IDOLS, THE LIVING GOD, AND THE RISEN MAN (ACTS 17.16-34)
Paul had to spend some time waiting in Athens, the sophisticated home of philosophical debate. He was surrounded by impressive statuary in honour of idols of Greek gods. These in many instances were erected to bolster up the political power of local statesmen, such as Pericles. To Paul they were a denial of the claims of God, the Creator of all.
Splendid as they were, the idolatrous statues could not altogether mask the basic weakness and insecurity of idolatry as a basis for finding a meaning to life. Some occasion had prompted the Athenians to erect an altar to "The Unknown God", an admission that their many gods did not provide all the answers. They believed that gods needed worshippers and gifts to maintain their status, for they thought that their gods rivalled each other in a process of seeking power at each others expense. They had indeed created gods in their own image! One should read for comparison the alarm among the worshippers of Artemis (AV - "Diana") at Ephesus in ch.19.
Moved by this sad scene of spiritual darkness Paul went to the "market". This was more than simply a marketplace. The market (agora in Greek) was an open space where trade was carried on. It was also a place where orators proclaimed their views; where official business was transacted; where democracy was practised in this city where democracy was introduced to Europe. Two of the leading philosophical groups became interested in Pauls ideas as he spoke to people in the market. They suspected that he was a confidence trickster who had picked up a line of patter which he himself did not understand (a "babbler"). When they heard him speak of "Jesus" and "resurrection", they supposed that these were the names of foreign deities of whom they had not yet heard. The Areopagus (Mars Hill), where their high court sat, would be a good place to give the stranger an opportunity to explain his astonishing ideas at greater length.
Paul Sets Forth the Message of the Living God
Luke has given us, as always, a summary of Pauls address. First, Paul tells of his reaction, as a visitor, to the sights of the city. There is evidence, he says, that the Athenians are extremely religious (AV "too superstitious", literally "very (or too) deity-fearing"). It is probably best to take this as a neutrally phrased statement, rather than a directly negative criticism. He explains that his reaction is based on what he has seen in the way of "objects of worship" (v.23; AV "devotions"). Specifically he has observed one unusual item, an altar with the inscription "TO THE UNKNOWN GOD". Since they confess in the inscription that they are ignorant of some deity or other, he will tell them precisely of an unknown god the Creator of all, the living God.
Many of their gods were associated particularly with one area or country where there was a temple or shrine or oracle. Paul says the Creator made the material world, the universe and everything in it. The Creator cannot be confined to a temple in the world His hands have made. He is not dependent for His status on gifts or ceremonies provided by His human creatures, as if He depended on them. On the contrary, His creatures depend on Him for life, survival, everything.
No race, says Paul, should think of themselves as special or superior, for all come of one stock, made by God and allocated space in the world. He gives them seasons to provide sustenance on which they depend. God intends that they should seek to get to know Him. God is not elusive or beyond human knowledge, for mankind live, move and exist under His power and care. The words "in him we live and move and have our being" (v.28) are a quotation from a Greek poet Epimenides of Crete, who wrote this about the "senior" Greek god Zeus. Paul follows this quotation at once with another, "For we are also his offspring". This time he is quoting from Aratus, a Cilician poet. Paul himself, of course, was from Cilicia, where Tarsus was situated. His audience would perhaps recognise the sources of his quotations. There are faint glimmerings of ill-formed ideas in the poets, but the larger picture has escaped them. (The clear view of an almighty Creator has been lost by men, as Romans 1 explains.) They have not been able to come to terms with the truth of the living God, Creator of the universe, on whom everyone depends, and who depends on no one.
The Crucial Fact The Resurrection of Jesus Christ
God, the Creator, the source of all life, the sustainer of all living beings, transcends all national and racial boundaries. God has done a new thing, making Himself known in one person, whom He has raised from the dead.
Before He had made this new move God could tolerate peoples ignorance of Him (compare Acts 14.16), but now He calls for a response in repentance by all mankind. He will call the entire human race to account on a future day in which He will judge them by that one man whom He raised from the dead. This judge is Jesus, whom Paul has been preaching.
Since Jesus has come the partial glimpses of truth and reality are not excusable. God has been declared in Jesus. God calls on men to acknowledge Him as Lord, for it is in Him that new life and salvation are found.
The resurrection of Christ was then, as it is now, the crucial fact in our knowledge of God. Without it, we have no gospel. The resurrection proclaims that Jesus Christ is Lord. His resurrection was inevitable (Acts 2.24). His exaltation was inevitable because He came from God, finished the work He came to do, and has gone back to God.
A Footnote on Acts 14.6-20 - Paul and Barnabas at Lystra
Paul and Barnabas had to prevent the simple rural people at Lystra from offering sacrifices to them after Paul had healed a man. The people thought they were gods in disguise. Paul explained the truth of God the Creator, and the language, while simpler, is strikingly similar to that used in ch.17. The language we use with different audiences will differ, but the fundamental message will remain the same. The irony of the situation in ch.14 is that Pauls message to the heathen was interrupted by Jews from Antioch and Iconium, who professed to believe in the same God as Paul, but rejected the message which came from God.