The Only Point of Departure: God, the Creator!
Paul addresses himself to the matter at hand. He had pointed out the Achilles heel of Athenian idolatry, in pointing out the underlying admission of their poverty in worshipping an “UNKNOWN GOD,” as evidenced by their superscription. However, now he will do more. He will proclaim to these Stoics and Epicurians “what” they ignorantly worship. He will remove their ignorance. The “times of ignorance” are past!
When Paul is finished preaching he will be free from the blood of these men, having preached to them (be it in a nutshell!) the full counsel of God, calling them to repentance! It is the seriousness of Gospel preaching that the entire world will be judged according to the preached Gospel, as writes Paul elsewhere “God who will judge the secrets of men according to my Gospel through Christ Jesus.” (Romans 2:16) Although Paul touches on many a “dogmatic” point in this sermon, he is not developing a systematic “theology”, but rather is bringing this entire truth of God, Creation, Providence as this has meaning for and impact upon the conscience of these hearers. They come to stand in the crisis; they come to stand in the either—or! Either they will be pricked in their heart and say “Men and brethren what must we do?” or they will dismiss Paul in unbelief, yet stand condemned, and that, too, doubly without excuse in the day of judgment!
There is a very fine touch in the Greek text which we must not overlook in what Paul says concerning the subject which he preached. Paul does not say, according to the better reading of the text, “Whom ye ignorantly worship Him I proclaim unto you,” but he says “What ye ignorantly worship that I proclaim unto you.” This touch we should not overlook. There are expositors who hold that Paul here very subtly avoided preaching “another god,” so as not to come under the wrath of the authorities of Athens and of the Roman Emperor. With this we disagree. Paul preached very definitely another GOD than what these Athenians worshipped, even in their “UNKNOWN GOD.” We must look in another direction for the correct interpretation. That Paul says “what” and not “Him” shows that in the mind of Paul these Stoics and Epicurians never really rose higher than “what” (ho) and never could rise to the person of the “UNKNOWN GOD.” They did not even have in mind a personal, transcendent GOD! They had changed the glory of the incorruptible God into the likeness of the image of corruptible man, birds, four-footed beasts and creeping things. (Romans 1:23). Paul could not possibly have said: him whom ye ignorantly worship Him I declare unto you! For they were not worshippers of God, but of idols!
You can see in the ruins of idolatry a certain “what!” It is, that God is the “Thesis,” and that the “antithesis” of idolatry can only exist because of this “Thesis.” We can see in the “what” of idolatry’s worship that it is dependent upon something which it denies. The- German expresses this well and calls it “Ab-gotterei.” It is a “From—God activity”! It is an away-from-God worship! It is really never a true worship toward its object which is ever mere creature! For this reason we believe that the reading which has “ho—touto” is correct and not the “ton—touton”; the latter is a reading which an “old alteration” already in the days of Clement, and is, incidentally, followed by the KJV which used the Textus Receptus. However, Paul was not preaching Him whom these Greeks served, but rather “what” they worshipped in order to lead their minds to “Him” whom they ought to worship and seek in Jesus Christ. He will lead their thoughts from idolatry to the worship of the true and living God. If they do not repent and turn to the true God it is not because it was not preached to them! Then it is a savor of death unto death unto them; Paul in that case too is triumphant with a great victory!
Paul does not argue that God is; he preaches God without attempting to prove. The latter is neither necessary nor possible. But he does point to theevidence of God all about us. He takes his point of departure in what Moses writes in Genesis 1:1. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” In the beginning God was! He did not become. He is the eternal and self-subsistent God. And He is the Creator, who brought forth all things by His counsel and providence. That is the starting point of all things. That is the starting point in all mission preaching, for all preaching must go back to how things were “from the beginning,” before the Fall of man! Thus did Jesus speak to the Pharisees in the streets of Jerusalem.Matthew 19:8. Men often have a mistaken notion abouthow one must preach, and what one must preach on the “mission field.” One does not preach one iota different truth in the midst of the heathen than he does in the church. There is but one “truth!” It is all in that sentence in Genesis 1:1 “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Thus did Paul here on Mars Hill; only he did it in a masterfully pedagogical way. Yet, he builds here upon the foundation besides which there is none other. Paganism is foundationless! Both Stoicism and Epicureanism have lost their moorings!
Hence, Paul says emphatically: What you ignorantly worship that I, who seem to you as a setter forth of some strange doctrines, proclaim unto you. I proclaim to you the only truth, the only wisdom, the only view of all things and of history! And, in so doing, he is not a Christian “philosopher” who reasons from some “Calvinistic principles,” but he is a messenger from God who saith: thus saith the Lord in His Word, and thus the Lord spoke through Moses to the church in the Old Testament dispensation. And now this is Moses’ Word fulfilled in Christ, preached here by the latter’s ambassador on Mars Hill. It is the Gospel of Christ which is the power of God unto salvation in those who believe, but foolishness to those who are perishing while it is preached to them, being not believed. The wrath of God abides upon them.
Such is the only point of departure!
He who is not led back to the “beginning” of Genesis 1:1will never be led to the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus Christ!
With this we have also touched upon the matter of the so-called “Natural Theology.” If Paul had preached “Him” whom they ignorantly worshipped then the proponents of the teaching that the heathen know God by means of creation would have some basis for their contention. But now Paul cuts off all knowledge of God by saying “what” ye served I proclaim to you to bring you to “Him” whom the Christian serves. Yes, and this too removes the basis for a “commonness” of worship of pagan and Christian. We do not believe that here is an iota of evidence for the teaching of “Common Grace” which would unite Jerusalem and Athens. One must be “plucked out” of the evil world of Athens and be translated into the Kingdom of God to be a worshipper in the heavenly Jerusalem. Lest one be taken out of the “antithesis” of Athens against the “Thesis” of Jerusalem he will surely perish with Athens in his sins!
Let it not be forgotten that our Reformed fathers in the Belgic Confession do not confess that the world knows God by the book of nature, and that the Christian knows God by the book of the Bible! Perish the thought! Rather they confess in Article II, “We know him (God) by two means.” Notice this “we.” This is the church which speaks here. “We know Him by creation, preservation and government of the universe, which is before our eyes as a most elegant book, wherein all creatures, great and small, are as so many characters leading us to contemplate the invisible things of God, namely, his power and divinity, as the apostle Paul saith, Romans 1:20. Secondly, he makes himself more clearly and fully known to us by his holy and divine Word, that is to say, as far as is necessary for us to know in this life, to his glory and our salvation”. We, the church, know God by these two books.
Paul is here preaching these “two books” and blends their testimony together in a revealing, pedagogical way!
The order of these two books according to Paul’s address is correct; the “starting point” must needs be in God, the Creator. It is, too, the basis of all morality and religion!
The Self-sufficient God Versus Temples Made With Hands
Athens abounded with temples made with hands. These temples stood on a very little spot in God’s universe, “the world (cosmos) and all things in the same, the heavens and the earth.” He is Lord, ruler of all things. How could the Lord of heaven and earth be enclosed in such a temple. His glory is transcendent to all creaturehood in heaven and on earth. The heaven of heavens cannot contain Him, confessed Solomon at the time of the dedication of the temple. (II Chronicles 2:6, 6:18.) God can only dwell in a spiritual house built of living stones, His saints in the light. Yet, even so he is immense and deep, unlimited by even such a spiritual dwelling-place. Yes, many temples cannot contain him. It is ever built by the hands of men.
Yet, foolish, lost, puny man imagines that he must build a house for God. He must be of service to God. God must be in man’s therapeutic care. The verb in the Greek is one from which is derived our term: therapy. We agree with the excellent comment of Lenski in his Commentary on Acts, where he writes “The verbtherapeuetai is exactly proper to express the thought intended, rendering someone a service that he needs, as the sick man must have the service of a physician. The service of worship: adoration, praise, prayer, petition, is a totally different thing—by it we profit, not God, nor does it supply a need in God.” From this we see that it is extremely important that we have good “Theology,” taken from the Word of God. All the rest is an abomination to the Lord. Of course, Dagon must be defended from ill by its devotees! But our God is not in need of our help and care. He is not a mere sick patient, a despicable weakling.
On the contrary, He is the all-sufficient God, who gives life and breath, and all things. He gives “life,” our existence; He gives “breath” in our nostrils; yea, he gives “all things”; there is nothing excluded.
With one grand stroke the death-blow is rendered to all the vaunted pretenses of the temples of men. Paul does not use the sword of the Spirit to cut away some trifling misuse of paganism. He gives the mortal blow to the very essence of it, showing it up to be what it is. And thus it must have registered in the consciences of these Stoics and Epicureans. Theirs is much ado over a worship which is a denial of the all-sufficiency of the Creator and Sustainer of the universe!