Paul Brings Good News to Athens
by Pastor Bob Burridge ©2014
Part 5 — Coming Judgment — Acts 17:31-34
As Paul waited for Silas and Timothy to join him in Athens, he took the opportunity to explain the gospel both to the Jews in the Synagogues, and to the Gentiles in the market place. He was invited to address the philosophers at the Areopagus to explain his teachings. Paul didn’t hesitate, though their interest was obviously just a vain curiosity.
He got their attention by speaking of their deeply religious and superstitious culture. He centered on their proud monument to an unknown and unknowable God, Paul dared to tell them what their monument declared could never be known. He said that God is knowable!
His method of declaring the true God was simple, but profound. He told them that God made all things, and by his Sovereign providence sustains all things and all life.
The consequences of that truth are inescapable. The Creator cannot depend upon anything he made, since he lived eternally before them. As the Creator who determined how all things should be, he is the Master over all things. The nature of the Creator cannot be like the things we shape out of what he created. All men and all nations are obligated to be and to do what he made them to be and to do.
God had allowed some to live in blind paganism for a long time. The time had come when God’s call was coming to all men everywhere to repent! Acts 17:30, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent,”
Now we see how Paul continued …
God holds us morally accountable and will judge all through Jesus Christ.
Acts 17:31, “because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
There will be a day of accountability. Paul presents this as the reason why the call to repentance is so important. In the eternal and unalterable counsel of God, he has set up a day of judgment. It will take place on a particular day, though he has not revealed which day it will be.
Among those who believe the Bible, there is agreement that there will be a final day of judgment. Groups certainly differ about when it will happen and how. But that there will be such a time of judgment, is a fundamental doctrine of Christianity.
There was no concept of universal judgment in ancient Greek thinking. Some Athenians believed in life after death, but it was a life of just the soul. Their mythology spoke of three mortals who had been so pious in this life that they were appointed to be judges of souls as they entered the realm of the dead. They were Minos, Rhadamanthys, and Aeacus. But their judgment was of individuals as they died, not of all at one final time at the end of the earthly ages.
This is a sobering fact for us too. We need to remember that all humans will stand before God’s final judgment seat. The day will come.
The judgment will come “in righteousness“. Righteousness is conformity to the moral standards of God. There will be no sliding scale of standards, no excuses, exemptions, or mitigating circumstances. There can be no lines of defense to argue. All are obligated to conform perfectly to the high standard set by our Creator.
So then, who will be able to remain standing before God in that day of judgment? No one, if left to his own record. Paul made this very clear when he wrote Romans 3:23, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
No one has perfectly and perpetually pleased God in thought, word, and deed. There will be no appeal, no re-trial, no exceptions. The one verdict and sentence will be absolutely just and incontestable.
That judgment will come through one man appointed by God. We know who Paul meant. This man is Jesus of Nazareth, God in human flesh. In 2 Corinthians 5:10 Paul wrote, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.”
The Athenians might have remembered what Paul said back in the open market place. Acts 17:18, “… Others said, ‘He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities’ — because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection.”
Therefore Paul’s concluding words were not totally new information to those who had heard him earlier. But now he had connected his message with a knowable God who was Creator and upholder of all things. All things were made for him, and in him all things have their meaning. Now they could see that this one he proclaimed, this “Jesus”, was someone before whom they are all held accountable.
Jesus had explained that he would be the one to judge all men. In the mysterious workings of the Trinity, the Father eternally assigns the work of final judgment to the Son. John 5:26-27, “For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man.”
When we explain the gospel, we need to speak of accountability. We should not present it as simply a way to have a mansion in glory for our own eternal comfort and pleasure. This is a judgment that reveals how holy and just God remains, though we all sin.
For the believer, there ought to be no fear of the judgment day. God is the offended party when we sin. All of us deserve the eternal wrath of God’s justice for our guilt and depravity. Only as our worthy Savior, Jesus Christ, fully satisfied that justice by his death on the cross can we be reconciled with God in an eternal family union. This one who paid the penalty for us is our judge! What a wonderful arrangement!
When he redeems us, our souls will respond with inevitable sorrow for our sins, and with a joyful embracing of Christ’s salvation. Our redeemed soul will begin the process of fleeing from sin, and desiring to be holy out of a profound gratitude to God. These are among the good works he produces in us that will be blessed in the judgment day. All of our evil works will have been heaped upon Christ and paid for by him.
Paul declared that the resurrection certified these truths.
Acts 17:31, “… of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
Judgment and resurrection showed the difference between Christianity and their own beliefs. The God of Scripture was different from their gods, and his teachings were in sharp contrast with their philosophies which were based upon unknowable things.
Christ’s resurrection was not just a trick to impress us with how powerful God is. It was a bold demonstration that the penalty of sin had been paid in full. Its evidence was not just historic and scientific. It was covenantal and legal evidence. Therefore as the final Judge he is the one who personally has paid the sentence his people deserve.
Though Paul didn’t directly quote the Hebrew Scriptures, Old Testament ideas pervade his address to the philosophers. The Scriptures preserved up to his time presented the grounds of our obligation, that God has sovereign rights over all people as their Creator and Sustainer. The Scriptures pointed out the moral duty and accountability of all men to repent. Those inspired writings warned demanding sobriety, not apathy, during those periods of God’s long-suffering. They also spoke of a coming judgment and personal accountability.
Paul may have used Greek expressions and quoted phrases they were familiar with, but the truths declared were astoundingly not Greek. They were the ancient truths of God.
Athens reacted to what Paul said.
Acts 17:32-33, “Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’ So Paul went out from their midst.”
The idea of a resurrection from the dead met with ridicule. If he had only spoken of the immortality of the soul, or of some kind of spiritual life after death, there would be no serious objection. The Epicurians would not have agreed, but they had commonly debated that before. But Paul spoke of a resurrection of the dead! This was heresy to all Athenians. According to the ancient legend of the founding of Athens by the patron goddess Athene, she said: “Once a man dies and the earth drinks up his blood, there is no resurrection.” That well known quote used the same word for resurrection as was used here by Paul.
Paul showed that the true God offered something the Athenian gods said could not be done!
Some said they would hear him again on this matter. Was this just a polite way to dismiss him at the moment? Or was it an expression of sincere interest? Luke doesn’t seem to be concerned that we know. What Luke records here in Acts 17 may have been just a summary of Paul’s address, but it is an accurate and inspired account.
Had Paul been interrupted at this point? We know that in his letters he went on to tell about the work of Jesus and his atonement. However, there is no mention here that he intended to go on at that time. It just says that after he made his point about Jesus, and after some made comments, Paul left.
Probably he accomplished all he planned to accomplish in this one lesson. He ends here by introducing the one appointed by God to judge all men, and that this one was affirmed by resurrection. He would leave the details for either a later address, or for personal inquirers.
Ending either by interruption or by plan, God intended no more to be said at this time. Presenting the whole gospel is not always possible, nor desirable, in one sitting. But we should not let the issue remain open too long. We need to get to it as soon as we can. We see from verse 34 that Paul obviously instructed more on this during his stay in Athens.
Paul clearly succeeded in Athens.
Acts 17:34, “But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.”
Some became attached to Paul (literally “glued to him”), and they believed the gospel message.
One of the believers was Dionysius, the Areopagite. He was a member of that esteemed court of philosophers and judges that met there regularly. About 100 years later Eusebius wrote that Dionysius had become the first bishop of the Christian churches in Athens.
Damaris also became a Christian in Athens. This woman is singled out. Perhaps she had a high standing in the community. Perhaps she was able to stand off at a distance to listen in to what was being said to the Areopagites. Some have theorized that she was able to hear Paul because she was the wife of Dionysius. But that’s only speculation.
And there were others. We do know that a thriving church came to exist in Athens. We don’t know how long Paul stayed there, but his opportunity was used to show that God had his elect even among the Greek philosophers.
Paul’s aim in his message at the Areopagus provides a good model for us.
– We should expose the problem of rebellion against the Sovereign Creator.
– We should explain that God’s patience with them will not continue forever.
– We should extend God’s call to true repentance.
– We should warn them that all will one day face God’s judgment.
When we know that these fundamental foundations are understood, we have ground work upon which we can explain the atoning work of Jesus in his death on the Cross to redeem his people.
Those who grieve over their offenses to God, and strongly desire to be forgiven and delivered through the work of the Savior, will discover that their eternal penalty has already been paid by the one Redeemer, Jesus Christ.
Note: Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.