Acts 17:28 “For in him we live and move and have our being. As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’”
Paul’s address to the leaders of Athens is immensely important as the best example in the New Testament of how Christians are to speak to the pagan world. It shows missionaries who have moved into an area where no Christians have ever gone before, how to begin, what they are say to their hearers, what are the crucial points they are initially to make in introducing these pagans to the heart of Christianity.
What we have in Luke’s summary of Paul’s sermon in these ten verses, from verse 22 through to verse 31, are ten or so points that the apostle made to his hearers as he courageously confronted the philosophers on Mar’s Hill. It hardly takes two minutes to read Luke’s précis of Paul’s sermon. I guess the sermon itself lasted thirty minutes. We know it had a life changing impact on a man called Dionysius and a woman called Damaris. They became founder members of the church of Jesus Christ in Athens. I have looked at this sermon on nine earlier occasions, and today we are going to see what Paul’s message informed the Areopagus concerning the nature of man – what is man – and how he relates to God.
WE CAN ONLY KNOW OURSELVES BY KNOWING GOD.
That is the claim we Christians make who’ve been taught by Scripture: “We know what we are because we’ve come to know God.” Paul tells these members of the Areopagus – they were a sort of watch committee and the city council of Athens – that they owed their existence not to any of the gods of Greece, but to the God Paul was bearing witness to, the God who sent his Son, Jesus Christ into the world, the God who had brought Paul to Greece, the Creator “who made the world and everything in it . . . the Lord of heaven and earth” (v.24), the God who doesn’t live in ornate temples made by men (and Athens was full of such buildings), the God who doesn’t demand such service as sacrifices and offerings from us, but the Lord who came in order to serve us, and to give his life a ransom for many of us. He is the God who made every nation, who made Greece and Rome, and determined their histories, their triumphs and defeats, all those times of expansion and disaster, and the exact places where every nation on earth should live. He is the involved God, the God who expects people to find him and promises that every single person who seeks him will indeed meet him, not one failing to find him. He is the God who is not far from each one of us, not an illusive and mysterious God at all, the God who has spoken to Israel’s fathers in times past but now in these last days he speaks to housewives and slaves and teenagers and fishermen and soldiers by his own Son Jesus Christ. So you can know about him, and you can know him. He is not far from each of us. Paul’s ‘us’ embraced all of them on this Mars Hill and it included himself. It embraces us here today. God is not far from each of us – this God who has revealed himself in a book of many authors, in other words, in the Bible, especially makes himself known to us as the Bible is preached to us. You can know who you yourselves are by knowing him, who God is, because all of us are God’s offspring.
Conversely, if you reject the living God, and the possibility of knowing him, then what help do you have to discover who you are, and why you exist? Imagine not knowing your own name! “Who are you?” “I don’t know.” Wouldn’t you fi00nd that utterly unacceptable? Wouldn’t you strive to discover your name? Wouldn’t it be your priority? But to whom or to what do you turn for some help in this quest? The people of Athens went in their imaginations to the mythical Mount Olympus and the gods who fought and killed and lusted there. Today many turn to the animal world, and the theory of evolution. They describe human beings as ‘naked apes.’ The immense weakness of that template of looking to the animals to know who we are is the lack of moral structures in the animal world. Nature is raw in tooth and claw. Every wild animal has a horrible end and most domestic animals. Such great graces as self-denial, and mercy, and pity, and compassion are not paramount in the animal world. Now of course there are many parallels between animals and men. There can be identical hearts, and interchangeable heart valves and central nervous systems. We are all made by the Creator from the same stuff of the earth. God does not spread diversity unnecessarily, but animals are also very different, especially in that they lack a conscience, and the things of the law are not written on their inner beings. We weep and laugh and write and make works of art and music and poetry. A man will lay down his life for his friends. If the model for how men are to behave is the way animals behave then violence will triumph and the fittest will survive.
If you reject the living God and the possibility of knowing him, then another alternative in finding out who you are is that invented by Sigmund Freud. He dismissed a belief in the God of the Bible as a ‘universal, obsessional neurosis’. So how did Freud define human identity? By our sexuality, by our sexual desires and sexual identity. In other words, Freud was a Romantic, he was part of that whole German Romantic movement which said that personal experience gives you your personal identity. It is our sexual drives, and how we identified ourselves as heterosexual or homosexual that tells us what we are. It is not in relation to the God of creation or in relation to the animals but with regards to our sexual orientation that we discover what we are.
I was standing on the promenade during the week of the Aberystwyth Conference listening to men from the Conference like Dave Norbury and J.P. Earnest speaking to several hundred people. They were excellent, and when the meeting was over many remained and talked. An old friend of the church, Anna-Rose from Kent, brought a middle-aged local man to me because he was saying things she couldn’t understand or answer, and so for an hour or two we two spoke on the prom when everyone else had gone. Little did I know that a number of people from the Conference were back in their hotel over the road, standing in the lounge in the bay window looking at us talking and they were praying for me. I had seen this man around town over the years but had never met him. He told me that he believed that it was in having children that life was all about, in other words, sexuality was what life was about . . . He did not say the word ‘sex’ but later as I thought about his purpose in life it was all about human reproduction and relationships, and I was not prepared for that. He was a Freudian. I do not do enough debating and defending the faith in pagan Wales today to know how people outside the church think. All I was able to bear witness to was biblical ethics and sexuality – chastity before marriage and faithfulness within it – and then to a personal knowledge of the Lord and growth in him. I have told you of that incident so that you do not start to think that what I am saying to you about the crucial importance of really knowing who you are is all rather theoretical and academic and cerebral and irrelevant. If you do not know the living God then you will turn to such things as the animal world or to sexuality to try to discover who you are. Please don’t limit yourself to so narrow a self understanding. You have the possibility of a new heavens and earth, and meeting angels and singing the praises of God! Why should we know God?
IN GOD WE LIVE, AND MOVE AND HAVE OUR BEING.
That is what Paul says in those famous words of verse 28. How often I’ve repeated them. What depth of truth and breadth of meaning is in these simple one syllable words. Paul has already declared that God “made the world and everything in it” (v.24). He is the Creator of everything and now he’s saying that God is the sustainer of everything. Our Maker is the God of providence. It is not that he wound the cosmos up in the beginning and that it automatically ticks on and on, self-supported and self-sustained for eternity, tick-tock, tick-tock, without any involvement on the part of God. It is the very reverse of that. He is involved in everything! Nothing happens without his permission; nothing happens except what God enables and empowers. I want to say two things about these words, “For in him we live and move and have our being,” (v.28).
i] It is probably a quotation from a Greek poet.
This sermon is unusual in the New Testament in that it doesn’t contain one quotation from the Scriptures. It is quite unlike Paul’s method when he spoke to his fellow Jews in the synagogue, or when Peter preached to the religious people of Jerusalem. Those men quoted again and again from the Bible. But here Paul doesn’t quote at all from Scripture because it wouldn’t mean anything to his hearers. They knew nothing at all about the books of Moses and the writings and the prophets. Of course what Paul says is true to the Word of God in its every detail. In fact it is a typically Jewish polemic regarding God, idolatry and judgment climaxing in a call to his hearers to repent, yet he doesn’t say to the men of Mars Hill such things as, “As Jeremiah the prophet says . . .” They’d never heard of Jeremiah and the other prophets. I have a friend who produces a monthly leaflet and the church distributes it around the houses surrounding their building. It contains a number of verses from the Bible but he never gives the reference, ‘John 3:16,’ ‘Romans 5:1,’ and so on, because that would mean nothing to the people reading the leaflet. Our words to people have to be true and faithful words to the Scriptures, but what is most important of all is that the spirit and truth of the Scriptures are in our hearts and on our lips.
So the words of our text are probably a quotation from a Stoic poet named Aratus. Or they could be from a poet called Minos of Crete. So our N.I.V. puts them in inverted commas. Have you noticed that? But Paul doesn’t quote it in rhyming metre or in the Greek dialect in which these words were originally written. Paul is giving the sense of the passage. Then the second quotation which Paul precedes with the words, “As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring’” is a quotation from Aratus but it is also a phrase found in another poet Cleanthes. So it is obvious that Paul knew poetry. Many of the poets had been great philosophers. William Cowper was a great Christian philosopher. Paul in his letter to the Corinthians quotes from the poet Menander, and in his letter to Titus he quotes from the poet Epimenides. Of course he isn’t reducing his world view to serve them. He’s not inferring that these poets were on their way to a true knowledge of God. They simply had elements of truth and that is true for all men and many beliefs. Paul had had a classical education and he seized on the knowledge he’d gained from that education to serve true religion. I hope that the knowledge you students gain from the university will be used to serve God and his church.
So who actually said these words of our text is not all that important. What is really significant is that Paul appreciated the glimmerings of truth that these pagans saw. You get these glimmerings in Shakespeare, and in classic western films like Shane and High Noon, or in the best popular songs like James Taylor’s You’ve Got a Friend. He has told the Areopagus that God gives all men life and breath (v.25). Your breath is a gift from God – think of it! Have you seen a man with a bad attack of asthma trying to breathe? It is like sucking in air through a thin straw. Your breath is a gift of God. He has told them that God isn’t far from each of them, and now he says, “Don’t you know this . . . that your own esteemed poets recognize this fact that in God we live and move and have our being?” Paul is appealing to their hearts – wherever they were on their journey. I am saying that none of us can escape a knowledge of our Creator and Sustainer. Conscience and sunsets and starlings are all on our side as we bear witness to the livingness of the God of the Bible. In spite of their ignorance non-Christian men say loads of true things. Your teachers and lecturers and physicians and your psychiatrists too can say many true and helpful things. You be sure to show them respect. What they lack is the fear of God, and an experience of his covenant love and a living acquaintance with the Lord of the Bible. You pray that they will receive that. So that is my first point about this 28th verse, that it is probably a quotation from a Greek poet. Then a second thing about the meaning of this quotation;
ii] It says three things about the immanence of the living God.
A) In God we live. We are alive because of God. “You created my inmost being. You knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Psa. 139:13). There were millions of sperm at that congress, but God determined that one in particular should fertilize the one egg. That is when you began, and then the single cell of the unborn child divided and multiplied millions of times. Your backbone and nervous system and heart and lungs and head were all formed at the proper time by God. He determined the colour of your eyes, and your skin, and your height, and your mental ability. Nine months later he brought you into the world. He gave you your first breath, and that breath has been in God and the beating of your heart is in God, and the movement of your blood through your arteries and veins is in God, and the electrical activity in your brain is in God. It is going on at this moment in everyone here. We owe the fact that we are alive at this moment to God. We are alive now because of God. In God we live.
B) In God we move. Some people we refer to as ‘movers and shakers.’ They are natural leaders, by their personalities and intelligence they can enter a room and people sense a presence. There are others who don’t move through life like that. They enter a room and nobody notices! They never want any fuss. They hate to be the centre of attention. Their worst fear would be to faint in church in the middle of a service. They move in a most subdued way. Or again let me turn it like this: one man moves like Ursine Bolt, the fastest man in the world. Another person moves like Joni Eareckson Tada, a paraplegic unable to move around except in a wheelchair. What a range of men and women between those two – seven billion of them, and yet all of them moving as God upholds and sustains them. The tottering feet of the one year old learning how to walk, the elderly shuffle of a woman unable to move without a zimmer frame – but both moving in God. Hitler moved in God. The murderers of Syria move in God. The Christian who walks to a brothel is moving in God! How horrible the thought! We have all forfeited the right to experience a single blessing from God yet he gives life and movement to all day by day without exception, to the ISIS torturers and rapists, to the cheating motor-car manufacturers, and the dishonest bankers. All live and move in God, through God, by God, upheld and sustained by him day by day.
C) In God we have our being. I will tell you about my being. Of course I existed before I became a Christian in the year 1954, but even in those pre-Christian years the hand of God was upon me. He preserved and protected me. There were times of temptation and God might let me fall. There were other occasions when he took the desire to sin from me, or he took away the possibility of fulfilling that desire, or he made the desire itself repugnant. Then I became a Christian in an ordinary conversion on a Sunday night in March of that year in a village chapel in South Wales. Then I was no longer defined simply in relation to members of my family – somebody’s brother or son, or in my gender or sexuality, or in my age, or in my intelligence, or in my Welshness, or in the things I possessed and did. After being converted I acknowledged my being was in God. I was a new creation in Christ, and my identity and my conduct and words sought to reflect my being in the Lord. I would henceforth seek to honour the primacy of the Lord Jesus indwelling my life. I had to think like that, and I have to still, because I died and rose again with Jehovah Jesus. I have my being in him, and that being is characterized by a constant conflict between my flesh and my spirit. Between the who-I-am in the flesh, and my new redeemed nature. That is my being in God at this very moment. In my being I am presenting to God myself as a living sacrifice every day of my life. That is my being – joined to God and indwelt by God and under God. I wish you all knew this conflict and the little succession of victories each day. It is in the Lord Jesus Christ that I am most aware that I live and move and have my being. That is my identity. That is who I am. Then Paul tells the Areopagus one more reality . . .
WE ARE THE OFFSPRING OF GOD.
What are the implication of this statement, that all men and women have been made by God and so are his children, his offspring? Let me select four;
i] Everyone has knowledge. Men have a mind, an intellect and a conscience. Yes, a great deal has been lost. Man’s intellect has been disordered. Man is often mistaken as to matters of fact, origin, purpose and destiny. Man is fallacious in his reasoning, but he is still a rational being; he is capable of investigation, of forensic science, of deliberation, of maintaining the rule of law. He can become a competent scientist, a brilliant reporter, as worthy of credit in his field as those politicians of whom Paul wrote saying, the powers that be are ordained of God. The theory of relativity is not invalid simply because Einstein was an agnostic Jew.
Every human being knows the rudiments of the moral law. He knows the wrongfulness of pornography, theft, betrayal and greed. The Romans knew that even as they practised their perversions those who did such things were worthy of death. King Felix was not uncomprehending or blasé when Paul reasoned with him of righteousness, self-control and judgment to come. He trembled because his conscience told him Paul was right. He knew! His tragedy was how to stop doing what was wrong and do what was right.
Man knows that the world was made by an omnipotent and glorious God. He understands that truth from the things around him which have the handiwork of God all over them (Roms. 1:20). The mountains and the sea both tell him of the living Creator who made them, but he refuses to glorify God as Creator. He clamps down on this truth in his unrighteousness. He knows the being, the power, the goodness and the wrath of God. That is part of the ineradicable mental equipment of every human being, but he suppresses and distorts this knowledge. He says, ‘I will not have this God rule over me.’ The unbelief of men and women who have long sat under a biblical ministry is not due to their ignorance of the Christian message or that the preacher has made it complex, but to their disobedience and defiance. So the fact that men are the offspring of God means that men do have knowledge.
ii] Everyone has freedom. Men possess a basic freedom. God freely created all things. Of course, in his natural state man suffers from the bondage of the will. His will tells him to reject Christ, ignore the Bible, never think of his eternal soul, dismiss any thoughts of prayer, never question what lies beyond death, and never to seek to know God for himself. Man, the slave to King Sin, resolutely obeys his monarch. Paul in Galatians 3:22 says that “the Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin.” But you must understand that man freely submits to sin. He makes a choice to do that. He has not been programmed to respond at the touch of a button. He has not been computerized. He makes his own free decision to have nothing to do with his God. He is a free agent acting under no external compulsion. He is not being forced to say no to Jesus Christ. There is no absolute necessity to reject the gospel. This is his own free choice.
You understand how important this is. It is not because of man’s animal ancestry that men kill other men. It is not some necessary stage in human-kind’s development. It is not because of glandular reactions or other purely biological phenomena. Christians are no friends of determinists. I am not saying that my life is mapped out for me by remorseless factors in the environment like the influences of my parents, and working conditions, and companions, and education, and the political leaders. None of those factors forced me to lie and cheat and kill and rape. I freely chose to do sinful things. Everything is gone if we throw out man’s freedom. Morality is gone if everything is determined and we are mere puppets. We are not prisoners of fate. Hold fast to the Bible’s teaching of man’s freedom!
In Genesis three we are presented with free man in the most perfect of environments and we see him falling into sin. Later on in that book we are presented with a young Jehovahist, Joseph, far from home, meeting the seductions of a married woman and freely saying no to her. He overcame temptation and maintained his integrity in a very hostile environment. I am saying that your guilt and shame cannot be off-loaded onto other factors. Pleading, ‘The devil made me do it’ is thrown out of court. You cannot defend yourself by pleading the pressures of your companions, or your own personality, or your genetic inheritance. It is possible to transcend all those pressures. Your guilt is yours! You answer to God your Father. You minimize that and imperil the dignity of man. The fact that we are the offspring of God means that we are free men and women.
iii] Everyone has an aesthetic sense, in other words, man has a sense of beauty; he can create and appreciate form and sound and can respond to it. There is a man in the book of Exodus named Bezaleel whose gifts were especially in these areas, that God had filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts – to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood and to engage in all kinds of artistic craftsmanship (Ex. 31:2).But through a sense of beauty temptation came to Eve, when she saw that the tree was “pleasing to the eye” (Gen. 3:6). How careful we have to be with our sense of beauty; it is a veritable powder keg. A preacher is good-looking and clever and an orator, and so your appreciation of beauty betrays you. You listen, enchanted, to his errors and you make them your own. But beauty is still a gift from God. An Australian preacher says this, that all the Bible says about choosing a spouse is that he or she be a member of the opposite sex, and that he or she be a Christian. But surely there is more. Surely he or she must be ‘fair’ – that is, they must be beautiful to you.
We cannot ignore that aspect of human personality, for example, our web-designer is keen in upgrading our church website and make it attractive. Again we are advertising my 50th anniversary of being in this pulpit in a couple of months’ time and bookmarks and leaflets and booklets are being designed, and we want them to be attractive too. We may insist on giving to God the elements of plain worship that he describes in his Word, but we’re not philistines. We want curious townspeople to come along, and some of them have a more acute aesthetic sense because they are all made in the image of God.
Of course God overrules the ugliness of our presentation as he does the errors of our doctrine but that justifies neither. What care is shown these days in printing books. The dust-jackets are attractive, and the type face is large, and the margins are wide. We are not to be obsessed with these things but we are not to ignore them either. The Scotsman Hugh Miller said that the first essential of a book is that it be interesting enough to be read, and for judging a preacher that his sermons be sufficiently engaging that people will attentively listen to him. Without that all the merit of his orthodoxy and righteousness is of little avail.
But isn’t the history of this town a warning against the dangers of magnifying the aesthetic sense? This is a community which in 1859 was the centre for a great work of God in Wales. It is not such a community today. Other gods are worshipped today, but there is no redemption in the National Library of Wales, it is only in Christ. There is no salvation in the Arts Centre; it is only in the Son of God. There is no birth from above at the University; it is only in the message that the Christian Union declares. There is no divine conversion in writing, sculpting, painting, composing and playing. They are not man’s chief end. We are not to live for those things. Culture is not our religion; the worst crime is not to be philistine.
iv] Everyone experiences relationality, in other words, mans capacity to experience close communion with other people. There have been great friendships in the world, like Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, and Coleridge and Wordsworth. One hears of the contemporary friendship of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck in Los Angeles. Our prime minister and the chancellor of the exchequer are reported to be close friends. In the church there have been friendships like David and Jonathan, Paul and Timothy, or William Cowper and Morley Unwin. How precious are our friends! Yesterday’s newspapers with their lonely hearts’ pages, show us men and women advertising for a companion. The first article of the Christian faith is that God is one, but the one God is not solitary. He is triune; there is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is reflected in the life of man. It is not good for a person to be alone. Take community away from him and he will be the most miserable of creatures. Of course people are affected by sin in each part of their beings but they are yet capable of natural affection. Husbands and wives are bound together in the commitment of total, permanent and exclusive love. Sacrifices are made for children. Obedience is rendered to parents. There are many super non-Christian marriages. There are some struggling Christian marriages. All men and women are God’s offspring, and so they are built for other people.
The longing for communion shows itself in the fellowship of Christian believers who come together for mutual support and affection. That is why a division in a church destroys peace of mind, takes sleep away, ruins the lives of many in the congregation because we need the friendship of the family of faith. The loneliness of man is one of the basic characteristics that the Gospel addresses. In the world he finds competition, rivalry, prejudice and animosity. A man finds Christ and finds at the same time the fellowship of those who are also finders. The church is a healing community. Its ethos and influences should be ruthlessly sanctifying. The victims of a callous society should find acceptance, and love, and sympathy. To the Christian not only Christ is precious, the congregation, the body of Christ is precious too. But most of all we are made for communion with God. This was the original relationship, one of peace and love, but its disruption hasn’t destroyed man’s need for it. God has made us for himself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in him. Come to me and I will give you rest, say the Son of God. Do you understand who you are, or who you might become if you receive Jesus Christ into your life and are given the right to become a child of God? You receive him. It is the first step in the journey of self-discovery.
27th September 2015 GEOFF THOMAS