There’s something special about human beings. Here the apostle Paul is discussing the nature of existence, spiritual reality and God with Greek philosophers. They’d ‘brought him to the Areopagus’(Acts 17:19), a place in Athens set aside for such deliberations. That might seem quite high level, but this awareness of something profound and eternal, that we can reflect on, discuss, and even ‘“reach out for”’(Acts 17:27), is characteristic of all human beings. It’s pretty much species defining, across time and cultures, sometimes described as a capacity for being ‘“religious”’(Acts 17:22). Even atheists can’t get away from their capacity to wonder about such things, just like every other ‘tribe’ of mankind that’s ever existed. The reason is that God put it there, ‘set eternity in their hearts, yet… man can’t find out the work that God has done from the beginning… to the end’(Ecclesiastes 3:11), i.e. it’s profound.
This capacity that we have, to engage with such spiritual issues, is part of us being uniquely ‘made in the image of God’(James 3:9), and as Jesus said, ‘“God is spirit”’(John 4:24). Another reflection of this image in us is our use of words to discuss and communicate with each other about such things. It’s no coincidence that Jesus himself was described as ‘the Word… with God… was God… The Word became flesh’(John 1:1&14), who came saying things like, ‘“The words that I speak to you are spirit, and are life”’(John 6:63).
So we find Paul in this fascinating ancient Athenian discussion group, presenting ‘the word’(Acts 6:7, 12:24, 19:20, etc.), verbally, but written down for us to consider later. His approach is instructive too. He starts where his hearers are, mentally and spiritually, which appropriately follows God’s approach to us in Jesus, who not only became flesh, but ‘lived among us’(John 1:14). Jesus would notice the most obscure person coming out to get ‘water’(John 4:7) and introduce her to a different ‘“water springing up to eternal life”’(John 4:14).
Paul had taken the trouble to notice the Athenians’ altar to an ‘“‘UNKNOWN GOD’”’(Acts 17:23), so that he could introduce the God they’d already half anticipated. Likewise, he acknowledged where their Greek philosophy had already led them to a right understanding of this God, i.e. ‘“‘in him we live, and move, and have our being’”’, even adding ‘“some of your own poets have said, ‘… we are also his offspring’”’(Acts 17:28), rather like the image idea. However, where necessary Paul was not afraid to present alternative viewpoints either, or challenge what he describes as ‘“ignorance”’(Acts 17:23&30), even amongst Greek philosophers!
Paul was especially keen to challenge their ‘city full of idols’(Acts 17:16), with ‘“we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold, or silver, or stone, engraved by art and design”’(Acts 17:29). Instead, again by appealing to their idea that ‘“‘in him we live, and move, and have our being’”’ etc., he reinforced the main point of his presentation, that God is more logically a single being, the ‘“Lord of heaven and earth”’(Acts 17:24). The more any of us reflect on the world, the nature of reality, the universe, and beyond, even more so with modern science, the more obvious this becomes. As David put it, ‘The heavens declare the glory of God…’(Psalm 19:1). Behind it all is not a celestial puppet show but one GOD, outside of time and space yet somehow in our every ‘“breath”’(Acts 17:25) and very ‘“‘being’”’.
We’d expect such a God to be visible on the stage of world history, and He is. As Paul said later, ‘“this has not been done in a corner”’(Acts 26:26), rather at the world’s crossroads, both geographically and historically. The book of Acts follows this Divine Word from Jerusalem, here through Athens etc., to Rome, with the declared destination of ‘“the uttermost parts of the earth”’(Acts 1:8).
It’s the prescribed remedy for our ailing relationship with this Almighty yet intimate God. In Jesus, He absorbed the wrath of His pure justice due to us, in a self-sacrificial act of pure love, then rose ‘“from the dead”’(Acts 17:31) as ‘“the resurrection and the life”’(John 11:25). As we ‘“repent”’(Acts 17:30) we’re ‘united with him’(Romans 6:5), made ‘alive… with Christ’(Ephesians 2:5), ‘“born of the Spirit”’(John 3:6&8), and ‘if the Spirit of him who raised up Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised up Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies’(Romans 8:11) as even now we experience the ‘first fruits’(Romans 8:23) of this ultimate living, moving and having our being in God.
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