We concluded our study last week with Paul alone in the city of Athens, which was the idolatry capital of the world. If you had gone to Athens in the day of the apostle, you would have seen temples to the gods on many of the corners. There were temples to Demeter, the goddess of the earth, there were many, many temples to Athena, the goddess of wisdom. There were temples and statues to the god, Zeus, the god of force; the city was, literally, filled with the objects of human worship.
Is idolatry something that we should be concerned with today? Don't think that we are free from idolatry, for if a god is that which is the most important thing in your life, that to which you give your time and effort and energy, that which occupies the primary place of importance to you, then we worship many gods.
Paul was preaching in the Agora, which got him some attention, and he was therefore brought before the Areopagus, the high court of Athens. As he stands before these intellectuals, he says, "What therefore you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you." (I'm gonna tell you about the unknown God. I'm gonna tell you about this God that you've hoped was there, this God who can save you from your sins, this God who can give you peace and joy, this God who shows you what is right and what is wrong, who tells you how to live your life and gives you hopes for the future.)
In our last study we saw that Paul taught them that God was the Creator and Preserver of the world. Paul said of God, "He Himself gives to all life and breath and all things" God not only gives you life and breath, He gives you all things! Do you have a roof over your head? God gave it to you. Do you have a family or friends who care about you? God gave those people to you. Do you have money to buy clothing and food and other things? It came from God. Do you have the ability to enjoy the taste of food, the aroma of a rose, or the beauty of a snow-covered mountain? All these gifts come to us from God. Are you breathing? It is only because God gives you breath.
Continuing with this theme that it is the one true God who gives life to man and all living things, Paul elaborates on the Biblical view, and says in verse 26:
and He made from one, every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times, and the boundaries of their habitation, (Acts 17:26 NASB)
The main thrust of the phrase is that God created mankind from one starting point, which Christianity asserts to be Adam, the first man. There are those today who say that Adam was not the first man, but he was the first man that God made a covenant with. Paul here tells us that all men come from Adam. The Scripture also tells us that Adam's wife, Eve, was the mother of all living:
Now the man called his wife's name Eve, because she was the mother of all the living. (Genesis 3:20 NASB)
This is a direct affront to the Athenians, who say that the first men sprung up in Attica, like radishes. They thought they were different from and superior to all other peoples, whom they consider to be barbarians.
Since all races and nations of men originated from one man, there is no justification for the belief that any race or nation of men is inherently superior. Science has tried to tell us otherwise. For example, the science in the days of Adolph Hitler told us that the Nordics and the Aryans were superior to the rest of us. We all come from one man, everyone of us, and, whether we are white or black or brown or whatever the color of our skin, we come from one man, Adam.
Not only is God the Creator and Preserver of humankind, but he is also the present ruler of mankind, "having determined their appointed times, and the boundaries of their habitation." God determines the course and periods of human history, as in the rise and fall of nations. This is the refutation of Epicuris, who thought that everything happened by chance. It is also a refutation of the Stoic, who thought that things happened by fate.
And so, when nations rise and fall, they don't rise and fall, ultimately, because of things that happen in the human scene; they rise and fall because a providential God is guiding and governing His world in order to complete His purpose. John Wesley used to say, "I read the newspaper to see how God is governing His world."
The Greeks liked to think that they determined their own destiny. But the Bible teaches that God is sovereign over the political and military affairs of nations. As a matter of fact the Bible clearly teaches that God is Sovereign over everything. To say that God is sovereign is to declare that He is the Almighty, the Possessor of all power in heaven and earth, so that none can defeat His counsels, thwart His purposes, or resist His will. The sovereignty of God is absolute, irresistible, infinite. God does as He pleases, only as He pleases, always as He pleases: whatever takes place in time is but the outworking of that which He decreed in eternity. Is this too strong for you? If it is, you do not understand the God of the Bible. The Scriptures affirm these truths:
But our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases. (Psalms 115:3 NASB)
How could He do whatever He pleases if He is not sovereign? Left to ourselves we tend to immediately reduce God to manageable terms. We want to get Him where we can use Him. We want a God we can in some measure control. But this is not the God of the Bible:
"Thine, O LORD, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, indeed everything that is in the heavens and the earth; Thine is the dominion, O LORD, and Thou dost exalt Thyself as head over all. 12 "Both riches and honor come from Thee, and Thou dost rule over all, and in Thy hand is power and might; and it lies in Thy hand to make great, and to strengthen everyone. 13 "Now therefore, our God, we thank Thee, and praise Thy glorious name. (1 Chronicles 29:11-13 NASB)
For God is the King of all the earth; Sing praises with a skillful psalm. 8 God reigns over the nations, God sits on His holy throne. (Psalms 47:7-8 NASB)
Verse 27 proceeds from divine providence to its implication:
that they should seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; (Acts 17:27 NASB)
The word "that" here refers to what he says in the previous verse, so that he is saying, "God determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live so that men would seek Him." This is saying that divine providence makes seeking God a moral obligation, although no one can actually find Him without special revelation.
Paul's meaning is not that fallen men of their own natural ability and free will can seek after and find God. He is showing that even though men are in fact dependent on God for everything, and even though God has graciously given men life and breath and all things, men have ignored God and gone their own way.
Henry Alford writes that the expression translated, "'if perhaps' indicates a contingency which is apparently not very likely to happen." Paul is not conveying a real intention for the accomplishment of something, but rather an imposition of a moral obligation.
"They might grope for Him"--paints the picture of ignorant and confused people groping around in the dark, desperately trying to make contact with reality, but never attaining knowledge of the truth. The same language had been used by Homer when referring to the blinded Cyclops, and by Plato when referring to vague guesses at the truth.
The fall of man has caused our "seeking" to become "groping" with no certainty of success. This is a main theme of the passage: ignorance of God (groping after him) is morally culpable and must be repented of.
We may understand Paul's meaning better by looking at what he said to the Corinthians:
For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. (1 Corinthians 1:21 NASB)
Paul is saying, "God, in His own wisdom, has determined that man will never come to know God by his own wisdom, but God is pleased that the chosen ones will come to know Him by the content of His verbal revelation. God never intended for sinful men to seek Him and find Him on their own.
Since God displays His power and goodness in providence, men ought to seek Him; however, men have failed to seek Him and find Him, even though He is not far, and therefore all who do not know God are subject to condemnation.
"He is not far from each one of us"--He is telling us that "God is immanent." Yes, He's transcendent. He's outside time and space. He's out above and beyond the created universe. But, at the same time that He is transcendent, He is also immanent. That is, He is near. He is not far from each one of us. You can know Him. God is knowable:
The LORD is near to all who call upon Him, To all who call upon Him in truth. (Psalms 145:18 NASB)
God is knowable. He's beyond and above creation, not limited to the physical world, but He's present in His created world, and you can know Him:
for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, 'For we also are His offspring.' (Acts 17:28 NASB)
God is not far from us in the sense that we are constantly depending on Him for our life, our activities, and our very existence. Most commentators see "in Him we live and move and exist" as Paul quoting one of their poets, but Paul does not indicate that he is quoting until he says, "We are his offspring,"--this is a quotation from pagan literature as Paul himself indicates.
The quotation comes from Aratus (315-240 B.C.), in a line from his work Phaenomena. Among other things, he was a medic, astronomer, mathematician, and poet. For a number of years he lived in Athens and was a student of Zeno. While in Athens, he wrote Phaenomena, which became very popular for a number of centuries in the Greek speaking world. Paul uses the plural in "as some of your own poets have said," because the same thought appeared at least in one other author in another form, namely, in the "Hymn to Zeus" by the Athenian Stoic philosopher Cleanthes (300-220 B.C.).
There is no way that Paul can have any agreement with the statement by Aratus. Whether Aratus is referring to creation or relationship, he is speaking of Zeus. "We are his offspring" equals "We are Zeus' offspring." To understand Paul's intention, we need to see how he uses the quotation from Aratus:
"Being then the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man. (Acts 17:29 NASB)
If we are God's offspring (whether Zeus or another), then how can God be something lower than ourselves or even be represented by something lower than ourselves? Paul is citing one thing that many of them affirm to contradict, another thing that many of them also affirm. Therefore, the best explanation of the quotation is that Paul is not using Aratus to support the Christian view of the nature of God, but he is using Aratus to refute the Athenian view of the nature of God.
Eugene Peterson's paraphrase of verses 28 and 29 is helpful in making apparent the ad hominem argument:
"One of your poets said it well: 'We're the God-created.' Well, if we are the God-created, it doesn't make a lot of sense to think we could hire a sculptor to chisel a god out of stone for us, does it?" (Peterson, The Message).
If we are "God-created," then it is self-contradictory to think of the divine being or the divine nature as consisting of, or represented by an image of gold, silver, or stone. To think that we can make God by creating a statue of gold or silver or stone is absurd. So Paul, in this capital of idolatry, shows the absurdity of idolatry! He is a very courageous man. It would be like going to the casinos of Las Vegas and crying out against gambling!
"Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all everywhere should repent, (Acts 17:30 NASB)
God at times dealt with pagan nations about their idol worship and sinful practices; but He never dealt with them the same way as He did with Israel, sending prophets and miracles, and several exiles to restrain their evil hearts and bring them back to Him.
In the past, God's salvific dealings were mainly directed at the Jews, and in this sense He "overlooked" the ignorance of the Gentiles, but now He commands all people everywhere to repent, signifying that the authority and the blessing of the Gospel transcend all ethnic, cultural, and geographical borders.
Before Christ ascended to heaven, He left instructions to the effect that Christianity is to be a global faith--they were to go to all the world.
I think he is using "repentance" here in its etymological sense of, "to change the mind." They were to change their mind about who God was. He is not an idol made with human hands, but the Creator, Preservers, and Ruler of everything. They are to repent because judgment is coming:
because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead." (Acts 17:31 NASB)
Negatively, this means that since the verbal revelation of God is now extending to the whole earth, the wrath of God is being poured out on all who reject the Gospel.
Believing Christ leads to salvation; disbelieving Christ leads to destruction. The judgment is definite, "He has fixed a day." And it will be universal--"He will judge the world." The word "world" is not kosmos, which means: "the system" or aion, which means: "the ages." The Greek word used here is oikoumene, which comes from oikeo, which means: "to occupy a house," and the word ghay, which means: "soil, land, or world. So, the word oikoumene means: "the inhabited earth."
The word "world" must be interpreted in the context of the phrase "all everywhere" (v. 30). All men everywhere (a double expression emphasizing universality--"every person in every place") must repent because the world ("all men everywhere") will be judged. We cannot restrict the term "world" in this passage to the Roman Empire.
We see this universal judgment in:
"And all the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; (Matthew 25:32 NASB)
Paul tells us that God will judge the world, "through a Man whom He has appointed."Who is that man?
"For not even the Father judges anyone, but He has given all judgment to the Son, (John 5:22 NASB)
and He gave Him authority to execute judgment, because He is the Son of Man. (John 5:27 NASB)
The Lord Jesus Christ is the judge of all men. Paul goes on to say, "Having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead. Jesus Christ, repeatedly told His followers that He would judge the world. Though He was put to death by the Jews, God raised Him from the dead. And by raising Him from the dead, God set His seal on the doctrines He taught; one of these doctrines was that He would judge the world. His resurrection is an incontestable proof that He will judge the world, according to His own declaration.
I think that all Christians would agree that Jesus Christ has been appointed by the Father to be the judge of the inhabited earth. But a real disagreement arises when you discuss when the judgment is to take place. But just as our text tells us of the certainty of judgment, it also tells us the when of judgment. Paul says, "He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness"--do you see the "when" in this verse? No, you don't because the NASB obscures the text. Look at YLT:
because He did set a day in which He is about to judge the world in righteousness, by a man whom He did ordain, having given assurance to all, having raised him out of the dead.' (Acts 17:31 YLT)
The word "will" in the NASB is the Greek word mello. Whenever mello in the present active indicative is combined with an infinitive, it is consistantly translated "about to." Paul told his first century audience that God was "about to" judge the world. The Greek word "mello" means: "is about to," but is never translated in the literal fashion by major translations. I wonder why?
In Vines Expository Dictionary of Greek Words, on page 1038, Vine shows mello's primary meaning as: "to be about (to be or do). It is used of purpose, certainty, compulsion, or necessity." Look at the the NASB translation of:
"For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels; and WILL THEN RECOMPENSE EVERY MAN ACCORDING TO HIS DEEDS. (Matthew 16:27 NASB)
Vine translates mello here as: "The Son of Man is about to come." This verse is talking about the Second Coming and the judgment. At His coming He will "recompense every man"--that's judgment. And it says He is "about to come." How soon is about to? Look at the next verse:
"Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who shall not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom." (Matthew 16:28 NASB)
The "you" here are His disciples. He says that His coming will be before they all die. And a little later in Matthew He says:
"Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. (Matthew 24:34 NASB)
Jesus here, very plainly and very clearly, tells His disciples that ALL of the things He had mentioned would come to pass in THEIR GENERATION. This includes the Gospel being preached in all the world, the abomination of desolation, the great tribulation, and the coming of the Son of man. Biblically, a generation is forty years. So Jesus' coming and the judgment had to take place within the generation that was then living.
Let's go back to mello. Thayer's Greek Lexicon, on page 396, defines "mello" as: "to be about to do anything," and "to be on the point of doing or suffering something." The Arndt, Gingrich, Bauer Greek -English Lexicon defines "mello" as: "Be on the point of, be about to."
There are 110 places where "mello" is used in the Greek New Testament. In many places, by context, it can be seen to mean something about to take place:
And one of them named Agabus stood up and began to indicate by the Spirit that there would certainly be a great famine all over the world. And this took place in the reign of Claudius. (Acts 11:28 NASB)
Here the words "would certainly" are the Greek word mello. The prophet Agabus signified that a great famine "was about to" come upon the Roman world. This Scripture shows that this famine happened during the reign of Claudius. Here we find the writer using "mello" in an obvious context of something that was about to take place and did take place, as the Scriptures report and as secular history confirms.
So Paul tells the Athenians that judgment is "about to come," he says this to Timothy also:
I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: (2 Timothy 4:1 NASB)
Here "who is to" is mello. Paul again is telling his first century readers that Jesus is about to judge the living and the dead. This is to happen at His appearing! Christ's Second Coming is a coming in judgment:
And I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them. 12 And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. (Revelation 20:11-12 NASB)
This is the judgment that Paul was talking about in our text in Acts. When was this judgment to take place?
"Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done. (Revelation 22:12 NASB)
It was to happen "quickly." The judgment that Paul spoke of was near, it was about to happen. We know that it happened in A.D. 70. At that time God judged the world.
If this universal judgment was in A.D. 70, what about believers today, when do we get judged?
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1 NASB)
The word "condemnation" is the Greek word katakrima, which means: judgment." Christ boar our judgment, there is no judgment for us. We share Christ's righteousness.
What about unbelievers today, when do they get judged?
"He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. (John 3:18 NASB)
Unbelievers are already under wrath, they are separated from God, at physical death they will forever and always be separated from God Who is life.
What a blow to the religious multi-god system of Athens, to be told that there is but one true God, and in all of their "gods" they had missed Him. And this one true God, Who created, preserves, and governs His creation, will judge the Athenians:
Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some began to sneer, but others said, "We shall hear you again concerning this." (Acts 17:32 NASB)
Some mocked. The Epicureans didn't believe in a resurrection at all, they thought death was the end of it. The Stoics believed in a spiritual resurrection, but not a physical one, so they wouldn't buy it either.
Apollo had declared, "Once a man dies and the earth drinks up his blood, there is no resurrection." Now, if these Athenians were to become Christians, they must affirm Christ's resurrection, and this means that they must turn away from their religion to reject Apollo's statement.
Paul gave them a very simple Gospel, the same Gospel which he preached everywhere, the message of a Savior, of a cross, of a resurrection, of a coming day of judgment, and of a choice which must be made. Paul's sermon here in Athens is eminently Biblical. Like the Biblical revelation itself, his argument begins with God, the creator of all, and ends with God, the judge of all.
They wanted Paul to stay on so they could continue their conversations and begin their cross-examination. Instead, Paul moved on:
So Paul went out of their midst. 34 But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them. (Acts 17:33-34 NASB)
Some mocked, but some joined Paul and believed. The word "joined" here is the verb, kollao, it means: "glue." They just glued themselves to Paul.
We don't really know how many people believed. Two people are mentioned. They were unusual, influential, educated--Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, evidently of some importance. Why did they believe? Because just like Lydia, "The Lord opened her heart." Just as we have seen those Gentiles who believed the Gospel, did so because they were "appointed for eternal life."
So Paul leaves Athens. Nowhere in the New Testament does a writer mention a church in Athens. But history records that some of the great leaders of the faith during the next four hundred years came from the church which was established that day in Athens.
The message that Paul preached to these intellectual Athenians is the same message that we are to be preaching today. God is the Creator, Preserver, and Controller of all the world. To not believe in Jesus Christ is to experience God's wrath forever. We are to be calling men to repent--change their mind about God, and place their trust in Him.
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