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If Paul walked around our town today as he did in Athens, what would he see? Unlike Ancient Athens, he would not see a lot of altars dedicated to many different gods. He would not see a lot of open idolatry. He would see a lot of different churches. He would certainly be tempted to conclude, as he did in Athens, that we are a very religious people. But as he would begin to visit those churches and talk with people, he would soon realize that many were worshiping an unknown god. Many would claim to be spiritual, but not religious. They would claim to believe that there is a spiritual realm, that there is a god, or a force outside of nature, but that this force can’t really be identified. Many would claim that each person has to find their own way to connect with this being, or force. In other words, he would find a situation that is very similar to what he found in Athens. Many today worship an unknown god.
It’s important for us to recognize this. Up until the recent past most people we would meet had some direct knowledge of the Bible. They had gone to Sunday school, maybe Vacation Bible School; they had attended church, at least until they went off to college. If you mentioned Adam and Eve, Abraham, Noah, or Moses, they had an idea of who those people were and what the Bible said about them. They knew that the Bible claims that Jesus came in fulfillment of God’s promises and died to pay for sins. Witnessing to such people was like Paul going to the Synagogue. You could assume some basic Bible knowledge and use that to point them to the truth about Jesus. But that is less and less the case today.
Paul recognized that speaking to people in Athens about Jesus, especially those in the Areopagus, needed a different approach. These people didn’t know about Adam and Eve, their fall into sin, and God’s promise of a savior. They didn’t have Bible knowledge, so he had to start with what they did have, what we often call the natural knowledge of God.
“There is a God you don’t know. Let me tell you about him.” This God you don’t know is the God who made the world and everything in it.
You might wonder why Paul started with Creation. The Greeks didn’t believe that a god created everything any more than most people do today, so why start there? Because the foundation of everything the Bible teaches rests on Genesis 1-3. Whether the topic is salvation by grace, baptism, marriage, race relations, death, pain, disease, our answer flows from Genesis 1-3. But notice that Paul didn’t stop to argue creation vs. evolution. His point was, this God you don’t know is not like any other so-called god. He is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples made with hands. Neither is he served by human hands, as if he needed anything, since he himself gives all people life and breath and everything they have. We don’t make him in our image, he made us in his image. He doesn’t need us to give him anything. He has given us everything we have.
The Greeks thought of their gods as superhuman, but not all powerful. Their gods were made in their image, powerful, but fallible. They had weaknesses. They gave in to temptation. They needed to eat and drink. They couldn’t be everywhere at once. They had a small view of God.
People today have a small view of God too. They accept evolution because they think that God could not have created everything in six days. So, whether they realize it or not, their god is not all powerful. People today often see God as needing something from them, maybe not food, but service or worship, and that if you serve enough or worship faithfully enough, then God will do things for you. People today have a small view of God. We need to help them see that God is the Lord, the ruler of heaven and earth. He is all powerful, all knowing, all present. Nothing is hidden from his sight. Nothing is impossible for him. He doesn’t need anything from us, but we need him for everything, even the air we breathe.
When you think about how many people either don’t believe in a god at all, or have a very small view of God, it’s not surprising that so many people have reacted to our current pandemic with great fear. If you believe there is no god, then you are on your own against an unseen enemy, a virus for which there is no cure. That’s frightening! If the god you believe in is limited, not really powerful enough to be the Lord of heaven and earth, not a being who can be everywhere at once and take care of any situation simply by speaking a word, then he’s not a whole lot of help.
Although we don’t know what God has in mind in regard to this virus, it is comforting to know that he has the power over it. However he chooses to use his power, he promises it will be for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose. It’s natural to be anxious about the unknown, but we don’t have to react in fear because God is not a small God. He is not ignorant of what is going on in the world or in our individual lives. He is always with us and is using his unlimited power to make whatever happens in our lives serve our good and his glory.
If God created all that exists, that means he created people, humans. From one man, he made every nation of mankind to live over the entire face of the earth. He determined the appointed times and the boundaries where they would live. Maybe a virus that is no respecter of persons will help us realize this. Rich or poor, black or white, the virus can infect you because you are human, a descendant of one man, Adam. The Biblical view is that there is only one race, the human race. We need to learn to see each other this way; all equally sinners, descendants of sinful Adam, saved not because of status, or color, but only because of Jesus.
Paul says that this natural knowledge of God that is evident, both from contemplating what he created, from studying what he has made and realizing that it is complex beyond our puny imaginations, and from the feeling that everyone has because God put it there, that there must be more than just 80 or 90 years of life on earth, causes everyone to seek God. He planted evidence of himself in nature and in our hearts so we would seek God and perhaps reach out for him and find him.
Paul uses a word here that reminds us of our problem. The word for “reach out for him” is a word that describes what a blind person does. We know God exists. We can learn something about him by examining some physical things, like a blind person feeling an object, or someone’s face, but we can’t fully know God in this way. We are born spiritually blind. We can’t see who God is and what he is really like. He remains the unknown god until the Holy Spirit opens our eyes. As Jesus told his disciples, it is when we see him, we see the Father. It is when we realize what he has done for us, that he left heaven, took on human flesh, faced all the troubles and temptations we face and more, lived without sin, and then willingly went to the cross to take on himself the punishment we deserve, it is only then that we see God for who he is. It is then that we find him, for we learn that he is not just the Lord of heaven and earth, but a gracious Lord who does not demand that we sacrifice to earn his favor. No, He sacrificed for us so that we could have his favor.
The Athenians had a small view of god. To them a god was limited, powerful, but not all powerful, needing people to serve him and care for his needs. People today have a small view of God. Have you fallen for such small thinking about God? Is your God able to create all that exists? Is your God everywhere all the time? Is your God all powerful? Most importantly, is your God merciful, forgiving, slow to anger and abounding in love and faithfulness? Does your God need you to provide things for him, or is he the one who provides you with everything you have? If you at times have a small view of God, Paul says the same thing to you as he did to those in Athens. Although God overlooked the times of ignorance, he is now commanding all people everywhere to repent, because he has set a day on which he is going to judge the world in righteousness by the man he appointed. He provided proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
When that day comes God will no longer seem small or be unknown. Everyone will see him. And that day is nearer now than when Paul spoke about it in Athens.
God is going to judge the world in righteousness. He will judge us on the basis of the revelation he has given of himself. Paul says in Romans that because God has provided evidence of himself in nature and in our hearts people who choose to ignore him will be without excuse. In addition, there are very few if any spots on earth where there are no Bibles, where the good news of Jesus has not been proclaimed. God has entrusted judgment to the Son, to Jesus. He is the one who lived on earth as we do. He is the one who experienced suffering, pain and death as we do. As the resurrected Lord, no one is better suited to be our judge than he. What a blessing we have that the Holy Spirit has opened our eyes to see Jesus, and that, in him, the one true God is not unknown. By grace we know him and have been showered with blessings through this knowledge: the blessing of peace, and hope, and comfort, joy that comes from trusting that in Jesus we have nothing to fear now, but especially nothing to fear on the day of judgment. In Jesus we have already been judged, declared Not Guilty of our sins.
How did people respond to Paul’s message about the unknow god? They listened politely until he mentioned the resurrection of Jesus. Then most tuned him out.
How will people respond to us as we attempt to tell them about the god they don’t know? Probably the same way the Athenians did. But don’t be discouraged. All God asks you to do is plant seeds. He does the rest. And remember, he is not a small God. He can do abundantly more than we can ask or imagine. After all, we were blind, dead in trespasses and sins too, and he made us alive in Christ and brought us to see and know him as our Lord and Savior.
The world is different than it was. To many people today God is unknown. The god they worship is an idol made in their own image. Don’t give up on them. Like Paul, be willing to meet them where they are and find a way to tell them about the God they don’t know, the only God who can save them.