Empty on the Inside: How God Reveals Himself to Us –
Sermon 5 of 9 from the From Athens to Oak Park (Acts 17) series
June 1998 – In his book, Therefore Stand (written in 1945), Wilbur Smith has a chapter on Paul’s speech to the Areopagus (Acts 17:16-34). Along the way he comments on the similarity between ancient Athens and modern America. For all the obvious differences in culture and language, there is a similar approach to the problems of life.
Professor Smith brings forth three evidences of that similarity that seem even more true a half-century later. He notes that the men of Athens worshipped the human intellect. They also loved newness and the endless discussion of new ideas. Finally, they valued tolerance and diversity as seen by their ever-expanding pantheon of gods.
The same is true today. We too worship the human mind, love new ideas, and exalt tolerance as our highest virtue. What does such a worldview produce?
When you worship intellect, you get educated arrogance. When you love newness, you get restless dissatisfaction. When you exalt tolerance, you get endless uncertainty—always seeking for the truth you can never seem to find.
The more you travel around the world, the more common humanity seems to be.
Athens knew everything that was knowable except the most important thing. She did not know God. Or what to do about her sins or where to find peace or how to discover the hope of heaven. That leads me to the following crucial point: It is possible to be highly educated and deeply religious and still be totally ignorant about God.
Is that not an apt description of our own generation? To quote another writer, we have become a nation of “intellectual giants and moral pygmies.” We know more and more about the details and less and less about the meaning of life.
God Wants You to Know Him!As Paul stood before the intellectual giants of ancient Athens, he faced men who were in precisely that situation—highly educated, deeply religious and totally ignorant about God. Here’s what he has said so far:
1. You’re very religious but you don’t know God—verses 22-23.In our text today he adds a new thought.
2. Let me tell you who God really is—verses 24-25.
3. God is closer to you than you think he is—verses 26-28.
He’s trying to show them that God is not far off but has made himself accessible to everyone. This is a message we need to repeat over and over again. If you don’t know God, it’s not God’s fault. God has already done everything necessary for you to have a relationship with him. He created the world and then left his fingerprints everywhere. He sent prophets and kings and poets with his message. Then he capped it off by sending his Son to the world. God has made it perfectly clear that his heart yearns for men and women to seek him.
I. What God DidOftentimes it’s our own pride that keeps us from turning to God. Without ever using that word, Paul strikes at the notion that the men of Athens were somehow better than anyone else.
A. Created humanity from one man.“From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth” (v. 26). This speaks of the common origin of the human race—that all humanity is descended from Adam. First there was Adam, then from Adam’s side came Eve, then came their children, and eventually many generations stretching from Eden to the 5.7 billion people on planet earth today.
This is a magnificent conception, highly Scriptural in nature. In Genesis 1:26 God said, “Let us make man in our own image.” Then the next verse adds, “Male and female he created them.” First there was God, then Adam, then Eve, then all the rest of us down the line. In Malachi 2:10 the prophet asks, “Have we not all one Father? Did not one God create us?” The answer is yes, we have one Father and one God who created us all.
This struck hard at the pride of the Athenians who thought themselves superior to others. They divided the human race into two parts—the Greeks and the Barbarians (everyone else). The men of Athens thought their city the greatest in Greece so they felt themselves a cut above the ordinary Greeks. Paul neatly punctures their balloon by telling them they aren’t really any different from anyone else.
The theory of racial superiority has led to horrible results in history. Just over a half-century ago the Nazis elevated the “pure Aryan” race and used that as an excuse to murder 12 million Jews, Slavs, Ukrainians, Russians, and others deemed inferior and unworthy. In our own country the belief in white superiority fueled slavery, segregation, and the Jim Crow Laws. It still causes men to loathe and fear others of a different color.
Against the evils of racism Paul declares, “We’re all from the same stock. Fruit from the same branch. Born into the same human family.” This is the basis for Christian reconciliation between the races and the various ethnic groups in society and in the church.
It is also confirmed by common sense. The more you travel around the world, the more common humanity seems to be. Superficially we are very different in our appearance, background, language and customs. But scratch deeper and you discover that all people are substantially the same. Once past the surface, you discover no fundamental difference between a savage in the jungle and a corporate lawyer on Wall Street or between a woman in a brothel in Rio and a refined graduate of Vassar College. Everywhere we are the same—the same longings, regrets, dreams, hopes, the same need to love and be loved, the same desire to bear children and raise a family, with the same sense that there must be a God of some kind who made us.
Only One Race—the Human RaceThe Christian gospel is fundamentally incompatible with racial prejudice. The Bible teaches us four crucial facts we must never forget:
1. All people are equally created in God’s image.Those four facts form the basis of the doctrine of Christian equality. All people regardless of their background are significant, loved, fallen, and redeemable. Those four facts are true of all people no matter what color their skin happens to be. No race has any advantage over any other race. No group is better than any other group.
2. All are deeply loved by God.
3. All are stained and tainted by sin.
4. All are able to be redeemed.
There is only one race in God’s eyes—the human race. God doesn’t love white people more than he loves black people.
And blacks are no better than Hispanics.
And Asians are just as lost as Europeans.
Latinos and Native Americans are saved in exactly the same way.
That’s what Acts 10:34 means when it says that God is no respecter of persons. He doesn’t play favorites. Skin color doesn’t matter to him. Race isn’t an issue with God. “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight.”
As long as we live together on the earth there will be various races, colors, pigments, backgrounds, languages and cultures. These differences are not evil and should not be ignored or deprecated. There is much to appreciate in the various differences in humanity. But let us be clear on this point: There is only one race in God’s eyes—the human race. Secondary differences do not matter to him the way they seem to matter so much to us.
Paul’s point is clear. Since we all descend from the same person, there is no room for inordinate pride or a feeling of superiority over others. We’re all in this together—and we all need the saving touch of Jesus Christ.
B. Guided history by his own plan.“And he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live” (v. 26). Please note the word “determined.” It speaks of God’s direct involvement in the affairs of human history.
1. He made the nations.
2. He determined the times they should exist.
3. He determined their boundaries.
Many other verses teach the same truth. “When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance, when he divided all mankind, he set up boundaries for the peoples according to the number of the sons of Israel” (Deuteronomy 32:8). “Dominion belongs to the Lord and he rules over the nations” (Psalm 22:28). “The Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes” (Daniel 4:25c).
When theologians speak of this truth, they refer to “the hidden counsels of God.” This means that what God is doing in history is not directly revealed in Scripture. Many times we look at the world scene and things seem haphazard as if there were no guiding principle. But looking back we can see here and there the Invisible Hand of God at work—raising up one nation, one leader, one army—and bringing down another.
History is His Story. He has the final say in every battle, every ruler rising to power, every coup, every election, and every government edict. We generally don’t see the big picture as it unfolds before us, and sometimes we don’t even see it looking back, but Scripture assures us that even in those events that seem to be out of control, God is at work behind the scenes.
God arranged everything in your life so that you might seek him. Paul has now informed the men of Athens that they are just like everyone else in the human race and that God has brought their nation to prominence for a specific purpose. We learn that purpose in verse 27.
II. Why God Did It
A. That we would seek him.“God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him” (v. 27). Have you ever wondered why you were born into a particular family at a particular moment in history? After all, you could have been born 500 years ago or in Brazil or India or New Zealand. Why did you end up where you are right now? Paul tells us clearly that God arranged everything in your life so that you might seek him. You are where you are right now because God wants you to seek him and to find him. He desires a personal relationship with you.
What difference does this truth make? I offer four answers:
1) We were made to know God. That’s the longing in our hearts to understand the universe and our place in it.
2) Sin has blinded us so we cannot find him. That’s the result of the Fall.
3) We keep groping for him anyway. That explains all the various religions of the world.
4) No one will ever find God unless God reveals himself to him. That’s where the saving grace of God comes in.
Two things are needed at this point in order for a person to come to Christ:
1. Someone to preach the gospel.It is our job to preach the gospel, it is the work of the Holy Spirit to draw men to Jesus. Therefore, we preach and pray, and then leave the results with the Lord.
2. The work of the Holy Spirit to open our eyes so we can see.
Behind verse 27 is the wonderful truth that God rewards those who diligently seek him. “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13). “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon” (Isaiah 55:6-7).
God often uses catastrophes as a means of urging men to seek him. We find this same truth echoed in the words of Jesus in Luke 11:9-10. “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.”
In his sermon on this text, Ray Stedman notes that God often uses catastrophes as a means of urging men to seek him. This explains why God allows wars, violence, outbreaks of evil, and terrible natural disasters. It also sheds some light on things like cancer, the death of a loved one, financial collapse, and the breakup of a marriage. Why would God allow such things? One part of the answer is that God uses these awful events to teach that we can’t make it without the Lord. Many of us could testify that it wasn’t until we hit rock bottom that we finally found the Lord. When you are flat on your back, totally broke, health gone, marriage dissolved, children estranged, career ruined, with nowhere to turn and no hope in the world, in the blackness of that moment you cry out, “Oh God, have mercy,” and he responds, “I’ve been waiting for you to ask for my help.” So it is that we learn the hard way that life is meaningless without the Lord.
B. That we would discover that he is not far away.“Though he is not far from each one of us” (v. 27). Idolaters made theirs statues of gold and silver so that their gods would be near them always. How foolish! God is always near us because God is present everywhere at all times. There is no place you can go where he is not already there.
I wonder if God seems far away from you right now. If so, could it be that God has not moved away from you but you have moved away from God? Oftentimes our personal sense of estrangement from the Lord has to do more with our own disobedience than to anything else. When I was a teenager, my buddies and I would often greet someone with this question, “How’s the Lord been treating you?” The answer was always, “He’s been treating me just fine.” Then the second question: “How have you been treating the Lord?” That’s a different issue, isn’t it?
God is always near us, whether we see him or not. “Closer is he than breathing, and nearer than hands or feet,” said Tennyson, and he was right.
III. What It Means For UsVerse 28 applies this truth in a very personal way.
A. We owe everything to God.“For in him we live and move and have our being” (v. 28). I fear that these words are so familiar that they will lose their force. Let’s consider each phrase separately.
Your life is not really yours—it comes from God and he can take it back any time he wants.1) “In him we live.” Our very life is held in God’s hand. Do you understand you are completely dependent on God for the life you possess? Your life is not really yours—it comes from God and he can take it back any time he wants. James 4:14 reminds us that life itself is like a vapor that appears for a brief moment and then vanishes away. Anyone who has ever blown hot breath on a cold windowpane knows you have to work fast to write your name in the vapor before it disappears. That’s your life—all 70 or 80 years of it. It’s a vapor that begins to disappear the moment you are born.
Sometimes we forget how fragile life can be. This week someone reminded me that there is a thin line between where you are right now and utter catastrophe. Just one phone call and your life could be changed forever. Things happen so quickly—a speeding car, a stray bullet, a sudden stroke, an unexpected heart attack, and people are saying, “Doesn’t she look so natural?” Sometimes the line is so thin as to be nonexistent.
If you want to know what your life is like, go to the cemetery and look at any headstone. There is a name, two dates and a dash. That’s what you get when you die: a little “-” to summarize your whole earthly existence.
We move because he first moves in us. 2) “In him we move.” Raise your arm above your head. Now wave it around. What made your arm move? Your muscles did. Who told the muscles to move? The electrical impulses did. Where did those impulses come from? From the brain through the nervous system. How does that all work? I’m not sure but the scientists can explain it. Now here’s the important question: Where did the power come from to make all that happen? It comes from God. You cannot move a hand or a foot or open your mouth to speak unless God gives you the strength to do it. We move because he first moves in us.
3) “We have our being.” Have you ever wondered why you are you the way you are? (Your friends have probably wondered that from time to time.) Where did your personality come from? Who gave you your unique genetic blueprint? We know that inside each cell in your body is a DNA code that contains every secret to your physical existence. For one person it reads: Blue eyes, brown hair, 5’7”, good at tennis, bad at math, with a tendency to overeat, and a birthmark above your right knee (plus a few million other details). Everything about you is in your DNA—that double-helix code that contains all your secrets. Who arranged your DNA? God did. That’s what Psalm 139:13 means when it says he knit you together in your mother’s womb. The things that make you unique come from God.
B. We are his offspring.We learn one final truth from the last phrase of verse 28. “As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’” This is a marvelous statement that could be a sermon by itself. We come from God, we answer to God, we depend on God, and we can do nothing without God. We are his offspring by creation. Even the unsaved are “God’s offspring” since God created them. But there is a difference between creation and redemption.
Years ago I remember watching Billy Graham on the old Merv Griffin show. Merv was trying to get Billy to make some kind of “all religions are equal” statement so he said, “We’re all God’s children, right?” To which Billy replied, “By creation.” The moment passed and the discussion moved to another topic. The point Dr. Graham was trying to make is the same one Paul makes in Acts 17:28. There is a sense in which we are all “God’s children” by creation. However, it’s significant that the New Testament never uses that precise term when speaking of humanity in general. Paul uses a different one—"offspring"—meaning those who belong to God by virtue of creation.
By creation we belong to God, by redemption we become his children. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul puts the matter this way: “You are all sons of God through faith in Jesus Christ” (Galatians 3:26). By creation we belong to God, by redemption we become his children. It is possible to be God’s offspring yet not be his child because you have not yet trusted Christ as Savior.
Do You Know Jesus?By birth we belong to God, by faith we enter his family. Do you know Jesus? Not, do you know about him? Do you know him? That’s the most important thing in the world. May I introduce you to him right now? He was born of a virgin in a place called Bethlehem and grew up in a carpenter’s home in Nazareth. When he was 30, he began his public ministry. For over three years he traveled across Galilee, Samaria and Judea preaching the gospel, healing the sick, raising the dead, and speaking to anyone who would listen to him. Most people loved him but a few hated him and decided to kill him. Eventually they succeeded in penetrating his inner circle. One night he was betrayed, arrested and tried for crimes he did not commit. The next day he was crucified between two thieves even though he had done nothing wrong. As he hung on the cross, he cried out, “It is finished,” meaning that the price for sin had been completely paid. When he was dead, they placed him a in borrowed tomb. On the third day he rose from the dead. Forty days later he ascended into heaven where he now sits at the right hand of God. Someday soon he will return to the earth as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
Do you know this Jesus personally? Have you ever trusted him as Savior and Lord? Have you ever opened your heart to him?
When I preached this sermon, I asked the congregation to stand with me and repeat the following prayer sentence by sentence. I told them that prayer alone cannot save you because you can always say words without meaning them in your heart. But if this prayer expresses your deepest desire, I encourage you to make it your personal prayer of commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Dear Lord Jesus, I need you in my life. I freely confess that I have broken your laws. Deep in my heart I know that I am a sinner. Thank you for dying on the cross for me. Thank you for rising from the dead. I truly believe you are the Son of God. Thank you for loving me when I was far away from you. Here and now I trust you as my Savior. Come into my heart and save me. Make me a brand-new person. I turn away from my old life and I pledge to live for you from this day forward. Set me free from hatred, bitterness or prejudice of any kind. Fill me with your love. Teach me what it means to live as a true Christian. May others see Jesus in me. I ask it in Jesus’ name, Amen.If you prayed that prayer as a personal expression of your faith in Christ, I hope you’ll tell someone who matters to you. That could be a friend, a co-worker, a family member, or a pastor. If you have trusted Christ today, don’t keep it a secret. Tell the good news to someone else.
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