“’For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’”
Paul’s travels bring him to Athens ahead of his companions, Silas and Timothy, giving him a few days to explore the town on his own. For a man of learning and fervor, freedom to roam the ancient world’s philosophical capitol must leave him breathless. He starts at the local synagogue, where he engages God-fearing Jews and Greeks. But his taste for exotic challenges soon lures him into other theological conversations. Although Paul and his beliefs are unknown quantities, he brazenly joins a discussion of Epicureans and Stoics, two sects that commonly view the gods as neutral beings, yet respond to this notion differently. The Epicureans take the gods’ remove as implicit sanction for mortals to enjoy pleasures in moderation. Stoics assume the gods’ neutrality evidences disinterest in human affairs and focus their philosophy on determinism—humankind’s responsibility for its own fate and wellbeing. (Apologies for these generalizations to learned students of Greek philosophy.)
Of course, divine disengagement is anathema to Paul. The whole of his faith rests on confidence in a God Who cares about each of us down the finest detail of our existence. When he opposes both sides on this basis, they join to dispute him as a babbler—until he persists in presenting his argument in logical terms. This piques everyone’s interest. They shuttle him off to the Areopagus, a council of wise men that convenes on the Hill of Ares, telling him, “You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean.” (Acts 17.20) For a man who loves nothing better than sharing his faith and debunking superstitions, Paul takes this as an offer he can’t possibly refuse.
Explaining the “Unknown”
Acts notes as Paul wanders around Athens, he’s “greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17.16). While her philosophers and leaders are curiously adept with theological ideas, the majority of her people remain in the throes of religious traditions and superstitions. Rather than leap into wrangling with complex concepts, Paul starts there: “I see that in every way you are 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.” (v22-23) He follows this observation by announcing his topic—“Explaining the ‘Unknown’”.
The gods of Greco-Roman mythology appear and govern in an existing universe—meaning the Athenians hold the origins of the cosmos and life as imponderable mysteries. Not even Zeus possesses creative authority; he’s merely the “king of the gods.” Paul fills this gap by attributing all of creation to the Unknown God, endowing Him with total presence in the world. He “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.” (v24-25) Instead of refuting the Epicurean and Stoic ideas about shaping our present and future, Paul concentrates on our past. God created one man, he says, from whom He made all people; “he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.” (v26) With this, the “unknown” becomes crystal clear. Every human shares a common heritage and exists by virtue of One God. “We all live in Him, move in Him, and have our being in Him,” Paul explains, supporting his claim by citing Greek poets’ assertion, “We are all His offspring.”
Reason Behind the Reasoning
Paul establishes God as the Single Source of everything, a cunning, superlative position to say the least, since his audience has no alternative myth to contradict his rationale. But he doesn’t advance this thought simply to outwit his learned listeners. There’s reason behind the reasoning. “God did this,” Paul says, “so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each of us.” (v27) In summary, God creates each of us and places us exactly when and where He wants us to inhabit His world; at the same time, He completely inhabits our world, ever ready to be found when we seek Him.
God is—has always been and will always be—within reach. His presence in our lives is not something we conjure or imagine. His involvement in our situations isn’t something we invite or merit. He’s simply there, waiting for us to reach out for Him. In Psalm 139, David writes: “Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.” We can’t escape God’s presence. He’s constantly within reach, guiding us, holding us secure as we live in Him, move in Him, and are in Him. This fact surpasses understanding, yet it’s knowledge we must never lose or second-guess. Psalm 46.1 assures us, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.” Knowing that—believing that—is the bedrock of our faith. If we don’t know that, all our worship and service leaves us no better off than the Athenians—religious, but lost.
God inhabits our world to remain constantly within reach.
(Tomorrow: Mean Mouths)