He Isn’t a Foreign God
May 5, 2024

He Isn’t a Foreign God

The Foreign Idea of the Christian God

For several weeks, now, we’ve been looking at the major speeches in the book of Acts. And everything we’ve seen so far has been directed at devout Jews. These speeches have emphasized that Jesus’s arrival is the fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures. But tonight we’ll see the apostle Paul deliver a talk that looks a bit different. Because he’s speaking about God and the gospel of Christ to a non-Jewish, foreign audience in the Greek city of Athens. Paul’s speech here shows how he introduced people to Christianity when his audience had little or no knowledge of the Bible. And I’m confident that as we reflect on Paul’s message here, it will help us to more deeply appreciate the greatness of God and become better communicators about God and his gospel to the people around us.

So please turn with me in your Bible to Acts 17. And I’ll read the text for us in a moment, starting at verse 16. But before I read the text, let’s ask God to give us wisdom and understanding from the text.

[Pray and Read Text]

I want to unpack the text tonight under four points. First, I want to help you understand the audience listening to Paul’s message. Second, I want to clarify the allegations that they raise against Paul’s beliefs. Third, I want to explain the address that Paul gives – to point out the significance of what he’s saying. And fourth, I want to discuss the aftermath of Paul’s speech. (Audience, Allegations, Address, Aftermath).

The Audience

So first, the audience. Who were these people listening to Paul? I’ve already indicated that most of the people in Athens weren’t Jews. They didn’t know the Bible. They weren’t waiting for divine promises to be fulfilled. They weren’t anticipating the arrival of God’s anointed one, the Messiah, the Christ.

Instead, the people of Athens latched on to a variety of different beliefs to fill the void. Many were devoted to mystery cults or Greek paganism. Verse 16 states that the city was filled with idols. But others followed Greek philosophy instead. Verse 18 identifies two schools of Greek philosophy that dominated in the days of Paul: the Epicureans and the Stoics.

The Epicurean philosophy asserted that God was high and distant from the affairs of mankind. (They emphasized the idea of divine transcendence). They denied that God got his hands dirty by speaking to people, or helping people, or punishing people. But functionally, they believed this life, this world – that’s the only thing that was really relevant. “Let’s eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die!” That was their motto.

The Stoics, on the other hand, were an even larger group of philosophers who emphasized the nearness of God (his imminence). The Stoics blurred the distinction between the Creator and the created world by claiming that the universe was God, and God was the universe. They believed that the divine essence could be found everywhere, including in themselves.

But Paul came speaking about a God who was both transcendent and imminent – a God both distinct from the world, and yet closely engaged with it. He speaks in a way that’s understandable to the Greek philosophers, but he doesn’t pander to them, or change his message to give the pagans what they wanted. His message isn’t an attempt to blur the distinctives of Christianity in order to make it more palatable. Instead, he is crystal clear on the fact that Christianity is distinct from Greek philosophy.

The Allegations

So after hearing him speak, some of the philosophers jump to some preliminary conclusions about his teaching. They raise a couple allegations – which is my second point – the allegations.

In the second half of verse 18, the philosophers make two allegations. Some philosophers allege or claim that Paul himself is unreasonable. They say, “What does this babbler wish to say?” By calling Paul a babbler, they’re claiming that Paul has been haphazardly collecting and repeating ideas that aren’t logically connected. These philosophers can’t see how the parts of his message fit together, so they conclude that Paul’s message isn’t rationally consistent and coherent.

But other philosophers makes a different allegation at the end of verse 18: “Others said, ‘He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities’ – because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection.” So this other group of great thinkers – they believe that Paul’s message is coherent. But it’s foreign. It’s not a Greek belief, about Greek gods. But it’s a belief system from a far-off land. It may be for those people, but it’s not for me. They’re interested to hear about it. But they don’t really believe it’s relevant – not for them, at least.

So when the philosophers ask Paul to speak about this new teaching, Paul knows he needs to deal with these allegations. He wants to show the reasonableness of the Christian faith, and its universal, binding relevance for all people, including the Greeks.

The Address: Not a Foreign God

So Paul speaks to these allegations in his address to the Areopagus. This brings us to my 3rd point – the Address.

Paul insists on the reasonableness and relevance of his message for the Greeks in four ways.

First, Paul identifies his God as the unknown God – as the God who, up until this point, has been unknown by the Greeks. Halfway through verse 22, he says, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown God.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”

When Paul refers to this “unknown God” – he’s making the point that the people of Athens had an altar for him. They couldn’t argue that this “unknown God” was a foreign God, for other people, because this was a God they recognized in their own land. This was one of their own gods that Paul was talking about.

Yet there’s a bit more of a backstory here that the educated Philosophers in Athens would almost definitely have known about. The reason that the city of Athens had altars like this, to an unknown God, was because more than 500 years earlier, there was a plague in the city. And though the Greeks sacrificed to Zeus, Athena, and all their pagan idols, the plague persisted. But a Greek philosopher named Epimenides – the same Epimenides who Paul quotes in verse 28 – he figured that the plagues must be caused by a different God, one that the Greeks didn’t know about. So he told the people to offer sacrifices (on altars) to this unknown God, and the plague in Athens stopped.

So this unknown God that Paul’s talking about isn’t a foreign God. He’s a part of Athen’s history. And this true, living God is someone greater than and distinct from the pantheon of Greek idols.

Paul continues to argue for the relevance of His God by introducing him as the Transcendent God – the exalted, heavenly God. In verses 24-26, Paul introduces the Greeks to God’s transcendent greatness by highlighting God’s role in creation. The Christian God isn’t one and the same as the world, but is instead the God who made the world, and everything in it.

And Paul points out, because God is great like this, it’s foolish to think that he lives in manmade buildings. It’s foolish to think that God needs to be served by human hands. Because God himself is the one who gives life to us, who who shelters us, who provides for us. We need God. But God doesn’t need us.

And as the maker of all things, this God is the King and Ruler of the world. From one man, he made every nation on earth. He’s the one who has determined their boundaries and dwelling places. And since Paul’s God is the Creator and King over all things and all nations, this means that he can’t possibly be a foreign God. He can’t just be a God for the Jews, or a God over the land of Palestine. But he alone is the true Lord over everyone, including the Greeks, including you, including me.

Yet there’s a third way Paul argues for his God’s relevance to the Greeks. He argues that His God is imminent. He’s close by, he’s involved in human affairs. God isn’t unfindable, but urges and expects people to seek Him. God is the giver and sustainer of human life – in him we live, and move, and have our being. There is a relatedness between God and man – we are made in his image. “We are his offspring.” By quoting Greek poets who have stumbled upon some true ideas about God, Paul is highlighting the nearness of God to the Greeks.

If God were so transcendent that he was utterly distant and disconnected from mankind, there’d be no chance of knowing him or his purpose for us, no promise of future judgment, no hope of future reward. But God is imminent. He’s close to you and I. He’s attentive to everything you’re thinking and doing. And this is significant because this God expects something of you. He expects you to come to him, to know him, to revere and enjoy him. And if you miss this – if you reject it, there will be a consequence.

Which brings me to the fourth way Paul argues for the relevance of Christianity in his address. His message is relevant because the Greeks will be held accountable for it. In verse 30, Paul insists that they can’t plead ignorance anymore. God himself says they must repent. Their desires, their beliefs, their religious practices – it all must be changed.

You’ll see here, it isn’t enough just to be religious or spiritual in general. Because Paul perceived that the Athenians were “very religious.” They likely thought of themselves as being very interested in God, very open to spiritual things. But this passage shows that you can be religious and spiritual, and yet be an enemy of God. The religious practices of the Greeks maybe felt meaningful to them. But their false beliefs just drove them further away from God’s favor. When they made statues of God out of gold, silver, or whatever, they were despising the God who made them. Whenever they worshiped these shiny hunks of rock they had invented for themselves, they were insulting the God of infinite glory. And there’s a severe consequence for this, Paul says. It’s coming soon. God has mercifully delayed his divine punishment, but he won’t be patient forever. That’s why he urges: Repent – Be changed!

Paul’s God isn’t a foreign God, distant from you, for other people. But He’s the only living and true God. And you’re going to face him one day. God has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man – by the man Jesus Christ, whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.

Notice here. God has set his badge of honor on Jesus by raising him from the dead. In the resurrection, by clothing his Son in perfect immortality, God has confirmed his eternal, unrestrained approval of Jesus. The glory of the resurrection makes the Presidential Medal of Freedom looks like a Happy Meal Toy. Because Jesus was really and truly raised from death, know with certainty that God has really and truly appointed him to determine your eternal destiny. We aren’t speaking here about a foreign God. But we have here a God who took on flesh, who came to our little rock floating around in outer space, and died for sinners. We must turn from our worship of self, we must throw away our philosophies about life that are built on empty imagination, and we must bring our lives in line with God, with His Word, and with His Son, Jesus Christ.

The Aftermath

But here in my fourth and final point, the Aftermath of Paul’s Speech, notice how the people respond. In verses 32-34, we see three types of reactions people have to Paul’s message. There are some who mock Paul. They’re so committed to their preexisting assumptions and philosophies, they aren’t willing to accept that they might be wrong. They aren’t willing to consider that resurrection from the dead could be possible. Be prepared when you’re sharing your faith – people may not always respect your words. Some people may start to mock you and openly contradict you.

But there’s a second common response people give here. Another part of the crowd says, “We will hear you again about this.” They want to hear more. They’re curious. They may not be willing to change their minds or commit to anything right away. But there are a lot of spiritually interested people who will leave the door open for you to follow up with more conversations.

And there’s a third way people respond. As a result of Paul’s message, the text says that some men joined him and believed. We often lack confidence that this will happen in our day. But many people will turn to Jesus when they hear the Christian message – not just Biblically literate Jews – not just neighbors and family members who know the Bible. But when our church in Mount Pleasant speaks this good news, we should expect that it can transform CMU students from India, and members of the Saginaw-Chippewa Native American Tribe. This message is for the whole world. Our God is not a foreign God, but is the Lord of all. Though many will reject us, many will believe. So let’s speak with confidence, and trust in the power of God and His gospel.