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Bible Commentaries

Joseph Benson's Commentary of the Old and New Testaments

Acts 17

 

 

Verse 1

Acts 17:1. Now when they, &c. — It appears by Luke’s phraseology here, that he was left at Philippi; for here he ceases to speak of himself as one of Paul’s company, saying, not when WE, but when they had passed, &c. Nor does he resume his former manner of writing until Acts 20:5-6. It is therefore more than probable, that when Paul, Silas, and Timothy departed from Philippi, after having gathered a church there, Luke remained with the new converts until the apostle, in his way from Corinth to Syria the second time, came to Philippi and took him with them. Had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia — The apostle having, as we have seen, successfully planted the gospel in Philippi, departed with his assistants, Silas and Timothy; and passing first through Amphipolis, a city built in an island formed by two branches of the river Strymon, (from whence it had its name,) and a colony of the Athenians, and then through Apollonia, a colony of the Corinthians and Corcyreans, near the sea-side; they came to Thessalonica — Now the metropolis of all the countries comprehended in the Roman province of Macedonia. For it was the residence both of the proconsul and questor; so that, being the seat of government, it was constantly filled with strangers, who attended the courts of judicature, or who solicited offices. And as most of the Greeks about this time were extremely addicted to philosophy, so great a city as Thessalonica could not be destitute of men of learning, who were well qualified to judge of the gospel and its evidences. Moreover, its situation, at the bottom of the Thermaic gulf, rendering it fit for commerce, many of its inhabitants were merchants, who carried on an extensive trade with foreign countries; and who, as the apostle observes, (1 Thessalonians 1:9,) published in these distant countries the conversion of the Thessalonians, and the miracles by which they had been converted. The Jews, likewise, resorted to this city in such numbers as to form a numerous congregation, and had, as we here read, a synagogue; whereas, it does not appear that they had one in any other city of Macedonia. And, probably, the reason why the apostle made no stay at the two fore-mentioned cities was, that there was no synagogue in either of them, and perhaps even no Jews, whom he was wont first to address wherever he came. It appears, therefore, from the above account of Thessalonica, that it was a very proper theatre whereon to display the light of the gospel. Through the advantages of its situation this city still subsists under the name of Salonichi, and is a place of great resort and trade, but it is in the possession of the Turks.


Verse 2-3

Acts 17:2-3. And Paul, as his manner was — Of doing all things, as far as might be, in a regular way; went in unto them — Entered their assembly; and three sabbath days reasoned with them — If any reader wishes to know more particularly the manner of the apostle’s reasoning with the Jews, and the proofs which he brought from their own Scriptures, in support of the facts which he affirmed, he will find an excellent example thereof in the sermon which Paul preached in the synagogue of Antioch in Pisidia, chap. Acts 13:16-41; where see the notes. Opening and alleging διανοιγων και παρατιθεμενος, explaining and evidently showing, that is, showing by clear and incontestable arguments: for the word signifies placing a thing before the eyes of spectators; that Christ must needs have suffered — That is, that it was necessary, according to the whole tenor of the prophecies, that the Messiah should suffer, and that no one could be the Messiah who did not suffer; and have risen again from the dead — The Scriptures having also clearly predicted that event; and that this Jesus whom I preach unto you is Christ — Having exactly fulfilled all these predictions of the Scriptures concerning the Messiah, and answered all the characters drawn in them of him.


Verse 4

Acts 17:4. And some of them believed — Notwithstanding Paul’s arguments were all taken out of the Scriptures, his discourse did not make such an impression on the Jews as might have been expected; for only a few of them believed, and consorted with or adhered to, Paul and Silas. Of the religious proselytes, indeed, a great multitude were converted, among whom were many women of the first distinction in the city. Our freethinkers pique themselves upon observing, that women are more religious than men; and this, in compliment both to religion and good manners, they impute to the weakness of their understandings. And indeed, as far as nature can go in imitating religion by performing the outward acts of it, this picture of religion may make a fairer show in women than in men, both by reason of their more tender passions and their modesty, which will make those actions appear to more advantage. But in the case of true religion, which always implies taking up the cross, especially in time of persecution, women lie naturally under a great disadvantage, as having less courage than men. So that their embracing the gospel in such circumstances, was a stronger evidence of the power of Him whose strength is perfected in weakness, as a greater assistance of the Holy Spirit was needful for them to overcome their natural fearfulness.

This is Luke’s account of the success of the gospel at Thessalonica: but we learn from Paul himself, (1 Thessalonians 1:9,) that multitudes of the idolaters also believed, being greatly struck with the miracles which he wrought, and with the miraculous gifts which he conferred on the believers. We may therefore suppose, that when he found the Jews averse to his doctrine he left the synagogue, and preached to the idolatrous Gentiles, with whom he had great success, on account of his disinterestedness, as well as of his miracles. For neither he nor any of his assistants, all the time they were in Thessalonica, took the least reward, either in money or goods, from the disciples; but wrought with their hands, and by the profits of their labours maintained themselves, without being burdensome to any person, 1 Thessalonians 2:9. None of the Thessalonians, therefore, could suspect that either Paul or his assistants had come to make game of them, by converting them to the Christian faith.


Verses 5-7

Acts 17:5-7. But the Jews which believed not, &c. — Although many Jews at Thessalonica received and heartily embraced the truth, there were many who rejected it, and that, as it afterward appeared, with much malignity of heart. For the great success which Paul had in converting the idolatrous Gentiles, raised the envy and indignation of the unbelieving Jews to such a pitch, that, transported with a blind and furious zeal, they hired ( των αγοραιων τινας ανδρας πονηρους) certain dissolute fellows who frequented the market-place, and were prepared to do any thing, however bad, for a small reward. These gathered a company — Collected a mob; and soon set all the city in an uproar — Threw it into the greatest confusion; and assaulted the house of Jason — Where Paul and his assistants lodged; and sought to bring them out to the people — Whom they had incensed and enraged against them, and by whom they hoped to see them pulled in pieces. And when they found them not — As they expected, in the house; (the apostles, it seems, having been advised to withdraw, as being most obnoxious;) they drew Jason — A converted Jew; and certain brethren — Who were with him; unto the rulers — To whom they represented them as very criminal, in having received and harboured dangerous persons, not fit to be tolerated, enemies to the public peace, who threw every thing into disorder wherever they came: crying, These that have turned the world upside down — With their new doctrine; are come hither also — To create the same disturbance among us; whom Jason hath received — Hath sheltered under his roof, and so hath made himself responsible for all the mischief they may do here; and these all do contrary to the decrees of Cesar — Not to any particular decree, for there was as yet no law of the empire against Christianity; but contrary to Cesar’s power in general to make decrees; saying, that there is another king — Not only a king of the Jews, as Christ was himself charged before Pilate with saying; but a universal Monarch, a Lord of all, as Peter called him in the first sermon he preached to the Gentiles, Acts 10:36; for doubtless they alluded to the Christian doctrine concerning the Lordship, or universal dominion of Jesus, which they pretended was inconsistent with the universal lordship of Cesar. It is true, the Roman government, both while it was a commonwealth, and after it came into the hands of the Cesars, was very jealous of any governor under their dominion taking upon him the title of king, and there was an express law against it; but Christ’s kingdom was not of this world. His followers said, indeed, that Jesus was a king, but not an earthly king: not a rival with Cesar, nor one whose ordinances interfered with the decrees of Cesar; but who made it a law of his kingdom, to render unto Cesar the things that were Cesar’s. There was nothing in the doctrine of Christ that tended to the dethroning of princes, or the depriving of them of any of their prerogatives, as they knew very well; and it was against their consciences that they laid any thing of this kind to the charge of Christ’s disciples. And of all people, it ill became the Jews to do it, who hated Cesar and his government, and sought the ruin both of him and it; and who expected a Messiah that should be a temporal prince, and overturn the thrones of kingdoms; and were therefore opposing our Lord Jesus because he did not appear under that character.


Verses 8-10

Acts 17:8-10. And they troubled the people and the rulers — As the charge was formed in such a manner that their neglecting it might render them obnoxious to the Romans, both the multitude and the magistrates of the city were alarmed when they heard these things. They were not willing, however, to proceed to extremities against an inhabitant of the place, merely for harbouring persons who, whatever might be alleged against them, were in a manner strangers to him; and, therefore, when they had taken security of Jason, and the other — Brethren who were brought before them, that they would behave as good subjects; they let them go — Dismissed them for that time. This liberal conduct of the rulers of Thessalonica restrained the malice of the Jews for the present. But the brethren — Fearing some new tumult might arise, thought it prudent to send Paul and Silas — And probably Timothy also, Acts 17:15; away by night to Berea — A populous city in the neighbourhood. Luke has not told us what time Paul and his assistants spent at Thessalonica. But there are circumstances mentioned in the apostle’s epistles from which we may infer, that they spent some months in planting a church there; such as that, during his abode at Thessalonica, he received money twice from the Philippians, (Philippians 4:15,) and communicated the spiritual gifts to the brethren in plenty, (1 Thessalonians 5:19,) and appointed προισταμενους, presidents, or rulers, statedly to exercise the ministry among them, (1 Thessalonians 5:12,) having formed them into a regular church; all which implies that he abode a considerable time in this city.


Verses 11-14

Acts 17:11-14. These were more noble, &c. — Greek, ευγενεστεροι, more ingenuous, or generous; of a more excellent disposition, more open to conviction, as being less blinded by prejudice. To be teachable in the things of God, is true nobleness and generosity of soul. Than those in Thessalonica — The unbelieving Jews there; in that they received the word with all readiness of mind — When it was proved to them from the Scriptures to be the word of God. And searched the Scriptures daily — Using great candour and impartiality in the search; whether these things were so — Namely, the things which Paul preached concerning the sufferings and resurrection of the Messiah. Here we see that receiving the word with readiness, and the most accurate search into the truth, are things well consistent the one with the other. Therefore many of them believed — Finding how exact a correspondence there was between the words of these Christian preachers and those of their own prophets, to which they referred. Also of honourable women — Women of considerable rank; which were Greeks — That is, proselytes, as the word is frequently used by Luke; and of men not a few — Thus a numerous church was gathered in Berea likewise, consisting both of the Jews and of the Gentiles, but especially of the latter. But — An unhappy opposition soon arose, from the malice of their persecutors: for, when the Jews of Thessalonica understood that the word of God was preached at Berea — With such promising success, not content with what they had done to oppose it at home; they came thither also, and stirred up the people — Greek, σαλευοντες τους οχλους, agitating the multitudes, or, raising a storm among them; the expression properly signifying to agitate the sea violently. It admirably illustrates the rage and fury of a seditious multitude. They doubtless represented Paul and his associates as factious and turbulent persons, to whom it was dangerous to give any the least shelter or countenance. The brethren, therefore, anxious for Paul’s safety, sent him away to go as it were to the sea — Or by sea, to some of the southern cities of Greece. It seems they chose to direct him the road which led to the sea, that if he had not an opportunity of embarking, or did not think proper to do it, his malicious enemies might, at least, be discouraged from any further attempt to pursue him, which they might probably have done, if they had known he would have travelled by land. But Silas and Timotheus, whose characters were not so public, or their persons so obnoxious, did not go with him from Berea; but continued there a while longer, to settle the newly-planted church, and to instruct them more fully in the doctrine of the gospel.


Verse 15

Acts 17:15. They that conducted Paul brought him — By land, εως, as far as Athens — That celebrated, unequalled seat of learning among the Greeks. It is true, Athens had now passed the zenith of its political splendour, and had been declining in power and glory ever since the Romans, after conquering Greece, fixed the seat of their government at Corinth. Nevertheless, its fame for learning was still as great as ever. For, at the time Paul visited that city, it was full of philosophers, rhetoricians, orators, painters, statuaries, and of young persons who came to learn philosophy and the arts. But this sort of people, being generally very idle, were great talkers, and had an insatiable curiosity. So that the character which Luke has given of the Athenians, and strangers there, (Acts 17:21,) is perfectly just. And receiving commandment unto Silas, &c., that they should come to him with all speed — Probably that they might bring him information of the state of the new converts he had left behind him at Thessalonica and Berea. Or, perhaps, he wished to be joined by them before he began his ministry at Athens, which yet, observing the wretched state of the city, he was in haste to do. Whether Silas came to him while he was at Athens, is uncertain. Timothy, however, came and informed him, that the idolaters in Thessalonica, displeased to see so many of their countrymen deserting the temples and altars of their gods, had joined the Jews in persecuting the disciples, 1 Thessalonians 2:14. On hearing this, Paul thought it good to be left at Athens alone, 1 Thessalonians 3:1; and sent Timothy back to Thessalonica, to establish and comfort the brethren concerning their faith. While Paul “continued in this renowned city, the centre of polite learning, philosophy, and the fine arts, and, as it were, the university of the Roman empire and of the world, he took little notice of the sculpture and edifices, the fragments of which, to this day, are considered as the most perfect models in their kind; or of their paintings and exhibitions, and other curiosities of this sort.” And yet “Paul is generally allowed to have been a man of fine taste and cultivated genius; but his thoughts were too much occupied about more sublime and interesting subjects, to make observations on these elegant or magnificent trifles.” — Scott. For,


Verse 16-17

Acts 17:16-17. While he waited for them at Athens — Namely, for Silas and Timothy; his spirit was stirred in him — Greek, παρωξυνετο, was disquieted, vexed, filled with grief and indignation; when he saw the city (a city which was thought to be more enlightened than any other, and in which learning and arts were carried to greater perfection than anywhere else in the world) wholly given to idolatry — Greek, κατειδωλον, full of idols, enslaved to idolatry in the most gross and shameful manner. That this was the case, all ancient writers attest. Pausanias says that “there were more images in Athens than in all Greece besides;” and that “they worshipped the gods,” or expressed more piety to them “than all Greece:” and presently adds, as an evidence of their piety, that “they had altars ( αιδους, φημης, και ορμης) erected to shame, fame, and desire;” and again, that “they exceeded all in their zeal for the gods.” Sophocles bears the same testimony, observing, “This city exceeds all others in worshipping and honouring the gods.” Hence Ælian called Athens the altar of Greece; and Xenophon said, that “it had twice as many sacred festivals as any other city.” And no wonder, for the Athenians always imported the deities and superstitions of every nation along with their arts and learning; and, as Strabo says, “their hospitality to strangers extended to the gods too, being very ready to receive any strange objects or forms of worship.” So that, as Petronius humorously says, “It was easier to find a god than a man there.” Here then we have a full proof of the insufficiency of science and philosophy to guide men in matters of religion. “The barbarous Scythians, the wild Indians, nay, the stupid Hottentots,” as Mr. Scott observes, “have never deviated further from truth, or sunk into grosser darkness, in respect to God and religion, than the ingenious and philosophical Athenians did!” The apostle, therefore, though, it seems, he had resolved not to begin preaching till Timothy and Silas arrived, yet, seeing the city sunk so low in these various, complicated, and abominable idolatries, could forbear no longer; and therefore, as there was a synagogue of the Jews in Athens, he went to it without delay, and disputed with the Jews and the devout persons — Whom he found assembled there: thus offering the gospel to them, as his manner was, before he preached it to the Gentiles. But not content with this, he afterward discoursed in the market-place daily with those that met with him — Who were chiefly, doubtless, Athenian idolaters. See Dr. Hammond.


Verse 18

Acts 17:18. Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans and of the Stoics encountered him — Greek, συνεβαλλον αυτω, opposed themselves to him. The Epicureans entirely denied a providence, and held the world to be the effect of mere chance; asserting sensual pleasure to be man’s chief good, and that the soul and body died together. The Stoics held that matter was eternal; that all things were governed by irresistible fate; that virtue was its own sufficient reward, and vice its own sufficient punishment. It is easy to see how happily the apostle levels his discourse at some of the most important errors of each sect, while, without expressly attacking either, he gives a plain summary of his own religious principles. Some said, What will this babbler say? — Such is the language of natural reason, full of, and satisfied with, itself. The expression, rendered babbler, σπερμολγος, (which properly signifies a contemptible person, that picks up scattered seed in the market, or elsewhere, and which Dr. Doddridge translates, retailer of scraps; and Mr. Fleming, holder forth;) admirably expresses the contempt which these philosophers had of this unknown foreigner, who pretended to teach all the several professors of their learned and illustrious body. Yet even here Paul had some fruit, though nowhere less than at Athens. And no wonder, since this city was a seminary of philosophers, who have ever been the pest of true religion. Others said, He seemeth to be a setter forth καταγγελευς, a proclaimer (this expression he returns to them at Acts 17:23) of strange gods — Such as are not known even at Athens. The original expression, ξενων δαιμονιων, signifies strange, or foreign demons. By demons, however, they did not understand devils, or evil beings, as we do; but rather men, who had lived on earth, and were afterward deified; distinguishing them from the θεοι, or gods, who, they thought, were such by nature. Because he preached to them Jesus and the resurrection — The former of which, through their negligence in attending they ridiculously took for a deified man, and the other for a goddess. And, as stupid as this mistake was, it is the less to be wondered at, since the Athenians might as well count the resurrection a deity, as shame, famine, and desire; or as the fever, and some other things too scandalous to be here named, were accounted deities among the Romans.


Verses 19-21

Acts 17:19-21. And — The crowd increasing to a greater number than could conveniently hear him, in the place where they then were; they took and brought him unto Areopagus — Or, the hill of Mars, dedicated to Mars, the heathen god of war, the place where the Athenians held their supreme court of judicature, of which the original number of judges was twelve, but it was afterward increased to three hundred, who were generally men of the greatest families in Athens, and were famed for justice and integrity. Paul, however, was certainly not carried thither to be tried as a criminal, but to be heard discoursing concerning his new doctrine: for they said, May we know what this new doctrine is? For thou bringest certain strange things to our ears — Exceedingly different from what we have ever received from any of those many professors, of various learning, which this city has produced: we would know, therefore, what these things mean — And wish to hear them from thine own mouth, rather than by the uncertain report of others. This course, it must be observed, the Athenians took with Paul, not from the love of truth, but from mere curiosity: for, as the historian proceeds to observe, all the Athenians, and strangers sojourning there — And catching their distemper; spent their time in nothing else but either to tell — To others; or to hear — For themselves; some new thing — Greek, τι καινοτερον, literally, some newer thing. New things quickly grew cheap, and they wanted those that were newer still. The apostle, therefore, “being thus called to declare the new doctrine whereof he spake, to an assembly consisting of senators, philosophers, rhetoricians, and statesmen, willingly embraced the opportunity; and, in a most eloquent discourse, prepared his illustrious auditors for receiving that doctrine which appeared to them so strange, by showing them the absurdity of the commonly-received idolatry, and by speaking on that delicate subject with an address, and temper, and strength of reasoning, which would have done honour to the greatest orators of Greece or Rome.” — Macknight.


Verse 22

Acts 17:22. Then Paul stood (Greek, σταθεις, standing, or being placed, rather, probably on some eminence) in the midst of Mars hill — An ample theatre! said, Ye men of Athens — Giving them a lecture of natural divinity, with admirable wisdom, acuteness, fulness, and courtesy. They inquire after new things: Paul, in his divinely-philosophical discourse, begins with the first, and goes on to the last things, both which were new things to them. He points out the origin and the end of all things, concerning which they had so many disputes, and equally refutes both the Epicurean and Stoic. I perceive — With what clearness and freedom does he speak! Paul against Athens! That in all things ye are too superstitious — This translation does not, it seems, exactly express St. Paul’s meaning; the original expression, κατα παντα ως δεισιδαιμονεστερους, as Dr. Hammond and others have proved, having a good, as well as a bad sense; and here, probably, signifying, as Doddridge and Wesley have rendered it, greatly addicted to the worship of invisible powers. To take it in the sense of our translation, would be to suppose that Paul began his discourse in very offensive language. Whereas, to render it as here proposed, makes him open his sermon, not only in a manner inoffensive, but even conciliating; which common sense would direct him to do, as far as he could with truth. “He introduced his discourse,” says Macknight, “with a handsome compliment to the Athenians in general: he told them that he perceived they were extremely religious; for, lest any god should be neglected by them, he found they had erected an altar to the unknown God; and from this he inferred, that it would not be unacceptable if he should declare to them that God whom they ignorantly worshipped.” For, said he,


Verse 23

Acts 17:23. As I passed by — Or, passed along the streets of your city; and beheld your devotions — Greek, τα σεβασματα υμων, the objects of your worship, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD —

Because Paul here tells the Athenians, that the true God was he whom they ignorantly worshipped under this title, some learned men have supposed that the altar he speaks of was raised to the God of the Jews; concerning whose power, in the destruction of the Egyptians and Canaanites, the ancient Athenians had received some obscure reports; and that, because the Jews carefully concealed his name, and had no image of him, the Athenians erected no statue to him, but worshipped him under the appellation of THE UNKNOWN GOD. Others think this altar was erected by Socrates, to express his devotions to the only true God, (while he derided the plurality of the heathen gods, for which he was condemned to death,) of whom the Athenians had no idea, and whose nature, he insinuated by this inscription, was far above the reach of human comprehension. See Dr. Wellwood’s Introduction to his translation of The Banquet of Xenophon. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship — Greek, ον ουν αγνοουντες ευσεβειτε, whom therefore ye worship, or, toward whom ye are piously disposed, not knowing him; him declare I — Greek, τουτον εγω καταγγελλω, him proclaim I, unto you — Thus he fixes the wandering attention of these blind philosophers; proclaiming to them an unknown, and yet not a new God; and alluding to their words, (Acts 17:20,) he seemeth to be a proclaimer of strange gods.


Verses 24-26

Acts 17:24-26. God that made the world — Thus is demonstrated, even to reason, the one, true, good God; absolutely different from the creatures, from every part of the visible creation. Seeing he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands — God hath no need of temples to dwell in, seeing he hath made the world, and is the Lord, or possessor, of the universe. Ye, therefore, greatly err in thinking, that by erecting magnificent temples and images, and by consecrating them, ye draw God down into them, and prevail with him to reside among you in an especial manner. That vulgar notion is unworthy of men whose minds are improved by science, and who, from God’s having made the world, ought to know that his presence is not confined to temples made by men. Neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing — Or, person, the word τινος equally taking in both: that is, Neither is the true God worshipped with sacrifices and meats prepared by men’s hands, if these things are offered to him, as though he needed to be fed with the fruits of the earth, and with the flesh of beasts, and refreshed with the steams of sacrifices and incense: seeing he giveth to all — That live and breathe, whether men or beasts; life — For in him we live; and breath — In him we move; and all things — For in him we are: whence it is evident that men can contribute nothing to his life or happiness. And hath made of one blood all nations of men — Hath from one man and woman multiplied the human race, so as to form those different nations which cover the face of the whole earth; and hath everywhere made a liberal provision for them, of all the necessaries of life. How then can ye fancy that he himself needs to be lodged, and clothed, and fed by men! By speaking thus, the apostle also showed them, in the most unaffected manner, that though he was a Jew, he was not enslaved to any narrow views, but looked on all mankind as his brethren. And hath determined the times before appointed — Hath also assigned to each of these nations their times of existence; and the bounds of their habitations — By mountains, seas, rivers, and the like; that is, the particular countries they were or are to inhabit, according as he had before appointed these things. By all which he shows, that he governs the world by a most wise providence, contrary to what you Epicureans teach, and also that his government is most free, contrary to the doctrine of the Stoics.


Verse 27-28

Acts 17:27-28. That they should seek, &c. — As if he had said, This most wise and free government of the nations of men, God carries on through all ages for this purpose, that they may be led to seek the Lord — That is, to seek the knowledge, fear, and love of him; to seek his favour, his Spirit, and communion with him: if haply — The way is open; God is ready to be found; but he will lay no force upon any man; they might feel after him — Feeling is the lowest and grossest of all our senses, and is therefore applied to that low kind of the knowledge of God which some of the heathen possessed, and which is first attained before higher discoveries of him are made. Though he be not και τοι γε, and truly indeed he is not, far from any one of us — Therefore, though he be not the object of men’s senses, we need not go far to seek or find him. He is very near us; yea, in us. It is only blind, perverse reason which thinks he is far off. For in him — Not in ourselves; we live, move, and have our being — This denotes his necessary, intimate, and most efficacious presence. The structure of our bodies, and the union of our souls to these exquisite pieces of material mechanism, together with the noble faculties of our minds, wherein we resemble God, and the admirable end for which this wonderful composition of soul and body is formed, afford to every man, not only an idea, but a proof of the Deity supporting and animating him: so that no words can better express, than these of the apostle do, the continual and necessary dependance of all created beings, in their existence and all their operations, on the first, the universal, and almighty Cause, which the truest philosophy, as well as divinity teaches. As certain also of your own poets have said — Aratus, whose words these are, and who also added another sentence, equally just and striking, namely, We are his offspring, especially in respect of intelligence, and other mental powers, similar to his, with which we are endowed. This poet, Aratus, was an Athenian, who lived almost three hundred years before this time. The words are also to be found, with the alteration of one letter only, in the hymn of Cleanthes to the Supreme Being, one of the purest and finest pieces of natural religion in the whole world of pagan antiquity.


Verse 29

Acts 17:29. For as much then as we are the offspring of God — We, with all the powers and faculties of our rational nature, and since these bear but a very imperfect and distant resemblance of those original, consummate, and infinite glories which shine forth in him; we ought not surely to think — A tender expression; especially in the first person plural: that the Godhead is like unto gold and silver. &c., graven by art and man’s device — For such things, conveying no idea of mind, if they be likenesses of God, they represent him as being mere matter, void of intelligence; but if he be so, how could he give intelligence, and all the other faculties of mind to us? As if he had said, Can God himself be a less noble Being than we who are his offspring? Nor does he only deny here that these images are like God, but he denies, also, that they have any analogy to him at all, so as to be capable of representing him in any degree or respect.


Verse 30-31

Acts 17:30-31. And the times of this ignorance — What! Does he object ignorance to the learned and knowing Athenians? Yes, and they acknowledged it by this very altar; God winked at — Greek, υπεριδων, having overlooked, bearing with it, as if he did not take notice of it: that is, in his great long-suffering, he suffered mankind to go on in their course of ignorance and idolatry, without interrupting them in it, by sending express messages to them, by divinely-commissioned instructers, as he did to the Jews; because he meant to show them experimentally the insufficiency of their own reason in matters of religion; but now — This day, this hour, saith Paul, puts an end to the divine forbearance, and brings either greater mercy or punishment. Now he commandeth all men everywhere to repent — Of their ignorance, idolatry, and wickedness. There is a dignity and grandeur in this language of the apostle becoming an ambassador from the King of heaven. And this universal demand of repentance declared universal guilt in the strongest manner: and admirably confronted the pride of the haughtiest Stoic of them all. At the same time it bore down the idle plea of fatality. For how could any one repent of doing what he could not but have done. Because he hath appointed a day, &c. — To persuade them more effectually to repent, God hath set before mankind the greatest of all motives, that of a future judgment. He hath appointed a day — A great and awful day in which he will judge the world — Even the whole world; in righteousness — And will pass a final sentence of happiness or misery on each, according to his true character and behaviour. How fitly does the apostle speak thus in their supreme court of justice! By that man whom he hath ordained — For that important purpose. Thus he speaks, suiting himself to the capacity of his hearers. Whereof he hath given assurance, &c., in that he hath raised him from the dead — The resurrection of Jesus from the dead hath put the resurrection and judgment of all men beyond dispute: 1st, Because it hath confirmed the doctrine of Christ, one important branch of which was, that he would raise the dead and judge all mankind. 2d, Because God raised him from the dead, as on divers other accounts, so especially that he might judge mankind by him. We are by no means to imagine that this was all which the apostle intended to have said. But the indolence of some of his hearers, and the petulancy of others, cut him short. For when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked — Made a jest of it, as a despicable and incredible tale, not worthy to be any longer heard; thereby interrupting him. These were probably the Epicureans, who took offence at that which is a principal object of faith, from the pride of reason. And having once stumbled at this, they disbelieved all the rest; and so went down to righteous condemnation, under the guilt of having rejected a gospel, the proof of which they might have learned in one single day, but would not give themselves the trouble of examining: and this is the condemnation to which many among us are exposed. And others — More candid; said, We will hear thee again on this matter — And having said this, they put an end to the apostle’s discourse, and to the assembly, without allowing him an opportunity of showing how the resurrection of Jesus renders the resurrection and judgment of mankind probable; or of explaining the other fundamental doctrines of the gospel.


Verse 33-34

Acts 17:33-34. So Paul departed from among them — Leaving his hearers divided in their judgment, and the generality of them in that deplorable state of ignorance, folly, and superstition, in which he found them; being himself astonished, no doubt, that men who professed wisdom were so little able to discern truth. Howbeit, certain men clave unto him — And inquired further into the evidence of that extraordinary doctrine which he taught concerning Jesus and his resurrection; the consequence of which was, that they believed the gospel, and made a public and courageous confession of it. Among whom was Dionysius the Areopagite — One of the judges of that court; and a woman named Damaris — One of considerable rank and character in the city; and others with them — Whose names it is not necessary here to mention. These, it seems, were the only persons Paul met with in this famous mart of learning, capable of seeing and acknowledging the absurdity of the prevailing idolatry! It is not said that Paul wrought any miracles at Athens; and the little success with which he preached, gives reason to suppose that he wrought none. Doubtless, this was by divine appointment, and probably to try what reception the gospel would meet with from learned and inquisitive men, when offered to them merely on the footing of its own reasonableness. The truth is, if such an experiment was anywhere to be made, in order to confute those in after times who should affirm that the general reception of the gospel, in the first stage, was owing not to miracles, but to the absurdities of heathenism, and to the reasonableness of the gospel doctrine, Athens surely was the place where the trial could be made with most advantage, and Paul’s oration in the Areopagus was the discourse which should have convinced reasonable men. Nevertheless, at Athens, where the human faculties were carried to the greatest perfection, the apostle was not able to convince his hearers of the folly of idolatry, nor of the reasonableness of worshipping and serving the one living and true God, by purity of mind and goodness of life!

 


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Bibliography Information
Benson, Joseph. "Commentary on Acts 17:4". Joseph Benson's Commentary. http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/rbc/acts-17.html. 1857.

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