The Age of Ignorance Is Over

The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all men everywhere to repent, 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 men by raising him from the dead.

The whole time I was traveling in the Philippines and Singapore I wrestled and prayed concerning what texts I should try to expound in these first weeks after coming home. I asked the Lord again and again what we as a church should focus on in these first summer Sundays together. The upshot of that meditation is that I just couldn't imagine coming back and starting a series of sermons that had no connection with what I have been thinking about for the last five weeks.

Instead, it seemed best to unfold in these first two messages some of the new biblical insights that have dominated my thinking during these days. And I hope that I can relate them to our vision and our calling here at Bethlehem.

Paul's Message on the Areopagus

Today I want us to think together about Paul's words in Acts 17:30–31,

The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all men everywhere to repent, 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 men by raising him from the dead.

Paul is standing on the Areopagus (translated "Mars Hill" in the KJV) in the city of Athens, surrounded by the intellectuals of the city. He takes the starting point of his sermon (verse 23) from the observation that these Athenians have an altar in the city to an "Unknown God." And so he says, "What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you." Another way to say that would be: "The time of your ignorance is over."

Then in verses 24–25 he explains that the Lord of heaven and earth is absolutely self-sufficient. Verse 25:

God is not served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all men life and breath and everything.

Then in verse 26 he explains that this self-sufficient God created all the various nations from one man and that God himself determines how long a nation survives and how far its borders extend. Verse 26:

And he made from one every nation of men to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their habitation.

Then in verse 27 Paul says that God's purpose in ruling the nations like this is to put them on a search for God. Verse 27:

. . . that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel after him and find him.

Then in the last part of verse 27 Paul clarifies this search for God. It is not a search for a distant deity. God is very near for those who seek him.

. . . yet he is not far from each one of us. (v. 27)

And he points out in verse 28 that even Greek poets have said the same thing. They have even said that humans are God's offspring. If so, Paul reasons in verse 29, is it not wrongheaded and ignorant to treat God as though he were an idol made with our hands, when we in fact have been made by his?

Now having begun with the absolute self-sufficiency of God above and beyond the service of man,

  • and having asserted God's sovereignty over the life and destiny of nations,
  • and having made clear that God's aim is to rule in a way that will set men searching for the meaning of life outside the created world,
  • and having assured us of the nearness of God for those who seek him,
  • and the folly of treating him as an idol,
  • Paul declares with amazing authority in verse 30:

The times of ignorance God overlooked but now he commands all men everywhere to repent.

What Does Paul Mean by the Times of Ignorance?

The age of ignorance is over, and the age of repentance is here! What does this mean?

Let's begin by looking at the phrase, "the times of ignorance" in verse 30: "The times of ignorance God overlooked."

What I had never seen before in studying this verse is the close connection between the "times of ignorance" and the "mystery of Christ" which had been kept secret for generations. Let me show you what I've seen.

Connected to "the Mystery of Christ"

In Ephesians 3:4–6 Paul says,

When you read this you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.

Gentile Inclusion in the People of God

Note that the mystery of Christ is now being made known but before this "now" it was not made known. It was concealed. These were generations of ignorance concerning the mystery of Christ. Then Paul goes on and tells us precisely what the mystery of Christ is:

. . . that is, how the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

What then is the mystery of Christ? It is the full membership of Gentiles in the people of God. The Jews do not have solitary privilege of access to the kingdom. Gentiles are fellow heirs, and full members in the same body, the church, and partakers of the same great promises. That is the first thing in the mystery of Christ.

In Christ Jesus Through the Gospel

The other thing is that this access to the inheritance and the body and the promises is "in Christ Jesus through the gospel." So there are two parts to the mystery of Christ:

  1. Gentiles are not second-class citizens in the body of Christ: "there is neither Jew nor Gentile" (Galatians 3:28, Ephesians 2:14). Both are fellow heirs of the same inheritance.
  2. This Gentile privilege comes only through the gospel of Jesus Christ. Where Christ is preached and believed, Gentiles are grafted into the tree of God's people.

Now Paul says in verse 5 that this is a mystery (not because it is paradoxical or confusing but) because it was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. In Colossians 1:26 he says that this mystery was "hidden for ages and generations but now is made manifest to his saints." And in Romans 16:25 he says that the mystery "was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed."

My conclusion from these passages about the "mystery of Christ" is that this secret corresponds to the "times of ignorance" in Acts 17:30. Now what does this teach us about the times of ignorance? At least two things:

1. They Were Part of God's Sovereign Plan

The times of ignorance were part of God's sovereign plan for world history. God is not the helpless victim of human ignorance.

The Mystery Was Kept Secret by God

Ephesians 3:5–6, Colossians 1:26, and Romans 16:25–26 make it plain that the mystery of Christ was kept secret by God for generations. The mystery was hidden. It was not revealed. God looked down on a rebellious creation, where the nations were going their own ways and instead of sending immediate judgment, and rather than sending foreign missionaries, he looked away and left the nations in their ignorance for a season.

This is what Paul means when he says in his letters that the mystery of Christ was kept secret for ages. And this is what he means here in Acts 17:30 when he says that God overlooked the times of ignorance.

God Overlooked the Times of Ignorance

"Overlooking" does not mean indulging or ignoring the ignorance of the nations. We know this because in Romans 2:12 Paul says, "All who have sinned without the law will perish without the law." In other words, judgment will be according to the knowledge at a person's disposal. But all people in the world have enough knowledge of God in nature and in their own conscience, which they do not live up to, that they will be judged on account of it. God does not indulge or ignore sin during the times of ignorance. That is not what "overlook" means.

It means that God took no notice of ignorance, as it were. Instead of tending to it, he looked the other way and let it be. This is confirmed by Paul's words in Acts 14:16. He is preaching to the unbelievers at Lystra and says,

In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways.

In other words, the times of ignorance God "overlooked" in the sense that he allowed them to walk in their own ignorant ways. He did not come forth in immediate judgment nor did he come forth with the revelation of the mystery of Christ. He let the nations go their own way, as he says in Acts 14:16.

God's Plan for World History

And so I infer that the "times of ignorance" were part of God's sovereign plan for world history. Not that God instilled ignorance into innocent people, but that he withheld revelation from guilty people. And he did so according to the dictates of infinite wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:21).

The revelation of the mystery of Christ was kept hidden for ages. But when the iniquity of the nations was complete (Genesis 15:16) and when the fullness of the times was come (Gal. 4:4), God sent his Son into the world to die for sinners and to rise again. And that leads us to the second thing we learn from comparing the times of ignorance and the hiding of the mystery of Christ.

2. They Are Now Over

The times of ignorance are over, and from now on Jesus Christ is the necessary object of all saving faith.

Jesus as the Necessary Object of All Saving Faith

Remember, Paul said in Ephesians 3:6 that the mystery now being revealed is that Gentiles are now "partakers of the promises IN JESUS CHRIST THROUGH THE GOSPEL."

What God had kept secret for generations was that the Gentiles would one day be full fellow heirs with the people of God AND that this great ingathering of the nations would be through the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Before the coming of Christ people were saved by trusting in the mercy of God. The looked to his mighty deeds like the Exodus. And they looked to the blood sacrifices. And they looked to the promises of a Redeemer. But they did not know Jesus Christ, and they did not know how the nations would be saved, and how they would be related to the Jews in the kingdom of God.

But now the mystery is revealed. The times of ignorance are over. Jesus Christ has come, and the revelation of the mystery is that Gentiles are full fellow heirs with Jews, and all this is THROUGH THE GOSPEL. That's the point of Ephesians 3:6.

The Message of the Resurrection

And the same point is made here in Acts 17:30–31. When Paul says that the times of ignorance God overlooked, he goes on to say,

But now God commands all men everywhere to repent, 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 men by raising him from the dead.

In other words, since Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead, God no longer intends for the times of ignorance to continue. Paul says that by the resurrection God has given assurance to all men that Jesus is the universal Judge. This means that the resurrection must be preached to all the peoples of the world. From this point on, only through faith in the risen Jesus can men be saved.

During the times of ignorance this was not so. But now it is so. The times of ignorance are over and from now on Jesus Christ is the necessary object of all saving faith.

The Missionary Connection

Here is the way Paul put it in Romans 10:13–15,

Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved. But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher? And how can men preach unless they are sent?

Put this together with Acts 17:30—God commands all men everywhere to repent and gives them assurance of Christ's authority by the resurrection. But how do people know of this assurance if they never hear? And they will not hear unless there is a missionary who is sent. And if they don't hear, they will not be saved, "For there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12).

What Is the Meaning of the Present Days?

Now what does this have to say to us here at Bethlehem today?

Mainly, it makes plain for us the meaning of the day in which we live. And it makes a great difference in your life and in our life as a church if we know the meaning of the day—the period of time—in which we live. What is the point of these days? What is unique about these days?

Are we letting the six o'clock news interpret the meaning of these days for us—or the Minneapolis Tribune or USA Today or Time or Newsweek? They have much that is important for us to know—but not the most important thing, namely, the meaning of these days. Only God can do that. Because only God is designing and guiding these days. Only God's plan will be established.

What is the meaning of the period of time in which we live? Three things come out of our text.

1. Repentance and Salvation

It is a day of repentance and salvation.

Paul faced the Athenians and he faces Minneapolis and every people on the earth and says, "The meaning of your day is that the times of ignorance are over and God commands you to repent, believe in Jesus Christ, and be saved from the judgment of God."

The meaning of these days is that they are days of grace and days of salvation. God is no longer allowing the nations to go their own ways. The Great Sheep-Gatherer has come into the world, he is risen from the dead, and he has sworn: "I have other sheep that are not of this fold, I must bring them also" (John 10:16). God is on the move as he never was before to gather his children from all the peoples of the earth.

2. Missions and Evangelism

Therefore, secondly, this is a day of missions and evangelism.

God commands all men everywhere to repent! Yes, but how? Whatever Israel should have done to reach the nations in the Old Testament days, one thing is sure: she didn't do it. God did not overcome her weakness and by his Spirit empower a great world missions movement in the Old Testament. Rather, Paul says, God allowed the nations to walk in their own ways.

But no longer. The days of ignorance are over. The days of a missionless people of God are gone. The mystery of the ingathering of the nations through Christ has been revealed. The call to repent goes out to all the world. And therefore the call to missions goes out to all the church.

But not as it went to Israel, dimly and without power. Now the command is unmistakable and the power is the power of the Holy Spirit: "You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you shall be my witnesses." The meaning of these days is that the times of ignorance are over. The day of repentance and salvation and world missions and local evangelism is here.

3. Loving and Sending

Finally, this is a day of loving and of sending.

A day of loving someone enough here in Minneapolis to tell them about the greatness of Jesus Christ.

And a day of sending. If we know the meaning of the day in which we live, then Bethlehem will bend every effort to be a sending church. And that means a deep and wonderful partnership between the senders and the sent.

I suppose the most amazing news that I got from Bethlehem while I was away was that Tom Steller had called a meeting of all Bethlehem members who are definitely planning to enter full-time cross-cultural mission service in the next five years, and 44 people came.

I was stunned and thrilled by that news. But what a burden, what a joyful burden that will mean for those of us who stay! And one of the secrets of bearing that burden, the secret of joyful wartime austerity at home, is to know the meaning of our day.

The age of ignorance is over! Today is a day of repentance and salvation, a day of missions and evangelism, and a day of loving and sending—"for God 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 men by raising him from the dead."

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