So much ink has been spilled over Acts 17 that I won't dwell too long here. I suggest you track down Don Carson on preaching to pluralistic Athens. He has done a lot of good writing on it as have lots of others. Here are just a few points that struck me in my Bible reading:
1. Paul starts by appealing to the philosophers' innate sense of spirituality. They believe in the gods. That is a plus, not a minus, for witness. He doesn't have to overthrow complete rejection and non-belief, but he has to find friendly ways in engage their attention. Which he does with their anonymous altar. It always helps showing an interest in the things that are important to the people we want to talk to. Of course while he begins with an appeal to their innate sense of spirituality, that is far from where he leaves the matter
2. In his talk to the philosophy society he sets out to establish:
- That God is the creator of people (v24) and nations (v26). I guess there wasn't too much difficulty with that. After all it is quite abstract and distant and doesn't make any demands on people. "Sure, Paul. You say God is the creator. It doesn't make any day to day difference. Whatever."
- That God is the controller of nations. Not just one nation, this is not a tribal god is he is talking about. He is claiming universality for God, flowing from His status as creator. This gets a little more threatening. Nations, it seems, are not responsible for their own rise and fall but are at the beck and call of a superior power and authority. God sets them up and tears them down and establishes their boundaries (v26)
- The reason God does this: so that everyone should seek Him. Now it starts to get very up close and personal. What this man is saying has immediate personal consequences. If God is like this, if the creator of all does it this way so that people seek Him, then it is absolutely wrong to not seek Him, not acknowledge Him or substitute idols and temples for Him. Paul was surrounded by idols and temples as he spoke. He knew exactly how pointed he was being
- God doesn't need to be served (v25). Hence idols, serving idols and building temples is pointless and useless. All it reveals is that you have misunderstood about God and how to come to God. He is saying in effect "your whole system and worldview is wrong"
Now here is the interesting question I would have asked if I was a philsopher at the Areopagus. If God doesn't need to be served, why get people to seek Him? What's the point? If God doesn't need worshippers to complete Him, why call people to worship Him, why invite them, and why judge people for not worshipping Him?"
Paul's first answer is amazing, in v25: because He gives life, breath and everything and he satisfies every need. He calls people to Himself not because He needs but because we do. Not so we satisfy Him, but so that we can be satisfied and rescued by Him. He satisfies our needs.
All Christians need to get this firmly nailed down in our minds. God cannot be served by human hands. It is so tempting and enticing to reason thus: God is holy, I am sinful, therefore I must work and work at moral improvement to be able to please him and make myself acceptable in His service. And then God will accept me because I am sincere and hard working. This is the opposite of the good news, but its very tempting and attractive to moral, hard-working, self-sufficient people. (Even Christian vocabulary like "church services" gives the impression that we get together to provide God with something.) Self-sufficient people don't like the idea that God doesn't accept us because of anything we can offer. He only accepts us because of trusting Jesus.
On the other hand for people who know just how helpless and sinful we are, the news that God is not served but gives life and breath and satisfies every need is fabulous good news. He does what is impossible for us to do - declares us acceptable regardless of our failings, because of Jesus. The reason for getting people to seek Him is not to ask for our aid, it is to offer us His.