Today’s Reading: Acts 17-19
Today’s Reflection: Acts 17:24-28
24) The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, 25) nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 26) And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, 27) that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, 28) for “‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, “‘For we are indeed his offspring.’
This is one of my favorite stories in the bible, for it is a story of how God is at work in the hearts and lives of people, even when we can’t see it, even when obscured by our own traditions, ideas and prejudices. Somehow and echo of truth, a whisper of love and salvation is hidden there, waiting for the opportune time to emerge.
Paul arrives in Athens, the centre of knowledge and thought behind Greek philosophy. As he enters he sees idols and temples devoted to the mythological gods the Greeks believed in. He enters a conversation with some Jews in the marketplace and begins to expound on the Gospel. A few native Athenians overhear him and ask him to share his “foreign divinities” with them at the Areopagus.
Areopagus means ‘rock of Ares’, and was believed to be the place where the mythic god of war was tried by the other gods for murdering a demi-god. So this place was a court, where truth was determined. And Paul was given the opportunity to share his truth with the Athenian scholars. His address is one of the most beautiful and powerful in the entire bible. There are three things Paul does that I try to remember when speaking to non-believers and that I think set a powerful example for each of us:
Paul showed respect for who he was ministering to: Paul started out by praising the Athenians for their religious spirit. Many Christians would have looked at the idols and pagan temples and the Athenians reverence for reason and humanist philosophies and concluded these people had no interest in the true God or true worship. Instead Paul sees a group of people trying to find truth the best way they know how and he sees that desire as an opportunity to reach them with the Gospel.
Paul used language his audience could understand: The Athenians nearly worshiped knowledge and philosophy, so Paul spoke to them in the language of philosophical poetry and ideas they were familiar with. Paul mentioned an inscription to ‘the unknown god’ and demonstrated that god they were seeking could actually be known, and was the God of Israel. He also spoke of the qualities of God using quotes from Athenian poetry, “in him we live and move and have our being” and “for we are indeed his offspring”. By doing this he showed the truth of God in a way they could relate to and understand, not terribly different from the example of the Roman centurion and his witness before Jesus (Matthew 8:5-13).
Paul stuck to the essential truths his audience needed to hear to make a step towards God: Athenian philosophy had it that a man had to spend decades searching for truth and enlightenment. Paul wanted them to know the journey to knowing God and His truth wasn’t that rigorous, they were in fact ‘not far’ from Him, that God had ordained times and ways for each of them to hear from Him and see the evidence of His work in their lives ultimately so they would be drawn to him. Then Paul rooted this understanding in salvation, the Gospel and the evidence of the cross.
The result? Some scoffed, but many believed and some became disciples as well. The lesson for us? Before we minister to people we need to get to know where they’re coming from and realize that even though they may believe differently than we do God has been at work in their lives as well. When we can identify His threads of truth in their personal experiences we can show them how God is weaving a tapestry in their lives, one that finds it’s centre in Jesus Christ. And we can do this in a way that is respectful, relevant, and powerful.