The word of the day is “know.” In the Divine Liturgy, we profess that God, the Holy Trinity, is ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, ever-existing and eternally the same” (St-Tikhon’s 1984). But does that mean He is unknowable? About three in four Americans say that they are “convinced” that God exists. But that does not mean they know God or even care to know Him.
Today in Acts 17:19-28, we read of Paul’s speech to the philosophers at the Areopagus (Mars Hill) of Athens. To begin his argument, Paul points out an altar in the city with the inscription “To an Unknown God.” And he states, “Therefore, the One you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you” (OSB vs. 23). Today we consider from Paul’s sermon what it means to know God and further that He is known in a personal relationship with Christ, who reveals Him. We close with the thought that to grow in our knowledge of God, we need to remain rooted in the place where the Lord has planted us.
Superstition Erects and Altar to an Unknown Deity
When Paul arrived in Athens, the profusion of the idols in the city aggravated him. When some Greek philosophers invited him to speak to them, he began, “I perceive that in all things you are very religious” (OSB vs. 22). Their superstition was so great that they wanted to ensure that they did not anger any god because they did not know of this deity. Paul takes the opportunity to introduce the One True God known in Jesus Christ and His resurrection.
Paul’s argument is that God so made humans that they would seek him, that is, try to find him or desire Him (Strong’s #2212, 169). But Luke adds that they might “grope” for Him (OSB vs. 27). The Greek term comes from the sense of “manipulating by contact” and develops into the idea of feeling for or fumbling for something (Strong’s #5584, 275). In other words, human beings are like persons without sight who feel around in the dark for a lost object.
God is Near Us His Offspring
Though humans rummage around for God, Paul says that even your poets know that He is near to everyone everywhere. St. John Chrysostom puts it, “He so ordered things, that neither by place nor by time were men hindered” (NfPf:1.11, 236). Thus the poets have said, “In Him, we live, and move and have our being” (OSF vs. 28). Using a material metaphor, Chrysostom says that God is like the air, “diffused on every side around us” (NfPf1:11, 236). Thus, the preacher says, God shows His providence and power in every time and place. In Him, all things have their existence and their “working” (energhein), that is, their operation or activity (Strong’s #1753, 88). And from Him, all things are preserved and “do not perish” (NfPf1.11, 236).
Indeed, Paul says, “we are his offspring” (OSB vs. 8). Surprisingly, this statement is a quotation from a Greek poem by Aratus, a hymn to the pagan god Jupiter. Chrysostom comments, “though it spake of Jupiter, Paul takes it of the Creator, not meaning the same being as he, God forbid! but meaning what is properly predicated of God: just as he spoke of the altar with reference to Him, not to the being whom they worshipped” (NfPF1.11, 236 ). In other words, Paul used the phrase to refer to God. Likewise, Luke’s genealogy teaches the same thing. His genealogy traces the ancestry back to Adam, and he calls Adam, “the son of God” (Luke 3:38).
We learn from a careful reading of our passage that there are fruitful and unfruitful ways of seeking God. There is a difference between groping for God in the darkness of ignorance and finding God. Our seeking of the Lord must have a different basis than those who construct idols, starve themselves, empty their minds by meditation, induce visions and trances, go on pilgrimages, punish themselves, create fables, or try to capture God by reason. None of these things have given their adherents a personal relationship with God as near as He is to us.
No, we would know nothing of God except his power and deity (Romans 1:20) except that the ineffable, invisible, incomprehensible God has revealed Himself to us. The Lord Jesus proclaimed, “If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; and from now on you know Him and have seen Him (John 14:7). This is not merely a truth-claim. It does not merely prove the existence of God. It describes a way of knowing God.
God is Known a Relationship to Him
The term “know” in Greek refers to coming to know, recognizing, or understanding. But we attain that realization in and through a relationship with what is known. Knowing, in essence, is established in a relationship. We know God to the extent that we enter into this rapport. Paul put it, “If anyone thinks that he knows anything, he knows nothing, yet as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, this one is known by Him (OSB 1 Cor. 8:2-3).
This kind of knowledge is a mutual relationship of love, an abiding in Christ and He in us (John 15:4). This loving relationship is based on faith, the complete trust in Christ, the free and total dedication of ourselves to Christ that is inspired by the Holy Spirit.
A Hen That Stops Sitting Doesn’t Hatch Any Chicks
In our information age, many resources are readily available for us to seek the Lord—too many. A story from the desert fathers gives good advice: “Syncletica said, ‘If you live in a monastic community, do not wander from place to place; if you do, it will harm you. If a hen stops sitting on the eggs, she will hatch no chickens. The monk or nun who goes from place to place grows cold and dead in faith” (Erenow, “Fortitude).
Likewise, wandering from book to book, spiritual advisor to spiritual advisor, or church father to church father is a form of groping for the truth. A tree cannot grow and bear fruit if one keeps digging it up and planting it somewhere else.
No, to know God one must stay awake, stay faithful, and stay put. So let us pray for the Lord’s blessings to give us the spiritual resources we need to grow in the faith. And then let us use these means thoroughly, wisely, and faithfully. Let us stay the course that is laid out for us, trusting that this is the way that we will grow in our knowledge of the ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, and incomprehensible God.
St-Tikhon’s. 1984. Service Books of the Orthodox Church. Third ed. South Canaan, PA: St. Tikhon’s Monastery Press.
Thank you Fr.Basil for your wise words. In regards to staying put where we are, would you say this applies even to those who are currently outside of the Orthodox church? Specifically, I’m currently on a journey from Protestantism to Orthodoxy but my ‘membership’ is still in my local Protestant community. Would applying your words in my context look like staying where I am? Thank you in advance for your reponse!
Hello Joey. Thank you for your question. It gives me a chance to elaborate on “staying put.” I presumed too much. If one is on the journey from Protestantism to Orthodoxy, it means that something is missing in the spiritual place where he/she is and//or the Holy Spirit is moving in one’s heart to direct one to another place.. I failed to say that one must be sure to be planted in soil that will produce spiritual growth. My comments were against the temptation to keep jumping from one spiritual perspective or resource to the next and the next. The merchant who was searching for fine pearls did not keep on looking when he found the “pearl of great price” — if he could find a better one (Matthew 13:45). This parable and what it means to find the “pearl of great price” and sell all to purchase it is worth some earnest prayer and meditation. God bless. Fr. Basil