Underwhelmed by the Unknown God
Passage: Acts 17:16–34
Good morning! My name is Robert and I’m the Executive Pastor here at Orlando Grace. I am excited to get to preach on Acts 17 today, because almost exactly 1 year ago I preached on Acts 13. These two passages are famous for being compared with each other, because they are two of the most complete sermons we have from Paul and they show a contrast between his approach to sharing the gospel with Jews in Acts 13 and with Greeks here in Acts 17. When you look at the two side by side, you see a phenomenal example of something called “contextualization.” And this is when you take the same message, the same truth, but you change your points of emphasis to fit the needs of your context. Hence, “contextualization.” Now what this doesn’t mean is that you compromise the gospel to appeal to a culture’s sin or idolatry. That isn’t contextualizing the gospel that’s compromising the gospel. It’s fundamentally different. If anything, contextualization means you alter the emphasis of the message to confront the particular idols of the context you are speaking to.
So, back in Acts 13 you could see that Paul understood the Jews didn’t have a problem fearing God. They knew he was real, he was sovereign, there are no other gods but him, and that he commands exclusive obedience. So Paul didn’t spend any time proving any of that - he took it all for granted and opened his sermon by addressing “You who fear God.” He knew the problem they struggled with was recognizing that this great, awesome, all powerful God had become this humble man whom they had crucified. So he spent the whole message arguing this from their own Scriptures. But none of this would resonate with any Greek. So he didn’t go that route in Acts 17 at the areopagus. See Paul understands that Greeks don’t have a problem thinking God could become a man. Quite the opposite. Their gods are too human. Their myths are full of gods with very human personalities and desires having very human arguments, making very human mistakes, and being swayed by human rituals and worship.
Most fundamentally, at least to Paul’s argument, the Greek gods could be served by human hands. They lived in temples made by men and they could be manipulated by the worship of men because they had needs that men could meet. So to the Greek mind, a god was really more of a supernatural big brother who you could call to come and beat up the bullies as long as you did his homework later. And they developed this very syncretistic, very superstitious culture around this idea of worship. Their gods were not sovereign, they were just one of many. Each had power over a certain place or thing, but not much more than that. So you had to make sure that you worshipped the right god for the job. Sort of like having one contractor for your plumbing needs, one for your landscaping, and another for your roof. You need the right god for the job. So the areopagus was sort of like this ancient version of social media where people were posting “Does anybody know a good dentist god?” and people are like “oh mines the cheapest/best/mine can do both dental and auto repair.” And everybody’s like leaving Yelp reviews for their gods and stuff. It was big fun.
The Greeks weren’t exclusive with their religious ideas at all. It wasn’t Zues’s way or the highway, they had little coexist bumper stickers on all their chariots. This made for a highly syncretistic religious culture. What that means is, they basically took little bits of every religion and mixed them together. They adopted dozens of practices and rules. This phrase, “I see you are very religious,” could also be read, “I see you are very superstitious.” They were very welcoming to new gods and had plenty of shelf space for another idol here or there. They had even set one up to “an unknown” god as a means of hedging their bets. At least, that’s what most of the common people were doing. So when they hear that Paul may have a god who can handle resurrection stuff, they were understandably interested. See they have a fertility god, they have a farming god, a war god, a love god, and they have a god for when you find yourself in the situation of being dead, but not really one to get you out of that situation. So Paul’s message is potentially very useful to them. But on top of the common man’s paganism, philosophy was really getting going around this time, and all you had to do to start a philosophy school back then was say something so weird that nobody could argue with it.
Before Socrates came along this one dude named Heraclitus suggested everything was made of fire and everybody weirdly difficult to argue with I guess. So animals? Fire. Rocks? Fire. People? Fire. Ice? Fire. Nah just kidding they knew ice was made of water. They thought water was made of fire. And this worked for a while. Until Thales suggested fire was made out of water. Then Pythagorus thought it was all made out of math. And Socrates came along and I dunno I guess everything is made of ethics now. I’m kidding. A little. In reality, by this point they moved on from the elemental philosophy and now the dominant philosophical schools were the Epicureans and the Stoics, neither of whom cared much for gods. The Epicureans thought the gods, if they existed, were so far off and unconcerned with us that they mattered little. The stoics were generally pantheists who believed that god was in everything and that all men had a kinship with God. All this to say, especially at the major philosophy school in Athens, they really thought they had progressed pretty far in their understanding of the world. I mean, they figured out that fire isn’t made of water. They know stuff.
So you had these two groups of philosophers, then you had all the common folk with their regular paganism. That’s the scene. And I know that's a lot of historical intro but now that we have that out of the way we can really get moving. In doing so though, I don’t want to simply try and re-preach Paul’s sermon to you, but I want to focus on explaining why he says what he does, and how it applies to the commonalities and differences of these three groups of people as well as to you and me. So, the first concept I want to focus on is that Paul sees the people of Athens…
Point 1: [They] Are Making Idols Out of Signposts
One of the most famous aspects of this sermon is how, in a prime example of contextualization, Paul flips the script on all of them by quoting their own Poets and philosophers to make his point. To all of them he begins by saying there is one God whom you have never known. Who you are ignorant of, despite all your great learning. Despite all your temples full of gods, the true one remains unknown to you. And to the Epicureans, who think that if there are gods they are a million miles away, he says not only is God real, “he is not far from each one of us.” He is so near, in fact, that it is “in him we live and move and have our being,” to quote the poets Epiminedes and Aratus. And to the stoics, who think everything is in some sense divine, he says that creation with all it’s fixed orders and boundaries was intended to point beyond itself to the true God, not at itself as a god. And to all these supposedly learned men, who would hear Paul again on this subject and judge for themselves if his claims have merit, he proclaims that the reality they are unaware of is that it is actually they who stand on trial before the judge whom God has appointed; the man, Christ Jesus. And when they stand before him, they will all have the same fundamental problem.
You see, the Epicureans made their bellies their gods by seeking after pleasure, the stoics said everybody is essentially god, and the pagans all had shelves full of stories about deities who were basically the 1st century version of marvel super heroes, so no matter which way you slice it all of their concepts of god still had desires that can be appealed to. They all still make mistakes. They all still have limits. And most fundamentally, they are still a part of the same system that we are. They still live in houses like you and I because they are either like us or they are us. So, whether it’s the Epicureans saying the point of existence was the pleasure you get here because there’s nothing after, or the Stoics who say that divinity is to be found in creation and in man rather than beyond them, or the run of the mill pagans with their gods who all seem to have very human needs and human problems, issue is that everybody kept trying to explain the system from inside the system. The whole substance and purpose of our world can be found inside our world. It’s just more of the same. They’re really no better than those nuts who thought everything was fire. That’s why I brought them up a minute ago, because ultimately their philosophies were still operating under the operative assumption that what we see - the world around us, is sufficient to explain itself. It’s sufficient to give itself purpose. All the philosophers and all the pagans, rather than using the boundaries God had established to feel their way to him, were instead trying to work within those boundaries to find their own explanations for the world and satisfaction for their desires.
But you know what unexpected problem that sort of religion caused? They all ended up very superstitious and very bored. These people had a hundred gods with a thousand means of worshiping them and they were still sitting around bored looking for the next one. When you shape a false god out of your needs or interests in a particular situation then you’ll be ready to drop it as soon as the next need or interest comes along. Gods formed around human needs with human inclinations and barely above human powers are ultimately not that interesting. Makes for about 11 interesting marvel films plus 2 or 3 big crossover team ups but then everybody gets bored by phase 4 because there’s only so many ways you can do “he’s gained superhuman powers but didn’t lose his humanity” bit before it gets obviously formulaic. We were made to worship real glory and cheap imitations ultimately bore us. That’s not a bug; it’s a feature. It’s how we’re made. Our limits weren’t intended to point us back at ourselves. They were meant to draw attention toward our needs and desires for things beyond, way beyond ourselves.
Paul’s point is the very things we tend to idolize: our connection to God, the order and boundaries of our world, and our rational ability are all designed by God to point us to himself. Good thing we never do that. Good thing we don’t take our natural desires like love for others, a passion for justice, care for our culture and turn them into idolatrous fixations. Good thing our culture today isn’t tempted to think that really all of humanity is divine, or that if God exists he’s so far away that he doesn’t matter so you might as well enjoy yourself. Good thing that we don’t take our personalities, our way of thinking, our limits, our needs and read them into our ideas of God so that we begin to treat him as malleable or manipulatable so that we can prevail upon him to do what we want. It’s a good thing we don’t do that because if we did, we’d probably have the same problem that the Athenians did. Which is that they got very, very, bored with their gods. Why? Because of the second thing I want to focus on in Paul’s sermon. He shows the men of Athens that
Point 2: They Have Never Seen Real Glory
You see the people at the areopagus, both the philosophers and the commoners, despite having very different ideas about god, had all come to the same place of boredom and superstition. The philosophers may not have been interested in personal gods by this time, but they were focused on figuring out what the world was made of and how the system worked. What types of behaviors and practices could be adopted in order to produce the desired outcomes. And that’s fundamentally the same thing that the pagans were doing with their idols. They wanted to know the right combination of worship to offer to the right combination of gods to get the right combination of blessings in all the various parts of their lives. They had reduced their concept of worship to a mechanistic input/output relationship with the world. You do this, you get that. This is religion. And for anyone who was in Equipping Hour last week, you remember how we discussed the fact that reality is not inherently mechanistic, it’s inherently relational. We talked about how the most profound and important truth about reality is that God is over it.
You and I tend towards ideas like karma, that you do good and good will happen and you do bad and bad will happen. It feels like maybe half the Old Testament at least is devoted to disproving this idea. The defining reality of your life is not what you do, it is the relationship you are in with God. And the true God is not like these pitiful gods you make in your own image, with your own limits, your own shortcomings, and your own needs. The true God doesn’t need you to take care of him. You know what the true God loses if you don’t worship him? Nothing. You know what he gains if you do? Nothing. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t care about you - it means he cares about you independent of whether he needs anything from you. That’s real love. We, as broken people, are so emotionally damaged and egotistical that we can’t imagine somebody loving us without needing us and we read that junk right into every relationship - even the one we have with God. Sorry, we don’t do that, I meant the men of Athens did... Far be it from me to take a passage out of its intended context.
But these needy and limited gods of theirs, were not worth the sustained attention of the worshippers. So they constantly spent their time looking for somebody to show them something new. Because we were designed to worship a God who does not need. And so what happens when we idolize things that have needs like us is that we begin to resent them. You wanna find out what you idolize? Look for the needs that you resent. Look for things that you get angry with because you go to them to meet your needs and instead are confronted with theirs. Look for the little g god labels that you have stuck all over your relationships with your kids, your spouse, your frends, your boss, your pastors, your politicians. Who is it that you go to to get your needs met, and get aggravated when they need you to meet their needs instead? Now hear me, I’m not saying it’s wrong to meet each other’s needs, a couple weeks ago we saw the early church doing just that in Acts 2. I’m saying you’re designed to worship something totally without needs. And the only thing that fits that description is the living God. Everything else in your life, everyone else in your life, is limited and needy. And sometimes they will meet your needs but often they will ask you to meet theirs. And if you try to worship them you will resent them because a needy idol isn’t worth that type of attention. Of course the men of Athens are underwhelmed by the idols and looking for someone to show them something new… Aren’t you?
Let me tell you why it’s good news that God doesn’t need you and that reality is relational - not mechanistic. It’s good news because it means bad stuff happening doesn't mean you're bad. And it doesn't mean God's angry with you. Because if you accept Jesus then suddenly the bad stuff becomes for your good. And without Jesus even the good stuff is bad for you. And with Jesus even the good stuff is better because it can just be good stuff without being God for you. Try and tell somebody who's suffering that it's because they didn't do enough. Or because they flat out sinned and deserve what's happening to them. Actually don't try that it's cruel and unbiblical. Instead, try recognizing that getting what you want in life is not evidence of God's pleasure with your and not getting what you want is not evidence of his displeasure with you. Rather the Holy Spirit is the seal and guarantee of God’s pleasure with you. And He is the promise that even if God gives you hard circumstances he will be there with you and because he is it will produce the peaceful fruit of righteousness in your heart even though it hurts. What I'm saying is relationship with God may not change the particulars of your circumstances because God isn't a mechanism to make your life pleasant. But what relationship with God will do it transform the effects of both your positive and negative experiences so that they work perfectly to make you inevitably more like Jesus until he brings you home to himself and fixes every negative particular of your experience for the rest of eternity.
That’s the result of being in a non-mechanistic relationship with a God who doesn’t need you. And let me tell you, coming face to face with the real glory of an unneedy God like this is not unlike getting hit by a bus. It tends to displace everything else in your life. So imagine you show up to work one morning and you have a coworker who is late for his shift. After like an hour the guy finally shows up and he’s panting and sweating and between heavy breaths he says to the boss, “I’m so sorry I’m late. I got hit by a bus.” And you look at him with his two unbroken legs and his apparently functioning organs and you say, “Ok, but like…. Real gently though, right?” And he says, “No - it was going like 60 miles an hour and totally ran me over and so I had to run home and change and that’s why I’m an hour late.” Who has two unbroken thumbs and is out of a job? That guy. Because you don’t get hit by a bus at 60 miles an hour and show up anywhere except an ER. Similarly, nobody meets God and says, “eh.” Nobody sees God and then walks away asking “Anybody got anything better?” In the Bible, people who meet God fall down as though dead, fall down because they are dead, go blind, ask for the mountains to fall on them and cover them up, beg for God to hide himself and not speak to them anymore, or in the best case the end up with a face that glows for a month. Nobody yawns. And depending on your relationship with this God, the last point Paul makes is either the best news or the worst news. Because Paul says that this God, the True, Living, and Unneedy..
Point 3: God Is Not Far From Each of Us
Perhaps you came here today looking for something new. And you, like the men of Athens, had no idea that it was this God who brought you here, and into whose presence you stepped. Or rather, of whose presence you became aware. I won’t say that’s normal, because that’s not how creation was meant to work, but it is very very common. The fall, and sin, has put a veil over our faces, and scales over our eyes, so that we cannot see the glory that we live in the presence of. And as I said, this state of ignorance is very, very unnatural for created beings who are in one sense the offspring of this God. See, normally what happens when God speaks is that things come into existence out of nothing and they obey. And when I say things, I mean “everything.” God tells the sun to shine and it does, and the moon to remain in a fixed orbit and it does, and the ocean to cover this much of the earth and no more and it does. But he commands men to worship and obey and they sin. Then he calls them to repent and they say, “eh.” But despite this higher cognitive function that allows them to feign skepticism towards their creator, they are still fundamentally creatures like everything else.
We, as men, only have what power has been granted to us. You may not think God exists but you only exist because God thinks you do and if he changes his mind you don't. You only have cognitive capacity that you use for doubt because it's been granted to you. And the time of being allowed to use our understanding to pretend God is unknown to us is coming to an end. “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” So the Athenians in the areopogus at Mars Hill invited Paul back to speak before them so they could judge what he said, but they didn’t realize they were standing before a representative of the ultimate judge. They found this idea of Jesus fascinating or unconvincing but they really should have been concerned with whether this Jesus they were judging would find them innocent or guilty.
Because in truth, Jesus stood before them just like he stood before Pilate on the day he was crucified, and just like he stands before you now and he says to all of us, “You have only what power has been granted to you.” If you see him standing before you as though wounded, it is only for your sake. If he pleads with you it is only for your sake. If he is patient with you it’s because he chooses to be, not because he has to be. He is gentle and lowly of heart but he is the only source of power and God has raised him up and given him a Name which is above every name, not merely that we might feel our way to him, but that at the sound of his Name every knee would bow and every tongue would confess on heaven and earth that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father. And it is this name that is the only one under heaven by which men may be saved. It is this Name that makes the difference in your relationship with God so that rather than dying when you see his glory you walk away with your face shining a little more like his does. No other name can do that. And putting that Name on anything but that Godman won’t do it either.
So let me ask you, perhaps you feel that you are very aware of Jesus, but does your concept of him look like this God? Or does your concept of him look more like you? Does your Jesus judge the world in righteousness, does he call all men everywhere to repent, is he absolutely worthy of a lifetime of worship? Or does he have needs that either elicit your contempt or cause you to think he is dependent upon you or obligated to you? Make no mistake, it is very possible to think you have felt your way to God and in reality have simply put the exalted Name of Jesus on an idol of your own making. On that day, many will say to him, “Lord did we not do many things in your name,” as if reality were transactional like that. As if service to God was merely their ticket to a desired outcome. And he will say to them “I never knew you” because all that will have mattered is your relationship to this God we will all one day stand before, and in whose presence we currently live and move and have our being.
But maybe you’re not trying to make Jesus like you, and you’re not trying to meet his needs, but he still hasn’t captivated you. You’d still be up for something new. I’d like you to consider there may be much, much more glory in Him than you realized. I was up at Cranes Roost before sunrise yesterday because one of our interns has convinced most of our staff to try and run a 10k. I know. I should fire him. But when I got there it was totally dark. Couldn’t see a thing. Then 20 mins later it was twilight. And even though there was no sun yet everything was just somehow eerily lit and visible. Then another 10 minutes and still no sun but it was about as bright as an overcast day and I could see everything just fine and I could see so well I actually figured the sun had risen and I just missed it but I looked and saw it hadn’t. Then a couple minutes later the sky was practically ripped apart with color and light and the funny thing is it actually got to where I could see less than before because the sun was so bright everything else went out of focus.
Peter, the Apostle was with Jesus on the mountain when he saw him as he was at the transfiguration. And decades later, right before he was to be executed, he wrote a letter called 2nd Peter, and in chapter 2 verse 17 he referenced that time when he had seen Jesus in his true glory on that mountain. He said “I have seen it. I saw him receive glory from the Father.” And decades later that vision is still sustaining him in the face of death. He went from denying him to dying for him because he refused to look for something new. And then he encouraged the church to hold fast to the gospel of this Jesus as if it were like a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star himself rises in your hearts. I really doubt the Son rose in your heart without you noticing. So, if you think Jesus is probably the answer and you feel like you can see pretty well but it’s still dim outside just wait 5 minutes. Or better yet, ask him to show a little more of His glory to you today.
Listen, God is not someone who I can invite into this space. I cannot call him down or invoke him such that he may appear. Because we are the ones who he spoke into existence. And we have come here because he invited us. Perhaps you came here today looking for something new. And you had no idea that it was this God who brought you here, and made you aware of his presence.. And I would tell you that he is very close, sitting even beside you but that's not true, he is much, much closer. Nearer than your next breath, which you will only take if he continues to desire it. In reality you are not sitting next to him you are sitting in the reality of him. The Son has risen, but has His light hit your eyes yet?
And the remarkable thing is that when you see him, you’ll see a man. With wounds in his hands, compassion in his eyes, and gentle words in his mouth to show you that he loves you. And it's true, you have no power but that which he has granted to you. And you have no breath but that which he allows to enter your lungs. But you also have no sin that he cannot undo. You have no desire for glory that he cannot satisfy. You have no need he cannot meet. And He is inviting you into relationship with him. Not just inviting, he even commands you to come to him and find mercy. Not because he needs you, because he loves you. If you are underwhelmed by this God it can only be because he is unknown to you. If you have not seen him yet, I invite you to join me now in asking that He show himself to you - not so you can judge him, so that you can know him. Let’s pray.
Our Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, for all those who are seeking to choose you over things less than you today I ask, for the sake of Jesus Christ, that you would show yourself to us. As much of you as we can handle. And then I ask that you increase our capacity and show us more. And in return, we promise that we will not forget. Help us not to forget. We pray this in the Name that is above every other Name, and at whom every knee will bow, and of whom every tongue will confess, amen.