Paul Brings Good News to Athens
by Pastor Bob Burridge ©2014
Part 3 — Telling About Our Sovereign Creator — Acts 17:24-29
As Paul waited for Silas and Timothy to join him in Athens, he took the opportunity to explain the gospel both to the Jews in the Synagogues, and to the Gentiles in the market place. He was invited to address the philosophers at the Areopagus so they could hear his new teachings. Though he was aware of the vain emptiness of their curiosity, Paul didn’t hesitate to accept the opportunity. He commented on their deeply religious and superstitious awareness that there was more to life than just the physical. They had an altar to an unknowable God. But God is knowable, and Paul dared to proclaim that truth to these skeptics.
He told them about the one true God whom he represented.
Acts 17:24, “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man,”
The true God is the Creator of everything. He made the world and all things in it. The word translated as “world” here is “cosmos” (κόσμος) which is the whole order of things, the universe. This is the foundation of all truth. It’s the reality that makes truth possible. If there is no God behind all that exists, then truth becomes relative. It becomes what we personally choose to believe, or what seems to produce our wanted results.
If the universe came about by its own power and not by a Creator, then truth evolves like everything else in the cosmos. So contrary to what the philosophers believed, Paul laid the foundation for real truth. These philosophers continually ridiculed the pagan gods of the popular myths, but they had no alternative except for the doubts of pantheism or atheism.
However, if God made all things, then he has the right to make demands of what he made. When you pour a slab of cement for a driveway, you have the right to drive your car on it. That’s why it was made. If you build a shelf in the garage to hold cans of paint, then that’s what it’s for.
God made the universe for a specific reason. He therefore has the right to demand that his creation should serve that purpose.
When we attempt to present the gospel to the unbeliever, we must do as Paul did. We must establish that there is a Creator to whom we are responsible. Otherwise, talk of salvation is meaningless. Our message becomes nothing more than a means to make us feel better about life, its problems, and our future after this life is over. Without a Creator, there can be no real solution to our real needs.
The Creator does not live in man made Temples. Since God made all things, and therefore existed eternally before anything physical was made, he does not need a physical place to live. Things made by God cannot be needed to build a place to house the infinite and eternal Creator.
Notice how Solomon expressed this idea after he made the Temple as God instructed him. In 1 Kings 8:27 Solomon said, “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built!”
Stephen, the first Christian martyr, made this point before the Jews executed him for his faith. In Acts 7:47-49 Stephen said, “But it was Solomon who built a house for him. Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands, as the prophet says, ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest?’ ”
Even the Greek philosophers couldn’t deny this evident problem with their mythological gods. Euripides wrote (Fragment #968), “What house built by craftsmen could enclose the form divine within enfolding walls?”
But Paul wasn’t citing Euripides to prove his point, though the reference may have been recognized by the philosophers in the Areopagus. The Apostle was presenting biblically revealed facts from God himself.
We often find insights like this in the writings of unbelievers. Though distorted and mangled in their meaning, it’s clear that man the creature cannot consistently deny what he is, and can’t escape the realities he works hard to deny.
Then Paul explained that the God of Scripture is independent.
Acts 17:25, “nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.”
Since God is the same before and after creation, his nature must not depend upon things made. He existed eternally before there was anything outside of himself. So certainly God does not rely upon us to provide him with anything.
We say that God is truly independent. This means that he can depend upon nothing other than or outside of himself. He is complete in himself and needs nothing for him to be all that he is.
The word translated “served” is therapeuo (θεραπεύω). We get our words “therapy” and “therapeutic” from it. It means the kind of service we give to someone in need. It’s like when a sick person needs the service of a physician. God needs nothing more than what he already is. He doesn’t need therapy from his creatures.
God is above all, and everything depends upon Him. He is the source of all things, of life itself. He is the source of life, of every breath, and of all things. In contrast, we as his creatures are totally dependent beings.
Though the philosophers argued against belief in the mythological gods, they had nothing to put in its place. All they came up with were questions. They had become pantheists, skeptics, or agnostics.
Paul’s answer was direct and simple. There is only one true God, the independent Creator of all things.
Paul also declared that the True God is sovereign.
Acts 17:26, “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,”
The God who made all things is also ruler of the universe he made. He reigns by his governing providence and sustains all that he made. He made all the nations.
National and ethnic distinctives have always been a source of division. The Athenians had great ethnic and national pride. They believed they were innately superiority to the barbarians. It was the undoing of the Jews when they saw themselves as blessed by God because they were better than the Gentiles. These Greeks also had to be told that they needed salvation as much as anyone. We all ought to see ourselves as part of a lost human race. No one is better than anyone else.
All nations (the Greeks, the Romans, the Hebrews, every nationality) are equally lost in Adam and need redemption. They exist and have what they possess by the permission and enablement of the God who made them.
God determined their appointed times eternally, before they were even created. In Lystra, Paul said that God is the one who sends the rains from heaven and fruitful seasons (Acts 14:17). All seasons are appointed by God, even the seasons for every nation that prospers. We can look for temporal causes for their rise and fall: economics, politics, military power, emigration, plagues, and natural disasters. But behind them all is God’s hand.
God determined their boundaries. He limits where on earth we humans can survive and prosper, and what land each nation can rule at any one time. It’s not great colonial power or military strategy that determines an empire’s boarders. It’s the decree of God that enables the leaders and moves the events. He gives the movers of history their skills and opportunities.
So often we see only the outward means God uses, but fail to see his decrees at work. As Alexander the Great expanded their proud culture, as Rome became the great empire that it was at that time, this God whom Paul dared to proclaim was behind it all.
In all this, God has a purpose.
Acts 17:27, “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,”
God has determined all these things as a testimony to lost mankind. He put a hunger for him in their hearts that men might seek God in hope that they might feel around for him and find him.
The failure of mankind to find the true God is not found in God’s failure to declare himself. He has placed the most astounding testimony all around us in the wonders of creation, in all its intricacy, complexity and beauty. It’s seen in the movements of providence which make even the unbeliever look for spiritual causes behind things. God shows himself in the hearts of all humans who are driven in a quest for truth and for a standard, though they are prejudiced against finding what they know they must seek. So the lost invent all sorts of alternative religions and philosophies.
Man is left without excuse before such a God. Paul later explained this in Romans 1:19-20, “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.”
They search so hard — yet he is not far from them. The Bible teaches that God is everywhere (Psalm 139 for example). God is not some far off cosmic force (as the Epicurians and Stoics believed). And he is not an isolated deity only found in stone temples along the streets of the Areopagus (as the masses of the people believed who still followed the ancient myths of Olympus). This Sovereign Creator is everywhere present. He surrounds us all. Yet he is not just the sum-total of all things surrounding us as the Pantheists believe.
The image presented here is of a blind man groping but not finding what is right in front of him all the time. The blindness is our lost nature. It’s not that God is hard to discover. He is hard to miss! Everything we see is a declaration of the true nature of God.
It’s neither that those without Christ are not as smart as us, nor that they are not as good. We would be as blind as the heathen who bow before gods carved from bones or stones, if it was not for the grace of God that gave sight to us who otherwise could not see.
Paul was leveling the playing field. Neither Jew nor Athenian, no one, had any special privilege in and of themselves. Far from being arrogant, Paul humbled himself, his people, and his listeners. We must avoid an arrogant attitude when we tell others about the True God, otherwise we present a false god who is impressed by some more than others.
Creation depends upon its Creator.
Act 17:28a, “for ‘In him we live and move and have our being'; …”
We are totally dependent upon God for all things all the time. He is over creation and upholds it by the power of his might. The Creator is not part of his creation as if he needed us. We need him.
Colossians 1:16-17, “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities–all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”
Paul illustrated by quoting their own poets.
Act 17:28b, “… as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’ “
God is not the product of the imaginations of the creatures. They are the product of his eternal decree. Paul appears to be quoting Epimenides, an ancient Cretan writer. The whole context appears to be a hymn to the Greek’s Supreme god Zeus. The original writings are long lost. Because of quotations by others, we believe Epimenides wrote the following:
They fashioned a tomb for thee, O holy and high one –
The Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies!
But thou art not dead; thou livest and abidest for ever;
For in thee we live and move and have our being.
The second line about Cretans being liars was quoted by Paul in Titus 1:12.
Paul speaks of the poets in the plural. The basic idea is found in some of their other writers too. Aratus, a well known ancient poet-philosopher, a Stoic from Cilicia (where Paul was born), wrote, “ever and in all ways we enjoy Jupiter, for we are also his offspring.” Cleanthes, who led the Stoic school in Athens for 32 years, wrote a hymn to Zeus. Speaking for the human race and all mortals he said, “for we are his offspring.” A similar quote is found in Timagenes. (Little is known of this author.)
Of course Paul doesn’t mean we are the offspring of gods in the pagan sense or pantheistic sense. Paul didn’t quote these writers authoritatively. His quotations were to point out an undeniable truth they could not escape. Paul also quotes Meander in 1 Corinthians 15:33, and Epimenides in Titus 1:12. He quotes verbatim showing familiarity with Greek literature. He certainly dispelled the idea that he was an ignorant seed picker. More importantly, he drove home the obvious point that creatures by their nature, owe their existence to something beyond themselves.
This true God he was proclaiming to them is our Creator. All people are made by him and therefore are obligated to him. We are his offspring in the general sense regarding all men as creatures, not in the redemptive sense of the new creation in Christ. Paul wrote to believers in Galatians 3:26, “for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.”
God therefore cannot be represented in physical forms.
Acts 17:29, “Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.”
This conclusion follows necessarily from the points Paul just made. This all being true about God (that he is the Sovereign Creator and Sustainer, Lord over all and giver of all things, and that we owe our being and existence to him alone), then if follows that we should not imagine God’s Nature to be like things made by him, or even less, by things we have made ourselves.
Certainly we should not expect such a God to be able to have his nature represented by material things we make. He is infinitely greater. Image worship has always been wrong.
A similar argument was made in Isaiah 44:9-11, “All who fashion idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit. Their witnesses neither see nor know, that they may be put to shame. Who fashions a god or casts an idol that is profitable for nothing? Behold, all his companions shall be put to shame, and the craftsmen are only human. Let them all assemble, let them stand forth. They shall be terrified; they shall be put to shame together. ”
Images could never to be like a Creator who made all physical things. This is why even the pagan philosophers ridiculed the images of the mythological gods. However, they had nothing to offer in their place that could explain the realities that inescapably surrounds us. The philosophers have never agreed with one another about their theories and proposals. Still today the heathen, the pantheists, the naturalists, the rationalists, the agnostics, the humanists all continue the same debates among one another which Paul observed and addressed in Athens. They stood upon ancient unsupported suppositions even then.
We need to realize here that Paul did not use rationalistic arguments. Instead he appealed to the truth of things as they really are, as God has revealed them in creation (Romans 1:19-20) and in the human conscience (Romans 2:15).
But, though he used Scriptural arguments, he didn’t assume a biblical literacy in his audience. He used terms and quotes they would understand, yet he made clear distinctions so they would not think that he was agreeing with the philosophers he quoted.
Paul corrected their wrong ideas about God’s nature. There are but a few words here — but they were powerful words!
This was but ground work. Clarifying the basics is vital and ought not to be ignored as a first step in communicating the gospel effectively. More than ever it’s important to clarify these fundamental issues in our age of relativism and post-modernism where there is neither absolute truth nor a standard of morality by which all things are judged.
We must never neglect to clarify that the God of which we speak is not the god commonly imagined by creatures living in alienation from him.
Note: Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.