all nations of men to dwell on all the face of the earth--Holding with the Old Testament teaching, that in the blood is the life ( Gen 9:4 Lev 17:11 Deu 12:23 ), the apostle sees this life stream of the whole human race to be one, flowing from one source [BAUMGARTEN].
      and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation--The apostle here opposes both Stoical Fate and Epicurean Chance, ascribing the periods and localities in which men and nations flourish to the sovereign will and prearrangements of a living God.

      27. That they should seek the Lord--That is the high end of all these arrangements of Divine Power, Wisdom, and Love.
      if haply they might feel after him--as men groping their way in the dark.
      and find him--a lively picture of the murky atmosphere of Natural Religion.
      though he be not far from every one of us--The difficulty of finding God outside the pale of revealed religion lies not in His distance from us, but in our distance from Him through the blinding effect of sin.

      28. For in him we live, and move, and have our being--(or, more briefly, "exist").--This means, not merely, "Without Him we have no life, nor that motion which every inanimate nature displays, nor even existence itself" [MEYER], but that God is the living, immanent Principle of all these in men.
      as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring--the first half of the fifth line, word for word, of an astronomical poem of Aratus, a Greek countryman of the apostle, and his predecessor by about three centuries. But, as he hints, the same sentiment is to be found in other Greek poets. They meant it doubtless in a pantheistic sense; but the truth which it expresses the apostle turns to his own purpose--to teach a pure, personal, spiritual Theism. (Probably during his quiet retreat at Tarsus. Act 9:30, revolving his special vocation to the Gentiles he gave himself to the study of so much Greek literature as might be turned to Christian account in his future work. Hence this and his other quotations from the Greek poets, 1Cr 15:33 Tts 1:12 ).

      29. Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think--The courtesy of this language is worthy of notice.
      that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man's device--("graven by the art or device of man"). One can hardly doubt that the apostle would here point to those matchless monuments of the plastic art, in gold and silver and costliest stone, which lay so profusely beneath and around him. The more intelligent pagan Greeks no more pretended that these sculptured gods and goddesses were real deities, or even their actual likenesses, than Romanist Christians do their images; and Paul doubtless knew this; yet here we find him condemning all such efforts visibly to represent the invisible God. How shamefully inexcusable then are the Greek and Roman churches in paganizing the worship of the Christian Church by the encouragement of pictures and images in religious service! (In the eighth century, the second council of Nicea decreed that the image of God was as proper an object of worship as God Himself).

      30. the times of this ignorance God winked at--literally (and far better), "overlooked," that is, bore with, without interposing to punish it, otherwise than suffering the debasing tendency of such worship to develop itself (compare Act 14:16, and see on JF & B for Ro 1:24, &c.).
      but now--that a new light was risen upon the world.
      commandeth--"That duty--all along lying upon man estranged from his Creator, but hitherto only silently recommending itself and little felt--is now peremptory."
      all men every where to repent--(compare Col 1:6, 23 Tts 1:11 ) --a tacit allusion to the narrow precincts of favored Judaism, within which immediate and entire repentance was ever urged. The word "repentance" is here used (as in Luk 13:3, 5 15:10 ) in its most comprehensive sense of "repentance unto life."

      31. Because he hath appointed a day in the which he will judge the world--Such language beyond doubt teaches that the judgment will, in its essence, be a solemn judicial assize held upon all mankind at once. "Aptly is this uttered on the Areopagus, the seat of judgment" [BENGEL].
      by that man whom he hath ordained--compare Jhn 5:22, 23, 27 Act 10:42.
      whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead--the most patent evidence to mankind at large of the judicial authority with which the Risen One is clothed.

      32-34. when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked--As the Greek religion was but the glorification of the present life, by the worship of all its most beauteous forms, the Resurrection, which presupposes the vanity of the present life, and is nothing but life out of the death of all that sin has blighted, could have no charm for the true Greek. It gave the death blow to his fundamental and most cherished ideas; nor until these were seen to be false and fatal could the Resurrection, and the Gospel of which it was a primary doctrine, seem otherwise than ridiculous.
      others said, We will hear thee again of this--"an idle compliment to Paul and an opiate to their consciences, such as we often meet with in our own day. They probably, like Felix, feared to hear more, lest they should be constrained to believe unwelcome truths" ( Act 24:25; and compare Mat 13:15 ) [WEBSTER and WILKINSON].

      33. So Paul departed--Whether he would have opened, to any extent, the Gospel scheme in this address, if he had not been interrupted, or whether he reserved this for exposition afterwards to earnest inquirers, we cannot tell. Only the speech is not to be judged of as quite complete.

      34. Howbeit certain men clave unto him--Instead of mocking or politely waiving the subject, having listened eagerly, they joined themselves to the apostle for further instruction; and so they "believed."
      Dionysius the Areopagite--a member of that august tribunal. Ancient tradition says he was placed by the apostle over the little flock at Athens. "Certainly the number of converts there and of men fit for office in the Church was not so great that there could be much choice" [OLSHAUSEN].
      a woman named Damaris--not certainly one of the apostle's audience on the Areopagus, but won to the faith either before or after. Nothing else is known of her. Of any further labors of the apostle at Athens, and how long he stayed, we are not informed. Certainly he was not driven away. But "it is a serious and instructive fact that the mercantile populations of Thessalonica and Corinth received the message of God with greater readiness than the highly educated and polished Athenians. Two letters to the Thessalonians, and two to the Corinthians, remain to attest the flourishing state of those churches. But we possess no letter written by Paul to the Athenians; and we do not read that he was ever in Athens again" [HOWSON].

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