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Bible Commentaries

Sermon Bible Commentary

Acts 17



Verses 2-4

Acts 17:2-4

Consorting with Paul and Silas.

I. Here is the chief object of Christian faith—the Lord Jesus carrying on in His very name the assurance of the things that are necessary for our life and salvation.

II. The means used to produce faith or persuasion are now almost the same as those employed at first—at least in Thessalonica and many other places. To preach Christ is to reason out of the Scriptures, to lay out the matter as it seems to ourselves, to press it home upon all whom it concerns; to remonstrate, expostulate, entreat and then to leave the issue with God.

III. The passage shows us along what line the reasoning usually went. It went towards proving out of the Scriptures that Jesus is Christ. We do not now need to pursue formally the same line of argument, unless as against Jews, who hold to their own Scriptures and reject our Christian conclusion. Substantially, however, our course is the same; our reasonings, our openings of Scripture, our allegations all tend Christwards.

IV. The faith is the same now as then: faith in Christ—in Christ the sufferer, the death-destroyer, the life-giver, the Redeemer of all trusting men.

V. The outward result of this faith or persuasion is, to some extent, the same as at first, and ought to be much more so than it is. They consorted with Paul and Silas. (1) It must always be good to consort with good men. (2) It must always be good to be associated as closely as possible with a good cause. (3) It must be good to escape from an equivocal position. (4) It must be good to remove farther from danger. (5) It must be good to obey Divine commandment.

A. Raleigh, The Way to the City, p. 284.

References: Acts 17:5.—Preacher's Monthly, vol. ii., p. 250. Acts 17:6.—Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. iv., No. 193; J. S. Pearsall, Christian World Pulpit, vol. vi., p. 193. Acts 17:10.—Spurgeon, Morning by Morning, p. 339. Acts 17:10, Acts 17:11.—H. W. Beecher, Ibid., vol. xiii., p. 12. Acts 17:11.—J. Rawlinson, Ibid., vol. x., p. 78; G. Dawson, Sermons on Disputed Points, p. 209; G. Brooks, Five Hundred Outlines, p. 29. Acts 17:11, Acts 17:12.—J. Burton, Christian Life and Truth, p. 196. Acts 17:12.—Preacher's Monthly, vol. iii., pp. 36, 37; vol. vi., p. 182. Acts 17:15.—Ibid., vol. v., p. 60.

Verse 16-17

Acts 17:16-17

Observe Three Things in this Passage.

I. What St. Paul saw at Athens. He saw a city wholly given to idolatry. Idols met his eye in every street. The temples of idol gods and goddesses occupied every prominent position. And yet this city, be it remembered, was probably the most favourable specimen of a heathen city which St. Paul could have seen. In proportion to its size it very likely contained the most learned, civilised, philosophical, highly educated, artistic, intellectual population on the face of the globe. But what was it in a religious point of view? The city of Socrates and Plato, the city of Solon and Pericles and Demosthenes, the city of mind and intellect, was wholly given to idolatry. If the true God was unknown at Athens, what must He have been in the darker places of the earth! We learn from the idolatry of Athens (1) the absolute need of a Divine revelation and of teaching from heaven; (2) that the highest intellectual training is no security against utter darkness in religion; (3) that the highest excellence in the material arts is no preservative against the grossest superstition. The men who conceived the sculptured friezes, which we know as the Elgin marbles, were trained and intellectual to the highest degree. And yet in religion these men were darkness itself. The sight which St. Paul saw at Athens is an unanswerable proof that man knows nothing which can do his soul good without a Divine revelation.

II. What St. Paul felt at Athens. (1) He was stirred with holy compassion. It moved his heart to see so many myriads perishing for lack of knowledge, without God, without Christ, having no hope, travelling in the broad road which leadeth to destruction. (2) He was stirred with holy sorrow. (3) He was stirred with holy indignation against sin and the devil. (4) He was stirred with holy zeal for his Master's glory. These feelings which stirred the Apostle are a leading characteristic of men born of the Spirit. Where there is true grace there will always be tender concern for the souls of others. Where there is true sonship to God there will always be zeal for the Father's glory.

III. What St. Paul did at Athens. He was not the man to stand still and confer with flesh and blood in the face of a city full of idols. He might have reasoned with himself that he stood alone, that he was a Jew by birth, that he was a stranger in a strange land, that he had to oppose the rooted prejudices and associations of learned men, that to attack the old religion of a whole city was to beard the lion in his den, that the doctrines of the gospel were little likely to be effective on minds steeped in Greek philosophy. But none of these thoughts seems to have crossed the mind of St. Paul. He saw souls perishing, he felt that life was short and time passing away, he had confidence in the power of his Master's message to meet every man's soul, he had received mercy himself, and knew not how to hold his peace. He acted at once, and what his hand found to do he did with his might. From St. Paul's behaviour at Athens we learn (1) that the grand subject of our teaching in every place ought to be Jesus Christ; (2) that we must never be afraid to stand alone and be solitary witnesses for Christ; (3) that we must boldly assert the supernatural element as an essential part of the Christian religion; (4) if we preach the gospel we may preach with perfect confidence that it will do good.

Bishop Ryle, Oxford and Cambridge Journal, Nov. 18th, 1880.

References: Acts 17:18.—J. Edmunds, Sixty Sermons, p. 173; Christian World Pulpit, vol. vi., p. 145; G. B. Johnson, Ibid., vol. ix., p. 264; Preacher's Monthly, vol. i., p. 341.

Verse 19

Acts 17:19

I. It may throw a fresh light on the study of the Bible if you look at it with this thought of the contrast and contest between religion and revelation. The Old Testament is not chiefly a record of the Divine origin and establishment and sanctions of a religion. To represent it as this is to lose sight of its most instructive aspect. The Jewish nation, when first they appear in the dawn of history, already were possessed of strong religious traditions and instincts, inherited from their less-enlightened far-off ancestors, and modified by the people with whom they had been brought in contact. The Old Testament must be studied as the record of a contest between the unenlightened religious instincts of the Jews and what for the present we may call the revelation of God made through the hearts and voices of men. Here lies the unending value of the Book, and the record terminates when the contest terminated—when religion was stereotyped and revelation was hushed. The natural growth of thought and revelation was strangled by the grasp of "religion."

II. Then after four centuries Christ came. And what did He come to do? To found a new religion? Surely not. He came to renew and continue the long-lost revelation. He came not to destroy, but to fulfil. He came as one of the prophets, though far greater than any prophet. And He came as the great revealer of God.

The revelation of God in Christ was preached to nations that had gone through very different discipline, and the seed fell on very different soils. But one experience that it met with was universal—it found everywhere the religious instinct developed. And therefore everywhere the old contest was renewed between revelation and religion; the records of ecclesiastical history are the records of the contest between the higher light and the lower instinct in the Christian centuries, just as the Old Testament is the record of a similar contest in the pre-Christian centuries. Religion is multiform, transient, external; revelation is one, progressive and spiritual. The Christian religion is allerveränderlichste, the most mutable of all things, as has well been said by Rothe, and almost the same thing has been said by Newman. The Christian revelation is the most indestructible of things: it is light, it is life, it is growth, it is πνεῦμα, it is spirit.

J. M. Wilson, Contributions to Religious Thought, p. 82.

References: Acts 17:19.—Preacher's Monthly, vol. xxv., p. 216; P. Brooks, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xxvii., p. 14; G. Brooks, Five Hundred Outlines, p. 310; Church of England Pulpit, vol. xviii., p. 133.

Verse 20

Acts 17:20

God of the Times of Ignorance.

Notice three general principles which we shall do well to have clearly in mind always when we read our Bibles.

I. There is a progress in the Divine revelation in the Bible,—a progress from limited to fuller revelation, from smaller to larger knowledge, from more contracted to expanded views of God and truth. The Bible is the record of a revelation given, as we are told in the Epistle to the Hebrews, "at sundry times and in divers manners." There is a progress from the morality which must be held in leading strings, kept to duty by specific rules and minute precepts, to the freedom with which Christ makes His disciples free, throwing them upon the guidance of the conscience, enlightened by the Spirit. The revelation of God and the unfolding of character in Scripture are as the progress from starlight to the brightness of noon.

II. The principle of accommodation. We must never forget that we as Christians read the Bible from the New Testament standpoint, and that consequently, if we read the Old Testament expecting to find New Testament standards and principles in operation there, we shall be constantly disappointed and puzzled. For reasons of His own God adapted His revelations to men as they were. And we ourselves stand upon the same basis. There is more in revelation than we have yet seen, there is a glory to be revealed; we might as properly ask why God does not fit us at once to receive the full weight of glory as it comes down upon a heavenly nature. We know simply that this is not His way, that we could not bear it if it were revealed.

III. Through this partial, growing, and accommodated revelation God is continually working toward His own perfect ideal.

M. R. Vincent, God and Bread, p. 323.

References: Acts 17:22.—G. Martin, Christian World Pulpit, vol. vi., p. 270; Preacher's Monthly, vol. ii., p. 95; G. Brooks, Five Hundred Outlines, p. 265. Acts 17:23.—J. M. Neale, Sermons in a Religious House, 2nd series, vol. i., p. 27; Three Hundred Outlines on the New Testament, p. 116; J. Legge, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xxvi., p. 76; E. Medley, Ibid., vol. xxvii., p. 295; R. Duckworth, Ibid., vol. xxxii., p. 145. Acts 17:26.—J. Greenhough, Ibid., p. 246; Preacher's Monthly, vol. vi., p. 6; Ibid., vol. x., p. 99. Acts 17:26, Acts 17:27.—A. M. Fairbairn, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xv., p. 321; H. W. Beecher, Ibid., vol. xxvi., p. 405; T. S. Bonney, Church of England Pulpit, vol. xix., p. 27.

Verse 23

Acts 17:23

Paul declared to the Athenians the unknown God: (1) in His relation to nature, (2) in His relation to man.

I. God in relation to nature. (1) The Apostle begins by affirming that God made the world and all things therein—that He was the Creator of the universe. (2) This idea means that God made the world in relation to its matter. (3) God made the world, not only in its matter, but also in its laws. (4) Having created the world God is still present in it as its sovereign Lord and Director.

From these truths two valuable lessons are deduced: (a) God dwelleth not in temples made with hands, (b) He is not worshipped or served with men's hands as though He needed anything.

II. God in His relation to man. (1) Paul begins here again by affirming that God made man, and he proclaims the unity of the human race. (2) Having made men, the Divine Being continues to rule them. He did not heartlessly fling them upon the world to be the sport of chance, but determined the times before appointed and the bounds of their habitation. (3) The Apostle announces a nearer relation still: he declares God to be the Father of men. "We are also His offspring."

J. C. Jones, Studies in the Acts, p. 303.

References: Acts 16:24-34.—Homiletic Quarterly, vol. ii., p. 152; Acts 16:25-27.—Ibid., vol. i., p. 80. Acts 16:25-40.—Homilist, 2nd series, vol. i., p. 198.

Verses 26-31

Acts 17:26-31

St. Paul at Athens.

I. The Jewish nation had existed to be a witness for this universal fellowship among the nations. It had existed as a witness against that which tended to divide them and set them at war. It existed to say, "The living and true God has created you all to be one." No one thought has been awakened in your minds without His teaching and guidance. I, the Jew, the child of Abraham, stand forth to make that claim on behalf of the God whom I worship. I, the Jew, the child of Abraham, stand forth to declare that you, the men of Athens, have had a Divine vocation, that the God of all has appointed you to play a distinct and a very remarkable part in His great drama."

II. But why has God chosen out the particular nations? Why has He ordered the times before appointed and the bounds of their habitation? Here is St. Paul's answer: "That they may seek the Lord, if haply they may feel after Him and find Him." According to this explanation of an inspired apostle, it was God Himself who stirred up the thoughts and inquiries of men about His Being and nature. Without His first word they could not have been; without His continual presence and inspiration they must have ceased altogether.

III. Bold as this statement is, it is less startling than the words which follow. We are so familiar with them, they have so leavened the dialect of Christendom, that we do not consider how awful they are in themselves, how much more remarkable they are for the place in which they were uttered, how they contradict some of our most approved religious and philosophical maxims. "Though He be not far from every one of us: for in Him we live, and move, and have our being." St. Paul regarded this statement as the one great protest against Pantheism, and all other evil tendencies, to which the Athenian was liable; He shows the Athenians that God was their Father. It was because He was the Father of their spirits—because they were spiritual beings created in His spiritual likeness, created to feel after Him and find Him—it was therefore that the conceiving Him under any of these notions of theirs, the casting Him in any material shape, was so degrading and abominable. The whole burning indignation of the Jew against the gods of the hills and groves comes forth in this assertion, which is nevertheless so full of tenderness for every heathen, and which could only have been uttered by one who believed that God had loved the whole world, and had sent His Son to take upon Him the nature of the dweller in Athens as much as of the dweller in Jerusalem.

F. D. Maurice, Sermons, vol. v., p. 111.

Verse 27

Acts 17:27

The Voice of History.

I. History is the preacher of God. We may learn from it just the refutation of the fool when he hath said in his heart "There is no God." The blind man might as well assert that there is no sun. All history, all Scripture, all nature, all experience, refutes him. Well might the baffled and dying Julian exclaim, "O Galilean, thou hast conquered!" Could there be two more stupendous proofs of the presence of God in history than Christianity and Christendom? What can account for so superb a triumph of the merest weakness? One fact, and one fact only—the power of Christ's resurrection.

II. And history, which is the preacher of God, is also a preacher of judgment. How often has God confounded the Babels and dashed in pieces the invincible despotisms of the world! God is not, as Napoleon said, on the side of the biggest battalions. Alexander, the Czar of Russia, understood the truth if Napoleon did not, and on his commemorative medal were carved the words, "Not to me, not to us, but unto Thy name."

III. History is the preacher of great moral verities. A nation morally corrupt is invariably a nation physically weak. History is a voice ever sounding across the centuries the eternal distinctions of right and wrong. Opinions alter, manners change, creeds rise and fall, but the moral law is written on the tablets of eternity. For every false word and unrighteous deed, for cruelty or oppression, for lust or vanity, the price has to be paid to the end. Justice and truth alone endure and live; injustice and falsehood may be long-lived, but doomsday comes to them at last.

F. W. Farrar, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xxix., p. 353.

References: Acts 17:27.—G. Gilfillan, Christian World Pulpit, vol. viii., p. 257; Homilist, 2nd series, vol. i., p. 589; Preacher's Monthly, vol. ix., p. 84.

Verse 28

Acts 17:28

I. Since God is everywhere, we move, speak, act, think in God. We rise up, we lie down, we eat, we drink, we work, we rest, we speak, in God, we pray to God, or—men forget God; not only with God's eye ever upon us, as much upon us as if in the whole circuit of created beings there were, besides God, no other living being but our one self; not only with that all-beholding Eye resting upon us, seeing every motion of our frames, every emotion of our hearts, every thought before it is yet framed, every word when as yet unspoken; but all we do, think, speak, by night or by day, we do, think, speak in God, encompassed by God. "In God we live and move." This might be very blessed, the bliss almost of the blessed in heaven. But it has its awful sides also. Since we think, speak, act in God, then every sin which men commit—the foulest, most cruel, most loathsome, most contrary to the nature which God formed—is committed in God. It cannot be otherwise. God not only sees through the darkness, He is in it. There He is, where thou turnest. Thou canst not turn away from God except to meet God. Thou canst turn away from His love, yet only to meet Him in His displeasure. Turn, then, in sorrow from thy sin, and thou wilt meet Him and see Him forgiving thee.

II. Since, then, all is of God and in God, since we ourselves, if our souls are alive, are in Christ and through Christ in God, there is no room to claim anything as our own. To claim any gift of God as our own is to rob God. But who could wish to hold anything of his own? How much holier, deeper, more blessed, more full of love, is it to draw every breath of our lives in Him, as supplying it; to move around Him as the centre of our being, and who gives us power to move. As in nature even the strength which men abuse against God is, in every separate act, still continued to them by God whom they offend, so in grace, not only the general power to do acts well-pleasing to God is given and upheld by God, but each act wherewith, from the sacrifice of Abel until now, God has been well-pleased, has been done through the power of His grace put forth in men by Him, and by Him perfected in them.

E. B. Pusey, Sermons, vol. ii., p. 372.

References: Acts 17:28-30.—R. S. Candlish, Scripture Characters and Miscellanies, p. 493. Acts 17:29.—J. Fraser, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xv., p. 230. Acts 17:30.—Three Hundred Outlines on the New Testament, p. 117; G. Brooks, Five Hundred Outlines, p. 26. Acts 17:30, Acts 17:31.—J. Natt, Posthumous Sermons, p. 124; E. White, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xviii., p. 344; Homilist, 3rd series, vol. x., p. 104. Acts 17:31.—G. Brooks, Five Hundred Outlines, p. 33.

Verse 32

Acts 17:32

The Resurrection of the Dead.


I. That the resurrection is exhibited in the Bible, not as the speculative truth which must be believed because taught, but with which otherwise we have no close concern: it is rather set forth as so intimately bound up with our salvation, that to prove it false were to prove the human race unredeemed. I look on the wondrous exhibitions of creative wisdom and might, and I gather from the magnificent spectacle witness in abundance that a resurrection is possible.

II. Consider the evidence which we have of the resurrection of Christ. When we show that the chosen witnesses proved by their endurances that they were not deceivers and that they enjoyed such opportunities of assurance that they could not themselves have been deceived, we seem to place the resurrection of our Lord, so far as testimony is concerned, beyond the reach of cavil. We feel that it was a scorn which nothing could justify and a hesitation which must yield so soon as evidence was examined, when we find it expressed in the words of the text, "When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked: and others said, We will hear thee again of this matter."

III. The grand characteristic of our resurrection bodies is to be the likeness of the glorified body of Christ. Whilst yet a wrestler with principalities and powers the believer in Christ is opposed by his own flesh, and all his corporeal senses take part with the foes who would withstand him as he presses on to immortality. But when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, the body will be spiritual, not natural; regenerated flesh, sanctified matter; its every organ a minister of righteousness, its every sense an inlet for the majesty of God. Matter shall rival spirit in consecration to the Lord, and the very walls of the temple be instinct with holiness and breathe of duty.

H. Melvill, Penny Pulpit, No. 2553.

References: Acts 17:32-34.—Homilist, vol. v., p. 369. Acts 18:3.—J. Thain Davidson, Talks with Young Men, p. 47. Acts 18:9, Acts 18:10.—Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxvi., No. 1566; W. Braden, Christian World Pulpit, vol. ix., p. 68. Acts 18:9-11.—Preacher's Monthly, vol. vii., p. 315. Acts 18:10.—W. Baird, The Hallowing of our Common Life, p. 62.


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Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Acts 17:4". "Sermon Bible Commentary".

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