Innumerable idols to gods both known and unknown filled the city of Athens where some Greek philosophers confronted Paul. They heard many messages before but none quite like the one Paul had delivered, so they asked to know more. As Paul spoke before the Aeropagus, he acknowledged their religiosity and told them he was going to make known to them the nature and name of their unknown god.
He told them God is not a fabrication of human hands but the one who created human hands. He told them God determined the time and location where everyone would live so each person would seek him and find him. Paul said people are not mere creations but the offspring of God and are formed in his image. He finally told them God has a set time when he will judge every man according to righteousness, according to a person who has lived, died, and been raised from the dead. And though Acts does not record Paul revealing the name of this judge, it is obvious he was pointing to Christ.
But Paul’s message, often lauded by many as a model for how to communicate Christ to a world without an adequate level of biblical literacy, is not a new one. In fact, I suspect that since Paul was familiar with the Old Testament he may have borrowed the main themes of his message from the psalmist Asaph.
Asaph, a musician in the temple courts, wrote eleven psalms that are found at the beginning of Book III of the Psalms. These Asaphic psalms, to be understood properly, should be read in their historical context: songs written as responses to the long line of kings who had not done what is right in the eyes of the Lord. Even though these kings knew the truth they ignored the commands of God, worshiped foreign gods, and treated the vulnerable people of Israel with contempt. After questioning why God allows the wicked to remain in power (Psalm 73) and reminding God that the wicked people have mocked him (Psalm 74), Asaph turns his focus to the kings and people of Israel. He reminds them of God’s name and of his mighty acts, but he also reveals something interesting about the nature of God’s judgment. He says God chooses the appointed time when his equitable hand will judge everyone: he will tear down the wicked and arrogant and lift up the righteous.
To a world of pagans who had never heard the name of God, Paul explained that God would someday judge everyone by his standard of righteousness at the time that he has set. And to a world of God’s chosen people who had rejected his laws, Asaph explained that God will someday judge everyone by his standard of righteousness at the time that he has set. In short, both Paul and Asaph spoke of a set time for God’s coming just judgment, but this was not stated as a threat rather, as an encouragement. The message provided pagans hope that there is a reality waiting to be known standing behind their vague sense of spirituality. This reality, Paul claimed, has a name, Christ, who came into this world bringing hope and providing reconciliation to the creator.
To the Israelites who already knew the name of God, hope came in the form of trust. They were told that even though foreign armies occupied their promised land, destroyed their temple, and took their people captive they should trust God, for he has already appointed a time to judge the oppressors. This meant, at the least, that God was sovereign over every circumstance of their lives, and even though they might not see it now, justice will eventually come.
If we read Paul and Asaph so as to merely learn about pagans and Israelites and take it no further, that would be a mistake as their messages are imminently applicable to us today. We are surrounded by three types of people. There are those who worship gods of their own making while seeking a quick spirituality and ignoring God. There are those who once believed but who now live lives of abject sin and rebellion. And there are those who don’t believe in a god of any sort and scoff at the idea of a coming judgment. We sit in the middle of this mess often wondering if the numbers of true believers are constantly diminishing while we fall under persecution. But we must not lose hope, for God has set a time when he will judge everyone with equity. God has set a time when Jesus will come back to separate the sheep from the goats. God has set a time, and even though it may not be the time we want nor come in our lifetime we know that he has set a time. And for that, we should praise him. We should not lose heart and we should not grow weary or impatient, but we should hold on to hope. Because there will be a day when the strength of the wicked will fail and the righteous will be lifted up. God has set a time.