MESSAGE FOR JUNE 12, 2011 FROM ACTS 17:16-34 pt.2
As we continue our journey through the book of Acts, today we return to one of the most discussed and debated passages in this letter. That is—Acts 17:16-34 where we find Paul in Athens--a city of great renown as a center for intellectual and philosophical discourse as well as for the enormous number of idolatrous statues displayed there. This passage is so well known because it contains the one recorded address given by Paul to a purely pagan audience. In this chapter, he shares the gospel with people who have almost NO Biblical framework for even basic elements of spiritual truth. Paul’s response to this city is two-fold. First, he is emotionally and spiritually repulsed by all its idols. Verse 16 says “his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols.” Last time, we saw that this response by Paul was caused by God’s jealousy within him by the Holy Spirit. Today, we will examine Paul’s second response to Athens. This is not what Paul felt in response to the idols of Athens, it is what he said in response to these people who, in their ignorance worshipped idols. Although he cites no specific Scripture, this address is permeated and driven by Biblical truths about God. He simply states Biblical truth in terms these pagans can understand and appreciate.
His approach in addressing these people who worship false, dead gods is to shine a glaring light on the glorious character and identity of the living God of the Bible. He wants these Athenians, not only to see the supremacy of the God of the Bible over their pagan gods, but he also works to displace these false gods with the true God. He puts the God of Scripture on display in the hope that these people will come to faith in Christ and he has some success. Paul spoke at the Areopagus, a high hill northwest of the Acropolis where important legal cases were tried. In verses 22-23 Luke introduces the main part of Paul’s address. “22 So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” This is introductory, so we will only make a few quick comments. First, when Paul says, “I perceive that in every way you are very religious...” he is highlighting something we see so often in our culture and across the globe. That is—it is possible to be very religious—or, as we call it in our culture, “spiritual” and be totally lost in your sins. Spirituality is much in vogue today in or culture, but no one experiences true joy or gets to heaven by being spiritual or religious.
Second, Paul--speaking of this statue to an unknown god says, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” We should not take this to mean that Paul is equating the living God to this statue to an unknown god. He simply uses this statue to highlight their ignorance about God. The force of the sentence is—“what you don’t know, I will tell you.” Paul uses the Greeks’ ignorance admitted in this “unknown god” statue as an entry point for the gospel. Though Paul’s address can be divided in different ways, I see two clear sections about God and then a warning of his judgment. Because Paul is laying the ground work for a future, fuller telling of the gospel, he starts at the beginning—with the Person of God. The truth about God is the starting place for all truth. To the degree that our concept of God is consistent with the Bible, the rest of our theology will be true to the Bible. Likewise, the degree to which our concept of God is not in line with Scripture, all the rest of our theology will, to that degree, be in error. Paul starts with God—his identity and his character in verse 24 where Luke records, “24 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man,” Paul’s first truth about God that lays the groundwork for the gospel is—God is the Creator to whom we are ultimately responsible. The fact that God is Creator is right in the text. The fact that we are ultimately responsible is implied in what it is to be a creature before our Creator.
Why does Paul begin here—with God as Creator? Part of the reason is because he is making the point that “God does not live in temples made by man.” It’s consistent that a God who creates the heavens and the earth could not be contained in an earthly temple. But more broadly, the fact that Paul highlights God as Creator contrasts him with the pagan gods and also implies the way he relates to people. As we have said before: God’s creation of us implies his ownership of us—we belong to him. We see truth this even in our own creative endeavors. If you write a book, a poem or a song and get it published so as to establish the fact that you wrote it--you “created” it, that gives you certain exclusive rights over that property. If someone quotes your creation, they must give you--the “creator” credit. Only you and/or someone you approve has the right to edit your creation because it is yours--it belongs to you. Only you and anyone else you choose can profit from it—you are under no obligation to share the profit with anyone. And, as “creator” you have the right to destroy the work before it is published. It’s yours to do with as you please.
We must see that the same relationship exists between God and his creatures—even those created in his image. As our Creator, he is free to do with us as he pleases. This is why the evil one is so hard at work trying to deceive humanity into thinking we are not created beings. If a person believes he is only the product of chance and time as evolution teaches, then he has no logical reason to believe he is responsible to any “God” for his life and decisions. As an independently evolved creature, he owes nothing to God. The latest attempt to usurp God as Creator is in the scientific community’s current war against the existence of Adam. Many geneticists—including at least one professed Christian maintain that when you look at the human genetic code carefully, you discover that it could not have originated from one man. The Adam of Genesis is therefore dismissed as a legend and that is a very dangerous thing to believe.
This text in fact speaks to the existence of Adam. In verse 26 we read, “And he [God] made from one man every nation of mankind to live on the face of the earth.” Paul clearly believed in a literal Adam—no legend in his mind. Luke records a literal Adam in his genealogy of Jesus Christ in his gospel. Paul teaches in Romans chapter five that we inherit our sin from a literal Adam and if we were to be saved, that necessitated God’s redemptive work which was to send his Son as the “second Adam.” It’s clear the Bible teaches Adam was a real person and that he is a very important—even an indispensible figure in redemptive history. If Adam did not exist, then the gospel itself is compromised because the reason sinners are in such need of the gospel is because Romans five teaches in verse 12 “...just as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men…” If sin originated in Adam and Jesus came to address that problem, then without Adam, the gospel will not hold together. What I know about genetics you could put on the back of a postage stamp, but I know the gospel and I know the integrity of the Word of God and I am certainly not going to allow geneticists—many of whom have a naturalistic bias against God anyway—and who work within a discipline still very much in its infancy—I will not allow them to throw over the truth of a literal Adam and the gospel. If precedent holds in these kinds of matters, in a few years some other scientist will discover that in fact the arrangement of the human genetic code forces us to conclude that we all originated from one man.
The enemy—through science and other disciplines, wants to eliminate our understanding of God as Creator because if God is not our Creator, we have no responsibility toward him. However, if God is Creator, we have absolute responsibility to him. The fact that God is our Creator is one reason why it is so remarkable that he sent his Son to save us rebels. As our Creator, he was under absolutely no obligation to do that. Think about it this way. If you are a microbiologist and you “create”—that is, you fashion an organism using God’s created elements--if you “create” a micro-organism that you intend to destroy cancer cells and it fails to do what you intended it to do—what do you do with it? You simply wipe clean your Petri dishes and your micro-organisms are destroyed because they didn’t do what you created them to do. Yet here we are, not only failing to do what God wants us to do, but by doing so, we’re personally rebelling against the One who brought us into existence and gave us life. Yet, instead of destroying us—he crushes his only Son—his co-Creator is crushed in order that we might be redeemed from our sin and come into an eternal relationship with him.
God as Creator also has the right to “edit” us—that is—he can make changes in us and our circumstances—give us a disease or cause us to be in a disfiguring accident. He can cause us to have a stroke and lose half of our body function. He can take us out of this world at any moment he chooses because—he is our Creator. There is a unique and staggering amount of authority implicit in being Creator. We must get this because if we don’t have a strong understanding this, we will minimize God’s great mercy in the gospel. God as Creator owns us—we are responsible to him.
Another area of our responsibility to our Creator is: His creation of us implies a divine purpose—he has something for us to do. We know our ultimate purpose is to glorify God and we see a part of what that entails in verses 26-27. Luke records, “26 And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, 27 that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us,” We were created in order to seek after God—that’s our purpose. The fact that we were created to seek God implies several truths. For example, the fact that we were created to seek after God implies that our lives must be comprehensively centered around him. We don’t get to set the purpose for our lives—God has already done that. That means that if I am faithful to God’s purpose for me then my life will be thoroughly wrapped up in the pursuit of God. My pursuit of him dictates what I think about, where I live, where I work, where I go to school and church, who I marry and anything else in my life. This all-engrossing pursuit of God is implied in God’s identity as our Creator. Of course a creature would seek after the One who created him. The problem for humanity is--our sin keeps us from being able to find God. Don’t misunderstand. It’s not as if sin is a large boulder blocking our pathway to God. No, the sin in our hearts causes us, instead of seeking after God, to run away from him as fast as we can. This is why Paul says In Romans 3:11 “11 no one understands; no one seeks for God.” No one fulfills his purpose in life apart from grace.
Paul says it a different way in Romans chapter one. Verse 18 says that we actively suppress the truth in our unrighteousness. That means we suppress the knowledge of God who is the truth. Rather than seek him out, we seek to bury him under a pile of idols. Verse 21 says, “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” Paul uses more mild terms to explain humanity’s failure to seek after God to these pagans in Athens. Here in Acts 17, Paul says the reason God laid out the world as he did was so that “…they might feel their way toward him and find him.” The word translated “feel” is a picture of the futility we saw earlier in Romans chapter one. It means to grope around in the dark without being able to discover what you are feeling for. Then he says, “Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for “ ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, “For we are indeed his offspring.” Paul shows how pathetic our groping around for God is because it’s not as if the area in which we are searching is so large that God is out of reach. No, he’s right next to us. It’s not that God has moved away from us—it’s that our hearts have moved away from him—so far that we will never find him without his help.
We see this all the time don’t we? People who are lost and looking for what will satisfy this deep longing in their souls for God. They grope around looking to find it in success or money or sex or esteem or career or family and if there were a million and one possible gods, they would rifle through the million that are not God, ignore the true God and start again at number one—completely suppressing God. Paul says that “‘In him we live and move and have our being’” God is so close to us—he is responsible for the most basic elements of our life. First, “we live in him”—he is our life-Giver. Second, “we move in him”—he is the context in which we live. Third, “in him we have our being”—our most essential quality, we have in God. That is, we ARE—we exist--we have the power of being and we get it from God. Yet, with God’s absolutely smothering proximity to the sinner, we spend our entire lives groping for him and, apart from his grace, never finding him. What a pathetic picture! That should stir up great empathy with the sinner because it if weren’t for the grace of God, we would all still be groping around-still trying to draw living water from this world’s empty cisterns. Fallen idolaters cannot even find their own Father because Paul says, “For we are his offspring.” Paul is not claiming the entire world can relate to God as his adopted children through Christ. God is the Father of all people in the sense that he created them. This speaks of God’s authority as the Father of all people, but it also speaks to his nearness. Though he is the Father of every person, yet, in their sin—they vainly grope for him.
A second truth that Paul lays down about God here in his Introduction to Christianity at Athens is: God is the Sustainer of life upon whom we are absolutely dependent. Paul wants these Athenians to know that, not only are they responsible to God as their Creator, they are completely dependent upon him as the One who sustains their lives. It’s impossible to imagine a relationship where one party is so absolutely reliant on the other. As our Creator, God gave us life. As our Sustainer, he keeps us alive. We owe both our existence and our ongoing survival to him. We see God as Sustainer in verses 24-25. Luke records, “24 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” Another reason God could never be contained in a man-made temple, or in any way be dependent upon us is because it is HE, not us who “…gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” Every beat of our heart—every breath we take is a gift of God along with everything else we have in any area of our existence. This is complete dependence—that is—we are dependent upon him for everything. There is nothing for which we are NOT dependent upon God—we are as dependent as it is possible to be on God.
The author of Hebrews puts it this way in chapter one, verse three. Speaking of Jesus, he says, “3 He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,” That word “upholds” is very intense in its meaning. This upholding is not like Atlas, who as legend has it, upholds the dead weight of the world on his shoulders. This word means that Jesus sustains the world—he governs it—he controls it—he orchestrates it and directs all its activity toward his desired end. This creation is headed in a specific direction and the One charting the course and keeping all of us on it is Jesus. He does this by “the word of his power” or “his powerful word.” Just as the Father created the world with the word of his mouth, the Son sustains the world by his word. Paul says of Christ in Colossians 1:17. “17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” The point seems to be that this world, apart from Christ’s control would on all levels, physical, moral, intellectual, behavioral and spiritual—immediately collapse into utter chaos. Everything would simply come apart without his sustaining work. God is not only the Creator who makes the world; he is also Lord who exercises his sovereign power over, not only those on earth, but also all those who dwell in heaven.
Another aspect of his creative and sustaining power is in verse 26. He says, “And he made from one man every nation to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling.” God determines “the allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling.” Here’s a case where, though Paul is not directly quoting the Old Testament, he is certainly conveying Old Testament truth. Deuteronomy 32:8 says, “8 When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God.” John Stott comments on this verse, saying that God is in charge of all the geography of this world and not only its geography, but also all its history because he “determined the allotted periods.” This speaks of the seasons of history with all their changes. To put it in simpler terms, God controls both time and space. That is—anything that happens within time or within any space in the universe—according to Paul, God determines all that—and that’s everything.
Because God is the Creator and Sustainer of everything, it follows logically that he has the right to judge his created beings according to his standards as Creator. We see this in verses 30-31. “30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 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 by raising him from the dead.” Paul is saying that in times past, God delayed his judgment because of people’s sin-induced ignorance. He was under no compulsion to do this—it was pure mercy on his part. But now, God’s fixed date on his calendar is approaching when he will judge the world according to his righteous standards. (I might add, this date in known only by the Father.)
Do not assume he will overlook your ignorance of him anymore. Judgment is coming and it will come by the hand of “a man he has appointed” and this man is qualified to be the Judge because in his resurrection, he demonstrated his power over sin and death, thus proving that he is God. He is not an unknown god, but an eminently knowable God who lived on this earth and rose from the dead. This is as close as Paul gets to mentioning the name of Jesus. At this point, his mention of the resurrection brings mocking from the crowds and he is unable to fill out the entire gospel. But he gives enough truth to save people because verse 34 says that “some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.
The implication of God as Creator and Sustainer is--a call to repentance—“he commands all people everywhere to repent.” That is still a valid application to this text, not only for sinners, but also for believers who look to the things of this world to do for us what only God can do. That is idolatry. By putting God’s glorious character on display, he hoped to displace the idols of these pagans with the God of Scripture. That same strategy is one we should employ in our war against idolatry. As we meditate on the greatness of God as Creator and Sustainer of the universe and other elements of his glorious character and identity, that will work to displace the idols in our hearts. Here are two specific points of application. First: We must see the sheer folly of idolatry in the light of God’s character and identity. What are our idols? What things do we look to for peace and joy and lasting satisfaction other than God? Your reputation?—how many people has your reputation created lately? Your career?—how many nations does your career hold together by the word of its power? Your spouse or family?—How much of human history have they ordained? Money?—will your money judge your eternal soul? Power?—does this power you covet have the power to retassign the boundaries of all the nations? It’s when we meditate on the glory of God that we see the utter folly of trying to assign any value to the idols of this world.
Second, to fight against our idols, we must respond to God in a manner consistent with his character and identity. What is a response consistent God’s character and identity? The 24 elders in Revelation chapter four tell us in verses 10-11. “10 the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying, 11 “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” As we—with Paul count everything else as loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ—as we relate to him in worship for who he is and what he does, our other idols fall by the wayside. So, are we to worship God for most of the day? Psalm 34:1-2 says, “1 I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth. 2 My soul makes its boast in the Lord; let the humble hear and be glad.” We are to live in praise and worship—that’s the point. Paul says we are to be “living sacrifices” as we give everything we do to God as an expression of our worship to him. The main reason we are so easily captured by the idols of this world is because we have failed to be captured by God. To worship the Lord once a week—maybe twice—is not enough to displace your idols. It’s as we turn our eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face, that the things—and idols of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.
We’ve already established the fact that humans were created to seek after God and that means a whole-hearted seeking that determines the course of our lives and everything in it. That is only consistent with, as we continue to find him in our seeking—responding in praise and worship. Does this describe your life? This is why God created us and as we increasingly live in praise and worship and seek God in prayer, Scripture, fellowship with the saints, the idols in our heart will be powerfully displaced by God. May he give us the grace to fulfill our purpose by seeking hard after him and in so doing, increasingly come to know him as our glorious Creator and Sustainer.
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