Thessalonica was an important travel center on the Egnatian Way, which connected much of Greece. Stretches of this ancient road may still be seen in some Grecian cities today. Thessalonica was the capital city of Macedonia, with a population of around 200,000. Paul was granted three weeks of evangelistic work in the synagogue; more time surely followed in the larger community. Paul laid out the Messianic prophecies and clearly demonstrated that Jesus is the Messiah. This was the only way to reach the Jewish population. Preaching to the Gentiles still had Christ at the center but followed a different pattern. This will be seen in Paul’s work in Athens.
Paul’s stay in Thessalonica was brief because Jews became jealous of Paul’s success in winning converts to Christ. If you cannot hold on to your power by reasoning, form a mob and start a riot, they concluded. Never a good idea. Paul had to leave for the next town. Paul’s two letters to the Thessalonian church show how closely the apostle was attached to these people. In his first letter, he states, “Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith” (1 Th. 3:10). A great deal of this instruction is supplied in his two letters.
Luke compliments the people of Berea: “Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (17:11). Personal acquaintance with the Scriptures is the surest way to know God’s will. Do not believe everything you hear. Check it out. Although many in Berea turned to Jesus, Paul had to depart for the next city.
Athens had been at the height of its importance five centuries before Paul arrived there to preach Jesus Christ. The study of philosophy still dominated Athenian life. So did idolatry. Paul was torn up when he witnessed what seemed to be an idol on every corner. A significant Jewish population was present, so Paul taught in the synagogue and in the marketplace. He preached in the mall!
Epicurean and Stoic philosophers represented extreme views of life. Epicureans pursued pleasure and Stoics sought to suppress their desires. The gospel message preached by Paul was foreign and new to the Athenians. At first it was nothing more than a curiosity to them. They loved hearing and telling the latest ideas.
Paul addressed the Aeropagus, the council on religion, and presented the living God in contrast to the idols of the Athenians. He began his address in a complimentary fashion, calling the people of Athens “very religious” (although quite misled). The older translation “very superstitious” does not accurately represent what Paul said. He was seeking to engage them, not to enrage them. We are wise to begin religious discussions based on what we have in common before pointing out doctrinal problems. Gain an audience, then preach Jesus. By constructing an altar to an unknown God, the Athenians had left an opening for Paul.
Paul effectively painted a picture of the almighty God who made the world and everything in it. A God who is not dependent on humans, but humans are entirely dependent on him. It is God who gives us life itself, and everything to support life. Notice Paul’s statement that God determined that mankind should spread out upon the earth. God surely has a place for America in his plans, but Christian nationalism is not taught in Scripture. There is no guarantee about the continuation of any nation. God has no specific physical nation anymore. The nation of God is spiritual, not physical (John 18:36). God has no political party. The gospel is not advanced through the platforms of men. Only the gospel can save, and only the gospel can truly change the nature of men.
Paul quoted the secular poets Epimenides and Aratus to introduce the idea that mankind was created in the image of the living God. This is an excellent example of how we may use the literature and philosophy of men to get their attention. Since we are like God and since we are his offspring, we are not at all like the idols of men.
God allowed ignorance regarding his nature to go unchecked for a long time, but with the preaching of the gospel, he demands repentance. God has set a day of reckoning for all men, the great Judgment Day at the end of time. God established Jesus as judge of all men by raising him from the dead (Rom. 1:4).
Notice the varied reactions among the people of Athens. Some sneered, making fun of Paul and his message. Others wanted to hear more and think the message through. A few of the listeners believed. The gospel gained a foothold even in the great city of philosophy. The same reactions may be seen today. The concept of a living God and a Savior named Jesus seems foolish to the multitudes today. They wish to have their own way and to live in pleasure. Others are willing to listen, to study, to evaluate. We must be available to them and help lead them to Christ. Sadly, Jesus indicated the multitudes will continue in their own way, headed for eternal destruction. But some will be willing to listen (Matt. 7:13-14). We must find the few.
My comments are not an inspired commentary, but rather a few words to draw attention to the background, context, and dynamic situation of the book of Acts. May God bless your reading of His Word. T.C.