Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Knowledge of God, Pressing the Antithesis: Acts 17

The Knowledge of God

Pressing the Antithesis

Acts 17:22-34, “The Covenant Lawsuit”


Now that we have discussed the Bible’s view of metaphysics and epistemology, we can finally move on to the application of our worldview to the realm of apologetics and evangelism. In Acts 17, we shall see how Paul defended the faith and evangelized those who didn’t share his worldview. Did he start by trying to build commonalities between the two respective worldviews, or did he assert his own worldview in contradistinction to the pagan one from the outset of his speech?

Acts 17:22-34, “The Covenant Lawsuit”


While on his second missionary journey, Paul traveled to Athens and was disgusted by the extreme idolatry (Acts 17:16). Spurred on by the desire to preach the good news of the one true God, Paul starts witnessing to those in the marketplace (v.17). Present among the philosophers in the city of philosophy itself were the Epicureans and the Stoics who frequented the market place to gather followers and set up debates. As they listened to Paul speaking about “Jesus and the resurrection”, they were confused at the “deities” he was proclaiming, probably assuming that Paul was promoting the worship of a male/female deity pair, Iesous and ‘Anastasis’ (v.18)!1 Curious as to what new religion had been brought to Athens that day, they invited him to the Areopagus2 to tell them of his new religion (v.19-21). It was here that Paul proclaimed God’s covenant lawsuit against the world of unbelief.

Short Excursus: The Covenant Lawsuit

A covenant lawsuit was an ancient near-eastern diplomatic announcement from a ruling king to a rebellious vassal king or governor. It was the declaration to cease their rebellious ways and return to being faithful to the covenant that that vassal made with the suzerain king. The process sometimes included the following:

1.) The Ambassador’s Proclamation: The ruling king, or ‘suzerain’, sends ambassadors to the vassal to proclaim the lawsuit.

2.) The Covenant History: The vassal is reminded of the covenant history. He is told of who the suzerain is and his relation to him.

3.) The Covenant Rights: By naming the stipulations, the ambassador can now remind the vassal of the suzerain’s right to be obeyed.

4.) The Conviction: The transgressions of the vassal are enumerated showing that he is breaking the covenant.

5.) The Call to Repentance: The ambassador admonishes the vassal to change his ways.

6.) The Consequences: The vassal is told of the consequences if he does not recant. This would mean a declaration of war and an invasion that would take place at an unknown time, likely when the rebellious vassal least expects it.

7.) The Proof: Sometimes proof is given that the suzerain will be faithful to carry out his threat. The proof given by the suzerain was sometimes to remind the covenant breaker of the fate of the last rebellious vassal.

There are numerous examples of God giving covenant lawsuits via His ambassadors, the prophets, throughout the Old Testament (Isaiah 41, Hosea 4, Amos 2:6-3:15, etc.) and the New Testament (Matthew 11:20-24, 21:33-44, Acts 2:14-40, and of course, 17:23-31).


Verse 22

“So Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, ‘Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects.’” (Acts 17:22)

Amidst their many idols, Paul tells the Athenians that they are very ‘religious’. Actually, the word used here in Greek is ‘deisidaimonesterous’, the longest Greek word in the New Testament. It really means ‘superstitious’ and was the contemptuous word used by the Greeks to describe ‘Barbarian’ cults and religions. If Paul is trying to build common ground between the pagan Greek worldview and his, he got off to a bad start.

Verse 23: The Ambassador’s Proclamation

“For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.” (Acts 17:23)

The Greeks believed that the gods would come down to earth occasionally, and the places where they touched down would be considered sacred ground.3 There were various occult tricks used to supposedly determine these places so as to place a shrine and/or altar there. Sometimes the deities that came there were not known, and so, fearful not to offend this deity, an inscription of ‘To an Unknown God’ was placed on the altar. Several of these places were found in Athens, and the Greeks were careful to sacrifice on these altars so as not to bring the god’s disfavor upon them.

The sentence, “Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you”, should not be thought of as saying that, in spite of their idol worship, they are really worshipping the true God by sacrificing on that altar. It should be taken as, “Contrary to what you worship in ignorance, I now proclaim this different God to you…” Unlike their unknown deities, Paul’s God could be known and, in fact, was and is known by all men since He is everywhere present and makes Himself evident to them (Romans 1:19). Thus, Paul begins to proclaim God’s covenant lawsuit against them…

Verses 24-26: The Covenant History

“The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things; and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation…” (Acts 17:24-26)

We’ll take this one verse at a time:


Paul proclaims that his personal God made the entire cosmos out of nothing and rules over it (John 1:3, Romans 4:17, Hebrews 11:3, Revelation 4:11, etc.). This is in direct contradistinction to the pagan Greek worldview which considered the impersonal cosmos itself to be self-existent, eternal, and the origin of all beings including the gods.

Paul continues by saying that, because God is the Lord of heaven and earth, He cannot be contained by human temples. He is omnipresent in His creation (1 Kings 8:27, Psalm 139:7-12, Jeremiah 23:24). This is in contrast to the pagan gods who were finite and sometimes bound to a certain city or nation.


Unlike the gods of the heathen whose power was somewhat dependent upon men’s sacrifices, God does not need anything from man since He self-exists (Exodus 3:13-15, Isaiah 41:4, 44:6-7, 48:12, John 1:1-3, John 5:26, 1 Corinthians 8:6, Colossians 1:16-17) and in fact, gives life to all men (Nehemiah 9:6, Romans 11:36, 1 Corinthians 8:6, Colossians 1:16-17, etc.).


All the nations of men on earth descend from a common ancestor (no, not an ape!) created by God (Genesis 3:20). In contrast, some pagan mythologies have each race of men made separately such that each is viewed as a separate animal.

Also, not only did He create this man in the beginning, He continues to rule over the nations and appoints the times and places of their rise and fall (Joshua 11:20, 2 Samuel 24:1, Proverbs 16:9-10, 21:1, Isaiah 10:5-7, 46:9-10, Lamentations 3:37-39, Daniel 4:34-35, Habakkuk 2:12-13, Romans 11:7-10, Ephesians 1:10-11, etc.). This was unlike the pagan gods who, especially according to the Epicureans in Paul’s audience, believed that the gods were disinterested in mankind’s affairs and certainly didn’t have complete control over history. Instead, the pagan view of history was such that whatever happened occurred as the result of the eternal exchange between the impersonal principles of chaos and order, resulting in a pointless, cyclical, and fatalistic4 history.

Being the creations of God living in His cosmos and given life by Him, all men are bound to Him covenantally. It was that way from the beginning (Genesis 2:15-17) and is that way for every descendent of Adam (Romans 5:12-21).

Verses 27-28: The Conviction

“…that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children.’” (Acts 17:27-28)

Even though God is immanent in His creation5 and makes Himself known to His creatures by what has been made such that they are without excuse (Romans 1:19-20), these very men suppress this knowledge and exchange it for a lie (Romans 1:18, 21-32). They walk around in darkness (John 1:5, 3:19, 8:12, 12:35, 46, 1 John 2:11), constantly groping around in their self-induced ignorance (Romans 1:21-22, Ephesians 4:17-19).

Paul then quotes two pagan poets, Epimenides and Arastus. Some commentators have said that Paul was quoting these two poets favorably as if they, with their philosophical reason, got close to the truth. Nothing could be further from the case. The quotes from Epimenides and Arastus are attributed to Zeus! Instead, Paul is quoting them to show that man takes the truth about God and exchanges it for a lie by attributing it to falsehood (Romans 1:25). In other words, the poet-philosophers quoted here got it extremely wrong! Paul is here convicting these men that they are suppressing the truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18).

Verse 29: The Covenant Rights

“Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man.” (Acts 17:29)

Because God is the Creator, Sustainer, and Ruler of all things, idols, created in man’s mind and formed by the work of his hands do not deserve to be worshipped. Rather than shunning His light, YHWH alone deserves the adoration of mankind. The idolatry of sinful men ignores and turns from the duty to worship the one true God.

Verse 30: The Call to Repentance

“Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent,” (Acts 17:30)

Up until this new aeon, or age, God let the nations go their own way, not bringing a final end to their idolatry (Psalm 147:19-20, Acts 14:16-17). But now, the time of reckoning has been inaugurated and sinful man is called to repentance so that he can escape the consequences of the covenant lawsuit at the consummation of this eschatological aeon (Matthew 13:36-43).6

Verse 31: The Consequences

“…because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed…” (Acts 17:31)

The consequence of not repenting will be the verdict of ‘guilty’ at the eschatological judgment. This judgment will come on a fixed day not specified by the suzerain, a day which the rebellious vassals least expect:

  • “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone. For the coming of the Son of Man will be just like the days of Noah. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and they did not understand until the flood came and took them all away; so will the coming of the Son of Man be.” (Matthew 24:36-39)

  • “Be on the alert then, for you do not know the day nor the hour.” (Matthew 25:13)

  • “For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night. While they are saying, ‘Peace and safety!’ then destruction will come upon them suddenly like labor pains upon a woman with child, and they will not escape.” (1 Thessalonians 5:2-3)

  • “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up.” (2 Peter 3:10)

  • “So remember what you have received and heard; and keep it, and repent. Therefore if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you.” (Revelation 3:3)

  • (Matthew 24:27, 24:44, Revelation 16:15)

The Last Day of final reckoning greatly widens the gap between the Greeks’ worldview and Paul’s. In the Greek worldview, history went in endless circles7 without beginning or end due to the eternal clash between chaos and order. In Paul’s worldview, however, the seeming cycles of history occur due to the tension between man’s ingenuity (due to being made in the image of God) and man’s sinfulness. Instead of endless cycles, Paul’s view of history was the linear history foreordained by the sovereign God with a creational beginning out of nothing and a consummating finish which will put an end to immorality8, death, and suffering, ushering in an eternity of peace.

Verse 31: The Proof

…having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.” (Acts 17:31)

The resurrection wasn’t ‘proof’ in the sense that it gave evidence that Christ’s warnings of judgment were trustworthy. Rather, the death and resurrection of Christ was proof of the Final Judgment in that it was the Judgment. The cross of Christ was the outpouring of God’s wrath which would have been given to believers on the Last Day but was poured out on Christ instead. Paul could say that he knew the Day of Judgment was inevitable because it has already begun.9 The resurrection of Christ was the Judgment Day verdict of ‘righteous’ because he was the obedient Son, making Him fit to be the judge of all the earth10:

  • “But God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power…Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ--this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:24)

  • “God raised Him up on the third day…And He ordered us to preach to the people, and solemnly to testify that this is the One who has been appointed by God as Judge of the living and the dead.” (Acts 10:40, 42)

  • “…who was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord,” (Romans 1:4)

  • “Now not for his sake only was it written that it was credited to him, but for our sake also, to whom it will be credited, as those who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, He who was delivered over because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification.” (Romans 4:23-25)

We should note that Paul binds up the event of the resurrection of the Son of God with the revelatory explanation found in Scripture. Here and throughout the New Testament, the act of the resurrection is never artificially removed from the meaning of it given by the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament apostles. To quote one author:

“At no point does Paul entertain Christ’s resurrection as a brute fact, that is, as a fact that exists independent of God’s eternal decree and revelation in history. To argue for the fact of the resurrection is to presuppose its meaning, and to argue for the meaning of the resurrection is to presuppose its factuality. But the point is that the argument Paul presents regarding the resurrection of Christ from the dead presupposes both its fact and its meaning as a covenantal and eschatological event.”11

This stands in stark contrast with those in our own day who, desiring to please those who don’t believe in Biblical inerrancy, think that they can prove the validity of the Christian faith by appealing to the factuality of the resurrection without appealing to God’s inerrant Word. As our exegesis of this text shows, this is folly. Even the Epicureans in Paul’s audience could have believed in the resurrection of Christ without believing in Christianity by saying that the resurrection was the result of an adjustment in the falling of individual atoms. Even some atheists in modern times (though few in number) believe in the resurrection of Christ but still hold to their atheism since they provide an explanation compatible with their atheistic metaphysic. Presenting the resurrection as a brute fact without the theological explanation given in God’s inerrant Word will simply allow the unbeliever to interpret it through the lens of their own worldview and end with their own worldview. Instead of converting, they would simply consign the resurrection to a section in Ripley’s “Believe It or Not.” The resurrection of Christ only maintains its convicting power over unbelievers when it is combined with the meaning given to it by Scripture.

Verses 32-34

“Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some began to sneer, but others said, ‘We shall hear you again concerning this.’ So Paul went out of their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.” (Acts 17:32-34)

The bodily resurrection from the dead as a good thing was anathema to the pagan Greek worldview. Matter was something to overcome and be rid of. The spirit without a body was thought to be ‘enlightened’, ascending a step in the chain of being, thus the scoffing from the Greeks. All in all, from the beginning to the end of Paul’s sermon, Paul is not building commonalities between worldviews but pressing the antithesis by attacking the opposing worldview and giving his own in place of the other.

Summary and Conclusion

Summary of Apologetic Method

1.) Ambassadors: As children of the New Covenant, we are ambassadors for Christ to a world in darkness:

  • “…Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for His name’s sake,” (Romans 1:4-5)

  • For we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one an aroma from death to death, to the other an aroma from life to life. And who is adequate for these things?” (2 Corinthians 2:15-16)

  • “Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (2 Corinthians 5:18-20)

  • “…the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that in proclaiming it I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak.” (Ephesians 6:19-20)

2.) The Covenant Lawsuit: As such, we are to proclaim God’s covenant lawsuit against man’s rebellion along with its gospel offer to escape the wrath of the Almighty.

3.) Reject the Wisdom of the World: We are always to remember that the unregenerate man’s mind is darkened and suppressing the intimate knowledge of God by exchanging it for a lie (Romans 1:18, 25). Because of this, that part of sinful man’s wisdom and epistemology, being autonomous, is utterly futile (Ephesians 4:17-19) and can never come to know God (1 Corinthians 1:21). Thus, the Christian is to reject all autonomous epistemologies, i.e. those epistemologies which assume the ultimacy of human categories instead of revealed ones.

4.) Pressing the Antithesis: Instead, we are to press the antithesis by starting with God’s revelation in Scripture (a revealed epistemology vs. an autonomous one). By using Scripture’s theory of knowledge instead of unregenerate man’s, the unbeliever cannot give his spin on the evidence by simply interpreting whatever fact he is given through the lens of his worldview.

5.) Conviction of Suppression: As with Paul citing the Greek philosopher-poets against their own worldview, we are to show that the unregenerate man is suppressing the truth of God and thus convict him of his sin. In short, we are “destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). This can be done, as we shall see in the philosophical sections, by showing that his worldview a.) leads to irrationality and/or b.) is arbitrary.

6.) Repent and Believe: We are to then leave it up to the Holy Spirit to work in their hearts in order to bring them to repentance:

“And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians 2:1-7)


This will end our exegetical section on apologetics. Now, we will move on to specific philosophical argumentation against false worldviews and epistemologies. I should note that it was necessary to complete an exegetical study of the Christian worldview before jumping into philosophical argumentation since one cannot have a theory of knowledge without a theory of reality.12 Hopefully, I have shown that Scripture teaches this very thing. Now, we shall move on to doing the very thing that Scripture commands: “destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God” and “taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).

[All Scripture quotes are from the NASB, emphasis mine.]


1 i.e. Jesus and ‘Resurrection’

2 i.e. The place in Athens where new religions and foreign deities were introduced.

3 This was a common practice/belief in the ancient world. Just read through Genesis and find how many times an altar was made when one had a vision of God.

4 I should note, here, that fatalism should be distinguished from Divine Providence since the former is impersonal and meaningless while the latter is personal and full of purpose. Secondly, in fatalism, the end is ordained despite your actions whereas in Providence, the end is ordained through the secondary means of your actions.

5 Again, this is contrary to the Epicureans’ view that divinities don’t care about the affairs of men and against the Stoics who had an elitist view of knowledge, namely that only philosophers had access to the divine reason.

6 “Paul means that before the inauguration of this semi-eschatological age, God had not brought a final or ultimate display of judgment against idolatry. To be sure, many provisional expressions of judgment appear in the old covenant, but nothing of truly eschatological significance appeared until ‘now.’…In other words, the appointed day of judgment, which brings a definitive verdict against those who worship idols in ignorance, looms imminent on the horizon of redemptive history. The times of ignorance in which God overlooked the sin of idolatry have given way to a period of impending, eschatological judgment.”

–Lane G. Tipton in Revelation and Reason, K. Scott Oliphint and Lane G. Tipton, eds., (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2007), p.47-48.

7 For example, the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, said, “Future generations will have nothing new to witness, even as our forefathers beheld nothing more than we of today, but that if a man comes to his fortieth year, and has any understanding at all, he has virtually seen – thanks to their similarity – all possible happenings, both past and to come” (Meditations 11.1). This is very similar to parts of Ecclesiastes when the writer is speaking from an autonomous and humanistic standpoint (Ecclesiastes 1:2-11). In the end, however, when he saw true wisdom by fearing God, his conclusion was to “fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14). When seen from the worldview of Biblical theism, history is seen as linear with an end in sight, and all things happen for God’s glory.

8 This was especially foreign to the Epicurean philosophers who believed that the gods were so far removed from the affairs of mankind that they didn’t care what men on earth did morally.

9 This is part of the already/not-yet or ‘inaugurated’ eschatology of Scripture. What is inaugurated now in part will be consummated in full at a later time.

10 Lane Tipton sums it up this way:

“[T]he judgment that will befall all covenant breakers at the end of the age has already befallen Christ at the beginning of the age. This implies that all who do not identify with the resurrected one by faith and repentance will bear personally the eternal judgment to be executed by him as judge at the end of the age, that is, at the end of ta nyn.

The hint of an implicit premise arises with the mention not of the resurrection per se, but of the resurrection of Christ “from the dead.” Christ’s resurrection from the dead assumes that he has faced the judgment of God, since, “just as it is appointed for men to die once and then comes judgment. So also Christ…” (Heb. 9:27-28). This means that for Christ the resurrection from the dead entails a previous encounter with the consummate judgment of God (v.27). Immediately before, in Hebrews 9:26, Christ is presented as a sacrifice for sins at the consummation of the ages. That is, the reality of eternal judgment befell Christ in his obedience and satisfaction. This point from Hebrews finds a close parallel in Paul’s argument in Acts 17:31: the eschatological judgment threatened there has already been applied to one man, Christ. As Ridderbos notes, ‘To Paul, the eschatological reality of the divine judgment and the divine acquittal are revealed in the cross and in the resurrection of Christ.’”

-Lane G. Tipton in Revelation and Reason, K. Scott Oliphint and Lane G. Tipton, eds., (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2007), p.51-52.

11 Lane G. Tipton in Revelation and Reason, K. Scott Oliphint and Lane G. Tipton, eds., (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2007), p.53.

12 Some say that a neutral epistemology will yield a correct view of reality. My point in these exegetical studies was to show that a.) there is no such thing as a neutral epistemology and b.) one’s theory of knowledge presupposes a theory of reality.

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