Question: What is meant by the apostle Paul’s statement in Acts 17:30 where he says that “in the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands people everywhere to repent”? Isn’t this “overlooking” of evil precisely what many people today accuse God of doing?
The answer to this question is found in the meaning of the word translated “overlooked” in its immediate context, and in the context of Scripture as a whole.
“Overlooked” translates a form of the Greek word “opheilo,” which carries the idea of indebtedness. As used in Acts 17:30, Paul is saying that God did not hold the human race immediately accountable for the pervasive sin of idolatry. We owed Him our total love and loyalty and chose instead to give that love to things made with our own hands. God had, therefore, ample justification for passing judgment for our offenses against Him, but withheld that judgment. And by withholding judgment evil has been allowed to continue.
This is not the first time in the book of Acts this theme has come up. Paul had earlier pointed out how God has allowed the nations to determine their own course rather than follow God’s will in determining their place in history:
Acts 14:16 In the past, he let all nations go their own way.
God’s purpose is to give mankind time to see the error of self-determination and repent. Instead, man’s persistent rebellion results in a history of warfare, death and destruction that we conveniently blame on God.
Acts 17:30 highlights a truth found woven throughout the Bible—God is love, and His mercy runs in advance of His judgment. Because He does not exercise judgment upon us right away, our disobedience enslaves us to a never-ending cycle of self-destructive behavior until repentance breaks that chain.
Rom. 11:32 For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.
The Day of Judgment is coming, however, and the man God sent to save us from that judgment by sacrificing his own innocent life in our place—Jesus Christ—is also the one who will collect on the debt owed from those who reject him.
Rom. 3:25 God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—
Imagine you advance a contractor a million dollars to build a beautiful home on land you own, with the intent that the contractor move in with his family when it is completed. Instead, the contractor uses the money to buy classic sports cars. You have every right to demand immediate payback. Instead, you give the contractor time to repent and make things right. You “overlook,” for the time being, the debt that is owed, although the day of recompense will certainly come!
2Pet. 3:9-10 The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.