The Mighty One, God the LORD,speaks and summons the earthfrom the rising of the sun to its setting.
Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty,God shines forth.
Our God comes; he does not keep silence;before him is a devouring fire,around him a mighty tempest.
He calls to the heavens aboveand to the earth, that he may judge his people:
“Gather to me my faithful ones,who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!”
The heavens declare his righteousness,for God himself is judge! Selah
“Hear, O my people, and I will speak;O Israel, I will testify against you.I am God, your God.
Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you;your burnt offerings are continually before me.
I will not accept a bull from your houseor goats from your folds.
For every beast of the forest is mine,the cattle on a thousand hills.
I know all the birds of the hills,and all that moves in the field is mine.
“If I were hungry, I would not tell you,for the world and its fullness are mine.
Do I eat the flesh of bullsor drink the blood of goats?
Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving,and perform your vows to the Most High,
and call upon me in the day of trouble;I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.”
But to the wicked God says:“What right have you to recite my statutesor take my covenant on your lips?
For you hate discipline,and you cast my words behind you.
If you see a thief, you are pleased with him,and you keep company with adulterers.
“You give your mouth free rein for evil,and your tongue frames deceit.
You sit and speak against your brother;you slander your own mother’s son.
These things you have done, and I have been silent;you thought that I was one like yourself.But now I rebuke you and lay the charge before you.
“Mark this, then, you who forget God,lest I tear you apart, and there be none to deliver!
The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me;to one who orders his way rightlyI will show the salvation of God!”(Psalm 50, ESV)
No Apologetics at this AreopagusIf you have ever done anything with evangelism (taken a class, gone out with a group, etc), then you are likely quite familiar with the Acts 17 passage. It’s what I like to call the third in the “trifecta” of verses that are used to support various apologetic approaches in evangelism (the other two being 2 Cor 10:3-5 and 1 Peter 3:15).
It is true that there is only one gospel of Jesus Christ and men must repent of their sins and trust in His work and death and resurrection, and I’m not suggesting that all evangelism methods are created equal nor are all good to use - we do need to be ever diligent that we are sharing the gospel rightly, and that we are striving to do it as best as we can - but evangelism isn’t a cookie cutter process, and we need to be careful about turning descriptive passages of what people did in a situation into prescriptive formulas of what we must do in every situation. We can, however, get much helpful insight and wisdom by understanding what they did in their contexts.
So, though there may be application, when we look at this passage remember that we are not looking to find a pattern to follow. Rather, we are looking at what Paul did in a real situation at a real time in history for real people with a real (mis)understanding of God, and then seeing what we can learn from that that might help/apply to us.
Why Acts 17?
In Athens, seeing in their idols a lack of understanding about the true God, Paul focused on describing who He is. I like that part, also. I often wonder at times if we don’t get the cart before the horse speaking of the law before making sure the person even understands who the Judge is.
OutlineThere’s a lot in this passage, but for our purposes we’ll break it into three major components:
Who God Is (Acts 17:24-28)
Who God is Not (Acts 17:28-29)
Who God Is Means Repent (Acts 17:30-31)
Who God Is
So Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. “For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you. “The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things; and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children.’(Acts 17:22-28, NASB)
Having seen how religious the people were (Acts 17:22) based on the numerous idols (Acts 17:16), Paul takes advantage of a particular altar they had erected to the “unknown God” (Acts 17:23) to speak about the true God. Because it was the idols that first provoked him in his spirit (Acts 17:16), I think it would be safe to say that had there not have been an “unknown God” altar, Paul would still have focused on speaking about who God is. However, it provided for a great (God-ordained) springboard to launch into his proclamation.
And what a spring! In 5 short verses I count at least 10 different attributes (or variants of attributes) of God, though I’m sure someone wiser could pull out even more. As you read through the following list, look closely for an emphasis on one particular aspect, which he appears to be drawing out:
- God made the world and all things in it (v24) [Creator]
- God is Lord of heaven and earth (v24) [Transcendent King]
- God does not dwell in temples made by man (v24) [Self-Sufficient]
- God does not rely on, nor need man (v25) [Self-Sustaining]
- God gives life and breath to all people (v25) [Sustaining Creator]
- God gives all things to all people (v25) [Sustainer, Gracious]
- God made all mankind from one man (v26) [Wise Creator]
- God made mankind to spread and live over the entire earth (v26) [King]
- God appoints the times (beginning through end) of each person (v26) [Sovereign]
- God sets the boundaries where mankind lives (v26) [Sovereign]
- God has made man rely entirely on Him so that they would seek Him (v27) [Kind, Sovereign Creator]
- God is “not far from each of us” (v27) [Immanent]
- God actively causes us to exist (v28) [Sustaining Creator]
To be sure, a theologian could squeeze out much more than this feeble attempt, but even with a cursory look we see that Paul has proclaimed a great wealth of knowledge about God, packed tightly for rapid fire, maximum force.
As a side note from this highly uneducated fellow: the Athens passage doesn’t say how long Paul spoke, but because there’s a clear beginning and end (Acts 17:22, 31-32), and because it is written as a quote, it seems quite possible that Luke’s record isn’t merely a summary of a longer speech, but an actual representation of what was said, making this presentation highly focused and to the point. That’s just an observation and for free...and maybe something to consider when stop-light preaching ;)
If we were to take away one aspect from Acts 17 to work into our own presentations, it might be this one. We’ll see in a moment that who God is will drive Paul’s call to repentance, but we shouldn’t miss the fundamental point being raised. As Creator, God has full rights and privileges over what He creates (which is everything!). We often talk about the the law of God, which is useful to help us see our sinfulness, but we aren’t to obey the law just because God is big and powerful and can make us do what He wants. A right response to a knowledge of Him certainly is fear, but it is because He is that Creator that he has the right to decide how all things are to be (law, place to live, time we’re born and time we die, eternal punishment, etc). Because He’s good and holy and just, as believers we can gladly follow Him, knowing that His law is a delight (Psalm 119:77); but it is because He’s the Creator that He has the right to do and require as He wills - He neither owes us anything, nor is required to do anything for us.
That one theological underpinning puts us (mankind) in our place. He decides whether we’re male or female and if we’ll be single our whole life or married with a dozen kids. Just as He tells the seas to go so far and no further (Job 38:11), He sets what we will do and where we will go...and when and how we will die. And as the Creator who has been spurned by His creation, He sets when there will be judgement, what punishment is like, and how long it will last. Rightly understanding who God is as Creator is enough to understand why we must obey Him (whether or not we suppress the truth of that knowledge is another thing - Romans 1).
That can be expanded much further (ex: God’s nature informs His laws and response to our sin, etc), but I just wanted to highlight one thing in particular that Paul is telling the Athenians: God is the Creator.
Who God is Not
...for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children.’ “Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man.(Acts 17:28-29, NASB)
Because I’ve heard Christians unthinkingly refer to people “back then” as foolishly bowing down to idols they created (as if there isn’t that very same thing going on even today in parts of the world!), to clarify: Paul isn’t saying that because they made their statues out of particular material, or that they made a physical image at all, that that was the problem. He wasn’t saying their art wasn’t enough like the true God. Rather, their problem (like ALL people of ALL time) originated from their thoughts and ideas of who God even is (Acts 17:29) and that spilled over into what they made and worshiped. Their altars and idols was merely the outworking of an inward condition. Paul even alluded to the foolishness of those thoughts because as images of God (His “offspring”, Acts 17:29) they should have known better that God wouldn’t be like the mute, dumb, lame gods portrayed by their art!
Who God is Means Repent
“Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.”(Acts 17:30-31, NASB)
After speaking about who God is and how the Athenians thoughts of Him fall short, Paul then comes to his climax of what that means (you have to wonder if they expected this when they invited him to speak!): “Therefore” (knowing who He is and that we exist entirely at His pleasure), “repent”. And why repent? Effectively: “Because this sovereign God who created you and keeps you existing even at this moment has fixed a day to judge you in righteousness.” Paul here adds to the proclamation of who God is - He is a good (a righteous) Judge.
When God is known, when the Holy Spirit graciously affects our hearts with that knowledge, one can only say, “I am undone! I’m a man of unclean lips!” (Is 6:5). Paul declared who God is, and the Athenians' sin of idolatry was "undone".
I think this is important to remember: We all know that we are sinful. We may not know in the way that we (when non-believing) walk around all day thinking we are sinful (quite the contrary - we justify and make ourselves “good”!), but when set next to the holy God, we immediately know we aren’t Him...and quake (c.f. James 2:19*).
* yes, James is speaking of demons, but the unbeliever, if he or she begins to have an understanding of who God actually is, should start to shudder as well...we pray unto salvation!
Note that I have intentionally “skipped” discussing the reference to Jesus (“through a Man whom He appointed”) because our focus here is on knowing who God is that drives knowing why we need to repent. In our context (America) we can say that in addition to showing who the true God is, we also need to show who the true Jesus is - we have not only an altered, unknown God, but also an unknown Savior. As we’ve discussed elsewhere, however, with someone who doesn’t have a right idea of God or their standing before Him as sinners, they likely aren’t yet ready to understand the glorious significance of Jesus. Expanding on that wasn’t Paul’s focus, and so we’ll leave that topic for later.
What can we take away from this passage?
For starters, this is America 2016 and NOT 1st century Athens. We should never go to the Bible to attempt to extract a “method” that we apply blindly today as if that’s the way. The Bible teaches us (through instruction and example) how to live in this world, and that includes evangelism. Paul’s approach in this section was for the hearers at Athens and not for us, so it was not instruction on how to evangelize.
However, in seeing how he approached them, we can learn from his example. He understood where they were, and what they had wrong. Yes, they needed to know Christ and yes, they were all sinners. But Paul perceived that they didn’t even know who God was, and setting the record straight became his focus. More specifically, he purposefully highlighted that God was their Creator (with implied rights over them).
Second - though we don’t live in 1st century Athens, we share one (at least) major common issue: we (America) have many ideas of who God is (many thoughts and images). Each idea drives how we live (“God is love [as I define it], therefore, you know, love wins! Yay me!”). The average men and women walking by don’t know who the God of the Bible is.
Let me repeat that: very few people walking by on the street know God as He has revealed Himself in the Bible. Not the God Paul described. Not the Creator who has full rights and privileges over His creation. Not the God who is right to judge and right to condemn. Instead, their mouths are full of wooden caricatures of the living God. They can’t tell the difference between ‘a’llah and Yahweh - indeed even Ganesh is just another blind man’s interpretation of the same thing. God is a running gag on late night TV and a foul word early Sunday morning. He’s twice as tolerant as Phil and nearly as good as Oprah . He’s man’s best idea ever, history’s most elaborate con, and, um, stardust! He’s a man-hating woman in a bigoted black man’s body. He’s all about peace and love and gender expression, man. Oh, and he LOVES his guns and apple pie and baseball games.
In a postmodern world, people like hearing many ideas (cf. Acts 17:21) and have a “live and let live” (if you aren’t Christian) attitude about it all. We are a very religious nation, yet think God is the art of our imaginations (secularists are currently fighting an internal war as their worldview “origin” problems have begun to overwhelm and a form of spirituality is creeping in, even there).
As a fellow “ambassador of Christ”, let me suggest here in closing that we need to seriously consider whether or not our work starts at arguing man as sinner, which presumes hearers have a roughly Biblical idea of God, or whether we actually need to step back like Paul did with the men of Athens and say “The God who made the world and all things in it...”
Abortion Clinic and North Hollywood
Continue to pray for Don as he is at the abortion clinic in Mission Hills two days a week, every week on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 8am - 10am. Contact Steve if you would like to join them if you would like to confirm Don will be there, or just show up either day as he almost always is!
Also, Steve and Paul are often greeting the early, half awake commuters on their way to work Wednesday mornings. If you would like to join them, ask Steve to add you to his text notification list. It 1) helps for him to know if someone will be going with him, and 2) makes sure you get cancellation notices the evening before so you don’t show up only to find yourself alone!
Is the Bible Foundational to Christianity? Engaging with Andy Stanley
One of the most profound challenges for Christians as we live in an ever-more-hostile world is how to properly defend the faith against the incessant attacks against it. And these attacks have taken their toll. We have seen far too many casualties over the years as people leave the church because they had doubts or questions that were never answered.
It is precisely this issue that is behind Andy Stanley’s recent sermon, “The Bible Told Me So” (preached Aug 28, 2016). Stanley, son of well-known Atlanta pastor, Charles Stanley, is the senior pastor of Northpoint Community Church in Alpharetta, GA.Note that I think Kruger is perhaps a little too gracious with Andy Stanley as his waywardness isn't confined to one recent, confusing sermon as is implied in this article. However, his overall argument against Stanley's assertions in the particular sermon is, I think, quite helpful.