On Paul’s missionary journey, he came across some people who were worshipping God, but they did not know His name. Their poets wrote about Him, they had an altar dedicated to Him, and they even called themselves His children.
Paul didn’t say that they weren’t worshipping God; he said that they were worshipping the God of heaven in ignorance (Acts 17:23).
He then explained that the God of heaven, “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” (Acts 17:24-25).
Notice that Paul says that God not only gives life and breath to all people, but He also gives “all things.”
This reminded me of three passages:
But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.Matthew 5:44-45
And he said to him, ‘Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours.’Luke 15:31
So then let no one boast in men. For all things belong to you, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or things present or things to come; all things belong to you, and you belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to God.1 Corinthians 3:21-23
Paul goes on to say that God is not far from each one of us. He then quoted one of their poets and makes a surprising statement:
…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.’ 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 17:27-29
These people were worshipping God. They called themselves His children, which Paul affirmed. He even told them that God had given them life, breath, and all things. But, unlike Moses, nobody had told them who God is. Nobody had given them His name.
What was their condition before Paul found them? Had they died would they have gone to an eternal burning Hell? Would they have been lost? Let’s see what Paul says.
Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent.Acts 17:30
God had overlooked their ignorance! Hallelujah!
Now that Paul had showed them the true nature of God as revealed by Jesus, it was time to repent, but God had, up to that time, overlooked their ignorance.
Paul wrote in Romans 2:14, “For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves.”
Similarly, Jesus said in Matthew 25 that there would be people in the kingdom who served Jesus without even knowing it! They were serving an Anonymous God.
At the same time, He said, there would be people who thought they knew Jesus but didn’t take care of those in need. It turns out that just knowing His name doesn’t mean one knows Him. The name of Jesus is not a secret formula to have salvation as He explained in Matthew 7:21-23.
In that passage, Jesus covers two classifications of people in the context: those who hear the word and do it and those who do not do it. He doesn’t cover those who never heard.
God doesn’t judge people for what they have no way of knowing.
People all over the world have discerned that God exists. After all, if what Jesus said was true, then all that sunlight and rain came from somewhere, right?
The problem was that they did not know His name. But the God of Jesus is not so cruel as to condemn those who have no way of knowing Him. He is a God who overlooks the ignorance of His children. He is a God who reveals elements of His nature, but not His name, through His creation so that people can know Him.
While the expression “children of God” does refer most of the time to those in covenant, it is apparent from Paul’s use in Acts 17 that all are children of God in that all come from Him, and it is His desire that we all know Him. Do you discipline your children for doing things that they had no way of knowing were wrong? That’s a time of correction, a time to learn, not punishment.
He doesn’t want us to just know His name; He wants us to have a relationship with Him by emulating what He does for all in our own life: being generous, caring, and showing love to all, even our enemies. After all, that’s what Jesus said He does.
I wonder if Paul were to come through our churches if He would tell us about the God we think we know. “You’ve got the inscription right, but I’m not sure if you really know Him!”