A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 17:16-34. What Paul said (continued).
First, God is the creator of the universe: *The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built with hands* (24). This view of the world is very different from either the Epicurean emphasis on a chance combination of atoms or the virtual pantheism of the Stoics. Instead, God is both the personal Creator of everything that exists and the personal Lord of everything he has made. It is absurd, therefore, that he who made and supervises everything lives in shrines which human beings have built. Any attempt to limit or localize the Creator God, to imprison him within the confines of manmade buildings, structures or concepts, is ludicrous.
Secondly, God is the Sustainer of life: *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* (25). God continues to sustain the life which he has created and given to his human creatures. It is absurd, therefore, to suppose that he who sustains life should himself need to be sustained, that he who supplies our need should himself need our supply. Any attempt to tame or domesticate God, to reduce him to the level of a household pet dependent on us for food and shelter, is again a ridiculous reversal of roles. We depend on God; he does not depend on us.
Thirdly, God is the Ruler of all nations: *From one man* (the Western text ‘of one blood’ is surely mistaken; Adam is in view as the single progenitor of the human race) *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 (26). 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 (27). ‘For in him we live and move and have our being*’ (28a). Some commentators think that Paul’s reference here to ‘times’ and ‘places’ (26) is to God’s preparation of the planet earth to be our human habitation, and to his provision of the regular seasons, which Paul mentioned in Lystra (14:17). The nations’ ‘times’ and ‘places’, however, seem to be more particular than this, and to refer rather to ‘the epochs of their history and the limits of their territory’ (NEB). Thus, although God cannot be held responsible for the tyranny or aggression of individual nations, yet both the history and the geography of each nation are ultimately under his control. Further, God’s purpose in this has been so that the human beings he had made in his own image might *seek him, and perhaps reach out for him*, or ‘feel after him’ (RSV), a verb which ‘denotes the groping and fumbling of a blind man’, *and find him*. Yet this hope is unfulfilled because of human sin, as the rest of Scripture makes clear. Sin alienates people from God even as, sensing the unnaturalness of their alienation, they grope for him. It would be absurd, however, to blame God for this alienation, or to regard him as distant, unknowable, uninterested. For *he is not far from each one of us*. It is we who are far from him. If it were not for sin which separates us from him, he would be readily accessible to us. For ‘*in him we live and move and have our being*’ – a quotation from the 6th century BC poet Epimenides of Cnossos in Crete.
Tomorrow: What Paul said (continued).