In the opening verses of Acts 17 we read of Paul’s ministry in the Macedonian city of Thessalonica. As we study the book of Acts it is interesting to compare the various geographical references with a map of the ancient Roman Empire. In this instance it would be seen that Amphipolis and Apollonia were on the high road from Philippi east and south toward Athens and Corinth. Passing through these two cities, the apostle and his company went on to Thessalonica, which we know today as Salonica, located on the shores of a bay and inlet of the Aegean Sea. Here, as in place after place, Paul found a synagogue of the Jews, and in accordance with his regular custom, “to the Jew first,” he entered into the synagogue and, as opportunity was given him, presented his message there. We are told that “three sabbath days he reasoned with them out of the scriptures.”
Using the Old Testament with which the Jews were familiar, he showed how it had been predicted by the prophets that the Messiah for whom they waited must suffer even unto death and be raised again in order to accomplish the redemption of His people. We can imagine him turning from passage to passage to prove these great facts. Then having laid the foundation, he built the superstructure of his discourse, the story of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, showing that this Jesus whom he preached was indeed Messiah.
The result of his ministry was that a number of the Jews believed and sought further fellowship with Paul and Silas. Also a great number of Gentile proselytes or seekers after the truth accepted the testimony. Of these, quite a few were well-known women who had doubtless wearied of the unsatisfactory character of paganism. Having learned from the Jews something of the one true and living God, they were now ready to accept the Savior He had provided.
This, however, stirred the unbelieving Jews with indignation and envy. They did not want to appear openly as persecutors, but we are told they gathered a group of rabble-rousers. By artfully arousing their prejudices, they moved them to make an assault on the house of Jason where the preachers of the new message were being entertained. The mob created such an uproar that the whole city was moved. Paul and Silas however were not found, but the rash leaders of the mob took Jason and several other adherents of the Way of Life, and dragged them before the rulers of the city. They accused them by saying, “These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also; Whom Jason hath received: and these all do contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, one Jesus.”
Their accusation was in measure true. The apostle and his companion were indeed engaged in the business of turning the world upside down, but the reason for this was that through sin the world had been turned wrongside up. So when the gospel was preached and men believed it, things were completely reversed. But the charge that the new doctrine contained anything contrary to the decrees of Caesar was false. The king proclaimed by Paul was not one who was to contend with the Roman emperor for world dominion, though He shall indeed reign in due time. He had already declared in Pilate’s judgment hall, “My kingdom is not of this world; if my kingdom, were of this world, then would my servants fight.” The kingdom of which He is Head is not meat or drink, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost. In other words, Christ had not come to establish a kingdom in the world order, but to call on men to recognize and bow to Heaven’s authority in their lives.
It is evident that the rulers of Thessalonica and those associated with them were perplexed when they heard these things. Not knowing just what action to take, they placed Jason and the other brethren under obligation to keep the peace, and let them go.
Doubtless recalling the instructions of the Lord Jesus, If “they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another,” the believers arranged secretly to send Paul and Silas to the next city along the highway-Berea.
A very graphic account of the entrance of the gospel into Thessalonica is given in Paul’s First Epistle to the church in that city. From that Epistle we gather that he remained there considerably longer than the three sabbath days mentioned by Luke in this chapter of Acts, but just how long we do not know. At any rate, the result was that many of the Thessalonians were turned from idols to the living and true God to serve and to wait for His Son from Heaven. A careful reading of the two Epistles to the Thessalonians in connection with Act_17:1-9 will throw a great deal of light on both the entrance of the gospel into that city and the attitude of the new converts afterwards.
Going on to Berea, Paul and Silas again first sought the synagogue of the Jews, and there found the same liberty they had enjoyed in many other places. The fact is, as already noted, the Jewish synagogues of the first century of the Christian era were much more open than many Christian churches today. When teachers came from distant places, they were recognized and accorded an opportunity to present their views. Paul always took advantage of this in order that he might bring the gospel message to his own brethren after the flesh first.
It is refreshing to note the fine attitude of these Berean Jews and proselytes. We are told that “these were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.” Somebody has well said that prejudice closes the door of the mind to any truth not already known. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “Prove all things” (1Th_5:21). The only way to test any system of doctrine is by the Word of God itself. Isaiah warned God’s people: “Should not a people seek…To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” (Isa_8:19-20).
Bearing this in mind, these Berean Jews examined the Scriptures carefully as they listened to the teaching of Paul One can see them sitting in the synagogue with the sacred scrolls in their hands, leaning forward, listening eagerly, wonder and surprise often expressed on their faces as they looked inquiringly at each other. Unrolling the great vellum volumes, they turned from one passage to another, comparing Scripture with Scripture, until they were finally convinced that what Paul proclaimed was the truth. Then they aligned themselves definitely on the side of Christ, receiving the message in faith and acknowledging the Lord Jesus as the sent One of God.
We are not surprised to read in Act_17:12, “Therefore many of them believed,” and we have the additional words, “Also of honourable women which were Greeks, and of men, not a few.” This must have been one of the most encouraging experiences that Paul ever had. We do not read of any other city wherein he was given so fair a hearing, wherein people were so honest in seeking to know whether the message preached was really in accordance with Scripture or not. How blessed it would be to find more people today characterized by the same nobility as that which distinguished these Bereans. They possessed a nobility of mind that led them to put away all prejudice and preconceived notions and to examine fairly the matters to which their attention was called, testing everything by Scripture!
But this happy state of affairs was soon brought to an end, for Satan cannot long endure the uninterrupted reception of the gospel. And so after some days-we do not know how many-certain of the unbelieving Jews of Thessalonica, having learned that Paul was preaching the Word in Berea, hurried down the highway and arrived there also. By their misrepresentations, they stirred up many of the people who had not yet been brought to know the Lord. Once more there was an uproar and an effort made to apprehend the messenger of the cross. Again the brethren had to take steps to safeguard the life of the apostle. As he was the outstanding exponent of the new faith, the indignation of the unbelievers was directed against him particularly, so the believers sent him away, we are told, “to go as it were to the sea.” This would suggest a stratagem in order to throw his persecutors off his trail. Silas and Timothy remained to help the young believers and encourage them in their faith.
The last part of Acts 17 brings us with Paul to Athens, that great cultural center of ancient Greece. The men who conducted Paul to Athens returned to Berea with a message from him to Silas and Timothy urging them to rejoin him as soon as possible. Meanwhile Paul waited for them at Athens. As he went about day after day, his spirit was moved to its deepest depths as he saw the evidences of the gross idolatry to which the city was devoted. An old Greek philosopher wrote some time before Paul’s day, “In Athens it is easier to find a god than a man.” Images were everywhere; not only representations of all the gods of the various countries that made up what we call Greece, but the gods adored by Asiatics, Egyptians, Romans, and peoples from far-distant lands. Practically every false deity worshiped on earth could be found in Athens, and yet this was the educational center of the world. There were different schools of philosophy where great teachers lectured on the folly of idolatry and taught their adherents to scorn the superstitions of the less cultured strata of society. But these philosophers had nothing to offer in the place of the idolatry they scorned. They were simply theorists philosophizing as to the nature of the universe and man, but with no certainty of anything because they were without any divine revelation.
As Paul had opportunity, he disputed in the synagogue with the Jews and talked with the devout persons-that is, Greeks who were influenced by Judaism. As he went about in the streets and in the markets he lost no opportunity to converse with any who were ready to listen. Paul was an outstanding personal worker who did not feel that he must have a pulpit in order to disseminate the truth God had sent him to proclaim.
Information regarding his teaching soon came to the ears of some of the philosophers of both epicurean and stoic schools. Contemptuously they asked, “What will this babbler say?” The Greek word translated “babbler” means “seed-picker.” It was an ironical expression implying that he was like a bird picking up odd seeds here and there, yet had no definite philosophical system behind his teaching. Others who heard him preach of Jesus and the resurrection thought that he spoke of two new gods of whom they had never previously heard, for they took the expression “resurrection,” which in Greek is Anastasis, to be the name of a god! Therefore, they invited him to go up to Mars Hill, or the Areopagus, where the philosophers were accustomed to presenting their teachings, and there tell them what the new doctrine was of which he had been speaking. There was no evidence of a working in the consciences of these men. It was characteristic of the Athenians to delight in anything new or novel. So they evidently gave Paul the opportunity of presenting his doctrine simply for their personal gratification.
Ever ready to seize any opportunity to preach the truth of God, Paul presented what is perhaps one of the finest specimens of pulpit oratory extant (Act_17:22-31). It helps us to understand what Paul meant when he said that he was made all things to all men (1Co_9:22). We have listened to him before as he preached the gospel to the Jews, and we have seen how he based everything on the testimony of Holy Scripture. Here we are privileged to listen in as he speaks to a Gentile company who knew nothing of the Jewish Scriptures. To them he appealed to the testimony of creation as suggested in the first chapter of his letter to the Romans.
He certainly did not begin his discourse as the King James version has him saying in Act_17:22 : “Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are too superstitious.” Had he begun by calling his audience “too superstitious,” he would probably have closed the door of their minds effectually against his message. The word translated “superstitious” really means “given to the worship of the gods” and is better translated “religious.” That is, he began by saying, “I see that you as a people are very religious.” The evidence of this was that as he moved around the city he not only saw many images of different gods, but he found an altar with the inscription, “To the Unknown God.” Evidently, some pious soul, afraid that some god might be left out of the pantheon, had erected this altar. Paul took the inscription from this altar as his text, saying, “Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.”
In an eloquent and masterly way he set forth the truth of the one God by whom the world and all in it had been created. This God, Paul said, is too great to be confined in any temples men might build. He is omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient. He has no need of anything that men could offer to Him. Therefore, it was absurd to think that they could purchase His favor by any of their gifts. He Himself is the great giver, bestowing all good things on the creatures He has made. He it was who had formed all the nations from one man. All the various races and tribes had sprung from the first original pair that God created, and He who knows the end from the beginning had determined their times and appointed them the lands in which they dwelt. In all these things God was giving evidence of His interest in mankind, desiring that they might seek after Him and find Him, though He be not far from us.
It is an interesting fact that the only time the word feel is found in the New Testament is in Act_17:27 (KJV). It has to do with the heathen. It was the desire of God that they, though ignorant of His Word, “might feel after him.” When men receive His Word, then they are not dependent on their feelings, but are asked to believe. Nor was it suggested by Paul that God was far from anyone. So close is He to all of us that it can be truly said, “In him we live, and move, and have our being.”
Paul quoted an expression found in the writings of two Greek poets, Aratus and Cleanthes, “For we are also his offspring.” This he fully accepted and he appealed to these men as the offspring of God. He showed how foolish it is that those who have been created by this omnipresent God should ever liken Him to images made of metal or stone by art or man’s device. This was not the same appeal as that some teachers proclaim today, namely the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. By this teaching they mean that men are already God’s children and hence brothers in Christ apart from regeneration. God is the Father of spirits, and in that sense we are all His offspring, but man has fallen. Sin has come in to alienate man from God; hence the need of a second birth.
Act_17:30 suggests something that may be of great comfort to those who are troubled when they think of a world left for many centuries without the knowledge of the one true and living God. Paul said, “the times of this ignorance God winked at,” or overlooked. God deals with men according to the light they have. He does not hold them responsible for light that has not yet been revealed. But now, since Christ has come and the gospel is being preached, God commands all men everywhere to repent; that is, to change their attitude and turn to Him for that deliverance which they can find nowhere else.
He has “appointed a day, in which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained.” Paul was doubtless about to mention the name of Jesus when his address was interrupted. He was in the midst of declaring that the resurrection of Christ from the dead was the pledge both of God’s grace and His judgment. That resurrection assures all men that salvation has been provided for them. It also gives assurance that He who died and rose again will some day judge the living and the dead.
What a pity his hearers did not permit Paul to finish this magnificent discourse! On the contrary, we are told that when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, which to them seemed utterly absurd, some mocked and others said, “We will hear thee again of this matter. So Paul departed from among them.”
At first sight it may have seemed as though his effort to interest these philosophers in the great message he had for the world was in vain. On the other hand, we learn from the closing verse that there were a few who profited by it. “Howbeit certain men clave unto him, and believed: among the which was Dionysius the Areopagite, and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.”