MVMT 11: The Happy God

Acts 17:16-34

Acts 17:22-31 – 22 So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23 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. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 26 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, 27 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, 28 for “‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, “‘For we are indeed his offspring.29 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. 30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

Anyone ever experiences an extreme thirst before? A few years ago, I went hiking up Barrenjoey Lighthouse with some of you. It was not a difficult hike, but it took about 40 minutes to get to the top. So back and forth, plus the time we spent up at the lighthouse, it amounts to about 2 hours. Again, it was not a difficult hike, but what made it difficult was the sun. We went on the first week of January and it was a scorching hot summer day. And for those two hours, I didn’t have a drink with me. I was very thirsty. When we finished the trail, all of us needed cold drinks to satisfy our thirst. And at that moment, there was only one drink I could think of. “Always Coca-Cola.” A cold coke would taste so good to satisfy my thirst in that hot weather. So, I drove to the nearest store that sells drinks and bought a can of coke. Imagine the scene with me. I was sweaty, smelly and thirsty. And now I had a cold can of coke in my hand. Can you imagine the excitement and eagerness I had to open this can of coke and swallow it into my body? So, I opened the can and drank it. And let me tell you, it was the best coke ever! Here is the funny thing though. The first gulp was sensational. The second gulp was nice. And by the third gulp, it was just okay. And not only that, but it did not take long for me to get thirsty again. Because here is what we know. Despite how great it felt when I first gulped that can of coke, one thing that is true about coke is that it does not satisfy your thirst for long. It does satisfy your thirst for a moment, but it doesn’t take long for you to become thirsty again. And this is exactly the picture of what happened in our souls. There is a universal thirst inside the heart of everyone that can only be satisfied by God.

In our passage for today, we will see how the gospel penetrates the city of Athens. Now we often hear people say that it is difficult for Christianity to thrive today because our culture is much more sceptical than it was in the past. They say that Christianity might work in the past, but it is not appealing to the modern mind. But is it? Because the culture in which Christianity was born was extremely sceptical and hostile to the claims of Christianity. Yet in spite of that, the gospel penetrated through the sceptic minds and changed the Roman Empire. How? Because deep inside every human there is an innate desire for God. The problem with mankind is not that we do not know God. The problem with us is that we decided to invent our own versions of God rather than worship the one true God. One day, a boy was drawing a picture. The teacher looked at the picture and said, “Little yo-yo, what are you drawing?” The boy said, “I’m drawing a picture of God.” The teacher said, “Little Yo-yo, that is not possible. You cannot draw God. Nobody knows what God looks like.” Little Yo-yo looked up and said, “They will when I’m finished.” Everyone has an inner longing for God. But the problem is that everyone has their own picture of God that they want to draw. Just like Max Joy ice cream, God comes in many different flavours. People pick and choose the flavours of God based on their personal preferences. And in this passage, Paul comes and asks us the question, “Are you sure your God can satisfy your thirst? Are you sure your God is big enough to answer your questions?” Paul wants to show how only the true God of heaven is big enough to answer all their questions and satisfy their thirst.

Let me give you the context first. By Acts 17, Paul has travelled to many different places to preach the gospel. And everywhere he went, the hand of God was upon him and troubles accompanied him. Riots broke out in many different cities and Paul had to escape for his life. Without a doubt, Paul was physically and emotionally exhausted. So, the church decided to send Paul to Athens for a short getaway. The plan was for Paul to rest and wait in Athens until Timothy and Silas came. Now, Athens was a very unique city. What comes to your mind when you think of Athens? What comes to my mind is St Seiya. Does anyone know what I am talking about? Athens was the main city of Greece which was conquered by Rome. And it was a very religious city. Athens was also a city known for its politics, culture, religion and philosophy. It was the intellectual capital of the ancient world. All of the smart scholars from around the world gathered in the city of Athens to discuss their ideas. And then comes apostle Paul with his gospel. How does Paul engage these intellectual minds with the gospel? Let’s look at the passage together.

I separate this passage into three. Gospel worldview; Gospel truth; Gospel challenge.

Gospel worldview

Acts 17:16-21 – 16 Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. 18 Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. 19 And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” 21 Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.

Look at what Paul does. While he is waiting for Timothy and Silas, he does not remain idle. After all the hardships he went through, he could be forgiven to think that he deserves a short holiday. He could have easily chosen to rest and do nothing. He is on a holiday. But he does not waste his holiday. He sees his short holiday in Athens as an opportunity to share the gospel to the people in Athens. But what drives Paul to do that? Acts 17:16 – Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. The word “provoked” is interesting. It is an unusual word. It comes from the Greek word “paroxysm” which is used in the Old Testament to express God’s anger at the idolatry of his people. But this is not anger that is motivated by hatred but love. It is like listening to your spouse flirt with another person. What would you feel? Would you be happy? “Oh wow, I did not know my wife is so good at flirting with other man.” No. You would be angry. But it is an anger that is driven by love. It is a complex emotion. One commentator says that the city of Athens has a population of about 10,000 people but it has 30,000 statues of gods. It is a city full of idols. And when Paul looks at the idolatry in the city of Athens, Paul feels deep anger that is motivated by love. He sees people who have a deep thirst for God, but they are empty. Thirsty but empty. And Paul cannot remain idle. Paul chooses to engage the city rather than avoid the city.

So, Paul does what he always does everywhere he goes. He first goes to the synagogue to preach the gospel to the Jews, and then he goes to the marketplace to preach the gospel to the gentiles. Now the marketplace is not a shopping district. We do not have today equivalent of what marketplace was in those days. The marketplace is basically a public space for everything. It is the intellectual centre, the medical centre, the financial centre, it is the stock market, it is where you find the latest gossip and ideas. Imagine if the internet is actually a place. That would be the closest equivalent to the marketplace. So, Paul would go to the marketplace and reason with the people in the marketplace. And this is not street evangelism. He would take time to listen to their ideas, ask questions, get their points right, before he gives his gospel arguments.

And this attracts the attention of some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. The Epicurean and the Stoic are the two leading schools of philosophy at that time. They are the cultural elites. The Epicurean believes that the gods are far removed from them and they don’t care about human. Therefore, their philosophy of life is about the enjoyment of pleasure. They are very materialistic and hedonistic. Their motto is, “If it feels good, just do it. Pursue what you desire and avoid what hurts.” The Stoic is the complete opposite. They believe that the gods are everywhere. They believe that everything happens by fate and there is nothing they can do about it. Their philosophy of life is about being good and noble. Their motto is, “You might not be in charge of things around you, but you are in charge of yourself. Therefore, suck it up and be good.” One tries to find meaning in life by pursuing pleasures, one tries to find meaning in life by being good. Does it sound familiar to you? It should because it sounds exactly like the philosophies of our days. After they listen to Paul, some of them mock Paul. But some decided to bring Paul to Areopagus. This is the council of Athens. This is the gathering of the most elite minds in Athens. They want to hear more of what Paul has to say.

Here is where I want to draw your attention. Philosophy does not stand on its own. Philosophy is derived from Theology. Let me put in a more friendly way. Our view of life is not constructed independently. Our view of life is shaped by our view of God. That is why we will find that Paul will address their philosophy with theology. Our theology determines our philosophy. Here is my point. If we understand the gospel, if we grasp the truth of who God is and what he has done, it will not stay on Sunday. It can’t. A gospel theology creates a gospel worldview. The right understanding of the gospel will affect every area of life, including both our private life and public life. There is no such thing as a Sunday Christian. We are Christians 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It’s like wearing sunglasses. When we put on our sunglasses, whatever we see is affected by the lenses in front of us. We cannot remain neutral. When we have gospel theology, everything we see in life is affected by gospel worldview.

This is the reason why Paul is provoked. He looks at the city of Athens with all its historical beauty through the gospel lens. When he looks at Athens, he sees people who are very artistic, intellectual, religious and creative, but they are empty. And he is not content with it. One of the things that the Bible constantly tells us is that underneath every problem, underneath every sin, every relational problem, every intellectual problem, is a theological problem. The problem underneath every problem is we worship the wrong God. It is a problem of idolatry. Idols are not just statues that we worshipped. Idols are whatever we built our lives upon that replace the one true God. It can be money, sex, power, success, family, work, love, etc. It is what gives us a sense of temporal satisfaction, but it leaves us even more thirsty and empty. When we see people worshipping idols, we cannot remain idle. We are provoked by it. It means that we are not simply angry at them. We are not simply loving toward them. But our response is marked by both anger and love. There is a mixture of truthfulness and tears; boldness and gentleness; holiness and grace. We are not too demanding nor accepting. We reason with them with the gospel truth.

Gospel truth

Acts 17:22-29 – 22 So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23 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. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 26 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, 27 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, 28 for “‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, “‘For we are indeed his offspring.29 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.

This is very interesting. The way Paul communicates the gospel to the Jews and the way he communicates the gospel to the gentiles are very different. With the Jews, Paul reasons using the Old Testament. Because they are in common agreement that the Old Testament is the word of God. But with the gentiles, Paul does not start with the Bible. Paul starts with what is true for them. Paul starts with their innate longing for God. He tells them that they are very religious. They have so many gods and altars for gods in the city. But even with all their gods and altars, the people of Athens want to be sure that they cover all their bases. That is why they also have an altar to the unknown god. Because they believe that for the gods to bless them, they need to make the gods happy. So, in case they might have missed a god and make that god feels left out and cranky, they create an altar to the unknown god. Paul uses that as his starting point. Paul says, “Let me tell you about this unknown God. This God is different from any other gods that you know.” So, Paul starts where they are, and he confronts their theology. Paul gives them a real God, the God-sized God.

He confronts their theology with two truths. First, God is greater than you think. He does that by revealing three attributes of God. He starts by saying that God is the Creator. Everything in this world is made by God. So that means that whatever we see with our eyes, feel with our hands, smell with our nose, taste with our mouth, hear with our ear, all of them are created by God. It’s like this. Have you ever bought an item that you really like from a store in Australia, only to look at the tag at the back of it saying, “Made in China”? I mean, you can buy a T-shirt that says, “I love Sydney” with the tag inside, “Made in China.” The truth is, everything in this world has an invisible tag written on it, “Made by God.” Paul continues, “Now, if this true, if everything in this world is created by God, what makes you think that he lives in temples made by man?” Let me put it this way. A few years back, I had the opportunity to visit the Grand Canyon. Before my trip to the Grand Canyon, I knew what to expect. I have seen many pictures of the Grand Canyon. So, in one sense, I knew what the Grand Canyon looks like. And it did not interest me at all. It’s just a bunch of humongous orange rocks. But it’s like the must visit place in America. So, I went to the Grand Canyon with my family. Today, lots of people love to hike. Many people love to go on 2 hours walk and put their lives on the line by climbing over the fence illegally and sit at the edge of wedding cake rock for the sake of posting a picture on Instagram. But not my family. We were allergic to sun and sweat. So, we used a small plane to get to the top of the Grand Canyon. Why makes life hard when there is an easy way out with money right? So, we managed to get to the top without breaking a sweat. When I walked out of that plane, my perception of the Grand Canyon was forever changed. When I finally saw the real Grand Canyon, I was in awe. There are three kinds of wow. First one is, “wow, that’s good.” Second one is, “WOW, thats amazing.” But at that time, I experienced the third wow. The silent divine wow. And at that time, the Grand Canyon was speaking to me about God. The Grand Canyon has the invisible tag of God. The grandiose beauty of the Grand Canyon witnessed to me the greatness of the Creator. Here is the point. If God is the creator of the Grand Canyon, what makes us think that he lives in a small, tiny temple made by man?

And God is not only the Creator but second, God is self-sufficient. If God is the creator of everything, what makes us think that there is something we can do for God? God owns everything. He owns the Universe. He owns the solar system. He owns the sun, moon and the earth. He owns the land on which we walk. He owns our lives. He owns our talents. God gives to mankind life and breath and everything. The fact that we are able to breathe today is because God gives us oxygen. This is the one true God. He is not small; he is big. We need to understand the greatness of God. Because a lot of time the way we think about God does not reflect the greatness of God but rather the smallness of God.

Third, God is sovereign. God determines every little detail. God has determined the allotted periods and the boundaries of our lives. That means we are not who we are and where we are by mistake. It’s like this. I was born on 4th January in the year of not too long ago. I was born in Denpasar Bali, Indonesia. My father is Semuel Jusuf and my mom is Lydia Benyamin. I can tell you the basic facts about my birth, but I had nothing to do with them. I did not decide to be born on 4th January on Denpasar. Nor I chose to be the son of my father and mother. I did not choose to be an Asian with tiny eyes. I was born this way because of the works of my parents. They got together and did what husband and wife would do when they have nothing to do at night, and voila, I showed up 9 months later. And then 10 years later, my parents decided to move to Sydney and here I am today. In all of this, nothing happened by accident. God has determined where I would be born and live. God is greater than you think.

Let me tell you why this is both bad news and good news. Let me start with the bad news. The fact that God is far greater than we think means that we cannot boss God. This goes against the belief of our culture and even many Christians. They think that if God exists, then his job description is to make our life happy. So, when something bad happens in life, we blame God for not doing his job. But here, Paul confronts our view. “Who do you think you are to boss God around? Who do you think you are that you can control God? He is far greater than you think. You cannot order God around.” That’s the bad news. But here is the good news. In fact, if you want to have a tattoo, this will be a good tattoo to have. God does not need me! Can we say it out loud? “God does not need me!” How freeing is that? If there is anything, we can do for God that he cannot do for himself, it means that God has a lack. And we the creation has what it takes to cover the lack in our Creator. How arrogant is that? God is the Creator of the Grand Canyon and he owns every little corner of the universe. What is it that we have that is not already his? Our lives? What makes us think that it is not already his? Our talents? Where do we think it came from?

And I think this is one of the reasons why many of us are weary in our Christian life. Many of us are exhausted in our walk with God is because we are putting on ourselves an impossible weight and burden that is not ours to carry. We think that God needs our help. We think of what we do for God as a way of helping God get things done. Get this right. God does not need any help. God is not seeking those who want to help him. God is seeking those who need his help. And this is something radical about Christianity. Every other religion teaches that we have to do something for God to make God happy. But Christianity teaches that God is a happy God who finds delight in helping those who are weak. The God of Christianity has no need and cannot be served. But the God of Christianity loves to serve those who come to him. The gospel is not “God needs help” but “God loves to help.” We don’t come to God to give him something. We come to God to receive from him. I love the way John Piper describes it. He says that God is like a mountain spring. How do you glorify the worth of a mountain spring? We do not glorify a mountain spring by trying to conserve the water and keep it full. No, a mountain spring is self-replenishing. We glorify the worth of a mountain spring by getting down on our hands and knees and drinking to our heart satisfaction. My friends, this makes a big difference. So, our heart’s primary posture when we come to God is not giving but receiving. That means we come hungry. We come thirsty. We come desperate. We come with expectancy. We do not come to God to give to God but to receive from God. God is honoured not by us working for God but by us receiving from him. This is the first truth. God is greater than you think.

The second truth, God is closer than you know. Paul says that the reason that God created us, sustained us and determined our life is so that we might know God. That we might know that he is not far from us. And Paul quotes a popular secular author of his days to make his point. He is trying to connect to his audience. It is like me quoting, “baby, baby, baby, oh” in a sermon to the millennials. They immediately know what I am talking about. Paul is saying that even some of their poets say that they are God’s offspring. The implication is that we are made in God’s image. We are made for God and should seek the one true God. The knowledge of God is not only something that is imprinted in the creation outside of us but inside of us as well. And if we are God’s offspring, it is insulting to God to make an idol of gold, silver or stone to represent him.

But here is the problem with humanity as a whole. Everyone has an innate longing for God but everyone rejects the true knowledge of God. Here is how Paul summarizes our problem. Romans 1:18-20 – For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.

We know God but we rejected God. We know but we do not know. Deep inside, we know that there is a God who is far greater than we think and far closer than we know. And this God wants our fellowship. But we don’t want him. We instinctively know that God exists, but our sinful heart refused the truth. It is not that we cannot know God, but we do not want to know God. The main problem with us is not an intellectual problem but a heart problem. But at the same time, we cannot live as if God does not exist. So, what ends up happening is we deny God with our mouth but affirm God with our life. Let me give you one example. How many of you believe that murder is absolutely wrong? But why is murder wrong? Think about it. If we rejected God as the Creator and embrace the theory of evolution as our origin, what ground do we have to say that murder is wrong? We don’t have any. If there is no God the Creator, the best we can say is, “Please do not murder as I feel that it is a wrong thing to do. I do not wish you to do it.” But we cannot say, “Do not murder because it is wrong.” To say that something is wrong means that there is an independent standard of moral absolutes that exists apart from our feelings. And that independent standard of moral absolutes come from God. If we do not believe in God, we have to stop saying, “This is wrong.” Without God, there is no moral absolutes. Can we live without moral absolutes? We can until someone randomly punch us in the face because they feel like it. Then suddenly we believe in moral absolutes.

So Paul confronts the inconsistent theology of the people. He gives them the God-sized God. God is greater than you think, and God is closer than you know. I love the way Evelyn Underhill puts it. “If God were small enough to be understood, he would not be big enough to be worshipped.” If we have a God small enough for us to understand and serve in the temple made by man, then he is not worthy of our worship. But if he is big enough to be worshipped, then he is big enough for us to not fully understand him.

Gospel challenge

Acts 17:30-31 – The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.

And now Paul challenges his audience. Embrace the true God or face the judgement of God. Your option is either to repent or perish. God has appointed a time where he will judge the world in righteousness. And everyone is accountable for their decision. Not a single person can say “I do not know God” for everyone knows God. A time will come where you will have to stand before the judgement of God. Make your choice. Are you going to receive eternal life or eternal condemnation?

The good news for us is that we don’t have to face the judgement of God. Yes, all of us have sinned against the one true God. We have rejected him, and we deserved eternal damnation. There is nothing that we can do to earn brownie points with God. He is so great that he has no need. But that is not the end of the story. God has made a way for us to be right with him. The God who does not need us has humbled himself and become the greatest servant. Listen to what Jesus says about his mission on earth. Mark 10:45 – For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. The word “serve” means to wait on tables. Jesus is saying that he comes to be our waiter. Jesus, the Creator, the self-sufficient, sovereign God, came to earth not because he is seeking us to serve him but because he wants to serve us. This is the radical claim of the gospel. The great God of the universe came to earth to die in order to serve us. When Jesus first came to earth, he did not come to judge but to bear judgement. God was both so angry and so in love. He was so angry that he had to die, and he was so in love that he was glad to die. God is so great that he cannot be served, and the death of Christ is so great that it is sufficient to pay our debt to God.

This the good news of the gospel. Jesus came not because he needed us but because we need him. He became our ransom and paid the price of our sins with his death. And on the third day, God gave his stamp of approval to Jesus’ perfect work and raised Jesus from the dead. So that whoever put their faith in Jesus will be served by Jesus for eternity. Don’t get it wrong. I know this might sound on the borderline heretical, but it is true. Jesus is our greatest servant. The gospel is not us serving Jesus but Jesus serving us. Christian life is not a life of serving Jesus but a life of being served by Jesus daily. The only reason that we can believe in God and love Jesus today is because God took the initiative to serve us and made us his sons and daughters. And now that we are his sons and daughters, we don’t glorify him by trying to serve him. He has no need. We glorify him by continually relying on his unlimited power to serve us and satisfy us. Are we letting Jesus serve us today?

Let me close with this. Acts 17:32-33 – 32 Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” 33 So Paul went out from their midst. 34 But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them. There are three possible responses to the preaching of the gospel. Some are unpersuaded and mock. Some want to hear more about it before they decide. And some believed. And our role is not to be the one who persuades them. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit. Our role is to be faithful and continue to engage the people with the gospel. Why? Because that is what Jesus did for us. Jesus looked down from heaven and saw our idolatry. But he chose not to ignore us. He was provoked. So, he came down and got involved. He showed the insufficiency of our idols and revealed the one true God who came to serve us through his death and resurrection. He did not need us, but he wants us. And as Jesus has done to us, we can now do the same to others.

Discussion questions:

  1. What does it mean to have a gospel worldview?
  2. Look at the three attributes of God (Creator, Self-sufficient, Sovereign). Which one do you think our culture find most offensive and why?
  3. The God of Christianity is a happy God. Is this what comes to your mind when you think of God? Why or why not?
  4. “God does not need me!” Why is this good news?
  5. Read Romans 1:18-20. According to Paul, what is the number one problem of mankind?
  6. “Jesus is our greatest servant!” Explain the implication of this truth.
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