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Acts 17:22-31 Biblical Commentary:
This is Paul’s Second Missionary Journey (49-52 A.D.) as related in Acts 15:30 – 18:21 (see Acts 13-14 for his First Missionary Journey and Acts 18:22 – 21:16 for his Third Missionary Journey). Paul and Silas have recently been to Thessalonica, where their preaching provoked an uproar (17:1-9) and to Beroea (or Berea), where they had a much more favorable reception. However, the Jews of Thessalonica, learning that Paul and Silas were in Beroea, sent representatives to oppose Paul and Silas. The Beroean believers “immediately sent out Paul to go as far as to the sea, and Silas and Timothy still stayed there. But those who escorted Paul brought him as far as Athens. Receiving a commandment to Silas and Timothy that they should come to him very quickly, they departed” (17:14-15).
“Now while Paul waited for them (Silas and Timothy) at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw the city full of idols” (17:16).
Paul spends his time debating. Greeks delight in a good debate, so they invite Paul to the Areopagus to tell the assembled crowds about this new teaching. Athenians pride themselves on their intellectual prowess, and delight in new ideas (17:21).
Paul’s sermon at the Areopagus is the best example in the New Testament of his preaching to Gentiles. The other example is a sermon, similar to this one but shorter, that he preached at Lystra (14:15-17) (Polhill, 365).
In this sermon, Paul mentions a number of things with which Athenians would agree. There is enough of this in the early part of his sermon that scholars have debated whether his sermon was based primarily on Hebrew scripture or Greek philosophy. The answer is that he based everything that he said on Hebrew scripture and his personal experience with the risen Christ. The many points at which Paul connects with Greek philosophy are simply examples of tailoring a sermon to speak to a particular group. But Paul does this tailoring very expertly, presenting his message without any hint of compromise.
ACTS 17:22-23. TO AN UNKNOWN GOD
22Paul stood in the middle of the Areopagus (Greek: Areiou Pagou —Mars Hill), and said, “You men of Athens, I perceive that you are very religious (Greek: deisidaimonesterous—from deisidaimon) in all things. 23For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship (Greek: sebasmata), I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ What therefore you worship in ignorance, this I announce to you.
“Paul stood in the middle of the Areopagus” (Areiou Pagou —Mars Hill) (v. 22a). Orators appearing before the council would stand, just as most public speakers today stand to deliver speeches.
The Areopagus is a hill near the Acropolis where the Athenian council met. Not only does the council render judgments on various legal matters there, but Greek philosophers gather there to debate. It is a place where crowds gather to enjoy intellectual jousting.
The word Areopagus is used to refer to the council as well as the hill. When Luke says that Paul stood in front of the Areopagus, he probably means that he stood before the council.
“You men of Athens, I perceive that you are very religious (deisidaimonesterous— fromdeisidaimon) in all things” (v. 22b). Paul chooses his words carefully. Deisidaimon can mean “very religious” (a positive sense), but it can also mean “very superstitious” (a negative sense). Since Paul wants the crowd to respond positively to his speech, he wants them to hear this word in the “extremely religious” (positive) sense. However, Luke has told us that Paul was “provoked within him as he saw the city full of idols” (17:16), so we can be sure that Paul reserves the right to hear this word privately in its “extremely superstitious” (negative) sense.
“For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship (sebasmata), I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD’” (v. 23a). Paul has done his homework well. As he looked around Athens, he noted the various idols as well as noting other aspects of Athenian life. He strives to connect with the Athenians where they are in an attempt to lead them to where they need to go. This mention of an unknown god lays the foundation for him to speak about his known God.
Why would the Athenians erect an altar to an unknown god? Perhaps it was their way of saying, “We don’t want any god to feel left out”—but more likely it was their way of making sure that they didn’t offend a god who might retaliate by doing them harm.
But this altar to an unknown god is their admission of their ignorance—a bit of irony, given their pride in their intellectual prowess.
“the objects of your worship” (sebasmata) (v. 23a). This is another example of Paul’s skillful use of language. Although Jews would hear this word negatively, it would not sound negative to this Athenian audience (Chance, 309).
“What therefore you worship in ignorance, this I announce to you” (v. 23b). By erecting an altar to an unknown god, the Athenians have acknowledged that there might be a significant god of whom they are ignorant. Now Paul tells them that he will enlighten them regarding this God—the God who is unknown to them.
ACTS 17:24-25. GOD MADE THE WORLD AND ALL THINGS IN IT
24The God who made the world and all things in it, he, being Lord of heaven and earth, doesn’t dwell in temples made with hands, 25neither is he served by men’s hands, as though he needed anything, seeing he himself gives to all life and breath, and all things.
“The God who made the world and all things in it, he, being Lord of heaven and earth” (v. 24a). This statement is firmly rooted in Genesis 1-2 and other Hebrew scriptures having to do with creation.
This is a subject on which Greek philosophers would be divided. Some would believe that the gods had a role in creation, but others would see the created world (the sun, moon, stars, etc.) as deities.
But to the extent that Paul can establish in their minds that God is the creator of all that exists, the rest of his sermon will unfold as the logical outgrowth of this idea.
“doesn’t dwell in temples made with hands” (v. 24b). If God is the creator of everything (v. 24a), then it follows that this great God would not tolerate being confined to a small shrine “made with hands.” Again, this is a subject on which Greek philosophers would be divided. Some would accept the validity of the shrines, but others, such as Euripides, would acknowledge that gods could not be contained by shrines or temples (Bock, 565; Polhill, 373).
“neither is he served by men’s hands, as though he needed anything” (v. 25a). Most Greeks would find it easy to agree with this premise. While they understand their gods to be limited in nature—quite unlike the way the Jewish people understand Yahweh—they would nevertheless understand their gods as superior to people and not in need of anything that people could give them. Nevertheless, they would feel an obligation to make homage to their gods so that their gods wouldn’t inflict disaster on them.
“seeing he himself gives to all life and breath, and all things” (v. 25b). Once again, Paul turns to his understanding of God as creator (see v. 24a). God not only created the universe, but God also created people and gave them life. A God great enough to give life to people cannot at the same time be so poor that he would need what human hands have to offer.
ACTS 17:26-27. HE MADE FROM ONE BLOOD EVERY NATION
26He made from one blood (Greek: henos—one) every nation of men to dwell on all the surface of the earth, having determined appointed seasons, and the boundaries of their dwellings, 27that they should seek the Lord, if perhaps they might reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.
“He made from one blood” (henos—one) (v. 26a). A literal translation would be “From one”—there is no Greek word for “ancestor” in the text. However Greeks would understand this word to mean “from one man” or “from one person” or “from one ancestor.”
Paul surely intends this as a references to Adam—the original human. However, his Greek audience would not be well-grounded in Hebrew scripture, so Paul knows that they will not catch the significance of this allusion. He chooses not to fill in all the details.
“every nation of men to dwell on all the surface of the earth” (v. 26b). Again, this idea is solidly rooted in Hebrew scripture.
This would be difficult for Greeks to accept, because they believe that they are inherently superior to other people. If all humans are descended from one ancestor, that idea becomes difficult to defend.
“having determined appointed seasons” (v. 26c). This could have various meanings. It could refer to the seasons of the year. It could refer to particular people living for particular periods of time. It could refer to the periods of time allotted to various nations—the rising and falling of empires. Or it could mean all of the above.
But it isn’t necessary to understand this phrase in any particular way. The important thing here isn’t the meaning of “appointed” but rather that God makes the allocations.
“and the boundaries of their dwellings” (v. 26d). Once again, this could have various meanings. This could refer to the division of the earth into habitable and uninhabitable areas. It could refer to national boundaries. But, once again, the important thing is not the exact meaning of “the boundaries” but rather that is that it is God who establishes them.
“that they should seek the Lord, if perhaps they might reach out for him and find him” (v. 27a). God’s purpose is that people would search for God. However, the sense of this verse is that they can be expected to grope uncertainly—reaching out into the darkness. This is what these Athenians have been doing with their many idols. They have been groping for God—hoping to find God—hoping to placate God—hoping to keep God happy—hoping to avoid God’s wrath. But they have a problem. Their gods are merely figments of their imaginations.
But their reaching out—their attempts to find God—will, in some instances, make them open to receive the revealed God whom Paul is speaking about here.
“though he is not far from each one of us” (v. 27b). This is another point where these Greeks could appreciate, at least in some sense, what Paul is saying. They might feel that their gods are near (after all, they think that their gods reside in local shrines). However, they would also understand the imperfectness of their understanding of God.
Paul can say that God is “not far from each one of us,” because God has been revealing himself to the Hebrew people for many centuries—and Paul has directly experienced the presence of the risen Christ on the Damascus road. Paul understands that God has given him the gift of the Holy Spirit so that God dwells within Paul. He knows that this kind of gift—this kind of nearness—is possible for the Athenians as well. They have only to believe—to accept the gift.
ACTS 17:28-29. IN HIM WE LIVE, AND MOVE, AND HAVE OUR BEING
28 ‘For in him we live, and move, and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also his offspring.’ 29Being then (Greek: oun—therefore) the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold, or silver, or stone, engraved by art and design of man.
“For in him we live, and move, and have our being” (v. 28a). Scholars debate whether this phrase is from one of the Greek philosophers. Chance attributes it to Seneca (Chance, 311). Faw and Rogness attribute it to Epimenides of Crete (Rogness, 584). Bock says that it “appears to allude to pagan ideas” (Bock, 568). Williams says that it doesn’t have the characteristics of Greek poetry (Williams, 307)—implying that this phrase does not come from a Greek source.
The phrase does not come from Hebrew scripture. However, it expresses beautifully the faith of Jewish and Christian people that “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1)—and that God is with us and keeps us wherever we go (Genesis 28:15).
“As some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also his offspring’” (v. 28b). Scholars agree that this phrase comes from the Greek poet, Aratus. Once again, Paul uses what these Greeks know to link to the God whom they do not know. He uses this quotation from a Greek poet (who meant that we are the offspring of Zeus) to establish that Yahweh has created us and that we are therefore his offspring—his children.
“Being then (oun—therefore) the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold, or silver, or stone, engraved by art and design of man” (v. 29). If are God’s children, it follows logically (and these Greeks prize logic) that God cannot be created by human artistry. Images created by human hands from gold, silver, or wood, cannot even REPRESENT God adequately—much less BE God.
ACTS 17:30-31. GOD COMMANDS THAT ALL PEOPLE SHOULD REPENT
30The times of ignorance therefore God overlooked. But now he commands that all people everywhere should repent (Greek: metanoein—from metanoeo), 31because he has appointed a day in which he will judge the world in righteousness by the man whom he has ordained; of which he has given assurance to all men, in that he has raised him from the dead.”
“The times of ignorance therefore God overlooked” (v. 30a). When Paul spoke earlier about the altar to the unknown god, he implied that the Greeks were admitting ignorance. Now he actually uses the word. To appreciate the significance, we must understand the pride that the Greeks take in their learning and philosophy. They think of others as ignorant barbarians, but consider themselves civilized sophisticates.
The Greeks have a choice. They can take offense at Paul’s accusation, or they can allow Paul to enlighten them concerning the true God. Most will take offense, but those who truly prize learning might listen what Paul has to teach them.
“But now he commands that all people everywhere should repent” (metanoein—from metanoeo) (v. 30b). A new day has dawned. God has revealed himself in Jesus. God has validated Jesus ministry by the resurrection. God is accessible and knowable. God has even made it possible for believers to have God’s Spirit dwelling within them.
So God, who once overlooked ignorance, now requires “all people everywhere to repent.” The Greek word, metanoeo (repent), is a combination of two Greek words—meta (when used in combination with another word, as it is here, meta means change) and nous (mind). Metanoeo, then, means a change of mind—turning from one way of thinking to another way.
Greeks believed that a change of one’s mind would naturally lead to a change in one’s actions, because beliefs determine behavior. This is quite different from many psychological disciplines today that emphasize feelings as the determinant of behavior—i.e. to change behaviors we must first “get in touch with” and change feelings. However, there has been a movement in recent decades to understand beliefs as the determinant of actions. Beliefs constitute the starting point in the action-cycle. A change of thinking has the power to change both feelings and actions.
So Paul is calling these Greeks to change their minds from belief in idols and unknown gods to belief in the God who created all things.
“because he has appointed a day in which he will judge the world in righteousness by the man whom he has ordained” (v. 31a). Paul, who for the most part has been saying things that would resonate with his Greek audience, now moves into less congenial waters when he talks of a day of judgment and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. By doing so, he risks losing his audience—but if he fails to emphasize the resurrection, there will be no purpose to his sermon.
This verse says that God has fixed a day of judgment. The world will be judged in righteousness. God has appointed a man (Jesus Christ) to do the judging. Paul doesn’t say when that will happen.
“judge the world in righteousness” ( v. 31a). In the Hebrew Scriptures, judgment (Hebrew: mispat) and righteousness (Hebrew: sedeq) are closely related. God is the judge (Genesis 18:25) who punishes the wicked (Deuteronomy 8:19-20) while rewarding the righteous (Exodus 20:6; Leviticus 25:18; 26:3 ff.).
Both Old and New Testaments speak of the coming of the Day of the Lord, an eschatological (end of time) event that will bring judgment to the guilty and deliverance to the faithful. There are numerous references in the prophets to the Day of the Lord (Isaiah 13:6, 9; Jeremiah 46:10; Ezekiel 13:5; 30:3; Joel 1:15; 2:1, 11, 31; 3:14; Amos 5:18, 20; Obadiah 1:15; Zephaniah 1:7, 14; Malachi 4:5). Most of these references emphasize God’s wrath, but some also include a note of vindication.
In the Old Testament (especially in Isaiah), righteousness has more to do with right relationships than with adherence to Torah law. Obedience to the law is important, but only as it reflects true devotion to Yahweh—as it grows out of affection for Yahweh. If a person is in a right relationship to Yahweh, that person will establish caring relationships to other people as well, in particular to vulnerable people such as widows, orphans, and the poor. The law makes special provisions for the care of such people (Leviticus 22:13; Deuteronomy 14:28-29; 16:10-11, 14; 24:17-22; Isaiah 1:17), but those who follow the law by rote rather than as an outgrowth of devotion to Yahweh are apt to sidestep their obligations to those who are less fortunate (Isaiah 1:23; Ezekiel 22:7; Job 22:9; 24:21; Psalm 94:6).
Jesus told us what we can expect on Judgment Day. He said that the outcome will depend on our righteousness that expresses itself in concrete actions to help those who are less fortunate (Matthew 25:31-46).
In his epistles, Paul talks about judgment. He advises disciplining an errant believer “that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Corinthians 5:5). He warns that “the day of the Lord comes like a thief in the night” (1 Thessalonians 5:2).
“of which he has given assurance to all men, in that he has raised him from the dead” (v. 31b). This is Paul’s proof of what he has been saying. By raising Jesus from the dead, God demonstrated the victory over death that he has promised to believers.
Paul knows that Jesus was raised from the dead, because the resurrected Jesus encountered Paul (then known as Saul) on the road to Damascus (9:3-6). Unfortunately, this audience has not experienced the risen Christ, so they are less inclined to believe. Some scoff at Paul’s mention of the resurrection, but others listen (17:32).
• “Thus Paul went out from among them. But certain men joined with (Paul), and believed, among whom also was Dionysius the Areopagite, and a woman named Damaris, and others with them” (17:33-34).
• “After these things Paul departed from Athens, and came to Corinth” (18:1). Athens is mentioned only once again in the New Testament (1 Thessalonians 3:1).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Barclay, William, Daily Study Bible: Acts, (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1976)
Bock, Darrell L., Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Acts (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007)
Bruce, F. F., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Book of Acts (Revised)(Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988)
Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
Faw, Chalmer E., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Acts, (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1993)
Fernando, Ajith, The NIV Application Commentary: Acts (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998)
Gaventa, Beverly Roberts, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: The Acts of the Apostles (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003)
Polhill, John B., New American Commentary: Acts, Vol. 26 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992)
Rogness, Michael, in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Soards, Marion L., The Speeches in Acts (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994)
Walaskay, Paul W., Westminster Bible Companion: Acts (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998)
Wall, Robert W., The New Interpreter’s Bible: Acts, Romans, I Corinthians, Vol. X (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002)
Williams, David J., New International Biblical Commentary: Acts (Paternoster Press, 1995)
Willimon, William H., Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Acts (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988)
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