Sitting on the Areopagus, right where Paul stood and addressed the assembly, I couldn’t help but be filled with questions: How can steps carved into ancient rock be that slippy? What VSCO preset would make my photos look nicest? Why do people insist on taking that many selfies in a single location? And, more importantly, what was Paul thinking to stand there and say the things that he said?
As I looked around I was surrounded by the wonders of ancient Athens. To one side, so close that you feel could almost spit on it, is the Acropolis. It dominates the view, crowned with the Parthenon and dotted with other shrines and temples—the defining image of Ancient Greece.
Just below lies the Agora, filled as it was with shrines and altars, alongside the prominent Temple of Hephaestus. From where he stood you couldn’t find a view that was not dominated by the temples and places of worship. There was a moment of breathless admiration as I read his words over and over:
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 human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.
– Acts 17:24-25 (NIV)
It’s not a prosaic, philosophical, statement; it’s a hand grenade into the heart of it all. You can imagine him pointing at the Acropolis and the Temple of Hephaestus as he says those words, “the Lord of heaven and earth does not live in temples built by human hands”.
A radical declaration: one God above all
Speaking into a culture that had many gods (twelve major deities and a host of others), Paul does not talk about a god but rather the God. The Lord of heaven and earth. It’s clear that he is not speaking of just one of the many gods that his listeners revered but one that is responsible for the creation of everything both material and spiritual.
By asserting that YHWH created the heavens and the earth, Paul is establishing that no matter the belief system, no matter what a person holds dear or reveres, God is supreme over all.
This would have been a bold and revolutionary statement in Ancient Greece and it remains exactly that today; if we look at the priorities of the world around us it is easy to see that, more often than not, God doesn’t hold top spot. He is supreme over all creation by nature of who He is, but all creation does not yet know or recognise that.
As we looked at in our first study, it’s so easy for us to elevate things to a position that makes them an idol; a big part of the process of Christian life is identifying these areas where He is not ‘above all’ and restoring Him to His rightful place in our lives.
Getting our perspective right on God is a process that is transformational to our communities and our lives.
Everything has changed…
Paul doesn’t stop at declaring that there is one God, however, but goes on to say that this God doesn’t live in a temple made by human hands. He doesn’t live at a sacred shrine or altar. All of those people seeking their gods on the hill behind where Paul is speaking? They’ll be disappointed, ultimately, because God doesn’t dwell there.
Everything that religious belief systems up until this point had ever believed is being turned on its head; no longer is it the case that to meet God you have to go to a specific geographical location and perform a specific ritual, God has come to meet man in the person of His Son; the very name Immanuel, one of the names given to Jesus, means God with us (Matthew 1:23).
So how does that work then? How can that work? Even for the Jewish people, their whole system of worship had revolved around the temple in Jerusalem; it was there that they sacrificed animals to atone for their sins, there that the priest approached God on their behalf, and there that the tribes were united together in their worship.
You may have heard some people say that God is about relationship, not religion. The reason they say that is because of what Jesus does. Offering one sacrifice for all human sin and giving humanity a way to approach God through Him, He makes everything personal. Religion may gather you in a temple to try to communicate with God, but relationship makes you the temple.
Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?
– 1 Corinthians 3:16 (ESV)
As Paul continues to explain this he gives insight into God’s plans for humanity. The fact that He had planned everything and everyone for a specific time and place, and that even the fate of nations was in His hands.
He’d brought the whole of history to this point, by this route, so that people would seek him; so that when the door opened to have a personal and direct relationship with the one true God, there’d be a clamour to take Him up on it because people would have realised their need of Him.
From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
Paul presents God to them not as the destruction of their culture and history but as the thing that all culture and all history has been pointing too. Everything, sacred and profane, Jewish and gentile, was building up to the moment when Jesus Christ would come; when God would move and act in human form.
As if to prove the point Paul weaves in two cultural references, they’re largely lost on us—given the average knowledge of ancient Greek philosophy and poetry in the modern age—but to his learned listeners these would have been very relevant.
“In him we live and move and have our being,” was a quote from the philosopher Epimenides, the same philosopher credited with encouraging them to sacrifice to an unknown God. And “we are his offspring,” came from Aratus the stoic. Look, Paul is saying, your great men have been talking about this for centuries.
He doesn’t claim that Epimenides and Aratus were believers in this one true God, but rather that God had somehow placed truth even in the mouths and thoughts of those who hadn’t yet seen Him. What a masterclass is using the culture of the day we live in to help reach people who are familiar with it.
God has stepped into history in the most literal way possible to bring to completion everything that has come before and bring humanity into relationship with Him.