Summary: Let us determine to know God and to worship him, not as some idol devised by our own natural preferences, not as many people configure him to be, but as “the book of nature” and the Holy Book together reveal him to be.
In the first one, the one from Acts, we have the Apostle Paul speaking to a group of Gentile skeptics who know nothing of the God revealed to us in Bible, and the incident takes place in Athens, the Greek city named after the pagan goddess Athena. In the second passage, the one from John, we find ourselves in the holy city, Jerusalem itself. And we have Jesus speaking to his own disciples, Jews, who had known the Scriptures since they were children. So, these two passages are very different.
But they are also very much alike. Both of them help us to understand the true nature of God. Both of them exalt Jesus Christ. And both of them reveal to us something of the work of the Holy Spirit. What I want us to do today is to look at each of these affirmations in turn.
First, we see, both in the Acts passage and in the account in John, something of the truth about God. In other words, we see God as he is, not as we imagine him to be, nor even as we may want him to be.
Acts 17 tells us that the Athenians “would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new” (v. 21). So they compelled Paul to go with them to the Areopagus, a huge rock formation in the shadow of the Acropolis. It was here that people would gather almost every day to debate philosophy and religion and metaphysics. You’ve heard the slogan, “Inquiring minds want to know.” And these people wanted to know. They wanted to hear what Paul had to say.
So, Paul used their request as an opportunity to tell them the truth about God. He started by saying, “I see how extremely religious you are in every way” (v. 22). And, apparently, they were. There were innumerable shrines and statues and monuments to gods and goddesses, and they were all over the place. Among them was an altar dedicated to “an unknown god.” Apparently, the Athenians didn’t want to overlook or risk offending any divine being that might possibly exist, for fear, perhaps, of inciting him or her to wrath.
So, Paul used their superstition as a starting place for introducing to them the one true God, “the Maker of heaven and earth.” He told them that “God made the world and everything in it,” that he is the “Lord of heaven and earth,” and that he “does not live in shrines made by human hands.” What we see Paul doing here is appealing to what the Reformed tradition calls “the book of nature” and what theologians have called general revelation. There are certain things that can be known about God simply by looking at the created order. Elsewhere, Paul says that God’s “eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made” (Rom. 1:20).
While general revelation can tell us that there is a God and can even tell us something of his power and majesty, it cannot tell us how to come into a saving knowledge of him. That is reserved for what we call special revelation. Our Reformed forebears saw alongside “the book of nature” another book, the Book, the Bible. And it is in the Bible that we learn what God has done to save us.
So, if we turn to John 14, where Jesus is instructing his disciples, we see that salvation is the work of the triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is special revelation at work. Notice that all three Persons of the Trinity are mentioned in John 14:16. Jesus says there, “I” – and we recognize in this first person personal pronoun that the Second Person of the Trinity is speaking. “I will ask the Father” – there is the mention of the First Person of the Trinity. “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate,” and this Advocate, we learn in the next verse, is the Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity. Nature cannot tell you this about God. It can tell you many other things, but it cannot tell you this.
Nor can it tell you why this is important to know. And just why is it important to know? It is because in knowing this that we learn how God saves us. It is through “the Spirit of truth,” as he is called in verse 17. That is, salvation is accomplished by the Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity, as he applies to us the Word of truth, the testimony to what God has done in Jesus Christ to rescue us from sin.