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Commentary On Acts Volume 2 by Jean Calvin

Acts 17:16-21

16. And as Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was sore grieved in him, forasmuch as he saw the city given to idolatry.17. Therefore he disputed in the synagogue with the Jews and religious men, and in the market daily with those which lit upon him.18. And certain Epicures [Epicureans,] and philosophers of the Stoics, disputed with him, and some said, |What will this babbler say? and other some, He seemeth to be a declarer of new devils, [or gods,] because he preached to them Jesus and the resurrection.19. And when they had caught him, they led him to Mars' Street, saying, May we know what new doctrine this is which thou utterest? 20. For thou bringest certain new things to our ears: Therefore, we will know what these things mean.21. And all the men of Athens, and the strangers which were there, gave themselves to nothing else but to speak or hear some new thing.

16. Was sore grieved. Though Paul, whithersoever he came, did stoutly execute that function of teaching which he knew was enjoined with him, yet Luke showeth that he was more incensed and moved at Athens, because he saw idolatry reign more there than in any other place for the most part. The whole world was then full of idols; the pure worship of God could be found nowhere; and there were everywhere innumerable monsters of superstitions, but Satan had made the city of Athens more mad than any other city, so that the people thereof were carried headlong with greater madness unto their wickedness and perverse rites. And this example is worth the noting, that the city, which was the mansion-house of wisdom, the fountain of all arts, the mother of humanity, did exceed all others in blindness and madness. We know with what commandments witty and learned men did set forth the same, and she had conceived so great good liking of herself that she counted those rude whom she had not polished. But the Holy Ghost condemning the whole world of ignorance and blockishness, saith that those masters of liberal sciences were bewitched with an unwonted madness. Whence we gather what man's wit can do in matters which concern God. Neither need we doubt of this, but that the Lord suffered the men of Athens to fall into extreme madness, that all the world might learn by them, and that they might teach all ages that the foresight and wit of man's mind being holpen with learning and instruction, doth altogether dote, and is mere foolishness when it cometh to the kingdom of God. They had undoubtedly their cloaks and colors, wherewith they did excuse their worshippings, how preposterous and corrupt soever they were. And yet, notwithstanding, it is certain that they did not only deceive men with childish and frivolous toys, but that they themselves were deluded shamefully with gross and filthy jugglings, as if they were deprived of common sense, and were altogether blockish and brutish. And as we learn what manner [of] religion proceedeth from man's understanding, and that man's wisdom is nothing else but a shop of all errors, so we may know that the men of Athens, being drunk with their own pride, did err more filthily than the rest. The antiquity, the pleasantness, and beauty of the city, did puff them up, so that they did boast that the gods came thence. Therefore, forasmuch as they did pull down God from heaven, that they might make him an inhabitant of their city, it was meet that they should be thrust down into the nethermost hell. Howsoever it be, the vanity of man's wisdom is here marked with eternal infamy by the Spirit of God; because, where it was principally resident, there was the darkness more thick. Idolatry did reign most of all there; and Satan carried men's minds to and fro more freely by his mocks and juggling.

Now, let us come unto Paul. Luke saith, forasmuch as he saw the city so given to idolatry, his spirit waxed hot, or was moved. Where he doth not attribute unto him indignation only, neither doth he only say that he was offended with that spectacle, but he expressed the unwonted heat of holy anger, which sharpened his zeal, so that he did address himself more fervently unto the work. And here we must note two things. For in that Paul was wroth when he saw the name of God wickedly profaned, and his pure worship corrupted, he did thereby declare, that nothing was to him corrupted, he did thereby declare, that nothing was to him more precious than the glory of God. Which zeal ought to be of great force among us, as it is in the Psalm, (Psalm 69:9,) |The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up.| For it is a common rule of all the godly, that so soon as they see their heavenly Father blasphemed, they be sore vexed, as Peter teacheth that the godly man Lot, because he could not cure most filthy facts, did vex his heart, (2 Peter 2:8.) And teachers must, above all others, be fervent, as Paul saith, that he is jealous that he may retain the Church in true chastity, (2 Corinthians 11:2.) And those who are not touched when they see and hear God blasphemed, and do not only wink thereat, but also carelessly pass over it, are not worthy to be counted the children of God, who at least do not give him so much honor as they do to an earthly father. Secondly, we must note that he was not so grieved, that being cast down through despair, he was quite discouraged, as we see most men to be far from waxing hot, or being moved, when they see the glory of God wickedly profaned, that in professing and uttering sorrow and sighing, they do, notwithstanding, rather wax profane with others than study to reform them. Nevertheless, they have a fair cloak for their sluggishness, that they will not procure any tumult when they are like to do no good. For they think that their attempts shall be in vain if they strive against the wicked and violent conspiracy of the people. But Paul is not only not discouraged with wearisomeness, neither doth he so faint by reason of the hardness of the matter, that he doth cast from him his office of teaching; but he is pricked forward with a more sharp prick to maintain godliness.

17. With the Jews and religious men. It was an ordinary thing with Paul, wheresoever the Jews had synagogues, there to begin, and to offer Christ to his own nation. After that he went to the Gentiles, who, having tasted of the doctrine of the law, though they were not as yet thoroughly nousled up in [imbued with] true godliness, did, notwithstanding, worship the God of Israel, and being desirous to learn, did not refuse those things which they knew were taken out of Moses and the prophets; and because such aptness to be taught was an entrance unto faith, yea, was a certain beginning of faith, the Spirit vouchsafeth them an honorable title, who being only lightly sprinkled with the first rudiments, drew nearer unto the true God; for they be called religious. But let us remember that all the religion of the world may be brought to nought. Those are called worshippers of God spiritually who gave their name to the God of Israel. Religion is attributed to them alone; therefore there remaineth nothing else for the rest but the reproach of atheism, howsoever they toil and moil in superstition. And that for good considerations; for of whatsoever pomp the idolaters make boast, if their inward affection be examined, there shall be nothing found there but horrible contempt of God, and it shall appear that it is a mere feigned color wherewith they go about to excuse their idols.

18. They reasoned with him. Luke addeth now that Paul had a combat with the philosophers; not that he set upon them of set purpose, forasmuch as he knew that they were even born only to brawl and cavil; but he was enforced to enter such a conflict contrary to his purpose, as Paul himself commandeth godly teachers to be furnished with spiritual weapons, wherewith they may valiantly defend the truth if any enemies set themselves against it, (Titus 1:9.) For it is not always in our choice to make choice of those with whom we will deal; but the Lord doth often suffer stubborn and importunate men to arise to exercise us, that by their gainsaying the truth may more plainly appear. Neither is it to be doubted but that the Epicures, [Epicureans,] according to their wonted frowardness, did trouble the holy man; and that the Stoics, trusting to their subtile quips and cavils, did stubbornly deride him; yet the end shall show that he did not dispute sophistically, neither was he carried away unto any unprofitable and contentious disputation, but did observe that modesty which he himself commandeth elsewhere. And thus must we do, that by refuting meekly and modestly vain cavillings, we may utter that which is sound and true; and we must always avoid this danger, that ambition or desire to show our wit do not unwrap us in superfluous and vain contentions.

Furthermore, Luke maketh mention of two sects, which, though they were the one contrary to the other, had, not withstanding, their contrary vices. The Epicures [Epicureans] did not only despise liberal arts, but were also open enemies to them. Their philosophy was to feign that the sun was two feet broad, that the world was made ex atomis, [of atoms,] (or of things which were so small that they could not be divided or made smaller,) and by deluding men thus, to blot out the wonderful workmanship which appeareth in the creation of the world. If they were a thousand times convict, they were as impudent as dogs. Though they did, in a word, confess that there be gods, yet they did imagine that they were idle in heaven, and that they were wholly set upon pleasure, and that they were blessed only because they were idle. As they did deny that the world was created by God, as I have said of late, so they thought that man's affairs were tossed to and fro without any governing, and that they were not governed by the celestial providence. Pleasure was their felicity, not that unbridled and filthy pleasure; yet such as did more and more corrupt men by her enticements, being already, of their own accord, bent to pamper the flesh. They counted the immorality of their souls but a fable, whereby it came to pass that they gave themselves liberty to make much of their bodies.

As for the Stoics, though they said that the world was subject to the providence of God, yet did they afterwards, through a most filthy surmise, or rather doting, corrupt that point of their doctrine. For they did not grant that God did govern the world by counsel, justice, and power, but they forged a labyrinth of the compass or agreement of the causes, that God himself being bound with the necessity of fate or destiny, might be carried violently with the frame of heaven, as the poets do tie and fetter their Jupiter with golden fetters, because the Fates or Destinies do govern when he is about something else. Though they placed felicity [the chief good] in virtue, they knew not what true virtue was, and they did puff up men with pride, so that they did deck themselves with that which they took from God. For though they did all abase the grace of the Holy Ghost, yet was there no sect more proud. They had no other fortitude, but a certain rash and immoderate fierceness.

Therefore there was in Paul wonderful force of the Spirit, who standing amidst such beasts, which sought to pull him to and fro, stood firm in the sound sincerity of the gospel, and did valiantly withstand and endure, as well the dogged malapertness [petulance] of the former sect, as the pride and crafty cavillings of the other. And hereby we see more plainly what small agreement there is between the heavenly wisdom and the wisdom of the flesh. For though the whole multitude were offended with the gospel, yet the philosophers were captains and standard-bearers in assaulting the same. For that did principally appear in them which Paul himself speaketh of the wisdom of the flesh, that it is an enemy to the cross of Christ, (1 Corinthians 1:26,) so that no man can be fit to learn the principles of the gospel unless he first abandon the same.

Other some said. Luke setteth before us two sects of men, which both were far from godliness; and yet the one sort is worse than the other. Those who are desirous to hear that again which they call new, first, they are moved not with any desire to learn, but with vain curiousity; secondly, they think unhonorably of the Word of God, is that the count it profane novelty; yet because they give ear, and that being in doubt until they may know farther of the matter, they are not quite past hope. But the rest who proudly refuse that which is offered, yea, condemn it reproachfully, do shut the gate of salvation against themselves. For this railing did proceed from monstrous pride; what meaneth this babbler? Because they neither vouchsafe to hear Paul, and also reproachfully refuse him, as if he were some common jester. Moreover, they do not loathe his doctrine through rash zeal, but do openly tread under foot that which is brought unto them concerning religion, though as yet they know it not; because these are ashamed to learn any thing of a base and obscure fellow, who had hitherto professed themselves to be teachers of all the whole world.

A declarer of new devils. They do not take devils [deities] in evil part, as the Scripture useth to do; but for the lesser gods or angels, who they thought were in the midst between the highest God and men, whereof Plato maketh mention oftentimes. As touching the sum of the matter, we must note that those things which Paul spake concerning Christ and the resurrection seemed to them to be new devils. Whence we gather, that our faith is principally distinguished and discerned from the superstitions of the Gentiles by these marks; because it setteth forth Christ to be the sole Mediator; because it teacheth us to seek for salvation only at his hands; because it commandeth us to seek remission of our sins in his death, whereby we may be reconciled to God; because it teacheth that men are renewed and fashioned again by his Spirit, who were before profane, and slaves to sin, that they may begin to live righteously and holy. Again, because from such beginnings as do plainly declare that the kingdom of God is spiritual, it lifteth up our minds at length unto the hope of the resurrection to come. For as concerning other things, though the philosophers do not reason purely, yet they say somewhat. Yea, they speak much concerning eternal life and the immortality of the soul; but as touching faith, which showeth free reconciliation in Christ; and regeneration, whereby the Spirit of God doth restore in us the image of God; concerning calling upon God, and the last resurrection, not a word.

19. They brought him to Mars' Street. Though this verse a place appointed for judgment, yet Luke doth not mean that Paul was brought before the seat of the judges, that he might plead his cause before the judges of Mars' Street. But that he was brought thither, where was most commonly a great assembly of people, that the serious disputation might be had before a great and famous audience. And admit we grant that he was brought before the judgment-seat, yet the end doth declare that he was not presented to the judges, but that he had free liberty to speak as before an audience. And that which followeth shortly after, touching the nature and conditions [manners] of the men of Athens, doth sufficiently declare that their curiosity was the cause; that Paul had such audience given him, that he had such a famous place granted him to preach Christ in, that so many came together. For in any other place it had been a crime worthy of death, to speak in the market or in any other public place, having gathered a company of people together; but there, because those who did carry about trifles had liberty granted them to prate, by reason of the immoderate desire they had to hear news, Paul was permitted to intreat of the mysteries of faith, being requested.

Gave themselves to nothing else. The two vices which Luke reciteth do almost go together. For it falleth out seldom that those who are desirous of novelties are not also babblers. For that saying of Horace is most true, |Fly a demander of questions, for the same is also a blab.| And surely we see that curious men are like rent barrels. Furthermore, both vices came of idleness; not only because the philosophers spent whole days in disputing, but because the common sort was too much set upon novelty; neither was there any craftsman so base there, which would not thrust in himself to set in order the status of Grecia. And surely that which Luke saith here is witnessed by all writers, both Greek and Latin, that there was nothing more light, covetous, or froward than that people. Wherefore, there could never be any certain government set down in that city, which was, notwithstanding, the mistress of sciences. Therefore, in principal power, they had, notwithstanding, no long liberty; neither did they ever cease off from attempting things and making many hurly-burlies, until they brought themselves and all Grecia to utter ruin. For when their state was decayed, yet did not they forsake their boldness. Therefore, Cicero doth laugh at their folly, because they did no less fiercely set forth their decrees then, than when they were lords over Grecia. Now, though there were small hope to do any good among curious men, yet Paul did not neglect the opportunity, if, peradventure, he might gain some of a great company to Christ. Neither was this any small praise for the gospel in the most noble place of the city, and, as it were, in a common theater, to refute and openly to reprove all forged and false worshippings, which had reigned there even until this day.

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