Paul working the Greek crowd
Location Thessalonica: Paul stirs up another riot1 Paul and Silas headed southwest and passed through the coastal towns of Amphipolis and Apollonia. They came to the town of Thessalonica. Jews worshiped at a synagogue there. 2 Paul did his usual thing: he went to synagogue services every Sabbath day. He did that for three weeks, trying to reason with the people by supporting his arguments with Scripture. 3 He pointed out Bible passages that said the Messiah had to suffer, die, and rise from the dead. Paul told the people, “This Jesus I’m telling you about is the Messiah.” 4 Paul convinced some of the Jews. They sided with him and Silas. So did a lot of the non-Jews, along with a few of the most respected women. 5 Some Jews, however, envied the attention Paul and Silas were getting. They rounded up some bad boys who were hanging around the marketplace in town. Together, they worked the crowd into a mob and eventually started a riot. They descended on the house of a man named Jason because they thought that’s where they might find Paul and Silas. 6 But they didn’t find the two men there. So they arrested Jason and some other believers and took them to the city officials. Folks in the mob told the officials, “Some men who have recently come to town have stirred up trouble all over the world. Now they’re here in our town. 7 Jason has welcomed them into his home. His guests are traitors. They aren’t loyal to Caesar. They pledge their allegiance to another king called Jesus.” 8 These Jews and their nasty colleagues got the city leaders and townspeople worked up but good. 9 City officials released Jason and the others, but forced them to post bail.
Berea: a town of open-minded Jews10 Believers rushed Paul and Silas out of town that very night. The group sent them to the neighboring town of Berea. When Paul and Silas got there, they went to the synagogue where Jews meet. 11 Jews in Berea were a lot more open-minded than those in Thessalonica. These Jews were excited to hear the message. They eagerly studied relevant passages in the Bible, to make sure Paul and Silas weren’t lying to them. 12 As a result, a lot of the Jews became believers. So did some of the town’s leading non-Jewish women and men. 13 But back in Thessalonica, Jews found out that Paul was now spreading his version of God’s message to their neighbors in Berea. So they came to Berea, too. They managed to get the townspeople pretty upset with Paul. 14 Some of the believers escorted Paul out of town and down to the coast. Silas and Timothy, however, stayed behind in Berea. 15 The believers went with Paul all the way to Athens. When they returned to Berea, they carried a message back to Silas and Timothy. Paul wanted them to come and join him as soon as possible. So they left right away.
Athens: Paul’s invitation from scholars16 While Paul waited in Athens for Silas and Timothy to catch up with him, he saw that the city was full of idols. This troubled him all the way to his soul. 17 So he started talking to people. He went to the synagogue and tried reasoning with the Jews who came there to worship. And he talked to people every day in the city marketplace. He talked to anyone who showed up. 18 He even talked with some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. Some asked, “What kind of scraps is this guy trying to feed us?” Others said, “It sounds like he’s talking about some oddball gods.” Paul was actually telling people the good news about Jesus and the Resurrection. 19 The men took him to the Areopagus and asked, “Would you mind telling us more about this teaching of yours? 20 It’s sounding pretty bizarre to us at this point. We’d like to know what exactly you’re talking about.” 21 Just so you know, locals of Athens as well as immigrants living there loved to spend time doing nothing but talking about new ideas. It was a favorite fad.
Smart folks in Athens laugh at Paul22 Paul stood in the middle of the Areopagus. He addressed the people. “Gentlemen of Athens, I can tell you’re very religious. 23 I’ll tell you how I know. I walked around your city and I saw many of the objects you worship. You know something else I discovered? I found an altar inscribed with these words: ‘To an unknown God.’ Well, I’d like to introduce you to this God you worship without actually knowing him. Let me tell you about him. 24 The God who made this world of ours and everything in it is the master of heaven and earth. So he doesn’t live in worship centers made by the hands of mere humans. 25 In fact, human hands can’t do a thing for him because he doesn’t need a thing. Instead, he’s the one who gives everything. He gives everyone the lives they live and each breath they take. 26 From one man, he made all human beings on the face of this earth. He has already decided how long each one of us lives and where we will spend our lives. 27 He created people with a desire to find him, even if they have to grope around in the dark, hoping to accidentally bump into him. The fact is, he’s already close to each one of us. 28 We exist because of him. We live and we move by the power he gives us. Some of your own poets put it this way: ‘We are his children.’ 29 Since we are his children, we shouldn’t think he’s anything like some kind of statue dreamed up by human imagination and then skillfully crafted out of gold, silver, or stone. 30 This is a new day. People in ages past did what they did, and didn’t know any better. God overlooked that. But not anymore. Now, he’s ordering people everywhere to stop their sinful way of living. 31 God has already set the date for judging the world. He’s going to give everyone what they deserve. He has also appointed the man who will do the judging. God proved to everyone who this man is by raising him from the dead.” 32 When they heard Paul say that someone actually rose from the dead, they laughed at him. But others said, “We’d like very much to hear more from you later.” 33 So Paul left the meeting place. 34 But some of the people there believed what Paul had said. They spent time with him to learn more. The group included Dionysius, who was a member of the Areopagus Council. A woman named Damaris joined Paul’s group, too. So did some others.
Both towns were near the northern coast of the Aegean Sea, a body of water that lies between what is now Turkey in the east and Greece in the west. The towns were on a famous Roman road called the Via Egnatia, which ran east and west across northern Greece.
Thessalonica was a fishing town directly on the northern coast of the Aegean Sea. Now called Thessaloniki, it was roughly a 300-mile (482-km) walk along the coastal roads north of Athens. It was about the same distance by sea. The walk would take a couple of weeks. The voyage, with favorable winds, could take just three or four days.
One of the Bible passages Paul may have used to support his argument that the Messiah needed to suffer and die: Isaiah 52:13—53:12. Some Bible experts call this the “Suffering Servant” passage. Many Jews who read this passage, however, say they don’t believe it refers to Jesus. They argue that the suffering servant is the Jewish nation.
The security deposit that the council forced Jason and the others to pay may have been an effort to get these men to do whatever it takes to make sure the mission team did not break any Roman laws. If so, it apparently worked because believers in town sent Paul and Silas on their way that very night (17:10).
Berea, today known as Veria, was about a 40-mile (65-km) walk west of Thessalonica—a two-day trip.
Berea was about a one-day walk from the coast, about 25 miles (40 km) along the ancient trail. From there, it would have been about a 300-mile (482-kilometer) voyage to Athens by sea, some three or four days with favorable winds.
Epicureans and Stoics were followers of the two most popular schools of philosophy at the time. Both groups were agnostic—with an “I don’t know and I don’t much care” attitude toward the gods. Epicureans followed the teachings of their founder, Epicurus (341-270 BC). They taught that people should pursue happiness and pleasure in life, but the smart way. Not by going overboard with money, sex, and power. But by making informed choices and by living in harmony with nature. Stoics followed the teaching of a man named Zeno (340-to 65 BC). They got their name from stoa, the colonnade where they taught in the Athens marketplace. They were big into thinking things through with reason and logic, and into living self-sufficient lives.
Some Bible versions use the term “babbler” to translate the Greek word philosophers used to describe Paul: spermologos. That’s a pretty colorful word in English as well as in Greek. It literally refers to scavengers, such as birds picking up dead meat. When folks used it to describe a person, it often referred to someone who picks up a little scrap of information here and there and then passes it along as though he knows everything there is to know about the topic—a bit like a babbling blowhard, or the occasional relative we’ve all come to know and love.
Areopagus is a Greek word that means “Ares Hill.” Ares was the Greek god of war. Romans called the god of war Mars, so they called this “Mars Hill.” Areopagus identifies a location in Athens, but it was also the name of the ruling council. It’s unclear which one the writer of Acts was talking about. The philosophers either took Paul to this place so he could tell his story to other scholars, or they took him to the council leaders to defend himself. So Bible experts debate whether or not Paul was formally arrested and forced to plead his case before the council that ruled Athens or if he was invited to simply chat informally with some philosophers who hung out at this location. As if it’s possible to informally chat with philosophers.
It seems Paul is trying to draw in his audience by starting with ideas that are familiar to them. Many ancient Greek writers taught that people exist because God created them, sustains them, and is not far away from them. One possible source: Epimenides of Crete (about 600 BC).
Paul seems to be quoting a poet named Aratus (about 315-240 BC).
Paul said earlier that he was quitting the Jews: “We had to bring God’s message to you Jews first. But now that you’ve trashed it and condemned yourself as unfit for eternal life, we’re going to take God’s message to everyone but you—to non-Jews” (13:46). So why do you think he’s going back to his old habit of starting first in a synagogue when he gets to a new town (17:1, 10)? Was he only blustering earlier, did he change his mind, or was this a practice he decided to follow in each town (see Acts 13:5).
Does it make sense to you that some of the Jews got so jealous of Paul and Silas that they stirred up a riot to get them in trouble and shut them up (17:5)? Or does it seem more likely to you that the Jewish leaders didn’t like that the two men were teaching that God had a son named Jesus who was the Messiah?
Was it fair to call Paul and Silas traitors because they “pledge their allegiance to another king called Jesus” (17:7)?
Throughout Paul’s ministry, he upsets Jews in one town after another. Some of those Jews get word that he has moved on to a neighboring town, and they hunt him down to do whatever they can to shut him up (17:13). Do you see any parallels to what he used to do years earlier, when he left Jerusalem to chase down Jews who believed in Jesus and who left Jerusalem for Damascus (Acts 9:2)?
What do you think about Paul starting his speech by linking Jesus to the “unknown God” (17:23) that some of the Athens people apparently worshiped?
Is there anything in Paul’s speech to the Brainiacs of Athens that you find inspiring (17:22-31)?
If you were going to break down Paul’s speech to the Brainiacs, to ID the weak points and to help him beef up his arguments, where would you start?
LIFE APPLICATION. Paul didn’t seem to have much luck in Athens, the land of the free and the home of the brains. Why do you think the most educated people are often the hardest to convince that there’s a God? Wouldn’t you think that science would provide some helpful clues to the existence of an intelligent designer, given the complexity of creation? And doesn’t it take more faith to believe that the music of the universe is random instead of orchestrated?