With the rise of militant Islam we may be tempted to wonder if there is a one true God and, if there is, we wonder whether he is still in control. Why does he allow the atrocities against his people that are occurring in Iraq at the hands of ISIS?

It is not my purpose today to address the question of suffering (I touched on that theme on Wednesdays, July 16, 23 and 30). Rather I want to continue to explore the gospel presentation of Paul the Apostle to the Athenian intelligentsia at the Areopagus (Acts 17:22ff).

From the starting point that behind the universe God exists (see last week’s ‘Word’), Paul develops the idea that God is also the ruler and sustainer of the nations.

From one ancestor he (Godmade 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).

Paul is saying that history and the rise and fall of nations are ultimately in God’s hands. His words echo those of Isaiah who, having prophesied God’s judgment of Israel, also spoke of the deliverance of his people from captivity (Isaiah 40 – 45). Isaiah said that God would raise up Cyrus, an insignificant prince to crush the great Babylonian empire. In turn Cyrus would free God’s people from captivity and allow them to return to Jerusalem.

Isaiah was saying (as indeed 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 men and women. It is because of this that Paul could write in Romans 8:28: And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good,…

There is always a purpose to God’s plan. He wants us to come to our senses and turn back to him – as did the prodigal son in Jesus’ parable. Tough times can be God’s wake-up call for us. It’s easy to blame him when things go wrong, but that is absurd for we are the problem. It’s easy to say that 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 another poet, Cleanthus: For we too are his offspring.

In quoting from non-biblical writers Paul lays out an important 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 utterance is wrong (after all, we are still image-bearers of God, albeit distorted ones).

To return to Paul’s point: he is saying that all men and women are God’s creatures. All of us not only receive our life from him, but our very existence is dependent on him. ‘Your poets agree that we are God’s offspring,’ he continued. ‘How ridiculous it is, therefore, to reduce God to something less than we are – gold or silver or stone.’

‘What’s more, when you create an idol, you are in fact trying to reverse the roles of yourself and God. You want to make yourself God’s creator, not God your creator.’

We have this assurance: despite the suffering and evil in the world around us, God is still in control, working out his greater purpose. We have every reason, therefore, to ask him to restrain wickedness and vice and direct our leaders to exercise their responsibilities wisely and justly for the benefit of all.

And, like Paul, let’s constantly look for points of connection with the culture so that we can more effectively reach the minds and hearts of people around us with God’s good news.