By Gregg Bing
Continued from last month.
WWhen Paul arrived in Athens, he found a city completely given over to idols. As Paul’s spirit was provoked within him, and he spoke to these people about the Lord, he aroused their curiosity and was brought by the Greek philosophers to the Areopagus, the highest Greek court. Here Paul was given a wonderful opportunity to share with these unbelieving people the truth of God. Paul spoke freely and openly the things of God, but he depended upon the Holy Spirit to help him choose his words wisely. Paul began by respectfully acknowledging their devotion to their gods, then, using one of their own altars as an illustration, he turned their attention to the One who was, to them, “THE UNKNOWN GOD.”
Paul could not communicate to these Athenians in the same way he did to the Jews. These Gentiles had no background in the Old Testament Scriptures, and they were certainly not looking for a Messiah to come. So, Paul concentrated on things they did have knowledge of: their gods and the world around them. Paul started with the nature of God, a God who is so much more awesome than the gods they worshipped. The God who was unknown to these people is the Creator of all things, and thus, Lord of all. A God such as this cannot be contained in temples made with hands, nor can He be worshipped as the Athenians worshipped their gods, with the works of their hands. The true God does not need anything from man. On the contrary, God gives us everything we need: “life, breath, and all things.” Paul proceeded to declare to these worldly wise men the eternal purpose of God for man.
Purpose of God
“And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their pre-appointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings.” (Acts 17:26)
Every nation of men comes from one blood, the blood of the first man, Adam. As these nations were formed, God determined their boundaries and pre-appointed the times and ways He would deal with them. For instance, many question why so much of the Old Testament is taken up with the small, seemingly insignificant nation of Israel. The answer is, when the nations turned away from the worship of the true God (first during the days of Noah and later at the tower of Babel), God gave them up (Rom. 1:18-32).
God called out Abram to be the father of a new nation, Israel; a nation He would keep separate from all other nations (Gentiles); a nation He would use to bring the Savior into the world. While God was carrying out this purpose through Israel, the rest of the Gentiles were outsiders, “having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12).
Though they were God’s chosen people, eventually, the nation of Israel gradually turned away from God, rejecting Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So, God set this nation aside and opened up salvation to the Gentiles. While God made a clear difference between Jew and Gentile in the past, today, in the Church, the Body of Christ, this difference has been removed. While men may question these things, God’s dealings with the nations have all been in accordance with His eternal purpose which He “accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Eph. 3:11). Paul expressed this purpose to the Athenians with these words:
“So that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, For we are also His offspring.” (Acts 17:27-28)
God desires that men seek Him and find Him. It’s not that He is hiding from men, not at all, for “He is not far from each one of us.” Paul reminded Timothy that God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). To this end, God has made Himself known to man in different ways through the ages: through His creation (Psalm 19:1-6, Rom. 1:19-20), through His written Word (Isa. 1:2, Heb. 1:1), and finally, through His Son (Heb. 1:2, John 1:18).
It is vital that man find God because “in Him we live and move and have our being.” As the Creator, God is the Author of all life, and all men are God’s offspring, but only in regard to their physical life. Only those who trust in the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior become spiritual children of God.
As Paul reached the climax of his message, he appealed to these men of reason with a logical question: “Since we are the offspring of God,” as one of their own poets had written, “we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising” (Acts 17:29). In other words: Man did not create God; God created man. Paul then clearly laid out their:
Responsibility to God
“Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30-31)
Three “times” are identified in these verses: times of ignorance (past), time to repent (present), and the day of judgment (future). In the past, God overlooked their “times of ignorance.” This does not imply that God excused their sin of idolatry; it simply means He did not judge their sin at that time. Paul wrote to the Romans about the Gentile nations who “worshiped and served the creature (creation) rather than the Creator,” saying: “God gave them up” (Rom. 1:25). While God then turned from dealing with the nations collectively to dealing with only one nation, Israel, the Gentiles would still one day face the “righteous judgment of God” (Rom. 1:18, 32).
Now has come the time when God “commands all men everywhere to repent,” both Jew and Gentile. The word “repent” is typically associated with the Jews, who were once in covenant relationship with God under the law. Having gradually turned away from Him to worship idols, Israel was called upon by John the Baptist and by the Lord Jesus to repent and be baptized for the remission of their sins. However, the word “repent” simply means to change the mind, something that is required of all men, both Jews and Gentiles, if they would be saved. Through Paul, God had “opened the door of faith to the Gentiles” (Acts 14:27). Speaking to the Ephesian elders regarding his ministry among them, Paul stated that he testified “to Jews, and also to Greeks (Gentiles), repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:20-21). It was time for these Gentiles at Athens to change their minds about who was the true God and to seek the spiritual life that can be found only in Him.
Paul warned these unbelievers they would one day answer to God, for He has appointed “a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained” (Acts 17:31). This verse points out two things that should be a vital part of our witness. First, our testimony should include the fact that all men are sinners, and that God will one day judge the sins of men. Second, our testimony should always culminate in the person and finished work of Jesus Christ. Paul was certainly going in this direction with His testimony. He declared that God, by raising Jesus Christ from the dead, had given assurance that He was indeed the One ordained by God to carry out this judgment. No doubt Paul would have gone on to give the complete gospel of Jesus Christ: His death for our sins, His resurrection from the dead, and our need to believe in Him (1 Cor. 15:1-4), but Paul was hindered from doing so.
Response to the Word
When these so-called philosophers (literally “lovers of wisdom”) “heard of the resurrection, some mocked, while others said, We will hear you again on this matter.” They refused to allow Paul to proceed with his testimony; they had heard enough.
It is a difficult thing when our testimony is rejected by men, but we need not be discouraged. We must realize that, within ourselves, we do not have the power to persuade men. We are dependent upon the Holy Spirit to speak to them through His Word. Paul was faithful in his stewardship. He preached the Word, knowing that “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God” (Rom. 10:17). When they ceased to listen any longer, Paul “departed from among them.”
Though the majority rejected the Word, “some men joined him (Paul) and believed, among them Dionysius, the Areopagite, a woman named Damaris, and others with them” (Acts 17:34). Since only a few were saved, many present day Christians might consider this evangelistic meeting a failure. God, however, took special note of those who did believe. He even mentioned two by name, demonstrating His delight in the salvation of these precious souls. This shows how important it was for Paul to take a stand and speak boldly to this group of unbelievers. It may have seemed useless to try, but God’s Word is powerful enough to reach even the most hardened heart.
There is so much to learn from Paul’s ministry in Athens. As ambassadors for Christ today, we face similar audiences with the same mindset and the same need. To the majority of the world, God is unknown. Many are certainly religious, some even devoted to worship, but, like the Athenians, their devotion is misdirected. These lost souls need believers like Paul, who are willing to stand and boldly proclaim to them “THE UNKNOWN GOD;” even when it is not easy; even when they themselves may be personally discouraged at the time; even when they know they will face ridicule or hostility; even when the prospects for success do not look promising. This is why Paul’s final charge to Timothy was: “Preach the Word! Be ready in season and out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2).
We must remember: God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). The question for us is: How do we respond when we encounter people who are unsaved? May God help us to respond as Paul did when he arrived at Athens. May our spirit be provoked within us when we see people to whom our God is “THE UNKNOWN GOD.”