Acts 17:27 “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.”
Luke is being most helpful to every one who reads this chapter. He is recording an episode that is incredibly relevant to us today. Paul has sailed from Israel via Asia Minor (or Turkey) to Europe. Finally he arrived at Athens, one of the great cities of his world, right into the heart of what is called ‘Hellenism’. Greek thinking, Greek religion, Greek morality and Greek philosophy that has had enormous influence and set a standard for culture and learning for almost two thousand years. For example, a city like Edinburgh was once referred to as the ‘Athens of the north’ and many other cities clamored for such an appellation. However, the original Greek city of Athens was distinguished as a place utterly lacking in a grasp of Christianity. We are told that there was a synagogue there, and so there was a Greek translation of the Scriptures in circulation, but Paul was the first Christian to go there on a mission, certainly the first evangelist. Athens, in spite of its veneer of culture, was from our gospel perspective a pagan stronghold, a city full of temples and altars, priests and priestesses. Paul could presume no knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ at all in one of the 20 or 30 toga-clad men who were his audience on Mars Hill on that day. We could describe this group as the Athens ‘watch committee,’ the recognized guardians of public morality, the men who licensed itinerant preachers who came with new ideas into the city’s public square.
Paul begins respectfully enough, but then he proceeds to tell them that the God whom he’s proclaiming to Athens is the sole Creator of the universe. He is the one who has created every member of the Areopagus. He has created the slave as well as his wealthy master; he has created every single nation and he has determined its history. In other words, Paul’s God is the one who is in control of all of Greece, as a nation and as a people of a million individuals, their history, their victories and also their fall. Paul’s God is not acting head. He reigns. He is in charge of our times too and our own personal histories. He works all things after the counsel of his own will. What a humbling and controversial doctrine for these proud Greeks to hear from a Jew. They considered themselves to be a special race, a master race, but, in the eyes of the God whom Paul preached, their race was at the same level as any God-made nation or race – Asians or Africans or Aborigines, all nations and races being created and sustained by the God and Father of the Jewish Jesus of Nazareth, and every race a fallen race; every nation in need of salvation. That was a hard truth to swallow, but more challenging truths were to follow.
Paul told them that God’s purpose in their creation was this, “that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him,” (v.27). They were to stop thinking, “Well I consider god to be like this . . .” They were to abandon all the traditions they had received from their fathers, many of the old ceremonies were not helpful. They were to learn that their chief purpose in life was to glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and enjoy him for ever. That is why they were conceived in their mother’s wombs and kept alive until this moment, in order to seek exclusively the God of Paul, reach out for him and find him.
God is not like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. He is not illusive. If you seek him seriously you will find God. No one has ever determined to seek God and failed to find him. Many have made a half-hearted attempt and given up, but you must understand this, that you are surrounded today in this congregation by men and women who have sought and found God. Seeking God is not like climbing Everest or swimming the English Channel or running a four minute mile. In fact I can confidently tell you that a number of us were not seeking him with any diligence at all and yet we found him. We were like a man the Lord Jesus spoke about who went into an untended field and dug a hole to bury something. He went down a foot or so and then the blade of his shovel hit something hard and flat and rectangular. It was a very heavy box and with some effort he loosened it and lifted it out and after a struggle he managed to get the lid open and what he saw knocked his socks off. There were gold coins, and gold bars, and silver, and diamonds, and rubies, and strings of pearls, and tiaras, and emeralds, and gems of various sizes and colours. The chest was full of treasure. That morning as he set out with his rubbish and his spade he never planned to find treasure trove, but God directed his steps to that particular spot and not to stop digging after 9 inches but to go down another 3 so that he would discover treasure.
So it was for many of you. You got up one day and went into your daily routine – not thinking for a moment about what you judge to be mere ‘religion.’ I heard a man this week who said that as a 13 year old he was polishing his father’s Rover car one particular Sunday morning and thinking to himself that he would never go to church like his mother did. What he wanted in life was a red Rover like Dad had, but it was not seven hours later something happened in this boy. He went to church and met the living Jesus Christ in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, and he received abundant life. He pitied his small ambitions. The life of God entered his soul and this week he preached four morning addresses at the Conference here in Aberystwyth. Numbers of you were just like him, not seeking God at all but yet God so organised your life that you found him. You found the altogether lovely one, the all sufficient one. More you did not need; less would not have satisfied you.
And what to those who find? Ah this, nor tongue not pen can show
The love of Jesus what it is, none but his loved ones know.
God is findable! You see what Paul tells them? God is not far from each one of us. You don’t need to visit the Holy Land to find him. You needn’t go to a holy man in Tibet. You don’t need to visit the Outer Hebrides, or go to Holland. He is not hiding away. He is even found by those who weren’t seeking him with any seriousness. Grace simply perforated the lives of many people here who were carrying on their daily schedules without a thought of God. In the morning they were atheists; mid-day they were agnostic, but by suppertime they said, “I know there’s a God,” and it was not much longer before they had stumbled across their chief end in life and had fallen before the God of mercy.
Then what will it be like for those of you who are becoming increasingly serious about seeking for God, reaching out to him in order that you may find him? You are not seeking great principles of life like ‘truth’ and ‘meaning’ and ‘fulfillment’ and ‘virtue’, but you are in the business of seeking the God of Paul, the God of the Bible, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ – him! Him alone to know and trust, him alone to serve and love, him to have and to hold! You want him! God does not play games, giving us a desire for God and then frustrating that desire. That was why God had made the nations of the world. That is why God had sent Paul to Athens and brought him to the market-place and now to Mar’s Hill, “that men would seek him and perhaps reach out to him and find him.” So how are men to seek God?
i] With their minds they are to seek God. They are to think. Please come away from the fantasy world of television watching, your eyes glued to the flickering images on your 42 inch TV screen hour after hour. Come away from the shadow-lands to light and reality and truth. Think! Please use the rest of your brain. Stop vegetating! Say to yourselves, “I have lived in this world for many years and I still don’t know God for myself. It is growingly obvious to me that this world didn’t come about by chance for all I see everywhere is design, and reliability, and order, and purpose. More than that, I see in the heavens and sunsets magnificence and glory. I also know in my conscience that there is right and wrong, and the God who made it all is obviously not a God of malice and cruelty. Men are! The world groans. Something bad has happened to this fallen world, and for that I don’t blame God. I see man’s vileness day after day. But who is God? What is he like? How can I know him? I must come to some understanding of God.” I am saying that that is where you start, with your minds giving some thought to God, not rubbishing the thought as Jurassic Park dreaming. Again . . .
ii] With their souls they are to seek God. Here are people awakened to a new sense of God, a sense of the divine, a heart’s affections that now have a craving to know more than the life of celebrities, and sportsmen, and politicians, and the royal family, and Hollywood and music groups. How shallow that whole world is seeming. Here are people who feel they are much more than a finely-tuned organic machine. They are utterly unlike animals, cats and dogs and domestic pets, the sheep and cows of the fields, the fish of the sea, the gulls and the birds of the air. These living creatures are no help to them in giving them some awareness of who they are, and what life is all about. They know they’re not naked monkeys. They are beginning to feel that they are made by a higher power and for a nobler end. They are people not only with a conscience but with religious affections, with a longing to know God. How are men to seek God?
iii] With their bodies they are to seek God. What do I mean by that? Paul was exhorting these men on Mar’s Hill to get out of their space, their comfort zones, and take to the road, and so he exhorted all the people of Athens. If you started to seek for true religion in Athens what would you do? Where would you go? To whom would you turn? Some thought you couldn’t do better than by starting at the number one temple in the city, the shrine of Athena, the daughter of Zeus. You would learn of her by looking at the murals on the walls of the temple, seeing how she had sprung full grown and covered in armour from Zeus’ forehead. She was the goddess of Athens, and the goddess of handicrafts, and the goddess of agriculture. Her priests and priestesses claimed she had invented the bridle, and that had permitted man to tame horses. She had invented the trumpet, the flute, the pot, the rake, the plow, the yoke, the ship, and the chariot so they claimed. So you began your search for God there . . . but it was all rather sweet and mythological and drenched in pride in Athena, and that switched off the more serious concerns you had.
So you thought, “Why go to the daughter? Let me go to the father, Zeus?” His priests told you that he was lord of the sky, the rain god. His weapon was a thunderbolt which he hurled at those who displeased him. But then again you weren’t drawn to him. He didn’t touch your heart. He left you a little cold, and so on and on you walked around the temples of Athens up one street and down another, calling in at one temple, talking to this priest or this guardian of the temple. There was the temple of Poseidon, the brother of Zeus, the god of the sea and worshiped by seamen, the second most powerful god, or you went to the temple of another brother of Zeus, Hades, the God of the underworld, ruling over the dead. He was also the god of wealth and his devotees told you that if you wanted money and riches then he was the god to serve, but your problem wasn’t that you lacked money. Or if you wanted sex there was Aphrodite, the goddess of love, desire and beauty, and in her temple you were given the glad eye from the sultry priestesses and invited to the back rooms of the temple. You couldn’t get out quick enough. On and on you walked in your search for God, to Hera’s temple, Hera the goddess of marriage and childbirth, the alleged wife of Zeus. Not for you. You were getting desperate now and you went to the temple of Apollo the god of music, and the god of healing, and it was full of sick people and their anxious relatives and incessant music all the time, harps and lyres and the groanings of the sick. You didn’t stay there for long.
You were seeking, but you hadn’t found any god who was omnipotent while also being accessible, holy, but also compassionate, just, but also merciful and saving. “There must be one,” you kept thinking and crying to this unknown God to lead you. Up one street, down another, round this corner, visiting this humbler part of the city where the slave population lived. And it was there one day you heard the sound of singing. You listened to the beautiful words coming from the room,
The Lord’s my Shepherd, I’ll not want, he makes me down to lie
In pastures green he leadeth me the quiet waters by.
So you poked your head around the entrance and saw a room of people, sitting and listening to someone speaking. There were no statues or idols in the room, not a single priest nor one priestess, no paintings on the wall at all, no altar, no sacrifices, and very little singing. The leader had no distinctive dress, but he had scrolls that he read aloud and explained on which were written the Jewish Bible translated into Greek. He would read them, and then he spoke of the God who in times past had spoken to the world through Abraham, Moses, David and the prophets, but in these last days he had spoken through the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth whom he called the Son of God. God had loved the world and had given his only-begotten Son. He said a lot about this Christ, his extraordinary miracles, his teaching, his parables, his sermons and then about his death. “We deserve eternal death because we are sinners but Jesus Christ because he loved us, gave himself for us on the cross at Jerusalem. But the third day he rose from the dead. He was more powerful than death. Through him we receive forgiveness of our sins. Through what he has done God is reconciled. Through him we become the sons of God. He comes to live in us.
“This Lord Jesus stayed on earth for 40 days after his resurrection, and he talked to his disciples and walked for hours with some of them on a road from Jerusalem. One morning by the Lake of Galilee he made a fire and cooked bread and caught fish and cooked them and ate with them. One day he appeared to all his followers, about 500 of them, walking with them and chatting and encouraging. Those hundreds of people were almost all still alive and they loved to reminisce to inquirers about that occasion, women and children, Gentiles, soldiers, as well as Jews. Then he ascended up to heaven after telling them he would send God the Holy Spirit to give them understanding, and life, and assurance, and strength, and gifts to serve others and to receive service from them. He would help them know and love Jesus Christ better and he would help the people listening to them understand how to love him too. On the day of the feast of Pentecost in Jerusalem the Holy Spirit came upon them, and Peter the leader of the twelve apostles preached to a huge crowd and 3,000 men were converted that day. And since that time they had gone out into all the Mediterranean basin, and they had plans to go further and further throughout Europe and Africa and over the seas, without any weapons, not leading some armed crusade or holy war, but teaching the good news of Jesus Christ, who he was and what he had done.”
That is what you heard in Athens, and something strange happened in your life as you listened, an event of recognition. You believed that you had found what you were looking for. You knew that this message was true; it was truth, and you reached out to him and you found him, there in Athens. He wasn’t far from you at all, in fact where two or three are gathered in his name there he always is. You knew God was there as Jesus was given honour and exalted as his Son, and so these families sitting in the seats and on the floor, and the men and women and children, slaves and free men, you knew that from that day on they were to be your family, your brothers and sisters. You belonged to them. With them you would often meet; you would eat with them; them you would love and help for the rest of your life. So I have told you that we are to seek God by our minds; we are to seek God with our souls, and by our bodies we are to go and seek God and then
iv] In the word of God we are to seek the Lord all our days. Now I want to give every encouragement to men and women to come to the services and hear the word of God preached and never be absent, and while they attend to seek to listen intently, and seek to understand, and seek to learn, and seek to obey what God says. If you are asking God for a closer walk with him, and seeking greater trust in him, and knocking for entry into the deepest fellowship with him then keep on doing that. Indeed I do believe that in such longings and yearnings there is saving faith and the possession of Christ’s salvation – in that actual asking and seeking and knocking. So seek the Lord while he may be found and where he may be found, and that is where people gather together in his name and hear his word. There he is near.
Yet I believe that there is in the New Testament something more wonderful than men seeking God and reaching out to him and finding him. You say what could be more wonderful than that? What could be greater than we specks of dust, we dirty sinners finding God the mighty Maker of heaven and earth, and given authority to cry to him, “Abba, Father!” I will tell you. In the Bible what we find is Almighty God seeking men and women. I find Scripture saying, “The good Shepherd seeks and saves the lost sheep. He is seeking you in a man standing in a market in a busy city and preaching to you. He is even seeking you in a routine official meeting of the watch committee on Mars Hill there he is seeking one of the members named Dionysius. He is seeking you in the testimony of your friends, in the preaching of the gospel, in the offer of pardon and forgiveness through Christ, in the prayers of your parents and friends, in the Bible you read and the Christian books you’ve been given and in a host of providences that have made this world less and less satisfying and in your satisfaction at being in the presence of other Christians. In sickness he seeks you and in health; in unemployment and work; in unrequited love and by friendship the good Shepherd seeks his sheep. He is seeking you here and now. That is why you are here today.
But I am afraid that a great deal of what religious people refer to as their ‘seeking’ is the seeking of a better invitation than they’ve had so far. They are wanting to hear the gospel with more excitement. They are wanting to feel it more deeply. They are wanting to hear it more persuasively so that they won’t have to make that painful, lonely, personal decision all by themselves without the support of any of their family or friends of entrusting themselves to Jesus Christ for ever.
The Lord Jesus Christ today is not an object that you have to search for as if he were somehow lost and buried away in some mysterious place, in a cave in the Himalayas that required a trip to India, or on a visit to the Bible belt of the USA, or off in some lonely cell behind granite walls in Scotland, or on the religious channels on TV. It is not true for a single moment that the Saviour or the Holy Spirit is so far from you that you’ve got to seek him, because in the preaching of the Bible he is near you, in the word of faith that we preach, that word is nigh you. Your task and your obligation and your privilege is not to be seeking him, and shaking your head sadly that it is so difficult to find Jesus Christ. No, he is the one seeking you, and he is so near that as you hear these words of mine he is actually seeking you at this moment. You don’t need to go away from where you are right now. You may not say before God that tonight and tomorrow and next month you will seek for him somewhere else, in your bedroom or in the garden or in Word Alive. There is no need to leave where you are right now without him. He is not to be sought for; he is here now, and he is the one seeking you at this moment. His words to unbelievers are not, “Seek!” He is not saying, “Go and look in and in and in and in, in the depths of your own experience and emotions.” He says, “I am here and so you come to me now.” He is here because he is seeking for you. He is not seeking your seeking, or more intense seeking, or deeply emotional seeking, weepy seeking or sighing seeking. He is watching to see if you are receiving him as your prophet, priest and king. He is saying to us to come to him, and to enter the kingdom of God by the door, and he is the door which he sets before you. Enter! He is not saying, “Keep seeking for the door.” No, he is saying here is the door, right before you. “I am that door and you must enter through it.”
So for what should we as Christians be seeking? What should we be pleading for? For what should we knock on the gates of heaven? I am saying this, that we should seek the divine fulfillment of every promise he’s made to sinners. We should ask ourselves as we start to speak to God whether we have a promise. I don’t mean at all whether I have one emotionally, one that grips me, zaps me, makes we weep, takes all my strength from me and touches me very deeply. There are such consequences to reading and especially to hearing the word of God preached with the Holy Spirit sent down from heaven, thank God for that, but they are not my concern now. In this great inspired Word that comes from another better place, which in its jots and tittles is inspired by God, of which the Saviour said, “Your word is truth,” is there in this book an offer because I am sinner, that if I come to God he will in no way cat me out? Yes. And is there a promise that is mine simply on the basis that I am a child of God? Yes there is such a promise, indeed there are many exceeding great and precious promises and they are all yes and Amen in Christ Jesus. These promises are mine because I believe in Christ, and when I seek God I can talk to him with great confidence about fulfilling what he’s promised to me and to every Christian.
Such promises are the limits of God’s obligations. What he has promised he will give, but no more than that. For example, he has not promised that I will get A grades in my exams or even that I will pass every one of my exams, or even pass my driving test next week. He has not promised that I will be cured of every ailment and disease I contract. He has not promised me safety in playing soccer. He has not promised me a Mercedes or marriage or children or a long life. He has not promised us a mighty religious awakening in our own lifetimes. Where there are no promises then God has not bound himself to us. But every promise that he has made he will fulfil, such as, that he will work all things together for my good, that he will supply all my needs according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus, that nothing shall ever separate me from his love in Christ, that I will be able to do all things through Christ who strengthens me, that I will learn in whatsoever state I’m in to be content, that the good work he has begun in me he will complete in the day of Christ. What he has promised he will perform infallibly, and that is what we are to seek with expectations that we will reach out to him and find true to our experience. All our certainty and assurance must be based on such promises. Our heavenly Father is saying to every one of his children, “You may seek from me the fulfillment of any of my promise. You may plead for its fulfillment now. You knock on the door of these promises and that door will be opened to you.
What I am saying to you is that for every expectation and all your confidence you must have a promise, and you can begin to doubt your God and question his faithfulness when you discover him breaking his promises. It’s not when he fails my expectations or doesn’t grant my whims that I am justified in being angry with him. It is when his solemn promises begin to fail then, at that point, I may doubt him.
The Lord Jesus once said, “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him” (vv. 11-13). You see the Saviour’s argument; he spells it out in a fascinating way to encourage us to address our heavenly Father about giving us the Spirit. “Your little boy is hungry. ‘Daddy, give me a bit of fish, he cries. ‘Huh! I’ll give you something,’ you snarl at him, and you throw at him a viper. Or he asks you for a hard-boiled egg, and you drop into his hands a scorpion with its stinging tail. ‘What? Never,’ you protest. ‘We wouldn’t treat our children in that way. We would give them bread and eggs. We would give them good gifts not evil.’ You are evil men by nature. You are the sons of Adam and you have gone astray from the womb telling lies. You drink iniquity like water; in your flesh there’s absolutely no good thing to be found. Yet you know how to give good gifts to your children. How much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.” That is what Paul is saying. Men seek him, they reach out to him, and they find him fulfilling every single one of his promises, for he is our refuge and strength a very present help in trouble. Whoever asks for the Spirit will receive him.
What does our Lord say? Agonize for him? Be totally yielded for him? Make full surrender to have him? Be completely dedicated to get him? Renunciate all of your sins? Lay all on the altar for him? Body, soul and spirit must be yielded? A perfect consecration of our entire beings to him? Struggle for him? Cry in intensive and persevering prayer and then you might receive the Spirit? No! None of those things. Because if my receiving the Holy Spirit depends on any of those things I will never have him! “Ask for him!” says Jesus. He says that the Father gives the Holy Spirit. He does not have to be wrested out of the Father’s reluctant hands. The Spirit is given, and a gift is not something you worked hard to get, or that you bought with your labour and sweat. When I paid out the miners of Cynheidre colliery on a Friday morning when I worked one year for the National Coal Board they did not grovel at the pay desk and thank me with tears in their eyes for their pay packets. They picked them up without a word because they’d worked hard for their pay. I was giving them nothing; they had earned their pay. God does not make us work to have the Holy Spirit. He is a gracious God-sent gift who is received by faith alone.
The Christian life is one of great ethical stringency; it is one of severe, demanding, relentless and arduous labour. The burden we bear is heavy and in addition we who are strong have to bear the burdens of the weak. The Lord Jesus lays down principle upon principle, precept upon precept, church life, family life, life before the watching world life with their enemies, and he tells us that this is the road to heaven; it is the only road, and Jesus’ disciples were starting to think “Who then can be saved?” How can any man live like this? Seek the grace to live like that. Pray for such help. The energy to live this Christian life is one that comes to us by the Holy Spirit. We look at the Christian ethic and the whole issue of holiness of life and we’re often overwhelmed by our failures. “Lord I cannot be that kind of Christian. I cannot be a preacher. I cannot be a husband. I cannot be a church member. I cannot, Lord.” We are told that the Saviour knew what men were thinking and with his teaching on the life of prayer he is encouraging them with this great promise. He could read their thoughts . . . “the things he demands from us are impossible!” So Jesus says to them, “Seek it from God and you’ll get what you want. Ask for the Spirit of God to assist you. The Christian life is not an impossibly unattainable life. It is the road stretching out before each one of us who are children of God. It is the only road to glory, and if we’re not walking it we won’t reach glory. When the Lord teaches us about praying it’s not in order that we should admire the meditative life but that we live it and follow it.
We are being challenged as to what is our chief commitment and primary concern. Do you hunger and thirst for righteousness? Do you assert that for you to live is Christ? How committed are you? Do you say, “This one thing I do?” If not, why not? What is more important than glorifying God and enjoying him? Do you say, “Take my life and let it be consecrated Lord to Thee?” Then seek from God grace to live like that. Be that kind of man or woman. Be a proper Christian boy or girl. Do not be half a Christian and half a follower of the world. This promise of getting the Holy Spirit has nothing to do with tongues speaking or being the most eloquent preacher in the land. Jesus is not telling you here that you are going to be healed of your illness. Such promises are not about problems with your health, or getting a job, or getting some recognition. This is a promise about sustained energy to walk the holy road that leads to God.
So there are two kinds of people here today and my word to you all closes in two different directions. To those of you who are saved I say, “Seek! Seek God fulfilling all his promises to you.” To those of you who are not saved I say, “Take! Take him! Receive him as your Lord and Saviour! Turn from your sin in repentance and believe upon the Lord Jesus Christ” However paradoxical it may seem that is the biblical order. The Lord’s people are to seek God for the Holy Spirit to help them day by day, and those who are not Christians are to take his free salvation in repentance and faith.
16th August 2015 GEOFF THOMAS