Irritation can rise when another person goes on at us about some part of our life. Yet such nagging can be needed if we are unwilling or unable to see an issue which needs addressing. That’s certainly the case in regard to our mistreatment of God. So He has placed nags into our inner lives to remind us of Him. Conscience is one example of these; Paul uses others here in Acts 17.
The ancient Greek city of Athens was a place of great human ability and pride. It was also full of human-looking idols to represent their gods (Ac 17:16). Grieved by the sight, Paul preached publicly about Jesus and his resurrection to challenge them (Ac 17:18). However, his words confused some, leading to Paul being put down as a ‘babbler’. Nonetheless, interest was stirred and he was invited into the prestigious court known as the Areopagus (Ac 17:19), where his foreign ideas could be more formally tested by some of the best minds in the city.
So Paul makes speech, opening with a comment on his hearers’ religiosity (v22) – though it’s not clear how he meant it to be taken. Then he focuses in on an Athenian altar he’s seen dedicated to an ‘unknown god’ (v23, possibly erected in a crisis when the regular gods were not proving helpful). In doing so he exploits their self-admitted ignorance to allow him to educate them about the one true God. Therefore, after his introductory comments, Paul turns to the awareness of a supreme creator that nags human hearts. It comes from the chain of cause and effect which runs back through history: the fact that everything in the world came from something else. If followed, that chain inevitably leads us to question what was there at the start of it: what simply exists? When we do that, we are wrestling with God’s reality. Paul shows the Athenians that, identifying God as the one who is not dependent on anything or anyone (v24). Everything that is now here, everyone who has life, has come about because of Him (v25). Paul’s hearers are always bringing the divine down to their level. He puts God back into his rightful place in their thinking. God is different from all else; God is the source of all else. They know this.
If people are willing to think seriously, then Christians can ask them to ponder the beginning of all things: where did everything come from? Should they do so then they will find no satisfying answer and the question will nag in their souls. A nag which God has put there to shout at them about Himself and call them no longer to ignore Him: the creator who is the source of everything.
Paul, however, does not want to leave his hearer’s thoughts at that point and so his speech turns to personal implications. If God is the maker of life, what does that mean we are? Creatures who all come from a single starting point (v26); one race given, by the will of God, different locations and times in which to live (v26). That comment attacks human pride, undermining those who think themselves better than other races (as Paul himself once did). But Paul punches the Athenians harder with it by noting that it means they have no excuse for their not knowing God. As the ‘offspring’ of God they should have reached out for their ‘father’ who though great is not far off (v27). Deep inside they know this since even their own poets have expressed such sentiments (v28). Surely they must admit, therefore, that their idols are just foolishness (v29). God may have been patient with such nonsense (v30), not punishing as they richly deserve, but time is running out and God now commands them to repent – to change their minds and seek Him.
If people are willing to think seriously, then Christians can ask them to ponder their own existence. Why are we human beings here on the earth? Of course, some will answer that there is no reason; we’re just a lucky bag of chemicals. But it’s hard to live as though that’s the final truth. Every human soul feels more precious than that, as we enjoy all that it means to be alive and value things like love, truth, justice, beauty and wisdom. Within us we feel that we have been given life for a purpose. That feeling is a nag which God has put there to remind us that we came from someone not something. It shouts at us to return to the one who gave us life. We must make space in our lives to hear those nags and let them drive us back to our creator.