Preaching the First Principles in a Post-Christian World – Part 4
Even though the world around us is in darkness as to the one true God, there is a semblance of understanding.
The Apostle Paul’s commission was to “open [the Gentiles’] eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light” (Acts 26:18)1 words taken from Isaiah 42:7, “to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” Surely, then, Paul was thinking of this context in Isaiah when said in his speech at the Areopagus tribunal, “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth” (Acts 17:24). These are words quoted from a previous verse in the chapter from Isaiah:
At the end of Acts 17:24, having described the God (ho theos), the ESV says of Him He “does not live in temples made by man” or, as the Greek says, literally “made by hands.” The Greek expression χειροποίητος is found fourteen times in the Septuagint. Still, seven of them are in the prophecy of Isaiah, each in a passage that is a pejorative reference to idolatry. For instance:
They that furnish gold out of a purse, and silver by weight, will weigh it in a scale, and they hire a goldsmith and make idols [LXX χειροποίητος], and bow down, and worship them. (Isa 46:6 Brenton Septuagint Translation)
Once again, Paul can establish common ground with some of those listening to him. The Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote this:
Paul agrees with Seneca that God is “present everywhere and to everyone” and that He “direct[s] the course of the world” and wants to establish the supreme sovereignty of Yahweh. Notice the emphasis in verse 25 about ho theos—“he gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” To this, the Stoics would nod their heads. Paul is building bridges.
But he wants to expand on the notion of the sovereignty of Yahweh so in the next verse adds “And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place” (v. 26). Notice the emphasis again—God created one man and from him every nation—including the Athenians.
Once again, Paul is thinking of Deuteronomy 32, where we find similar words:
If Paul was alluding to verse 8, he also had the previous two verses in mind. He was talking to a “foolish and senseless people” (v. 6) who lived in a forest of idols, but he wanted to let them know that Yahweh, God of Israel, was their “father” (v6—see Acts 17:28-29).
So, his appeal to the Athenians is “that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us” (v. 27). These words are a polite reference to the blindness of the Gentiles. Their need to “feel their way toward him” uses an expression that is used several times in the Septuagint for people groping in the dark (e.g., Deut 28:29; Job 5:14; Isa 59:10, which says, “We grope for the wall like the blind”). Intriguingly the expression is also used for idols:
Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat. Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them. (Psa 115:4-8).
Verse 7 says, “They have hands, but do not feel” and this polemic highlights the foolishness of worshiping idols that have body parts but can’t feel anything. “Those who make them become like them” (v. 8) says the psalmist, or as Deuteronomy 32:6 says, they are “senseless.”
The phrase “not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:27) echoes Isaiah 55:6, where we are advised to “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near” and mentions in the previous verse “a nation that you do not know, and a nation that did not know you shall run to you” referring to the Gentiles.
Again, these words resonate with the Stoic view. Seneca wrote:
One need not lift one’s hands to heaven nor implore the temple guardian to give us access to the ear of the divine statue, as though our prayer would be better heard there; the god is near you, he is with you, he is in you. (Ep. 4:1-2)
However, this is also where he parts ways with the Epicureans who, as functional atheists, believed the gods lived in a far-off realm and had no dealings with human beings. When establishing common ground, it is important for us to realize that we can’t go about trying to agree with everything. By now, however, Paul has established enough of a rapport with his listeners that he can begin to say things that will be more controversial for his listeners.
But Paul is not done yet, and he builds an even more solid bridge to the Stoics, especially in verse 28:
Paul even directly quotes their own poets. The first quote is also from a poet, Epimenides, who we met in last month’s article, the originator of the altar to the Unknown God. You will recognize the words because they’re from the same section he quoted from Epimenides in Titus 1:12:
A grave has been fashioned for thee, O holy and high One,
The lying Cretans, who are all the time liars, evil beasts, idle bellies;
But thou diest not, for to eternity thou livest and standest,
For in thee we live and move and have our being.
However, the sentiment is also found in the Stoic Cleanthes’ Hymn to Zeus:
Most glorious of the immortals, invoked by many names, ever all-powerful, Zeus, the First Cause of Nature, who rules all things with Law, Hail! It is right for mortals to call upon you, since from you we have our being, we whose lot it is to be God’s image, we alone of all mortal creatures that live and move upon the earth.
Then, in the latter half of verse 28, Paul quotes from Phaenomena, written by another Stoic, Aratus:
From Zeus let us begin; him do we mortals never leave unnamed; full of Zeus are all the streets and all the market-places of men; full is the sea and the havens thereof; always we all have need of Zeus. For we are also his offspring; and he in his kindness unto men giveth favourable signs and wakeneth the people to work, reminding them of livelihood.
He tells what time the soil is best for the labour of the ox and for the mattock, and what time the seasons are favourable both for the planting of trees and for casting all manner of seeds. For himself it was who set the signs in heaven, and marked out the constellations, and for the year devised what stars chiefly should give to men right signs of the seasons, to the end that all things might grow unfailingly. Wherefore him do men ever worship first and last. Hail, O Father, mighty marvel, mighty blessing unto men.
Paul is getting to the heart of Stoicism with these quotes because both Aratus and Cleanthes were direct disciples of the Stoics’ founder, Zeno.
The Hymn to Zeus and Phaenomena laud the head god of the Greek pantheon, Zeus, and speak of mankind’s total dependence on him. Paul will take these words and explain that, instead, they apply to the one true God, whose name is Yahweh.
Having quoted from their own poet about being God’s offspring, Paul follows it up in verse 29 by saying, “Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.” Heraclitus, another Stoic philosopher, would agree:
[W]here is god? Is he shut up in temples? You are a fine sort of pious men, who set up god in darkness! A man takes it as an insult if he is said to be stony; but is a god truly spoken of whose honorific title is “he is born from crags?” You ignorant men, don’t you know that god is not wrought by hands and has not from the beginning had a pedestal, and does not have a single enclosure? Rather the whole world is his temple, decorated with animals, plants, and stars. (Translation and text taken from Harold W. Attridge, First-Century Cynicism in the Epistle of Heraclitus, 58-59).
Paul agrees with Heraclitus but once again also alludes to the prophet of Isaiah:
Paul’s point is this: we are God’s offspring. As Cleanthes wrote (see the quote above), our lot is to be “God’s image.” God cannot be represented as “an image formed by the art and imagination of man.” (v. 29). His offspring are called upon to be in God’s image. As Paul said in verse 28, in God, “we live and move and have our being.” That can’t be said of idols:
Now, towards the end of his speech, Paul has expertly brought his listeners’ attention to the doctrine of God manifestation. He hasn’t done it by opening a single passage of the Bible, something that would have been lost on all of them. He may have alluded to Scripture, but he directly quoted their own writings, something that they would have been familiar with. He hasn’t bamboozled them with Christian jargon.
We need to build bridges and establish common ground.
The Gentile world was groping in darkness, but as Paul himself wrote, “Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires.” (Rom. 2:14). The same is true today. Whether it’s been a matter of Bible ethics being filtered down into societal thinking or simply because Bible ethics make sense, even though the world around us is in darkness as to the identification of the one true God, there is a semblance of understanding in the writings and philosophies of the world that we can take advantage of in our preaching efforts. We need to build bridges and establish common ground.
That doesn’t mean we have to agree with everything, but we can find things in the ideas of today that match the Biblical record and first principles, like God manifestation. We’re not going to get through to people by holding a talk on “God manifestation” using Christadelphian jargon and quoting from a book that people don’t respect. At least not yet.
Simi Hills Ecclesia, CA
- All Scriptural citations are taken from the English Standard Version.