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Acts 17

Scripture: Acts 17:1-34

Overview:

  • Paul and Silas pass through a few towns until they come to Thessoalonica
  • After a few weeks preaching in the synagogs, Paul converts some Jews, God-Fearing Greeks and prominent women
  • However, some other Jews are miffed, so they round up a bunch of unsavory characters from the town square and start a riot
  • When the mob can’t find Paul and Silas, they nab Jason (at whose house the missionaries were likely staying/meeting) and drag him before the city officials
  • The mob accuses Paul of preaching that Jesus will replace Caesar, and so Jason is forced to pay bail on their behalf
  • Under the cover of night, the Thessalonians send Paul and Silas along to the next town, Berea
  • Berean Jews eagerly dive into the scriptures to verify Paul’s claims about Jesus
  • Jews from Thessalonica learn that Paul is in Berea, so they rile up some trouble there as well
  • Paul gets sent by himself to Athens to avoid further trouble
  • In Athens Paul stirs up some trouble by debating the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers
  • Paul is brought before the local council (called the Areopagus) and asked to explain his teaching
  • Paul starts his speech saying that he’s observed that Athenians are seekers of religion but they know not the God whom they seek, and that his task is to enlighten them on the subject of God
  • According to Paul, God made everything in the universe and doesn’t live in temples. He doesn’t need anything from people, rather people need everything from him.
  • God made all nations from one man and purposely directed the diversity of the nations so that mankind would seek after him
  • Paul quotes Greek poetry to remind them that they themselves believe man was made like God and so it is foolish to try and make God like a man via idols
  • Then Paul concludes by telling them that though God overlooked ignorance of himself in the past, he has now revealed himself in Jesus (as proven by his resurrection) and that judgement was a’ comin’.
  • Paul’s speech didn’t go over super well, but a few people became believers

Historical Context:

Paul’s basic sermon structure to the Jews vs. the Gentiles

Paul’s Sermon to Jews Paul’s Sermon to Non-Jews
  1. Jesus’ life corresponded with the prophecies about him:*
    • He was born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), in the tribe of Judah (Gen. 49:10)
    • He was descended from Jesse, and of the royal line of David (Isaiah 11:1,10)
    • He came at the time predicted (Daniel 9:24-27)
    • His appearance, character, work, etc., corresponded with the predictions of Isaiah 53
  2. Jesus’ miracles proved that he was the Messiah, for he professed to be the Messiah and God would not work a miracle to confirm the claims of an impostor
  3. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead conclusively proved that he was the Messiah.
  4. Don’t dismiss what God has done through Jesus, or else you will be judged like our ancestors were when they didn’t listen to God.

*Barnes commentary

  1. There is one true God who created the world through one person and is now reconciling the world back to himself through one person.
  2. God is, and always has been, evident in nature. He’s been close (knowable) all along, and now he’s revealed himself to be fully known.
  3. Worshiping idols is foolish. Mankind is modeled after God, not the other way around. Also, God cannot be contained by man (like in a temple). Nothing can contain the ruler over all creation.
  4. God has been tolerant in the past, overlooking wayward behavior, but now judgement is coming as proven by the resurrection of Jesus. Ignorance of the one true God will no longer be tolerated.

 

Athens:

Athens is a legendary city, and one of the world’s oldest. It was founded by Cecrops (a mythical king) and called Athens in honor of Minerva, who was chiefly worshipped there, and to whom the city was dedicated. The city was distinguished for philosophy, learning, and the arts. The most celebrated Grecian warriors, poets, statesmen, and philosophers, were either born or flourished there. However, during Paul’s time, the city was in decline and had a population of only 10,000 (GCI).

Athenians were particularly religious, as attested to by many ancient authors: Pausanias says, “The Athenians greatly surpassed others in their zeal for religion” Lucian says of the city of Athens,” On every side there are altars, victims, temples, and festivals.” Livy says, that Athens “was full of the images of gods and men, adorned with every variety of material, and with all the skill of art.” And Petronius says humorously of the city, that “it was easier to find a god than a man there.” (Barnes)

“It was said that there were more statues of the gods in Athens than in all the rest of Greece put together.” (Barclay)

Alter to an Unknown God

Once when Athens was plagued by pestilence in the sixth century B.C. and the city rulers had exhausted all their strategies to abate it, they sent to Crete, asking the prophet Epimenides to come and help. His remedy was to drive a herd of black and white sheep away from the Areopagus and, wherever they lay down, to sacrifice them to the god of that place. The plague was stayed, and Diogenes Laertes says that memorial altars with no god’s name inscribed on them may consequently be found throughout Attica. Wycherley proposes, with some archaeological justification, that such altars may also have been raised to appease the dead wherever ancient burial sites were disturbed by the building projects of later generations. (IVP)

A few ancient authors attest to similar alters: Philostratus says, “And this at Athens, where there are even altars to the unknown gods.” Pausanina says, that at Athens”there are altars of gods which are called the unknown ones.” (Barnes)

Areopagus

The Areopagus (or in Greek, Areios Pagos, “Mars’ hill”) was the city council of Athens, and in Roman times the chief judicial body of the city. The court had 30 members and was responsible for culture, education and religion. They also evaluated the competence of visiting lecturers to speak in their city. (GCI)

Epicureans 

Epicureans were followers of the teachings of Epicurus (341-270 B.C.). Epicurus’ philosophy grew in popularity and it became, along with Stoicism and Skepticism, one of the three dominant schools of Hellenistic Philosophy.

For Epicurus, the purpose of philosophy was to attain the happy, tranquil life, characterized by ataraxia—peace and freedom from fear—and aponia—the absence of pain—and by living a self-sufficient life surrounded by friends. He taught that pleasure and pain are the measures of what is good and evil; death is the end of both body and soul and should therefore not be feared; the gods neither reward nor punish humans; the universe is infinite and eternal; and events in the world are ultimately based on the motions and interactions of atoms moving in empty space. (Wikipedia)

Epicurus taught that all good and bad derive from the sensations of what he defined as pleasure and pain: What is good is what is pleasurable, and what is bad is what is painful. Pleasure was the chief good, and that virtue was to be practiced only as it contributed to pleasure. By pleasure, however, Epicurus did not mean sensual appetites, and vices, but rational pleasure, properly regulated and governed.  His teachings were more about striving for an absence of pain and suffering, both physical and mental, and a state of satiation and tranquility that was free of the fear of death and the retribution of the gods.

The Epicureans denied that the world was created by God, and instead that all matter was eternal and the world was formed by a fortuitous combination of atoms. Like other Greek philosophers before him, Epicurus thought that the fundamental components of the world were indivisible little bits of matter (atoms) flying through empty space. However, he didn’t think the atoms always moved in straight lines (which promoted determinism), instead he thought that they “swerved”, thus creating “free will.” In the end, though, everything that occurs is the result of the atoms colliding, rebounding, and becoming entangled with one another, with no purpose or plan behind their motions.

Epicurus’ view was that there were gods, but that they were neither willing nor able to prevent evil. Gods are “far off,” with little or no interest in the ordinary lives of people. This was not because they were malevolent, but because they lived in a perfect state of ataraxia, a state everyone should strive to emulate; it is not the gods who are upset by evils, but people.

Epicurus ultimately advocated living in such a way as to derive the greatest amount of pleasure possible during one’s lifetime, yet doing so moderately in order to avoid the suffering incurred by overindulgence in such pleasure. To Epicurus, the social contract was not between men and gods, but just between men. Justice was an agreement that people were to “neither to harm nor be harmed”.

To the Epicureans, knowledge was sought only to rid oneself of religious fears and superstitions, the two primary fears to be eliminated being fear of the gods and of death.

Epicurean philosophy had a profound effect on the development of scientific thinking with their insistence on experiencing something before declaring it true; and on modern America through Thomas Jefferson, author of such phrases as  “all men are created equal,” and men are endowed with certain “inalienable rights,” such as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” who considered himself an Epicurean. (Wikipedia)

Epicureans often had this epitaph on their tombs: Non fui, fui, non sum, non curo “I was not; I was; I am not; I do not care.”

The poet Horace, an Epicurean, illustrates the gist of the philosophy with his famous statement, Carpe Diem, “seize the day.”

Stoics

Stoics were members of a school of philosophy founded by  Zeno (340-265 B.C.), and named from the Greek  stoa, or “porch” from which Zeno taught.

The doctrines of the sect were, that the Universe was created by God; that all things were fixed by fate; that even God was under the dominion of fatal necessity; that the fates were to be submitted to; that the passions and affections were to be suppressed and restrained; that happiness consisted in the insensibility of the soul to pain; and that a man should gain an absolute mastery over all the passions and affections of his nature. (Barnes)

God was the animating principal or soul of the world (the Logos). The universe itself is god and the universal outpouring of its soul, thus all people are manifestations of the one universal spirit and should live in brotherly love and readily help one another.

For the Stoics, everything is subject to the laws of Fate, for the Universe acts according to its own nature, and the nature of the passive matter it governs. The souls of people and animals are emanations from this primordial fire, and are, likewise, subject to Fate. The soul would exist only until the destruction of the universe then be absorbed back into the Divine Essence and become a part of god.

Stoicism teaches the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions; the philosophy holds that becoming a clear and unbiased thinker allows one to understand the universal reason (Logos).

The principle idea was to be free of suffering through apatheia, or peace of mind (literally, ‘without passion’). The Stoics did not seek to extinguish emotions; rather, they sought to transform them by a resolute ‘askēsis‘ that enables a person to develop clear judgment and inner calm. Logic, reflection, and concentration were the methods of such self-discipline. (Wikipedia)

Stoic ethics stressed the rule: “Follow where reason leads.”

Paul vs. the Philosophers

What Paul Said What the Epicureans Believed What the Stoics Believed
You are religious people, eagerly pursuing truth, but you are, in fact, ignorant of the truth you seek as proven by your alter to an unknown God We have figured out life and have a well developed philosophy based on reason that started 300 years ago We too have figured out life and also have a well developed philosophy based on reason that started 300 years ago
There is one God who made everything and rules over everything, and he can’t be contained in temples Everything in the universe, even the gods, were made through the random assembly of atoms. There is no purpose behind the universe. There is a singular animating principle of the universe, the Logos, and all things are related to it, part of it. Peace comes to man when he can understand the Logos, the reason, behind the universe.
God doesn’t need human help, rather it is man who is dependent on God for everything We shouldn’t depend on the gods, because they don’t care and ultimately don’t matter. Rather, we should depend on each other.  Everything is subject to Fate, even the gods.
God created all mankind through a single person and directed where each nation should go throughout history in hopes that they might seek him out, for God is near to all of us The gods are far off, distant beings who have achieved a perfect state of peace and freedom from fear. They are unconcerned with human affairs. God is in all of us, part of all of us and we will all return to our original state as part of him when we die
 As your own poets have said, “we are like the gods” not the other way around, thus worshiping idols is foolish Everything we see is the result of impartial, impersonal atoms randomly colliding, combining and rebounding, so all things are equal.  All people are a manifestation of the one universal spirit.
God let foolishness like idol worship go unpunished in the past, but now judgement is coming, and God has appointed the world a judge, Jesus, as proven by his resurrection from the dead  The goal of life is find freedom from fear of the gods and from death. Whatever happens to us is directed by Fate, so our best bet is to accept our fates without emotion and see it through the lens of pure reason.

 

Observations:

  • Jason is mentioned in Romans 16:21, alongside Timothy and a few others as “my fellow Jews” as sending greetings to the church in Rome. His home was likely the location of the church (similar to Lydia’s)
  • Thessalonica is a large city of perhaps 200,000 people. (GCI)
  • Thessalonica represents Paul’s fifth hasty departure from a city:  previously Paul fled Damascus (9:23-25), Jerusalem (9:30), Antioch of Pisidia (13:50-51) and Lystra (14:20). (GCI)
  • Berea is considered an out-of-the-way place, of little historical or political importance.
  • When Paul is accused by the philosophers of advocating foreign “gods” the word translated gods (daimoniwn) denotes the genii, or spirits who were superior to men, but inferior to the gods. They naturally supposed, therefore, that he of whom Paul spoke so much must be a god of some other nation, of a rank similar to their own divinities. (Barnes)
  • Note how the Epicureans mocked Paul, “What is this babbler trying to say?” whereas the Stoics were curious, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.”
  • Paul is called a “babbler” a word that means a poor person (or sometimes a bird) who collects seeds, often noisily. It’s used to describes teachers who have only bits and pieces of learning, but who are trying to sound learned.
  • When Paul says that in the past “God overlooked  such ignorance,” he didn’t mean that God was excusing it or failing to notice it, but rather that God didn’t punish it as it deserved.
  • Note how Paul does not use anything from the Jewish Scriptures in his speech to the Athenians. Paul is not trying to prove that Jesus is the Messiah.
  • The concept of resurrection was foolish to the Greeks as they would have endorsed the sentiments of the god Apollo, expressed on the occasion when that very court of the Areopagus was founded by the city’s patron goddess Athene: “Once a man dies and the earth drinks up his blood, there is no resurrection.” (Bruce)

Discussion:

  • The Bereans were applauded by Luke for their independent verification of Paul’s claims about Scripture. How often do we question our teachers/preachers? How often do we look at the texts of their sermons by ourselves to verify that what they have taught is true?
  • How similar are the Epicurian and Stoic philospher’s view points to some modern day beliefs? Is science the new stoacisim? Is American pluarlism the new epicurian belief? Does Paul’s style of aruging still apply? Would his sermon work today?

References:

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