Acts 2020 Bible Study (Moving Forward with Jesus)

Acts 17:16-34, Knowing the Unknown God


Can we know the unknown God? It is an important question to ask because we live in a time when most people think that God is unknowable. They say we cannot know if there even is a God and, if there is, then that God cannot be known or understood. This is often illustrated today when a story about a number of people in a dark room touching the different parts of an elephant. Some feel the trunk, some feel the tail, and some feel the body and all draw different conclusions about this unknowable animal in the dark room. The point that is made is that all of us have our different ideas about God as we only experience these different aspects and no one is wrong about their ideas. This is the situation that the apostle Paul walks into when he comes into the city of Athens as recorded in Acts 17:16. Athens was a highly religious, philosophical, and logical city. The impact of ancient Greece is still in effect today as it is considered the birthplace of western thinking and culture.

When Paul comes to Athens he sees a city that is full of idols and this greatly distresses him. Paul goes into the synagogue, as he always does, because this is the place where devout and religious people would be gathering for worship and study. But he not only goes into the synagogue, he also goes into the marketplace every day with those who were there. The philosophers of the city begin to debate with Paul. Some are dismissive of Paul, calling him a babbler. Some think Paul is advocating for foreign gods because he was preaching about Jesus and the resurrection. So they bring Paul into the Areopagus so they can understand more about this strange teaching (17:19-21).

Paul begins his teaching from a point of common ground. He notes that he has seen their various objects of worship (which are the idols that he observed that distressed him). But he does not slander their idolatry here. He says that he walked around and saw their objects of worship. In particular, he found an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” So Paul says he is going to proclaim to them about the God that they do not know. He gives six truths about the true and living God, the God that they do not know. You might be surprised to learn about this God through Paul’s six truths.

God Is Not Served By Us (17:24-25)

What a way to start a description about the true and living God to people who do not know him! God made the world and does not live in temples made by human hands. He is not served by human hands as if he needs anything. The point is not that people are not supposed to serve the Lord. That is not what Paul is saying because the scriptures plainly teach in many places that we are called to serve the Lord. Rather, the serving of the Lord is not because he needs anything. We do not satisfy the needs of God. Our actions are not done because God needs it. God does not need a building or a temple. God does not need us to give to him or provide him. God is not sustained by our actions. Paul’s first point is for people to consider that our view of God is far too small. If God made the world and everything that is in it, then what does he need from us? If he made the universe, does he need us to make him a building? Does he need us to give him something so that he can continue on?

God Gives Life (17:25-26)

Paul continues by making the point that we do not serve God to sustain him and give him life. Rather, God himself is the one who gives life and breath and everything else. God sustains you. You do not sustain him. God gives you life. You do not give God life. God gives you everything. You do not give God anything. You are breathing right now because God said so. You are living right now because God said so. You have everything you have because God said so. We have to understand that this is who God is. We see this in the book of Job where control is placed in God’s hands. Satan condemns God because God has given Job his health, his wealth, and his family. God is the giver of everything. I think we can easily lose sight of the fact that God is behind everything as we try to explain the natural world.

Not only this, look carefully at verse 26. Paul says that God has determined the appointed times and boundaries of every nation on the face of the earth. Nothing in the world is happening outside of God’s control or knowledge. We get so concerned about the power of peoples and nations. We even get concerned about our own nation. But Paul says that God has determined their appointed times and the boundaries of where they live. Paul means it when he says that God is the one who gives life and breath and everything else.

God Is Not Far (17:27)

If God is the reason for everything, then we are called to seek him. Now here is the good news: God is not far from each one of us. God has made the world the way he did so that we would seek him and reach out for him. But do not think that you are reaching to the unreachable. This God who made the world and everything in it and who gives life and breath and everything else is near you. He is not far from you. He is not unreachable. When God tells us to draw near to him, the point is not to think that God is so far away and that we need to travel a great distance to get to him. No, God is just a step away so that all you need to do is reach out to him. This is the beauty of the gospel. God did not ask us to come up to his level because we cannot do it. Rather, God came down to us and we see him coming down in Jesus. God came near to us. He is not far from any one of us.

God Made Us His Children (17:28-29)

Now Paul underscores the prior point that he made by using what some of the philosophers even said. “In him we live and move and have our being.” Think about the power of that sentence. We already noted that God gives life and breath and everything else. God sustains us. We exist because of God. We live because of God. We move because of God. We do what we do because of God. We have our being because of God. God is why you can be here today. God is why you can have a job. God is why you can have your wealth and possessions. God is why you can make decisions. God is why you went where you went and do what you do. God is why.

All of this translates to mean something very important: all humans are children of God. You belong to God. This is the simple conclusion to draw. God made the world and everything. God gives life, breath, and everything. God is how we live, move, and have our being. Therefore, we belong to God. But we do not belong to God as robots. We do not belong to God as indentured slaves. We belong to him as his children.

God Wants Us To Come Back (17:29-30)

But there is a problem with us being his children. The problem is that every single human has been the prodigal child who left the father. We have wasted our lives in idolatry. Notice how Paul frames this idea in verse 29. The problem is we think of the true and living God like he is something made of gold, silver, or stone. We think of God as if he is fashioned by art and our own imagination. We do not treat the Lord like he is supposed to be treated. He is to be approached as the God who made the world and everything in it. We are to approach him as one who gives us life and sustains us. We do not sustain him. He does not need us to keep going forward. We are to approach him as his children who listen, submit, and respond to him. But no one has done this. Instead, we treat God like another god. Now God calls for us to stop that and come back to him (repent). When Paul says that in the past God overlooked these times of ignorance does not mean that God was okay with it or that there was no condemnation for it. Rather, God did not intervene. God allowed the peoples and the nations to remain in the dark (see 17:27). But the times of darkness are over because God has now intervened in the world. God has informed the world that they need to come back to him. We wandered away. God has drawn near and is calling for you to come back to him.

God Has Fixed a Day To Judge the World (17:31)

Returning to God is important and necessary because God has fixed a day when he is going to judge the world. God is not going to allow the world to continue to stand against him and his ways. Sin must be dealt with in the world. Notice the wording again in verse 31. God has appointed a man by whom he will judge the world in righteousness. This is what we want. Sometimes we do not realize that we need a righteous God who will judge the world in righteousness. Tim Keller said it this way: “If there is no day of judgment (to account for all the wrongs of the world that people have gotten away with), what hope is there for the world?” No one wants to deny a day of justice and righteousness coming on the world. God has fixed that day. The proof that there will be a day of judgment is given to everyone by raising Jesus from the dead. Paul makes the point that the resurrection of Jesus is the proof that there will be a day when all the wrongs of the world are made right. There is a day when all evil will be dealt with and judged. There is a day for the vindicating the innocent and righteous.


The response to Paul’s teaching is the same that we have seen in many cities. Some mocked Paul. Some wanted to hear for about this later. Some followed Paul and believed. But this is the message that Paul wanted the people to know about the unknown God. God cannot be served as if he needs anything. God gives to all people life, breath, and everything. God is in charge over all the affairs of the world. God is near to us so that we would seek him and find because we are his children. In him we live and move and have our very being. God wants us to return to him because he has fixed a day where the world will be judged, proven by the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

I want these truths to reorient our thinking about God. I want us to consider how we think about God. Do you think God needs you to exist or to be satisfied? Have you made God’s day because you have chose to sit here in a pew this Sunday? This is about oriented our thinking to realize that we are in desperate need of God. God is not desperate need of us. We only live, breath, and move because of him. God is quite independent of us. But when we think that God needs us, then we start treating him like the idols of gold, silver, and stone. We think he can wait for us. We think he will accept whatever we give him. We think he will be there after we get done doing what we want. We think that we can tell him the terms of our obedience. We think he will accept whatever we offer.

But when we come to understand this God properly who he is and who we are, we quickly understand that we depend on him completely. Let me end the lesson by simply asking this question for you to answer for yourself. Since God made the world and everything in it and through him you live, breathe, and move, and through him you have everything, what should you do? What should you do since everything is because of him? Paul’s answer is that we would seek him and repent from our foolishness of living as if we are in charge. What will you do since God is the reason you exist? We hope you will give your life to God today.

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