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Bible Commentaries

Gary H. Everett's Study Notes on the Holy Scriptures

Acts 17

 

 

Verses 1-9

Paul in Thessalonica - Acts 17:1-9 gives us the account of Paul's ministry at Thessalonica. We must understand that this was a free city, which meant that there were no Roman soldiers stationed there. Therefore, it was autonomous in all of its internal affairs. Song of Solomon , when we read about the trouble that Paul encountered in this city, we must understand that there was no official tribunal that he was taken before, as was done when he appeared before Gallio, the Roman deputy of Achaia who was seated in Corinth, or when he appeared before Felix and Festus, the Roman governors over Judea who were seated in Caesarea Philippi. This trouble in Thessalonica was rather disorganized and haphazard. Nevertheless, Paul was advised to leave the city in order to promote peace.

The "We" Passages in Acts - At this point in Acts 17:1 the "we" sections discontinue. We do not find them again until Paul returns to the city in Acts 20:5-6. For this reason scholars suggest that Paul left Luke behind in Philippi to tend this young flock in his absence. Luke the Gentile would have been the perfect candidate out of the three, with Silas being a Jew by birth and Timothy being half Jew. This is because the city of Philippi was a Roman colony and a military outpost with little tolerance for ethnic groups. This is why it did not have an established synagogue in the city.

Acts 20:5-6, "These going before tarried for us at Troas. And we sailed away from Philippi after the days of unleavened bread, and came unto them to Troas in five days; where we abode seven days."

Acts 17:1 Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where was a synagogue of the Jews:

Acts 17:1 — "Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia" - Comments- Paul's decision to pass by the cities of Amphipolis and Appollonia could have been occasioned by a number of reasons. He could have been following the leadership of the Holy Spirit by visions or divine gifts of utterance. Or, he may have had predetermined requirements of the cities that he settled in to minister, such as a Jewish synagogue, or an economy strong enough to support his trade as a tent maker.

Acts 17:1Comments- Marcus N. Tod says Paul was traveling along the Via Egnatia, the great Roman road leading from the coast of the Adriatic to the river Hebrus (Maritza), one of the main military and commercial highways of the empire. 219] After passing through Amphipolis, one had to travel thirty Roman miles to reach Apollonia and an additional thirty-eight Roman miles to reach Thessalonica. Thus, Paul and his companions travelled several days to reach each city.

219] Marcus N. Tod, "Amphipolis," in International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, ed. James Orr (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, c 1915, 1939), in The Sword Project, v 1511 [CD-ROM] (Temple, AZ: CrossWire Bible Society, 1990-2008).

Acts 17:2 And Paul, as his manner was, went in unto them, and three sabbath days reasoned with them out of the scriptures,

Acts 17:2 — "as his manner was" - Comments- Why did Paul always start his ministry in a new city by going to the synagogue? It was because the Gospel was to the Jews first.

Romans 1:16, "For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek."

Acts 13:46, "Then Paul and Barnabas waxed bold, and said, It was necessary that the word of God should first have been spoken to you: but seeing ye put it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, lo, we turn to the Gentiles."

The following verses in the book of Acts illustrate how often Paul followed this pattern of evangelism:

Acts 13:14 - On first journey, Paul went to Synagogue in Antioch in Pisidia.

Acts 14:1 - On first journey, Paul went to synagogue in Iconium.

Acts 16:12-13 - In Philippi, a Roman Colony, no synagogue is mentioned.

Acts 18:4 - Paul in Corinth in a synagogue.

Acts 19:8 - Paul in Ephesus in a synagogue.

Acts 13:5 - Paul in a synagogue in Salamis (first journey).

Acts 9:20 - Paul at conversion in a synagogue in Damascus.

Acts 17:10 - Paul and Silas at a synagogue in Berea.

Acts 17:17 - Paul at a synagogue in Athens.

Acts 17:3Comments- When Paul told the Jews in Thessalonia in Acts 17:3 that Jesus is "Christ," he was referring to the fact that Jesus is the Messiah, whom the Jews are expectantly awaiting. Paul used the Old Testament Scriptures to prove that Jesus the Messianic passages.

Acts 17:5 — "and assaulted the house of Jason" - Comments- Jason took them in, as Jesus taught the disciples in Matthew 10:11.

Matthew 10:11, "And into whatsoever city or town ye shall enter, enquire who in it is worthy; and there abide till ye go thence."

Acts 17:5Comments- The Gospel brings division between those who seek God and those who reject God. Our Gospel preaching will bring division also.

Matthew 10:34, "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword."

Luke 12:51, "Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division:"

Acts 17:6 And when they found them not, they drew Jason and certain brethren unto the rulers of the city, crying, These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also;

Acts 17:6"the rulers of the city" - Comments- The Greek word for "rulers of the city" is politarchs." Since the term is not found in the classical literature of the Greeks, some people could have assumed that Luke was wrong to refer to such an office. However, some nineteen inscriptions have now been found that make use of this title. Philip Schaff tells us that an inscription is still legible on an archway in Thessalonica, giving the names of seven "politarchs" who governed before the visit of Paul. 220]

220] Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol 1: Apostolic Christianity A.D 1-100 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1955), 735.

Acts 17:9Comments- These "politarchs," as Luke titles them, reasoned that the best remedy for this unstable situation was to take a security bond from Jason, although they probably cared little about such religious bickering. Their goal was to keep peace in the city. This bond may have been issues under the conditions that Jason guarantee the departure of Paul, or perhaps a more simple guarantee that there would be no more trouble from them. However, once the rulers of the city stood against Paul and his companions, it was time to leave. Paul respected this order of authority by leaving.


Verses 10-15

Paul in Berea - Acts 17:10-15 gives us the account of Paul the apostle's ministry in the city of Berea during his second missionary journey, where he evangelized Macedonia.

Acts 17:13Comments- Note that the Jews were the ones causing the trouble, not the Romans.

Acts 17:14Comments- Paul was the one in most danger, so he was sent away. Leaders seem to suffer the most during times of persecution, since they are usually the targets.

Acts 17:16-34 — Paul in Athens - Acts 17:16-34 gives us the account of Paul ministering the Gospel of Jesus Christ in Athens.

Secular Support for Luke's Description of Athens- Philip Schaff notes that ancient classical writers have confirmed many of the details that Luke gives of Athens: "the descriptions of Athens, the Areopagus, the schools of philosophy, the idle curiosity and inquisitiveness of the Athenians (mentioned also by Demosthenes), the altar of an unknown God, and the quotation from Aratus, or Cleanthes" in this chapter, all have support from secular writers. 221]

221] Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol 1: Apostolic Christianity A.D 1-100 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1955), 735-736.

Paul's Method of Evangelism in Athens - We have no record of Paul working miracles in the city of Athens; for he will later explain to the Corinthians that, "the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom. ( 1 Corinthians 1:22) Thus, Paul met the Athenians at their point of faith and reasoned with them by referring to some common points between their philosophy and the Gospel. He referred to their altar inscriptions to unknown gods; thus, identifying with the fact that they believed in a god. His message progressed from the fact that God existed into the revelation of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is an effective method of witnessing. But despite Paul's inspiration and skill, the Athenians rejected his message. In addition, Paul wrought no miracles among these heathen Athenians because they sought the truth from Wisdom of Solomon , rather than displays of power, as the Jews sought.

The examples of Acts 17:1-9, in which Paul evangelized the Jews of Thessalonians and Acts 17:16-34, in which he spoke to the Greek philosophers on Mars Hill, provides an excellent example of how to speak to different people groups. When speaking to the Jews, he testified from their Scriptures, that Isaiah , the Old Testament, in order to lead them to Christ ( Acts 17:2). However, when speaking on Mars Hill Paul began by acknowledging their religious inclinations by referring to their altars dedicated to the unknown god; so in this statement he found a point of agreement with his hearers ( Acts 17:23). He then appeals to general revelation of God as testified in creation ( Acts 17:24), and explained the divine nature of God from this testimony of creation ( Acts 17:24-28). He then quotes one of their Greek poets who also testified of God ( Acts 17:28). Finally, Paul appeals to man's sense of sin-conscience by mentioning divine judgment and the historical event of the resurrection of Jesus Christ ( Acts 17:29-31). However, on this issue of sin and the resurrection many of these Athenians stumbled ( Acts 17:32). At no time did Paul quote the Jewish Scriptures to the Greeks, who would have rejected it as a valid testimony. Song of Solomon , Paul finished his speech on the hill and met with those few who did embrace the Gospel of Jesus Christ ( Acts 17:33-34).


Verses 16-34

Acts 17:16Comments- 1 Thessalonians 3:1-2 implies that Timothy quickly made his way to Athens, then was sent back to Thessalonica by Paul because of his concern for the well being of this new congregation of believers amidst persecutions. Paul would soon make his way to Corinth and wait for Timothy. It is this report that would occasion Paul to sit down and write the epistle of 1Thessalonians.

1 Thessalonians 3:1-2, "Wherefore when we could no longer forbear, we thought it good to be left at Athens alone; And sent Timotheus, our brother, and minister of God, and our fellowlabourer in the gospel of Christ, to establish you, and to comfort you concerning your faith:"

Acts 17:22Word Study on "superstitious" - Strong says the Greek word ( δεισιδαιμονέστερος) (G 1174) comes from two Greek words ( δειλό ς) (G 1169), meaning, "timid, faithless," and ( δαί μων) (G 1142), meaning, "a demon, or supernatural spirit." BDAG says the word δεισιδαίμων means "religious, superstitious."

Comments- This word that Paul used clearly reflects the mindset of the Greeks, as they held on to the superstitions of their ancestors about visitations and divine interventions from their many gods. The Greeks believed in their mythologies, as far-fetched at these stories might seem to us today. We see such superstitious beliefs when Paul visited Lystra. After Paul healed a Prayer of Manasseh , the people thought that the gods had come down to visit them.

Acts 14:11-12, "And when the people saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in the speech of Lycaonia, The gods are come down to us in the likeness of men. And they called Barnabas, Jupiter; and Paul, Mercurius, because he was the chief speaker."

Acts 17:23 For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.

Acts 17:23Comments- Scholars cite several ancient Greek writers who mention unknown gods. The second century A.D. Greek geographer Pausanias mentions "and altars of the gods named Unknown" which were set up in the harbor and streets of Athens; 222] the third century A.D. Greek biographer Diogenes Laërtius speaks of "altars without name" scattered throughout Athens; 223] also, in The Dialogue of Philopatris, a Greek dialogue formerly credited to Lucian of Samosata, but now assigned to the tenth century, 224] a person kneels down and worships "the unknown god in Athens." 225] Paul was most likely referring to such an altar in Acts 17:23, of which there seems to be numerous ones in Athens, since he uses the same Greek word ἄγνωστος "unknown" that is used in this third cited Classical text.

222] Pausanias writes, "The Athenians have also another harbour, at Munyehia, with a temple of Artemis of Munychia, and yet another at Phalerum, as I have already stated, and near it is a sanctuary of Demeter. Here there is also a temple of Athens Sciras, and one of Zeus some distance away, and altars of the gods named Unknown, and of heros, and of the children of Theseus and Phalerus." (Description of Greece 14) See Pausanias Description of Greece, trans. W. H. S. Jones and H. A. Ormerod, in The Loeb Classical Library, eds. T. E. Page, E. Capps, and W. H. D. Rouse (London: William Heinemann, 1918), 7.

223] Diogenes Lartius writes, "And when he [Epimenides] was considered by the Greeks as a person especially beloved by the Gods, on which account when the Athenians were afflicted by a plague, and the priestess at Delphi enjoined them to purify their city, they sent a ship and Nicias the son of Niceratus to Crete, to invite Epimenides to Athens; and Hebrews , coming there in the forty-sixth Olympaid, purified the city and eradicated the plague for that time; he took some black sheep and some white ones and led them up to the Areopagus, and from thence he let them go wherever they chose, having ordered the attendants to follow them, and wherever any one of them lay down they were to sacrifice him to the God who was the patron of the spot, and so the evil was stayed; and owing to this one may even now find in the different boroughs of the Athenians altars without names, which are a sort of memorial of the propitiation of the Gods that then took place." (The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, Epimendes 3) See The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Lartius, trans. C. D. Yonge, in Bohn's Classical Library, ed. Henry Bohn (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1853), 51.

224] "Philopatris," in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, revised, eds. F. L. Cross, and E. A. Livingstone (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 1085.

225] The author writes, "…and we, discovering the unknown [god] in Athens, and worshipping, hands outstretched unto heaven to this one we give thanks, as considering [it] worthy to be obedient to such one of might." (author's translation) (The Dialogue of Philopatris, lines 617-620) See The Dialogue of Philopatris (324-342), in Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae, Pars XI: Leo Diaconus, ed. B. G. Niebuhrii (Bonnae: Impensis Ed. Weberi, 1828), 342.

Acts 17:25Scripture Reference- Note:

John 4:24, "God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth."

Acts 17:26 — "and the bounds of their habitation" - Comments- Some scholars find within Acts 17:26 a reference to a time when God had men divide the earth by lots among the sons of Noah. We can find a reference to this allotment in the Table of Nations in Genesis 10:25, which tells us that the earth was divided during the days of Peleg.

Genesis 10:25, "And unto Eber were born two sons: the name of one was Peleg; for in his days was the earth divided; and his brother"s name was Joktan."

We find an additional reference to this event in Deuteronomy 32:8.

Deuteronomy 32:8, "When the most High divided to the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of Adam, he set the bounds of the people according to the number of the children of Israel."

We can find a lengthy account of this story in extra-biblical Jewish literature. In The Book of Jubilees, it says that in the days of Peleg, the nations were dividing themselves upon the earth. The divided the earth into three lots according to the inheritance of the three sons of Noah. Since this document dates a few centuries before the time of Christ, it shows to us how the Jews may have interpreted this passage in Genesis.

"And in the sixth year 1567 A.M.] thereof, she bare him Song of Solomon , and he called his name Peleg; for in the days when he was born the children of Noah began to divide the earth amongst themselves: for this reason he called his name Peleg. And they divided (it) secretly amongst themselves, and told it to Noah. And it came to pass in the beginning of the thirty-third jubilee 1569 A.M.] that they divided the earth into three parts, for Shem and Ham and Japheth, according to the inheritance of each, in the first year in the first week, when one of us who had been sent, was with them." (The Book of Jubilees 88-11) 226]

226] The Book of Jubilees, translated by R. H. Charles, in The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament in English With Introductions and Critical and Explanatory Notes to the Several Books, vol 2, ed. R. H. Charles, 1-82 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1913), 25-6.

Acts 17:28 — "For in him we live, and move, and have our being" - Word Study on "have our being" - The Greek word translated "have our being" (KJV) is εσμέν, which literally means, "we are." This same Greek verb is used in Hebrews 11:6, "must believe that He is."

Hebrews 11:6, "But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him."

Comments- Paul's statement "For in him we live, and move, and have our being," is believed by some to come from the ancient Greek poet Epimenides (6th C. B.C.) in his poem Cretica. F. F. Bruce provides the following translation from the Syriac of Isho'dad, Bishop of Hadatha:

They fashioned a tomb for thee, O holy and high one—

The Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies!

But thou art not dead: thou livest and abidest forever,

For in thee we live and move and have our being." 227]

227] F. F. Bruce provides this quote, which he says comes from the Syriac version of the ninth century commenties of Isho'dad, Bishop of Hadatha. See F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts , in The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Gordon D. Fee (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1988), 339. This quote can be found in the Syriac in The Commentaries of Isho'dad of Merv Bishop of Hadatha (c 850 A.D.) in Syriac and English, vol 5, ed. and trans. Margaret Dunlop Gibson, in Horae Semiticas no XI (Cambridge: The University Press, 1916), 40.

Acts 17:28 — "as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring" - Comments- We find the phrase "For we are his offspring" in a poem entitled Diosemeia (the Divine Signs), written by the ancient Greek poet Aratus (c 315-240 B.C.), a native of either Tarsus or Soli, who based his poem on the work of the ancient Greek astronomer Eudoxus of Cnidus (c 390-337 B.C.) called Phainomena. E. W. Bullinger says, "Antigonus Gonatas, King of Macedonia (273-239 BC), requested the Poet Aratus to put the work of Eudoxus into the form of a poem, which he did about the year 270 BC." 228] Paul was obviously familiar with this ancient poem, for he quotes in his address to the Athenians on Mars Hill. The poem reads:

228] E. W. Bullinger, The Witness of the Stars (London: E. W. Bullinger, c 1893), 13-4.

"From Zeus we lead the strain; he whom mankind
Ne"er leave unhymned: of Zeus all public ways,
All haunts of men, are full; and full the sea,
And harbours; and of Zeus all stand in need.
We are his offspring: and Hebrews , ever good and mild to Prayer of Manasseh ,
Gives favouring signs, and rouses us to toil.
Calling to mind life"s wants: when clods are best
For plough and mattock: when the time is ripe
For planting vines and sowing seeds, he tells,
Since he himself hath fixed in heaven these signs,
The stars dividing: and throughout the year
Stars he provides to indicate to man
The seasons' course, that all things duly grow…" (
Diosemeia, lines 1-13) 229]

229] Robert Brown, The Phainomena, or ‘Heavenly Displays' of Aratos (London: Longman and Co, 1885), 13.

G. R. Mair gives us an alternate translation:

"From Zeus let us begin; him do we mortals never leave unnamed; full of Zeus are all the streets and all the market-places of men; full is the sea and the havens thereof; always we all have need of Zeus. For we are also his offspring; and he in his kindness unto men giveth favourable signs and wakeneth the people to work, reminding them of livelihood." 230]

230] Callimachus and Lycophron, trans. A. W. Mair, Aratus, trans. G. R. Mair, in The Loeb Classical Library, eds. T. E. Page, E. Capps, and W. H. D. Rouse (London: William Heineman, 1921), 369, 381.

However, John Chrysostom credits this statement to the ancient Greek poet Epimenides (6th c. B.C.). 231] It makes better sense that Paul was quoting only one Greek author in Acts 17:28, rather than two different authors.

231] John Chrysostom writes, "For when Paul was discoursing to the Athenians, in the course of his harangue he quoted these words, To the Unknown God; and again, For we also are His offspring, as certain also of your own poets have said. It was Epimenides who said this, himself a Cretan, and whence he was moved to say it is necessary to mention. It is this. The Cretans have a tomb of Jupiter, with this inscription. ‘Here lieth Zan, whom they call Jove.' On account of this inscription, then, the poet ridiculing the Cretans as liars, as he proceeds, introduces, to increase the ridicule, this passage. ‘For even a tomb, O King, of thee They made, who never diedst but aye shalt be.'" (Epistle of St. Paul to Titus: Homily III) See John Chrysostom, The Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the Epistles of St. Paul the Apostle to Timothy, Titus , and Philemon , Translated, with Notes and Indices (Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1843), 292.

Acts 17:28Comments- Severus (fl. ca. AD 955 - 987), bishop of Al-Ushmunain, tells us that the teachings of Greek philosophy were wide spread in the Roman Empire during New Testament times. 232] This means that anyone with a good education in the first century was knowledgeable of Greek writers. Thus, Paul is attempting to reason with the Athenians with their own familiar writings.

232] Severus writes, "Then the cobbler said to him: ‘I have never heard at all of these books which thou speakest of; but the books of the Greek philosophers are what men teach their children here, and so do the Egyptians.'" (Saint Mark 1:2) See Sawirus ibn al-Muqaffa, History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church of Aleandria, trans. B. Evetts, in Patrologia Orientalis, tumus primus, eds. R. Graffin and F. Nau (Paris: Kubraurue de Paris, 1907), 144.

Acts 17:30Word Study on "winked at" - Strong says the Greek word "winked at" ( ὑπερείδω) (G 5237) means, "to overlook, i.e. not punish."

Acts 17:30Comments - Acts 17:30 is emphatic about including every man on earth in God's plan of salvation.

Acts 17:31 Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.

Acts 17:31 — "Because he hath appointed a day" - Comments- God has appointed a day of reckoning for every man.

Hebrews 4:13, "Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight: but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do."

Acts 17:31"in the which he will judge" - Comments- In the Greek, this verb is the tendential future, and is translated "He is about to judge."

Acts 17:31"whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead" - Comments- God is offering faith to every man by having raised up Jesus from the dead.

Acts 17:34 Howbeit certain men clave unto him, and believed: among the which was Dionysius the Areopagite, and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.

Acts 17:34 — "Dionysius the Areopagite" - Comments- Eusebius (A.D 260 to 340) tells us that this Dionysius became the first bishop of the church at Athens. 233] The Apostolic Constitutions, a collection of ecclesiastical law that is believed to have been compiled during the latter half of the fourth century, gives us a list of the earliest bishops. This ancient document states that there was a man by the name of "Dionysius" who became the bishop of the church at Athens. 234]

233] Eusebius writes, "Besides these, that Areopagite, named Dionysius, who was the first to believe after Paul"s address to the Athenians in the Areopagus (as recorded by Luke in the Acts) is mentioned by another Dionysius, an ancient writer and pastor of the parish in Corinth, as the first bishop of the church at Athens." (Ecclesiastical History 3411)

234] The Apostolic Constitutions says, "Now concerning those bishops which have been ordained in our lifetime, we let you know that they are these…Of Athens, Dionysius." (Constitutions of the Holy Apostles 7446)

Acts 17:32-34Comments - Many Called, Few Chosen- Many are called, but few are chosen.

 


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Bibliography Information
Everett, Gary H. "Commentary on Acts 17:4". Gary H. Everett's Study Notes on the Holy Scriptures. http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/ghe/acts-17.html. 2013.

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