Acts 17

The Work in Greece: Thessalonica, Berea, and Athens
Acts 17

Thessalonica (17:1-9)

1 And having journeyed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where was the synagogue of the Jews. 2 And according to Paul’s custom he went in among them, and on three sabbaths reasoned with them from the scriptures, 3 opening and laying down that the Christ must have suffered and risen up from among the dead, and that this is the Christ, Jesus whom “I” announce to you. vv.1-3 Paul’s Preaching in Thessalonica. Paul journeyed from Philippi to Thessalonica, which was about 100 miles southwest. On the way he passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, cities that divide the journey into nearly equal thirds. No doubt Paul preached in those places, but the spirit of God passes over them without comment. Arriving in Thessalonica Paul did as was customary for him, to preach “to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16), he went into the synagogue of the Jews. On three Sabbath says (he was there for several weeks) Paul reasoned from the Jews’ own scriptures that Jesus was the Christ (Messiah), and that scripture predicted that the Messiah “must have suffered and risen up from among the dead”. Passages such as Isaiah 53 would have been useful in this work, although there are many other passages in the Old Testament that he could have used to the same end. We find Paul taking a different tact with the Greek Athenians at the end of the chapter. But here it was Jews, and Paul addresses them pointedly, according to the need of their soul. Note: this is a good kind of “reasoning”, in contrast with the reasoning of the secular mind. In this case Paul “reasoned with them from the scriptures”. Conversion is the work of the Spirit of God using the Word of God. Further, it is important to reason from or out of the scriptures, rather than come with our own ideas attempting to justify them by reasoning into the scriptures.
4 And some of them believed, and joined themselves to Paul and Silas, and of the Greeks who worshipped, a great multitude, and of the chief women not a few. v.4 Those who believed. There was a mixed reaction to Paul’s preaching, but “some” of the Jews in the synagogue believed, and also “a great multitude” of the Greeks that were there worshipping, and “not a few” of the chief women of that town. It sounds as if there were more Greek proselytes converted than Jews. We read more about the Thessalonian saints in 1 Thess. 1:6-10, where Paul says that they “turned to God from idols”, indicating many of them had a pagan background. Perhaps Aristarchus and Secundus were among those mentioned that believed at this time (Acts 20:4). Whatever their backgrounds, they did join themselves to Paul and Silas, willing to associate with these servants who had been so ill-treated in Philippi. Even though Paul was only permitted to stay in Thessalonica for a few weeks, many were converted. When God is working it doesn’t take much time to bring souls from darkness to light! 
5 But the Jews having been stirred up to jealousy, and taken to themselves certain wicked men of the lowest rabble, and having got a crowd together, set the city in confusion; and having beset the house of Jason sought to bring them out to the people; 6 and not having found them, dragged Jason and certain brethren before the politarchs, crying out, These men that have set the world in tumult, are come here also, 7 whom Jason has received; and these all do contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying, that there is another king, Jesus. 8 And they troubled the crowd and the politarchs when they heard these things. 9 And having taken security of Jason and the rest, they let them go. vv.5-9 The Response of Unbelieving Jews. The Jews who did not believe were stirred up to jealousy because of the mass conversion as a result of the preaching of Paul. They didn’t want to lose their place, just as the Jewish leaders in the time of our Lord, who falsely accused Him and delivered Him for envy (John 11:48). These Jews resorted to underhanded means to try to squelch the work of the Lord. They invoked the lowest rabble, got a mob together, and turned the whole city into confusion. Surrounding the house of Jason, they searched for Paul and Silas, but the Lord allowed them not to find them. Instead, they dragged Jason and others out before the magistrates, accusing the brethren of preaching rebellion against the Romans. Satan is clever to pick our one part of the Christian message and try to use it to discredit the gospel. Paul had taught the Thessalonians when present of the coming kingdom and reign of Christ. In fact, the Jews brought this up when accusing Jason, twisting his words to appear treasonous; “these all do contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying, that there is another king, Jesus”. As the epistles to the Thessalonians shows us, the knowledge of the appearing and reign of Christ according to Old Testament prophecy was a great joy to the assembly in Thessalonica, and they were waiting for the Son from heaven. The authorities took securities from Jason and the others, perhaps an equivalent to a bond payment, and let them go. This is a nice example of how persecution should be handled. They submitted to the consequences of faithfulness to the Lord, but seeing the brewing storm, they took steps to avoid further persecution (v.10).
The First Epistle. In 1 Thessalonians 3, Paul attributed the riots of Acts 17 to Satan’s efforts to hinder him. Paul says that he was “bereaved” of the company of the Thessalonians, and “separated for a little moment in person, not in heart” (1 Thess. 2:17). This was to show that his sudden departure was no indication that he loved them any less. If anything, the epistle would show that Paul had a special place in his heart for new converts. It was Paul’s great love for the Thessalonians that caused him to send Timothy back to Thessalonica while Paul was in Athens (1 Thess. 3:1). When Timothy came again to Paul with a good report, it caused the apostle to praise the Lord, and beseech Him for an opportunity to return to Thessalonica in person. Nevertheless, Paul recognized that he would have to wait for God’s direction. By the language of ch.3, it would appear that the timing of the first epistle was shortly after Timothy’s return; “Timotheus having just come to us from you” (1 Thess. 3:6). Since Paul was only a short time in Athens, he probably wrote 1 Thessalonians from Corinth, where he stayed for eighteen months.

Berea (17:10-15)

10 But the brethren immediately sent away, in the night, Paul and Silas to Berea; who, being arrived, went away into the synagogue of the Jews. v.10 Paul and Silas Come to Berea. Those who were formerly idolaters were now brethren, and were quick to help Paul and Silas in a difficult situation. The Thessalonian brethren conveyed Paul and Silas to the nearby city of Berea. Once again, Paul went first to the place where the Jews met, where the scriptures were read and accepted as truth.
And these were more noble than those in Thessalonica, receiving the word with all readiness of mind, daily searching the scriptures if these things were so.
v.11 Noble Jews of Berea. We find a very different reception of the gospel among the Jews in the Berea as compared to the Jews in Thessalonica. The Berean Jews “received the word with all readiness of mind”. This means that they heard about Jesus and Paul’s explanation of how He came in accordance with the scriptures, died, and rose again; and they accepted it! This was no small thing for Jews to receive. We too need to receive the truth of God with readiness of mind. It requires having a humble and teachable spirit. But the second thing they did is equally important; “daily searching the scriptures if these things were so”. As Paul preached, and they received, the Bereans searched the Old Testament scriptures to verify what Paul was saying. This was a “daily” ongoing thing, and it required diligence and attention to the Word of God. We too need to show the same energy; “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good” (1 Thess. 5:21).

Therefore many from among them believed, and of Grecian women of the upper classes and men not a few.
v.12 Reception. The results of the right of mind and diligent searching among the Berean Jews was that many of them believed, in contrast with some at Thessalonica. There were also many women of the upper or patrician class, as well as men, that believed. There was a wide reception of the gospel in Berea, but Satan was quick to stir up opposition to the work.

But when the Jews from Thessalonica knew that the word of God was announced in Berea also by Paul, they came there also, stirring up the crowds.
v.13 Persecution Comes. Satan was not content to have Paul and Silas out of Thessalonica. He did not want to see blessing anywhere, nor did the envious Jews of Thessalonica. When they heard that the gospel was being preached in Berea, they came down to stir up the crowds as they had done at home.
14 And then immediately the brethren sent away Paul to go as to the sea; but Silas and Timotheus abode there. 15 But they that conducted Paul brought him as far as Athens; and, having received a commandment to Silas and Timotheus, that they should come to him as quickly as possible, they departed. vv.14-15 Paul Sent, Silas and Timothy Left. Once again the newly converted brethren in that place sent Paul away for his protection. Whether they actually sent Paul by sea to Athens or just made as if they were going to send him by sea is not known. It is possible that it was a clever move to throw the pursuers off the trail. Paul left Silas and Timothy there, but then sent a message to fetch them as quickly as possible. We find in 1 Thessalonians 3:1-2 that Timothy brough news of the Thessalonians to Paul in Athens, and he sent Timothy back to them to establish them! The first epistle to the Thessalonians shows that Timothy was very useful in that region. Paul appreciated the help of young people.

Athens (17:16-34)

16 But in Athens, while Paul was waiting for them, his spirit was painfully excited in him seeing the city given up to idolatry. 17 He reasoned therefore in the synagogue with the Jews, and those who worshipped, and in the market-place every day with those he met with. 18 But some also of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers attacked him. And some said, What would this chatterer say? and some, He seems to be an announcer of foreign demons, because he announced the glad tidings of Jesus and the resurrection to them. 19 And having taken hold on him they brought him to Areopagus, saying, Might we know what this new doctrine which is spoken by thee is? 20 For thou bringest certain strange things to our ears. We wish therefore to know what these things may mean. 21 Now all the Athenians and the strangers sojourning there spent their time in nothing else than to tell and to hear the news.
22 And Paul standing in the midst of Areopagus said, Athenians, in every way I see you given up to demon worship; 23 for, passing through and beholding your shrines, I found also an altar on which was inscribed, To the unknown God. Whom therefore ye reverence, not knowing him, him I announce to you.
24 The God who has made the world and all things which are in it, “he”, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands, 25 nor is served by men’s hands as needing something, himself giving to all life and breath and all things; 26 and has made of one blood every nation of men to dwell upon the whole face of the earth, having determined ordained times and the boundaries of their dwelling, 27 that they may seek God; if indeed they might feel after him and find him, although he is not far from each one of us: 28 for in him we live and move and exist; as also some of the poets amongst you have said, For we are also his offspring. 29 Being therefore the offspring of God, we ought not to think that which is divine to be like gold or silver or stone, the graven form of man’s art and imagination. vv.24-29 The Irrationality of Idolatry. In v.28 Paul quotes several Greek poets. First, he quotes a native prophet of the Crete, a philosopher called Epimenides of Crete from the 6th century BC, who wrote a poem called Cretica concerning the Greek god Zeus; “in him we live and move and exist”. Actually, Paul quotes this famous poem twice, once in Acts 17:28 and once in Titus 1:12. The poem was written by a pagan idolater who believed Zeus was immortal, an opinion that differed from the common view of the Cretans, which was that Zeus was mortal. Paul quotes two lines from this poem for separate purposes, and shows that they are true.1 In Acts 17 Paul explains that the idolatrous poet was correct in describing the attributes of the Creator, although wrong in assigning them to Zeus. But in Titus he shows that the line about the Cretans, although intended by Epimenides for a different purpose, was intrinsically accurate in that described the deceitful, base, and slothful character of the people of Crete. Then Paul quotes a famous line that is found in two places, first in a poem called Phenomena by Aratus of Cilicia (Paul’s countryman) in the 3rd century BC, and again in Cleanthes of Assos’ Hymn to Zeus, also written in the 3rd century BC; “For we are also his offspring”. In both cases Paul takes an element of truth from the otherwise idolatrous statement, and shows the folly of idolatry itself! If we live and move and have our being from God, how could He “be like gold or silver or stone, the graven form of man’s art and imagination”? And if we, living, breathing, thinking creatures, are His offspring, how could God be an inanimate object?
30 God therefore, having overlooked the times of ignorance, now enjoins men that they shall all everywhere repent, 31 because he has set a day in which “he is going to judge the habitable earth in righteousness” [Psalm 9:8] by the man whom he has appointed, giving the proof of it to all in having raised him from among the dead. 32 And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked, and some said, We will hear thee again also concerning this. 33 Thus Paul went out of their midst. 34 But some men joining themselves to him believed; among whom also was Dionysius the Areopagite, and a woman by name Damaris, and others with them. 
  1. Translated by J. Rendel Harris, the poem reads:
    They fashioned a tomb for you, holy and high one,
    Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies.
    But you are not dead: you live and abide forever,
    For in you we live and move and have our being.