Jesus Plus Nothing Bible Studies
The Knowledge of the Holy: Knowing the Unknown God

by I Gordon
 

How would you describe God to people that had zero knowledge about Him? Let's say that you go overseas to some obscure people group that seem to be religious in that they want to honour 'God' but know nothing about Him. What would you say to them? How would you describe the character and nature of God to these people? This is obviously not just some made up example but is largely based on a situation that the Apostle Paul encountered in the book of Acts.

Paul was in Greece. Athens to be exact. And while there he found an altar with words on it that showed that on the one hand, the people were religious. But at the same time it showed that they had next to no understanding about who God actually was.  

Background on Greek gods and goddesses

To begin it might be useful to learn a little about the Greek understanding of the 'gods' so we can understand the context of Paul's message. A website set up for the British Museum (http://www.ancientgreece.co.uk/gods/home_set.html) writes the following:

The ancient Greeks believed there were a great number of gods and goddesses. These gods had control over many different aspects of life on earth. In many ways they were very human. They could be kind or mean, angry or pleasant, cruel or loving. They fell in love with each other, argued with each other and even stole from each other. King of all the gods and goddesses was Zeus. He could control the weather and was often called 'the thunderer' or 'the cloud-gatherer'. He lived with the other gods on Mount Olympus, a high mountain in northern Greece. The ancient Greeks built great temples and sanctuaries to their gods. They held festivals in their honour, with processions, sports, sacrifices and competitions. Stories of the gods' exploits were told to children by their mothers and to large audiences by professional bards and storytellers. People today still enjoy hearing stories about the Greek gods.

What? Another role play?

Acts 17:22-24 So Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, "Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. (23) "For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, 'TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.' Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.

I asked you at the start to think about what you would say if you came across a people group that show a religious inclination but knew next to nothing about the true God. As you can see from the above verse, that was the situation Paul found himself in. Those in Athens were religious and had an altar with the inscription 'TO AN UNKNOWN GOD'. This was obviously a perfect opportunity for Paul to teach them about that which they did not know and Paul was not one to miss an opportunity to preach the gospel! Now I want you to play another role play. I'm asking a lot I know! You are no longer in Paul's position (though I hope you have thought about what you would say if that was you!) but are now in the position of the men and women in Athens who only know a little about this 'unknown God' but are hearing Paul speak about this God. What is it that you would learn about the true God? Think also how the truth about Yahweh, as described by Paul, would stand in contrast to the legends and stories spoken in Greece about the many gods and goddesses. We'll start by reading the entire speech and try to forget about what you know about God already and just go on what the Apostle Paul reveals... what can you pick up? What can you learn about God from this passage?

Acts 17:24-31 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. (25) And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. (26) From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. (27) God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. (28) 'For in him we live and move and have our being.' As some of your own poets have said, 'We are his offspring.' (29) Therefore since we are God's offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone--an image made by man's design and skill. (30) In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. (31) For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead."

Alright... Had enough time?

So let's break this passage down a bit. As we go through each verse I want to look at both what is teaches about the character and nature of God as well as what we can take away for our own lives. And again, try to approach this like you are one of those in Athens and only know about 'an unknown God'. Let's use a table so that we can separate the sections.

Acts 17 Verse What it teaches about God What we can take from it
God is Creator!

(vs 24) The God who made the world and all things in it...
Paul starts with God being the true creator of all things. In Paul's day no one was really silly enough to believe that this planet and everything on it came about simply by random processes and chance. No... it took another 1800 years before we were foolish enough to believe that. In Paul's day, men were religious but stumbling around in the darkness they had created lots of different deities that they worshipped. So Paul starts by being clear that this one God not only created the entire world but everything that is in it. Look at creation for a moment. Any part of it. It doesn't matter what you look at, but if you take the time to explore, it will cry out that there is a wonderful Creator! From the complexity of the eye to the beauty of the sunset, what an amazing God we serve! Who is this God? How can He create such wonder? His name is Jesus! The Bible says that all things were made by Him and for Him (Col 1:16) Think of the knowledge that is displayed in creation. Think of the wisdom. Think of the power required to hold it all in place. Think of the creativity and beauty. It all combines to speak of the glory and majesty of our God!
God is Lord of All!

(vs 24) ...since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands
Paul introduces God not only as creator but as the Lord of both Heaven and Earth. As seen above, the Greeks had many 'gods', each with different powers and areas of control. Paul taught that there is One God who not only control heaven but the earth as well. The Greeks were also known for their elaborate temples dedicated to please their gods. So Paul sets this straight as well! The true God doesn't dwell in man made temples. Even King Solomon, in dedicating the second temple, said "But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!" (1Ki 8:27) But the amazing thing is that God has given Himself to dwell in and with believers! This is the precious gift that we have as believers in the Lord Jesus. Our God is far greater than a human made temple but He has decided to dwell with us. Our bodies are a temple for the living God! Therefore honour God with that temple!
God is Self-sufficient

(vs 25) nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything
God is self sufficient and doesn't require our help. He does 'need anything' as Paul says in verse 25. He can speak life and creation into being if He so desires. He doesn't require creatures to wait on Him or help Him. He is complete and completely adequate for all things in Himself. But here is the thing... Though totally self-sufficient in Himself, God has chosen to include us in His work! He doesn't need us but He does love us! And while not requiring our help but takes joy from including us in His great work so that we can know Him better and find the purpose for which He created us. Do you desire to be included in the work of God on this planet?
God is Gracious!

(vs 25) since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things
God is a giving God. We often take that for granted but He doesn't have to be! He could have been a God who demands a lot and gives little. Instead He demands little and gives a lot! Oh the grace of God! And note that it says He gives to all people. Jesus said He sends rain on the good and the bad. That is grace. Unmerited. Paul says this grace extends to life, breath and all things. Every good and perfect gift comes down from the Father of lights! What do you have reason to be thankful for? What do you see as that which you have achieved yourself and don't need to thank God for? It is in that area that you are still blind! The grace of God is the most wonderful of all His attributes I believe and the most needed for fallen humanity. Never, ever, lose your sense of how amazing God's grace is!
God is All-Knowing!

(vs 26) and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation
What a great God we serve! What understanding and knowledge are His! He created all of humanity from the one man Adam. Not only that, Paul says that He determined the nations times and boundaries! Deut 32:8 has an intriguing verse saying that when the boundaries for the nations were made, God divided them according to the number of the sons of Israel. This verse highlights God's sovereignty, knowledge and control over His creation.   We can see these on a personal level as well. God knows the number of our days. Psa 39:4 'Show me, O LORD, my life's end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting is my life.' God ordains the details of our life. For example, my mother came on a ship from England to New Zealand when she was around 20 years of age. It was only meant to be for a holiday but she met a man, got married, and continued to live here. Had that not happened, I wouldn't have existed! Yet I was foreknown by God before the foundation of the world and, in some very small way, part of His plan. It is an odd thought that God directs our steps even without us knowing! 
God cares, is close!

(vs 27) that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us;
This God who is all-knowing and self-sufficient wants to be found! That is, He is a God who cares and is not trying to hide from people. He is close for all those who have hearts that desire to find Him. He wants to be wanted and desires for mankind to reach out and search for Him. This thought carries on in the Christian life. You get as much as you want in God. If you have a desire to know Him better then that need is met and filled. If you don't really care and would rather pursue other things in life then God won't force Himself on anyone. I encourage you, especially in this late day, to be one that seeks to know God. The Holy Spirit will bring you into truth and life as you make 'Him' your goal.
God is All-powerful!

(vs 28) for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, 'For we also are His children
By His power God upholds all things! In Him we live and exist.  The New Testament tells us that Jesus upholds all things by the word of His power and that all things were created by Him and for Him. (Col 1:16-17, Heb 1:3) Every creature owes its very breath to God - Job 12:10 In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind. If Jesus didn't uphold this planet it wouldn't continue. If He didn't grant permission for you to keep breathing you would breathe your last! Praise God that He is who He is! Praise God that He is gracious and patient!
God is a personal being!

(vs 29) "Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man.
Different religions for thousands of years have been forming their own 'gods' in wood, stone and gold. Even today men bow down to the very idols that their own hands have made! But that is not God. God is not in those idols. We do not create Him with our hands! God is a personal being, a Father to His creation, separate from His creation.  As Christians we won't fall into the trap of having physical 'idols' that we have made to represent God but we still fall into the trap of having our own concept of God that is not Biblical. We need to be careful not to make a 'God' according to our own thoughts. It is an imperative to be like the Bereans and search the scriptures to see if these things are so. (Acts 17:11)
God is Righteous and Holy!

(vs 30) "Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent
In the past God allowed for the ignorance of mankind but now He declares that all people repent! What does this teach about God? It shows His patience and understanding of our condition as well as His righteousness and holiness. It shows that He is a moral being who desires than man walk according to His ways and truth. It shows that He has the authority to command men to repent. Repentance is a change the mind and heart. It is an important step in coming to the Lord as seen early in the book of Acts (Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord Act 3:19) as well as for the established Christian whose walk or thoughts need to change. Rev 2:4-5 Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.
God is Judge!

(vs 31) because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness
The holiness and justice of God's character is seen in this verse which shows that all people will have their lives judged. God will judge the whole world and has fixed a specific day in which this will take place. The judgement will be in righteousness. That is, it will be in accordance to His righteous nature, not man's standards. This is a sobering thought... but it also emphasises the wonderful position that the believers have come into. For as Jesus said: Joh 5:24 "Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life. No believer will be judged according to their sins. The judgement that the believer will face is in regard to their life and works for the basis of rewards.
God has proven Himself!

(vs 31) through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead."
Finally we see that God has proved Himself. He has given proof to all of mankind if they truly want to know by raising Jesus from the dead. The resurrection proved all that Jesus spoke about Himself. (Matt 12:39-40, Acts 1:3) There are many other ways that God has shown Himself as well through creation, Bible prophecy and man's inward knowledge and conscience. Humanity truly is without excuse! (Rom 1:20) The reality of Jesus being God is also seen in our own lives. The reality of His resurrection is seen in that changed lives of those that believe in His name. The resurrection from the dead didn't just stop two thousand years ago. As believers, we too are raised in Him to a newness of life. We are a living witness, a living proof, that Jesus was who He said He was! We need to remember that. As D.L Moody once said, 'Out of 100 men, 1 will read the Bible, the other 99 will read the Christian.'

Conclusion

If they only knew about an 'unknown God' before Paul's visit, the men of Athens would have known a lot more now! This wonderful passage speaks of God's character and nature, His patience and perfection. It ranges in scope from times past, to the resurrection, to the future day of judgement. It shows a God who not only created mankind but also cares intimately about His creation. Stop for a moment and thank God for who He is! We do not get to decide who God is and He could have been anything. He could have been mean or impatient, quick to anger and unpredictable. Instead He is perfect. Gracious, kind, faithful... yet righteous and holy. He will one day judge the world as Paul spoke 2000 years ago. Make sure that you have accepted His offer of salvation and desire to walk in His ways today!