Russell Conwell, whose famous speech “Acres of Diamonds” helped to build Temple University in Philadelphia, told the story of a boy he knew in Massachusetts who went to Yale College and became a mining engineer. He was a brilliant student, and during his senior year he was paid fifteen dollars a week as an assistant in his department. When he graduated they offered him forty-five dollars a week to remain an instructor. But by that time he had gotten the gold fever and wanted to be a wealthy man, so he persuaded his widowed mother to sell the family farm in Massachusetts and go west with him in search of gold. He never found gold, and the last Conwell heard of him he was working for a copper mining company in Minnesota for fifteen dollars a week.
Not long after the new owner had taken possession of the farm in Massachusetts, he was harvesting the potatoes that lay almost on the surface of the ground. As he carried a bushel of potatoes through the narrow stone gateway, it caught on the posts, and he had to set it down and push it through. As he was doing so, his eye caught a particularly shiny stone that turned out to be a block of native silver worth more than a hundred thousand dollars! The young man had passed through that gate a dozen times a day, said Conwell, and his sleeve had brushed against that very block of silver. It was almost as if it had said to him, “Here is something of enormous value waiting for you to take it.” But he never did. He went off looking for wealth in other places. (1)
In our text for today, Paul was trying to say to the Athenians, “God is as near to you as that block of silver was to the young man going through the gateway, only you don’t realize it.” He could see how close they were to discovering the presence of God.
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Our text finds Paul in the Areopagus, which was the place of the Supreme Court. The Stoic philosophers were eager to hear what this new man had to say, so they allowed him to take a place of prominence on the gigantic stone often used for public speeches. It was perhaps the very stone where Socrates had made his last proclamations before his death.
Although Athens was nothing like it had been in the days of Socrates, the evidence of its former greatness was all about. In many ways, Athens had the grandest history of any city of the ancient world. Paul had walked through their lovely city and seen all the evidence of their search for the eternal and the beautiful. He had seen the glistening temples raised to Diana and Apollo and Zeus and Poseidon. He looked around at the perfectly artistic Doric temples. To his right were the Acropolis, the Parthenon, and many other altars and temples to various gods. The statues of marble, gold and silver were the most beautiful and perfect ever made.
Athens had been the home of the great philosophers from Socrates to Plato. The great dramatists Aeschylus, Sophocles and Aristophanes wrote their magnificent works here. Theirs was a golden culture, perhaps the most shining society the world has ever known.
But four centuries had passed since Socrates had stood where Paul now stood. Those centuries has seen Athens fall from its former glory. Now so-called philosophers loitered about the city trying to imitate the mental greatness of Socrates. But now they spent “their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.”
Paul had even seen a monument dedicated to the “Unknown God.” How close they were to the secret of life! But in spite of all these efforts, their urge to find God had not been satisfied. They had looked everywhere, turned over every stone, and still had not found him.
Paul felt sympathy for the people of Athens. But they had not had the advantage of meeting Christ on the Damascus road. They had not heard the stories of the Galilean—of his wisdom, his insights, his parables. They had not dealt with the meaning of the cross and the Resurrection.
Notice the method of Paul’s evangelism. There is no single sentence or phrase that has in it anything of harshness. His whole message was one of courtesy and kindness. He did not demand that they jump to his assumptions about life and about truth, but he started where they were. He gives his hearers the benefit of the doubt, pictures them as earnest seekers of God, and sees their previous, misguided attempts as forgivable instances of ignorance.
“You men of Athens, I perceive that you are very religious in all things.
For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship,
I found also an altar with this inscription:
‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’
What therefore you worship in ignorance,
this I announce to you.” (Acts 17:22-23)
From beginning to end there was nothing calculated to offend. He recognized their religious intent. Every idol, every temple indicated their need for God. He found this religious capacity as the open door to their minds and hearts.
It was as if he said to them, “You have looked everywhere for God, but have not found him. God is nearer than you thought. You have looked everywhere and missed him.”
His was neither a one-sided selling job nor spiritual arm-twisting. His evangelism had neither canned answers nor engineered decisions. He didn’t come across arrogantly saying, “I’m right! You’re wrong!” His was the evangelism of a friendly exchange and a positive witness. He showed that he cared about the Athenians as persons not as mere statistics.
Paul cut through to the basic matter of what they believed, what they aspired to, and what they actually needed. He went down the line with beliefs that he held in common with them. Because he started where they were, because he did not demand that they begin where he was, they listened.
Then he quoted their own poets in verse 28,
“For In him we live, and move, and have our being;
as some of your own poets have said,
‘For we are also his offspring.'”
The first quote was from the Greek poet Epimenides. It was common Stoic theology to say that God lives in us, indeed, in everything. It was less common to claim the reverse— that we live in God. A modern way of putting it would be to say that God is the oxygen tent in whom we live. To live, move, and have being suggests life in its most comprehensive sense; every fabric of our being is sustained by our life in God.
The second quote from the Greek poet Aratus says, “we are God’s offspring.” In our very being we are like God because we owe our existence to God.
Paul attacks their images of God as unworthy of the God they already worship. As aesthetically please as portraits and images of God might be, they can only be inadequate representations of God because they limit the Unlimited. They also lead to misplaced emphasis- on the house in which God lives rather than on the God who lives there. Paul calls for a form of worship that captures the essence of God as Creator, Preserver and Judge. The worship of idols fails this test. It neither reveals to us who God is nor does it reveal to God who we are.
G. Campbell Morgan sums up Paul’s message this way,
“If you really want to find God,
do not degrade yourselves in erecting images of gold and silver.
Listen to the deepest fact of your own being;
be silent in the presence of the mystery of what you are;
and then look out beyond to that unknown God
whom I declare to you.” (2)
And what of the response to Paul’s sermon? Some scoffed, some doubted, but Dionysius, Damaris, and others believed. From church history we know that the church at Athens would produce some of the greatest Christian leaders of the next century— Publius, Aristides, Basil and Gregory. Some of Paul’s hearers mocked him, others ignored him, but he left behind Dionysius and Damaris, and God won the victory.
Are we any different from the Greeks? Ours too is a golden age— computers, space travel, techniques in medicine the world never dreamed of, engineering feats it never believed possible. And we too are looking for ultimate value, for God. We try pleasure, drugs, business, everything—always looking, looking, looking for what will satisfy the God-shaped longing in our hearts. So near we could touch it, if we only knew, if we only realized.
If we listened to our culture as well as Paul did, we would discover that longing for God just beneath the surface of what we say. We need only notice what makes people swear, what keeps them awake at night, and what makes the future look like a blind alley. We would hear people say:
“Life doesn’t add up to anything.”
“I don’t really mean anything to anybody—I’m just a statistic.”
“I wish I could be sure of something.”
Start talking with people about the widespread feeling of the meaninglessness of existence, the depersonalization of our lives, the abyss of insecurity that undermines every certainty, the demonic in human affairs, and the ambiguities of ethical behavior, and right away you will have an audience. You will be talking about them, reading their secret sorrow, probing their pain and confusion, and in the process opening wellsprings of understanding. Paul Tillich reminded us that the despair of our times reflected in much of modern art and drama poses the questions that it is the business of the Christian faith to answer. (3)
“He is not far from each one of us,” said Paul. No further than the bowing of our heads, the reaching forth of our hands, the muttered prayer of submission, the taste of bread and wine. God is here.
Like the Greeks, we ought to stop struggling for what we don’t have. We ought to stop looking in faraway places for the joy and peace of life. It is here. It is now. It is in God. It is in Jesus Christ.
Remember the story of the young man who went looking for gold and missed the treasure of silver in his own backyard? Isn’t that a picture of our desperate search for God in all the wrong places? All we have to do is say “Yes, God.” and live every day in the knowledge that he is present with us. It will transform our lives, and we will see that the things we want most deeply in life all lie within our reach.
Centuries ago a pious Jew, who sought to avoid all transgressions of the law and custom, would refrain from trampling knowingly on a piece of stray paper, because the sacred name of God might be written on it. (4) In the same way, we need to look for God in every stray piece of paper, in every burst of sunshine after a storm cloud, in every smile from a baby’s face.
As Paul said, “God is not far from each one of us.”
1) John Killinger, The Ministers Manual for 1998, p. 31.
2) G. Campbell Morgan, Acts, p. 423.
3) James Cox, Ministers Manual for 1989, p. 104.
4) Halford Luccock, Acts, p. 136.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2002, Dr. Mickey Anders. Used by permission.