I have been blogging about Paul’s sermon at Mars Hill (see here for part 1, 2, 3), and have marveled at the way he was able to communicate so effectively to a religiously and culturally diverse crowd. Paul was clearly aware of the diverse perspectives represented there, and he was savvy enough to preach in such a way that each group was able to uniquely interact with his message.
I haven’t reflected/meditated this much on a single passage of Scripture in a long time, and it’s been personally fulfilling. There is a lot to like and learn about this passage, but there are a couple of macro-themes within it that continue to capture my attention.
The first is the way that Paul assumes the person of Jesus Christ is the clearest means by which we can see an unseen God. The second is the way that Paul chooses specific attributes about Jesus Christ by which to build this platform for understanding God.
Listen to the way that Paul begins his sermon to this diverse group of people assembled at Mars Hill:
“Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship–and this is what I am going to proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth… he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.” (Acts 17.22-26)
Many commentators have noted the way in which Paul begins by first affirming their spiritual search. He observes that they are “in every way” religious, and also points to the presence of an altar with the inscription to “an unknown God.”
He seems to genuinely acknowledge the level of spiritual seeking that they are engaged with, and sees this as a positive thing. But then he makes a daring jump in the conversation. He says that the “unknown” God that they are searching for can actually be known. The invisible God that they long for for can actually be found.
What is the clearest way for them to see the unseen? What is the most straightforward way to name the unnamed? How do they move from abstract ideals to a concrete understanding of God?
Look at Jesus Christ.
That was Paul’s answer… that which he “proclaimed” to them. Paul had a deep conviction that if you wanted to see the fullness of God, the best way to do it was to look at Jesus.
He comes back to this theme a lot in the book of Colossians as well. Consider the weightiness of some of these descriptions from Paul:
“The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1.15-17)
“For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness.” (Colossians 2.9-10)
I love that first line: “The Son is the image of the invisible God…” Whenever Paul wanted to help someone (or even himself) see the “invisible” God, he would look to… Jesus. Paul had this deep conviction that everything on heaven and earth could be seen through… Jesus. The whole created cosmos had a center point in Paul’s worldview, and it was… Christ. If you want to experience the “fullness” of all that God is, then Christ is the one who brings us there.
Richard Rohr has such an eloquent ability to explain complicated ideas in a simple fashion, and he makes a great contribution on this topic. He points out that it is important to understand the significance of both names when we talk of “Jesus Christ.” “Jesus” was a common name (Joshua in Hebrew) and reminds us that Jesus was a historical figure – a real human being. “Christ,” on the other hand, means anointed or chosen. This reminds us that he is also eternal and divine.
I am going to come back to the Mars Hill sermon in the next post to examine some of the ways in which the attributes of Jesus Christ are explored by Paul the Apostle. But for today’s purposes, let’s reflect on the amazing possibility of being able to see an unseen God through Jesus Christ. I love this quote from Rohr, and will close with this:
“The full Gospel is so much bigger… Jesus is the historical figure, and Christ is the cosmic figure—and together they carry both the individual and history forward.Christ is eternal; Jesus is born in time. Jesus without Christ invariably becomes a time-bound and culturally bound religion that excludes much of humanity from Christ’s embrace. On the other end, Christ without Jesus would easily become an abstract metaphysics or a mere ideology without much personal engagement.”
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