A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 17:16-34. What Paul said (continued),
Fourthly, God is the Father of human beings: *As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring’ (28b). 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* (29). This second quotation comes from the 3rd century Stoic author Aratus, who came from Paul’s native Cilicia, although he may have been echoing an earlier poem by the Stoic philosopher Cleanthes. It is remarkable that Paul should thus have quoted from two pagan poets. His precedent gives us the warrant to do the same, and indicates that glimmerings of truth, insights from general revelation, may be found in non-Christian authors. At the same time we need to exercise caution, for in stating that ‘we are his offspring’, Aratus was referring to Zeus, and Zeus is emphatically not identical with the living and true God. But is it right that all human beings are God’s offspring (*genos*)? Yes it is. Although in redemption terms God is the Father only of those who are in Christ, and we are his children only by adoption and grace, yet in creation terms God is the Father of all humankind, and all are his offspring, his creatures, receiving their life from him. Moreover, because we are his offspring, whose being derives from him and depends on him, it is absurd to think of him as *like gold or silver or stone*, which are lifeless in themselves and which owe their being to human imagination and art. Paul quotes their own poets to expose their own inconsistency.
These are powerful arguments. All idolatry, whether ancient or modern, primitive or sophisticated, is inexcusable, whether the images are metal or mental, material objects of worship or unworthy concepts in the mind. For idolatry is the attempt either to localize God, confining him within limits which we impose, whereas he is the Creator of the universe; or to domesticate God, making him dependent on us, taming and taping him, whereas he is the Sustainer of human life; or to alienate God, blaming him for his distance and silence, whereas he is the Ruler of Nations, and not far from any of us; or to dethrone God, demoting him to some image of our own contrivance or craft, whereas he is our Father from whom we derive our being. In brief, all idolatry tries to minimize the gulf between the Creator and his creatures, in order to bring him under our control. More than that, it actually reverses the respective positions of God and us, so that, instead of our humbly acknowledging that God has created and rules us, we presume to imagine that we can create and rule God. There is no logic in idolatry; it is a perverse, topsy-turvy expression of our human rebellion against God. It leads to Paul’s last point.
Fifthly, God is the Judge of the world: *In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent (30). 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* (31). Paul reverts at he end of his address to the topic with which he began: human ignorance. The Athenians have acknowledged in their altar inscription that they are ignorant of God, and Paul has been giving evidence of their ignorance. Now he declares such ignorance to be culpable. For God has never ‘left himself without testimony’ (14:17). On the contrary, he has revealed himself through the natural order, but human beings ‘suppress the truth by their wickedness’ (Rom. 1:18). *In the past God overlooked such ignorance*. It is not that he did not notice it, nor that he acquiesced in it as excusable, but that in his forbearing mercy he did not visit upon it the judgement it deserved (cf. Rom. 3:25). *But now he commands all people everywhere to repent*. Why? Because of the certainty of the coming judgement. Paul tells his listeners three immutable facts about it. First, it will be universal: God *will judge the world*. The living and the dead, the high and the low, will be included; nobody will be able to escape. Secondly, it will be righteous: *he will judge…with justice*, All secrets will be revealed. There will be no possibility of any miscarriage of justice. Thirdly it will be definite, for already the day has been set and the judge has been appointed. And although the day has not yet been disclosed, the identity of the judge has been (10:42). God has committed the judgement to his Son, (cf. Jn 5:27), and *he has given proof of this* publicly to everybody *by raising him from the dead*. By the resurrection Jesus was vindicated, and declared to be both Lord and Judge. Moreover this divine judge is also *the man*. All nations have been created from the first Adam; through the last Adam all nations will be judged.
This mention of the resurrection, which had prompted the philosophers to ask to hear more (18), was now enough to bring the meeting to an abrupt end. *When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered*, even ‘burst out laughing’ (JB), perhaps the Epicureans, *but others said*, whether sincerely or not, perhaps the Stoics, *We want to hear you again on this subject*’ (32). *At that, Paul left the Council* (33), for the meeting was adjourned. However, *a few men became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus*, whom Eusebius later identified (though on insufficient evidence) as Athens’ first Christian bishop and martyr, *also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others* (34). These must all have responded to the summons to repent, and ‘turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God’.
Tomorrow, What Paul said (continued). Acts 17:16-34
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts: Becoming a Christian. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.