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Bible Commentaries

Sutcliffe's Commentary on the Old and New Testaments

Acts 17

 

 

Verses 1-34

Acts 17:1. When they had passed through Amphipolis. Boiste adds the Roman name Emboli. It was built by Simon, the Athenian commander. It stood on an island formed in the river Strymon, and was called Amphipolis because the river runs on both sides of the city. It was the chief city of Lower Macedonia; and by some called Chrysopolis. Apollonia was taken in their journey.

They came to Thessalonica, where was a synagogue of the jews. The ancient name was Therma, from which the bay took its name. Salonica is the abbreviate of its ancient name. See the introduction to the first epistle addressed to this church.

Acts 17:3. Opening and alleging that Christ must needs have suffered. The order of the remaining words in the Greek is hyperbatic: “and that this same is the Christ, even Jesus whom we preach to you,” Addressing the jews, who had the oracles of God, and rested all their hopes on the promises of the Messiah, they proved that Jesus was the Christ by the literal accomplishment of prophecy. In numerous circumstances he suffered what the prophets had foretold. — Equal emphasis is laid on the time of his appearing. The sceptre was departed from Judah; the weeks of Daniel were accomplished. Yea, the Lord himself had said, “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is at hand.” To which Paul accedes by saying, “when the fulness of time was come, God sent forth his Son.” Above all, the glory of his resurrection, of which Paul himself by vision was made a witness, and an apostle of the Lord. With great power, the grace and unction of the Holy Spirit, those things were attested, and the fruit followed in the calling and conversion of the gentiles.

Acts 17:4. And of the chief women not a few believed in the Lord. The Greek is, the first women, that is, as Jerome reads, mulieres nobiles, noble women; for during the Macedonian empire innumerable families had been ennobled. Tronto, in his letter to the bishop of Rhone, says of the Grecian converts, that ladies in whose veins the noblest blood did run, would not disdain to visit the poor and afflicted sisters. — Dr. Cave’s Primitive Christianity.

Acts 17:6. These that have turned the world upside down, are come hither also. All the outrages of mobs and tumults were laid at the christians’ door: and yet in a better sense the charge was true. They had illuminated the public mind, they had persuaded men to leave their sins, to forsake the temples of idolatry, and seek their happiness in God alone. What a revolution!

Acts 17:10-11. At Berea — they were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in searching the scriptures; for all divines have encouraged their hearers to read the bible. Antichristian Rome forbade the holy scriptures to the laity, lest their images and priestly domination should become exposed to vulgar contempt. The word noble, used to designate noble birth, means here nobility and enlargedness of mind.

Acts 17:18. Certain philosophers of the Epicureans. Epicurus, from whom this sect claimed patronage, lived in Athens three hundred years before Christ. He is said to have been a man of temperance, who died at the age of ninety two. It was otherwise with this sect. Horace the poet calls them “Epicurus’s hogs.” He taught the materiality of the soul, and by consequence denied its immortality. He also denied a providence, which is in fact to deny the being of a God. He recommended in secular affairs, moderation of the passions, and a degree of abstemiousness in order to enjoy pleasure with the greater zest. If those doctrines were true, St. Paul says, “Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die.” Plutarch wrote against them.

The Stoics encountered him. They are so called from στοα stoa, a porch, or portico, in which Zeno their founder held his academy. They ascribed all secondary causes to the great first cause, that is, God. They held that all occurrences were necessitated events; they were ordained so to occur, and could not occur otherwise. All things were therefore a concatenation, which could not be broken or changed, no not even by the supreme Being himself. This they called fate, equally binding on Jupiter, as on man. They equalized all vices and all virtues, in such sort that to kill an ox, or to kill a man, were actions in themselves morally the same.

Acts 17:19. They brought him unto Areopagus, the senate house, which stood above the city on Mars’ hill.

Acts 17:23. I found an altar with this inscription, αγνωστω θεω, to the unknown God. How this would rivet their attention, and touch their pride of science. What, with all their philosophy, ignorant of the God that made them; who had corrected their sins with afflictions, and given them abundant harvests! The inscription was in the plural number, but Paul turns it to the singular. Diis Asiæ, et Europæ, et Africæ, Diis ignotis et peregrinis: gods of Asia, and Europe, and Africa, gods of unknown and strange nations. Laertius reports, and no one discredits him, that once when the Athenians were afflicted with a plague, and when all the gods of the country were fatigued with sacrifices, that Epimenides persuaded them to erect this altar to the unknown gods, who had visited them with this pestilence, praying that they would accept their sacrifices, and avert the calamity. — This was a happy exordium for Paul: he had not been idle at Athens. This God, being the Maker of all worlds, and the giver of all good, expects a higher worship than that of gifts, and gifts which he himself has first given. He expects us to seek him with our whole heart, and feel after him; feel, as Paul says, the mighty working of his power; the peace, the joy, the love of God shed abroad in the heart.

Acts 17:28. For we are also his offspring. The apostle not only disavows the charge of being a setter-forth of strange gods, but also of strange doctrine, for he here literally quotes the words of Aratus, their own poet. I give this from Dr. Cudworth’s true intellectual system, with the old English version, which how uncouth soever the verse may be, will please, as giving the true sense of the Greek.

εκ διος αρχωμεσθα, τον ουδεποτ ανδρες εωμεν αρρητον· μεσται δε διος πασαι μεν αγυιαι, πασαι δ ανθρωπων αγοραι μεστη δε θαλασσα και λιμενες· παντα δε διος κεχρημεθα παντες. του γαρ και γενος εσμεν.

Let us begin our work with Jove, of whom We men are never silent, and of whom All things are full, he passing through, and being In every place, whose kind and bounteous hand We all make use of, and enjoy, for we His offspring also are.

This Aratus the poet was a native of Solene, not far from Tarsus. He flourished in the year of Rome 472. His poem, The Phænomena, was translated into Latin by many of the learned Romans.

Acts 17:30. The times of this ignorance God winked at. The period of that judicial blindness mentioned by the apostle, Romans 1:24-28, during which the gentile nations, however enlightened as to sciences, were awfully ignorant of God, and worshipped they knew not what. During this period the Lord had been instructing the world by his wonderful displays of judgment and mercy to the jewish nation. The gentiles were in this respect left to themselves. They had neither prophets, nor revelations, nor judgments, corresponding with their state of ignorance and crime. Yet they were favoured with all the blessings of nature and of providence, as if the God of nature were not aware of their wickedness. St. Paul seems to have in view the words of Solomon: Wisdom of Solomon 11:23. “Thou lookest another way, and beholdest not the sins of men that they may repent.”

Acts 17:34. Dionysius the Areopagite, one of the senators or judges. He was made bishop of the little flock in Athens, for the apostles often ordained the firstfruits of their ministry to the pastoral office, that the flock might not be dispersed. He is thought to have suffered martyrdom in the year 95, when Trajan persecuted the church.

Of this illustrious man antiquity has left us some notices. He is named by Suidas, Syncellus, Nicephorus, and others. He went from Athens to Heliopolis in Egypt, to complete his studies. He heard Paul about the year 50 in the Areopagus, and was ordained with the apostle’s own hands. By the persuasion of St. Clement he left Athens, and travelled into Gaul. He finally preached the gospel in Paris; from him St. Dennis, a town near Paris, derives its name. The Celestial Hierarchy, and other writings ascribed to him, are by many accounted spurious. Baronius, Annal. Ecclesiastes page 109. Against these records of the cardinal, our Dr. Cave opposes, that the Dennis of Paris was a later Dionysius, whose writings were of the fourth century. To this opinion the Catholics will by no means accede, as the south of France and Spain received the gospel from the christians dispersed when Stephen was stoned.

Our venerable Bede, in his commentary on the Acts, says that he was made bishop of Corinth, as Eusebius affirms: book 6. Report, he adds, constantly affirms that he came to Paris, and received the crown of martyrdom. But as to the books ascribed to him by Jerome, in his catalogue of illustrious men, Cajetan thinks that they were the production of a later Dionysius.

REFLECTIONS.

Pursuing the glorious career of the gospel in Greece, we find the apostles went forth in the spirit of their mission, and lived and acted like men who had seen the Lord, and who were commissioned to manifest his glory to the world. They had no barren sermons, no strokes of truth without effect; and the glory of conversions, and the formation of churches followed in their train. We may also remark, the great prudence of the holy apostles. They went into the synagogues and published the glory of their Master, because it was meet that the gospel should be preached first to the jews, if occasion offered. But the chief harvest laid among the greek proselytes, who excelled the jews in piety, in liberality of sentiment, and in excellence of temper.

Paul while at Athens sets a fine example to christians whose lot may be cast among the wicked. He went not to that city to acquaint himself with its literature, and antique curiosities, but to help them out of their ignorance and misery. He investigated their manners, their morals, and superstition; and his spirit was stirred within him when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry. Hence all alone, and singlehanded, he stood for God, and dared to attack the powers of darkness in their ancient seat. His wisdom and learning were so great, and his arguments so strong, that the principal citizens requested to hear this doctor of Asia in the Areopagus. It had probably reached their ears that he had embarassed and defeated the Epicureans and the Stoics; for Paul was no friend of the stoical doctrines of fate and necessity.

Preaching before the judges, the learned sects, and citizens of Athens, was to Paul and his mission a high and happy day. He had found an altar inscribed to the unknown God. Hence he took occasion to set before them the being and perfections of the true God, which are the basis of all faith, of all worship, and of all hope.

St. Paul next asserts that “God created the world, and all things therein;” a most revolting assertion to the gentile philosophy, which maintained the world to be eternal; and equally revolting to gentile superstition, which worshipped gods without number.

From this position, St. Paul deduces two most clear and convincing inferences. First, that God dwelleth not in temples made with hands; an assertion for which St. Stephen was stoned in Jerusalem; scarcely had he uttered the word before the jews stopped their ears. The second inference is, that God is not worshipped with the gifts of men’s hands, as though he needed any thing. Simple sacrifices were types of the Messiah, and gentile holocausts were obtruded into their rituals. Besides, men might pay all their exterior homage, and yet withhold their hearts.

From the perfections and worship of God St. Paul proceeds to his providence. Having created, he still preserves the world by a paternal care. The human kind are all his offspring, made of one blood, and the constant objects of their Father’s care. For their good he has determined the times and seasons of summer and winter, seedtime and harvest: he has determined the bounds of their habitation, by indenting the continents with oceans, seas, lakes, and rivers. This grand display of the wisdom and goodness of God most happily waters the earth with clouds, and affords the nations a cheap and speedy passage to one another.

The apostle hence infers the necessity of repentance and reformation; for holy ministers will always aim at sanctifying improvements. If God be good to all, we ought, as his offspring, to resemble him. If he bless, we ought not to curse. What then remains for a wicked man but to seek the Lord by genuine repentance, if haply he may find him. Who can tell, said the Ninevites, if God will repent of the menaced destruction. Thus St. Paul diversifies his ministry by a plenitude of argument. When preaching to the jews, he builds his doctrine on the prophets; but when addressing the gentiles, he enforces the dictates of natural religion with all the powers of argument and force of application.

The necessity of repentance, a repentance now commanded of God, is farther enforced by the consideration of a future judgment. The sinner has no hope of secresy, nor possibility of escape. While men had not a pure knowledge of God, he had winked at their imperfect worship; but he never winks at crimes. The apostle was next about to open the fine scheme of the glorious gospel, but the vanquished philosophers lost patience, and stumbled at the resurrection. One of the judges was however converted, as well as some others, by the powerful arguments and excellent spirit of St. Paul’s discourse.

 


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Bibliography Information
Sutcliffe, Joseph. "Commentary on Acts 17:4". Sutcliffe's Commentary on the Old and New Testaments. http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/jsc/acts-17.html. 1835.

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