corner graphic

Bible Commentaries

Alexander MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture

Acts 17

 

 

Verses 1-12

Acts

THESSALONICA AND BEREA

Acts 17:1 - Acts 17:12.

‘Shamefully entreated at Philippi,’ Paul tells the Thessalonians, he ‘waxed bold in our God to’ preach to them. His experience in the former city might well have daunted a feebler faith, but opposition affected Paul as little as a passing hailstorm dints a rock. To change the field was common sense; to abandon the work would have been sin. But Paul’s brave persistence was not due to his own courage; he drew it from God. Because he lived in communion with Him, his courage ‘waxed’ as dangers gathered. He knew that he was doing a daring thing, but he knew who was his helper. So he went steadily on, whatever might front him. His temper of mind and the source of it are wonderfully revealed in his simple words.

The transference to Thessalonica illustrates another principle of his action; namely, his preference of great centres of population as fields of work. He passes through two less important places to establish himself in the great city. It is wise to fly at the head. Conquer the cities, and the villages will fall of themselves. That was the policy which carried Christianity through the empire like a prairie fire. Would that later missions had adhered to it!

The methods adopted in Thessalonica were the usual ones. Luke bids us notice that Paul took the same course of action in each place: namely, to go to the synagogue first, when there was one, and there to prove that Jesus was the Christ. The three Macedonian towns already mentioned seem not to have had synagogues. Probably there were comparatively few Jews in them, and these were ecclesiastically dependent on Thessalonica. We can fancy the growing excitement in the synagogue, as for three successive Sabbaths the stranger urged his proofs of the two all-important but most unwelcome assertions, that their own scriptures foretold a suffering Messiah,-a side of Messianic prophecy which was ignored or passionately denied-and that Jesus was that Messiah. Many a vehement protest would be shrieked out, with flashing eyes and abundant gesticulation, as he ‘opened’ the sense of Scripture, and ‘quoted passages’-for that is the meaning here of the word rendered ‘alleging.’ He gives us a glimpse of the hot discussions when he says that he preached ‘in much conflict’ [1 Thessalonians 2:2].

With whatever differences in manner of presentation, the true message of the Christian teacher is still the message that woke such opposition in the synagogue of Thessalonica,-the bold proclamation of the personal Christ, His death and resurrection. And with whatever differences, the instrument of conviction is still the Scriptures, ‘the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.’ The more closely we keep ourselves to that message and that weapon the better.

The effects of the faithful preaching of the gospel are as uniform as the method. It does one of two things to its hearers-either it melts their hearts and leads them to faith, or it stirs them to more violent enmity. It is either a stone of stumbling or a sure corner-stone. We either build on or fall over it, and at last are crushed by it. The converts included Jews and proselytes in larger numbers, as may be gathered from the distinction drawn by ‘some’-referring to the former, and ‘a great multitude’-referring to the latter. Besides these there were a good many ladies of rank and refinement, as was also the case presently at Beroea. Probably these, too, were proselytes.

The prominence of women among the converts, as soon as the gospel is brought into Europe, is interesting and prophetic. The fact of the social position of these ladies may suggest that the upper classes were freer from superstition than the lower, and may point a not favourable contrast with present social conditions, which do not result in a similar accession of women of ‘honourable estate’ to the Church.

Opposition follows as uniform a course as the preaching. The broad outlines are the same in each case, while the local colouring varies. If we compare Paul’s narrative in I Thessalonians, which throbs with emotion, and, as it were, pants with the stress of the conflict, with Luke’s calm account here, we see not only how Paul felt, but why the Jews got up a riot. Luke says that they ‘became jealous.’ Paul expands that into ‘they are contrary to all men; forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they may be saved.’ Then it was not so much dislike to the preaching of Jesus as Messiah as it was rage that their Jewish prerogative was infringed, and the children’s bread offered to the dogs, that stung them to violent opposition. Israel had been chosen, that it might be God’s witness, and diffuse the treasure it possessed through all the world. It had become, not the dispenser, but the would-be monopolist, of its gift. Have there been no Christian communities in later days animated by the same spirit?

There were plenty of loafers in the market-place ready for any mischief, and by no means particular about the pretext for a riot. Anything that would give an opportunity for hurting somebody, and for loot, would attract them as corruption does flesh-flies. So the Jewish ringleaders easily got a crowd together. To tell their real reasons would scarcely have done, but to say that there was a house to be attacked, and some foreigners to be dragged out, was enough for the present. Jason’s house was probably Paul’s temporary home, where, as he tells us in 1 Thessalonians 2:9, he had worked at his trade, that he might not be burdensome to any. Possibly he and Silas had been warned of the approach of the rioters and had got away elsewhere. At all events, the nest was empty, but the crowd must have its victims, and so, failing Paul, they laid hold of Jason. His offence was a very shadowy one. But since his day there have been many martyrs, whose only crime was ‘harbouring’ Christians, or heretics, or recusant priests, or Covenanters. If a bull cannot gore a man, it will toss his cloak.

The charge against Jason is that he receives the Apostle and his party, and constructively favours their designs. The charge against them is that they are revolutionists, rebels against the Emperor, and partisans of a rival. Now we may note three things about the charge. First, it comes with a very distinct taint of insincerity from Jews, who were, to say the least, not remarkable for loyalty or peaceful obedience. The Gracchi are complaining of sedition! A Jew zealous for Caeesar is an anomaly, which might excite the suspicions of the least suspicious ruler. The charge of breaking the peace comes with remarkable appropriateness from the leaders of a riot. They were the troublers of the city, not Paul, peacefully preaching in the synagogue. The wolf scolds the lamb for fouling the river.

Again, the charges are a violent distortion of the truth. Possibly the Jewish ringleaders believed what they said, but more probably they consciously twisted Paul’s teachings, because they knew that no other charges would excite so much hostility or be so damning as those which they made. The mere suggestion of treason was often fatal. The wild exaggeration that the Christians had ‘turned the whole civilised world upside down’ betrays passionate hatred and alarm, if it was genuine, or crafty determination to rouse the mob, if it was consciously trumped up. But whether the charges were believed or not by those who made them, here were Jews disclaiming their nation’s dearest hope, and, like the yelling crowd at the Crucifixion, declaring they had no king but Caesar. The degradation of Israel was completed by these fanatical upholders of its prerogatives.

But, again, the charges were true in a far other sense than their bringers meant. For Christianity is revolutionary, and its very aim is to turn the world upside down, since the wrong side is uppermost at present, and Jesus, not Caesar, or any king or emperor or czar, is the true Lord and ruler of men. But the revolution which He makes is the revolution of individuals, turning them from darkness to light; for He moulds single souls first and society afterwards. Violence is always a mistake, and the only way to change evil customs is to change men’s natures, and then the customs drop away of themselves. The true rule begins with the sway of hearts; then wills are submissive, and conduct is the expression of inward delight in a law which is sweet because the lawgiver is dear.

Missing Paul, the mob fell on Jason and the brethren. They were ‘bound over to keep the peace.’ Evidently the rulers had little fear of these alleged desperate revolutionaries, and did as little as they dared, without incurring the reproach of being tepid in their loyalty.

Probably the removal of Paul and his travelling companions from the neighbourhood was included in the terms to which Jason had to submit. Their hurried departure does not seem to have been caused by a renewal of disturbances. At all events, their Beroean experience repeated that of Philippi and of Thessalonica, with one great and welcome difference. The Beroean Jews did exactly what their compatriots elsewhere would not do-they looked into the subject with their own eyes, and tested Paul’s assertions by Scripture. ‘Therefore,’ says Luke, with grand confidence in the impregnable foundations of the faith, ‘many of them believed.’ True nobility of soul consists in willingness to receive the Word, combined with diligent testing of it. Christ asks for no blind adhesion. The true Christian teacher wishes for no renunciation, on the part of his hearers, of their own judgments. ‘Open your mouth and shut your eyes, and swallow what I give you,’ is not the language of Christianity, though it has sometimes been the demand of its professed missionaries, and not the teacher only, but the taught also, have been but too ready to exercise blind credulity instead of intelligent examination and clear-eyed faith. If professing Christians to-day were better acquainted with the Scriptures, and more in the habit of bringing every new doctrine to them as its touchstone, there would be less currency of errors and firmer grip of truth.


Verses 22-30

Acts

PAUL AT ATHENS

Acts 17:22 - Acts 17:34.

‘I am become all things to all men,’ said Paul, and his address at Athens strikingly exemplifies that principle of his action. Contrast it with his speech in the synagogue of Pisidian Antioch, which appeals entirely to the Old Testament, and is saturated with Jewish ideas, or with the remonstrance to the rude Lycaonian peasants {Acts 14:15, etc.}, which, while handling some of the same thoughts as at Athens, does so in a remarkably different manner. There he appealed to God’s gifts of ‘rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons,’ the things most close to his hearers’ experience; here, speaking to educated ‘philosophers,’ he quotes Greek poetry, and sets forth a reasoned declaration of the nature of the Godhead and the relations of a philosophy of history and an argument against idolatry. The glories of Greek art were around him; the statues of Pallas Athene and many more fair creations looked down on the little Jew who dared to proclaim their nullity as representations of the Godhead.

Paul’s flexibility of mind and power of adapting himself to every circumstance were never more strikingly shown than in that great address to the quick-witted Athenians. It falls into three parts: the conciliatory prelude [Acts 17:22 - Acts 17:23]; the declaration of the Unknown God [Acts 17:24 - Acts 17:29]; and the proclamation of the God-ordained Man [Acts 17:30 - Acts 17:31].

I. We have, first, the conciliatory prelude.

It is always a mistake for the apostle of a new truth to begin by running a tilt at old errors. It is common sense to seek to find some point in the present beliefs of his hearers to which his message may attach itself. An orator who flatters for the sake of securing favour for himself is despicable; a missionary who recognises the truth which lies under the system which he seeks to overthrow, is wise.

It is incredible that Paul should have begun his speech to so critical an audience by charging them with excessive superstition, as the Authorised Version makes him do. Nor does the modified translation of the Revised Version seem to be precisely what is meant. Paul is not blaming the Athenians, but recording a fact which he had noticed, and from which he desired to start. Ramsay’s translation gives the truer notion of his meaning-’more than others respectful of what is divine.’ ‘Superstition’ necessarily conveys a sense of blame, but the word in the original does not.

We can see Paul as a stranger wandering through the city, and noting with keen eyes every token of the all-pervading idolatry. He does not tell his hearers that his spirit burned within him when he saw the city full of idols; but he smothers all that, and speaks only of the inscription which he had noticed on one, probably obscure and forgotten, altar: ‘To the Unknown God.’ Scholars have given themselves a great deal of trouble to show from other authors that there were such altars. But Paul is as good an ‘authority’ as these, and we may take his word that he did see such an inscription. Whether it had the full significance which he reads into it or not, it crystallised in an express avowal that sense of Something behind and above the ‘gods many’ of Greek religion, which found expression in the words of their noblest thinkers and poets, and lay like a nightmare on them.

To charge an Athenian audience, proud of their knowledge, with ignorance, was a hazardous and audacious undertaking; to make them charge themselves was more than an oratorical device. It appealed to the deepest consciousness even of the popular mind. Even with this prelude, the claims of this wandering Jew to pose as the instructor of Epicureans and Stoics, and to possess a knowledge of the Divine which they lacked, were daring. But how calmly and confidently Paul makes them, and with what easy and conciliatory adoption of their own terminology, if we adopt the reading of Acts 17:23 in Revised Version {‘What ye worship . . . this,’ etc.}, which puts forward the abstract conception of divinity rather than the personal God.

The spirit in which Paul approached his difficult audience teaches all Christian missionaries and controversialists a needed and neglected lesson. We should accentuate points of resemblance rather than of difference, to begin with. We should not run a tilt against even errors, and so provoke to their defence, but rather find in creeds and practices an ignorant groping after, and so a door of entrance for, the truth which we seek to recommend.

II. The declaration of the Unknown God has been prepared for, and now follows, and with it is bound up a polemic against idolatry.

Conciliation is not to be carried so far as to hide the antagonism between the truth and error. We may give non-Christian systems of religion credit for all the good in them, but we are not to blink their contrariety to the true religion. Conciliation and controversy are both needful; and he is the best Christian teacher who has mastered the secret of the due proportion between them.

Every word of Paul’s proclamation strikes full and square at some counter belief of his hearers. He begins with creation, which he declares to have been the act of one personal God, and neither of a multitude of deities, as some of his hearers held, nor of an impersonal blind power, as others believed, nor the result of chance, nor eternal, as others maintained. He boldly proclaims there, below the shadow of the Parthenon, that there is but one God,-the universal Lord, because the universal Creator. Many consequences from that fact, no doubt, crowded into Paul’s mind; but he swiftly turns to its bearing on the pomp of temples which were the glory of Athens, and the multitude of sacrifices which he had beheld on their altars. The true conception of God as the Creator and Lord of all things cuts up by the roots the pagan notions of temples as dwelling-places of a god and of sacrifices as ministering to his needs. With one crushing blow Paul pulverises the fair fanes around him, and declares that sacrifice, as practised there, contradicted the plain truth as to God’s nature. To suppose that man can give anything to Him, or that He needs anything, is absurd. All heathen worship reverses the parts of God and man, and loses sight of the fact that He is the giver continually and of everything. Life in its origination, the continuance thereof {breath}, and all which enriches it, are from Him. Then true worship will not be giving to, but thankfully accepting from and using for, Him, His manifold gifts.

So Paul declares the one God as Creator and Sustainer of all. He goes on to sketch in broad outline what we may call a philosophy of history. The declaration of the unity of mankind was a wholly strange message to proud Athenians, who believed themselves to be a race apart, not only from the ‘barbarians,’ whom all Greeks regarded as made of other clay than they, but from the rest of the Greek world. It flatly contradicted one of their most cherished prerogatives. Not only does Paul claim one origin for all men, but he regards all nations as equally cared for by the one God. His hearers believed that each people had its own patron deities, and that the wars of nations were the wars of their gods, who won for them territory, and presided over their national fortunes. To all that way of thinking the Apostle opposes the conception, which naturally follows from his fundamental declaration of the one Creator, of His providential guidance of all nations in regard to their place in the world and the epochs of their history.

But he rises still higher when he declares the divine purpose in all the tangled web of history-the variety of conditions of nations, their rise and fall, their glory and decay, their planting in their lands and their rooting out,-to be to lead all men to ‘seek God.’ That is the deepest meaning of history. The whole course of human affairs is God’s drawing men to Himself. Not only in Judea, nor only by special revelation, but by the gifts bestowed, and the schooling brought to bear on every nation, He would stir men up to seek for Him.

But that great purpose has not been realised. There is a tragic ‘if haply’ inevitable; and men may refuse to yield to the impulses towards God. They are the more likely to do so, inasmuch as to find Him they must ‘feel after Him,’ and that is hard. The tendrils of a plant turn to the far-off light, but men’s spirits do not thus grope after God. Something has come in the way which frustrates the divine purpose, and makes men blind and unwilling to seek Him.

Paul docs not at once draw the two plain inferences, that there must be something more than the nations have had, if they are to find God, even His seeking them in some new fashion; and that the power which neutralises God’s design in creation and providence is sin. He has a word to say about both these, but for the moment he contents himself with pointing to the fact, attested by his hearers’ consciousness, and by many a saying of thinkers and poets, that the failure to find God does not arise from His hiding Himself in some remote obscurity. Men are plunged, as it were, in the ocean of God, encompassed by Him as an atmosphere, and-highest thought of all, and not strange to Greek thought of the nobler sort-kindred with Him as both drawing life from Him and being in His image. Whence, then, but from their own fault, could men have failed to find God? If He is ‘unknown,’ it is not because He has shrouded Himself in darkness, but because they do not love the light. One swift glance at the folly of idolatry, as demonstrated by this thought of man’s being the offspring of God, leads naturally to the properly Christian conclusion of the address.

III. It is probable that this part of it was prematurely ended by the mockery of some and the impatience of others, who had had enough of Paul and his talk, and who, when they said, ‘We will hear thee again,’ meant, ‘We will not hear you now.’ But, even in the compass permitted him, he gives much of his message.

We can but briefly note the course of thought. He comes back to his former word ‘ignorance,’ bitter pill as it was for the Athenian cultured class to swallow. He has shown them how their religion ignores or contradicts the true conceptions of God and man. But he no sooner brings the charge than he proclaims God’s forbearance. And he no sooner proclaims God’s forbearance than he rises to the full height of his mission as God’s ambassador, and speaks in authoritative tones, as bearing His ‘commands.’

Now the hint in the previous part is made more plain. The demand for repentance implies sin. Then the ‘ignorance’ was not inevitable or innocent. There was an element of guilt in men’s not feeling after God, and sin is universal, for ‘all men everywhere’ are summoned to repent. Philosophers and artists, and cultivated triflers, and sincere worshippers of Pallas and Zeus, and all ‘barbarian’ people, are alike here. That would grate on Athenian pride, as it grates now on ours. The reason for repentance would be as strange to the hearers as the command was-a universal judgment, of which the principle was to be rigid righteousness, and the Judge, not Minos or Rhadamanthus, but ‘a Man’ ordained for that function.

What raving nonsense that would appear to men who had largely lost the belief in a life beyond the grave! The universal Judge a man! No wonder that the quick Athenian sense of the ridiculous began to rise against this Jew fanatic, bringing his dreams among cultured people like them! And the proof which he alleged as evidence to all men that it is so, would sound even more ridiculous than the assertion meant to be proved. ‘A man has been raised from the dead; and this anonymous Man, whom nobody ever heard of before, and who is no doubt one of the speaker’s countrymen, is to judge us, Stoics, Epicureans, polished people, and we are to be herded to His bar in company with Boeotians and barbarians! The man is mad.’

So the assembly broke up in inextinguishable laughter, and Paul silently ‘departed from among them,’ having never named the name of Jesus to them. He never more earnestly tried to adapt his teaching to his audience; he never was more unsuccessful in his attempt by all means to gain some. Was it a remembrance of that scene in Athens that made him write to the Corinthians that his message was ‘to the Greeks foolishness’?


Verse 31

Acts

PAUL AT ATHENS

THE MAN WHO IS JUDGE

Acts 17:31.

I. The Resurrection of Jesus gives assurance of judgment.

The belief in a future life, as entertained by Paul’s hearers on Mars Hill, was shadowy and dashed with much unbelief. Disembodied spirits wandered ghostlike and spectral in a shadowy underworld.

The belief in the Resurrection of Jesus converts the Greek peradventure into a fact. It gives that belief solidity and makes it easier to grasp firmly. Unless the thought of a future life is completed by the belief that it is a corporeal life, it will never have definiteness and reality enough to sustain itself as a counterpoise to the weight of things seen.

A future bodily life affirms individual identity as persisting beyond the accident of death, and can only be conceived of as a state in which the earthly life is fully developed in its individual results. The dead, who are raised, are raised that they may ‘receive the things done in the body, according to that they have done, whether it be good or bad.’ Historically, the two thoughts have always gone together; and as has been the clearness with which a resurrection has been held as certain, so has been the force with which the anticipation of judgment to come has impinged on conscience.

Jesus is, even in this respect, our Example, for the glory to which He was raised and in which He reigns now is the issue of His earthly life; and in His Resurrection and Ascension we have the historical fact which certifies to all men that a life of self-sacrifice here will assuredly flower into a life of glory there, ‘Ours the Cross, the grave, the skies.’

II. The Resurrection of Jesus gives the assurance that He is Judge.

The bare fact that He is risen does not carry that assurance; we have to take into account that He has risen.

After such a life.

His Resurrection was God’s setting the seal of His approval and acceptance on Christ’s work; His endorsement of Christ’s claims to special relations with Him; His affirmation of Christ’s sinlessness. Jesus had declared that He did always the things that pleased the Father; had claimed to be the pure and perfect realisation of the divine ideal of manhood; had presented Himself as the legitimate object of utter devotion and of religious trust, love, and obedience, and as the only way to God. Men said that He was a blasphemer; God said, and said most emphatically, by raising Him from the dead: ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’

With such a sequel.

‘Christ being raised from the dead, dieth no more,’ and that fact sets Him apart from others who, according to Scripture, have been raised. His resurrection is, if we may use such a figure, a point; His Ascension and Session at the right hand of God are the line into which the point is prolonged. And from both the point and the line come the assurance that He is the Judge.

III. The risen Jesus is Judge because He is Man.

That seems a paradox. It is a commonplace that we are incompetent to judge another, for human eyes cannot read the secrets of a human heart, and we can only surmise, not know, each other’s motives, which are the all-important part of our deeds. But when we rightly understand Christ’s human nature, we understand how fitted He is to be our Judge, and how blessed it is to think of Him as such. Paul tells the Athenians with deep significance that He who is to be their and the world’s Judge is ‘the Man.’ He sums up human nature in Himself, He is the ideal and the real Man.

And further, Paul tells his hearers that God judges ‘through’ Him, and does so ‘in righteousness.’ He is fitted to be our Judge, because He perfectly and completely bears our nature, knows by experience all its weaknesses and windings, as from the inside, so to speak, and is ‘wondrous kind’ with the kindness which ‘fellow-feeling’ enkindles. He knows us with the knowledge of a God; He knows us with the sympathy of a brother.

The Man who has died for all men thereby becomes the Judge of all. Even in this life, Jesus and His Cross judge us. Our disposition towards Him is the test of our whole character. By their attitude to Him, the thoughts of many hearts are revealed. ‘What think ye of Christ?’ is the question, the answer to which determines our fate, because it reveals our inmost selves and their capacities for receiving blessing or harm from God and His mercy. Jesus Himself has taught us that ‘in that day’ the condition of entrance into the Kingdom is ‘doing the will of My Father which is in heaven.’ He has also taught us that ‘this is the work of God, that ye believe on Him whom He hath sent.’ Faith in Jesus as our Saviour is the root from which will grow the good tree which will bring forth good fruit, bearing which our love will be ‘made perfect, that we may have boldness before Him in the day of judgment.’


Verses 32-34

Acts

PAUL AT ATHENS

Acts 17:22 - Acts 17:34.

‘I am become all things to all men,’ said Paul, and his address at Athens strikingly exemplifies that principle of his action. Contrast it with his speech in the synagogue of Pisidian Antioch, which appeals entirely to the Old Testament, and is saturated with Jewish ideas, or with the remonstrance to the rude Lycaonian peasants {Acts 14:15, etc.}, which, while handling some of the same thoughts as at Athens, does so in a remarkably different manner. There he appealed to God’s gifts of ‘rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons,’ the things most close to his hearers’ experience; here, speaking to educated ‘philosophers,’ he quotes Greek poetry, and sets forth a reasoned declaration of the nature of the Godhead and the relations of a philosophy of history and an argument against idolatry. The glories of Greek art were around him; the statues of Pallas Athene and many more fair creations looked down on the little Jew who dared to proclaim their nullity as representations of the Godhead.

Paul’s flexibility of mind and power of adapting himself to every circumstance were never more strikingly shown than in that great address to the quick-witted Athenians. It falls into three parts: the conciliatory prelude [Acts 17:22 - Acts 17:23]; the declaration of the Unknown God [Acts 17:24 - Acts 17:29]; and the proclamation of the God-ordained Man [Acts 17:30 - Acts 17:31].

I. We have, first, the conciliatory prelude.

It is always a mistake for the apostle of a new truth to begin by running a tilt at old errors. It is common sense to seek to find some point in the present beliefs of his hearers to which his message may attach itself. An orator who flatters for the sake of securing favour for himself is despicable; a missionary who recognises the truth which lies under the system which he seeks to overthrow, is wise.

It is incredible that Paul should have begun his speech to so critical an audience by charging them with excessive superstition, as the Authorised Version makes him do. Nor does the modified translation of the Revised Version seem to be precisely what is meant. Paul is not blaming the Athenians, but recording a fact which he had noticed, and from which he desired to start. Ramsay’s translation gives the truer notion of his meaning-’more than others respectful of what is divine.’ ‘Superstition’ necessarily conveys a sense of blame, but the word in the original does not.

We can see Paul as a stranger wandering through the city, and noting with keen eyes every token of the all-pervading idolatry. He does not tell his hearers that his spirit burned within him when he saw the city full of idols; but he smothers all that, and speaks only of the inscription which he had noticed on one, probably obscure and forgotten, altar: ‘To the Unknown God.’ Scholars have given themselves a great deal of trouble to show from other authors that there were such altars. But Paul is as good an ‘authority’ as these, and we may take his word that he did see such an inscription. Whether it had the full significance which he reads into it or not, it crystallised in an express avowal that sense of Something behind and above the ‘gods many’ of Greek religion, which found expression in the words of their noblest thinkers and poets, and lay like a nightmare on them.

To charge an Athenian audience, proud of their knowledge, with ignorance, was a hazardous and audacious undertaking; to make them charge themselves was more than an oratorical device. It appealed to the deepest consciousness even of the popular mind. Even with this prelude, the claims of this wandering Jew to pose as the instructor of Epicureans and Stoics, and to possess a knowledge of the Divine which they lacked, were daring. But how calmly and confidently Paul makes them, and with what easy and conciliatory adoption of their own terminology, if we adopt the reading of Acts 17:23 in Revised Version {‘What ye worship . . . this,’ etc.}, which puts forward the abstract conception of divinity rather than the personal God.

The spirit in which Paul approached his difficult audience teaches all Christian missionaries and controversialists a needed and neglected lesson. We should accentuate points of resemblance rather than of difference, to begin with. We should not run a tilt against even errors, and so provoke to their defence, but rather find in creeds and practices an ignorant groping after, and so a door of entrance for, the truth which we seek to recommend.

II. The declaration of the Unknown God has been prepared for, and now follows, and with it is bound up a polemic against idolatry.

Conciliation is not to be carried so far as to hide the antagonism between the truth and error. We may give non-Christian systems of religion credit for all the good in them, but we are not to blink their contrariety to the true religion. Conciliation and controversy are both needful; and he is the best Christian teacher who has mastered the secret of the due proportion between them.

Every word of Paul’s proclamation strikes full and square at some counter belief of his hearers. He begins with creation, which he declares to have been the act of one personal God, and neither of a multitude of deities, as some of his hearers held, nor of an impersonal blind power, as others believed, nor the result of chance, nor eternal, as others maintained. He boldly proclaims there, below the shadow of the Parthenon, that there is but one God,-the universal Lord, because the universal Creator. Many consequences from that fact, no doubt, crowded into Paul’s mind; but he swiftly turns to its bearing on the pomp of temples which were the glory of Athens, and the multitude of sacrifices which he had beheld on their altars. The true conception of God as the Creator and Lord of all things cuts up by the roots the pagan notions of temples as dwelling-places of a god and of sacrifices as ministering to his needs. With one crushing blow Paul pulverises the fair fanes around him, and declares that sacrifice, as practised there, contradicted the plain truth as to God’s nature. To suppose that man can give anything to Him, or that He needs anything, is absurd. All heathen worship reverses the parts of God and man, and loses sight of the fact that He is the giver continually and of everything. Life in its origination, the continuance thereof {breath}, and all which enriches it, are from Him. Then true worship will not be giving to, but thankfully accepting from and using for, Him, His manifold gifts.

So Paul declares the one God as Creator and Sustainer of all. He goes on to sketch in broad outline what we may call a philosophy of history. The declaration of the unity of mankind was a wholly strange message to proud Athenians, who believed themselves to be a race apart, not only from the ‘barbarians,’ whom all Greeks regarded as made of other clay than they, but from the rest of the Greek world. It flatly contradicted one of their most cherished prerogatives. Not only does Paul claim one origin for all men, but he regards all nations as equally cared for by the one God. His hearers believed that each people had its own patron deities, and that the wars of nations were the wars of their gods, who won for them territory, and presided over their national fortunes. To all that way of thinking the Apostle opposes the conception, which naturally follows from his fundamental declaration of the one Creator, of His providential guidance of all nations in regard to their place in the world and the epochs of their history.

But he rises still higher when he declares the divine purpose in all the tangled web of history-the variety of conditions of nations, their rise and fall, their glory and decay, their planting in their lands and their rooting out,-to be to lead all men to ‘seek God.’ That is the deepest meaning of history. The whole course of human affairs is God’s drawing men to Himself. Not only in Judea, nor only by special revelation, but by the gifts bestowed, and the schooling brought to bear on every nation, He would stir men up to seek for Him.

But that great purpose has not been realised. There is a tragic ‘if haply’ inevitable; and men may refuse to yield to the impulses towards God. They are the more likely to do so, inasmuch as to find Him they must ‘feel after Him,’ and that is hard. The tendrils of a plant turn to the far-off light, but men’s spirits do not thus grope after God. Something has come in the way which frustrates the divine purpose, and makes men blind and unwilling to seek Him.

Paul docs not at once draw the two plain inferences, that there must be something more than the nations have had, if they are to find God, even His seeking them in some new fashion; and that the power which neutralises God’s design in creation and providence is sin. He has a word to say about both these, but for the moment he contents himself with pointing to the fact, attested by his hearers’ consciousness, and by many a saying of thinkers and poets, that the failure to find God does not arise from His hiding Himself in some remote obscurity. Men are plunged, as it were, in the ocean of God, encompassed by Him as an atmosphere, and-highest thought of all, and not strange to Greek thought of the nobler sort-kindred with Him as both drawing life from Him and being in His image. Whence, then, but from their own fault, could men have failed to find God? If He is ‘unknown,’ it is not because He has shrouded Himself in darkness, but because they do not love the light. One swift glance at the folly of idolatry, as demonstrated by this thought of man’s being the offspring of God, leads naturally to the properly Christian conclusion of the address.

III. It is probable that this part of it was prematurely ended by the mockery of some and the impatience of others, who had had enough of Paul and his talk, and who, when they said, ‘We will hear thee again,’ meant, ‘We will not hear you now.’ But, even in the compass permitted him, he gives much of his message.

We can but briefly note the course of thought. He comes back to his former word ‘ignorance,’ bitter pill as it was for the Athenian cultured class to swallow. He has shown them how their religion ignores or contradicts the true conceptions of God and man. But he no sooner brings the charge than he proclaims God’s forbearance. And he no sooner proclaims God’s forbearance than he rises to the full height of his mission as God’s ambassador, and speaks in authoritative tones, as bearing His ‘commands.’

Now the hint in the previous part is made more plain. The demand for repentance implies sin. Then the ‘ignorance’ was not inevitable or innocent. There was an element of guilt in men’s not feeling after God, and sin is universal, for ‘all men everywhere’ are summoned to repent. Philosophers and artists, and cultivated triflers, and sincere worshippers of Pallas and Zeus, and all ‘barbarian’ people, are alike here. That would grate on Athenian pride, as it grates now on ours. The reason for repentance would be as strange to the hearers as the command was-a universal judgment, of which the principle was to be rigid righteousness, and the Judge, not Minos or Rhadamanthus, but ‘a Man’ ordained for that function.

What raving nonsense that would appear to men who had largely lost the belief in a life beyond the grave! The universal Judge a man! No wonder that the quick Athenian sense of the ridiculous began to rise against this Jew fanatic, bringing his dreams among cultured people like them! And the proof which he alleged as evidence to all men that it is so, would sound even more ridiculous than the assertion meant to be proved. ‘A man has been raised from the dead; and this anonymous Man, whom nobody ever heard of before, and who is no doubt one of the speaker’s countrymen, is to judge us, Stoics, Epicureans, polished people, and we are to be herded to His bar in company with Boeotians and barbarians! The man is mad.’

So the assembly broke up in inextinguishable laughter, and Paul silently ‘departed from among them,’ having never named the name of Jesus to them. He never more earnestly tried to adapt his teaching to his audience; he never was more unsuccessful in his attempt by all means to gain some. Was it a remembrance of that scene in Athens that made him write to the Corinthians that his message was ‘to the Greeks foolishness’?

 


Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
MacLaren, Alexander. "Commentary on Acts 17:4". Alexander MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture. http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/mac/acts-17.html.

Commentary Navigator
Search This Commentary
Enter query in the box below
To report dead links, typos, or html errors or suggestions about making these resources more useful use our convenient contact form
Powered by Lightspeed Technology