Lets read Acts 17 verses 1 to 9.
1 When Paul and his companions had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue.
The best place to find a gathering of Jews and God-fearing Gentiles would be a synagogue – which may suggest why he ‘passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia’ but stopped in Thessalonica.
2 As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3 explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead. ‘This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah,’ he said. 4 Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women.
The ‘God-fearing Greeks’ were permitted to attend the synagogue as a privilege. Jewish men had been taught since childhood the ways of their faith and for them attendance at the synagogue was virtually compulsory. Jewish women were permitted to attend but not many would be keen enough.
However the synagogues were also used for all public meetings, not just Jewish religious services, and decisions could be made there affecting the whole community; maybe that was why ‘quite a few prominent women’ were present.
(The word ‘synagogue’ is a Greek word meaning ‘gathering of people’ and was also applied to the building where they met. They could be used for any communal activity. They became much more significant in Israel after the destruction of the Temple in AD 70. Congregations of Jews met regularly for worship following their return from captivity in 520 BC, and ‘synagogue’ was applied to them.)
Only Jews had a Sabbath rest day; first century Romans had a complex calendar and an eight-day cycle (but no weekends!). The seven day week was gradually adopted and only made official by Constantine in AD 321. Before then each month had a scattering of different days which were either ‘unlucky’ or commemorated something, and were thus either unfit for work or a holiday.
5 But other Jews were jealous;
We have come across this strange response before (Acts 13:45)
Who was Jealous of Paul?
If you run a club you naturally want to keep control of its members. If a stranger comes in suggesting major changes, you would most likely oppose them. If people seem to be happily swayed by the arguments and are now following this new leader you would be jealous.
Here their jealousy was so great they were determined to get rid of Paul.
so they rounded up some bad characters from the market-place, formed a mob and started a riot in the city. They rushed to Jason’s house in search of Paul and Silas in order to bring them out to the crowd.
It seems their intention was simply that the crowd would beat them up, in the hopes they would leave.
6 But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some other believers before the city officials, shouting: ‘These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, 7 and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.’
The ‘Jealous Jews’ were a bit deflated. Having dragged Jason and some other believers out of his house, what should they do next? Take them to court!
On the way, they had to build a charge that would stick under Roman law, and claiming that they supported a king other than Caesar should do the trick.
8 When they heard this, the crowd and the city officials were thrown into turmoil.
Why was that?
It was fairly obvious that up to now the crowd had been happy to have acted as a ‘rent-a-mob’. Now before the magistrates they were in deeper water – they probably had no idea what the charge against the believers was, or what it meant.
The magistrates too were in a quandary – they were faced with an angry mob, none of whom could really explain what their grievance was. The best solution was to set a date for a trial at a later date when all parties could come better prepared, and release the prisoners on bail.
9 Then they put Jason and the others on bail and let them go.
Now read verses 10-15
10 As soon as it was night, the believers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea. (About 45 miles away) On arriving there, they went to the Jewish synagogue.
With Paul gone, the case against the believers would collapse. As far as Paul was concerned it was ‘business as usual’ and he was content to move on.
11 Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.
Paul knew his ‘Old Testament’ scriptures well and would quote many of the passages that referred to Jesus. The Bereans were eager to check their scrolls, and finding Paul correct, were ready to believe the Gospel.
12 As a result, many of them believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men.
13 But when the Jews in Thessalonica learned that Paul was preaching the word of God at Berea, some of them went there too, agitating the crowds and stirring them up.
The Thessalonian Jews, having been humiliated by Paul’s departure, were not going to let it rest so they followed him to Berea, and again stirred up the crowds.
14 The believers immediately sent Paul to the coast, but Silas and Timothy stayed at Berea.
Why ‘to the coast’?
The quickest way to put some distance between Paul and his pursuers would have been for him to get on one of the many boats that regularly traded up and down the coast. The text doesn’t say so, but most probably Paul was taken on board a ship that was sailing to Athens. (Around 270 miles – see map).
15 Those who escorted Paul brought him to Athens and then left with instructions for Silas and Timothy to join him as soon as possible.
Those people who took Paul to the coast actually got on the boat with him. Silas and Timothy, and those believers who remained, wouldn’t have known where he was heading.
What do we know about Athens?
It was the main city of Greece, granted ‘Free City’ status by the Romans. Athens produced some of the most influential and enduring culture of the Western world and is considered to be the birthplace of Philosophy. In 5th century BC the playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides all lived and worked there, as did the historians Herodotus and Thucydides, the physician Hippocrates, and the philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.
Now read verses 16-34 (Perhaps several could share this reading: 16-18, 19-21, 22-23, 24-28, 29-31, 32-34)
16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the market-place day by day with those who happened to be there.
It would have been weeks; maybe months before the others joined him. Initially Paul was simply a tourist, looking round Athens but each day seeing more and more evidence of idol-worship.
As usual Paul preached in the Synagogue to those who already worshipped God; but here he also went to the market-place and preached to those of other faiths and none.
18 A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, ‘What is this babbler trying to say?’ Others remarked, ‘He seems to be advocating foreign gods.’ They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.
What did Epicureans and Stoics believe?
(There were over 3000 Greek gods of one form or another)
Epicurus (B.C. 342 to 270) believed that the many gods were too far off to be concerned with man – they needed no sacrifices and answered no prayers. Therefore, left to their own devices, people should find for themselves what gave the most pleasure. This generally was a life of ease and indulgence.
The Stoics (named after the porch under which the first met) believed in a ‘divine mind’ pervading the universe and ordering all events. They taught that true wisdom consisted in being the master, and not the slave, of circumstances. The true believer had no concern for pleasure or pain but rose above these things.
What were the ‘foreign gods’:
'Jesus and the resurrection’
They assumed that Jesus was a man who had become a god: a ‘Deified Mortal’, and Anastasis (Greek for resurrection) another ‘Personified Concept’ – many of which were worshipped already – see Wikipedia:
19 Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, ‘May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.’ 21 (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)
‘they took him’ but cordially, by people eager to listen: quite a different response to the receptions he had experienced so far!
22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: ‘People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship – and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
How was Paul going to engage with these religious but pagan people? They did not have the benefit of a Jewish education, and it is unlikely that they would have read any of the Jewish sacred writings – the Old Testament.
Firstly he showed them that they had already accepted the one true God without realising it!
Then he described God’s credentials:
24 ‘The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.
Almighty God is so different to the thousands (literally!) of gods they worshipped. They were all gods of different aspects of the created universe – it seems no-one had questioned who had actually created it, or where it had come from.
Paul introduced them to a creator God who was so far above anything that they had conceived before, a God who could not be contained in a temple, or depicted in a statue, or who needed to be given anything by his creation.
Rather this was a God who gave not only everything, but life itself.
26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.
Paul now condensed the whole of world history into one sentence.
27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 “For in him we live and move and have our being.” As some of your own poets have said, “We are his offspring.”
Paul now cut through the Athenian’s desire to worship anything and everything and directed them to the One True God who reaches out personally to his creation – as a father to his children
29 ‘Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone – an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.
Paul probably had in mind Isaiah 44:12-20 – a scathing passage pointing out how foolish it is to make an object, call it an idol, and then worship it! Here Paul called it ignorance, which may have jarred with those who considered themselves to be some of the best minds in Athens.
Having got a personal response, Paul then introduced the concept of personal repentance; and repentance implies sin.
31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.’
Sensibly not yet introducing Jesus as God, but simply as ‘the man he has appointed’. However, quite deliberately he did introduce the resurrection to people who considered that life here and now was all they could look forward to. The Epicureans specifically denied an ‘afterlife’.
32 When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, ‘We want to hear you again on this subject.’ 33 At that, Paul left the Council. 34 Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.
The meeting broke up, and we are not told if Paul met with them again. However the seed had been planted and a number of people became followers. Paul was happy to leave the rest to the Lord – and move on.