The Work in Athens: Part 5 of 6
by John Lowe
The rise and fall of nations, like the coming and going of the tides, is not determined by man, but is under God’s control. It was God who first determined where national ethnic groups should find their homes. Many factors set the boundaries of nations: rivers and mountains, language and weather, oceans and deserts. Genesis 2 makes it clear that national distinctions, far from being a bad thing, are ordained of God. Man’s cultural problems are largely the result of slavery and war, and of man’s lawless interference in the affairs of other peoples. Yet over it all—wars, famines, slave raids, terrorism, migrations—God has remained sovereign. The times, as well as the territories of the nations, are in his hand. It is interesting that the thing that has produced the wars of the past is that nation’s don’t want to stay where they belong; they want someone else’s territory. That has been the ultimate cause for almost every war that has ever been fought.
27 That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us:
I believe the NIV has made this verse easier to understand: “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.”
Verse 27 gives the second purpose of humankind in God’s creation—“that men would seek him.” The idea of seeking God is common in the Old Testament, but that does not seem to be the background here. For the Old Testament writers, the invitation to “seek God” was always made to those within the covenant community, to Israel to whom God had already made Himself known. In the present context, it is an offer made to Gentiles for whom the true God is “unknown.” The connection is with the preceding verse and its emphasis on God’s providence in His creation. God’s purpose in all this is stated as His desire that people might seek him and find him. The Stoics would have been in complete agreement. They would have argued that the divine principle was to be found in all of nature and that one should strive to grasp it as fully as possible through cultivating reason, that part of divinity that dwelt in one’s own human nature. They firmly believed that through the proper application of reason one could come to a knowledge of divinity. Paul would not have agreed. Even a knowledge of God from nature would still not be a human attainment but a revelation of God in His works. But Paul was not confident in the human ability to grasp such a natural revelation. Perhaps that is why he used the operative mood in verse 27, a mode of Greek grammar that is used here to express strong doubt. God created humans, Paul said, so they might seek Him and just possibly grope after Him and find Him. He had His doubts. People likely would not discover God in this fashion, even “though he be not far from every one of us.” There is no question about God’s providence; there is about humanity’s ability to make the proper response. There is also no question about God’s purposes. God did create humans “to seek Him.” This is the proper response of the creature. The responsibility of humanity is the worship of God. And notice this use of the phrase “every one of us.” It reminds us again that this God seeks to establish personal relationships; we know God is near since we depend upon Him at every turn.
28 For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring.
Verse 28 is transitional, linking up the theme of God’s proximity in verse 27b with the critique of idolatrous worship in verse 29. It also serves the rather unique function of providing the “scriptural base” for the speech. In this instance, though, it isn’t a matter of Scripture at all but rather a quote from a pagan philosopher. Scripture would have been meaningless to the Athenians. Paul still continued to address them as much as possible on their own terms. The phrase “in Him we live, and move, and have our being” seems to have been a more-or-less traditional Greek saying. Paul surely did not understand this in the Greek sense, which would emphasize the pantheistic view of the divinity residing in
human nature. Through God people live and move and have existence.
The last part the verse is introduced by Paul as a quote from the Greek poets. In the context of Paul’s speech, it referred to God and to humanity’s being His creation. Paul was not saying that all people on earth are the spiritual children of God, for sinners become God’s children only by faith in Jesus Christ (John 1:11-13).
29 Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man's device.
In verse 29 Paul returned to his earlier critique of artificial worship with which the speech began (17:24-25). Earlier he had critiqued both the temple and cults. Now he boldly attacked idolatry. The attack was based on the previous statement that humans are God’s offspring. The idea is that of people being made in God’s image. If humankind is the true image of God, the work of God’s hands, it follows that no image made by human hands can render proper homage to God. If humanity is like God, then God is not like gold or silver or any such material representation. Only the creature can express the true worship of the Creator, not the creation of the creature, not something made from human imagination and by human skill.
Because human beings are both like God and dependent upon God, it is absurd to think that the divine being can be portrayed by human art. The work of art is dependent on the artist’s imagination; it is also inanimate. On both counts, it is inferior to the person who made it. How much more, then, to the God who made human beings! Paul’s thought is best expressed by the phrase “God is Spirit” (John 4:24), for what is spiritual cannot be represented by an image of gold or silver or stone (Psalm 115:4; Isaiah 37:19; 40:19; 46:7). But even as he condemns idolatry, he is concerned to placate his hearers. Notice his use of the first person—not “you,” but “we” should not think along these lines.
Here Paul spoke very much in line with the Old Testament critique of idolatry. The Stoics would have agreed. They too saw idolatry as the irrationality of popular religion. But if they truly understood Paul’s teaching of the one true Creator God, they would have realized that they too were idolatrous. In their attempt to reach the divine through their own striving, in their view that the divine indwelt their own human nature, they had transgressed the relationship of creature to Creator. If they had generally accepted Paul’s major premise that God is Creator, they would have had to acknowledge their own self-idolatry, their own need for repentance. We should not forget that exposing error is as much a part of the Christian faith as is explaining the truth.
30 And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent:
31 Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.
Paul now directed his attention to the Athenians, returning to the theme of ignorance with which he began. They were guilty of ignorance. As Paul later put it more bluntly to the Romans: “Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools” (Romans 1:22). All their acts of piety were in vain, for they did not know or worship the one true God. In His patience, God formerly “overlooked” such ignorance (14:16; Romans 3:259
). He made allowance for the depraving ravages of sin, which could cause men to change “the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things” (Romans 1:23). This does not mean that men were not guilty (Romans 1:19-206), but only that God held back divine wrath. In due time, God sent a Savior, and now He commands all to repent of their foolish ways. The times of forbearance had now ended because their ignorance had now ended. Now they knew the one true God through Paul’s preaching. He was no longer an “unknown God”; and should they continue in their false worship and fail to acknowledge His sole lordship of heaven and earth, their sin would no longer be a sin of ignorance but a high-handed sin.