ACTS 17:1-34

A Bible Study Led by Dr. Larry Reynolds

September 10, 2009 


Paul’s Second Missionary Journey – Part 3:  Thessalonica, Berea, Athens

(Acts 17:1-34)


The book of Acts records four major journeys of the Apostle Paul:

  • First Missionary Journey (Acts 13:4-14:28)
  • Second Missionary Journey (Acts 15:6-18:22)
  • Third Missionary Journey (Acts 19:1-21:3)
  • Journey to Rome (Acts 27:1-28:30)

While each of these journeys has its own significance, the Second Missionary Journey is especially important.  It was on this journey that Paul first took the message of Jesus into Europe.  Churches were established in such key places as Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea, Athens, and Corinth.  By comparison, the First Missionary Journey was much shorter in both duration and ground covered and the Third Missionary Journey was primarily a retracing of the second.  So far in our study of the Second Missionary Journey, we have traced Paul and his companions from Antioch (the location of the church that sent them out) to Derbe & Lystra (where Timothy joined the mission), across Asia (where Paul was forbidden to preach, to Troas (where Paul had his famous Macedonian vision), across the Aegean Sea to Philippi (where we ended the previous session).  In this study we will follow Paul and his companions to Thessalonica, Berea, and Athens.


Acts 13:1 – “Now when they had traveled through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica…” – That statement probably covers a period of several days if not weeks.  Amphipolis was about 30 miles west of Philippi.  Apollonia was about 30 miles west of Amphipolis.  Thessalonica was about 30 miles west of Apollonia.  All of these towns were on the famous Via Ignatia which connected  Europe to the east with Asia to the west.  It is no accident these towns were spaced about 30 miles apart because that is the distance a person could travel in a day on foot.  While those no record of Paul preaching in Amphipolis or Apollonia, it is reasonable to assume that he shared the gospel as he went.  However, he did not linger in these smaller towns because his strategy was to plant the gospel in larger metropolitan areas.  And the city of Thessalonica certainly met that criteria.  Thessalonica was:

  • Founded in 315 B.C. on the site of a much more ancient village by King Cassander of Macedon who named it after his wife who was a half-sister of Alexander the Great.
  • The largest city in Macedonia with an estimated population of around 200,000 in Paul’s day.
  • A great commercial center between east and west.  It’s main street was the Via Ignatia.
  • A free or self-governing city.


Paul’s Ministry in Thessalonica (Acts 17:2-8)

Verses 2-3 – Preaching in the synagogue

“…according to Paul’s custom…” – It was out of theological conviction that God desired the salvation of Jews that Paul, whenever he could, began his ministry in a city in the synagogue (see Romans 1:16)

“…reasoned with them…” – The word translated “reasoned” originally meant simply “to converse” but over time it came to carry the idea of “discussion by means of question and answer.”  In other words, Paul made a thought-out, reasoned argument to them concerning Jesus.

“…from the Scripture…” – When one makes an argument, there must be some objective standard to which to appeal.  For Paul, that standard was the Old Testament Scripture.  The Jews in the synagogue also had the Scripture as their standard.

“…explaining and giving evidence…” – The phrase means he simply opened the Scripture and placed the information before them.

From the Scripture, Paul made a powerful three-fold argument:

1.      That the Scripture looked toward a suffering Messiah (cf. Isaiah 53)

2.      That the Messiah would rise from the dead (cf. Psalm 16: 10-11)

3.      That Jesus is the fulfillment of these Old Testament prophecies


Verse 4 – The response to Paul’s teaching

“…some of them…” – That is, some of the Jews

“a great multitude of God-fearing Greeks” – This became a pattern for Paul’s ministry.  While some Jews responded, many more Gentiles responded.

“a number of the leading women” – Some might think that the phrase “leading women” would be an oxymoron in describing women in the first century world.  However, women played a much larger role in Macedonian society than in many other places in the ancient world.  That leadership was reflected in the churches as well.


Verses 5-7 – The opposition to Paul

“But the Jews, becoming jealous…” – Notice the primary motive of the opposition.  They could not refute Paul’s teachings about Jesus on theological grounds, so they attacked him personally.  They did so because they were jealous of the following he was getting.

“taking along some wicked men from the market place” – The NEB translates this as “low fellows from the dregs of the populace.”  These were more or less professional rabble-rousers.

“Jason has welcomed them” – Apparently, a man named Jason allowed Paul and his companions to stay with him, much as Lydia had done in Philippi.

The mob made two basic charges against Paul and his companions:

·        They had “upset the world” or as some translations say had ”turned the world upside down.”  Actually, this was true and was a great compliment to the effectiveness of Paul’s ministry.

·        They had acted “contrary to the decrees of Caesar.”  This was a distortion of what they were preaching.  The message of Paul had nothing to do with earthly rulers; it focused on spiritual rulers.  Paul was not trying to lead a revolt against Rome; he was calling people to the true Messiah.


Verses 8-9 – The response of the city officials

“received a pledge” – Jason and the others were forced to post some kind of bond until Paul and his companions left town.

Paul’s Thessalonian correspondence indicates that believers in that city were severely persecuted after Paul left (see 2 Thessalonians 1:4ff).


Paul’s Ministry in Berea (Acts 17:10-14)

Berea is about 50 miles west of Thessalonica.  The ministry in Berea followed much the same pattern as that in Thessalonica.

Verses 10-11 – Ministry in the synagogue

“more noble minded” – What made the difference?  They were willing to examine Paul’s teachings in the light of Scripture rather than to outright reject it based on prejudice and jealousy.

Verse 12 – The response.  Notice again the reference to “prominent Greek women.”

Verse 13 – The opposition.  Notice it came primarily from Jews who traveled the 50 miles to Berea just to attempt to undermine Paul’s ministry.  This demonstrates the depth of their jealousy and hatred for him.

Verses 14-15 – The departure of Paul for Athens

“Silas and Timothy remained” – Apparently Timothy had stayed behind at Thessalonica for awhile (see Acts 17:10).  Now he remained behind at Berea along with Silas.  This indicates Paul was the lightning rod attracting the trouble.  It was not terribly unsafe for the others to say.


Paul’s Ministry in Athens (Acts 17:15-34)

Athens was the key city of ancient Greece.  By the time Paul visited the city in the middle of the 1st century A.D., Athens was already many centuries old.  It had long since been surpassed in political power by Rome, but it was still the intellectual center of the Roman world.  It was where the great thinkers of the age gathered.

Verse 16 -  Paul the preacher

It has been said that there were more idols in ancient Athens than in all of the rest of Greece combined.  As Paul saw the proliferation of idols in the city and saw an entire population that was living in spiritual darkness, he could not help but declare to those people the truth of the Gospel.


Verses 17-21 – The audience

  • Jews and God-fearing Gentiles in the synagogue (v.17)
  • Whoever would listen in the market place (v.17)
  • Epicurean philosophers (v.18) – These were followers of Epicurus, an Athenian philosopher who lived from 341-270 B.C.  Among other things, he taught that pleasure was the chief end of life.  It is little wonder that he had a large following!
  • Stoic philosophers (v.18) – These claimed as their leader Zeno who taught in Athens about 300 B.C.  Their name comes from their meeting place.  The word stoa means portico.  Stoics were pantheists (nature is god) and fatalists (it is best just to accept whatever may happen with as little feeling/emotion as possible).
  • Those at the Areopagus (vv.19-21) – The word areopagus means hill of Ares.  Ares was the Greek God of war whom the Romans referred to as Mars.  Thus the phrase Mars Hill.  The Areopagus was both:
    • A place – A small hill northwest of the Acropolis in Athens and crowned with a temple to Mars
    • A council or court -  Had at one time held its sessions on the hill and was the most respected judicial body in Athens


Verses 22-31 – Paul’s message

Several themes are interspersed throughout this summary of Paul’s message:

  • God is personal, creator, sovereign Lord, and cannot be contained in shrines (v.24).
  • Far from being dependent on His creation, God is the One who gives all created things life (v.25).
  • God guides the destiny of all nations and He is within reach of all who seek Him. (vv.26-29)
  • God will judge the world through the person of Jesus Christ, thus all people should repent (vv.30-31).


Verses 32-34 – The response to Paul’s message.

  • At the mention of the resurrection of Jesus, some mocked him (v.32a).
  • Others attempted to put Paul off until another time (v.32b).
  • Some believed (v.34)


Practical Lessons from Acts 17:1-34

  1. Christians should be prepared to make a reasoned defense of their faith.  Faith and reason are not mutually exclusive!  (see I Peter 3:15)

  2. There is a time to fight and a time to move on.  It takes a wise person to discern the time properly.

  3. Jealousy is one of Satan’s insidious weapons, causing much harm to the kingdom of God.

  4. Not everyone will respond to the truth of the Gospel.  The reality is that God’s people have always been more of a remnant than a majority.