God is not like us. He doesn’t look like us. He doesn’t think like us. He doesn’t feel like us. He doesn’t act like us. He doesn’t speak like us. He doesn’t know like us.
We need to let that fact sink in—The Potter is not like the clay (Isa 29.19). Why? Because it will have a direct impact on what you believe about the Lord, about the Christian faith, and how you reason through the Scriptures effecting the way you live.
The problem arises when we give little thought to who God truly is. When we begin assuming that God is more of “a god,” rather than the Holy One, the Great I AM. Someone that has some power and knowledge, but in the end is not that different from you or I. The Greeks and Romans had plenty of those sorts of gods. So did the Egyptians and the Canaanites. We could even throw in the Hindus, American Indians, and any other mythology that one might cling to.
I’m not mud slinging here, so please be patient. Many of the Jews in the New Testament were of the same mind. Thus, Jesus rebuked them for setting up idols[i] and supplanting the Word of God with their own “word.” The very same thing the apostle Paul does when he enters Athens.
(Hold on a minute. Before I go further, I need to let you know now where I am going before I get there. My goal is to deal with a misuse of Acts 17:30, but I need to do some contextual work first. This tends to make for longer posts. My wife is always getting on my case for that. So, the only solution I can think of is to break it up a bit. Point being, if it appears that I leave on a bit of a cliff-hanger. You know haven’t finished the job, so to speak. Know that I do plan on wrapping things up in my next post. Okay, let’s continue….)
Acts 17:16-34 Contextually Considered
What is the first thing that you will hear learned Christians say when they read Paul’s interaction with the Aeropagus in Acts 17:16-34? He congratulated them on being “very religious,” he even cited their poets, he did! I’ve met quite a few that glaze over Acts 17:16,
- “Now while Paul was waiting for them in Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that he city was full of idols” (italics added).[ii]
Paul got angry at what he saw in Athens. Just as angry as Jesus got with the Jews during His earthly ministry. Well, what got Paul so riled up? The Greeks were worshipping idols—the creative efforts of their own minds—rather than the God who made them. He highlights this in his speech before the intellectual elites:
- “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (Acts 17.22-23; emphasis added).
“Oh, he was so cordial and polite…he was!” “He was?” “Yeah…!” “Yeah?” “Yeah!”
Yes, Paul was cordial to his audience. He graciously said to them “Men of Athens….” He acknowledges who they were. He noted their status before others, but then he said this:
“You fellows are a bit ignorant. You have all these idols, all of these gods you worship and just to make sure you got all your bases checked you even add one to the ‘unknown god.’ Well, what you are ignorant of…what you think you worship, ‘I will proclaim to you.’”
Now you might not catch the weight of those words coming from the apostle’s mouth, so let me help. Who was his audience? They were the learned men of Athens. They were the intellectuals, the sages, the wise men of Greece. They were constantly seeking knowledge, and they assumed that they were the proper arbiters of it. Paul has not only told them they are wrong, but badly informed. They profess to have knowledge, but their knowledge of things is false.
Like the Hebrews in Isaiah’s day, these Greeks assume that the Potter is like the clay. And they’ve displayed this arrogance all throughout their city. Paul does not congratulate them, but rebukes them. Then, he corrects them. God does not “live in temples,” (v. 24) “nor does He need anything from you,” (v. 25) nor is it right “to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image informed by the art and imagination of man” (v. 29).
Essentially, Paul is saying this “Everything that you conceive in your hearts about God is wrong. God is not fashioned by you; He is to be worshiped and revered by you. You ought to have recognized these things, the evidence is all around you. He gives life and breath, and yet you grope around in the dark as if he is far, but He is near!”
And on the heels of this explanation, what does the apostle conclude? What does he say to the Athenians? This…
- “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent…”(Acts 17.30).
In other words, God allowed this discrepancy on you part, but now the time of ignorance has passed. They are over. Now you are commanded to repent!
Two seemingly innocent assumptions are sometimes smuggled in at this point. What are they?
First, that this “ignorance” is innocent or accidental. It is not, it was purposeful, willful!
Second, that this “command to repent” is an invitation, rather than an edict from God. It is not, it is a binding demand.
If we only look earlier in the text, we see this notion identified in the charge against the apostles/disciples of Christ:
- “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also…and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying there is another king, Jesus” (Acts 17.6).
Kings demand obedience. A King that calls for repentance is commanding the person(s) in question to lay down their arms in surrender, in submission. Do we dare assume that Paul’s command here is any less than this? He is an ambassador of the One God, the one true King, and the message is you are “commanded to repent!”
Invitation or Demand: Something that Needs Weighed and Considered
Why then do modern Evangelicals prefer to call Acts 17:30 an invitation to accept Christ, rather than a demand to surrender to Him? Because it’s less offensive? Because Jesus is called the Prince of Peace, so the idea must be “peace, peace” when we present the gospel? Because the Lord is identified as the “Lamb of God” do we then assume that means He is meek and gentle?
Is it due to the notion that God is a God of love, or that He’s good, or that He gets no joy over the death of the wicked? Do these concepts, which are certainly true of God—we could turn to the passages where they are drawn from—drive us to a misunderstanding of the true nature of God? Do many, unknowingly perhaps, make the Potter like the clay? In other words, do our convictions (assumptions/biases) we hold to be true of God, mislead us into making God like us? Thinking and acting like a human rather than the Sovereign Creator of all things?
To be continued…
[i] Some might suppose what idols did the Jews have? How about the Temple, the city of Jerusalem, their namesake as a child of Abraham, the Law and the Prophets, circumcision, etc., etc. Idols do not have to be graven images made by human hands; idols are manifested in the heart—from the wellspring of evil. This means that even the gifts that God has given us when viewed disproportionately from their true purpose are turned into, and therefore, abused as idols. There are several indicators in the Bible that point out this was one of the chief sins of the Hebrew people…but they are not alone.
[ii] All Scripture unless otherwise noted shall be of the English Standard Version (ESV).
Image by Phaidros Krugmann