The last thing Paul points out is man’s responsibility. Men have lived, he says, in “times of ignorance.” Now, these “times of ignorance” need to be understood carefully. This phrase doesn’t refer to a certain date on the calendar. It’s not talking about Old Testament times, as such, or of past dispensations (which is a word I despise), before the present era. These “times of ignorance” are related only to the individual. That is, they refer to the times in our lives when we, as the offspring of God, creatures made by God and designed for God, were trying to satisfy ourselves with things that were less than God. This is always a time of ignorance, a time when a man is operating on a level that reveals his utter ignorance of reality. Paul declares that God overlooks these times. He doesn’t wipe us out. He doesn’t judge us. He doesn’t hate us and reject us, but patiently waits while we live through these struggling times.
But Paul also declares that when a man hears about Jesus, when he hears the good news that Jesus Christ is the way to the heart of God, he is put in a responsible position. When he learns the truth about Jesus, he then has a responsibility before God to change his mind, to quit behaving as he did before. That’s what repentance means—a change of mind. You are responsible to change your mind and lay hold of that which God has provided in Jesus Christ. Paul gives us here three great facts which underscore the importance of repentance:
First, there is an inescapable day coming. God has fixed a day when he will judge the world. Whether you acknowledge this or not doesn’t matter. Paul (and now I) are assuring you that there is a day coming when your life is going to be laid open before everyone, and all the value of it, or the lack of value, will be evident (Oh Father, I’m so aware of that day coming: Eeek!). There is coming a day, possibly sooner than you know, when every life will be evaluated.
Second, there is an unchallengeable Judge. The One who will do the evaluating won’t be a god who is remote on Mount Olympus, but he will be a Man, someone who has lived right here with us, who knows what human life is like, who has felt everything we feel. He will be the One who passes judgment on that day.
Third, God has made this evident to everyone with an irrefutable fact: He raised that Man from the dead. This is where Christianity ultimately rests. If you can disprove the resurrection of Jesus, you can destroy Christianity in one blow. But as long as that fact remains unshaken, undestroyed, Christianity is indestructible. It rests on that one great demonstrable fact—that God raised Jesus from the dead to, as the Creed testifies, “To judge the living and the dead.” That is the guarantee that all God says will happen. Now you can see what a fantastic effect this message must have had. Luke gives us, in these closing words, the reaction of Athens:
Now when they heard about the resurrection from the dead, some began to scoff, but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” So Paul left the Areopagus. But some people joined him and believed. Among them were Dionysius, who was a member of the Areopagus, a woman named Damaris, and others with them —Acts 17:32-34
Some mocked (which means their pride was threatened). Mocking is always the defense of pride when it feels itself attacked but has no logical defense; it resorts to ridicule. This is still the reaction of many today. Whenever they hear about Jesus, they begin to ridicule. But when Christianity is ridiculed it is always a sign of weakness, an admission of defeat.
Some delayed. They succumbed to the curse of the intellectual—academic detachment. They viewed themselves as outside the system they were examining and detached from it. “Everyone else is subject to this but not us.” So they said, “We will listen to you again on this; we need more evidence.” These are the delaying tactics which many intellectuals are using today. But there were some who believed. That’s the great word here. Some repented, changed their minds. This indicates that among these intellectuals there are earnest, honest people who were trying to find the answers to life. When they hear the good news about Jesus, and understand what this fantastic gospel message really is, how it delivers men from their superstitious fears, how it breaks through the darkness of men’s minds and opens them up to the God of glory, the God of the universe, and to a resurrected Lord who, risen from the dead, seizes the scepter of universal empire, their hearts respond, and they believe.
One of those who believed was Dionysius the Areopagite. He was one of the judges, an intellectual, a ruler of the city, but he became a Christian. With him was a woman named Damaris. I’m glad that Luke included the name of a woman here, because this indicated again that these Greek women were searching for answers in the midst of the pagan darkness they lived in. There were others among them. We don’t know how many, maybe just a few, maybe dozens or even hundreds. We aren’t told. Athens was much more resistant than any other city would be (a university city always is), but there were some who believed.
So, a church is planted in Athens. We never hear anything about it again, although I suspect that the letters to the Corinthians were also shared with the church in Athens, because the cities weren’t very far apart. Paul addresses the Corinthian letters to “all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus.” We don’t know what happened to the church at Athens except that in the midst of this darkness, the light of Jesus Christ began to shine, and a body was formed. From that body, power began to penetrate into the secluded areas of darkness where evil sat entrenched within this great intellectual capital of the world, and to shake men loose, and to set them free from the chains of darkness.
If interested, you can download the entire study of The Story of Acts