In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. (Acts 17:30) Passage: Acts 17:16-34
During the second missionary journey, Paul saw a vision of a Macedonian, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” Paul’s mission team came to Philippi. There a business woman Lydia opened her heart to the gospel and opened her house as a house church. In Thessalonica, Paul reasoned with people in the synagogue explaining and proving that Jesus is the Messiah. A large number of God-fearing Greeks and prominent women joined Paul. But some Jews were jealous and stirred up a mob against the mission team. Paul and his team moved to Berea. The Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day. But the the Thessalonian Jews came to Berea to persecute the mission team. Paul left Berea to go to Athens while Silas and Timothy stayed in Berea a little longer. Today’s passage is about Paul’s message in Athens.
Verse 16 reads, “While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” While Paul was waiting for Silas and Timothy, he walked around the city of Athens. The city was the center of art, beauty, culture, and knowledge. Great philosophers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle had lived and taught there. It was like the university of the world. The patterns of intellectual thinking established in Athens have affected human learnings for centuries and millenniums. At that time, great temples of acropolis, theaters, and temples were there. Despite the glorious human achievement, the city was the hotbed of idols. According to historians, there were about 30,000 gods in Athens! Paul was greatly distressed and troubled because the city was full of idols.
Let us see what Paul did in Athens. He met three types of people there. The first type was religious people. Verse 17 says, “So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there.” Paul went to the synagogue and reasoned with Jews and God fearing Greeks. Here, God fearing Greeks were the ones who accepted Judaism. In the Greek dominant culture, Paul’s approach in sharing the gospel was reasoning, discussing, and having dialogue rather than preaching.
The second type of people he met were common people. Paul met them in the market place, the agora of ancient Greece. The comment in verse 21 tells us that people in Athens would spent their time doing nothing in the market place talking about and listening to the latest ideas. Even in this city of Toronto, Greek town coffee shops are open late night with people talking and talking. Paul shared the gospel with them in the market place.
The third types of people Paul met were philosophers. Verse 18 says, “A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, ‘What is this babbler trying to say?’ Others remarked, ‘He seems to be advocating foreign gods.’ They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.” There were two types of philosophers in Athens.
The first one was Epicurean philosophers. They were atheists. They denied God’s existence, denied life after death. To them, this life is the only one that existed and men should get the most out of it. To them, pleasure was the highest virtue, pain was the opposite. Their motto was “Eat and drink for tomorrow we die.” Epicureans today are existentialists, who live for the experience of the moment.
The other type of philosophers were Stoics. They were pantheists. They believed that everything is God. They made about 30,000 gods in Athens. They were ascetics who practiced extreme denial of any form of pleasure. They had the idea that their strict abstention from pleasure would bring the rewards in the next life. Their motto was “Don’t get emotional, either about tragedy or happiness.” To them, apathy and nonchalance was regarded as the highest virtue. They had their own pride against people who show emotions.
Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” They were contemptuous and cynical against Paul. They were Epicurean philosophers. Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” It is the response from Stoic philosophers. They seemed to be interested in what Paul said. But their interest came out of sallow curiosity, not out of a genuine desire to know God. Since they had so many gods already, they might have expected two more gods introduced by Paul: One was Jesus, the other resurrection.
Stoic philosophers took Paul and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus. What is the meeting of Areopagus? Areopugus is the hill to the northwest of the Acropolis in Athens. The meeting of Areopagus was the highest governmental council and judicial court of ancient Athens. Important issues for the nation were carried out and decisions were made here. In some sense, it was similar to the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council. They asked Paul to tell more about the new strange ideas they heard from him.
Let us now see Paul’s speech in the meeting of the Areopagus. Verses 22-23 read, “Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: ‘People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god...’” Paul began his speech with a thoughtful introduction. He did not attack their idolatry. He paid them a compliment by saying, “...you are very religious.” He recognized them as the ones interested in and involved with God. Then he mentioned an altar with an inscription “to an unknown god.” Paul was going to tell them that the unknown god they were searching is the true God.
Paul introduced the true God. Verses 24-25 tell us, “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.” According to Paul, the true God made the world and everything in it. He is the Maker, not made by man, the Creator, not created by man. He is the originator of all things. He does not live in temples built by human hands.
Paul continued in verse 25, “...he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything.” What does it mean? He was talking about an idol worship. Let us think about a hypothetical situation that several fishermen in Athens died every year in the sea. Then people of Athens thought that the god of the sea was angry and killed their fishermen. In order to pacify and appease the god of the sea, they worshiped and sacrificed to the god of the sea. In this way idols were made until the city was full idols. The Lord, the true God, is not served by human hands as if he needed anything. In fact, the Lord, the true God, is the giver of everything. He gave us life and breath. Without breathing, we cannot survive even 5 minutes. He provides everything. Moreover, he sent us his one and only Son to forgive us and give us eternal life.
Then how is serving idols different from serving the Lord, the true God? We learned from Samuel’s message to the Israelites at Mizpah, “Serve the Lord only.” (1 Samuel 7:4). Paul also repeatedly identified himself in his letters as “a servant of the Lord” because he served the Lord. When we serve God like Samuel and Paul, we honor the Lord, we love him with all our hearts, we obey the word of God, we serve people with the love of God, we share the gospel so that people may come to know who the Creator God is.
Our God is the Sovereign Lord over the world, over every nation, over every life on earth. Even a bird in the sky will not fall without his permission. We hear the tragic news about Russia’s invasion in Ukraine. We believe that God is the Sovereign Lord. We earnestly pray that God may be with the people of Ukraine and restore peace in the country. Paul says that our God is not far from us. Those who seek him will find him (26-27). Jeremiah 29:13 tells us, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”
Paul moves on to tell about our relationship with God the Creator by quoting a Greek philosopher Aratus, “We are his offspring” (28). It is true since God created us in his own image. The image of God in us is just like parents’ DNA in their children. As the carriers of God’s image, we long for the right relationship with God, we long for eternal life. We should know that divine being is not in the things made by man’s hands such as gold, silver or stone.
Paul introduces the gospel in verse 30. “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.” What does it mean that in the past God overlooked such ignorance? Does it mean that God condones or even forgives idol worship in the past because of their ignorance? If this logic is true, what’s the point of the gospel in Christ? If God condoned and forgave without the gospel, we do not need the gospel. If that is true, the gospel brought us God’s punishment and curse, not blessing. We need to understand correctly the meaning of the phrase, “In the past God overlooked such ignorance...” in the context of the Scriptures.
I would like to use an illustration to understand this better. Let’s say that the world is under a pandemic that the entire population of the world is about to be killed by the virus. Assume that only one kind of vaccine can save human life and this vaccine protects us 100%. All the scientists were devoted to develop this vaccine, and finally the vaccine is developed. We can apply this situation to God’s redemptive work. All humanity is under the pandemic of sin virus. This sin virus kills everyone. God has been working for the salvation of mankind. Through the death and resurrection of Christ, the way of forgiveness and eternal life is opened. Whoever believes in Christ Jesus will be forgiven and have eternal life. That’s the vaccine made in heaven with 100% guarantee. In the past, God’s work was in progress. But in their ignorance they could not believe in Christ. Now God fulfilled what he promised, and the gospel is available for everyone on earth. The word of God commands all people everywhere to repent and believe. Because of the gospel, we live in the era of God’s grace in Christ. That’s the good news.
Now God “...judges the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” Jesus Christ is the Judge of the living and the dead. His resurrection is the proof. After hearing Paul’s message at the the meeting of the Areopagus, some sneered at him. Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed including a member of the Areopagus and prominent woman. May God bless us to respond to the gospel God prepared in Christ.