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Bible Commentaries

Thomas Coke Commentary on the Holy Bible

Acts 17

 

 

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Introduction

CHAP. XVII.

Paul preacheth at Thessalonica; where some believe, and others persecute him: he is sent to Berea, and preacheth there: being persecuted at Thessalonica, he cometh to Athens, and disputeth, and preacheth the living God to them unknown, whereby many are converted unto Christ.

Anno Domini 54.


Verse 1

Acts 17:1. Amphipolis and Apollonia Were two cities of Macedonia; the first was built by Cimon the Athenian, who sent 10,000 Athenians as a colony thither. It stood in an island of the river Strymon, and had the name of Amphipolis, from the river's running on both sides of the city. The latter was a colony of Corinthians and Corcyreans, near the sea-side. St. Luke seems to have gone no further than Philippi with the apostle at this time; but Silas and Timothy still accompanied him; and passing through these two cities, they came to Thessalonica, another celebrated city, and the metropolis of that part of Macedonia; very famous for its origin, situation, and amplitude: it was a maritime town remarkable for its trade and commerce, in which many Jews had settled. It stood upon the Termaian bay, and was anciently called Thermae; but being rebuilt and enlarged by Philip the father of Alexander the Great, upon his victory over the Thessalians, it was in memory of the fact called Thessalonica, which signifies, "The victory of Thessalia." It is now, by a corrupt pronunciation, called Saloniki, and is a maritime trading town inthe possession of the Turks. Where was a synagogue of the Jews, might perhaps be rendered more properly, where was the synagogue of the Jews; the only synagogue, possibly, which they had in Macedonia.


Verse 2

Acts 17:2. Three sabbath days reasoned with them, &c.— It has been hence concluded, that St. Paul continued but threeweeks at Thessalonica: but as it evidently appears, that while he was in this city he not only wrought with his own hands to procure subsistence, (1 Thessalonians 2:9; 1 Thessalonians 2. Thess. Acts 3:8.) but also received supplies more than once from Philippi, (comp. Philippians 4:16.) it seems much more probable, that after the Jews appeared so obstinate in their infidelity, as most of them did, he desisted from disputing or teaching in their synagogue after the third sabbath; and then preached for some time among the Gentiles, before the assault mentioned, Acts 17:5 which drove him from this city. It appears that, during his stay here, great numbers of Gentile idolaters received the gospel with remarkable zeal and affection: 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10 so that in the midst of their persecutions a church was founded which became famous in all Macedonia and Achaia; (1 Thessalonians 1:5-8.) and though the apostle after having treated the new converts with extraordinary tenderness during his abode with them, was quickly forced to leave them, (1 Thessalonians 2:7; 1 Thessalonians 2:20.) and they about the same time lost some Christian brethren by death, who were dear to them, and might have been remarkably useful; (1 Thessalonians 4:13; 1 Thessalonians 4:18.) yet they continued to behave so well, that St. Paul received a comfortable accountof them by Timothy, and they afterwards advanced in faith, love, and courage, amid their growing trials. See 2 Thessalonians 1.


Verse 3

Acts 17:3. Alledging, Evidently shewing. The proper import of the word παρατιθεμενος is, "laying a thing open before the eyes of spectators." Grotius and Elsner think, that the last words of the preceding verse should be joined to the beginning of this; thus, opening and evincing from the scriptures, &c.


Verse 5

Acts 17:5. Jason, It seems from Romans 16:21 that Jason was a relation of St. Paul's, and probably an Hellenistic Jew. Instead of certain lewd fellows of the baser sort, Doddridge and others render it well, some mean and profligate fellows.


Verse 6

Acts 17:6. That have turned the world upside down "Have caused great confusion and disturbance in every place through which they have passed."


Verse 7

Acts 17:7. Contrary to the decrees of Cesar, &c.— Though the Roman emperor did not pretend to be the only king or monarch, yet, in the conquered provinces or dependant states, there could be no king established without his consent; and it is not improbable that the title of Lord, so frequently and so justly given by Christians to their great Master, might be used as a handle of accusation on such an occasion as this.


Verse 10-11

Acts 17:10-11. Berea Was another city of Macedonia, not far from Pella, the birth-place of Alexander the Great. There is a peculiar spirit and propriety in the expression, These were more noble, &c. As the Jews boasted that they were free and noble by virtue of their descent from Abraham and the other patriarchs, these Bereans, imitating the rationalfaith of their great progenitor, were ευγενεστεροι, his more genuine offspring. The word literally signifies more nobly born; and in a secondary sense implies candour, impartiality, good disposition, and elevated ideas, or noble conceptions, when applied to the mind. The word προθυμιας, tendered readiness, signifies avidity or alacrity; and the original of the next clause implies, "a careful, anxious, and minute examination or research into the scriptures." They did not this from any suspicion of the veracity of Paul and Silas, but that, by comparing their assertions with the scriptures, they might build their faith on rational grounds, and, at the same time that they convinced themselves under the blessing and grace of God, might be enabled also to convince others.


Verse 13

Acts 17:13. And stirred up the people. The word σαλευοντες, rendered stirred up, signifies primarilyraising a storm. It expresses a violent agitation of the sea, and admirably illustrates the rage and fury of a seditious multitude. Comp. Psalms 90:3-4. Isaiah 17:12-13. Jeremiah 46:7-8.


Verse 14

Acts 17:14. To go as it were to the sea Grotius supposes that St. Paul was brought down to the sea-coast, as one about to sail, and that the rumour thereof was spread; but that in reality he hastened by land to Athens. However, Raphelius has clearly and abundantly proved, that the proper translation is, to go towards or unto the sea; and as there is nothing said of his going by land, the propriety of Grotius's interpretation seems more than doubtful.


Verse 15

Acts 17:15. Athens: This celebrated city, whether we consider the antiquity, valour, power, or learning of its inhabitants, has had few to rival it. It is situated in the middle of a large plain, on the gulph of the AEgean sea, which comesup to the isthmus of the Peloponnese or Morea. It is about twenty-five miles distant from Thebes to the south-east; twenty-eight from Negro-point to the south; thirty-five from the Isthmus of Corinth to the east; and about as many south-west, from Cape Raphti, the most eastern land of Achaia. It was and is still the capital of Attica. The people of Athens, proud of their antiquity, owned no original but the earth they dwelt upon, and pretended that they were coeval with the sun. They planted no less than forty colonies, to which they gave names and laws: they were masters of the AEgean sea, and the greater part of the isles in it; and carrying their conquests as far as the borders of Egypt, they had no less than 1000 cities subject to them. This city was, in its most flourishing state, a day's journey, or something more than twenty-two Roman miles in circumference. Its buildings were finished with the highest elegance, of which the temples of Jupiter-Olympus, and Minerva, which is now called Parthenion, are a standing proof to this very day. It might justly be stiled "the university of the whole world." Royal personages resorted hither for education from all parts of the world; and it was celebrated no less for the inviolable fidelity of its citizens, than for being the nursery of the greatest scholars, orators, and philosophers, and for having produced the greater number of heroes of all the other cities in the world. It has suffered great vicissitudes, and is now in the possession of the Turks; who have made a mosque of the Parthenion, which was very much damaged in the Venetian wars. The number of its inhabitants is said to be about 1000, of which three parts are Christians, who have a great number of churches and oratories, and a Greek bishop residing among them, who is a metropolitan: the other inhabitants are Turks, who have five mosques. Few cities in Turkey have preserved themselves so well as this, or enjoy greater privileges under the Turkish tyranny. Their misfortunes have not been able to deprive them of their subtilty and wit, which has been ascribed to the serenity and goodness of the air. It is peculiarly remarkable, that when the plague rages round about it, it seldom reaches there. St. Paul, expecting perhaps that some considerable success would attend his labours in this city, ordered Silas and Timothy to attend him there, as desirous to engage their assistance. Nevertheless, God did not see fit to answer those expectations; and though they came to him as he had ordered, or at least one of them, (that is to say, Timothy,) he was quickly obliged to send him away, especially as he was so solicitous about his friends at Thessalonica. See 1 Thessalonians 3:1-2.


Verse 16

Acts 17:16. His Spirit was stirred in him, The word παρωξυνετο signifies that a sharp edge was as it were set upon his spirit, and that he was wrought up to a great eagerness of zeal. Yet it is observable, that it did not throw him into any sallies of rage, either in words or actions; but only engaged him courageously to attempt stopping the torrent of popular superstition, by the most serious and affectionate, yet at the same time manly and rational remonstrances. The character of being wholly enslaved to idolatry, [ κατειδωλον, full of idols,] is supported by the whole current of antiquity. Athens was therefore called by AElian "the altar of Greece;" and Xenophon observes that it had twice as many sacred festivals as any other city. Pausanias tells us, it had more images than all the rest of Greece; and Petronius humorously says, "It is easier to find a god than a man there." The full inscription of the altar, Acts 17:23 was, "To the gods of Asia, Europe, and Lybia: to the unknown and stranger God." Whence Theophylact concludes, that they received all the strange idol gods of the world,—of Asia, Europe, and Africa; and moreover one, whom they knew not who or where he was. Mr. Biscoe mentions, that a fool had been capitally condemned at Athens for killing one of Esculapius's sparrows; and that a little child, accidentallytaking up a piece of gold which fell from Diana's crown, wasput to death for sacrilege. The prevalence of such a variety of senseless superstitions in this most learned and polite city, which all its neighbours beheld with so much veneration, gives us a most lively and affecting idea of the need we have, in the most improved state of human reason, to be taught by a divine revelation. If the admirers of Grecian wisdom would seriously consider this, they would find almost every one of their classics an advocate for the gospel.


Verse 17

Acts 17:17. The market The forum. Heylin.


Verse 18

Acts 17:18. The Epicureans and—Stoics, The Epicureans, whose sect was founded by Epicurus, are said to have ascribed neither creation nor providence to God; but held that the world was made by a conflux of atoms: that the gods, if there were any, were of human shape, wholived in voluptuous ease and indolence in heaven, entirely unconcerned about human affairs. They likewise held, that, in the present state, pleasure is the chief good; that man's existence was limited to the present being; and that consequently no resurrection from the dead, nor any future state of rewards and punishments, was to be expected. The founder of the Stoic sect was Zeno; but the name of it was derived from the place in which they assembled, the Στοα, Stoa, or famous portico at Athens, which was adorned with the designs of the greater masters in Greece. They held, that there were two general substances in nature, God and matter; and that both were eternal. Some of them indeed maintained, that God was a corporeal substance; that either God was the world, or the world itself God. They looked upon all things, even the Deity himself, as subject to an irresistible fatality; and as they held that the gods could neither be angry, nor hurt anyone, they took away one main prop of the rewards and punishments of a future state: and as a further weakening of this necessary superstructure, they held a conflagration and renovation, by which the present system would be periodically and alternately destroyed and renewed; so that the same persons would be brought on earth again, to do and suffer the same things as the former generations had done; or other persons like them, who would bear the same names, be placed in similar circumstances, and perform similar actions. But what heightened the malignity of their opinions was this, that they held the soul to be originally a discerped part of God; and that immediately after death it was reunited again to the Deity, by which it was exempted from all sense of misery, and lost its personal identity. As the souls of the bad, as well as the good, were held to undergo this reunion or refusion, and as all personal identity waslost, it is evident that a future state of rewards and punishments must be excluded from their creed. Their morality, though so highly cried up, was of a piece with their metaphysics, and led to the very same conclusion; for they held that all crimes were equal: and so far were they from any proper ideas of religion, that they denied that their wise man was any way inferior to the supreme Deity; that he was not at all indebted to him for his wisdom; that the supreme Deity could not bemore than a wise man; that virtue in this life was its own and sufficient reward: and to conclude these outlines of their character, they denied, in common with the other sects, the resurrection of the body. From this sketch of the opinions of these two sects, the reader may see how opposite the genius of each of them was to the pure and humble spirit of Christianity; and how happily the apostle points his discourse at some of the most distinguishing and important errors of each; while, without expressly attacking either, he seems only intent upongiving a plain summary of his own religious principles; in which he appears an excellent model of the true way of teaching and reforming mankind. It cannot be wondered, that such men as the Epicureans and Stoics should give St. Paul the contemptuous appellation of Σπερμολογος, babbler: the word literally signifies "a contemptible creature, which picks up scattered seeds in the market, or elsewhere." It might be rendered a retailer of scraps, "A trifling fellow, who has somewhere or other picked up some scattered notions, with which he is vain enoughto think he may make a figure here." The word strongly expresses the contempt they had for an unknown foreigner, who pretended to teach all the several professors of their learned and illustrious body of philosophers. Chrysostom, whom Dr. Hammond and several other learned interpreters follow, supposes that the Athenians understood St. Paul, as setting forth the Αναστασις, or resurrection, as a goddess. Stupid as this mistake seems, it is the less to be wondered at, since the resurrection might as well be counted a deity among the Athenians, as modesty, fame, desire; or as the fever, and some other things too scandalous here to name, were among the Romans. In deference, however, to such great names, I cannot help thinking that the Athenians must have understood the meaning of the word Αναστασις too well, to have taken it for a goddess: and indeed it appears to me evident from Acts 17:32 that they did understand the word as we commonly do, of men's rising from the dead.


Verse 19

Acts 17:19. They brought him unto Areopagus, The original word is the same with that rendered Mars-hill, Acts 17:22. The name of this senate was taken from the place in which it was assembled, being a hill not far distant from the city; for the word παγος, pagos, in composition, signifies a rock, hill, or eminence. With respect to the first part of the name, authors are not so well agreed: some derive it from the Greek word ' Αρης, which signifies Mars, because he is supposed to have been the first person who was arraigned in this court. But others, with more probability, derive it from the same name, as Mars was the god of war and bloodshed, and as all wilful murders fell under the cognizance of this court; and the word Αρης itself is used to signifymurders. When this court was first instituted, is uncertain, some making it as ancient as Cecrops, and others bringing it down as low as Solon. It has indeed been objected to the latter opinion, that one of Solon's laws makes mention of the Areopagus as already existing. The difficulty is how to reconcile these accounts. The case might have been this: Solon, we know, was employed by the Athenians to new-model their commonwealth, by reforming the illconstitutions, and supplying such as were defective; so that, in the number of his regulations, was that against the admission of foreign gods without a licence from the Areopagus; and having thus enlarged its jurisdiction, he was afterwards regarded as the founder. The number of persons that composed this assembly, is variously represented. By some it is restrained to nine, by others enlarged to thirty-one, by others to fifty-one; but when Socrates was condemned by this court, there were no less than two hundred and eighty one giving their votes against him. Aristides observes, that this court was the most sacred and venerable tribunal in all Greece: so impartial and exact were their proceedings in all matters of law, that, as Demosthenes informs us, there never had been in his time, so much as one of their determinations, which either plaintiff or defendant had reason to complain of. They had three meetings in the Areopagus every month. They sat in the open air, which was customary in such courts as took cognizance of murder; that the judges might not contract any pollutionfrom conversing with men so profane: and they heard all causes at night, and in the dark, that they might not be influenced by seeing either the plaintiff or defendant. There are some remains of the place wherein this assembly met,still visible in the foundations, which form a semicircle, built with square stones of a prodigious size. See on Acts 17:34


Verse 21

Acts 17:21. (For all the Athenians and strangers which were there, &c.)— Who sojourn there. It is well known that the young nobility and gentry of Italy, and most of the neighbouring countries, generally studied some time at Athens; where there were the most celebrated professors in all the liberal arts and sciences. It appears from the testimony of many ancient writers of the first credit, that the Athenians were most remarkable for their love of novelty, agreeable to the character here given of them by St. Luke.


Verse 22

Acts 17:22. Ye are too superstitious. Dr. Doddridge renders the original, Ye are exceedingly addicted to the worship of invisible powers; which, he observes, is very agreeable to the etymology of the word Δεισιδαιμονεστεροι, and has, what a version of scripture in such a case should always have, if possible, the ambiguity of the original; which learned writers have proved to be capable of a good as well as a bad sense: (Comp. ch. Acts 25:19.) whereas neither superstitious nor religious has that ambiguity. This sense too seems preferable to that in our version on another account; as the giving the original the worst signification of which it is capable, does not well suit the peculiar delicacy with which St. Paul addresses himself to the assembly throughout the whole of his speech; whereas, on this interpretation, his discourse opens not only in an inoffensivebut in a very obliging manner. See the note on Acts 17:34.


Verse 23

Acts 17:23. And beheld your devotions, Σεβασματα ;—the objects, and instruments of your worship. This is the proper signification of the original, which has no English word exactly corresponding to it. (Comp. 2 Thessalonians 2:4.) Diogenes Laertius, in his life of Epimenides, gives us the following account of the inscription. He tells us, "that in the time of that philosopher, about 600 years before Christ, there was a terrible pestilence at Athens; and when none of the deities to whom they sacrificed, appeared able or willing to avert it, Epimenides advised them to bring some sheep to the Areopagus, and, letting them loose from thence, to follow them till they lay down; and then to sacrifice them to the god, near whose temple or altar they then were." Now it might have happened that, Athens not being then so full of these monuments of superstition and idolatry as afterwards, these sheep lay down in places where none of them were erected, and so occasioned the rearing what the historian calls anonymous altars, or altars each of which had the inscription, "To the unknown God;" meaning thereby, the god that had sent the plague, whoever he were; one of which altars, at least, however it might have been repaired, remained till St. Paul's time, and long after. Now, as the God whom St. Paul preached was indeed the Deity who sent and removed this pestilence, the apostle might, on supposition of the truth of the above account, with great propriety tell the Athenians, He declared to them Him, whom, without knowing him, they worshipped; as the latter clause of this verse should be read. It may be proper just to observe, that Witsius, with Hensius, &c. understands this inscription of Jehovah, whose name not being pronounced by the Jews themselves, might, they think, give occasion to this appellation; and to this sense Biscoe inclines. Dr. Wellwood, in the introduction to his translation of "The Banquet of Xenophon," observes, "Iknow there are different opinions about this altar, and upon what occasion it came to be erected; but it is very probable, and I have several ancient historians and divines for vouchers, that it was done by Socrates. It seems, instead of raising an altar, as was the custom, to any of the fictitious gods of Greece, he took this way, as the safest, to express his devotion to the one true God; of whom the Athenians had no notion, and whose incomprehensible being, he insinuated by this inscription, was far beyond the reach of their, or of his own understanding: and it is very reasonable to think, that it was owing to the veneration they had for the memory of its founder, that it came to be preserved so many ages after, though they understood not the sense of the inscription." To these observations we may add, that though the heathens held Jupiter to be the one supreme god, yet their Jupiter was not the true God, but a being whom they supposed to be attended with many imperfections, and to whom they ascribed several enormities; and whether that altar was erected by Socrates, or by whatever other person, or upon whatever occasion, it appears highly probable that it was designed in honour of the true God; that is to say, the God of the Jews. For as the Jews neither erected any image to the true God, nor were willing to discover his name to strangers, he had therefore neither image nor name at Athens; though there was an altar dedicated to him, at once to express the Athenians' reverence for, and ignorance of him.


Verse 25

Acts 17:25. Neither is worshipped with men's hands, Neither is served θεραπευεται . This refers to the foolish notion among the heathens, that the gods fed on the fumes of sacrifices. Their votaries also clothed their images with splendid garments, and waited upon them in other services, ill becoming the majesty and purity essential to the Divine Nature.


Verse 26

Acts 17:26. And hath made of one blood all nations, &c.— Παν εθνος ανθρωπων, the whole generation of men. By this expression the apostle shewed 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 in one sense as his brethren. This and the two following verses may be thus paraphrased: "And he hath made of one blood, and caused to descend from one original pair, the immediate work of his own almighty power and goodness, the whole nation and species of men, now by his providential care so propagated, as to inhabit and cover all the face of the earth, having marked or ordained all the seasons as they roll, to change and return according to fixed laws for the regulation of their time, and appointed the several boundaries of their different habitations—all things in the disposition of his providence centring in this one great end, that they might be excited to seek after the Lord their maker; and that, amidst all the darkness which their own degeneracy and prejudice have brought upon their minds, theymight feel after him, and be so happy as to find him out, in the knowledge of whom their supreme happiness consists; who indeed, though he be so little known and regarded by the generality of mankind, yet is not far from every one of us: for in him we perpetually live, and are moved, and do exist; the continuance of all our active powers, and even of our being, is ever owing to his steady and uninterrupted agency upon us, according to those stated laws of operation which he hath wisely been pleased to lay down for himself; as some also of your own poets have in effect said, 'For we his offspring are'."


Verse 27

Acts 17:27. That they should seek the Lord, Dr. Heylin renders this verse, That they should seek God so as to feel and find him: who is indeed already not far from any of us. The word ' Ει, here, says he, is the same as the word οτι. See ch. Acts 26:8. The word Ψηλαφησειαν, imports, actually feeling. So it is rendered handle me, Luke 24:39. The same word is used Judges 16:26 where Samson says, suffer me that I may feel the pillars. I have been particular, says Dr. Heylin, in my remarks upon this verse, because I am very desirous to draw the reader's attention to it.


Verse 28

Acts 17:28. For in him we live, and move, &c.— No words can better express that continued and necessary dependance of all derived beings, in their existence, and all their operations, on their first and almighty Cause, which the truest philosophy as well as theology teaches. The thought, in words just like these is found in an old Greek poet:—but St. Paul not mentioning it as a quotation, the reader perhaps may be inclined to think with Le Clerc, that the poet borrowed it from this passage. The last words, for we are also his offspring, are well known to be found in Aratus, a poet of Cilicia, St. Paul's own country, who lived almost 300 years before this time. They are also to be found in the hymn of Cleanthes, which is one of the purest and finest pieces of natural religion, of its length, extant in the whole world of Pagan antiquity. As these words are found in two different poets, this possibly may be the reason why St. Paul speaks in the plural number, certain of your own poets have said; though some have thought this refers to the first clause.


Verse 29

Acts 17:29. We ought not to think, &c.— For the observations proposed on this verse, and referred to chap. Acts 14:15. See the Inferences at the end of this chapter.


Verse 30

Acts 17:30. The times of this ignorance God winked at; The original ' Υπεριδαν, signifies overlooked; that is, he did not appear to take notice of them, by sending express messages to them, as he did to the Jews, and now also to the Gentiles;—as it follows, but now commandeth: and the reader will easily perceive that there is a dignityin this latter expression, becoming one who was conscious to himself that he was indeed an ambassador from the king of heaven. This universal demand of repentance, declared in the strongest terms universal guilt, and admirably confronted the pride of the haughtiest Stoic of them all; and at the same time it bore down all the idle plea of fatality: for who could repent of doing what he apprehended he could not but have done.


Verse 32

Acts 17:32. When they heard of the resurrection St. Paul, from the article of the one true God in a general point of view, was sliding gently into the other grand article of the Christian faith, namely, that Jesus of Nazareth in particular, was the Lord, Saviour, and Judge of all; one principal proof whereof was his resurrection from the dead. But the vain and conceited auditory would hear no more. Upon the mention of the resurrection from the dead, some mocked, and laughed out—very probably the Epicureans, who believed no resurrection, nor any future state, or judgment to come; while others said, We shall be glad to hear you again upon this subject. Most likely these were the Stoics, who had some notions of a judgment to come, and of the conflagration and renovation of the world, as well as of a future state of rewards and punishments; though with respect to the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, every sect of philosophers was no less ignorant of it, than highly contemptuous respecting it, when revealed to them. See Acts 17:18.


Verse 34

Acts 17:34. Dionysius the Areopagite, As the court of Areopagus consisted of those who had bornethe office of archon, and such of the nobility as were eminent for their virtue and riches; as the most rigid manners were required of its members; and even their countenances, words, and actions, were required to be serious and grave, to a degree beyond what was expected from any other, even the most virtuous men, the acquisition of such a convert as Dionysius must, under the blessingof God, have done singular service to the Christian cause, and shewn it in a respectable light.

Inferences.—Nothing can be more striking than the conduct of St. Paul at Athens; more particularly if it be contrasted with the behaviour of the philosophers and wise men of the heathen world. He himself has asserted, that even those of them who knew God, did not glorify him as God. To prove the truth of this assertion, by an induction of particulars, would carry us beyond the limits of a work like this: but yet the point is too material to be passed over in silence. Let us then consider the case of one only; but of one, who among the good men in the heathen world was the best, and among the wise ones the wisest; I mean Socrates, the great philosopher of Athens. And were the wise men of antiquity to plead their cause in common, they could not put their defence into better hands.

We have an account of the speculative opinions of many of the wise men of Greece, preserved to us in authors of great credit; but of their practice and personal behaviour in life, little is said: which makes it hard to judge how far their own practice and conduct were influenced by their opinions, or how consistent they were in pursuing the consequences of their own doctrines. The case might have been the same with Socrates, had not a very particular circumstance put him under a necessity of explaining his conduct with respect to the religion of his country.

He had talked so freely of the heathen deities, and the ridiculous stories told of them, that he fell under a suspicion of despising the gods of his country, and of teaching the youth of Athens to despise their altars and their worship. Upon this accusation, he is summoned before the great court of the Areopagites, and happily the apology he made for himself is preserved to us by two of the ablest of his scholars, and the best writers of antiquity, Plato and Xenophon; and from both their accounts it appears, that Socrates maintained and asserted before his judges, that he worshipped the gods of his country, and that he sacrificed in private and in public upon the allowed altars, and according to the rites and customs of the city. After this public confession, so authentically reported by two so able hands, there can be no doubt of his case. He was an idolater, and had not, by his great knowledge and ability in reasoning, delivered himself from the practice of the superstition of his country. We see how far the wisdom of the world could go; let us now observe what the foolishness of preaching could do in the very same case.

St. Paul was in the same situation, as related in the chapter before us. He was accused in the same city of Athens of the same crime—that he was a setter forth of strange gods; and before the same great court of Areopagites, he made his apology. We have then the greatest and the ablest among the wise men of Greece, and an apostle of Christ, in the same circumstances; we have heard the Philosopher's defence that he worshipped the gods of his country, and as his country worshipped them. Let us now take a view of the apostle's "Ye men of Athens, &c." Acts 17:22-31.—a defence, which he closes with calling upon them, in the name of that great God whom he describes, to repent of their superstition and idolatry, which God would no longer bear, because he hath appointed a day, &c.

Which now of these two was a preacher of true religion? Let those who value human reason at the highest rate, determine the point.

The manner in which Socrates died, was one of the calmest and the bravest in the world, and excludes all pretence to say that he dissembled his opinion and practice before his judges out of any fear or meanness of spirit—vices, with which he was never taxed.

Consider we then,—Was it possible for any man, upon the authority of Socrates, to open his mouth against the idolatry of the heathen world, or to make use of his name for that purpose, who had so solemnly, in the face of his country, and before the greatest judicature of Greece, borne testimony to the gods of his country, and the worship paid them?

The city of Athens soon grew sensible of the injury done to the best and wisest of their citizens, and of their own great mistake in putting Socrates to death. His accusers and his judges became infamous; and the people grew extravagant in doing honours to the memory of the innocent sufferer. They erected a statue, nay, a temple to his memory; and his name was had in honour and reverence. His doctrines upon the subjects of divinity and morality were introduced into the world, with all the advantage that the ablest and politest pens could give; and they became the study and entertainment of all the considerable men of Greece and Rome who lived after him.

It is also well worth observing, that from the death of Socrates to the birth of Christ, were about 400 years; a time sufficient to make the experiment, how far the wisdom of Socrates, attended with all the advantages before mentioned, could go in reforming the world. And what was the effect of all this? Can we name the place where religion was reformed? Can we name the man who was so far reformed, as to renounce the superstition of his country? None such are to be found: and how should there? since the greater the credit and reputation of Socrates, the more strongly did they draw men to imitate his example, and to worship as their country worshipped.

Let us consider, on the other side, what was the consequence of preaching the gospel. St. Paul entertained the Athenians with no fine speculations; but he laid before them, in the plainest dress, the great and momentous truths of religion: he openly rebuked their idolatry, and condemned their superstition. The gospel was published in the same manner every where. The first preachers of it were enabled to support it by miracles, and most of them shed their blood in defence of its truth.

By these means they came likewise to have credit and authority in the world: but in these two cases there was this great difference: the corrupt example of Socrates was a dead weight upon the purity of his doctrine, and tended to perpetuate superstition in the world. The authority and example of St. Paul and the other apostles went hand in hand, and, under the grace of God, united their force to root out idolatry. There was likewise this farther difference: The doctrine of Socrates could go only among the learned: the doctrines of the gospel were artless and plain, and suited to every man's capacity.

For near 400 years the disciples of Socrates had the world to themselves, to reform it, if they could. In all which time there is no evidence remaining, that the religion of the world was the better for their wisdom. But in much less time the gospel prevailed in most parts of the known world: wherever it came, superstition and idolatry fled before it; and in little more than three centuries the Roman empire became visibly Christian, which completed the victory over the Heathen deities. And if we may judge by this comparison, between the wisest of men, and an apostle of Christ, the words of that apostle will appear fully verified, where he declares that the world by wisdom knew not God, and that by the foolishness of preaching God has provided salvation for them who believe. 1 Corinthians 1:21.

If then it appears from history, and the experience of the world before us, that men for ages together lived in ignorance of the true God, and of true religion; and that reason was not at all able to contend against inveterate errors and superstitions; let us not be so vain as to imagine that we could have done more in the same circumstances than all or any who lived in the many ages of idolatry. If we consider to what height arts and sciences were carried in those days, and the politeness of Greece and Rome in all parts of learning, we shall have little reason to imagine that men have grown wiser in worldly wisdom, as the world has grown older. If we have more light in matters of religion, (and undoubtedly we have more,) it should lead us to consider to whom we are indebted for the happy change; and to give all the praise to him, to whom alone we are indebted for it.

If then the means made use of to introduce the gospel into the world, were such as were infinitely proper and necessary to subdue vice, and error, and prejudice; if the great truths of Christianity have been propagated from age to age by methods which from experience have been found effectual to the salvation of all that truly and perseveringly believe:—if we discover these marks in the gospel, surely we see enough to convince us, that the gospel is the power of God, and the wisdom of God, unto salvation.

REFLECTIONS.—1st, As the style of this and the following chapter changes from we to they, it has been conjectured that St. Luke staid at Philippi till St. Paul returned thither, ch. Acts 20:5-6. His farther travels are here recorded.

1. He, with his companions, Silas and Timothy, passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia; whether he preached in either of these places, is not said; his route was directed probably under a divine impulse to Thessalonica. Not discouraged by his ill usage at Philippi, he was bold in his God, to speak the gospel unto them also, 1 Thessalonians 2:2 and, as his manner was, having found there a synagogue of Jews, he went in unto them, to make them the first tender of the gospel word. Three sabbath-days successively he reasoned with them out of the scriptures; and as they admitted the sacred authority of Moses and the prophets, he appealed to their writings in proof of the doctrines which he advanced, opening their scope and intention; and particularly by the texts which related to the Messiah, alledging from them, that Christ, far from being that temporal king and earthly conqueror which they expected, must needs have suffered, in order to obtain spiritual and eternal redemption for his faithful saints, and must have risen again from the dead, in proof of his having completed the great work of atonement which he had undertaken; evidently proving from the scriptures, that these things must be accomplished in the Messiah; and that this Jesus whom I preach unto you, is Christ, in whom all the prophesies concerning the Messiah were fulfilled, and in no other; and that therefore this must be he that should come, nor must they look for another.

2. His preaching was powerful and convincing, and the Spirit of truth set it home to the consciences of many of his hearers. Some of them, who were Jews, believed, and made immediate profession of the truth which they had embraced; they consorted with Paul and Silas, as casting in their lot with them, and ready to share their weal and woe; and of the devout Greeks a great multitude, and of the chief women not a few. Thus the foundations were laid of a most flourishing church; multitudes of Gentiles, as well as proselytes, being converted by the great apostle's labours, 1 Thessalonians 1:9.

3. No where could they find rest from the malice of their inveterate enemies. The Jews which believed not, moved with envy at the success of St. Paul's preaching, and the respect paid to him by the Gentiles, as well as by many of their own synagogue, took unto them certain lewd fellows, of the baser sort, and gathered a company, a profligate mob, the scum of the earth; and by these they set all the city on an uproar, raising a riot against the preachers of the gospel; and assaulted the house of Jason, where St. Paul and his companions lodged; and sought to bring them out to the people, that they might expose them to the exasperated populace. And when they found them not, they having prudently withdrawn for their security, they drew Jason, and certain brethren who were at his house, unto the rulers of the city, crying, These that have turned the world upside down, are come hither also, spreading their pestilential errors, to the destruction of all peace and good neighbourhood, and sowing the seeds of discord and sedition to the ruin of the state; whom

Jason hath received into his house, countenanced, and abetted. And these all do contrary to the decrees of Caesar, and evidently shew their disaffection and disloyalty to his government, saying, that there is another king, one Jesus, who is universal Lord of all, to whom every knee must bow, in opposition to Caesar our only Lord and emperor. And they troubled the people and the rulers of the city, when they heard these things, lest some rebellion was really in meditation, or lest the jealous emperor Claudius should entertain suspicions of their negligence, however innocent they knew the apostles to be, and however satisfied they were of the injustice of the accusation. Note; (1.) They who are the enemies and disturbers of the people of God, are usually the vilest of mankind, abandoned profligates, lost to all sense of justice and virtue. (2.) If men offend, the magistrates are to judge; but to make the rabble judges and executioners, is to place madness on the seat of justice. (3.) It has been a common accusation, that the gospel turns the world upside down, and creates all disturbances; but they who bring the charge, will not see that they themselves are the troublers, and that their own passions and perverseness occasion the very evils of which they complain. (4.) The kingdom of Jesus is far from interfering with the civil government; nay, it is one essential part of it to be submissive to the powers that are; so malicious is the accusation of those who would insinuate its dangerous tendency to the peace of kingdoms.

4. The magistrates, on inquiry, finding no ground for the accusation, discharged Jason and his friends, on security taken for their appearance, if required. And thus ended this threatening affair, through the moderation of the rulers, without any farther ill consequence.

2nd, Though, to avoid the present storm, St. Paul and his companions judged it most prudent to fly from Thessalonica, the Lord had work for them to do elsewhere.

1. The brethren sent them away by night unto Berea, to conceal them from the fury of their persecutors; and no sooner were they arrived, than they took the first opportunity of going into the synagogue of the Jews, to preach the gospel to them, evil-entreated as they had so lately been by them at Philippi and Thessalonica. True charity is never weary of well-doing, nor tired out with repeated provocations.

2. These Jews of Berea were more noble than those in Thessalonica, free from prejudices, more candid inquirers after truth, of more enlarged sentiments, and ready to give a fair hearing to those who differed from them in opinion; and therefore they received the word with all readiness of mind, embracing it most cheerfully, as soon as they were convinced of the truth; and, not taking the matter upon trust, they searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so; comparing diligently St. Paul's preaching with the scriptures to which he appealed, and examining carefully the passages which he explained, that they might comprehend their genuine meaning. Note; (1.) The doctrines of the gospel fear no scrutiny; we wish for nothing more, than that our hearers would seriously examine whether these things be so. (2.) Searching the scriptures should be our daily business and delight; and their minds will be filled with noble and exalted sentiments and principles, who follow in simplicity these sacred oracles.

3. Great was the effect of St. Paul's preaching, on minds so disposed to examine candidly into what they heard. Many of the Jews believed: also of honourable women which were Greeks, and of men, not a few.

4. The inveterate malice of the Jews will not suffer the apostle to rest in peace in any place. Hearing of the success of the word of God at Berea, they came thither also, and stirred up the people, using every calumny to incense the mob against them.

5. The brethren at Berea, knowing that against St. Paul the malice of the Jews was principally levelled, sent him away, to go as it were to the sea, to prevent farther search. But Silas and Timotheus abode still at Berea, to confirm the disciples, and carry on the work of God.

6. St. Paul, with those who accompanied him, took the road to Athens, where was the most renowned university of Greece; and, when the brethren returned, he sent orders to Silas and Timothy to follow him speedily.

3rdly, While St. Paul waited at Athens for the arrival of his fellow-labourers, we are told,

1. With what grief and indignation he beheld the idolatry of the inhabitants, and what zeal burned in his bosom on seeing their abominations. Unable, therefore, to restrain himself any longer, he entered the synagogue; beginning, as usual, with the Jews and devout proselytes, disputing mildly with them, and answering all their objections against that Messiah whom he preached unto them: and not resting there, he daily talked with those whom he met in the places of public concourse, remonstrating against their absurd idolatry, and seeking to turn them from those stocks and stones which they worshipped, to the service of the living God. Note; When we have Christ's cause at heart, we shall be ready to speak a word for him in all companies, and have his interests constantly uppermost.

2. The philosophers, with whom this seat of Grecian literature abounded, could not silently pass by, unnoticed, this zealous disputant; and therefore some of the Stoics and Epicureans, their two most famed sects, though in opinions utterly opposite, united their forces against him. Some of them with great contempt said, What will this babbler say? prating at this strange rate? Others, with indignation at his attempt to introduce what they thought new deities, said, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods, or foreign demons, because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection.

3. In order to hear at large what he had to say for himself, they brought him to Areopagus, a hill dedicated to Mars, where the supreme court of the judges sat, who determined all matters, civil or religious; and, a number of philosophers being assembled, they said, May we know what this new doctrine, whereof thou speakest, is? For thou bringest certain strange things to our ears: we would know therefore what these things mean. Among all the volumes which crowded their libraries, the writings of Moses and the prophets, probably, were unknown to them: and since their professed research was after truth, they desired to hear a full account of the doctrine which he maintained and inculcated. And, in this matter, curiosity seems to have prompted them more than any real desire of being informed; it being the character of the Athenians in general, that they, and the strangers who resorted thither, spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell or to hear some new thing. Note; It is a miserable abuse of precious time, thus to spend it in gaping after news and novelty; and, instead of real wisdom, can only produce superficial talkativeness.

4thly, Never was discourse more admirably suited to the auditory, than this of St. Paul's. Having now to do, not with Jews who admitted revelation, but with idolatrous philosophers, who, amid their innumerable deities, were without God in the world, the apostle sets himself to lead them to the knowledge of him, whom they ignorantly worshipped.

1. In the midst of a numerous audience of senators, philosophers, and others, who desired to hear what he had to say, he begins with a general remark, which he had made during his abode among them; Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious, more addicted to the worship of gods, or demons, than other people; which he mentions, not perhaps with a view immediately to upbraid them with it as their crime, but to engage their attention to his discourse, as persons of more than ordinary professed devotion.

2. He informs them, that he had particularly observed on one of their altars this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD, which, though a confession of their ignorance, intimated a desire to know and worship him; and many have thought that this altar was dedicated to the God of Israel, whose name Jehovah, the Jews never pronounced.

3. He tells them that this God whom they ignorantly worshipped, him declared he unto them; not as a setter forth of strange gods, to add to their number other deities, nor of new gods; but to bring them to the knowledge of him, who was the only living and true God, and to direct them how he was acceptably to be served; whom they with blind devotion adored, though unknown. So prudently and persuasively does he introduce and urge the glorious truths he had to deliver, even from the idolatry which he condemned.

4. He describes the God that he preached, as the great Creator, Governor, and Lord of all; the author of life and being to every creature, and who filleth heaven and earth with his presence. He made the world, and all things therein, which sprung not from a fortuitous concourse of atoms, nor subsisted from eternity, as the different sects of philosophers taught, but was the work of the Almighty, and spoken into being at his word; who, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, the author and owner of all, dwelleth not in temples made with hands, nor can his immensity be circumscribed by these narrow bounds: neither is worshipped, or served with men's hands, as though he needed any thing, images, shrines, temples, or offerings, to increase his felicity; who is in himself infinitely blessed and glorious, and incapable of receiving any addition to his self-sufficient happiness; seeing all that the creature possesses, comes from him; for he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; their being, with all the supports and comforts of it, they receive from him, but can add nothing to him: and hath made of one blood all nations of men, for to dwell on all the face of the earth, who are originally descended from the same pair, which should stain the pride of pedigree, and teach us to love as brethren; and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation, has ordained the regular seasons of the year, (see Genesis 1:14.-viii. 22.) and has fixed the limits of the habitations of the different nations of the earth. See the Annotations. And in all the dispensations of his providence, the end that he proposes is, that they should seek the Lord, engaged by all the kindness and bounties of his providential hand, if haply, amid the darkness, blindness, and ignorance of their fallen minds, they might feel after him, and find him, groping as the blind, through the creatures, and rising from the consideration of the visible objects around them, to the knowledge of his eternal power and Godhead: though he be not far from every one of us, filling heaven and earth with his presence, and exerting in every place his perpetual agency; for in him we live, and move, and have our being; brought into being by his power, supported by his providence, and preserved by his care; as certain also of your own poets have said, particularly Aratus, For we are also his offspring. Note; (1.) He who gave us our being, has a full right to dispose of us according to the good pleasure of his will: to murmur at our lot, is to rebel against his providence. (2.) We can never be thankful enough for that blessed book of God, which teaches more substantial wisdom in one page, yea, in one line, than is contained in all the volumes of poets and philosophers.

5. As the consequence of the doctrine which he advanced, he infers the absurdity of idolatry, and exhorts them to turn unto the living God. Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, created by him, and in his image, we ought not to put so gross an affront upon him, as to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone graven by art or man's device, however rich the materials, or exquisite the workmanship. And the times of this ignorance God winked at, with wondrous patience and long-suffering bearing with these abominations; but now, in the superabundant riches of his grace, overlooking all that is past, he is pleased to make a revelation of himself and his designs to the world in general; and commandeth all men every where to repent, engaging them thereunto by the most encouraging promises of pardon and acceptance through a Redeemer, and warning them by all the awful judgments which will descend on the heads of those who persist in their impenitence and idolatry; because he hath appointed a day in the which he will judge the world in righteousness, by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men; in that he hath raised him from the dead. The day will arrive; the judgment will be impartial and strict, from the fullest knowledge of the characters of men; the person is appointed to whom all judgment is committed; his resurrection from the dead gives the fullest assurance to all who will inquire into the evidence of the fact, with its connections of God's approbation of him, and his appointment to this high office: and as there can be no exception to his sentence, there lies no appeal from his bar, an awful scene, which we cannot too often place before us, and under which our daily conduct should be influenced, that we may be found of him in peace at that day.

5thly, We have an account of the effects of St. Paul's preaching to this philosophic audience.

1. Some ridiculed his strange notions, and, on the mention of the resurrection of the dead, so contrary to the maxims of their philosophy, they mocked at the absurdity of such an assertion; whilst others, deferring to determine upon the matter for the present, promised to give it a second hearing at their leisure. Note; (1.) We are not to think the worse of the sacred truths of God, because profane philosophers or wits ridicule, and make a jest of them. (2.) They who put off the concerns of their souls, which demand present attention, to some future day, usually find something else constantly to engage them, till it is too late.

2. The apostle's words were not however wholly ineffectual. Though the generality persisted in their scientific ignorance and philosophic pride, yet when St. Paul departed, and the assembly broke up, certain men clave unto him, immediately commencing, a connection with him; and believed that gospel which he preached unto them; among the which was Dionysius the Areopagite, a member of the supreme court of judicature before which St. Paul appeared; and a woman of note and distinction, named Damaris, and others with them, who, under the power of divine grace, were turned from idols to serve the living and true God.

 


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Bibliography Information
Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on Acts 17:4". Thomas Coke Commentary on the Holy Bible. http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/tcc/acts-17.html. 1801-1803.

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