Romans 1:28-32 & Acts 17:16-32 by Robert Dean
How do we communicate biblical truth to unbelievers? On the one hand we don’t want to compromise the authority of Scripture by appealing to another authority to validate truth, but then we also don’t want to ignore evidence. We must realize the dynamics that enter into a conversation with the unsaved. We see this with Paul in Athens.
Series:Romans (2010)
Duration:59 mins 14 secs

The Areopagitica: Paul at Athens
Romans 1:28–32: cf., Acts 17:16–32
Romans Lesson #018
May 5, 2011

Acts 17:16 NASB “Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was being provoked within him as he was observing the city full of idols.” This is a form of righteous indignation. The word translated “provoked” is the Greek word PAROXUNO which means to be irritated, provoked, angered and has to do with a disagreement or emotional incitement. So as Paul walked from temple to temple and idol to idol he was just getting more and more irritated and wanted to speak the truth.

He first goes into the synagogue—always to the Jew first. Remember he was still in the transition period between the age of Israel or the beginning of the church age, but Israel is still in the land, they hadn’t come under the fifth cycle of discipline yet, so there was still the emphasis on Jew first and then the Gentiles.

Acts 17:17 NASB “So he was reasoning in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing {Gentiles,} and in the market place every day with those who happened to be present.” The word “reasoning” here was also used in verse 2, when they were in Thessalonica. “And according to Paul’s custom, he went to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures.” The word translated “reasoned” is DIALEGOMAI which has to do with talking to someone, discussing things with someone, conversing with someone. So Paul is not just coming in and dumping a load on the Jews in the synagogue, he presenting a case, interacting with them, being questioned, and he is answering those questions. He recognizes the legitimacy of helping people come to a clearer understanding of what it is that he is presenting. That is further defined in verse 3 by “explaining and giving evidence”—explaining: DIANOIGO which means to open something up, sometimes having the idea of interpreting. He is helping to disclose what God has revealed and to make it clear. The “giving evidence” or “demonstrating” is the Greek word PARATITHEMI meaning to set something before someone in teaching.

Acts 17:18 NASB “And also some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers were conversing with him. Some were saying, ‘What would this idle babbler wish to say?’ Others, ‘He seems to be a proclaimer of strange deities,’—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection.” They can’t get a mental grip on these ideas because the idea of a physical bodily resurrection, that somebody would conquer death and would no longer be mortal but immortal, is just beyond their comprehension. It doesn’t fit with their whole philosophy of history and life and creation; this just can’t happen. Paul talks about it and they are just confused. The normal word for “preaching” that we think of for preaching is KERUSSO which has to do with a herald going out from the government making an announcement. But that is not the word that is used here. Most of the time in Acts the word for preaching comes from the Greek word EPANGELIZO which is the verb for proclaiming the gospel. He is evangelizing through Jesus and the resurrection. The other thing to notice in Acts is that every time the gospel is presented the focus is on the resurrection. Why? We will see in this passage. It is not presented because the resurrection is related specifically to the payment of sin. The resurrection connects with something vital about who Jesus is and the validation of what He did on the cross, and it is connected to His ascension.

So these men give Paul an opportunity to speak. As he begins he points out that they are religious. They may not have quite understood that or accepted it but we know from Romans chapter one that what Paul is saying is that they already know that God exists and that is the God I’m going to tell you about. Acts 17:22, 23 NASB “So Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.” Paul is going to use that “unknown God” to pull them toward the God that he is going to tell them about. The gods that they had were finite gods, but Paul is going to use this as a way to teach them about the true God. They had no concept of a Creator God as the Bible presents, a creator God who is totally distinct and set apart from His creation.

Acts 17:24, 25 NASB “The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all {people} life and breath and all things.” He is putting the focus on the fact that it is God who gives us everything. This comes right out of the Old Testament. Even though he is not quoting Scripture per se everything that he is saying is right out of the Old Testament. Cf. Isaiah 42:5 NASB “Thus says God the LORD, Who created the heavens and stretched them out, Who spread out the earth and its offspring, Who gives breath to the people on it And spirit to those who walk in it.” So it is God who is the source of life, and this is the God he is proclaiming to them. This is very different from the god they think of which is a god who is dependent on man.

The second thing Paul does, is to point out a different view of man than they held. Acts 17:26 NASB “and He made from one {man} every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined {their} appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation.” That probably struck those Epicureans and Stoics just as harshly as it would strike anybody working in a biology department or science department or sociology department on the planet today. They didn’t like it. Their view was that the Greeks were higher than everybody else and that they weren’t like everybody else. But Paul says everybody came from one man, that Greeks aren’t any better or worse than Romans, than Persians. All are from one God and He is the authority over human history; He is the authority over mankind, and not only that, He determines their appointed times, the rise and fall of nations. And further, He identifies and sets the boundaries of their habitation.

This is a great verse because it emphasizes that God establishes national boundaries. Internationalists today want no borders and to let everybody run back and forth without any definition of authority and this flies completely in the face of the fact that God is the one who established national distinctions and national boundaries. So this is a great verse to use from a biblical viewpoint for why we need to defend our borders, and why a nation should have a policy on immigration so that they can control the application of their legal system within their borders. If the legal system within the borders cannot be controlled then society will become chaos. We can see illustrations of that today in man, many areas because we have lost control of these areas. This is an Old Testament idea and it is based on Deuteronomy 32:8 NASB “When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance, When He separated the sons of man, He set the boundaries of the peoples According to the number of the sons of Israel.” Remember the core idea of inheritance is possession. The Old Testament idea isn’t so much that inheritance is something you gain when someone dies and it is passed on to you. That is a secondary meaning. The primary meaning of inheritance is a possession. When God gave the land to Israel He said this was their inheritance, their possession that He had given them. “According to the number of the sons of Israel” means that there is a correlation or proportional ratio there between Israel and the Gentiles. We don’t know what that is but it emphasizes once again that Israel is the very core of all of human history.

So Paul goes on. Now he has established the fact that God is the creator God who created the heavens and the earth and everything that is in them and has emphasized the fact that God created all of the human race from one man, this completely blows their whole understanding of humanity and their arrogant pride in the Greeks. He asserts that God is the sovereign over all of mankind. Acts 17:29 NASB “Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man.” Right here Paul comes right out and says they have made all of these beautiful statues of gods and goddesses out of silver and gold and stone but you don’t have a right to do that. Who are we to think that God can be restricted to this kind of representation? He is challenging the very foundation of their thinking. Here he hasn’t even gotten to Jesus and the cross yet, he is spending all of this time focusing on their understanding of God because if there is no right understanding of God they are not really going to be able to understand who Jesus was and why He did what He did at the cross. And they are not even going to be able to comprehend the resurrection. He just challenges the fact that their idea of ultimate reality is completely false and he has just eradicated their foundation.

Acts 17:30 NASB “Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all {people} everywhere should repent.” They would really have loved that! Imagine those philosophers and professors when Paul comes along and says that basically they have been ignorant up until now and God has just overlooked it. You think you were smart. We will see that coming up: professing to be wise they became fools. But now God is taking a more active role in relation to the Gentile nations and He commands all men everywhere to repent. The idea that Paul expresses in verse 29 related to idolatry goes back to the Old Testament, the Torah. Deuteronomy 4:19 NASB “And {beware} not to lift up your eyes to heaven and see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, and be drawn away and worship them and serve them, those which the LORD your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven.” Paul is accurately presenting what Scripture says. Then he says there is a change now and God is commanding all men everywhere to repent. Up to this point in Scripture the word “repent” almost always has a Jewish focus, but now there is a shift and it is going to a Gentile audience. The gospel is moving out from a Jewish focus to a worldwide focus. That doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a responsibility for Gentiles to turn to God in the Old Testament but it is not in the same way that he is speaking of it right now.

Acts 17:27 NASB “that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us.” Here Paul is simply recognizing the fact that God is always exercising then grace initiative to reach out to mankind. Paul has defined God as a creator God, a God that the Athenians don’t want to accept. Now he says that if they would seek Him they can go for Him and He will be there. He is near; He is not far away. Psalm 74:7 NASB “They have burned Your sanctuary to the ground; They have defiled the dwelling place of Your name”—the recognition that God is still present even though, in the context of Psalm 74, there has been a rejection of Him.

Acts 17:28 NASB “for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children.’” Their idea of having their being in God is within the chain of being; it is not God as the separate, distinct creator God of the heavens and the earth. Paul is not going over into paganism and trying to argue on the basis of paganism or argue them to Christianity. What Paul is doing is showing that even within the history of their thinking there is always this evidence of God and evidence of truth that just unavoidably pops up in the thinking of the unbeliever. They can’t avoid it because we do live and breathe and exist within the creation of the God of the Bible, He is always near. People realize this every now and then. It is not really consistent with their philosophy at times but they do recognize this.

Now we get to the punch in his message. Acts 17:31 NASB “because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world…” There is accountability. It is not just random, not just cyclical. This implies that there is a direction and an end. The Greeks didn’t believe there was an end, they believed in the eternality of the universe. “… in righteousness.” The Greek preposition en [e)n] should be translated at this point “by means of righteousness.” What is the basis for God’s judgment of mankind? What is the criteria He is going to use? His own righteousness. What Paul is saying here is not that He will judge the world in righteousness, but He will judge the world by righteousness. Righteousness is the standard that holds His creatures to. “… through [by] a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.” That righteousness is in a person, the person of Jesus Christ. And because He was perfectly righteous and without sin He was qualified to go to the cross. The word “appointed” is HORIZO in the Greek. God had a plan. It doesn’t imply some sort of foreordination or predestination soteriologically but it indicates that God had a specific plan set ahead of time and that He has established a purpose for the Lord Jesus Christ. Notice Paul emphasizes His humanity here. He doesn’t say by the God-Man, he says by the Man. Because it is the fact that Jesus in His humanity passes all of the tests that Adam failed that qualifies Him to go to the cross. He maintains His righteousness not by depending upon His divine attributes to avoid temptation but by doing it on the basis of the Word of God and the Spirit of God. Jesus in His humanity has to solve the problems and not yield to sin on the basis of totally His humanity. If He goes over to His deity and avoids sin by relying upon His divine essence then He is not demonstrating anything for us, and that would fail the test; He has to do it as a Man. So His righteousness is established in terms of His humanity. Then Paul says God has given assurance of the judgment that is coming to all by raising Him from the dead.

Why did Jesus rise from the dead? The resurrection is not what provides the basis for justification but the resurrection is what validates from God the mission that Jesus was sent on was accomplished. If you don’t have that everything else falls apart. That is why the resurrection is central. In every single gospel presentation in Acts the focus is not on the atonement but on the resurrection. Think about that. God has given assurance of the fact that it is by righteousness and by this Man whom God ordained that salvation was accomplished. He did this by raising Him from the dead. As soon as Paul says this the Greek reaction was that it doesn’t happen; it is impossible. They are using their limited experience to judge something that is totally beyond human experience. It all extends from the fact that because they have a high view of man and a limited view of God that they can’t comprehend it. They hear Paul mention it and they mock, but there were some who were positive and said they would hear him again on this matter.

What was the first thing that Paul did? He goes to the synagogue and is talking to Jews and God-fearing Gentiles. Then he went out in the market place. He is not expecting people to respond to the gospel on the first or even the second time they hear it. He has to explain it; he has to go over it again and again. He is answering questions. He is dialoguing, talking to them. He is not afraid to emphasize creation. What Paul shows us in Acts 14 and 17 is that if you don’t have a God who creates the heavens and the earth and the seas and all that is in them, a God who is the kind of God that Genesis presents, then you can’t have the kind of Jesus that the Gospels present.

These Greeks couldn’t understand resurrection because they didn’t have the kind of God in their mind that is the God of life in Genesis 1-11. In the conclusion we learn that Paul departed from them. But, Acts 17:34 NASB “But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.” “Dionysius the Areopagite” means that he was one of those who gathered at the Areopagus at Mars Hill to debate the issues of life. Luke gives a couple of major names to show that Paul did have converts there.

We have to recognize that the world is what the Bible says it is and God says it is. When we talk to people we need to talk in the confidence that that is the way the world is, also recognizing that at some level they know that. They may have covered it up with 1000 tons of concrete but it is still there, and the Holy Spirit can crack concrete. So it is not up to us; it never is up to us. It is up to us to be as prepared as we can be but it is up to the Holy Spirit ultimately.