“And [God] made of one every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed seasons, and the bounds of their habitation; that they should seek God, if haply they might feel after him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us: ‘for in him we live, and move, and have our being’; as certain even of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also his offspring'” (Acts 17:26-28).
Paul has quite the challenge before him: to explain to pagans obsessed with philosophy the nature of the God of Israel, the One True God, and Jesus His Son. In order to have any level of success, Paul must persuade his audience to look at God differently than they had in the past. There were not a multiplicity of gods who were represented by statues, needing the service of men (cf. Acts 17:22-25). In a brilliant and yet ironic move, Paul speaks regarding the nature of the One True God by quoting a Greek, most likely Epimenides of Crete: in God “we live and move and have our being.” As Aratus said in the Phainomena, “we are His offspring.” God, therefore, is not an image in the likeness of man or animal. God is something quite different. God is the Creator of the earth and all that is in it, and, in truth, God is not far from any of us (Acts 17:26-27).
This is a lesson that needs to be proclaimed again today, for even though people may not think of the pagan deities when they think about “God” anymore, people’s view of God and the way God really is remains different.
Think for a moment about how you consider God. The thinking of the past two hundred years have led many people to think of God as distant and remote. In such a view, perhaps God did create everything– but ever since He has stayed away. Many religious people– many who believe in Jesus– will grant that God actively and personally worked throughout the early part of human history, even within the first century of our era. But ever since God has kept His distance, in a sense. The image of God in the parable of the talents has been taken quite literally– God has gone on a far journey, and we are on our own until He decides to return, and then comes the judgment (cf. Matthew 25:14-30).
This image of God reigns supreme in societal thinking. God, especially the God revealed in the Bible, is portrayed as an old man “up there,” distant and remote. If He does have anything to do with His creation, it involves condemnation and chastisement for wickedness. To not a few, Gary Larson’s portrayal of God sitting at His computer, ready to hit the “smite” button and kill a young man with a falling piano, is not too far off the mark.
Paul would not recognize such a God– neither would any Israelite or Christian of the first century. That might be some pagan view of God, but it is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is not the God who sent Jesus His Son into the world.
The One True God is not distant and remote. Yes, we must seek after Him, but, as Paul says, He is not far from us. We exist in Him. We live and move in Him. We cannot understand this in a concretely physical sense, but it also cannot be seen as true in some remote spiritual context. It is true in a very near spiritual context. When Jesus says, “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them,” in Matthew 18:20, He is talking about a spiritual presence, but a presence that is “present” nonetheless!
The Israelites did not waver in their belief that God was with them; all they had to do was look toward the Tabernacle or the Temple and see the cloud of the Presence and understand that God was there (cf. Exodus 40:34). This same imagery is used to describe the people of God today– Christians (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:16-17, 6:19-20). If believers, individually and corporately, are the Temple, then God’s presence must be with them, as the Scriptures indeed attest. The same is established in Romans 8:9-11. The message of the New Testament is unambiguous: if we are God’s people, then God is with us. This does not mean that a remote and distant spiritual figure far away in the heavens has accepted us. It means that the Creator of the universe is actively working with us and seeking to benefit us in ways we cannot imagine (cf. Romans 8:31-33, Ephesians 3:20-21). When the New Testament declares that Jesus is Lord, this is not to mean that we have a distant and remote ruler. It means that no matter how terrible it may seem on the surface, Jesus is really in control, and blessings will come to those who obey Him (cf. Revelation 12-19)!
There is much that is mysterious about the nature of God and His Presence. We know that God does not abrogate man’s will, and we understand that speaking of God’s presence in “literal,” “concrete,” or “physical” ways are misguided. Nevertheless, we should not allow the humanistic thinking over the past few hundred years to re-define the nature of God for us. Instead, we must understand who God is on the basis of what He has revealed. He is not far from us. He is not the distant and remote figure that our society has made Him out to be. Instead, in Him we live and move and have our being. If we are His people, His Presence is with us. Let us be thankful that our God is not remote, but is very much near, and praise His name!
Ethan R. Longhenry