He Is Not Far

Acts 17:16-34

The truth is that we live in a culture that separates life and religion. Paul experienced that same kind of culture in Athens.

Paul never intended to go to Athens. His mission in Macedonia was cut short by the hostility of the Jews in Thessalonica who pursued him all the way to Berea. For his own safety, the Christians in Berea got Paul out of town and took him to the coast, about 20 miles away. From there they traveled south to Athens. When they arrived in Athens, the brothers who had escorted him left him there alone until he would be re-joined by Silas and Timothy who had stayed in Berea to strengthen the new church. He was supposed to wait and rest until Silas and Timothy arrived. And he did… for a while.

Athens’ cultural zenith had been five centuries earlier, when philosophers like Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, and Zeno walked its streets. Under the rule of Pericles, architecture, literature, philosophy, science, and rhetoric flourished; and Athens attracted intellectuals from all over the world. It was NYC, Boston, Paris and Hollywood all rolled into one. And even though its prominence had diminished, Athens in Paul’s day remained the intellectual and cultural capital of the world.

He hadn’t planned on preaching, but the more he walked around, the more he saw, and the more distressed he became over the idolatry and the worldliness that filled the city. Temples and shrines and altars devoted to every kind of god. There was the pantheon of the ancient Greek gods like Zeus and Ares and Poseidon. There were the Egyptian gods Isis and Osiris and Ra. The Roman gods like Jupiter, and Venus and Bacchus. There were Mesopotamian gods and Syrian gods. There were gods who controlled things like weather and crops and travel and fertility. We’re talking about hundreds of deities who control lives and destinies and fate. When you are surrounded by fear and superstition and greed and desire, you want to cover all your bases and not offend any of the gods.

Finally, he can’t keep silent any longer. He begins, as always in the synagogue with the Jews and God-fearing Greeks. And every day he goes to the marketplace and talks with the people there. Everywhere he goes, he finds himself surrounded by people who love to talk and debate religion and philosophy. In the marketplace he encounters a group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. That would have been a lively debate, because they are the opposite ends of the spectrum – the Epicureans lived by the philosophy, “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” Pleasure was the great pursuit of their life, and while they believed in the gods, they didn’t think the gods took any interest in humans or were involved in the lives of men. The Stoics emphasized one’s rational abilities and self-sufficiency. They believed emotions and strong passions were to be avoided because they clouded judgment. They practiced severe asceticism. Their view of god was a pantheistic “world-soul” binding everything together and creating harmony.

One group advocating immersing yourself in pleasure, the other saying to deny yourself pleasure. They are debating away, poking fingers in each other’s faces, bellowing their opinions and belittling those who disagree with them. And Paul walks up. And he jumps into the middle of it, “Wait a minute – you’re missing the point! Let me tell you about Jesus.”

So here’s Paul talking about Jesus and the resurrection, and they are scratching their heads thinking, is he promoting another god to add to our pantheon? They called him “a babbler.” They saw the lips moving, but all they could hear was “blah, blah, blah.” But hey, he ought to be good for a few laughs, let’s take him to the Areopagus. Now the Areopagus was the big show. That’s where the professional philosophers hung out. When you say Areopagus you’re talking about both a place and a group. It was a hill in Athens (the hill of Ares), a rocky height to the west of the Acropolis, on the south-east summit. The Areopagus was also the city council who met there – they assumed both legislative and judicial roles, so they were a powerful and influential body. They took philosophy seriously and they were the gatekeepers to the religions of Athens. If they gave you thumbs up, you had an open door to proclaim your new ideas in the city; if they voted against you, you’d better pack your bags and move on.

Paul stands before the Areopagus in a unique position. The speech Luke records for us is different from anything else that comes from Paul. Paul doesn’t go to the OT scriptures to prove his point (who cares?). He doesn’t present Jesus as the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy (so what?). Paul meets them on their home turf.

Karl Barth said that the preacher should stand in the pulpit with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. If we cannot speak the language and make the connection with the culture in which we live, we might as well be speaking a foreign language. Our message is timeless, but it is also timely. The message never changes, but it adapts and relates to every human culture. And Paul makes that connection – “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 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. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.” (vs. 23.)

He doesn’t begin by condemning their idolatry and branding them as ungodly – far from it! They are very religious – they worship many, many gods – but not the one true God. And he makes the connection through an altar that he discovered - “TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.” (Just in case they’ve missed one – and had they ever.) -- “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 hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by man’s design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 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 all men by raising him from the dead.” vss. 24-31.

Paul proclaims a God who will not fit neatly into their pantheon of deities and idols. He is not a provincial deity who arbitrarily and sometimes maliciously plays with some aspect of their world – destroying crops or causing fires or kidnapping children. Those are the kind of gods they envisioned – limited power, capricious, malicious, self-absorbed, unconcerned with the needs of humans. But this God whom Paul proclaimed is the creator of all the universe – he is powerful and holy and just.
• Their gods needed temples to live in and idols to represent them and people to take care of their needs. This God needs no temple, can never be represented by an idol, and needs no help from man. Instead, he is the one who “gives all men life and breath and everything else.”
• Their gods lived off on Mt. Olympus or in the sea or in the forests, aloof from mankind, wanting nothing to do with lesser beings. But our God is not only interested and concerned, his greatest desire is that we would seek him and find him. He is not far off and aloof – “he is not far from each one of us.”
• In fact, doesn’t that get to the heart of it? Like the Athenians, we want a god who is far off and uninvolved. We don’t really want a god who interferes in our lives and makes demands of us. We want a god we can leave in a building and come worship him when we please and as we please and not be bothered by him the rest of the time.

And while their gods were the stuff of ancient legends and mythology, our God has acted specifically and concretely by sending his son into the world to save the world and will send him again to judge the world. And he demands a specific and concrete response from us – repentance – to turn our lives from rebellious sin and ignorant idolatry. And the proof God gave that this was his doing and his demand was to raise his son from the dead.

That’s really all it took – when Paul spoke of the resurrection of the dead, it evoked such an intense response of contempt from some that it all but ended his preaching in Athens. Luke says that “some of them sneered, but others said, ‘We want to hear you again on this subject.’” But they didn’t.

Some have called it a failure, others admit limited success. Luke says that one member of the Areopagus named Dionysius believed, and a woman named Damaris and a number of others became followers of Paul. But there is no later mention of a church in Athens, either in the NT or in later historical writings. When Paul writes of his first converts in Achaia, the province of Athens and Corinth, it is the household of Stephanas, Christians in Corinth that he mentions (1 Cor. 16:15), not the Athenians.

It’s probable that nothing Paul could have said would have had an impact on the Areopagus, a hotbed of intellectual snobbery. The gospel demands a personal response of commitment from a group who had insulated themselves from personal response – Luke had characterized them as doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.

The truth is, we live in a culture that has insulated itself from personal response. Christianity is a set of beliefs, not a way of life. Church is a place you go on Sunday morning, not the family of God of which you are a vital part. Religion for most people is a duty to be performed – they come, to sit, to listen, to leave. When we insist that God calls us to be immersed in the life of a congregation, fully invested, fully involved – people look at me like I’m speaking a foreign language.

Does your religion impact the way you live? Or do you like to keep God in a box that you bring out and dust off for Sunday mornings? Paul said that “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.”

And perhaps that’s where you come up against a wall – repentance sounds negative and accusatory. Repentance means change and possibly giving up something that you don’t want to give up. And that’s where we miss out.

You see, repentance is not God’s way of emptying our lives of joy, but making room for an even greater filling with joy. But the problem is we can’t imagine what it is we’re missing, and what it is that God wants to fill us with unless we’re willing to take God at his word and take that step.

And also, like the Athenians, our lives are filled with gods – you might not have an idol in your living room or burn incense at a temple, but anything you allow to take a greater priority in life than God, is your god. Whatever occupies your thoughts, your time, your energy, in which you invest your money. That becomes your object of worship. And you may never have thought of anything in your life as an idol – but if it competes with God for your loyalty and your priorities – it is an idol. Maybe it’s your job, your recreation, your habits, your addictions - whatever you cannot or will not let God have priority over – it is your idol.

And God wants you to repentant so that he can fill you with something even better.

What God really wants is for you to seek him and find him. That’s why the creation, why his involvement in our lives, that is why the cross.

Jeremiah wrote, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:11-13).

Seek him with all your heart and you will find that he has been seeking you all along.