The Unknown God

Friday: The Day of Repentance

Acts 17:16-34 This week’s studies teach us how Paul shared the Gospel with the philosophers in Athens.
The Day of Repentance

Paul ended his sermon on Mars Hill with a few inducements to repentance. 

1. God has been patient, overlooking ignorance for a time (v. 30). That should encourage us, as well as having encouraged the Athenians. Our land is as corrupt as theirs, even though we have known the Gospel for over two hundred years, which they had not. God has not yet destroyed America for its sins. Why? It is because God is patient. He has also been patient with you. He has overlooked your ignorance for a time. Pay attention to that, and let God’s patience lead you to repentance. 

2. God commands repentance. That is a great inducement. If God tells us to do something, we had better do it. 

3. God has appointed a final day of reckoning when Jesus shall be the final judge. Paul’s exact words were, “He [God] 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” (v. 31). 

They interrupted Paul at that point, for his sophisticated hearers did not believe in resurrections. This was one point on which the Stoics and Epicureans came together. All Greeks thought that man was composed of spirit (or mind), which was good, and matter (or body), which was bad. So in the life to come, if there was to be such a life, the one thing they certainly did not want it cluttered up with was a body. They did not believe in and did not want a resurrection. 

Was Paul disappointed with the results of his address to the Greek philosophers? He may have been. In the other Greek cities, Paul had left a church behind him and this did not seem to have happened at Athens. This has caused some commentators to suggest that Paul made a mistake in teaching as he did. William Ramsay was one. He said that Paul abandoned preaching for philosophy and that, as a result, there were no converts.1 There may be something to that, especially since Paul says that he changed his approach when he got to Corinth (1 Cor. 2:1-5). Acts also offers justification for this view since, just a few verses further on, in chapter 18, Luke, in an almost uncharacteristic way, says, “When Silas and Timothy came [to Corinth] from Macedonia, Paul devoted himself exclusively to preaching” (v. 5). Maybe that is a way of saying that Paul realized that the type of address he had given in Athens was not right. 

Yet this judgment may be unfair. Earlier in chapter 17, we are told that Paul “reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks” (v. 17). When it says he reasoned with them it means he reasoned from the Scriptures. So he must have been doing the same thing in Athens that he had done in other Greek cities. He was teaching the Bible. And what about the invitation to address the philosophers? All he did was speak to people in terms they could understand. Moreover, he taught biblical theology. I do not know whether it is proper for scholars to criticize the apostle Paul at that point or not, but I know that I am not going to criticize him.   

But if you ask, “Was he discouraged?” well, he may have been. Athens was a great city. He had worked hard, and when he finished he did not have much to show for it. 

Yet he had something, didn’t he? We read at the end: “A few men became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus [that is, one of the leading philosophers], also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others” (v. 34). “Others” means two at least. So there were at least four, and maybe a few more. Later there was a church in Athens, though it did not seem to have gotten established until after Paul’s day. 

Whether Paul was discouraged or not, he had a hard time in Athens. It is hard to speak to intellectuals, even harder to speak to people who are basking in the glory of a former age. It is hard for us, too. Yet Paul did try to reach such people for Christ, and so should we. Suppose our results are meager? Well, so were Paul’s. On the other hand, we should not be profoundly disheartened because God always allows His Word to bear fruit in one form or another. There will be some who sneer. There will be some who postpone their decision, perhaps indefinitely. But there will always be some who believe. They are the sheep Jesus is calling into His one fold. It is our joy to be used by Him in calling them. 

1W. M. Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveler and the Roman Citizen (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1895), 252.

Study Questions
  1. In Paul’s conclusion, what three reasons does he give to repent?
  2. Why did the Greeks object to Paul’s use of the word “resurrection”?
  3. How does Paul’s visit to Athens end? What does that teach us about our need to be faithful in our service, and also how God measures success?

Reflection: How was Paul’s mission in Athens somewhat like our task today?

Prayer: Knowing that God’s judgment is coming, pray for those you know who are not Christians and need to obey God’s command to repent.

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