The Work in Athens: Part 4 of 6
by John Lowe
Paul knew this unknown God. As a Jew, he had known Him, by means of His inspired Word, since his earliest boyhood days. He had known Him as Elohim, Adonai, and Jehovah, as Jehovah Jireh, Jehovah Nissi, and Jehovah Tsidkenu. He had known Him as Creator and Sustainer of the universe, as the rock of ages, the shepherd of Israel, the fountain of living water. As a Christian he knew Him to be the Incarnate Word, God manifest in flesh, Jesus Christ the Lord. No man in all the world was better equipped to make known to the Athenian intellectuals and dilettantes this unknown God than was Paul. The image to the unknown god had nearly bridged the gap for Paul and had given him the opening he needed.
24 God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands;
25 Neither is worshipped with men's hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things;
Paul began with the basic premise that runs throughout his speech: God is Creator. He referred to God as the Maker of the “world,” a term that would be familiar to every Greek. The concept of God as an absolute Creator, however, would not be so easy for them to grasp. For them, divinity was to be found in the heavens, in nature, in humanity. The idea of a single supreme being who stood over the world, who created all that exists, was totally foreign to them. This was indeed an “UNKNOWN GOD.”
Once the premise that God is Creator is granted, two things follow. First, God “does not live in Temples built by hands.” This is a thoroughly Biblical thought. God had made very clear all the way through the Old Testament—even when He gave to Israel the pattern for the tabernacle and the temple that He did not dwell in one geographical spot. Solomon acknowledged this in his prayer at the dedication of the temple: “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain thee; how much less is this house that I have builded?” (1 Kings 8:27). These men in the Old Testament recognized that God the Creator, the living God, could not live in a building that had been made by man. Man lives in a universe that God has made. Why does man get the idea that he can build a building for God to live in? The more philosophically minded Athenians would have had no problem with this. The philosophers also would have had no problem with Paul’s second critique of human worship, “he is not served by human hands.” (17:25). Not only do the Temples not contain God, but the services in the Temples add nothing to God! In two brief statements Paul completely wiped-out the entire religious system of Greece! Paul’s qualifier, “as if he needed anything,” would particularly have resonated with them. It was a commonplace of Greek philosophy to view divinity as complete within itself, totally self-sufficient, totally without need. And they would have agreed with Paul also that the divinity is the giver of “life and breath and everything else.” But there was a world of difference between the philosophers’ pantheism and Paul’s strict monotheism. The best commentary on this verse is found in 1 Chronicles 29:14. David prays: “Who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give anything to you, i.e., to God? Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand.”
Everywhere he looked Paul saw the work of genius. Fifty colossal figures featuring pediment7 style architecture and more than 520 feet of continuous fluted columns on bases and a band of richly ornamented scenes—horses of the sun god, throwing up their magnificent heads and the horse of the Moon goddess, which seemed poised to leap out of the very stone.
Paul dismissed it all as worthless, that is, as a sanctuary for true faith. There flashed into his mind something he had heard Stephen say years before about the Temple in Jerusalem: “The Most High dwelleth not in Temples made with hands” (Acts 7:48). “Made with hands” was an expression commonly used by Greek philosophers and Jews alike in their attacks on idolatry. Once Paul was prepared to stone a man to death for a statement like that. Now he picked it up and hurled it at the men of Athens. God is independent of sacrifices, sanctuaries, and service alike; God does not need anything from us. It is not the work of men’s hands God wants, it is the worship of men’s hearts. It is impossible either to corner God in a temple or to conceptualize him with an idol.
Every statement Paul made was rooted in Old Testament thought. The idea of God being the grantor of life and breath, which is the entire point of verses 24-25, can be found in passages like Isaiah 42:5 and Psalms 50:7-15. It is not the philosophical concept of a divine imminent principle that pervades all nature and humankind. It is the Biblical concept of a sovereign Creator God who stands above His creation and in Whom humanity as the creature is ultimately responsible. Such a God could not be enshrined in human temples or manipulated by human cults. Much of the conceptuality may have struck a responsive chord with the Athenians. Paul probably was struggling to communicate the Gospel in terms understandable to them. But on the basic premise, there was no compromise. There is but one sovereign God, Creator of all. It is God who gives to us what we need; “life, and breath, and all things.” God is the source of every good and perfect gift (James 1:17). He gave us life and He sustains that life by his goodness (Matthew 5:45). It is the goodness of God that should lead men to repentance (Romans 2:4). But instead of worshipping the Creator and glorifying Him, men worship His creation and glorify themselves (Romans 1:18-25). The point that he was making was that the world was not a thing of chance, but the work of God. To Him, they must abandon all their other gods. Otherwise, He would remain to them the “UNKNOWN GOD.”
THE PROVIDENTIAL GOD (17:26-27)
These verses form the heart of the speech. As such, they should be central to Paul’s argument, and they are. They contain two emphases: (1) God’s providence over humanity and (2) human responsibility to God. The thought that runs through these verses is: God made humanity for two purposes: (1) to inhabit the earth (v. 26) and (2) to seek Him (v. 27). The dominating thought is still that of God as Creator.
26a And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth.
So much has been made of this “one blood” business that I think we need to dispense with any wrong notions here. God “made” every human nation. There is the added distinction, however, that He made every nation “from one man.” The reference is most likely to Adam, and the emphasis is on the universality of humankind’s relationship to God. Although there are many nations, though they are scattered over the face of the earth, they are one in their common ancestry and in their relationship to their Creator. One can see the significance of this in an address before Gentiles. The God whom Paul proclaimed was no local Jewish cult God. He was the one sovereign Lord of all humankind.
This verse is not talking about brotherhood. The only brotherhood which Scripture knows is the brotherhood of those who are in Christ Jesus. Perhaps I should amend that by saying there is a brotherhood of sin. We are all sinners.
Paul left no room for a theory of a master race through the Greeks; the Athenians considered themselves to be such a race. It was popularly held among the Athenians that they had “sprung from the soil,” i.e., that they were indigenous and therefore different—superior—to others. Other peoples were “barbarians” to them. But actually all races had a common origin; all trace their descent from Adam.
26b And hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation.
The exact meaning of verse 26b is to some degree problematic. To what do the “times” refer? They could either refer to the seasons or to historical epochs (eras, times, ages). The same uncertainty exists in the expression “the bounds of their habitation” (exact places where they should live).” Does this refer to the livable areas of the planet or to the boundaries between nations? If Paul was talking about seasons and habitable zones, he was pointing to God’s providence8 in nature. If the reference is to historical times and national boundaries, the emphasis is on God’s lordship over history. In either instance, Paul’s point would be the same—the care and providence of God in His creation. The statements do seem to contain an underlying thought of “natural revelation.” Much as Paul argued in Romans 1:18-20 and in the speech at Lystra (14:17), God made himself known in some sense by the works of His creation. All people, Gentiles included, have experienced this and to that extent are responsible before God. This led to the climactic statement about seeking God in verse 27.