Seek God While He May Be Found
“He [God] decreed the appointed times and the set limits of the dwelling of men, for them to seek God, if they might grope for him and really find him.”—Acts 17:26, 27.
1. How did Paul come to be an unknown man in an unknown city, leading to what result?
THE man was unknown in the city, and on his arrival the city was unknown to him. Looking around, he noticed an altar dedicated “To an Unknown God.” Would you like to be involved in worshiping a God whom you viewed as unknown? It was a most unsatisfactory situation, and that is doubtless how the apostle Paul felt after reaching Athens in the course of his second missionary tour, around 50 C.E. It happened that Paul’s Christian brothers had brought him from Beroea as far as Athens, and had left him there, in accord with his instructions. It was only after receiving heavenly direction that Paul had recently visited Macedonia, up north of Athens, and evidently he had never set foot in Athens before. Likely he knew it was a center of learning, also of religion. He was disturbed by this latter aspect, and “his spirit within him came to be irritated at beholding that the city was full of idols.” How did Paul react to the situation? How would you, if you were a Christian Jew, have reacted to it?—Acts 16:9, 10; 17:15, 16, 23.
2. In what way can that which is “unknown” be harmful, and how did Paul seek to overcome this?
2 That which is “unknown” has no clearly defined boundaries or “set limits.” This fact can result in much harm, easily leading to tragedy. Hence, if it is possible, this circumstance is something for us to overcome. Paul overcame that. He began to make himself and his mission known, and, at the same time, to make himself more familiar with the Athenians and their ways of thinking. “Consequently he began to reason in the synagogue with the Jews and the other people who worshiped God and every day in the marketplace with those who happened to be on hand.” (Acts 17:17) Probably his experience with the Jews there in Athens was not much different from what happened in other cities. But in the marketplace he contacted many who prided themselves on their interest in learning and philosophy. Since “all Athenians and the foreigners sojourning there would spend their leisure time at nothing but telling something or listening to something new,” could it be said they were seeking God within known religious boundaries? Hardly. Let us take a brief look at these who thronged the marketplace.—Acts 17:21.
3. What were the Epicureans and the Stoics noted for, and how is a similar attitude seen today?
3 The Epicureans are mentioned. They believed that gaining the greatest pleasure without the bad effects of overindulgence was the chief aim in life. Paul was “declaring the good news of Jesus and the resurrection,” which ran counter to their idea of “let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we are to die.” (Acts 17:18; 1 Cor. 15:32) The one boundary they sought to avoid crossing was anything that threatened to deny their pursuit and attainment of pleasure. No, they were not seeking the true God within the boundaries that He set. The Stoics are also mentioned. They did not believe in a personal God, but, rather, thought of an impersonal deity, from which the human soul emanated. To them, a life of virtue meant ‘following nature,’ since they believed that matter and energy were the elemental principles in the universe. They believed that fate governed human affairs. They, too, not being real truth seekers, were not ready to accept Paul’s God-given message. In passing, it is not difficult to see a close similarity between the tenets of the foregoing groups and the teachings of many today, with their priorities on materialism and love of pleasure. To them, whether they say so or not, “God is dead,” at least as far as their interest in sincerely seeking him, or even groping for him, is concerned.
4. Why was Paul taken to the Areopagus, and how would he view this?
4 The general attitude toward Paul was unfavorable. They “took to conversing with him controversially,” and called him, a “chatterer” and a “publisher of foreign deities.” They led him to the Areopagus, possibly so as to give him a trial hearing. Paul would be pleased for this opportunity to give a good witness, and we are glad that his speech on that occasion was recorded for our benefit. We will be interested to see how he tackled the problem of the “unknown” and the related question of boundaries. Imagine that we are there listening to him.—Acts 17:18-22.
5. (a) What is noteworthy in Paul’s opening remarks? (b) How does he tackle the problem of the “unknown”?
5 “Men of Athens, I behold that in all things you seem to be more given to the fear of the deities than others are. For instance, while passing along and carefully observing your objects of veneration I also found an altar on which had been inscribed ‘To an Unknown God.’ Therefore what you are unknowingly giving godly devotion to, this I am publishing to you.” (Acts 17:22, 23) How tactful these opening words! Nothing is said to antagonize the hearers or make them feel at variance with him. He chooses one of their own “objects of veneration,” and, as it were, joins them in contemplating this particular altar. Without stopping to question what kind of god the worshipers might have in mind, he starts to build a logical and persuasive argument, laying one solid fact of truth upon another. First, he gets away from the “unknown.” He does not bluntly say it is wrong, but simply says that he will publish, or expound, the one and only worthy object of godly devotion. Notice how he does this.
6. What truth does Paul establish concerning God’s purpose for man and his home?
6 He explains that God, the Creator of all things and Giver of life and breath, does not dwell in handmade temples, or need to be waited on by human hands. If this might give the impression that God was altogether beyond the reach of man, his next words give the true perspective. “And he [God] made out of one man every nation of men, to dwell upon the entire surface of the earth, and he decreed the appointed times and the set limits of the dwelling of men, for them to seek God, if they might grope for him and really find him, although, in fact, he is not far off from each one of us.” (Acts 17:24-27) Both science and the Bible attest to the fact that the entire human family can trace its origin to one man; this man, in turn, received his life and breath from God, his Creator. The interesting point is then made that the wide limit for man’s dwelling is “the entire surface of the earth.” This, of course, does not agree with the ambitious saying that the sky is the limit. Man might travel through the atmosphere and even probe as far as the moon, but he cannot permanently reside in either. He should be content to dwell within his God-given boundary.
7. When God issues a decree or anything similar, what is always implied?
7 What does Paul have in mind when he next says that God “decreed the appointed times and the set limits [literally, a ‘setting of the bounds’] of the dwelling of men, for them to seek God”? Notice that word “decreed.” When God, the Sovereign Lord, issues a decree or anything similar, such as an edict, law or command, then a theocratic boundary, fixed limit, or line of demarcation, is immediately established. This must always be so, for the issuing of such lays down and imposes certain requirements and obligations that must be observed. Obedience requires that you stay within the bounds thereof. Disobedience means that you are overstepping or violating those bounds or limits, hence becoming out of bounds, as we say, and perhaps guilty of invading the rights of others. A further examination of this in the light of the Scriptures will help us in seeking God, but first we inquire concerning these “appointed times” and “set limits of the dwelling of men.”
8. How did God’s promise to Abraham reveal certain limits or bounds?
8 Guided by God’s Word and spirit, Paul traces events following creation in order to show how the one true God had established certain limits or bounds, both in time and place. What are they? Though the first promise and prophecy was given in Eden, it was when God made the oathbound covenant with Abraham that we find the desired link, the first stepping-stone. Jehovah concluded the covenant with these words: “And by means of your seed all nations of the earth will certainly bless themselves due to the fact that you have listened to my voice.” (Gen. 22:18) This certainly shows that Abraham was not ‘unknowingly giving godly devotion to an Unknown God.’ Far otherwise! This likewise means that the nations could not successfully seek to bless themselves in ignorance according to their own ideas. Men can find God and get his blessing only in God’s appointed way. As Isaiah said: “Search for Jehovah, you people, while he may be found.” You must also search where he may be found, “while he proves to be near.” (Isa. 55:6) Are you, like Abraham, ready to listen responsively to God’s voice?
9. How did that promise work out, involving limits in both time and place?
9 Now see how God’s promise worked out, with limits both in time and place. Concerning Abraham’s seed, God said: “You may know for sure that your seed will become an alien resident in a land not theirs . . . for four hundred years. . . . But in the fourth generation they will return here.” Jehovah went on to promise: “To your seed I will give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.” On time, after that four-hundred-year period, when the Israelites, Abraham’s descendants, were receiving the Law at Mount Sinai, Jehovah specifically promised: “I will fix your boundary from the Red Sea to the sea of the Philistines and from the wilderness to the River.” On the other hand, when journeying in the wilderness, the Israelites were warned not to violate the boundaries of other nations, such as Moab and Ammon. This leads us to appreciate how appropriate were the words of Moses’ song at Deuteronomy 32:8: “When the Most High gave the nations an inheritance, . . . he proceeded to fix the boundary of the peoples with regard for the number of the sons of Israel.”—Gen. 15:13-21; Ex. 23:31; Deut. 2:4, 5, 18, 19.
10. (a) For what purpose did God establish “appointed times” and “set limits”? (b) based on this, what further argument and warning were then given?
10 We can now better understand what Paul had in mind regarding the “appointed times” and “set limits of the dwelling of men.” To what end did God decree such? More often than not, men set up boundaries, such as a high wall, to keep out those who are unknown and unwanted. But in this instance we have a delightful contrast. Paul says that their purpose is to act as helpful signposts or guidelines for men “to seek God . . . and really find him, although, in fact, he is not far off from each one of us.” This is backed up by the reminder that man is dependent on God for life and movement, “even as certain ones of the poets among you have said, ‘For we are also his progeny.’” Then Paul gives warning against being misguided by idolatry, a form of worship based on ignorance: “Seeing, therefore, that we are the progeny of God, we ought not to imagine that the Divine Being is . . . like something sculptured by the art and contrivance of man.” As we listen, we want to know what we are expected to do about this. Without delay, we are told: “True, God has overlooked the times of such ignorance, yet now he is telling mankind that they should all everywhere repent.”—Acts 17:27-30.
11. What was the climax of Paul’s argument, involving what theocratic boundaries?
11 The apostle quickly reaches the climax of his argument, at least as far as he is permitted to get. In a few words, he has reached right back to the start of creation, is now showing what God is telling men to do, then gives the reason for this by reaching into the future. Why the call to repentance? “Because he [God] has set a day in which he purposes to judge the inhabited earth in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and he has furnished a guarantee to all men in that he has resurrected him from the dead.” (Acts 17:31) Do you notice the theocratic boundaries, the set “day” and the appointed “man” who is guaranteed by God to render a righteous judgment, favorable to those sincerely seeking him? These set time bounds speak of greater things than the “set limits of the dwelling of men” as earlier mentioned at Acts 17:26. Desiring a favorable judgment, we today need to get a clear view of the line of demarcation between obedience and disobedience toward God, between right and wrong. Do not draw this line yourself. As we shall see, it requires more care than is generally recognized, involving the heart as well as the mind.
12, 13. (a) The mention of a resurrection produced what general effect, but with what exceptions? (b) In what way can we expect to profit by looking back?
12 Paul’s mention of a resurrection from the dead was too much for most of the listeners. “Some began to mock, while others said: ‘We will hear you about this even another time.’” However, the fine witness that Paul gave was not entirely fruitless. “Some men joined themselves to him and became believers, among whom also were Dionysius, a judge of the court of the Areopagus, and a woman named Damaris, and others besides them.” We rejoice to know that some listened responsively and proved obedient.—Acts 17:32-34.
13 Paul had to be brief on that occasion. For ourselves, however, not being under such immediate pressure of today, we will find it worth our while to look back and see how and why the need arose before Paul’s day for seeking God, how that need has been met, and what obligations rest upon us.
HOW AND WHY THE SEARCH BEGAN
14. (a) The fact that Jehovah had to search for man implied what? (b) How did Adam reveal a troubled conscience, but was there any evidence of real repentance?
14 In the Bible it is surprising to find that the first mention of searching is not a searching on the part of man in seeking God, but the reverse. We read at Genesis 3:9: “And Jehovah God kept calling to the man and saying to him [repeatedly]: ‘Where are you?’” What an amazing situation! Had something gone wrong? Yes, a wrong action had occurred, as a result of which, when Adam and his wife “heard the voice of Jehovah God walking in the garden . . . [they] went into hiding from the face of Jehovah God in between the trees of the garden.” When we try to hide from the face of someone, it is often due to a troubled conscience, causing fear and shame. You know the feeling. Adam felt that way when he replied to God: “Your voice I heard in the garden, but I was afraid because I was naked and so I hid myself.” Feeling afraid and wanting to hide is one thing, but feeling repentant and seeking to restore a good relationship is quite another thing. At no time was there any indication of the latter on the part of Adam or his wife. Of course, they bitterly regretted the result of their action, but there was no expression of regret or shame over the action itself. What was their wrong action?—Gen. 3:8, 10.
15. How did God’s command at Genesis 2:16, 17 set up a boundary, both literally and morally?
15 Both Adam and his wife had overstepped certain theocratic boundaries, literally and figuratively, or morally. They were also guilty of invading the rights of others. When God first put Adam in Eden, he did not just invite Adam to eat freely from every tree except one. Rather, we read that God “laid this command upon the man: ‘From every tree of the garden you may eat to satisfaction. But as for the tree of the knowledge of good and bad you must not eat from it, for in the day you eat from it you will positively die.’” Twice afterward God spoke of it as a command (Gen. 2:16, 17; 3:11, 17) Interestingly, when Satan, through the serpent, questioned Eve about this command, neither of them spoke of it as a command, but simply as something that God had said. (Gen. 3:1, 3) However, as previously mentioned, a command always creates one or more boundaries. In this case, the “tree of the knowledge of good and bad” was literally out of bounds for Adam and Eve. They were not to eat its fruit or even to touch it. But it was not out of reach physically; hence, there was raised the all-important moral boundary. The command of God imposed a test of their obedience.
16. With Eve, what caused a violation of a moral boundary, leading to what further error?
16 Listening responsively to the serpent led to violation of the moral boundary. “The woman saw that the tree . . . was something to be longed for to the eyes, yes, the tree was desirable to look upon.” Longings and desires spring from the heart. Though she had just repeated God’s command, she allowed false information to be fed into her heart through her mind. She was deceived into thinking that she herself could draw the line of demarcation, “knowing good and bad” for herself. Is that not what most people do in life, setting up their own standards of right and wrong, or accepting the standards of others? Is that perhaps what you have done, with encouragement from others apart from God, believing that sincerity is a sufficient guide?—Gen. 3:5, 6.
17. How was this followed by a violation of the literal boundary, also an invasion of the rights of others?
17 Eve having violated the moral boundary in wrongfully desiring and deciding to eat the forbidden fruit, there quickly followed the violation of the literal boundary. She “began taking of its fruit and eating it. Afterward she gave some also to her husband when with her and he began eating it.” (Gen. 3:6) Overstepping a boundary often means an invasion of the rights of others. In this instance, first Eve invaded the rights of her husband respecting headship, taking the initiative into her own hands. More important, they both invaded the rights of Jehovah God by deciding on their own course in the act and spirit of disobedience. They deliberately stepped out of line. That is, they willfully ignored God’s line of demarcation between what was permissible to eat and what was not, and drew their own. With what result?
18. (a) How did God safeguard his rights? (b) To what extent has mankind been affected by Adam’s disobedience, raising what questions?
18 After God’s judgment had been pronounced, Adam and his wife were expelled from their garden home. A return to it was made impossible. Jehovah “drove the man out and posted at the east of the garden of Eden the cherubs and the flaming blade of a sword that was turning itself continually to guard the way to the tree of life.” (Gen. 3:24) This was a forbidding boundary mark; an impenetrable barrier for them. Worse, they were banished from Jehovah’s face and presence. As children of Adam, all of us, “made out of one man,” are greatly affected thereby. Due to inherited sin and imperfection, not to mention the ‘times of ignorance’ in which we live, we are estranged from God. (Acts 17:26, 30) Granted, there is much religion practiced among men estranged from God. There are many religions, and many persons are satisfied with their particular religion. They decide for themselves between good and bad in matters of religion or where there is a moral issue to be considered. Do you do that? And does this mean there is no hope in existence? Is seeking for the true God and for the true religion all in vain? Can the search be ended successfully for us? See what happened after man’s expulsion from Eden, and the encouragement that can be gained therefrom.
HOW THE SEARCH CAN BE ENDED
19. What contrast is seen between Adam’s first two sons, and how did Cain’s course turn out?
19 Adam’s first two sons, by way of contrast, provide much that will help us in our search. They each brought an offering to Jehovah, but, as events showed, each with a different motive. Cain’s offering of “some fruits of the ground” was perhaps only a formality, not to be outdone by his younger brother, Abel, who brought a choice offering of “some firstlings of his flock, even their fatty pieces.” By some means not disclosed, Jehovah showed favor toward Abel and his offering, but “he did not look with any favor upon Cain and upon his offering.” Hence, Cain became “hot with great anger.” Then Jehovah kindly warned him: “If you turn to doing good, will there not be an exaltation? But if you do not turn to doing good, there is sin crouching at the entrance, and for you is its craving; and will you, for your part, get the mastery over it?” This reveals that Cain had already been acting in a bad way, evidently seeking an “exaltation” in a selfish, headstrong spirit. He was perilously near to crossing the border of self-control. He did cross it, and became the first murderer. He “went away from the face of Jehovah and took up residence in the land of Fugitiveness,” the land of flight from justice.—Gen. 4:3-16.
20. In what way could Abel build up a strong faith, coupled with what other fine qualities?
20 When we look at Abel, what a happy contrast! God in some way showed favor toward him. Abel was fully aware of this. Paul emphasizes this, saying that “by faith Abel offered God a sacrifice of greater worth than Cain, through which faith he had witness borne to him that he was righteous, God bearing witness respecting his gifts; and through it he, although he died, yet speaks.” (Heb. 11:4) Abel’s faith had a good foundation. He no doubt had been given a detailed description of Jehovah’s bountiful provisions enjoyed in the Garden of Eden. He surely knew how Jehovah had spoken to Adam like a father speaking to his son. He was familiar with the Edenic promise and prophecy of Jehovah God concerning the bruising of the serpent’s head, and had a sure hope of its fulfillment, though not knowing exactly when or how. Besides faith and hope, he had that other quality that is preeminent. He cultivated true love for Jehovah, coupled with a strong sense of loyalty and appreciation, strong enough to overcome the bad influence and example of his parents and elder brother.—Gen. 3:15; 1 Cor. 13:13.
21. What encouragement can we get from considering Abel?
21 For Abel, with the evidence of Jehovah’s blessing upon him, the search for the true God was ended. He did not need to seek God, except in the sense of always seeking to retain His favor by right conduct in the spirit of true obedience from the heart. What was possible for Abel is possible for you. We will look forward with confidence to searching into God’s Word for further guidance and encouragement. Keep in mind the way that Jehovah helped Abel, and, we might say, even offered a helping hand to Cain.
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The apostle Paul, speaking to the Athenians on the Areopagus encouraged them to seek the true God
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When God created Adam and Eve, He gave to mankind “the entire surface of the earth” for their habitation
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Eve violated the divinely set boundary by eating the forbidden fruit