Rev. denHartog is pastor of Southwest Protestant Reformed Church in Grandville, Michigan. Previous article in this series: February 15, 2006, p. 232.
It was a dramatic moment for Paul. He was brought to the Areopagus, a famous Greek arena, a place where the great men of the world would give their lectures for the debate and discussion of those interested. He stood before a large audience, including philosophers and teachers and learned men, the great and wise of the world. There he stood in the providence of God. He was an apostle by the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ, called to testify of the true and living God and the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ. Never for a moment did Paul abandon his calling. God made Paul mighty and up to the task that was before him.
In our last article, published some time ago, we considered things that Paul did not do in Athens. Contrary to a very common interpretation of Acts 17, Paul did not speak with great admiration for the culture of Athens, its famous philosophy and glorious architecture. Paul did not extol the greatness of the Athenian religion that tolerates all kinds of gods. Paul did not gawk at the magnificent temples of heathen gods in Athens. He did not go out of his way to praise the Athenians for their great learning, art, and architecture, all of which was the glory of Athens. Paul did not even decide that he could use the great religious devotion of the Athenians as a kind of positive ‘connecting point,’ something commendable among the Athenians, which he could use to begin his preaching. In fact, the apostle of our Lord speaks of being deeply grieved by the idolatry of the Greeks. The reason for this grief was Paul’s zeal for the honor and glory of the name of God, the one only true and living God, the sovereign of heaven and earth. Paul did not decide that the best way to bring the gospel to Athens was to debate with the great philosophers of the city and try to show them by mere reason the superiority of his Christian philosophy.
There was another thing that Paul did not do, something that is very often done by modernism and liberalism of our day, especially in America. Just recently I read an article in the Grand Rapids Press that showed this very thing again. This article reported the speech of a famous woman preacher, in which she had ‘great things’ to say about the relative good in all modern pagan religions. Paul did not discourse on the relative value, wisdom, regard for virtue of all the religions of the world, comparing pagan religions with Christianity. He did not try to show that every pagan religion in the world also has something good to say to us, some great wisdom to show us who happen to be Christians.
Paul testified of the true and living God. He preached the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. This he was commissioned to do by the exalted Lord of heaven and earth. Never did the apostle abandon that calling. Paul preached the gospel courageously and boldly no matter what the cost to his own personal standing among the ‘great and wise’ of the world. He was not afraid of ridicule and persecution for the truth of God that he came to proclaim.
Before preaching the gospel, the apostle of the Lord exposed the great folly of the world. Its learning, art, and philosophy were all devoted to pagan gods. In spite of the fact that the Athenians worshiped many gods, they were ignorant of the one only true God, the God of infinite majesty and glory, the sovereign of heaven and earth. The folly of the Athenians was revealed in their altar to the unknown god! In all their religion they were willfully ignorant of the one only true God! They refused to worship this God, though His glory was revealed in the world all around them, in all the things that God has made. They were blinded by all their pagan idolatry. Professing themselves to be wise they were fools.
The true and living God transcends the highest heavens in glory and majesty. He is not worshiped by men’s hands as though He needs anything. He cannot be represented by a man-made image. He gives to all life and breath and all things. He is not far from every one of us. In Him we live and move and have our being. The poets of the heathen spoke of the truth of this God, but they were fools because they did not believe on Him. The truth concerning this God cannot be ignored. It is not hidden before the eyes of men, because the whole universe reveals His wisdom, power, and Godhead. He makes Himself known as the God who must be worshiped and glorified.
What a mighty testimony of the absolute sovereignty of God Paul gave in Athens! The true and living God is the Lord of heaven and earth. Every man owes his being and existence, even his life and breath, to this God. God made all men of one blood to dwell on the face of the earth. He has determined the times before appointed and the bounds of their habitation.
Man is utterly dependent on God. He cannot escape the absolute sovereignty of God, who rules over the whole universe that He created. Man himself is a creature of God! God determines the place of every man in the world and the whole course of all the nations of the world. They are all dependent on Him, even though they do not acknowledge Him as God. The pride of the Athenians and of the nations of the world is that they imagine themselves to be greater than all others. The natural man imagines that he has distinguished himself by his own great learning, wisdom, and achievements. But as long as man denies God, he is a fool.
Every man is called to worship the true God, who exists not for man’s sake but for the sake of His own glory. God made all things to reveal His own glory. Man has the solemn obligation to behold the glory of God and to worship Him with fear and trembling. He is called to serve this God in all of his life. Man can never add anything to the infinite fullness of the glory and power and sovereignty of the true God. In his folly, man worships the creature rather than the Creator! The Sovereign of heaven and earth, who is God, does not need the worship of man! He dwells not in temples made with hands as though He needs anything. The folly of man is that he makes a god who is utterly dependent on man. This god exists by man and for man. The god of man’s foolish imagination is utterly dependent on man. He needs images that man makes of him, he needs temples that man makes for him. He needs the offerings of man to be made glorious. These gods are every bit as foolish and vain as the men who make them.
The religion of the heathen is absolutely antithetical to the religion of the one only true and living God. The absolute antithesis that there is between pagan religion and Christianity must be declared on the mission field. The true church must declare this antithesis also in the apostate Christian world in which we live. It must condemn the modernism of our day that wants to compare the relative value of all religions and proposes, finally, a world in which all religions will be tolerated. Each will be allowed to have its own deity. This is the absolutely false religion of apostate Christianity.
The apostle Paul declared the truth of God’s absolute sovereignty when he called the people of Athens to repentance. In the past, God “winked at” the unbelief of pagan nations but now He calls all men to repentance (see Acts 17:30). The meaning of this statement is not that God did not regard the idolatry of the pagans, that He was not in time past offended by it. The Psalms of the Old Testament declared the folly of the idolatry of the pagans. Read the classic Psalm that does. Psalm 115 uses the same kind of language as Paul did in Athens. The prophet Isaiah, especially in Isaiah 44, does this, even mocking the idolatry of the heathen and calling God’s elect people to the worship of Him who alone is God, besides whom there is none other, no other God.
Paul declared that God in times past allowed the heathen to continue in their own folly, the folly of their idolatry. The commentator Lenski says it well, in describing the work of God: “He bore the idolatries of the Gentiles, He ceased not to reveal Himself to them in nature and in providence, and because of their guilty ignorance made them feel His wrath by giving them over to the effects of this ignorance, their depravity.” This is also the teaching of the apostle Paul in Romans 1:18ff. The gospel was not yet preached to the Gentile nations in the days of the Old Testament. God revealed His sovereignty also in this. He was pleased to reveal Himself only to one chosen nation, chosen by His own sovereign grace.
In the New Testament age the gospel must be preached to all nations. A new age has come. This new age had its inception when Christ was crucified, raised, and exalted. The prophets of the Old Testament had many times prophesied concerning this new age. This age was in the eternal counsel of God. The apostles of the Lord declared that this age has now come. The gospel must now be preached to all nations. Therefore Paul went on his great missionary journeys throughout the world.
All men now must be called to repentance. The great and learned men of the world, those who profess to be wise, they must be called to repentance. The idolaters of the world must be called to repentance! Those who boast in the virtue and excellence of their own religion must be called to repentance. The proud of the earth, those who glory in human wisdom, art, and culture, devoted to their humanly devised idolatrous religion, they must be called to come before the one and only true and living God. They must be called to repentance. The calling of the church is not to go into the world to discuss with all nations the relative virtue of pagan religions. The calling of the church is to declare that all men are sinners because of their enmity against the true God of heaven and earth. This enmity makes all their wisdom, art, and culture grievous in the sight of God.
Having declared the truth of the one only sovereign God, Paul preached the gospel in Athens. He preached the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. He preached the truth of Jesus Christ crucified, raised, and exalted.Acts 17 makes this plain especially when it tells us that Paul preached about the resurrection of Christ. The resurrection of Christ followed His crucifixion. The resurrection of Christ is the final proof that He is the Son of God, the only Savior. He is able to deliver men from sin and death and hell. There is no other hope for fallen men than in the crucified, risen, and exalted Christ, whom God has made the Lord of all.
When Paul preached about the truth of the resurrection of Christ, the Athenians began to mock him and the truth he preached. To their humanistic wisdom this was impossible. They were offended. They considered the gospel that Paul preached to be utter foolishness. This is always the reaction of the natural man to the gospel. This is the reaction of the wise of this world, the world’s philosophers and aristocrats. Very few believed in Athens. God showed in Athens the truth declared by Paul in I Corinthians. “Not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty men, not many noble are called; but God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise: and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty, and the base things of the world, and the things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and the things which are not, to bring to naught things that are: that no flesh should glory in His presence” (I Cor. 1:26-29).
This kind of thing is utterly disappointing to the modern-day preacher. When he experiences the reality that not many in this world ‘accept the gospel’ as it is revealed in the Word of God, then the modern- day preacher tries to change the truth of the Word of God to make it more popular. He praises the world for its own great learning and regard for virtue. He begins to adopt the heathen and pagan practices for his own life and even brings them into the worship services of the church as though the true God of heaven and earth will also be pleased with these. Large audiences come to hear. The preachers of this kind of a ‘gospel’ often become very popular.
In Athens the preaching of the Word of God through the Lord’s apostle fulfilled the purpose of God. The result of Paul’s preaching was entirely dependent on God’s working. Though many in the world-famous city of Athens did not believe because they considered Paul’s preaching foolishness, God saved the elect remnant of His people. “Certain men clave unto him (Paul), and believed: among which was Dionysius the Areopagite, and a woman named Damaris, and others with them” (Acts 17:34). God gave them faith to believe. By this God-given faith they were made wiser than the philosophers and great men of the world. They were made wise unto salvation. They began to worship the one only true and living God. They rejoiced in the hope of Christ’s resurrection.
Wherever the gospel is preached, God will save His own through the power of the preaching of the gospel. So God will be glorified among the nations, and all the wisdom and glory of man will be abased. The church of Jesus Christ, called to preach the truth of God and gospel of Jesus Christ faithfully, will rejoice. The elect of God will be gathered as the church of Jesus Christ. The kingdom of Christ will be realized. Those who are saved by the grace of God will finally represent all the nations of the world. All nations shall come to worship before the glorious throne of the true and living God.