Summary: As the pages of God’s ’calendar’ turn, for each one there is day fixed for the end of patience and the beginning of eternity.
“Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, 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.”
As is true with any portion of scripture, whether Old Testament or New, the student cannot get the fullness of any part of this sermon of Paul’s unless the historical context is known and then the sermon is read in its entirety.
There is a specific point I want to make today and I have chosen these two verses from Acts 17 from which to draw. It is not on the surface of the text; indeed, I do not think it was on Paul’s mind as something that his audience should have inferred from his immediate discourse.
Nevertheless, under the surface of it, and profitable for us to fathom and meditate on today I believe, is a study of the patience of God and some dimensions we as Christians should strive to understand.
ATHENS AND US
First thing we need to have fresh in our thinking then, is where Paul was physically. He was in Athens, Greece.
I think that if we take a look at what we know of 1st century Athens we will be able to discern with some clarity, parallels between that culture and what we witness all around us in the 21st century.
The Greek culture, even hundreds of years before Christ, had led in art and philosophy. Athens was at one time the greatest city in the world and the center of that culture.
By Paul’s day Athens was in decline. Corinth had surpassed Athens in importance when it came to politics and finance, but Athens had lost none of its rich cultural significance.
As well as being a hub of philosophy it was also a center of religion, which is attested to in Acts 17 when in verse 16 Luke writes that while Paul awaited the arrival of his companions his spirit was provoked within him by the idols that filled the city and every part of life. One historian said there was not a building in the city that was not dedicated to a god.
Pagan writer, Petronius joked with some sarcasm that it was easier to find a god in Athens than a man. (R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of the Acts of the Apostles [Minneapolis, Augsburg, 1961]
Then in verses 22 and 23 of Acts 17, as Paul stands up to address the Philosophers of the Areopagus, he mentions viewing their many idols and uses one with the inscription, “TO AN UNKNOWN GOD” as a launching point to tell them about the God who made the world and all things in it.
So here we have a culture of people who take an inordinate amount of pride in themselves for their beauty and their talent and their intelligence. Verse 18 tells of those representing two very popular philosophical positions, the Epicureans and the Stoics, talking with Paul because they want to know what ‘this idle babbler’ would wish to say to them.
You can almost detect the curl of their upper lip and their half closed eyes as they tilt their head back and literally look down the plane of their nose at this unremarkable, beat up little Jew before them, and calling him an idle babbler, which in the original language means literally, ‘seed picker’, as though he’s a little bird who goes about collecting little seeds of wisdom and philosophy and trying to expound it to others in a way that will impress them and give them the impression that he is very clever and knowledgeable.
Then there is this very interesting parenthesis that makes up verse 21…
(Now all the Athenians and the strangers visiting there used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new.)
So can you get the picture? Here they gather, every morning before going off to whatever secondary obligations might demand some small part of their day, and they order their specialty coffee and gather in little groups to wow one another with the most recent bit of philosophy or mysticism, or religious twaddle that has come from passers-through.
And while the primary influence of the crowd is the Epicureans and the Stoics as mentioned, even they themselves are ready and willing to be entertained and enlightened by whatever sounds good and tickles their ears.
By the way, in case you don’t know who these two main groups are and what line of thought they represent; the Epicureans taught that pleasure and comfort was man’s primary aim in life. They were materialistic and took sort of an agnostic stance concerning whether gods existed. They didn’t outwardly deny them, but did not believe they interfered with the lives of men.