By Pastor Glenn Pease
You and I live in an amazing age of automation where the machine is becoming master. A man wrote about his experience of putting money in a coffee machine, and as he watched the coffee begin to flow before the cup dropped down, and then from the other side the cream flowed in, and he watched it all go down the drain, he said, "This is the ultimate in automation. The machine not only makes your coffee, it even drinks it for you." That, of course, was not the intention of the machine's maker.
There are some amazing intentional things being done with machines. The medical world has always tried to raise people from the dead, but today they not only are able to do that, they also first kill the patient they then raise. Death and life are in their hands. The doctor of Bruce Cummins of Bullhead City, Arizona had to kill him to make him better. He came to the hospital with a cherry sized aneurysm near the base of his brain. This bubble in the artery could break at any time, and it would mean instant death. They realized they had to kill him before he died, or they could not save him. They chilled his body down to 62 degrees, and by so doing they arrested his heart and brain activity. This means that he was legally dead. While he was dead they operated on him. Then they jump started his heart and raised him from the dead.
It is indeed an amazing day in which we live. But it has always been an amazing day for Christians because resurrection from the dead is at the very heart of the Christian faith. Both the acceptance and rejection that Paul received in Athens revolved around the resurrection of Jesus. Verse 18 shows that the resurrection was the theme that got the Greek philosophers attention, and then in verse 32 we see it was at the conclusion of Paul's speech the key idea that divided them. Some of them were sneering, and others were saying we want to hear more, and still others became believing Christians.
There are a lot of amazing things in life, but none more amazing than God, and what He has done for us in Christ. This is the ultimate in amazing, and that is why the Christian must make this the focus of attention, as Paul did. The world needs to know that the Christian as the most amazing message they will ever hear. It has to arouse the curiosity of even the most skeptical, and, therefore, it has to deal with the resurrection from the dead.
This is what we learn from Paul who was a master teacher. Like all good teachers, Paul starts with a known and leads people to the unknown. When he spoke to Jews he took them to their own Scriptures, which they acknowledged to be the Word of God, and he lead them to see that God revealed a Messiah who would suffer and rise from the dead. Now we see him dealing with Greeks who had no Bible as their authority, and so he uses their religion as a starting point. Paul met people where they were at. He absurd their idolatry, and then very creatively saw their alter to unknown God as the open door to lead them to the God of revelation.
The Athenians were the most religious people of the ancient world. It was their thing. Athens had more images than all the rest of Greece put together. It is estimated that there were 30 thousand gods cramming the streets and public buildings. Paul coming through the gate of the city would see Neptune seated on horseback, and just inside near the sanctuary would be sculptures of Minerva, Jupiter, Apollo, and Mercury. Everywhere he went he would see more gods, but Paul was most fascinated by the alter to the unknown god. This revealed that the Athenians were wise enough to know there was a God they did not know. Most all pagan peoples have this awareness of a supreme God who is superior to all the gods. Man has an instinctive sense that there is a God who is far beyond their puny minds to grasp.
Being very religious they did not want to leave any god out, and so they covered all the basis by an alter to an unknown god. Their very fanaticism in being religious made them include even the one and only real God in their worship. They worshiped the God of the Bible, but did so ignorantly, and without knowledge of who He was, and what He willed. Paul used this alter to the unknown god to lead them to the God of the Bible. He established for all time the wisdom of relating to people where they are, and taking them from the unknown to the known. This is what education is. This is what evangelism is. This is the job of the Christian in the world-making the unknown God known.
The Greeks were admitting that there was a god they did not know, and they knew they didn't know him. When Paul claimed he could make this unknown god known, they were open to listen. There are situations in life where it can be an advantage to be unknown. It happened once in the U. S. Congress. The House of Representatives convened on Dec. 5, 1859, and tried to choose a speaker of the house. They spent the entire month of December on this one item of discussion, and they failed to achieve their goal.
All of January they tried again, and nobody could get a majority vote. The house was totally immobilized, and the reason was that every candidate was either pro or anti slavery, and so nobody could win. Finally on Feb. 1 William Pennington of New Jersey was elected. His sole qualification was that he was a freshman congressman so new and unknown that nobody had any reason to be against him. And so a totally unknown man became the leader of the house.
Paul here on Mars Hill is hoping to see the same psychology worked with these super religious leaders. They had plenty of gods, but they also knew too much about their gods. They were made in the image of men, and so they had the weaknesses of men, and they were often just as immoral and unjust as men. Paul was going to educate them about this unknown God who was all one who was truly God should be. He was going to share the good news of what this God had done for them, and all mankind in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The unknown God he proclaimed did not get all the votes, but lets not be so blind that we conclude, as some do, that Paul's message was a failure. Verse 34 says that only a few men followed Paul and became believers, but note, that one of them was a member of the Areopagus. Then it names one well known woman, and the chapter ends with the words, "And a number of others." Most men would celebrate for weeks if they could get that kind of fruit from one message among people who have never before heard the Gospel. So it was not Pentecost with 3 thousand decisions, but so what! It was still an amazingly successful message that brought both men and women into the kingdom of God.
If you call this a failure, you are on a different wave length from the Good Shepherd who left the 99 to find one lost sheep, and rejoiced when he did. You have a different value system than our Lord who said that the angels of heaven rejoice over one sinner who repents. They don't set mute until there are a hundred or more, for one is worth all the material value of the world and more. Not only was Paul successful in this great message, but he gave to all the rest of history through this message and awareness that the most important subject in life is God.
Knowing God is the ultimate use of the mind. In a very real sense, no matter how brilliant people are, they are not really educated until they know God. On the other hand, no matter how little people may know, they are truly educated when they do know God. What is the purpose of life? It is to know God. This is true education, and the kind of education that God delights in. Listen to God tell it like it is in Jer. 9:23-24. "This is what the Lord says: Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches. But let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me. That I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight, declares the Lord."
If you want a A in the school of life, or if you want to be a success as a human being, nothing will cut it except the transition from an unknown God to the God who can be known. Knowing God is the goal of life, and making God known is the goal of the church. This is what we see Paul doing on Mars Hill. Anything short of making God known, and coming to know God, is ultimate failure.
One of the most fascinating biographies I have ever read is The Prodigy. It is about Boris Sidis who was born in Russia in 1857. He was a genius who fled to America where he spent most of his time in the Boston library. His girlfriend talked him into going to Harvard. He shocked everyone by graduating in one year with all A's, and he was only 16 years old. Keep in mind, he had a head start, for he knew English, Russian, French, and German at the age of 5, and was already using the typewriter at age 3. You went through the 4th grade in one week; the 5th in 15 weeks, and the 6th and 7th in 5 1/2 weeks. He wrote 4 books between the ages of 6 and 8. Two of them were text books on anatomy and astronomy, and 2 were on linguistics and math.
We could go on with pages of amazing facts about his genius. His potential was mind boggling. But this is the sad reality. This unbelievably gifted man never came to know God. He eventually wrote 17 books and 52 articles, but he was never a success. He was extremely self-centered, and did not use his genius to help others. He basically wasted his gift in trivial pursuits. When he died at the age of 56 his own son refused to go to his funeral. He pleased neither God nor man with all of his potential because he never knew God. And that is my point, there is no success, regardless of what people have as gifts and accomplishments, if they do not know God.
Paul was speaking to the cream of the crop of brilliant and talented Greeks, but they were not successful in life until they came to know the God they worshipped as unknown, and that is why Paul is working so hard to make God known. All of these people listening to Paul were more successful than he was if you judge success by power and position and possessions. But all of that was nothing to Paul compared to knowing Christ. His life makes it clear that the passion of our life is not to be preoccupied with power, position, pleasure, or possessions, but, rather, the perpetual pursuit of knowing God, and making Him known.
If the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever, then the chief means to that end is knowing God. There is no goal more noble than that. It is the single most important issue in life, for you cannot exalt and enjoy what you do not know. Growing in the knowledge of God should be our number one priority. Paul in his message on Mars Hill shows us where to begin in leading other people to the knowledge of God. You start with a focus on God as Creator. In verse 24 Paul begins his message, "The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands."
The first thing you do in making God known is to get Him into a category where He stands alone, and so far above all so-called competition that idolatry becomes superficial on the surface. If the unknown God is the Creator of all, and the Lord over all heaven and earth, this makes all idols look insignificant. If people think candles are great lights, you do not need to denounce candles. You just need to turn on your flood lights, and they will see without any need for condemnation of their conviction. Paul did not waste his time in condemning idols. He exalted the Creator of all, and in that light anyone could see the folly of idols. The best way to eliminate an error is to exalt the truth. A low view of God is best seen for what it is when a high view of God is set along side of it.
By his exaltation of God as Creator of all Paul made all the man made Gods conspicuously inferior, and not worthy to be thought of in the same category. The Epicureans that were listening to Paul were basically materialists with a very impersonal view of God. The universe was a result of chance collision of Adams. This is still a popular idea today as people who do not know God try to figure out how there is anything that exists. They conclude that matter is eternal, and that is all there is. Along side of this idea Paul proclaims a personal Creator who made everything. So they are confronted with two ideas: Either matter became the author of the personal, or the personal became the author of matter. If the materialist was right, and all that is came from matter, and we have minds that are superior to matter, then it is also possible by their conviction for there to be a God that is superior to all matter.
Reasoning people find it hard to conceive how the impersonal can produce the personal, and how mere matter can produce intelligence and goodness. It is much more reasonable to believe that reason and goodness were first, and that God is a person who made all matter. Is it easier to believe that an empty hat produced, not only a rabbit, but also the magician, or to believe that the magician produced the hat and the rabbit? The God that Paul proclaims is the God who is the personal Creator of all that is. Out of nothing He made all reality, and, therefore, He is Lord of all. Personhood is the ultimate value in the universe because God is a Person.
The Stoics who listened to Paul were Pantheists. They believe God was everything, and everything was God. There was no distinction between God and creation, for creation was God. Paul exalts the unknown God above this concept, and he makes it clear that God is distinct from His creation, and that He gives existence to all things, and that He gives life and breath to all that is living. He is not a part of His creation, but is transcendent above all He has made. This is a vital aspect of Christian theology, because even Christians have a tendency to fall back into the attraction of Pantheism. It stresses that God is everywhere in all of nature so that one can feel the nearness of God in all that is. Edna St. Vincent Malley wrote-
God, I can push the grass apart
And lay my finger on thy heart.
This feeling of God being present everywhere in nature seems so good that most all people like the idea. It makes it easy to be religious if all that we enjoy in nature is God. Not only is Pantheism very appealing to nature lovers, but it also avoids all conflict with science. If all it is is God, then there can be no conflict with science, which studies God in all it is. One is being religious in whatever one does, for one is always god involved. Paul makes it clear that the nearness of God, and involvement with Him does not demand a pantheistic concept of God. In verse 28 Paul says of the God of Revelation, "In Him we live and move and have our being." Pantheism has no value that cannot be gained in Theism, but it has some great dangers that are eliminated by knowing the truth about the transcendence of God. If all is God, and God is in all, then all is okay, and there is no distinction between good and evil; wisdom and folly. In Pantheism all is good, for all is God.
Paul says that this is not so. God made all that is, but He is not all that is. He is separate from His creation, and can choose to be separate from any aspect of it. Paul says God does not dwell in temples made by hands. Pantheism says God has to be there, for the temple and the idols are part of God. This idea locks God into His own creation, and makes Him a captive.
The truth is that God is free, and does not have to be anywhere. The omnipresence of God in Christian theology does not mean God is not free to be absent. It means He is fully aware of all that is at all times. It does not mean He has to be present in pagan temples with the idols. He is there in awareness, but He is not there dwelling, and being served by human hands. God is free to be absent from anywhere He chooses. That is what hell is. It is the place of His chosen absence.
We need to keep in mind that for the Greeks all their gods were at the mercy of fate, and so they were not sovereign. The God that Paul makes known is a sovereign God. He is not manipulated by fate, or by man, or by any other force, He is the Force. He is the absolute. You do not capture Him in your temples, or your idols, or in your systems of theology. He is free, and He makes man free to worship Him. Nothing but the highest possible ideas of God are worthy of consideration, or anything less is a man made idea. History reveals that God made man with an awareness that anything less than the best idea of God is folly and unacceptable. That is why these very religious Greeks had an alter to an unknown god. They knew that with all their gods they did not have an adequate idea of the ultimate God.
This is the inner longing of all men. It is to know the God who really is, and who is far above the gods of their own making. But the paradox is that man also has a fear of this unknown God. He feels more comfortable sticking with the gods he can grasp because they are so small, and are made in His own image.
Men prefer to stick with the known even if it is false then to risk the unknown which is true.
The story, The Black Door, illustrates this battle. A spy was captured in one of the turbulent desert wars in the Middle East. The general of the Persian Army gave the condemned prisoner a choice. He could either face the firing squad, or pass through the Black Door. It was not an easy decision and the prisoner hesitated, but then chose the firing squad rather than face the unknown behind the door. The man was shot, and the general commented on how men always prefer the known to the unknown. "What does lie beyond that Black Door?" asked one of his aids. "Freedom," replied the general, "And I've known only a few men brave enough to take it."
Only a few were brave enough on Mars Hill to choose the unknown God. Most felt more secure in sticking with the puny gods they knew, and could see and feel. It was not easy for Paul to win people to Christ. He was the most brilliant Christian on the planet at this point, but he sometimes only won a few with all of his persuasive reasoning. Evangelism is hard even for the best, and so we need to recognize it takes a lot of prayer and wisdom to bring people to a decision for Christ. But there is no greater task on earth than to be used to take someone from the unknown to the known, especially when it means to help people come to know the God who can be known.