God Commands All People Everywhere To Repent
Key Verse 17:31
“For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
And now we want to look at how Athens responded to the gospel message. It’s interesting how a city like that with such a rich cultural history had the worst response, for its people responded as expected— with skepticism. Uninterested, cynical, unbelieving and disdainful of it! Mind you, that’s human culture at its finest and re-finest! But if you grow up in a culture that idolizes itself above all else— a culture that teaches you to worship the ego, the intellectual, and all that’s human and super human, how can you but scoff at the gospel message when someone offers it to you! Because it is too simple for your venerated brain to perceive! Actually, it in its simplicity the gospel message insults your brain. God’s love! Messiah! Eternal life! Resurrection! What are these eternal fantastical concepts but a comedy! As long as your senses can’t sense them, as long as they cannot be understood with the brilliance your superior culture infused your brain with, then surely the gospel must be a hoax— a joke just like all the many other ideas and teachings that have a way of surfacing in a progressive culture as ours! There’s no doubt the Athenians believed themselves to be the higher species and race, and regarded everyone and everything else with skepticism.
Look at verse 16. “While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” So he’s waiting for his companions in Athens, and as you can tell, he’s greatly distressed. He’s broken hearted for these people because their city was full of idols.
What do we know about this city anyway? We know it was a very influential city at one time in history. But history tells us that it was pagan at the core, actually it turned into a very cultured pagan society. And according to what Luke tells us, this culturing was fed by idolatry, philosophy and a constant supply of “new ideas”.
They liked to exchange new ideas it seems. That was their pastime. I think that’s a kind of a philosophy, to exchange new ideas. “Hey, what’s up?” “Hey what’s new?” They loved philosophy. Actually they were pretty much devoted to it. No one can think about Philosophy or Greece and not immediately think about Aristotle or Socrates for example. But the truth is that philosophy may be manageable if one has an anchor. But without an anchor, it’s like a balloon floating everywhere. You can see it, and describe it somewhat, but since it has no anchor, its hard to keep it in focus. If on the other hand, philosophy had an anchor in the truth of God, say in Genesis 1:1, that God is the Creator and that we are his creation, created for his purpose, then things would have been different for the study of philosophy. But of course, the Greeks floated aimlessly everywhere, and in this world, their balloons collided. There were two main philosophies of the time that Paul seems to have met head on. Look at verse 18. There were the Epicureans and then there were also the Stoics. Of course, Paul went first to the synagogue and preached the gospel there. He also went to the marketplace where he preached the gospel as well. And it was in the marketplace that he met these philosophers. Like everyone else, they heard his preaching. His message was simple, and to the point. “We are sinners, and each person must one day answer to his or her sins before God. But God loves us and doesn’t want us to perish. So he provided a Savior who sacrificed himself in our place. We can humble ourselves, and ask forgiveness. And we can believe in him and trust that he will save us.” Simple! But they had to dispute with him. Why? They were philosophers! They couldn’t help it.
Who were these Epicurean philosophers? They were what we might consider those whose philosophy is the pursuit of pleasure and good living, especially the culinary delights. the Stoic philosophers followed reason and liked to be self sufficient. They resisted emotion and pretended not to be affected by outward circumstances. How they responded to the good news of the gospel is very interesting. Read verse 18. “A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute 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.”
It’s really interesting that one group labeled him a babbler. We understand the word “babbler” to mean a person who speaks nonsense. But in the original language “babbler” is more like “seed picker, particularly one who picks up scraps of knowledge”. So, they meant it as an insult— as if this great missionary was the kind of person who went around picking up scraps of ideas and bits of philosophy from here and there and now sharing them in the marketplace. The other group of philosophers, on the other hand were somewhat curious regarding what he was saying, thinking Paul believed in other gods like they did, and they wanted to hear more. look at verses 19-21. The Areopagus council was the investigating body that determined what new teachings were valid and what were not. And this is where they took Paul to examine his. So now he’s there at their invitation at the heart of what the world knows as “Mars’ Hill” and they say to him: “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting?” So how would he respond?
And he responds with one of the most amazing sermons ever to be preached. Look what he does. He begins at a place where they can understand where he’s coming from because he finds a connection with them. He points them to one of their own altars— one dedicated to an unknown God. After having gotten their attention, he simply begins to explain to them who this unknown God is, and even goes further, he tells them what this unknown God is like. In other words, he tries to stimulate their interest in this unknown God so that they might desire to know him better. And then finally helps them see the truth about how they have fallen short of honoring this unknown God as they should. The consequences are terrible, but this unknown God isn’t without mercy. He has always provided a way of salvation. And now that way has been manifest through a Man who was raised from the dead. It was at this point that Paul ended this amazing sermon leaving them with a decision to make. Either they would repent their idolatry and embrace resurrected Savior God-Man or not. There was no other path. There’s much to learn from Paul’s sermon. Let’s look at it.
Look at how he addresses them in verse 22-23. He compliments them for being religious, for they even had an altar to an unknown God. Why would they have such an altar in the first place? And how would that make them religious? They didn’t want to offend an unknown God in case he did exist and he was a good compassionate god of blessing. They wanted to make sure that all deities were properly worshiped and pleased. Indeed they were religious. But if they did not know this God, how would they know how to worship him or please him? How would they know how to call on him to help them? This then was the very God whom Paul wanted to declare to them. And so he did. Look at verse 24. “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 hands.” It was a simple Genesis study. But it was crucial to begin with. God is the creator of the heavens and the earth. What an amazing place to start. God is the creator of all and therefore, he is beyond all that is created and visible— that is, he is beyond the material world. In other words, he isn’t a part of the created world nor a part of the visible universe— but he is rather the Creator, and is set apart from all things. He is God. And he is Spirit.
We wonder why Paul began there in Genesis right there at the beginning where God the creator created all things? Perhaps that has been the problem of Philosophy all along. There have always been some questions that humanity has wrestled with from the beginning of time. “Who am I?” and “What am I doing here?”, “Where do I come from?” and “Where am I going?”. For generations now they have been trying to answer all these questions with science. But they cannot and will not find a satisfying answer, because its not there. Philosophers have attempted at these questions and they still squabble over answers that at times seem more like nonsense. Most people live and die without meaning to anything in their lives. So they devote their lives either to sinful things or to useless things, some to pleasure others to hard work and money. But Paul addressed these intellectuals on Mars’ Hill with the most basic truth of all. God is the creator of all things, and he stands apart from all creation. He is Spirit. He is eternal. He cannot be confined or limited or housed in a temple, or even understood in our human ways. The unknown God is far too great for that. “He’s not like any of the other gods housed in this very temple here who can’t even compare with the unknown God I’m telling you about”— is what Paul seems to have been telling this council.
Look at verse 25. “And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.” What an amazing revelation about the unknown God Paul gave them here! Another basic lesson from the pages of the Bible. God almighty is God the creator of all things in heaven and earth. How can a glorious God who created all things need anything, let alone the service of human hands? These people prided themselves in serving the gods. They housed them in temples and served them with their hands. Even Christians at times pride themselves in serving God with their hands, and then boast of that service. But the truth is that our God is too great to be served by human hands, for he needs nothing because he’s the author of all things. He is also the provider of all things, including life. He is the creator and sustainer of our lives. What an amazing revelation that the unknown God whom they didn’t know, whom they never worshiped, whom they never honored, whom they never served, is the true Creator of their lives. He created them. He was the one who gave them life. He was the one who gave them breath. He is the one who also gives them everything else in life. They had been serving the wrong gods, offering them service in temples made by human hands. For what purpose? It was an offense and a crime to serve other gods when the Creator God— the one who gives life and breath and everything else had been ignored and abandoned as unknown. I’m not sure how they felt at this point, but the truth is that most people are guilty of this even today. While God is still the Creator God who gives life and breath and everything else to every human being, still men and women serve other gods tailored to their own fancy. We should remember that the Living God has ordained from the beginning of time that: “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3)
Look at verses 26-29. “From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out 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 some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone–an image made by man’s design and skill.” Another great revelation about the unknown God. To begin with the Greeks thought they were cut from a different cloth, a notch above the others of the human race. But not according to the unknown God. He made one man in the beginning and from him populated the whole earth with all the nations and peoples and tribes and cultures of the world. Everyone is made exactly from the same lump of clay! Romans and Greeks felt as if they had gained their lands through higher intellect and cunning, through military prowess and hard labor. But the truth is that the unknown God had himself determined which land will belong to what peoples. Great men and women who seem to have changed the course of world history are thought to have been born at auspicious times. But the truth is that it is the unknown God who decides who, where and to whom a human being is to be born! A remarkable revelation even for us today to know and to absorb as God’s people. That God is sovereign is no surprise to the Christian. God indeed is sovereign. That God has determined in his sovereignty many things regarding human life, times and places and boundaries and such is also no surprise. Paul explained exactly why God in his sovereignty did what he did for these nations. He says: “That men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, thought he is not far from each one of us.”
The issue about God’s sovereignty is a new concept for these Greeks who had no idea about the one true God, the unknown God. But Paul taught them something about God’s sovereignty. In his sovereignty God determined many things for these Gentile nations. He determined the boundaries of their nations, the times and places for them to live. God had chosen Israel for his people. He had led Israel from the start and been the God of Israel and Israel has been like a first born son. But the other nations seemed to have been ignored and abandoned. But not so. Paul tells us that God had a plan for them. In his sovereignty, he determined their histories, and he did so for a good purpose. He purposed that they should reach out for him and find him. Even though he was an unknown God to them, there was no excuse for them not to feel their way for him and reach out for him to find him. They must have suffered a lot without the guidance of the compassionate and loving God. These nations such as Greece must have suffered so much under the cruel tyranny of the man made super gods they invented, the idols who were demons masquerading as gods, and demanding so much from these people. They suffered under these false gods. But in all their suffering, the unknown God still left them a way out. God wanted them to reach out for him and find him. How could they? He says they could! How? He tells us how: “Though he is not far from each of us. For in him we live and move and have our being.” In other words, God is near to every human being, be it Jew or Greek, atheist or deist or whoever it may be, if a person is searching for God, genuinely, that person will find God because God is never far from anyone. Why? Because we all live in him and we all move in him and we all have our being in him. In other words, our very life and breath is taken from the very God we are looking for, so he can’t be all that far away. Paul said the same thing elsewhere: “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, that is, the word of faith”. (Romans 10:8)
Look at verses 30-31. “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.” So what has this unknown God done about years of neglect and abandonment? Paul tells them, actually he’s been very very gracious to them. He’s been very patient with them. He’s overlooked their ignorance. It doesn’t mean they weren’t guilty, it just means that God did not deal with them with divine judgment. What God did was to send his Son the Savior, and now he commands everyone everywhere to repent of their wayward ways before the Almighty Living God. Paul urged them to repent before God, and seek his mercy, because the day is coming when God will surely judge the world by the one man he has appointed to be the Judge. I believe every person knows their own heart, and when every person known what happens if God were to judge our hearts according to the truth, if our hearts are not sanctified or washed clean by the Savior’s blood. A heart that’s convicted cannot bear such a truth without breaking down and seeking the Lord’s mercy. Paul was hoping that they would examine their hearts in light of his message. They had violated the unknown God’s every command. They had served other gods that were not gods at all. They deserved condemnation. Whom should they turn to? What should they do? Paul helped them to see that repentance was their only course. And the man God appointed as judge is the one they must hope in. Why? Because he is the hope of humanity. He is the one who was Risen from the dead. That was his message.
I am not sure about the true philosophers’ reaction since most philosophers do not believe the resurrection of the body, nor in the need for a judgment. It would take the work of the Holy Spirit to convict hearts to receive such a glorious message which Paul delivered on Mars’ Hill that day. Still some did receive it. Look at the rest of the passage, verses 32-34. Some sneered, and others said that they wanted to hear more on the subject, who knows, maybe they were convicted! Only a few men believed on the Lord Jesus and became followers. Luke names them. At any rate, Paul’s message was truly unique, simple but many fundamental truths that we ourselves should abide by. But he dared speak to these sophisticated overstuffed windbags who mocked him. And he stood up for the Lord Jesus who came to give his life in exchange for ours. He is the Lord and he deserves everything, even if we are mocked or persecuted or rejected. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that his name is preached and people hear the gospel, and some believe and Christ’s name is glorified. Amen.