17:1-9 Establishment of the Church in Thessalonica
Thessalonica (modern Salonica or Thessaloniki) was a four or five day journey to the west of Philippi. It was the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia and an important trade center. Presumably funds for the mission had run out so Paul had to go out to work as a tentmaker (as in 18:3, 1 Thessalonians 2:9). After the formation of a Messiah believing church (17:4) the Jews in the city mounted a riot to have Paul and Silas arrested, so they were rushed out by the disciples that night.. Paul later wrote two letters to this church, which became a center of evangelism, and an example to congregations all over Macedonia and south into Greece (1 Thessalonians 1:7-8).
17:1-2 Amphipolis is 30 miles southwest from Philippi, and Apollonia (modern Pollino) was another 27 miles on towards Thessalonica. These two towns would have provided inns for night's rest on the way, but the team did not stop here. Paul wanted to teach in the Jewish synagogue in the capital city (13:5, 14, 42-43, 14:1) and as usual he was given the opportunity to do that for three successive Saturdays.
17:3 He proved from the Old Testament (probably the Septuagint Greek version) that the Messiah would suffer on earth, and then explained how he rose from the dead (the usual apostolic preaching as in 2:32, 3:15, 10:39-40, 13:29-30).
17:4 A month later he formed a Gentile Christian congregation (as he did in 13:46-48, 18:6, 19:9).
17:5-6 This angered the Jews who remained attached to their own synagogue. They hired some rabble rousers and started a riot. They were unable to find Paul and Silas so they attacked the house of Jason who had joined the new congregation, and in whose house the Christians had begun gathering (17:7). They dragged him and some other believers before the politarchai (rulers of a city). Their first complaint was that Christians had disturbed the whole Roman world.
17:7-9 The specific charge was that Christians recognized Jesus as the Messiah King, and this was against the decrees of the emperor who said that no other god should be recognized. The charge of failing to honor the emperor disturbed the politarchai, and they sent for Jason and other believers and released them on bail till the case was tried.
17:10-15 The Jewish Synagogue in Beroea becomes a Messiah believing Congregation.
Travel by night was usually avoided but the danger for Paul and Silas (see 17:5) was so urgent that they were sent away to Beroea (modern Verria 40 miles west of Thessalonica) that very evening. Luke wrote "When they arrived, they began going into the synagogue" (17:10, an imperfect indicating they did this over a period of time). As we have seen (note under 17:4), usually after preaching in a Jewish synagogue Paul had to form a new congregation to teach the new Gentile disciples. But here in Beroea it seems the whole synagogue decided to believe in Jesus as the Messiah. This is perhaps why no church was formed in the city, and it was probably viewed as a congregation of the nearby Church in Thessalonica (see 1 Thessalonians 1:7-8).
17:10-11 Beroea (modern Verria) was a small provincial town only a few miles from the outskirts of the capital city of Thessalonica. And as usual Paul was welcomed in the synagogue (see 13:5, 14, 42-43, 14:1, 17:1-2). Because of keen interest of the Jewish members there was no need to form a new Messiah believing congregation. Unlike the Jews of Thessalonica, these were willing to study carefully the Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament.
17:12 As a result a majority of the Jewish members believed together with some Greek women and prominent Gentile men in the town (see the God-fearers in 10:1-2, 13:48-50, 15:21, 16:13, 17:4).
17:13 News of this got back to the angry Jews of Thessalonica (17:5), and they came to incite a riot as they had done in their own city.
17:14-15 Timothy, who had been left behind to help the church in Troas (see 16:3, 8, 11) had by this time rejoined the team, and he was left behind in Beroea with Silas to help teach the new Messiah believing congregation. The Adriatic coast was only fifteen miles away, and Paul's friends probably paid for a fishing vessel so they could travel with him the five or six day sea journey to the port of Athens. As they left him there to return on the same boat, Paul asked them to tell Silas and Timothy to join him as soon as possible.
17:16-34 Paul's Sermon on Mars Hill in Athens
During the "Golden Age" of Pericles (c.495-429 BC) and Socrates (c.470-399 BC) Athens had been a great center of world civilization. As Paul explained in his letter to the Romans, the philosophers (see 17:18) had put God out of their minds. As a result over the next 450 years Greek civilization took successive steps down into degradation (Romans 1:21-32). When Paul arrived in Athens the university was still famous, but the city was dingy and full of shabby idols to all sorts of gods. One of the idols was dedicated "to an unknown god" (17:23, a god for agnostics?). Paul's sermon recognized the importance of nations with their long continuing history (17:26). The Greek, Roman, and Jewish nations, for example, were each already over 15 centuries old (and we can now add another 20 centuries as evidence of God's continuing interest in them). And people of each nation had direct access to God if they turned in his direction (see note on 17:27-28).
17:16 Paul was horrified by the idolatry in the city. As usually happens, when the philosophers and intellectuals reject faith in God ordinary people turn to superstition (in this case idols and images) for comfort.
17:17 He immediately began trying to persuade three groups of people. On Saturdays he would argue in the synagogue with the Jews who attended (as in 13:5, 14, 42-43, 14:1, 17:1, 10). He also met with "God-fearing" Gentiles (see note on 10:1, 14:1, 16:13, 17:4) who attended the synagogue without submitting to circumcision or obeying the kosher food laws. Thirdly he would discuss with any he met in the market areas (see 17:21).
17:18 Athenians looked back to the great philosophers, Socrates (c.470-399 BC), Plato (c..428-c.348 BC), and Aristotle (384-322 BC). But they were followed by the Sophists (wise persons, psychologists, experts, gurus, counselors) who were more interested in making money from their clients than in the pursuit of truth. By the time Paul arrived the Epicureans (Epicurus lived 341270 BC) taught that happiness was the purpose of life. The Stoics (based on Zeno, 490-430 BC) taught the need to live a virtuous life. These are still the two main philosophies of our modern world ("be happy, be good").. Since Paul ignored these approaches, they called him a spermologos (one who makes his living by picking up scraps) who talked about a foreign god.
17:19-21 They decided to make a fool of Paul by forcing him into a public debate on Mars Hill (areios pagos the public debating area, similar to Hyde Park Corner, immediately north west of the Parthenon). The questioners wanted to hear about his new philosophical explanation (didachy). As idlers in the city all they cared about was discussing new fads and ideas (17:21).
17:22-23 But Paul avoided philosophical discussion (see 1 Corinthians 2:1) and he never made any attempt to prove the existence of God. You cannot prove the existence of beauty, or love, or energy - you can only describe your experience of them. So Paul went straight to their experience of God. They were religious, but their idol was dedicated to an unknown god.
17:24-25 Paul began with God as Creator of the whole world (as in 14:15). They accepted in theory that Zeus (Latin Deus) was the creator (originator) of everything. But that obviously meant he could not be contained in an idol which was tended with human hands, nor could he live in a man-made shrine.
17:26-28 He then stressed the importance of nations. His Greek hearers all knew the long history of their own nation going back to the Mycenean civilization (c.1400-1200 BC) as described in the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer (about 750 BC). Paul then explained that God's plan was that nations would offer the freedom for people to "keep searching for God in the expectation that they would come in touch with him and find him" (rather than "perhaps grope for him"). And this is possible because the Creator is never far from any of his children. (Here Paul seems to be quoting from a third century BC writer named Aratus).
17:29-30 Since we are the children of God (made in his image, Genesis 1:27) it is foolish to imagine the Creator could be located in an idol or image. Some teach that we only become children of God when we make a decision (based on John 1:12) to accept Jesus as our Savior. Paul seems to teach that we are children of God without knowing it. So far "the times of ignorance" meant that people had no personal knowledge of the Messiah. What is needed is to turn in his direction. Repentance does not mean feeling bad about our sins and promising to do better in the future. Like pointing a satellite dish in the right direction, we look to the Creator, and we can then be taught and changed by the Holy Spirit.
17:31 We know that "God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him" (John 3:17). Which means that the verb krino in this verse does not mean the intention to condemn us. But there is a krisis in that "the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light" (John 3:19). The Son of God is "the true light, which enlightens everyone" which keeps coming into the world (John 1:9). And every single person of any nation in the world can respond to that light (the love of God) or reject it.
Theological Note The NRSV uses a Muslim model of the last judgment to translate "God has fixed a day in which he will have the world judged." (17:31). A better reading is "God has appointed the light of day" (as in "you are all children of the light and of the day," 1 Thessalonians 5:5) to keep separating (a Greek present continuous) the children of light from the children of darkness (see John 3:17-21, 8:12, 42, 44-47). Rather than a last judgment after we die, there is the continuing work of the eternal light of God, who was known by the Old Testament prophets as the Messiah ruler among the nations. The New Testament records how he took birth among us.. What the resurrection does is to assure us that the Jesus we have come to know and love when he was on earth, is alive and we can look to him in the full assurance of faith.
17:32-33 Instead of grasping God's amazing plan for every single person in the world, and the Greek nation whose philosophers had rejected it (Romans 1:18-23). Now the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers (who usually fought each other tooth and nail 17:18) join in scoffing at the mention of resurrection, but other listeners wanted to hear more. So Paul left them, and probably began teaching any who wanted to be baptized and become disciples.
17:34 Evidently there was no large turning to God in Athens, and we hear of no church there in Paul's day, and none of his letters was addressed to that famous intellectual center. One convert was Dionysius, a member of the administration of the Areopagus district, and Eusebius says he later became the first bishop of Athens (Ecclesiastical History 3:4, 11, 4:23.3). It seems Damaris must have been a prominent "God-seeking" woman (as in 13:50, 16:13, 17:4, 12).