Act 17:15 And they that conducted Paul brought him as far as Athens: and receiving a commandment from him to Silas and Timothy, that they should come to him with all speed, they departed.
“Athens.” No other city of ancient times was so celebrated for philosophy, learning, and the arts.
“Commandment,” a message to Silas and Timothy to come to him to Athens with all possible despatch. Probably he expected a great harvest of souls there.
Once in the city of Athens St Paul is soon exasperated by the sight of all the idols (Acts 17:16). Nonetheless, following the order of salvation history (Rom 1:16, 2:9; 1 Cor 1:24), St Paul first went to the synagogue with his message (Acts 17:17), as was his usual custom (Acts 17:1-2). Only after this did he approach others in the public square, including Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. Few of the Pagan Athenians were very well disposed to receive his message even as they take him to the Areopagus to hear him deliver it. Paul takes the opportunity to try and establish a better disposition among them (Acts 17:17-21).
Act 17:22 But Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are too superstitious.
“In all things,” by all means, “too superstitious,” more religious than men in general; or than the other Greeks. Considering the tact for which St. Paul was always distinguished, the place he spoke on, the polished audience he addressed, with all the other circumstances, it is likely the word is meant in a good sense, to denote more than ordinarily religious in their own way, as they viewed them very attentive to religious observances. It is not likely, he would apply to them any epithet, calculated to alienate their minds or create a prejudice against his teaching. Some, however, are of opinion that the Apostle designedly employs the ambiguous term “superstitious,” tempered by “ὥς,” “as if” found in the Greek, that they were more than ordinarily religious, although their religion was false, directed to false divinities.
It is not, however, likely St. Paul would commence his address to the Athenians in any other than a conciliatory spirit—Patrizzi is of a contrary opinion—so as not to create a prejudice against his teaching. Not likely, he would give unnecessary offence.
Act 17:23 For passing by and seeing your idols, I found an altar also, on which was written: To the Unknown God. What therefore you worship without knowing it, that I preach to you:
“Seeing.” Closely observing and examining. “Your idols.” Your objects of religious worship.
“I found an altar.” This would imply, it was not in any prominent place, but only in some obscure corner.
“To the unknown God.” Ancient writers (among them, St. Jerome) tell us there were several altars at Athens, “to the unknown and strange gods.” They seem to think it was one of these St. Paul saw, and in accommodation to his subject uses the singular, unknown God. But the authority of St. Paul makes it almost certain that he saw an altar of which there was no vestige left in the days of those ancient authors, with the inscription in the singular number, as he describes it, especially as he spoke in presence of those who could easily refute him if no such altar with this inscription existed in Athens.
He quotes the fact of their having such an altar among them in proof of their being more religious than the others, who had no such altar. Hence, the word “superstitious” is, in some measure, meant in a good sense.
They worshipped this unknown God “without knowing it.” Worshipped him for having averted evil, plagues, pestilence, and as the source of the blessings conferred on them, for which they did not give credit to the Gods known to Paganism, Jupiter, Juno, Minerva, &c. Whatever might be said of the principle, their mode of worship was to be reprobated. When worshipping and returning thanks, in their own way, to the source from which they derived benefits, it was implicitly the true God they were worshipping, since He alone is the source of good.
St. Chrysostom thinks the Athenians erected an altar to an unknown God, to escape the punishment of not worshipping some god whom they might not have known or heard of. This is the very God, the source of every blessing, whom they were worshipping without knowing it. It was He whom St. Paul was preaching to them, proclaiming His infinite perfections, especially His boundless goodness and beneficence, the fountain of all good. The Apostle adroitly turns to account the goodness of God, the source of every blessing, to preach to them, Him, to whom they were indebted for everything, though hitherto unknown to them. “The unknown God.” The Greek has not the definite article. It is “an unknown god.” “What therefore you worship.” The Greek has ὅ, what, to convey generic and indefinite worship, its mode not particularized.
Act 17:24 God, who made the world and all things therein, he being Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands.
“Made the world,” &c. The idea of creation was novel to the Greeks.
“Dwelleth not,” &c. Whilst temples are erected in His honour, He needs them not to dwell in them; since, to Him belongs the earth and its fulness. He is not confined to them, like the idols of the Pagans with whom He is here implicitly contrasted. This is by no means opposed to the external worship of God, to the erection of temples, the offering of sacrifices in His honour; since there is question here only of the false worship and absurd notions of the Pagans.
Act 17:25 Neither is he served with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing: seeing it is he who giveth to all life and breath and all things:
This is clearly allusive to the worship of idols, served with the hands of men, as if needing food, raiment, help to move from place to place. This the Apostle ridicules here as the excess of folly. It is not so with the true God. Far from depending on creatures for anything; on the contrary, it is on Him every creature depends for whatever is necessary for supporting human life. It is He and He alone that bestows on creatures all the blessings they enjoy, all that is necessary to support life and continue in existence, which He upholds by His conservative Providence. It is we not He that needs structures raised by hands.
Act 17:26 And hath made of one, all mankind, to dwell upon the whole face of the earth, determining appointed times and the limits of their habitation.
“And hath made of one.” The Greek has one blood, one parent stock, “all mankind.”
The Athenians derided the idea of the unity of the human origin. They fancied their own origin to be different from that of other peoples. For “all mankind” the Greek has “every nation of men.” In this, the Apostle conveys that all nations, Jew and Gentile, were members of the same family, and should respect each other as children of the same common parent.
“Determining appointed times.” The Greek is, before appointed, the meaning is: He allotted to the different nations of the earth several epochs for existence and distributed among them the boundaries of the places wherein they might dwell. The Apostle thus refutes the false notions of the philosophers, especially the Epicureans and Stoics, regarding the free Providence of God and the necessitating action of the Fates.
Act 17:27 That they should seek God, if haply they may feel after him or find him, although he be not far from every one of us.
God’s object in the exercise of His Adorable Providence, in thus ordering and arranging the human race is “that they should seek God,” and be brought to Him. “If haply, they may feel after Him” by examining and inquiring into His wonderful works and the order established by Him.
This is done in an obscure way, just as by the sense of touch—conveyed in the words “feel after him”—allusive to the groping of a blind man—we may discover the existence and qualities of an object. The imperfection of their knowledge is aptly conveyed in the groping of a blind man, relying on the sense of touch. God gives men an opportunity, where-ever located on the face of the earth, of knowing Him from His wonderful works. If they neither find nor worship Him, nor give Him thanks, they are inexcusable. In this, the Apostle may have in view to reprove the stupid idolatry of the Athenians. “Haply” may imply that while they may “find him,” it is doubtful, whether generally speaking, they would do so, owing to their own fault.
“Although He is not far,” &c., meaning, He is quite near, as indicated in His creative and Preserving Power. Hence, we can easily find Him by the light of reason, prescinding from the still clearer light of revelation.
Act 17:28 For in him we live and move and are: as some also of your own poets said: For we are also his offspring.
“For in Him we live,” &c. The particle “in,” as Beelen observes after St. Chrysostom, clearly refers not to mere instrumentality (by), but to locality or place. For, it is given as a reason, why God is so intimately present that we may “feel Him.” “In Him we live.” To Him we owe our coming into existence; to Him we are indebted for every operation intimately connected with existence. “Move.” To Him we owe our continuance in existence. “We are.” Let Him but withdraw His protecting hand conserving us in existence, and we fall into our original nothingness.
“In Him” also indicates, though not directly intended to prove it, God’s immensity. Some distinguished commentators—among them St. Chrysostom—illustrate God’s omnipresence in us and our living in Him, by the example of the air which we inhale, and, as it were, touch and sensibly feel in the act of respiration. Without Him we could neither have life nor motion, such as may be seen in inanimated creatures, the clouds, &c., nor continuance in existence. These three pregnant words are neither a climax nor an anti-climax. They only more emphatically convey the same thing—our entire dependence on God, for our coming into existence, for the functions appertaining to existence, for our continuance in existence.
The words can also be accommodated to the supernatural state. By sanctifying grace, even more than in our natural state, “we live, move, and are in God.” St. Ambrose says: (de bono mortis) “in Deo movemur, quasi in via. Sumus, quasi in veritate. Vivimus, quasi in vita eterna.” The word “move” in the middle voice, in Greek, is use in an active sense.
Speaking of God St. Gregory (lib. 2 mor. c. 8) says: “Dens manet intra omnia; extra omnia; supra omnia; infra omnia; superior, per potentiam; inferior, per sustentationem; exterior, per magnitudinem; interior, per subtilitatem, nec alia exparte, superior—inferior—exterior—interior. Sed unus idemque totus unique præsidendo, sustinens, sustinendo, præsidens, circumdando, penetrans, penetrando, circumdans.”
“As some also of your own Poets said: For we are also His offspring.” These words are half an Hexameter, taken from the Poet Aratus, a Cilician, in his famous book, the Phænomena, so much prized. The statement is substantially found in Cleanthes, in a hymn to Jupiter, and several other Greek poets, on which account St. Paul uses the plural number, “Some of your own Poets.”
When addressing the Jews St. Paul quotes their own Inspired Scriptures. Addressing the Gentiles, he quotes an authority highly esteemed by them, their own celebrated Poets. This quotation from Pagan authors occurs in some passages of the New Testament (1 Cor. 15; Titus 1:12). What the Pagans wrote concerning their false Gods, St. Paul applies in a higher and more exalted sense, knowing it to be true, in his own understanding of the words, to the true God and His relations to creatures, who were created and educed out of nothing by Him, and who, in a supernatural sense, became, by sanctifying grace, partakers of the Divine nature (1 Peter 1:4), receiving through it a new spiritual existence, thus becoming new creatures.
Act 17:29 Being therefore the offspring of God, we must not suppose the divinity to be like unto gold or silver or stone, the graving of art and device of man.
“Being therefore,” &c. Ourselves gifted with life and intelligence, which we received from Him, as the bountiful giver—the great source of life and intelligence as rational creatures, who are by nature far superior to senseless idols, we must know that He is Himself gifted with life and intelligence in a still Infinitely higher order and degree. We cannot suppose Him to be like the senseless dumb idols, made by the hands of man, formed out of earthly materials, devoid of life and understanding, having ears and hear not, eyes and see not.
In this St. Paul, with a great amount of tact, identifies himself with them. “We must not,” &c., insinuates the utter folly of worshipping or adoring idols.
Act 17:30 And God indeed having winked at the times of this ignorance, now declareth unto men that all should every where do penance.
“Having winked at” The Greek means “overlooked,” as if not seeing them: refraining from punishing them; showing patient forbearance.
“The times of this ignorance.” Allowing the nations to walk their own ways (14:10).
“Ignorance.” Out of prudence, he uses a mild phrase while referring to the great crimes of the Pagans in past times; though to the haughty Athenians, who boasted of enlightenment of all sorts, “ignorance” was a bold, strong term.
“Of this ignorance.” In regard to their ideas of dumb idols and their worship of them.
“Now declareth.” Commands, enjoins. He will no longer exhibit the same patience. Now, His judgment is near. He enjoins on all men, without exception or distinction of Jew or Gentile, “to do penance,” which is the only means of reparation for grievous sins.
Act 17:31 Because he hath appointed a day wherein he will judge the world in equity, by the man whom he hath appointed: giving faith to all, by raising him up from the dead.
God’s great mercy and long suffering will not last for ever. He has fixed the term for stern justice in judging mankind, Jew and Gentile.
“By the man whom He hath appointed.” Constituted Sovereign Judge of all.
“Giving faith to all.” “Faith” means a guarantee or assurance of His having been Divinely accredited to act the part of Sovereign Judge, in the splendid miracle of raising Him from the dead—the clearest proof of his Divinity, as also of His veracity when claiming to act the part of Judge. From this it appears that it is as man, Christ is to be Judge. It is congruous that man should be the judge of men. The Council of Ephesus, c. 31, says:—“In eo qui forinsecus apparebit, et ab omnibus qui judicandi sunt palam cernetur, divina natura occulte latitans judicium exercebit.” (Quoted by Beelen.)
Act 17:32 And when they had heard of the resurrection of the dead, some indeed mocked. But others said: We will hear thee again concerning this matter.
Very likely, after having referred to the Resurrection of Jesus, the Apostle introduced the doctrine of the General Resurrection of all men, as is inferred from the words, “Resurrection of the dead.”
“Some mocked.” The Epicureans principally. Whatever ideas the Pagans may have had of the duration or immortality of the soul, they all spurned the idea of the resurrection of the body, rejecting it as absurd.
“Hear thee again.” A polite way of dismissing him, and of intimating their unwillingness to hear him now or hereafter, as their curiosity seemed to be fully satisfied. St. Paul saw they had no idea of hearing him again. Hence, his stay at Athens was so brief.
Act 17:33 So Paul went out from among them.
Luke Timothy Johnson suggests that this verse gives a very faint echo of Luke 4:30.
Act 17:34 But certain men, adhering to him, did believe: among whom was also Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.
The Areopagite. The designation suggests that Dionysius was a member of the court of Areopagus and, therefore, a man of influence. According to Eusebias he became Athens first bishop.
Act 18:1 After these things, departing from Athens, he came to Corinth.
Bishop MacEvilly, in the introduction to his Commentary on First Corinthians writes the following concerning that city: CORINTH was a wealthy city, situated on the isthmus that divides the Morea from continental Greece. It was destroyed by Mummius (A.C. 146) by order of the Roman Senate, and a hundred years after restored by Julius Cæsar (A.C. 44). It was constituted by Augustus the capital of Achaia (A. 27). In the time of St. Paul, it more than recovered its former opulence and splendour. Owing to its favourable situation for commerce—having a ready communication with the East and West, by means of its ports on the Ægean and Ionian seas—it became the grand emporium in these parts. It abounded in riches, and their attendant vices, of every description. There were two leading vices, however, for which Corinth was particularly remarkable, viz., pride and impurity; the latter of which is often permitted by a jealous God, as the appropriate punishment of the former. The dissoluteness of the Corinthian women became, accordingly, proverbial throughout the rest of Greece; and the loathsome vice of impurity was, to a certain extent, publicly sanctioned—Venus being one of the tutelary deities of the city. We are informed by Strabo (lib. 9), and by Herodotus (in Clio), that the temple of this goddess at Corinth was wealthy enough to support more than one thousand courtezans devoted to infamy and prostitution. Such was the wretched state, such the deplorable spiritual condition of this city, on the occasion of the Apostle’s first visit (A.D. 52), which is recorded (Acts 18). He remained there eighteen months, and founded a Church composed partly of Jewish, but principally of Gentile converts.