Acts 17:24-31 (2)
Acts 17:30-31 (NIV) has this to say. “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all men everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.”
The first phrase is an interpretation that may be correct but it isn’t the only viable option. Paul may have said that God overlooked “ignorance” in the past (NIV) but he might also have meant that the times before Christ were ages of (relative) ignorance (the Greek text uses the plural “times” with the genitive singular of “ignorance”—“times of ignorance”). If that has merit then it speaks not of the ignorance but of the times when the ignorance prevailed. It might then mean that God didn’t trouble himself to enlighten those periods as he has now done. Ephesians 3:5 may be an appropriate illustration of the kind of thing I mean.
In any case, however we understand the phrase we’re not to think that the nations in pre-Christ times were utterly ignorant of truth and the behaviour of righteousness. Humanity didn’t develop total amnesia after the garden rebellion and Noah was a preacher of righteousness (2 Peter 2:8), Melchizedek, the king of peace and righteousness, was part of an already established priestly structure before the elect Abraham came along. (More later, God enabling, on where the ancients got their knowledge of God and moral uprightness from.)
Paul insists that the Gentile world knew truth about God and suppressed it (Romans 1:18). And, make no mistake; Paul wasn’t talking merely about things that might be deducible by reasoning on the creation. The long list of evils in 1:18-32 isn’t the kind of thing you can come up with via Aristotelian arguments. Not only did they know these things were evil, they knew that those that practiced such things were worthy of death (Romans 1:32). There is more than “natural theology” in Romans 1.
As the generations passed the moral darkness grew and the knowledge of the true God became thinner and thinner and polytheism became more established until there were altars found that were dedicated to the UNKNOWN God. That kind of ignorance Paul met with the gospel (Acts 17:23, 29).
Acts 17:30 says, “but now he commands all men everywhere to repent.” If we weren’t thinking clearly we might imagine that that means God didn’t call pre-Christ people to repent. That would make no sense. Noah called a world back to God and
went down in smoke and flame because they wouldn’t repent. Jesus said Sodom repented at Jonah’s preaching (see the book of Jonah). The Major Prophets all have large segments of oracles against foreign nations, condemning their wickedness and prophesying judgement. Daniel (4:27) calls the king of Nineveh to turn from his evil. Babylon
No, we need to keep the command to repent tied causally to the following phrase “for he has set a day when he will judge the world…” Paul is not saying that God is only now calling the nations to repent! He is saying that a newly revealed ground for the command to repent has been revealed. In the ages prior to Christ there were numerous legitimate reasons for such a call but “now,” in the present—in light of the new and climactic revelation of God in Jesus—there is one grand and overarching reason for nations and individuals to repent. There is a final judgement day ahead and a man—the man Jesus Christ—will be the judge. Paul knew that what he said was true because God had given public assurance that applied to all humans; he had raised Jesus from the dead!
We are not to infer nonsense from these truths Paul speaks. The exaltation and Lordship of Jesus began to be preached on Pentecost in the
temple (Acts 2:1—40). That truth did not magically spread all across the globe and enter the hearts and minds of the entire human race. Apart from a handful, the human family was completely ignorant of what Peter was saying that day (and what Paul was saying in Acts 17). The call for the nations to repent still operated as usual as they were confronted by the truth they had learned from generations before them. Though those nations had no special covenant relationship with God, no Torah and no gospel of Jesus Christ, moral law still made its demands. Those that despised the moral demands were destined to perish in their scorn. They knew nothing of the resurrection and exaltation of an obscure Jesus of Nazareth and God on that Pentecost day did not hold them responsible for not knowing the gospel facts. He held them responsible for their sinning against the righteousness they knew. Jerusalem
But, said Paul, a day would come when all would know this Jesus of Nazareth because through him God would render judgement on all the impenitent.
©2004 Jim McGuiggan. All materials are free to be copied and used as long as money is not being made.
Many thanks to brother Ed Healy, for allowing me to post from his website, the abiding word.com.