The God Who Is Near All People: A Meditation on Acts 17:15-34, Part One
Updated: Apr 16, 2021
Those who conducted Paul brought him as far as Athens, and after receiving a command for Silas and Timothy to come to him as soon as possible, they departed. Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. Acts 17:15-16
Remember the first time you saw a big city? For me, having grown up in rural Kentucky, Atlanta was a big city. But perhaps a better example is the first time I visited Dubai. I was in awe of the metropolitan oasis. And I certainly couldn't take my eyes off the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building, positioned like a dark crack in the Arabian sky. Like a child, one thought interrupted another as I observed the new world around me. My tourist mode was in full-effect.
When God is Near, You See the World Differently
When Paul walked into Athens, he, too, had every reason to just be a tourist. Athens was, after all, the epicenter of Greek culture, mythology, architecture, athletics, and cuisine. Add to it that he was uncomfortably alone and running for his life—who would blame him for finding a hostel and resting up a while?
But Paul apparently perceived the situation quite differently, as verse 16 makes clear: "While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols."
This was by no means an investigation. With an estimated 73,000 idol statues saturating the ancient city, it would have been impossible not to see them. The description of that day was true: "[It] was easier to find a god than a man in Athens."
This overwhelming idolatry effectively made Paul "greatly distressed," a multifaceted phrase that combines anger, grief, and indignation. The best way I know how to describe it is, God forbid, the effect of coming home and discovering your spouse committing adultery. The rush of blood to your head would carry with it the combined force of multiple emotions, most likely including anger, grief, and indignation.
Why did Paul experience such intense distress? Only one explanation makes sense to me. He had come to know the only true God. Yet what he saw in Athens was not the beauty and sophistication for which it boasted, but a people consumed with idols. These people, created by the only true God, made to know him and honor him alone as God, exposed constantly to his eternal power and divine nature in creation, were instead glorying in their suppression of the truth. Paul's heart, filled with the Holy Spirit, righteously groaned within him: 'This is not the way it should be!'
Do you ever experience this? Not a holier-than-thou attitude. I'm talking about a compassionate disgust. Do you ever, for example, groan over the worship of power that's on display in a city's violence and death? Does watching the news ever lead you to anger, grief, or indignation; a longing for a new heaven and earth? Do you ever cry in your heart (or out loud), "This is not the way it should be!"
If you respond no, then perhaps you have yet to encounter God in such a way that you see the world differently. You may not bow down to idol statues, but that doesn't mean you're not bowing to something. Tim Keller tells us, “We don’t erect idols because we think that they are actually gods, we erect them because we think we are gods. We project ourselves onto these hunks of stone and worship our own image—or at least the image of who we would like ourselves to be.” We all have, as Romans 1:25 tells us, "exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen."
But the closer God comes to us, the more we see the world differently. The lenses change. Like the developing vision of a newborn baby, we can begin to see the things closest to us. The idolatry is revealed within. The Word and Spirit say, "This is not the way it should be!" pinpointing sin's tumorous presence and cutting it from our marrow. If the Spirit of God is alive within you, as he was in Paul, then this is part of his undeniable work. This is how you begin to see the world differently.