Most people you talk to will say they believe in God. Because of that belief most people feel they will probably be “OK” when the die. That is not necessarily so. It is not enough to believe in God. It matter which God you believe in. Our world is filled with distorted images of God. There are manmade gods of stone and there are manmade gods of our imagination. Neither can save us. This morning we are going to look at the nature of the true God. To do so, we turn to Acts 17 beginning in verse 16.
Athens was city known for its culture and philosophical debate. It was a major center for the thinkers of the world. Paul arrived in Athens alone. In verse 15 we are told “the men who escorted Paul brought him to Athens and left him with instructions for Silas and Timothy to join him as soon as possible.” Verse 16 begins with “while Paul was waiting for them.” Paul was without the rest of his missionary team but this did not stop him from ministering. He spent his entire ministry in Athens on his own. Timothy and Silas did not catch up with Paul until he arrived at Corinth.
As Paul traveled through the city he was greatly distressed to see this city full of idols. Athens was a place known for the hundreds of idols and temples to various gods. The word “distressed” isn’t really strong enough. Paul was angry. He was angry at this offense to God and angry that so many people were being led astray.
Paul took a two-pronged approach to his ministry in Athens. He spoke and reasoned in the synagogue like he always had, and he also hung around the marketplace so he could engage people in spiritual conversations. This later kind of evangelism is something all of us can do. It’s called friendship evangelism. You strike up a conversation with people and look for ways to turn the conversation to spiritual things. It’s low-key, natural, and very effective.
Athens was known as a contemporary think tank. People loved to debate theology and philosophy. It was a perfect setting for discussion. A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers entered the debate with Paul. Epicureans believed the chief purpose of living was happiness and pleasure. They were the first to live by the motto, “eat drink and be merry”. The Stoics believed that everything was God (pantheism). They felt the key to life was duty and self-discipline. The Stoic believed you had to live unaffected by pleasure and pain.
As Paul talked to these men some dismissed him, others were intrigued by his words. Peterson paraphrases this text,
He got to know some of the Epicurean and Stoic intellectuals pretty well through these conversations. Some of them dismissed him with sarcasm: “What an airhead!” But others, listening to him go on about Jesus and the resurrection, were intrigued: “That’s a new slant on the gods. Tell us more.”
These people got together and asked him to make a public presentation over at the Areopagus, where things were a little quieter. They said, “This is a new one on us. We’ve never heard anything quite like it. Where did you come up with this anyway? Explain it so we can understand.” Downtown Athens was a great place for gossip. There were always people hanging around, natives and tourists alike, waiting for the latest tidbit on most anything.
Paul was equal to the task before him. He began his talk by affirming the people. He congratulated them on their desire to find and know God. (It is always better to begin a conversation with a compliment.) He observed that the city had a statue to an “unknown God”. He told them, “I’d like to tell you about this God you do not know.”
God is the Creator
Paul said, “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.” Paul affirmed the Supremacy of this unknown God. He is the Creator. He made everything in heaven and everything on earth.
In Romans 1 Paul tells the Roman Christians,
19 what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.
Paul does not argue for the existence of God, He assumes it. He contends that all you have to do is look around and the evidence for God is clearly seen.
- We know every effect must have a cause. Things don’t just happen. A ball rolling down the street didn’t just start rolling. It was pushed by the wind, started in motion by a child, or is being pulled down hill by gravity. Likewise the world didn’t just “happen”. Someone started the world as we know it.
- We know every design has a designer. A jet airplane doesn’t just form from a tornado going through a junkyard. The pieces of a jet are intricate. They argue for engineers and mechanics who have put the jet together. In the same way, as you look at the creation around you; as you look at the wonder of a flower or the glory of a harvest; as you look at the incredible intricacy and design of the human body, even if you had never gone to church you could reasonably conclude that there must be a being or force greater and wiser than we are. Carl Sagan a professed atheist wrote: “A single human chromosome contains twenty billion bits of information. How much information is twenty billion bits? If a typical book contains five hundred pages, the information content of a single human chromosome corresponds to some four thousand volumes.” Did all this intricacy come about by accident? I don’t think so.
- Our sense of right and wrong and hunger for the supernatural must come from somewhere. If there is a moral law within us, there must be a moral lawgiver.
Paul teaches that the true God, the God of the Bible, the God of Christians, is a God who is eternal, a God who creates, a God who cannot be housed or controlled by men. God is incomprehensible. That doesn’t mean we can’t have a relationship with Him, it just means He is bigger than our minds can ever fully grasp.
God is the Sustainer
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. 26 From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; [vv. 25-26]
God is the sustainer. He not only made all things, He keeps all things going. In Romans 11 Paul said, “Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.” (11:35,36)
There is a foolish notion that God needs us. He needs our worship, He needs our love, and He needs our best effort. Though God desires all of these things, He doesn’t NEED them. God is full, complete, and lacks nothing. God is self-sufficient. We are the ones who have needs. We are the ones who are lost without Him. If God were to back away from His creation, life would cease. If God were to withdraw His hand from the world the sun would stop shining, the earth would stop spinning, and we would die.
God is the Ordainer
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 [v. 26]
God is in charge. He has a plan. Life is not arbitrary but purposeful. God has not taken a “hands off” approach to His creation. He is guiding us to His purposes.
It is safe to say that you are not here by accident today. God has brought you to this place, at this time, perhaps to hear this message. God is interested in your life. He cares about the direction your life takes.
We should Seek This God
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. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ [vv. 27,28]
Why did God make us? Why does He sustain us and lead us? It’s because He wants us to know Him.
Paul’s argument is pretty simple, If there is a God who is the Creator, Sustainer, and Ordainer of men, then we should certainly bow before Him. He is our superior, He is our life and our hope.
Paul told the Athenians, “God is not hiding”. God is not far from each one of us. It may seem like God is terribly far away in your life but in truth He may simply be standing around the corner waiting for your call.
I’m sure all of you have played the wonderful game, “Peek-a-boo”. Child psychologists suggest that this is actually a valuable game to play with children. When children are very young, when the parent “disappears”, the child believes the parent is gone. When they reappear they are happy because the parent has come back. By playing peek-a-boo you help your child understand that even though at times you disappear, you will return.
It is the same way with the Lord. Though He seems far away, He is not. He is just around the corner, waiting for your call. As you grow to trust Him you learn that when He seems far away, he is not. He will not abandon you.
Paul concludes his message with some final applications. First, since God is the Creator, Sustainer and Ordainer of Life, we need to stop thinking that God can be confined to the form of an idol. We must stop making the God of Creation one of many gods in our life. We must stop trivializing His greatness.
We all struggle with idolatry. We all have a tendency to put the created before the Creator. Anything that comes before the Lord in our life is our idol. It can be our health, our family, our job, sports, travel, or our education. ANYTHING that comes before the Lord is just as offensive to God as those golden idols that stood along the streets of Athens.
We try to justify our idolatry. We say, “God understands”. No, He doesn’t. Would you understand if your child called lots of people “mom” or “dad”? No. That is position that is reserved for only one. What makes you think that God “understands” our desire to put other things before Him? Suppose a star player came to his coach on the eve of the big game and says, “Coach I won’t be at the team meeting tonight. There is this movie on TV that I really want to see.” Would the coach understand? Of course not! The meeting is far more important than the movie. Our trivializing of faith is an offense to God.
We also try to excuse or redefine our idolatry. We let other gods line the streets of our lives but we claim, “the Lord knows my heart.” You are right, He does. The question is this: “Do you know your heart?” The way we live reveals the things we value. The things that get priority in our time are the things we value the most. You can say all you want about how much you love the Lord. The proof is in the living.
Secondly, Paul tells us that we need to repent. We need to see God in His greatness and turn from our sin to follow Him. To repent means to be sorry for our sin. It means to be sorry enough to make real changes in our lives.
We can and should say, “I’m sorry for putting other things before the Lord.” True sorrow goes further. You are truly repentant when you realign your priorities. True sorrow means putting the Lord first on our calendars and fitting other things around Him rather than the other way around.
Third, We should repent immediately because a day of judgment is coming. Paul encouraged these people to repent because of what is at stake. A day of judgment is coming. Some day you and I will have to stand before the judgment seat of Christ. The question is, do you want to face that day holding on to your goodness or holding on to the goodness God has given you through Christ?
Finally, Paul pointed to Jesus. Jesus is the one who will be central in this time of judgment. He is the one who has proved His right to judge through His resurrection from the dead.
I don’t know if Christ actually will be doing the judging or whether Paul means Christ (and our response to Him) will be the basis of judgment. It may be both. Certainly, the question that will be key on the Day of Judgment will be, “How did you respond to Jesus?” Our eternal destiny will be determined by whether we received Christ as Savior or whether we rejected His offer of grace. You can believe in God with great sincerity but if you do not receive and embrace the One the true God has offered for your salvation, you will be lost for eternity.
After Paul shared this message the Athenians responded in three different ways. One group of people laughed and walked away. They thought it was all a joke. They wanted nothing to do with the new life offered in Christ. They preferred their idolatry to life in fellowship with the Creator. These would be the people who would have said, “Hey, I’d rather go to hell because that’s where all my friends are going to be!” They didn’t “get it”. They turned away from the true God.
The second group wanted to hear more. They were intrigued, but they were not ready to make a decision. These people were open. Possible many of these folks eventually came to a place where they did trust Christ.
Perhaps this is where you are. You may be interested in the truth about Christ but you are still weighing the information. Good for you. Please, talk further about this issue. Talk with Pastor John or myself. We’d love to show you the evidence for Jesus as the Son of God. We’d love to talk to you about the evidence for the resurrection.
Let me caution you however. Do not put this pursuit off. It’s too important to delay. Don’t make this merely an academic issue. The Christian life is not an intellectual debate; it is personal. It’s not about theology, it’s about life.
Finally, there were those who believed. There were some who heard the message, confessed their sin and embraced the gift of God of eternal life through Christ. These people were made new. They left the gathering no longer enemies of God but they went home that day as children of the true and living God.
A group of scholars from many different religions got together to debate the various religions of the world. Someone asked, “What is it that is unique about Christianity?” It wasn’t the fact that God came to earth. Many religions talked about their Gods walking the earth as men. It wasn’t the law, for every religion has it’s set of laws. They were stumped. What made Christianity unique?
CS Lewis walked into the gathering during the time of this debate. He asked what the argument was about. He was asked what he thought it was that made Christianity unique from every other religion. What made the Christian God unique from all other gods? Lewis replied, “That’s easy, it’s grace.”
The gathering debated further and realized Lewis was correct. Every other religion urges people to try to earn salvation. The God of the Bible is the God who offers us forgiveness as a gift that is provided through the person and work of Christ. This God offers a new beginning. This God took our sin upon Himself. This God wants to live with Him even after we die. This God is eternal. He is the Creator, Sustainer, Ordainer, and the Redeemer.
It’s not enough to simply believe in god. We must believe in the true God. Are you putting your trust in a nondescript god of your imagination or have you given yourself to the true and living God? It’s not just an academic question. It is truly a matter of life and death.