It is our contention in this series that if the church is to be correct in its missionary methods these methods will have to be gleaned from the Bible. Scripture not only lays down the principles which must govern the church in its mission work, but Scripture also teaches the proper methods by which this work must be done. This applies to all ages and all cultures, for Scripture is not bound either by time or by culture. In previous issues we have been busy analyzing the Apostle Paul’s preaching in Athens. There in the very center of heathen religion and culture the Apostle courageously pointed the Athenians (especially the Stoics and Epicureans) to the root of their error. They were very superstitious. In their superstition they erected an altar to the “Unknown God” (Acts 17:22-23). What they worshipped in their spiritual ignorance, that the Apostle declared to them. They worshipped a conception of their own sin-darkened minds, and that is an idol.
The Apostle continues by pointing them to the one, true God and Jesus Christ Whom He has sent (Acts 17:24-34). God, thus Paul preaches, does not dwell in temples made with hands. Temples constructed by man cannot contain God. Temples can only contain the productions of men’s hands, and those are idols. God cannot be limited in any way by man. God is the Creator! (This, by the way, points out the seriousness and necessity of taking the Bible’s creation account by faith as it stands! Those who tamper with and impose their scientific theories upon Genesis one and two must needs fall into idolatry! They concoct their own conceptions of the sovereign Creator of heaven and earth.) God made the world and all things therein, proclaimed the Apostle. This means that God is Lord, sovereign Lord, of heaven and earth. And this in turn means that it is utterly impossible that God should dwell in temples made with hands. Solomon declared that even the heaven of heavens cannot contain God (I Kings 8:27). Because God is the Creator of heaven and earth He is not worshipped with men’s hands as though He needed anything. God gives to all men life and breath and all things. God is not only self-sufficient; He is the source of all life. The moment the Lord withholds the breath of a man, that man dies and returns to the dust. Thus these Athenians and all men everywhere, if they are to know God and worship Him aright, must have the proper conception of God. That proper conception comes only from God through the Holy Spirit. Apart from that there is only idolatry in all its vanity and futility.
The Apostle continues by telling them that God made of one blood “all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth” (vs. 26). At this point the Apostle preaches the great truth of Scripture that all nations of men on the face of the earth came from one man. This is the truth of the organic unity the human race. God did not create individuals individual nations. God created a race, a race which fell in the first Adam and was saved in the last Adam. This truth was in direct opposition to the notion of the Greek and Roman philosophers who believed that each nation had its origin in its god. Polytheism had no conception at all of the unity of the human race. But there is more these Athenians had to learn. This Creator God Who made of one blood all nations of men also “hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitations.” The Creator God is also the God of providence. God determined the history of the race. God governed and upheld the nations. God determined where and when and for how long they should exist in time and history. God ruled them too so that they served His purpose in Christ. “This is borne out by what we read in Gen. 11:1-9: ‘The whole earth was of one speech and of one language.’ There were no separate nations prior to the confusion of tongues at Babel! God made the nations! It is stupid pride and horrible unbelief that would make each nation come from a national god or primordial. It is a denial of the judgment of God and of God’s Christological purpose in all things, namely, that Japheth shall dwell the tents of Shem. But here the record is set straight. Of this Moses sings in Deut. 32:7-9, where we read: ‘Remember the days of old, consider the years of many generations: (generation and generation) ask thy father, and he will shew thee; thy elders and they will tell thee. When the Most High divided the nations their inheritance, when He separated the sons of Adam, He set the bounds of the people according to the number of the children Israel. For the Lord’s portion is His people; Jacob the lot of His inheritance!’ ” (Rev. George C. Lubbers, The Standard Bearer, vol. 41, p. 467).
The Apostle proclaimed God’s eternal purpose in Christ with all of this. God made the nations of one blood. God set the boundaries of their habitations. God determined the times of their existence. God His providence ruled them. “That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after Him, and find Him, though He be not far from every one us: For in Him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain of your own poets have said, For we are also His offspring” (vss. 27, 28). God’s purpose was that men should serve Him, “find Him and feel after Him.” In spite of the fact that through glimmerings of natural light” even some of their own poets recognized the unity of the human race, they refused to seek the Lord. In spite of the fact too that God is not far from every one of us and in Him we live and move and have our being they refused to seek Him. God is indeed near to man in His creation. Even His invisible things, His eternal power and Godhead are clearly seen through the things that are made (cf. Romans 1:18ff.). In spite of all this, man changes the glory of God into an image made like unto corruptible man!
Having established the fact that God is the Creator of the human race, Paul instructed them not to think that God can be compared to gold or silver or stone, “graven by art and man’s device” (vs. 29). That is impossible. This too points to the futility of Greek philosophy and religion. The gods of the Greeks were less than those who presumably worshipped them! They could be manipulated by their worshippers. What folly! What nonsense! Paul brooks no compromise. He proclaims the gospel of sovereign grace over against the background of their spiritual ignorance and terrible sin! This is what every missionary must have the courage to do.
The Apostle continued: “And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men everywhere to repent” (vs. 30). The translation “Winked at,” of the Authorized Version, is both incorrect and unfortunate. It implies that God for a time condoned the idolatry of the heathen. This simply is not true. God is angry with the wicked every day. His wrath is revealed from heaven against all unrighteousness of men. The word literally means: to overlook, take no notice of, not attend to. The point is that in the Old Testament times, before Christ came, salvation was limited to Israel. To Israel was the promise, the type, the shadow, the law. Not all the Israelites were children of the promise but a11 the children of the promise were Israelites. In that sense God overlooked the heathen. God kept them with but very few exceptions (Rahab, Ruth, et al.) in ignorance. But now all of that is changed. Christ has come and through His cross and resurrection (vs. 31), He has brought redemption. Now God will gather His church out of all nations. Therefore God “…now commandeth all men everywhere to repent” (vs. 30).
The Apostle also gives the reason for this universal command to repent: “Because He (God) hath appointed a day, in which He will judge the world in righteousness by that Man Whom He hath ordained; whereof He hath given assurance unto all men, in that He hath raised Him from the dead” (vs. 31). That day of judgment has already come. That day came with the incarnation of “that Man Whom He hath ordained,” viz. our Lord Jesus Christ. He Himself to Whom all judgment has been committed (John 5:22) said not long before He went to the cross: “Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out. And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto Me. This He said, signifying what death He should die” (John 12:31-33). The cross of Jesus Christ as sealed in His blessed resurrection from the dead is most emphatically the judgment of the whole world. For this reason the command to repent must be preached to all universally. All men everywhere must be confronted with the command of the gospel. All must give answer. The elect will respond in faith (vs. 34) and the ungodly will respond in unbelief (vs. 32). All are rendered without excuse. That day of judgment, ordained of God, will culminate in the final judgment at the end of the ages. Then all shall appear before the judgment seat of Christ to receive according to the deeds done in the body, whether good or evil (II Cor. 5:10).
Consider now what Paul has done here in Athens. He has without compromise exposed these philosophers of Athens in all their superstition and idolatry. He has preached the God of creation and providence. He has instructed them concerning the proper worship of Jehovah. He has preached Christ crucified and raised. He has announced the judgment of the world by Jesus Christ. He has preached the universal command to repent. Once more, what the Apostle did not do is preach an offer of the gospel. He preached the gospel of the sovereign grace of God in Jesus Christ against the dark background of human depravity which renders all men everywhere incapable of any good. The overwhelming testimony not only of apostolic preaching but also of all of Scripture contradicts all notions of free will, offers of the gospel, and universal atonement. The only possibility of salvation for those who are dead in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1ff.) is: “By grace through faith, and that not of ourselves, it the gift of God.” Eph. 2:8
The fruit? Some mocked. Others said we will hear thee again of this matter. A few believed (vss. 32-34). But Athens was confronted with the sovereign God in Jesus Christ. They were commanded to repent. They gave their answer and the vast majority stood condemned under the just judgment God. The elect believed and were saved. Thus it always wherever the gospel is preached in truth according to the Scriptures. This must characterize all mission preaching. With the same boldness faith must Christ’s ambassadors open their mouths to make known the mystery of the gospel of sovereign grace to the glory of God (Eph. 6:19). Thus will the church be gathered out of the nations. The world will be brought into judgment. God will be praised.