The Apostle Paul was a product of the Ancient Near East. He understood the neighborhood in which he lived. He knew there was a supernatural world and worldview that greatly influenced the lives of those to whom he witnessed. This is fully on display when Paul goes to Athens and engages the Greeks on the Ares rock: the Areopagus, i.e. Mars Hill.
Mars Hill was a place of intellectual pursuit. Luke in his account says in Acts 17:21:
Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.
How the philosophers must have frittered away their days! They ran here and there for something new, something that would tickle their ears. And apparently, there was plenty of that around.
But then came Paul. He comes to this city known for its religiosity. It’s the center of Greek culture with its rich history of mythology. The Greek gods were well known and revered. People lived their lives seeking to know more about them.
I heard a couple of interesting interviews recently between Dr. Michael S. Heiser and—I can put it no other way—a Greek Olympian. Heiser’s book The Unseen Realm is the basis for much of what I’ve been reflecting in many of these articles lately. Hercules Invictus has spent his life pursuing knowledge of the Greek gods. He’s a walking encyclopedia about them. His podcast is found on The International Pagan Network—yes, there is such a thing. Better yet: “All pagan, all the time.”
In this discussion—and it really was such; there was no contention or animosity between them—Heiser simply responded to Hercules in the calm, laid-back manner that he does and proceeded to lay out the Biblical view. He ended up presenting the Gospel in such a non-threatening way that I couldn’t help but pray for the salvation of Hercules. He reminded me so much of the truth-seeking philosophers of Mars Hill, who inevitably came away empty.
Paul interacts with those around him. He’s seen the altars, the statues, and the darkness in which these people live. Because Paul knows the context of that culture, he can relate directly to their situation. Thus: what is the context?
He states it in Acts 17:26-28:
“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, 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, 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.’”
So, where did Paul get this information? What is he talking about?
It goes back to Deuteronomy 32:8. In fact, many Bibles refer to this in a Scriptural reference from the verses in Acts. Here’s what the verse says:
When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance,
when he divided mankind,
he fixed the border of the peoples
according to the number of the sons of God.
Paul is clearly declaring that nations are under the authority of the sons of God whom He placed there. In this Deuteronomy passage, we see that God effectively divorced the nations. He had become fed up with the disobedience of man and let him have free reign to pursue what they chose. However, the divine sons of God were supposed to point people back to Yahweh. Instead, as we see in Psalm 82, they rose up in rebellion and set themselves as supreme deities over the nations.
Yet, God never intended for this to be, and He wanted mankind to seek Him, even from their place in outer darkness, i.e. these nations outside Israel. Paul affirms that all men are God’s offspring. It’s through Him that we have life. We ultimately are to reject the false gods, the usurpers, and come to Him.
This is such a great scene because it puts on clear display what Paul knew about the supernatural realm, what had happened, and what was supposed to happen. His description intrigued many in that pagan place, and God moved, bringing salvation into their midst.
How fortunate we are that God has not given up on us! He has not relegated us to wander in the wilderness forever. Rather, He gives each one of us the means and opportunity to turn to Him and to know the One true God. How gracious He is, and how merciful!