The God Who is Near All People: A Meditation on Acts 17:15-34, Part Three
Updated: Apr 16, 2021
So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 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. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 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, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. 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.’
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. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 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.”
Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them. Acts 17:22-34
It is an evidence of God's hidden nearness when our response to the world begins to change. Yet his power is still not fully realized until it begins to flow through us.
When God is Near, the World Responds to You Differently
Just watch. Paul was brought to the Areopagus, the court with both religious and moral authority. Tim Keller compares this to a modern-day gathering of the faculties of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. These were high-minded culture-makers. And among such a crowd, consider the dilemma Paul faced.
If he chose to come on too weak, they would likely have just added Jesus to their pantheon of gods. If he instead decided to come on too strong, they could have very well prohibited the preaching of Jesus in Athens and beyond.
Instead, God gave Paul words that didn't just accomplish the greatest wonder ancient Greece had ever experienced. These words continue to teach us about what God is doing throughout the world. Take note how these words worked wonders:
Paul Told a Story
Paul didn't just tell any old story. He told what is now described as a "C2C" story, meaning a "Creation to Christ" story. It was basically a contextualized overview of the biblical narrative. Just consider the beginning and end:
“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands…For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” Acts 17:24, 31
Even though these were the elite, educated, and cultured of Athens, Paul told a story. The simplicity is profound. Every culture understands the concept of story. Why? We were made as part of a story. Think about the plot diagram from your high school lit class. It probably looked something like this:
And it likely contained these four basic terms: exposition, conflict, climax, and resolution. Where did that concept come from? Aristotle? Shakespeare? Your lit teacher? No way! These essential components of any good story were birthed by God in his grand story. Look at how richly they find their origin in the four movements of his redemption narrative:
Exposition - Conflict - Climax - Resolution
Creation - Fall - Redemption - Consummation
A better story was precisely what the Areopagus had been longing for. It's what our world longs for.
Paul Used Words That Made Sense
Verse 22 also shows us that Paul prefaced his story with this intriguing statement:
“People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. Acts 17:22
Was Paul complementing their idolatry? Surely not! This was the same man who was "greatly distressed" at the sight of all the idols. Rather, Paul was avoiding barriers to the gospel by not attacking Athenian culture outright. More than that, however, he apparently saw in their religiosity a God-given longing to know the true God. In other words, he found a bridge to the gospel. And as quickly as possible, he walked across that bridge:
For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you. Acts 17:23
Paul used this bridge to explain who God is. And as he expressed the divine truth, it naturally exposed the foolishness of worshiping other gods. Note that this is vastly different from denouncing and condemning—'You idiots, stop your idolatry!' Rather, rising from his affection for God and his creatures, Paul describes the Lord of heaven and earth.
Paul Showed Where God was Already Near
Then in verse 28 Paul continues his expert contextualization (relating his message to a particular time and place):
‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ Acts 17:28
This is a hymn to Zeus! That’s like a preacher today quoting Lady Gaga: “I’m on the right track, baby, I was born this way". Rather than using a trusted commentary, Paul used cultural commentary to relate the gospel. How does he justify this?
For that, we must return to verses 26-27:
From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. Acts 17:26-27
Paul could use the culture to show that God was already near because, well, God already was near. As always, he is way ahead of us. He created cultures. He maintains them. And he does so that people might know him.
However, just like a pitch dark escape room, people can feel their way around all day, but they need some hint, some revelation, to find the way out. That's why Paul continues, explaining that ignorance isn't an excuse and a day of judgment is coming—and this is certain because the Judge has been raised from the dead. In other words, 'The court date is fixed, the Judge has been appointed, and you've received the summons.'
What was the response? We began Part Three with the notion that the world to you differently when God is near. Well, we read in verses 32-34,
Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them. Acts 17:32-34
There were three responses. Some mocked, some were interested, and some believed. Or, to put it more clearly, many mocked, some were interested, and a few believed. Was this a failure? By no means! This is how the world typically responds to a well-contextualized gospel message. It's the miracle of God holding out his all day to a stubborn people, wooing some of them, and redeeming a chosen few.
It's the kind of thing that happens when we live as though God is near.