In Acts 17:22-34 Paul is preaching on Mars Hill in Athens. The Athenians were much like we are today. They “spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing.” In this passage we find that the mindsets of those who seek God through a religion and those who seek God through a relationship are in stark contrast to each other.
Religion starts with man. Acts 17:24-25, “temples made with hands… neither is worshipped with men’s hands.” Men ask, “Why are there so many different religions in the world?” There are so many because there are so many different kinds of men. If religion were from God, there would only be one, because there is only one true God. The Pharisees were religious leaders during Christ’s earthly ministry. He said about them, in Mk 7:8 “laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men.” Paul preached in Athens where men had religious devotions to God. Paul said, in Acts 17:25, God is not “worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things.” In religion man tries to lift himself up to God. When the devil tempted Eve he said, “Ye shall be as gods.” The devil said, “I will be like the most high,” [Is 14:14]. In the first religion, men made a tower to “reach unto heaven,” [Gen 11:4].
Relationship starts with God. Acts 17:24, “God that made the world.” Acts 17:26, God “made of one blood all nations of men.” Acts 17:25, God “giveth to all life.” Acts 17:28, God “hath raised him (Jesus) from the dead.” Everything about a relationship with God starts with God. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…” [Jn 3:16]. “We love him, because he first loved us,” [1 Jn 4:19]. God came down to man [Jn 3:13]. God was manifest in the flesh [1 Tim 3:16]. Heb 2:17 says, “Wherefore in all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people.” We cannot get up to God. He had to come down to save us. Matt 1:21 says, “Thou shalt call his name Jesus: for he shall save his people from their sins.”
In religion, you make sacrifices to God. Acts 17:23, “I found an altar.” Acts 17:25, “…as though he needed anything.” It is the nature of religious men to offer something to God. Cain made an offering of the fruit of the ground unto the Lord [Gen 4:3]. When the children of Israel made the golden calf, they “offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings,” [Ex 32:6]. Throughout the Bible, you see the nations offering sacrifices to God or, more accurately, to their gods. When Israel did this, the Lord said, “To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? …Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; … when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you,” [Is 1:11-15]. Samuel said to Saul, “Hath the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice,” [1 Sam 15:22]. Jesus told the Pharisees, “I will have mercy, and not sacrifice,” [Matt 9:13].
In relationship, God made the sacrifice for you. Acts 17:31 “he hath raised him from the dead.” “… we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. And every priest standeth daily ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins: But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God,” [Heb 10:10-12]. “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit,” [1 Pet 3:18]. He made the sacrifice; he brings us to God.
In religion, you do what’s required to save yourself. Acts 17:23, “I… beheld your devotions.” All religions have rituals, or dogma, or sacraments that you must perform and keep in order to be saved. In my wife’s childhood religion, she had to be baptized and confirmed when she was twelve to be considered “saved.” In my childhood religion, I had to complete a series of sacraments which included baptism, confession, confirmation, and communion. Different religions have different rules, but they all stem from the same basic principle. I have to “do” something to be right with God and I have to “keep” something to stay right with God. There are so many different religious concepts of what it takes.
In relationship, God did what’s required to save you. Acts 17:34, “certain men… believed.” In a relationship with God, this principle is unique. It’s not what “we do” to be right with God; it’s what “he did” for us so that we could be right with him. Juan Diego said of his cancer treatments, “I’m done.” Jesus said, “It is finished.” Therefore, there is nothing more to be done. Your sins are paid. You only need to believe on Jesus Christ and his finished work on Calvary.
In religion you strive to be accepted. Acts 17:22-23, “in all things ye are too superstitious… I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD.” In religion, once you have done what you are supposed to do, then you have to live it to be accepted by the Lord. There is always this nagging feeling that you are never quite sure. You go through ups and downs of feeling good about your position with God and feeling guilty about your situation with God. There is always this question of “have I been good enough?” In fact, you can never be good enough [Rom 3:12]. In religion, you hope to get to heaven. If you ask religious men about going to heaven when they die, they will say, “I hope so.” There’s this idea that you have to wait till you stand before God to find out whether you made it or not. That’s why Paul said, “Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship,” [Acts 17:23].
In relationship, God has already accepted you. Acts 17:31, “he hath given assurance unto all men.” Eph 1:6 says you are “accepted in the beloved.” You are his child. Nothing can change that. Rom 8:38-39 “For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, not angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, not things to come, not height, nor depth, nor another creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” In relationship, God has already seated you in heaven. Eph 2:6 says, God “hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” Therefore, in relationship you don’t hope so; you know so. 1 Jn 5:13 says, “These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God.” When you are saved, you know you are accepted.
Conclusion: Whereas with religion there are many ways to God, in relationship there is only one. There is “one blood,” [Acts 17:26]. There is one “the Lord,” [Acts 17:27]. There is only “that man,” [Acts 17:31]. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me,” [Jn 14:6]. You have this relationship with God by believing what he said and trusting what he has already done for you in Jesus Christ. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved,” [Acts 16:31]. If you already have this relationship with God through Jesus Christ, then quit treating it like a religion. Grow in your knowledge and understanding of him.