The Gift of Life (Acts 17:16-34)
Topic: Acts Passage: Acts 17:16–17:34
The Gift of Life
December 3rd, 2006
I. The Most Generous of Givers
This is the season for giving, isn’t it? Did you know that 50% of all charitable giving is done between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve?
But, it was actually back in June of this year when the second richest man in the world, Warren Buffet, announced that he would give the largest charitable gift ever given. Buffet has already begun to give 85% of his wealth away to charities. This means that he will give away close to $40 billion of his money.
This gift is so big that the primary charity receiving Buffet’s gift, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, will spend the next two years resizing their entire organization just to handle this one gift.
Now while many of us will give this season, there is not anyone here, there is not anyone in the world, except for Bill Gates, who could give this big of a gift.
But did you know that there is a Giver who has and who does outgive even Warren Buffet? In fact, compared to this Giver’s generosity, Warren Buffet’s gift is barely a blip on the radar, if even that. In fact, if it were not for this Giver’s generosity, none of us, including Warren Buffet, would even be here, let alone have anything to give.
This Giver, of course, is God.
This morning, I’d like to look at a passage from the New Testament, from the book of Acts, in which we find the Apostle Paul teaching us more about this God and His gifts. At this time of year, when we are surrounded by gifts and gift-giving, it’s so important that we consider the Supreme Giver.
II. Setting Up the Scene (17:16-21)
Turn with me to Acts 17. Now we’re going to find the heart of what Paul wants to teach us in verse 22-34, but let’s set up the scene by looking first at 16-21. Listen…
Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens [that is, waiting for Silas and Timothy to come from Berea where they had just been ministering…”while he was waiting for them in 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 hold of 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.
So Paul, not having planned to go to Athens on this ministry trip, found himself waiting there because of a concern for his safety. So we read that Paul just relaxed, kicked back, and took a much-needed break. Right? No way! Paul can’t help himself. He always saw opportunities to share the transforming truth of Jesus Christ.
And what provokes him to action in Athens is the presence of hundreds of statues of all shapes and sizes, idols to a variety of gods.
As Paul begins to speak to this idol-infested city about Christ, he is approached by men from the main rival schools of philosophy in Athens, the Epicureans and the Stoics. Now, some thought he was just a con-man pretending to be learned. Others thought he was talking about foreign gods, one named Jesus and one named Anastasis, the Greek word for “resurrection”.
What they seemed to agree on was that Paul needed to come before the council of Ares, the Areopagus, who met in an area of that same Agora or marketplace just north of the Acropolis where Paul was sharing. As Luke, the author of Acts, tells us in verse 21, their motivation seems to be mere curiosity about new things.
III. Main Passage: Revealing the Giver of Life (17:22-34)
So let’s listen as Paul’s shares his message with these Greek philosophers. Now, it’s helpful as you listen to this, to know what these philosophers believed about God.
The Stoics believed that God was in everything, that He was a kind of world-soul. They were what we would call pantheists. The Epicureans on the other hand accepted the reality of the Greek gods, but they argued that the gods had absolutely no interest in the affairs of men. So they were polytheists, but practically atheists.
So listen with this in mind, and listen for what this passage tells us about the gifts that God gives us.
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, in the hope that they might 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.” 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.
IV. The Giver’s First Gift to Us
Now there is obviously a lot that we could look at here (this passage, in fact, probably is the most commented on passage in the book of Acts), but I’d like to focus on the very first statement that Paul makes about this “unknown god” he was now making known to them. Look again at verses 24, 25.
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.
The gifts of God listed here are clear, aren’t they? God gives all of us “life and breath and everything”. What Paul is basically referring to here is not just existence or respiration. No, the “life” that you live, in all of its different aspects, is a gift from God.
Your existence here cannot ultimately be attributed to your parents’ egg and sperm. Your continuing existence cannot ultimately be attributed to the food in your pantry, or the store where you bought that food, or even the farm where some of it was grown.
No, Paul is pointing these Greeks, as well as us, back to the Giver of this gift we call life. God is the One who gave us life and continues to give us life. How else could we explain this miracle we call life? Has science given us an alternative explanation?
Remember, science can only tell us so much. There are fundamental questions that science might ask, but cannot fully answer; like, for example, “What is life?” Sure, scientists can tell us about certain attributes of life, about cells, about protein, about genetics. But the mystery of life cannot be boiled down to a formula. All of us know it’s too big, too complex, too profound for that.
In fact, as researchers learn more about the universe, they are not, as some supposed would happen, they are not shattering the old myths about a supernatural Creator. No, they are learning that the universe is so complicated, so perfectly constructed, so finely tuned, that there are good reasons to think something is behind all of it.
Francis Crick, the English physicist who co-discovered the structure of DNA, a revered scientist, but a critic of all things religious made this statement: “An honest man, armed with all the knowledge available to us now, could only state that in some sense, the origin of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have to have been satisfied to get it going.”
Now, remember what Paul has said. We’re not just talking about God giving everything a kick start and letting it go. No, Paul claims that God gives life to all mankind; that every life is a gift from Him. Your life, my life.
We even read in verse 26 that God determines “allotted periods”, which I think probably refers to the seasons. On earlier trip, Paul told Greeks in Lystra that God did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness. (14:17) He even gives each group of people a place to live. So again, the gift of life is not only about the creation of life, it is also about the administration of life. Every life.
Life is such a gift, isn’t it? Oh, you might not always feel like it’s a gift. Sometimes we feel like it’s a curse. But the young man who, for example, contemplates suicide will years later call himself a fool for such thoughts as he walks his daughter down the aisle, grateful that he stuck around to experience that kind of joy. You see, when we’re thinking clearly, and we consider what we’ve been given, I think all of us would agree that we’ve been given so much.
But if we can acknowledge that God is the Giver and that He has given me everything comprising what we would call “my life”, then how should we react to such a gift?
V. How Do You React to Such a Gift?
I think it’s fair to say that most of us would have and should have a profound sense of gratitude to God for the gift of our life.
What do you typically do when you receive a gift from someone? You say, “Thank you.”
But oftentimes, there’s more to it than that. Often, acknowledging that a certain gift comes from a certain Giver has some radical implications.
For example, when it becomes clear that Cyrano de Bergerac in the play of the same name, or Steve Martin if your familiar with the movie Roxanne, when it becomes clear that he, and not Christian, is the author of the love letters given to Roxanne, her perspective on him is radically altered. A mere “thank you” for those letters would simply not work, because true gratitude in this instance is bound up with all the implications of love.
Paul is telling the philosophers here something similar. Listen again to his premise, expressed in a variety of ways: he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything (v. 25), he made from one man every nation of mankind (v. 26), we are indeed his offspring (v. 28).
Now for each of these statements declaring God as the Giver of the gift of life, Paul draws some real and radical implications; some conclusions that a reasonable person must come to if God truly is the Giver.
First, notice that he talks about the issue of design. He does this in verses 24 and 29. If God has made us, then we cannot make God. If God has created all things, then how could we build a temple to contain him? If God designed mankind, then how could the Athenians design something like an idol to somehow embody him?
The second implication of God being the Giver of life has to do with dependence. Verse 25: nor is [God] served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.
One of the times I was in India, I remember watching a Hindu priest perform what’s called “puja” for a large idol in a temple. This “puja” or worship ritual could mean feeding the deity, clothing the deity, washing the deity’s head or feet. It was almost as if this so-called god needed this priest to care for him.
Paul states emphatically here that the true God needs nothing from us. He did not make us because He was lonely. He didn’t create us because He somehow needed us. We depend on Him. It’s not the other way around.
Finally, Paul talks with them about the issue of direction. For the Epicureans, their direction was focused on the pursuit of pleasure. But in verses 26, 27, Paul tells us that God has taken care of all the families of the earth in order that their direction might be “Godward”, in order that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him.
The fact that they had a place to live and raise their children, the fact that they were able to be gainfully employed, the fact that they were able to be nourished by the earth, the fact that this world is so very hospitable, so conducive for human life, all of it should point all of us—God wants it to point all of us—to the fact that it is He who is taking care of us.
How do you react to a gift like this, the gift of life? There are not many things you can say this about, but I know beyond the shadow of a doubt, that every single one of us has received this gift. How do you react to this revelation?
While there are, of course, some who think that life is just an accident, I think many people acknowledge that life is a gift, but they seem convinced that we really can’t know much about the Giver.
Others might also acknowledge that life is a gift, but practically, they live as if to say, “Whoever gave me this gift doesn’t care what I do with it.” The Epicureans might have said the same thing.
Still other might recognize that life is a gift, and they might even say “thank you” to God in some way, but that’s where it ends.
But a mere “thank you” for the gift of life will simply not work, because gratitude in this instance is bound up with all the implications of worship
So what reaction does Paul tell the Athenian philosophers is appropriate in this circumstance? Well, surprisingly, what Paul calls these men to do is not give thanks to God (even though he would see that as perfectly appropriate); no, he calls them to repent. The appropriate reaction ot recognizing that God is the giver of life is repentance.
In Greek, this word repentance literally means to “change one’s mind”; it means to reverse one’s course in terms of how you look at things.
So why is repentance the prescribed response when we recognize the gift of life? Well, remember why Paul is saying what he’s saying in the way he’s saying it. This speech is not Paul’s typical message that he would share with the Jews. No, Paul’s message here is shaped by the reality of the Greeks’ idolatry.
And idolatry always betrays the fact that in our thinking the order is me and then God, and not what Paul has been saying here, that it’s God, and then us. When the order is me, and then God, God becomes shaped according to my design, doesn’t He? This fact was loud and clear in an idol-infested city like Athens.
Do you think Paul would have the exact same reaction if he were standing in Times Square in New York surrounded by so many modern idols?
In the same way, when the order is me, and then God, God becomes dependent on my existence, as if God himself only existed to meet my needs, as if the universe revolved around me. Sometime we talk about the love of God this way. We say that the cross shows us that we are the most important thing in the universe to God, that God would rather die than live without us.
But in saying such things, were getting dangerously close to that order of idolatry: me, and then God. No God has loved us because he delights in bringing us back to the one thing that is most important to God: Himself.
And when that order is confused, when it’s me, and then God, the direction of our life quite naturally becomes me-ward, not Godward. The Epicureans received the gift of life and made the gift and end in itself. Life, for them, was simply about enjoying life. The Stoics on the other hand took the gift of life and became me-ward by making human reason an idol.
How many of us today receive the gift of life and then ignore the Giver because we are focused on ourselves? Can you imagine some undeserving person receiving an incredible gift for Christmas and then simply ignoring the person who gave it to them?
But isn’t that where all of us are? Isn’t that how all of us are tempted?
Remember verse 30: The times of ignorance [or we could say ignore-ance] God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent,
You see, the Athenians might have been the most overt city when it came to idolatry, but all of us, “all people everywhere” are guilty of not honoring God as God, of not seeking the Giver of life with a heart of grateful worship.
How should we react to such a gift? We need to reverse course in regard to our perspective. We need to confess that we have not truly recognized that God is the giver of life. We need to confess that we have too often made God according to our image and that we have made Him to serve our me-ward-ness.
AND we need to embrace the reality that the gift of life that all of us enjoy should be seen as an undeniable invitation to seek God.
The very fact that Paul was able to stand in Athens and converse with the Athenians meant that God had mercifully overlooked their idolatry by not judging them earlier. But everything was different now. Why? Well, as Paul states in verse 31:
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.”
We know that this man that God has appointed is Jesus. We don’t often think about this implication of Jesus’ resurrection. In many cases, when we think about Jesus rising from the dead, we think only of what that means in terms of eternal life, of our resurrection, of the victory over death that we can know. And all of that is true.
But here, Paul states that the resurrection of Jesus confirms the fact that God has made him the judge over all of us.
Everything is different now. There is day of reckoning coming. But right now, God wants you to know that He is the Giver, He wants us to remember that He has given us the gift of life. And He wants to remind us of this in order that [we] should seek God, in the hope that [we] might feel [our] way toward him and find him.
I think it’s fair to say that those who responded to Paul’s message, Dionysus and Damaris and several others, that all of these had been reaching for God. However he did it, God had revealed himself to them as the Giver in such a way that they were seeking. And as Paul spoke, they found what they were looking for.
And as Paul shared with them what he was sharing in the marketplace about Jesus and the resurrection, they came to know the joy of experiencing the Giver and not just his gift of life.
How do you react to such a gift, to this gift of life?