Acts 17 Part 2

10. Then the brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea. When they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews.

The result of this is that the brethren are quite concerned for the safety of Paul and Silas. Their enemies have inadvertently put them on notice, and they now know that there is a movement against them, doubtless with its objective being to put them to death. Therefore, the brethren immediately send Paul and Silas away. The word here is ekpempo, and means they sent them out of their city.

This ends the short ministry of Paul and Silas in Thessalonica. They have only spent around three weeks in the city, and yet what an effect they have had in that short period of time, at least among the Israelite population of the city! They have left them with many now believing in the Lord Jesus Christ. The effects of their short visit to Thessalonica, therefore, will change the city substantially for some time to come.

So Paul and Silas move on from there that night. They continue west, arriving in the city of Berea. This was also a Macedonian city, and its name means “Well Watered.” It was at the foot of Mount Bermius.

Now as we might expect, Paul and Silas continue right on with their mission when they arrive in Berea. As their custom always was, they go into the synagogue of the Jews to begin their proclamation.

11. These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.

Happily, these Berean Jews are more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica. The word for “fair-minded” here is eugenes, which means “well born” or “well generated.” They were, for whatever reason, of better stock than those in Thessalonica. Of course, Luke is generalizing here, for we know that some in Thessalonica were fair-minded, and had believed the word of Paul and Silas and joined with them. We even know the name of one of them: Jason. There were many others with him. Yet when viewed as a whole, these Berean Jews simply are more fair-minded than their Thessalonian counterparts.

Now we read why they are considered more fair-minded. They receive the word with all readiness. They are eager to hear God’s message, and listen to it attentively. Yet they do not just immediately accept or reject it based upon how it sounds to them when first stated to them. Instead, they search the Scriptures. Every day when they hear more teaching from Paul and Silas, they search the Scriptures that day to find out whether or not what they said matches up with what God has written. This was a good way to do things indeed. It would be good if we would do the same in our day. Whenever we hear a new teaching from any person, no matter who it is, we should not just accept or reject it immediately based on how it sounds to us at first. Instead, we should compare it to Scripture, checking carefully to see if it matches up. That is what these Bereans did, and that is what we should do as well.

12. Therefore many of them believed, and also not a few of the Greeks, prominent women as well as men.

The result of this readiness to hear and careful research of the Scriptures is that many of the Jews in Berea believe. How could they do anything else when they saw that what the apostles said matches up with the truth of God? There are also not a few Greeks in Berea who believe, although it seems doubtful that these had the same ability to check what Paul said against the Scriptures that the Jews in Berea did. Yet many of the Greek believed. Of these Greeks, some are prominent women of the city, and some of them are men.

So the movement in Berea is healthy and growing. Once again, God’s government is moving with power, and people are responding to it, as more and more of the Jews around the world come to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

13. But when the Jews from Thessalonica learned that the word of God was preached by Paul at Berea, they came there also and stirred up the crowds.

Now, however, the apostles’ enemies from Thessalonica hear that Paul has moved on to their neighbor to the west, Berea, and is proclaiming the word of God there. Not satisfied with what they had accomplished the first time they moved against Paul, they now come to Berea and start up where they left off. Again, they start agitating, and stir up the crowds against Paul and his company.

14. Then immediately the brethren sent Paul away, to go to the sea; but both Silas and Timothy remained there.

The brethren in Berea see this, and do the same thing the brethren did in Thessalonica. They fear for Paul’s safety, and so they send him away. The word here is exapostello, meaning they sent him away with their authority behind the sending. This authority may have had to do with those who conducted Paul from Berea, as we see in the next verse. These were Paul’s to command, so he had the authorization of the Bereans to use them as he needed.

Instead of sending him overland, as the Thessalonians did, they put him onboard a ship, and send him away to sea. This will make it harder for his enemies to follow his movements than it would have been for them to follow him if he had gone on foot. So Paul once again escapes the plots of his enemies, although there was probably more trouble waiting for the new believers Paul left behind once he was gone.

So Paul leaves Berea, but his company do not all go with him. In fact, two of the most prominent of his companions, Silas and Timothy, remain behind in Berea. They are probably not satisfied with the shortness of the work they have been forced to do, both in Berea and in Thessalonica. No doubt these apostles hope that when Paul is gone, the agitation of the crowd will die down, and they will be able to continue their work among the believers in Paul’s absence. At any rate, whatever the reason might have been, these two remained behind.

15. So those who conducted Paul brought him to Athens; and receiving a command for Silas and Timothy to come to him with all speed, they departed.

So Paul travels to Athens. This city was south, both of Berea and of Macedonia. Macedonia was on the mainland north of the peninsula of Greece, whereas Athens was in Greece. At the time, what we call Greece was called “Achaia,” but it is still the same place. Athens was perhaps the most prominent city in Greece, and was a famous center of learning. The name “Athens” means “Uncertainty,” and the great learning of the people there had done just that: left them as uncertain as they were before. Great knowledge does not necessarily lead to great understanding of the truth. In spite of their great learning, these Athenians were as lost as could be, and needed the word of God to bring them the truth.

It seems now that some of the believers from Macedonia had chosen to help conduct Paul on his way to Greece, perhaps since he was leaving his two most prominent helpers, Silas and Timothy, behind. So these believers help bring him on his way to Athens, and when they arrive there, they plan to return home. Paul sends them on their way, but before they leave he gives them a command for Silas and Timothy to come to him as fast as they can. Whatever the reason might have been for their staying behind, perhaps to finish the work that Paul could not finish, he now wants them back with him. So Paul’s temporary helpers from Macedonia receive this command and go on their way.

16. Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him when he saw that the city was given over to idols.

Paul remains in the city waiting for Silas and Timothy to arrive from Macedonia. Yet he is not idle while he remains there, and his examination of the city reveals to him the sad state it is in. The city of Athens at this time is given over to idols. This provokes Paul in his spirit, that is to say, in his mind. He cannot sit idly by while this city continues on in darkness.

I do not believe that this provoking in Paul’s spirit was just a whim of his. This was the Spirit of God at work. He wanted Paul to proclaim in this city, and so He provoked Paul in his spirit to begin this work. Remember, this book is the Acts of the Apostles, and all that they say and do in the Acts period is orchestrated by the Lord Jesus Christ, Who is working through them.

17. Therefore he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and with the Gentile worshipers, and in the marketplace daily with those who happened to be there.

Paul now reasons in the synagogue, both with the Jews who are there and with the worshipers. There is no word for “Gentile” in the Greek here, so this word is supplied by the New King James Version translators. The word here is the same word that we had in verse 4, sebo. These were people who were devout or worshipers, but as I showed before, we do not know what it was they worshiped. Some in the Jewish community might have slipped away from the God of their Fathers to the point where they would worship idols. Certainly this could have happened in a city so given over to idolatry. Certainly in the context of what moved Paul in verse 16, it cannot be too far-fetched to suppose that those in the synagogue he reasoned with might have been involved in just this kind of worship. In any case, I do not think that there is any reason to think that these “worshipers” in the synagogue were not Jews, whatever it was they were worshipping.

However, Paul reasoning in the marketplace daily with those who happened to be there is quite a different matter altogether. In fact, this is a circumstance unparalleled in anything else we have seen in the book of Acts. Never before have we seen Paul in a Gentile city conduct what we would call “street preaching.” Always he has centered his work among the Israelites in the city and in the synagogue. Even when he turned to the Gentiles in Pisidian Antioch, it was to proclaim to those who had already expressed an interest. For Paul to actually go into the common market of the city and reason with all those who just happened to be there was a new thing entirely. This was altogether unprecedented. Paul was doing a work here unlike any he had done previously in the book of Acts.

So why did Paul make such a change here? Why go now to Gentiles on the street or in the marketplace? The reason is not entirely clear, as the passage does not state it plainly. However, as we noticed above, since all the actions of the apostles in the Acts period were guided and governed by God, we must assume that Paul knew what he was doing, and that what he was doing was right.

It would seem, then, that God for some reason wanted to reach out to the Gentiles in this city of Athens in a unique way. Why here and why now we are not told. Yet this is one further step along the progression we have been following throughout the second and third stages of Acts. First with the Samaritans in Acts 8, then with the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8, then with the household of Cornelius in Acts 10, and then with the Gentiles at Pisidian Antioch in Acts 13, we have seen the Lord move to include Gentiles in the mostly Israelite company of the Acts period. Now a further step is taken. Up until Athens, all the Gentiles included have at least been interested in the Lord before they heard the word from an apostle. Now in Athens, however, Gentiles hear the Word without ever having shown any interest in God before this. Now, the Word is thrown open to the common Gentile on the street in Athens, and any Gentile who hears it could lay hold of it and believe it.

We must not make too much of this, however. Paul’s unusual actions in Athens do not carry on to his next stop in a city, nor do we have any reason to think that the Word was now thrown open to any Gentile anywhere. That would wait for the final pronouncement of Acts 28:28, when the salvation-bringing message itself was sent to the Gentiles. However, this point is a significant one, as it is the first time that previously uninterested, idol-worshipping Gentiles have the Word proclaimed to them. We will see what the outcome of this proclamation is in the following verses.

18. Then certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers encountered him. And some said, “What does this babbler want to say?”
Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods,” because he preached to them Jesus and the resurrection.

Since Paul was reasoning in the open market, it was inevitable that he would eventually run into some of the Athenian philosophers, for Athens was really the center of philosophy in the world at that time. In fact, even modern philosophy owes much to the Athenians. The two schools of philosophers that encounter him here are both of Athenian origin. The Epicureans taught pleasure as the ultimate good. This was not quite so hedonistic as it sounds, as they defined “pleasure” as the absence of pain, and therefore ascribed to an amount of abstinence from certain pleasures that could cause pain later if overindulged in. Stoicism taught virtue as the ultimate good, and defined virtue as having a will in agreement with nature. They used self-control to overcome emotions, which they wanted to control and suppress at all times.

Certain philosophers from both these schools, then, encounter Paul. They listen to what he is saying, and they start to mock it. His teaching certainly did not fit in with either of their two philosophies of life! Some of them call him a “babbler.” The Greek word is spermologos, which means literally a “seed collector.” The picture is of a bird flying around the field and picking up seed that has been sown on the ground. It was used of those who drifted around the marketplace picking up scraps here and there to survive. It seems that as they listen to Paul, they hear some ideas that fit in with one kind of philosophy, and some that fit in with another, and so they cannot classify what philosophy exactly Paul is promoting. Therefore, they imply by calling him a “seed-picker” that Paul has picked up a scrap of an idea here, a scrap of an idea there, and put them all together to form a mish-mash, none of which is really original to him. This was their way of mocking him and what he said.

Others in listening decide that he must be setting forth some new, foreign gods. In a city given over to idolatry like this, so many gods were worshipped that the idea that someone might come into the city and propose some new gods to be worshipped did not seem at all strange to them. However, these too are a bit mistaken. First of all, they hear Paul speak of both “Jesus” and the “resurrection,” and they decide that these are two gods, one named “Jesus” and the other “Anastasis,” the Greek word for resurrection. Of course, Paul was not setting forth the resurrection as a god, but that is how they took it. Secondly, the word in Greek here is not “gods,” but “demons.” To these people, the worship of gods and the worship of demons is not all that different. They just look at demons as being a kind of divine being or supernatural force, and that is what they think Paul is setting forth.

19. And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new doctrine is of which you speak?

Whatever they think of Paul’s message, these philosophers recognize in his words some new teaching that they have never heard before. This at least interests them. If there was one thing the Athenians were interested in, it was collecting knowledge. So from Paul they have an opportunity to learn a new way of thinking that they have never heard before. Whether or not such a new way of thinking sounds appealing to them, they are eager to hear about it and learn what it is all about.

So to hear his teaching, they bring him to the Areopagus. Areopagus means “Martial Peak,” so named for its location. It is also sometimes called “Mars’ Hill,” for it was from their god Mars that it got its name. It was a general meeting place for philosophers, where they would all get together and discuss new ideas and opinions, or argue the finer points of various philosophies and ideas. In many ways, it was the center of Gentile learning and the quest for knowledge in the world at that time. If you wanted to go to the very center of intellectual thought in that part of the ancient world, you could go to no better place than the Areopagus.

Once they have Paul at the place, they put their question to him. They want him to elaborate on this new teaching of which they had heard him speaking. They want their fellows and comrades in the Areopagus to hear him, and to form their own opinions about what he has to say.

20. For you are bringing some strange things to our ears. Therefore we want to know what these things mean.”

They testify these things, probably only partially to explain to Paul their interest, but mostly to let the others in attendance at the Areopagus know what is going on, and why they have brought Paul there. So they state for those in the Areopagus to know that Paul has been speaking some strange things that they have never heard before. Therefore, they want Paul to explain what he means by these things in the presence of all those in the Areopagus.

21. For all the Athenians and the foreigners who were there spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing.

Now the Spirit explains to us a bit about the Areopagus, in case any of His readers are not aware of what the Areopagus is all about. He explains it, quite accurately, that the Athenians and the foreigners who came to Athens and spent their time at the Areopagus were all coming either to tell some new thing, or else to hear the new things that were being proclaimed there. That really was the attraction of the Areopagus: it was the clearing-house for new thoughts and ideas. What those there wanted to hear was something new. Whether they really were after truth or not is hard to say. Clearly many of them were not. All they cared about was hearing something new and interesting that they had never heard before. After they had heard it once, they generally did not care about it anymore. So this is the audience to whom Paul is going to be speaking.