With the appalling atrocities in the Middle-East and the unvarnished hatred that has emerged, the unprovoked aggression in Ukraine and the terrorist attacks in Nigeria, we may be tempted to wonder what a good and just God, if he exists, is doing. Furthermore, with the antipathy towards religion in western society we may reckon that any opportunity to bring God into our conversation is a lost cause.
How important it is that we remain calm and remember that God has especially authenticated his existence and his extraordinary love and compassion in the events of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
Let’s therefore continue to explore Paul the Apostle’s speech to the Athenian intelligentsia at the Areopagus that we read in The Acts of the Apostles, chapter 17. Using his observation that the Athenians had an altar ‘To an unknown god’, Paul began, “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth …” (17:24).
Furthermore, he continued, “From one ancestor he (God) made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’…” (Acts 17:26ff).
His words echo those of the 8th century BC prophet Isaiah who, having spoken of God’s just judgment on Israel and the people being taken into captivity, also spoke of the day of their deliverance. In Isaiah chapters 40 through 45 we read that God would raise up an insignificant prince, Cyrus, to crush the great Babylonian empire. Cyrus would free God’s people from captivity and permit them to return to Jerusalem.
Isaiah is saying (as we find throughout the Scriptures) that God continues his work in the world, constantly using human decisions to work out his own greater purposes for the good of us all. Indeed, it is because of this that Paul writes in his Letter to the Romans, chapter 8, verse 28: And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good,…
Tough times can be God’s wake-up call. It’s easy to blame him when things go wrong. But that is absurd for we all contribute to the problem. It’s easy to say God is distant or uncaring. ‘Not so,’ says Paul to the Athenians: ‘God is near you – nearer than you think. And, quoting from a 6th century BC Greek poet, he points out, “In him we live and move and have our being”. He continues by quoting either Aratus or Cleanthus, “For we too are his offspring”.
In quoting from non-biblical writers Paul lays out a useful principle for us: to reach a cynical audience with the things of God, look for ideas or words in the culture that illustrate a gospel truth. Not all human ideas are wrong – we are all image-bearers of God, albeit distorted ones.
Paul is saying that all men and women are God’s creatures. We not only receive our life from him but our very existence is also dependent on him. ‘Your poets agree that we are God’s offspring,’ he continues. ‘How ridiculous it is, therefore, to reduce God to something less than we are – gold or silver or stone.’ When we create an idol, we are trying to reverse the roles of ourselves and God: we want to make ourselves God’s creator, not God our creator.
So then, is there is any hope? Paul concludes with news of the surprising and unexpected rescue that comes from the One who set the movement of our existence into motion: “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now God commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all people by raising him from the dead’ (17:30f).
In setting up an altar ‘To an unknown god’, the Athenians recognized they actually might not know God. ‘In response Paul told them, ‘you might claim ignorance, but the reality is that God has never left himself without witness.’ As he writes in his Letter to the Romans, chapter 1, God has revealed himself through the natural order of the universe – something that we’ve all tried to suppress. ‘Well,’ Paul says to the Athenians, ‘God in his mercy is willing to overlook your past ignorance. However, he now commands people everywhere to repent’.
Justice. It is a matter of deep offense to God that we try to live without him, to say that this life is all there is, to think that there is no such thing as truth and ultimate justice. We may even laugh at the idea of a day when God will bring us all into his heavenly courtroom.
In the light of this here are some further questions you may want to explore with others – especially in the light of so many leaving church over the last 25 years that we talked about last week, November 8:
- Are our cries for justice because we consider judgement gives value and dignity to who we are and what we do? If there is no final justice, is life meaningless?
- Should we consider God’s seeming lack of intervention in appalling atrocities a sign of the depth of the outcome of our broken relationship with him? Like the father in Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son, does God allow bad things to happen as a wake-up call for us all – to bring us to our senses?
- From your understanding of God, do you think he will find it in his heart to do anything to save us from the judgment we deserve? (The answer is found in the judge he has appointed. It will be God’s day but the judge will be one of us – a man whose name we know: Jesus Christ.)
- Why does Paul assure us that the day of God’s judgement will occur by saying that the one who will judge us has been raised from the dead?
- So, what do you reckon we should do? (Prepare for the day when we will all stand before Jesus, the Lord of heaven and earth, revealed in all his majestic power, purity and glory.)
- How then should we prepare? (Repent of our willful attempts of self-glory and failure to honor him. It means a true and heartfelt repentance for my broken relationship with him and committing to change my life in a way that honors him.)
- Are you prepared? Do you pray for those who don’t yet know the Lord?
A personal confession. Dear Lord God, I know that I have turned my back on you and have not honored you as I should. I justly deserve your condemnation. Father, for the sake of Jesus Christ, please forgive me and restore me. Turn my heart to love and honor what you command, enabling me to live for your glory, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
A prayer for those who don’t yet believe. Merciful God, who created all men and women in your image and who hates nothing you have made, nor would have the death of a sinner, but rather that they should be converted and live; have mercy on all people everywhere and take from them all ignorance and hardness of heart and contempt of your Word; and so fetch them home, blessed Lord, to your flock, that they may be saved among the remnant of your ancient people, and be made one fold under one shepherd, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.