Acts 17 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

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Witness at Berea

In these postmodern times people have learned to live without absolutes so long that they find it difficult to exercise simple faith or make long-term commitments. When they hear the Christian gospel's call to faith, they do not quite know how to respond. Luke helps through an example from a most unexpected place: the "off-the-beaten-path" city of Berea.A People of Noble Character (17:10-12)

The believers at Thessalonica comply with the terms of the bond (17:9) by sending Paul and Silas, and presumably also Timothy, away during the night. They travel west-southwest along the Via Egnatia some twenty miles and then leave it and head south thirty more miles to Berea. This strategic withdrawal into the third district of Macedonia and to a city that Cicero labeled "off the beaten track" (Against Piso 36.89) is not a retreat but a means of further advance. A populous city in another district of Macedonia will hear the gospel through Paul's synagogue witness (compare Acts 17:1).

The Berean Jews and God-fearers are of more noble character (eugenesteroi), with open minds willing to learn and evaluate this new message fairly (Louw and Nida 1988:1:332). In Greek and biblical understanding, to be eugenos primarily was to be "of noble birth" (compare Lk 19:12; 1 Cor 1:26) and, derivatively, to have qualities that go with "good breeding": "being open, tolerant, generous" (Polhill 1992:363; compare Lk 8:15; Acts 16:14).

This noble character manifests itself in two ways. There is great eagerness (literally, "all eagerness") to receive the message. Yet the people's enthusiasm is not gullibility, for they subject Paul's message, the word of God, to thorough scrutiny. Daily they meet to examine the Old Testament Scriptures to see if the gospel declarations square with them (compare 17:2-3). Their examination parallels the best in human jurisprudence, unbiased investigation to get at the truth (anakrino; Lk 23:14; Acts 24:8). The result is that a large number of Jews and Greeks, prominent women as well as men, probably both God-fearers and pagans, believe the message and are saved (compare 20:4; Rom 16:21).

To be believers, then, we must eagerly embrace the gospel message with all openness, hearing it on its own terms and letting it master us. Many postmoderns seem ready to take such a step. They call it adopting a "second naivete."

To be a believer also means to engage our critical faculties in testing the gospel's truth claims. For postmoderns who will bow to no authority but what they have tested and approved, this is an essential step if faith is to have integrity. Yet since in the Christian order of things "faith precedes understanding," this scrutiny will be fruitful only after an initial positive embracing of the good news.Protecting the Messenger (17:13-15)

When the Jews in Thessalonica hear of Paul's evangelistic activity in Berea, they come and employ the same public-disturbance tactics used earlier, with similar results (17:5). They shake up (saleuo, used literally of earthquakes at Acts 4:31; 16:26) and stir up the crowds (15:24; 17:8). Possibly because the Berean Christians realize that the Thessalonian Jews have the ear of provincial authorities, they decide that in their situation "discretion is the better part of valor." Before any arrest and judicial action can be taken they courageously spirit Paul away toward the coast.

This second consecutive withdrawal will prove to be another advance: not only does Paul leave behind a newly planted church to be nurtured by Silas and Timothy, but his escape will take him to Athens, the center of Greco-Roman culture and Greek religion. Paul's progress is like wildfire: try to stamp it out in one place and it crops up in another. David Livingstone's words could well have been his: "I am prepared to go anywhere, so long as it is forward" (Barclay 1976:129).

If Paul and the Bereans engage in a ruse, heading to the coast but then turning south to approach Athens by land, then the Bereans' "accompanying" involves providing protection and care (compare Josh 6:23 LXX; 2 Chron 28:15 LXX).

To be a believer means having not only noble character that commits itself to the message but also a courageous soul that commits itself to the messenger--and to all who are part of the body of Christ (Acts 16:15, 33-34; 17:4, 7). Postmoderns have a hard time with long-term commitment in relationships, as they do with bowing to the authority of a divine message. In both cases Luke's presentation of the Bereans' example gives them hope. By the power of the Spirit anyone can have what it takes to believe (2:42-47; 16:14).

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Witness at Thessalonica

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Witness at Athens

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