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Acts 17:23-34 & Romans 1:18-22 by Robert Dean
Are you dreaming of an amazing world under one government where everyone speaks the same language? Listen to this lesson to learn that God, the Creator, did not design His world to function this way but instead established nations and oversees their rise and fall. Find out about the Divine institutions and how they provide protection and prosperity for people and nations who follow them. See how the Apostle Paul, without using experience, historical evidence or reason, witnessed to people who were suppressing what they already knew to be true about God.
Series:Acts (2010)
Duration:1 hr 6 mins 8 secs

Athens: The Challenge of the Gospel
Acts 17:23-34

Acts 17:23 NASB "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.'…"

The "unknown god" is just another one of their gods that participate in the being of the universe. He is not a distinct god, so Paul is not compromising the gospel by saying "Your god and my God are really the same." They are not the same God. What he is doing is pointing out the fact that they have an idol to an unknown god shows that they have God-consciousness. They are aware that there is a God out there but they are suppressing that truth in unrighteousness. What Paul wants to do is tweak it. He wants to say some things that are either going to create a reaction or there are going to be some who are going to respond.

In biblical thought God is totally separate, there is no derivative being, He creates everything. All existence is created by Him out of nothing, ex nihilo creation. Paul recognizes that the god that they envision is just another one of their gods, not a distinctly different god, not a creator God who created ex nihilo.  

Paul doesn't ever validate their concept of deity by equating the pagan idea of God with the biblical idea of God. He is not going to assume that when they say, "I want God," that what they mean by that is what he means when he is talking about God. He spends a lot of time clarifying who God is and pointing out that this idol isn't representing the true God but is evidence that they know that there is a God. He is going to teak that knowledge of God. We get that from Romans 1:18. Those who are negative to God are truth suppressors. Everybody is a truth suppressor until they understand the gospel and believe. Until a person believes in the gospel there is no indication that he is going to change. It is easy to say of someone that they are so hard, they will never believe the gospel. That what would have been said about Paul five minutes before he became a believer. So we can't prejudge, and we don't know how long it is going to take. We just have to be faithful in expressing the gospel.

The wrath of God is revealed against truth suppressors because what may be known about God is manifest (revealed) in them. So that means no matter who I am talking to, they know in their heart of hearts that God exists. Paul just wants to say some things to get that knowledge of God to start vibrating a little bit, and then get either a positive response or a negative reaction. We see both happen here on Mars Hill.

Romans 1:20 NASB "For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse." Standing before the great white throne judgment there is no excuse. Why? [21] "For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened." The more their heart is darkened the harder their hearts become. Only the Holy Spirit can penetrate that, we just have to do the best we can to try to generate a little activity.

Paul also uses certain features of commonly held belief as a way of tweaking their God-consciousness. He is going to say some things that are commonly believed in terms of the religious beliefs of the masses. He is not using because he is saying it is true, he is using it because the reason it is there in the culture is because there is truth that has been suppressed but there is still this knowledge of God that bubbles up everywhere. These different sayings is just evidence that there is some truth there being suppressed, and so Paul is simply using that as a way to surface the God-consciousness that is already there. The common ground that Paul appeals to isn't reason or experience but the suppressed truth of the knowledge of God. 

Typically in the methodology of defending the faith what we appeal to is one of three things. Most people don't appeal to the Scripture as the ultimate authority, because the unbeliever doesn't believe in the authority of Scripture. They say, "I am going to appeal to something he thinks has authority; I am going to appeal to reason." But his reason is flawed; his reason is autonomous. Therefore it is irrational ultimately. So what they are doing is slipping over into the human viewpoint side of the game thinking, "I can win them by using their assumptions." No, they can't. If you have a bad starting point you are going to get a bad ending. Sometimes that works but that is only because people aren't real bright and they are not thinking things through logically. It is not that the gospel isn't rational but it is not starting from their rational starting point that human reason alone can determine truth.

Or we go to experience, the historical argument to validate Scripture. Now there is a historical argument, an evidence for the truth of Scripture but that is not our foundation for proving truth. It is different. Our starting point is the fact that the unbeliever we are talking to already knows that God exists. We don't really need to prove it to him. And if we tried to prove it to him on his terms we'd have a problem. How much empirical evidence can I marshal to convince him that God exists? He is going to say, "It doesn't matter how much evidence you marshal because it won't convince me, because I already know God exists. And I have been suppressing it for thirty years. It is not about evidence; it is about my hostility to God." The issue isn't lack of data; the issue is rejection of data. It is an ethical, sinful problem; it is not an intellectual problem. He is not an unbeliever because he is not smart enough; he is an unbeliever because he is in rebellion against God. He doesn't want the truth. So when we witness to unbelievers we don't sacrifice the true common ground because we think it will be easier.

Success in evangelism should be determined by several factors. This is really important. How many years did Noah evangelize his generation? 120 years. How many people responded and believed the gospel. None. Was he successful? Absolutely. We live in a world that says success is measured by some kind of quantifying element. How many people did you lead to the Lord? You haven't been very successful, have you? No, I have been eminently successful. I have never compromised the view of God as the ex nihilo creator of the world. I have never stepped over into rationalism or empiricism to prove the Bible is true. I have never sought some authority higher than God (reason or experience) to prove that God exists. I have never compromised the gospel and have always given it as clear as I could. I have been very successful. See, all we can control is our own decisions and our own actions. We can't control other people's decisions and actions. So success isn't measured in terms of conversions, it is measured in terms of our attitude toward the unbeliever, in terms of our humility. Success is evangelism is measured by how well we present the gospel, not how many times we have a positive response.

So Paul goes on in his opening to focus, once he has established this common ground being the knowledge of God (within all of us), to describe who this God is. He doesn't compromise that. Acts 17:24 NASB "The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands."

So his starting point with these intellectual philosophers is not passages from the Old Testament talking about the Messiah. His starting point goes back to creation because they have to understand God correctly. Then they have to understand the problem of sin. Then they can start talking about the need for salvation. We don't just jump into talking about Jesus. It is interesting that before God sent Jesus He took over 2000 years to prepare the human race for the gospel, for the coming of the savior, so they would understand what would be going on—at least through the revelation given to the Jews first.

He makes the point that God is the one who made the world, that everything in the cosmos, which could conceivably include more than the world. He makes that clear when he says, "Lord of heaven and earth." Nothing is the product of chance; nothing is the result of randomness. God showed intelligence, forethought and planning and made everything in the world.

Paul says of God that He is the Lord—kurios. This word kurios can mean owner, master, or sovereign ruler. That is the idea here. Paul is talking about God as the sovereign ruler over His creation as the creator. As a result He is the Lord, the ruler of heaven and earth. He has authority over what He has made. Then his point is that He doesn't dwell in temples made with hands.

If God made the heavens and the earth He can't be part of that universe system, He has to be separate from the universe system. That flies right in the face of their chain of being frame of reference. So God isn't part of the process, which means God can break through the process of natural physical laws and raise someone from the dead.

Paul is getting this from Old Testament truth, not from their view of God. He says God doesn't dwell in temples made with hands. In other words, He is not submissive to human things; He is not under man's control. This idea that God is not under control of man or does not dwell in things made by man comes out of the Old Testament, specifically it comes out of a statement made by Solomon as he prepares to build the temple. 1 Kings 8:27 NASB "But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain You, how much less this house which I have built!" Even in the Old Testament the Jews realized that the temple as the house of God was just a dwelling place for a finite representation of God, but that God in His omnipresence was greater than the universe, filled the universe and more, and His presence could not be contained in a human building.

There is a scene about 400 years later on in the time of Isaiah. Isaiah 66:1, 2 NASB "Thus says the LORD, "Heaven is My throne and the earth is My footstool. Where then is a house you could build for Me? And where is a place that I may rest? For My hand made all these things, Thus all these things came into being," declares the LORD. "But to this one I will look, To him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word."

This is picked up by Stephen in his sermon just before he was stoned by the Pharisees. Acts 7:47-50 "But it was Solomon who built a house for Him. However, the Most High does not dwell in {houses} made by {human} hands; as the prophet says: 'HEAVEN IS MY THRONE, AND EARTH IS THE FOOTSTOOL OF MY FEET; WHAT KIND OF HOUSE WILL YOU BUILD FOR ME?' says the Lord, 'OR WHAT PLACE IS THERE FOR MY REPOSE? 'WAS IT NOT MY HAND WHICH MADE ALL THESE THINGS?'" Stephen combined the statement made by Solomon with the statement of Isaiah. 

Paul's emphasis all through this is on God as the ex nihilo creator, the sustainer; the one who is absolutely independent of His creation, who does not need human beings for anything. That idea also showed up in various Greek notions of deity as independent, but it still incorporated within this chain of being. Even though they had certain notions of an independent god he is not truly independent because he is part of this chain of being. What is also in the background here is that because God is the ruler of the heavens and the earth He is the one who oversees the distribution of blessings to both the good and the evil. This is what is known as common grace, that God brings rain upon the good and the evil, a certain amount of blessing to those who are His and those who have rejected Him. This is seen in Luke 6:35 NASB "But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil {men.}"

When we give and somebody slaps us in the face, when he isn't grateful when we think they should be, too often we say we aren't going to do anything for that person anymore. That is not grace orientation. Grace orientation is that we do it because it is the right thing to do, because that person is a human being in God's image and we need to do what we can to take care of them. For even God is kind to the ungrateful and the evil person.

Paul goes on to point out that God's creation of the human race ties all human beings together. Acts 17:26 NASB "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." So all human beings are related. We are all made from one blood: first Adam, then the descendants of Adam until the flood. Then the human race narrows again to the descendants of one man and his wife. They had three sons, and all of the descendants of mankind go back to the descendants of those three men—Ham, Shem and Japheth.

This passage is one of the critical passages in the New Testament for understanding the divine institution of nations. It is not just an Old Testament concept. It is a New Testament reality because these divine institutions are designed for all human beings whether they are believers or not. This is important to understand.

What is a definition of a divine institution? This term has been used by Christians as far back as the time of the Puritans. It isn't a term coined in recent history. It has been used to refer to absolute social structures (and we could say moral and ethical structures) that were established by God and embedded within the social makeup of human beings. It is part of making the image of God work. Thus, these are for the entire human race—believers and unbelievers alike. They are unbreakable realities designed for the preservation, protection and prosperity of the human race. No culture that has knowingly, conscientiously violated these principles has ever survived. And when many cultures that do advance start failing the prosperity test one of the things that happens is that they start violating these divine institutions. They think they can remake these social absolutes. We see that today.

The first divine institution is individual responsibility. We are all accountable to God for our actions. In each divine institution there is an authority structure. People are responsible for the decisions they make, how they live their life, and they are going to reap the consequences of their good decisions, and they are going to experience the heartache of their bad decisions. When we interfere with that by trying to create, for example, a socialist utopia, then what we do is end up destroying many other things. There are a lot of unintended consequences. Welfare destroys individual initiative and individual responsibility. It is only on the basis of recognition of personal responsibility that we can be motivated to achieve great things. But when people are given everything as a sort of handout there is no motivation to develop, to pursue, to build and to have success.

The second divine institution is marriage between a man and a woman. Homosexuality is wrong, it is self-destructive and it will destroy society. No society has ever succeeded that allows and legalizes homosexual relationships and homosexual marriage. It may have been tacitly accepted but never formally legalized. The problem is, once you start legalizing one set of sins where are you going to stop. Before long if you are going to be consistent you are going to have to legalize everything. Then that leads to pure anarchy and the destruction of a culture.

Marriage allows for the perpetuation of the God's creation principles from one generation to the next. And that takes place within the third divine institution, which is the family—mother and father raising children. No society has ever achieved any level of greatness or lasted very long that was built on matriarchy. The cultures that have survived, that have conquered and have been prosperous have always been based on a marriage where the male was the leader. The Soviet Union did a lot of experimentation with role shifting between men and women, and it almost always led to a collapse. God made men to be men and women to be women. There are a lot of thing women can do better than men and men might be able to do better than women, but that is not necessarily in areas where God designed for them to function. There are differences—physical and soul differences—and God has drawn lines as to what men should do and what women should do and He doesn't want those violated.

One of the areas that is constantly under attack today is the area of keeping women from teaching men. 1 Timothy 2:8-15 makes it very clear that women are not to teach males in the realm of spiritual truth, neither are they to have authority over men. These are not the same thing.  

Later on God instituted two more institutions. One is government—judicial government. It is established by the covenant with Noah in Genesis chapter nine, which occurs some 250 years before the tower of Babel. You can have government without nations. There were no nations between Noah and the tower of Babel. What generates national or tribal divisions is the scattering of the languages. Now everybody has to break out into different groups because they can't understand each other. That is the fifth division—nations.

The first three divine institutions all occurred before sin. They are designed to promote productivity and to advance civilization. When they are violated productivity is reversed and civilization turns barbaric and perverse. They are designed to promote growth, whereas divine institutions four and five are instituted after the fall and designed to restrain evil. 

So Acts 17:26 tells us that God has made every nation. Part of God's distinction is to divide up the nations. Internationalism is therefore wrong, both based on the tower of Babel in the Old Testament and this verse. The UN is a blasphemous act of man shaking his fist in the face of God, as was its predecessor the League of Nations. The fact that the UN has a messianic complex is indicated by the fact that it has carved out of the stone at the entry way the passage in Isaiah chapter two: "And they will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, And never again will they learn war." That is a description of what will take place in the messianic kingdom; it is not something that can be executed by man before the messianic kingdom. The fact that the UN has the text from Isaiah chapter two in its entry way is a statement that we are going to do what the Messiah is going to do: "We are the Messiah." So the promotion and acceptance of the UN is a blasphemous act against God.

"…having determined {their} appointed times." When they will rise up and when they will fall. All nations, including the United States of America, will have a period of ascension and a period of decline over the course of their history. I'm afraid that we are living in this nation's period of decline. There is no guarantee that any nation is going to last forever, and after the Rapture occurs every nation is going to support the Antichrist. All the Christians will be gone, their influence will have left, and so they will follow evil like everyone else. "… and the boundaries of their habitation." There are boundaries to nations established by God. And when we come along and want to have open borders as a result of our internationalism it is going to lead to absolute national calamity and national collapse. It is economic self-destruction. The fact that we can't protect and secure our borders is just a sign of the greatest hubris of a nation in history. God has clearly appointed national boundaries and they need to be kept secure if we are following any kind of biblical thought—living within the creator's creation and according to His rules. When we suppress that in unrighteousness then we will never see security and prosperity again.  

Acts 17:27 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."

The reason that God has established these borders is that they should seek the Lord. God wants people to seek Him. He is not hiding. He has made knowledge of Himself within them; He is not hiding it. Who is doing the suppressing in Romans 1:18, 19? It is human beings. God has done all of these things within creation and supervises and sustains creation so that people will seek the Lord.

The word for "grope" is an interesting word. It is the Greek word pselaphao. It is used only four times in the New Testament. It is normally translated to touch or to handle something. But it is used here in Acts in a metaphorical way to refer to like blind man groping in the dark trying to find his way. And so it pictures a spiritually blind person trying to find God. Yet the Scriptures says God is right there and the knowledge of Him is evident within.

Paul describes these Greeks as pagans seeking God in their own imperfect way. They all have God-consciousness but they are suppressing that truth in darkness, so they can't quite get a hold of God. This idea that God is near us or in us is also present in some of the Greek philosophers and some of the Roman philosophers as well. But Paul isn't quoting this from a particular Greek or Roman philosopher. This was a common idea in the ancient world, so he is just using this idea as an evidence of their God-consciousness that they would recognize and accept as true. And this is just evidence that they are aware that God exists as something beyond what they understand with their idols.

It is a concept that has its roots in the Old Testament. Deuteronomy 4:7 NASB "For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as is the LORD our God whenever we call on Him?"

Psalm 14:1, 2 NASB "The fool has said in his heart, 'There is no God.' They are corrupt, they have committed abominable deeds; There is no one who does good. The LORD has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men To see if there are any who understand, Who seek after God." God is looking for people who seek Him.  

Psalm 145:18 NASB "The LORD is near to all who call upon Him, To all who call upon Him in truth." If you seek God He will reveal Himself to you.

Jeremiah 23:23, 24 NASB "Am I a God who is near," declares the LORD, "And not a God far off? Can a man hide himself in hiding places So I do not see him?" declares the LORD. "Do I not fill the heavens and the earth?" declares the LORD.

So the picture is that God is one who is seeking, and willing to reveal Himself to human beings, but they are the ones who are suppressing that truth in unrighteousness and they are responsible for their negative decisions. 

Acts 17:28 NASB "for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, 'For we also are His children.'" Commentators have argued for centuries about this. Some say that this is a quote from Epimenides around 600 BC. But this was a common idea in the ancient world, that God was near and around. And again what was Paul is doing is quoting a popular idea to tweak their God-consciousness, and that this is just evidence that unbelievers have some sort of awareness of God's existence. He is saying we are His offspring, but only in the sense of being created by God. We are only children of God if we accept Christ as savior. John 1:12 NASB "But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, {even} to those who believe in His name."  


Acts 17:29 "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." Since we are part of God's offspring it dishonors not only God but also ourselves if we make an idol of God to worship Him.

Then he gives his challenge.

Acts 17:30 NASB "Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all {people} everywhere should repent." In the Old Testament God had recognized that there was idolatry but because of grace, because of His plan, He had allowed this to go on. But now there is fuller revelation, Jesus has come and paid the penalty for sin, and so it won't seem as if Gentiles are getting away with it anymore.

This is the same kind of thing Paul said when he was speaking in Lystra. Acts 14:15 NASB "and saying, 'Men, why are you doing these things? We are also men of the same nature as you, and preach the gospel to you that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, WHO MADE THE HEAVEN AND THE EARTH AND THE SEA AND ALL THAT IS IN THEM. In the generations gone by He permitted all the nations to go their own ways; and yet He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good and gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.'" Common grace. God always had a witness.

Now he is going to bring this to a conclusion as he challenges them.

Acts 17:31 NASB "because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead." Notice how he has circled right around and has hit the real sticky point. In their arrogance they don't want to believe that there is a God outside of the natural laws that they have identified—outside of the chain of being—who can actually raise someone from the dead. They reject that completely. Not only is Paul challenging them and saying not only will there be a resurrection but there will be an appointed time when God is going to judge them. That judgment has been given to the Lord Jesus Christ (John 5:26, 27).  

There are three responses. There are those who mock him and reject what he says. Then there is a second group that says they will hear him again on this matter.

Acts 17:32, 33 NASB "Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some {began} to sneer, but others said, 'We shall hear you again concerning this.' So Paul went out of their midst."

The third reaction.

Acts 17:34 NASB "But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them." All through acts we see Luke pointing out women who were saved. This would be revolutionary in a Jewish context. In a synagogue at that time the women were on one side and the men on the other, and the women were basically ignored. Paul never treats women less than men. He treats them differently because they have a different role, but it is not a less significant role, not less important.

Paul gets a response and a small group is established there, then he is going to leave.