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Proclaiming an Unknown God

The view of the Acropolis from the Areopagus

I am going to attempt to blog a little more often than I have in the past few months, and I am going to try to return to the pattern I set last year of commenting on the biblical lectionary reading for each day. Today's reading is taken from Acts 17:22-28....
Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he 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’; as even some of your own poets have said,

‘For we too are his offspring.’
This speech ranks, in my mind, as one of the most amazing in all of human history. Paul did not immediately win many adherents after this talk given on Mars Hill in Athens, but this speech marked a turning point in the history of religion. After this point, Jesus would begin to replace the gods of ancient Greece and Rome. In less than three hundred years, Christianity would become the official religion of the Roman Empire. 

Of course, this movement that was, at first, known as "The Way", began with Jesus. But it was largely Saul of Tarsus, who became known as the Apostle Paul, who spread the message of Jesus to the major cities of the Roman Empire.

Here we see Paul tackling the polytheism of the Greeks head on. As a Jew, Paul easily could have been offended by all the idols that filled Athens. Instead, he sees in one of those idols a point of entry for communicating the good news about Jesus. 

Paul spies one altar with the inscription, "To an unknown god," and he begins from this point to tell the Athenians about Christ. In effect he says, "Let me tell you about this 'unknown' god."

The first thing Paul tells the Athenians about this unknown god is that he does not live in temples built by human hands. This is quite an audacious statement considering that Paul was standing just below the greatest temple of the ancient world when he said it...the Parthenon.

This is only one of many amazing things that Paul says in this speech. He goes on to tell the Athenians that God is not served by human hands. God does not need anything from us. Rather, it is we who are in total need of God. For God, this God who is unknown by us, is the one who gives us life, and breath, and all things.

This same God made all of humanity, and he has determined where and when we would live. But more importantly, why has God done this? He has given us life and placed us exactly where we are today, in hopes that we would reach out to him, and grope after him.

Then Paul finds something almost humorous in this image. It is funny, is it not, that we should have to seek after God, when he is not far from any one of us?

Then Paul quotes two poets to seal his point. The Cretan poet Epimenides (c. 600 BC) wrote in his Cretica, "In him we live and move and have our being." This quotation presents quite a dramatic picture, a picture of all humanity living, as it were, in the womb of God. The second quotation goes along with this image. "We are his offspring," comes from the Cilician poet Aratus (c. 315-240 BC) in his Phaenomena as well as from Cleanthes (331-233 BC) in his Hymn to Zeus.

The fact that Paul quotes these non-Jewish poets shows us two things. First, Paul was well read. Second, this shows us that all truth is God's truth, no matter where we find it.

I wonder: how does it make you feel today to know that you live in the womb of God and that you are his child?

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