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Bible Commentaries

F. B. Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary

Acts 17



Verses 1-34

LUKE GIVES US no details as to what transpired in Amphipolis and Apollonia, but passes on to the happenings in Thessalonica. In this chapter, we notice, the pronoun “we” is not used, so possibly Luke, not being as much involved as Paul and Silas were in the disturbances at Philippi, stayed on there to help the converts further.

Paul first addressed the Jews in their synagogue, as was his custom. Verse Acts 17:3 gives us the line on which he approached them. He proved from their own Scriptures that the Messiah, when He came, must suffer death and rise from the dead. This established, it was simple to point to Jesus as unquestionably being the Messiah. So in one verse we are given the whole thing in a nut-shell. However long the discourses lasted, the whole point is summed up in these few words, and they stand as guidance for all who would approach the Jew today. Not all believed, but some did, and also many Greek proselytes, and some of the chief women.

At Philippi the riotous proceedings originated with disappointed, moneymaking Gentiles; at Thessalonica unbelieving Jews were at the bottom of even worse opposition and disorder. In stigmatizing Paul and Silas as, “These that have turned the world upside down,” they rendered involuntary tribute to the mighty power of the Gospel, preached with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven. They might oppose, but they could not stop its advance.

Paul’s service in Thessalonica was cut short by this riot, for he served in the spirit of the Lord’s instruction recorded in Matthew 10:23. Hence a move was now made to Berea, where the Jews showed a very different spirit. They had an openness of mind, that is characterized as “more noble,” and when Paul showed them what the Scriptures had foretold, they searched them diligently, and thereby many believed. A mind that is ready and free from prejudice, and that gladly bows to Scripture, is indeed a noble thing.

Such hostility to the Word of God marked the Thessalonian Jews however that they pursued Paul to Berea, and in the face of further trouble, Paul slipped away to Athens, outwitting his pursuers by a simple ruse. Silas and Timothy remained at Berea, for evidently the animosity was now specially directed against Paul. Hence it came to pass that in his visit to Athens, the great centre of Greek culture and wisdom, Paul was solitary and alone, as far as his service was concerned.

Athens was the great centre of Greek learning and philosophy; it was also full of idols. The highest human culture and the grossest idolatry can exist quite amicably side by side. Into the midst of this state of things Paul stepped, and the sight of it painfully excited his spirit. Though still without his companions he could not rest in the presence of it, and so began to testify to both Jews and Gentiles. In this way certain philosophers had their attention drawn to him, and these men, though belonging to opposing schools and treating him with contempt, had their curiosity sufficiently aroused to desire to hear more. Thus it came to pass that the opportunity was given to him to speak before an assemblage of the most cultured intellects of that time.

We are given a glimpse, in verses Acts 17:18-21, of the conditions that prevailed in Athens. There was immense mental activity, and an insatiable enquiry into new ideas. They spent their time either in telling or hearing “some new thing;” not, of course, just gossip or little-tattle but the newest philosophic notions. Hence Paul’s preaching of “Jesus and the resurrection” struck them as a great novelty connected with some deities to which hitherto they had been strangers. The Epicureans believed that the highest good was to be found in gratifying one’s desires, and the Stoics that it was in repressing them, but what were these new ideas?

Paul opened his address on Mars’ hill by telling them that they were too “superstitious” or “given up to demon worship.” Amongst their many shrines they even had an altar dedicated to “The unknown god,” lest there should be some demon, unknown to them, that needed to be propitiated. He seized upon this and made it the theme of his discourse, for it was perfectly true that the living God was utterly unknown to them. Paul announced to them the God that they knew not; and if we examine the brief report of his discourse we can see how he set God before them. As regards the things of God these cultured Athenians were simply pagans; so here we are instructed how the Gospel should be presented to the heathen.

Paul began by presenting Him as the God of creation. This lies at the foundation of everything. If we do not know Him thus, we do not know Him at all. That is why the evolutionary theory works so disastrously. Its chief attraction to so many is that it enables one to dispense with God altogether, or at least to push Him so far into a remote background as to make Him not worth thinking about. Paul brought Him right into the forefront of the picture he presented, He not only made the world but all things in it. He cannot be contained in men’s buildings, nor worshipped as though He needed anything from men’s hands. He is Himself the Giver of Life and all things. All men are His creatures, made of one blood, and their times and boundaries determined by Him.

There had remained some glimmerings of light as to this amongst them, and Paul was able to quote some of their own poets as having spoken of mankind as being the offspring of God. In this they were right. Only by faith in Christ Jesus do we become children of God, but all men are His offspring as His creatures. This being so we ought not to conceive of God as something less than ourselves or as the work of our own hands; and we should be those who seek after Him. His immanence is recognized in the words that “In Him we live, and move, and have our being;” yet Paul preached Him as the transcendent One, who is Lord of heaven and earth.

But this God of creation is also a God of forbearance. Men had not liked to retain God in their knowledge, and so the nations had fallen into ignorance of God. For some centuries the Athenians had been priding themselves on their culture and learning, yet all through they had been in “the times of this ignorance,”—this ignorance of God—and Paul told them so plainly. Yet God had “winked at,” or “overlooked” this ignorance, acting in forbearance, in view of that which He was going to do through Christ.

But now Christ is come, and God proclaims Himself as a God of righteous judgment. He has appointed the day when He will take up the reins of government by the Man of His choice, and the whole earth shall be judged and administered in righteousness. In view of this repentance is the only seemly thing for unrighteous men wherever they may be. It is the only right thing, and God commands it.

The pledge of the coming of this day of righteous judgment has been given in the resurrection of the Man of God’s choice. Thus finally Paul set God forth as the God of resurrection. Something entirely outside all human calculations had taken place. Jesus had been raised from the death into which man consigned Him! Paul started his work in Athens by announcing Jesus and the resurrection amongst the workers in the market place; he ended on the same theme when speaking to the thinkers on Mars’ hill.

Their busy brains were revolving in man’s world, and hence resurrection lay right outside their field of view. To many of them it seemed an absurdity, and they mocked. Others manifested some interest yet deferred further consideration, as seeing no urgency in the matter. Some however believed, both men and women, and these threw in their lot with Paul. These three classes usually appear when the Gospel reaches any given place: there are the mockers, the procrastinators and the believers.

Paul’s stay in Athens was a short one: he did not wait longer there for his companions but went on to Corinth. So it is probable that those who said, “We will hear thee again of this matter,” had no opportunity of doing so.


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Bibliography Information
Hole, Frank Binford. "Commentary on Acts 17:4". "F. B. Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary". 1947.

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