Acts 17–18:22. Paul's Second Missionary Journey. Pt. II.
Key Notes: Gallio's educt protected the Christians. The Bereans. Paul's lecture to Athenian philosophers. Adapting Mars' Hill to moderns.
17:1–9 Paul and Silas left Philippi with painful backs, but with a healthy church behind them. They passed by Amphipolis and Apollonia to arrive at Thessalonica. In the synagogue Paul taught that Messianic prophecy includes the Suffering Servant and that Jesus is the Messiah. [See the four poems of the Suffering Servant in Isa.42,49,50,53.] The disbelieving Jews gathered a street-mob and attacked the house of Jason, where they thought Paul would be hiding. They complained to the authorities that Paul and Silas were turning the world upside down, acting against the decrees of Caesar, and proclaiming Jesus as King. Jason had to post bond to assure the authorities that there would be an end to such behavior.
17:10–15 Paul and Silas were sent away at night to Berea, where they went strategically to the synagogue. These Jews were eager to study the OT and find out whether Paul's interpretation was correct, and many believed. But the Jews of Thessalonica came on, incited the crowds and once again Paul was forced out. It appears that friends took Paul down to the sea as if to board ship, but that he went overland to Athens, leaving Silas and Timothy behind.
17:16 In Athens, Paul went to the synagogue and the marketplace every day. Philosophers of the Stoic and Epicurean schools found his strange talk ("this seed-picker") interesting enough to give him an opportunity to address the assembled Areopagites on Mars' Hill, a stone platform which still stands. Paul's speech complimented Athenian religiosity, but introduced their Unknown God as the Creator of the universe and mankind, and the Author of history. He is a personal Being and yet beyond comprehension, the Judge of humans by the the agency of a Man, the Risen One. The resurrection provoked the end of the discussion. They would not hear more. Death, and worse yet, judgment, was a taboo subject for the Greeks. But some believed, including Dionysius, one of the philoosphers and Damaris.
18:1–11 Paul went on to Corinth, and found Aquilla and Priscilla, recently expelled from Rome. Expulsion of all Jews from Rome was another evidence of endemic antisemitism. They were in business as tent-makers and saddle-makers and Paul worked with them. Every Jewish male had to have an occupation, even those who intended to be rabbis because it was considered bad ethics to charge for religious work. They worked weekdays and Paul preached in the synagogue on Sabbath (18:4) until Silas and Timothy came from Philippi with a grant (Phil.4:15) that enabled Paul to preach full time.
18:5 When the Jews of the synagogue resisted, Paul shook the dust from his garments and went next door to Titius Justus' house, with Crispus, the (former) ruler of the synagogue and many other believers. No doubt this had a demoralizing effect of the synagogue --listening to singing and Paul's loud voice next door. Later its new leader was beaten by the mob.
God in a vision encouraged Paul: "Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent, for I am with you and no man will attack you to harm you, for I many people in this city."
18:12–17 But when a new proconsul came, the Jews brought Paul in to accuse him of teaching the worship of God contrary to Jewish Law. Gallio, the brother of Seneca the Philosopher and son of Seneca the Orator, was said to be one of the finest men of his generation. He ruled that Jewish religious controversies, i.e. Paul's teaching, were not a concern to Roman government. His decree gave the Christians liberty to preach for another ten years on the assumption that the Christianity was a variation on Judaism.
The Jews were pushed out of the tribunal, and the mob beat up the leader of the synagogue. Gallio had no interest in that either.
18:18–22 Paul left Corinth after at least 18 months of teaching, and sailed for Syria with Priscilla and Aquilla.He was briefly in Ephesus and left them there. On the way he completed a vow by cutting his hair.
Some commentators doubt that Paul used the right approach to the Athenians. They believe that Paul regretted his approach to the Athenian philosophers because in his opening remarks to the Corinthians, who were also pagans, he said, "When I came to you, brethren, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified." (ICor.2:1–2). Had Paul preached Christ Crucified in Athen,would he have had a better response?
Also God had to encourage him in a vision at Corinth (Acts‘:9), and Paul later made a vow, perhaps a sign of frustration.
But the text says he had "preached Jesus and the Resurrection (Crucifixion implied) to the Athenians. (17:18). However Paul may have felt, the Mars' Hill address is an inspired approach to thoughtful pagans, ancient or modern, and full of biblical concepts.
In New testament times, tradiitonal Greco-roman religion, with its 16 gods and godesses, was fading and being replaced by philosophy because the deities were immoral and eratic. In a stroke of genius, Paul picked the nedle out of the hay-stack. He focised on a remote deity ("Unknown") who is the true God, rather than deriding the gods or debating philosophy. In the process he looked at both Epicureanism and Stoicism without mentioning them. Epicureans believed that pleasure, the enjoyment of a tranquil pain-free life, is the highest good. They were materialists, believing that everything was reducible to atoms. Gods, too, were material beings. There is no life after death, because humans disintegrate back into atoms. The Stoics believed virtue was the highest good, achieved by resignation and detachment. They had a high sense of moral duty. They dreamed of a world order where everyone had equal rights. Simply, Epicureans put feeling above thought and Stoics put thought above feeeling. Paul preached faith in God, judgment and life after death.
Let us try to understand Paul's message at Mar's Hill to our generation. We will see that he does not attack paganism nor attempt to defend his position, only to state it in terms they could understood.
- "I found an altar ...to an unknown god."
"Evolution" is the modern bersion of the unknown god. On one hand it proclaims the blind process of natural selection. On the other hand animals find ways to improve themselves: the giraffe's long neck makes it easy to reach the high leaves; the bright color of an Amazon butterfly prevents it from being eaten by birds; the hawk learns to ride the thermals to conserve energy. God is behind all these things although His existence is denied.We argue for design in nature and Scripture supports the argument. Psa.19, 104, 139
"God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth..."
"All things were made by Him and without Him was not anything made that was made." (Jn.1:3).
In teaching Buddhists and Hindus we proclaim God as the Creator of all there is, so our teaching begins with Genesis 1. Creation defines Him for the agnostic religionist.
- "...He does not live in shrines made by man...."
"Behold, heaven and highest heaven cannot contain Thee...." (IK.8:27)
New Agers says "the earth is our Mother, she will help us". Animists believe spirits are in sun and moon, trees and rocks. But God is transcendant over all of nature and huge beyond all space. Isa.40:22–26
- God is not in need of anything.He made everything.
"If I were hungry, I would not tell you; for the world and all that is in it is mine." (Psa.50:12)
The ancients tried to placate the gods, seeking favor, and thereby assuming that the gods needed their offerings.
I watched a woman put cooked rice into a wooden idol's mouth. We cannot win His favor by offering Him our money, either.
- God made from one all ethnic groups.
"The man called his wife's name Eve, because she was the mother of all living." (Gen.3:20).
It is popular to think of Adam as one of a group of Neanderthal farmers, a mediating position for modern anthropology. But we are all of one blood, from one couple. Blood transfusion can be prepared anywhere in the world. There is no master race although at various times Greeks, Chinese, Germans, etc. have thought they were.
- God has ordered human history, national boundaries and periods of dominance.
"When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of men, he fixed the bounds of the people according to the number of the sons of God." (Deut.32:8). The last phrase is an enigma.
Modern historians cannot find purpose or meaning in history but Old Testament history is an edited case-study in the life of one small nation under God's supervision. That God orders national histories is staggering. We think of turning points like the Sack of Jerusalem (70AD), the Battle of Tours (732), Waterloo (1815), and Gettysberg (1863).
- God is not far away but makes Himself available to the seeking soul.
"The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart, ...because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved." (Rom.10:9)
"Whoever comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of them who diligently seek Him." (Heb.11:6 KJV)
Both Stoics and Epicureans imagined an impersonal, detached deity. Moderns believe God has left us alone in the universe. Yet God is the source of greatest good, of pleasure and virtue and we seek Him for the Good that He is and does.
- "...as some of your own poets have said." Paul uses Greek poetry to confrim that they knew God's immanence in the world and His Fatherhood. The knowledge of God is indeed universal, and the more vehement the arguments against Him, the more clear that people are "kicking against the goads." Acts 26:14
- God does not resemble anything of our imagining. His image cannot be reduced to marble.
"All who make idols are nothing and the things they delight in do not profit; their witnesses neither see nor know...." (Isa.44:9–20 is a humorous mockery of idolatry.) "My concept of God" is just another idol.
- God has set a time for judging the world.
"...when the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of His Father, and then He will repay everyone for what he has done." (Matt.16:27)
Neither Stoics nor Epicureans believed in life after death, so that final judgment was ruled out. Moderns deny life after death or think almost everyone will go to Heaven. Yet we all feel that sometime, somewhere, all will be made right and justice will be done. Hitler and Stalin must be punished.
- Jesus is the One who will judge.
"...as the Father has life in Himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in Himself, and has given Him authority to execute judgment, because He is the Son of Man." (Jn.5:26).
Moderns do not believe in discrimination, and moral judgment is not acceptable, although discrimination and judgment are done everywhere, everyday, in business, politics, athletics and education. Jesus is eminently qualified to be our Judge because He lived among us as a human being flawlessly.
Let us proclaim Paul's message to our generation.
P.S. A good summary of Greco-Roman religion is in The Greco-Roman World. J.S. Jeffers. IVP.’99. pp.89–109.