In refusing the sacrifices, Paul makes a very interesting remark (Acts 14:16-17): "In past generations He allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. Yet He did not leave Himself without witness, for He did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness." Paul is applying the same principle that Jesus described in Matthew 5:45: "He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust."
|Willem de Poorter, "St. Paul and Barnabas in Lystra"|
Jesus and Paul are both making the point that every human being in history has experienced the goodness of God, because He is good to all!
Yet, elsewhere, Paul also talks about the reaction of most of those humans to God's goodness (Romans 1:18-21): "The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them, for His invisible attributes, namely, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse, for although they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks to Him." That is, while all men experience the goodness of God, and are aware of it, in their heart of hearts, suppress that awareness and refuse to give Him the thanks and honor that are His due.
As Paul tells the Lystrans, God had passed over this offense from men throughout history, until the Gospel age, providing them no good news, no message of atonement through a divine Surety. However, that situation had now changed, and, through Paul, the message of the Gospel had come to the Gentiles. This was as the Father had promised to the Son in the intra-Trinitarian covenant, made before the world was created: "I am the LORD; I have called You in righteousness; I will take You by the hand and keep You; I will give You as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations" (Isaiah 42:6). The Father promised to the Son both Israel and the Gentiles: "It is too light a thing that You should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make You as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth" (Isaiah 49:6). And this promise would be effectual: "Nations shall come to Your light, and kings to the brightness of Your rising" (Isaiah 60:3).
The testimony of Paul demonstrates that there is no one who doesn't know about God, no matter what self-justifications he may make to himself or to others. Therefore, he is held accountable for His refusal to give God the honor and thanks He is due. However, there is also hope for the nations, the Gospel, in which forgiveness is offered in Jesus Christ.