John Piper comments on Paul’s message at the Areopagus (Acts 17:16-34), in a sermon “Why God Cannot Be Served But Loves to Serve”–
In that message, two verses stand out as the essence of why Paul had hated this message and felt so threatened by it. Verses 24-25: “The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, 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.” Now this is the worst news and the best news in the world. “God is not served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things.”
If you feel strong and self-sufficient and morally in sync with God and able to serve God and make independent contributions to God and his work, then this is bad news when Paul says, “God is not served by human hands as though he needed anything.” In other words, if this message is true about God, then self-sufficient people who think they can negotiate with God are deluding themselves.
This is what threatened Paul in those early days and made him hate Christianity. He was a very successful Pharisee. He had accomplished things in religion and morality beyond all his peers (Galatians 1:14: Philippians 3:4-6). His whole identity hung on serving God with resolve and strength and rigor and accuracy and beyond all his contemporaries. This was his identity. This was his boast and significance. And here comes a message about God that says, “God is not served by human hands as though he needed anything.” Well, Paul did not hear this as good news. It was shattering. His whole life seemed in vain. What have I worked for? Why all this study of God’s law and all this moral striving if God cannot be served? It would be like spending your life doing aerobic leg exercises only to discover that the final contest of life is hang-gliding, not running.
So the radical self-sufficiency of God did not come to Paul as good news – not at first. It was shattering. All his religious accomplishments lay in ashes.
God is not Served by Human Hands – Good News to the Weak
But on the other hand, this is the best news in all the world – that God is not served by human hands has though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all people life and breath and all things.” If you are weak and helpless and sinful and know that any good you do, you need God’s help to do, then this comes as the best news in the world. That God is the kind of God who cannot be served, but loves to serve. His message to the world – the Christian gospel – is not a “help-wanted” sign, but a “help available” sign. He is not served as though he needed anything, but he gives to all people life and breath and everything. To those who feel morally self-sufficient this is bad news. It threatens to take away our basis for boasting. But to those who feel morally desperate and hopeless before a holy and infinitely righteous God, this is good news. Maybe a God who doesn’t need me would be willing to be for me what I need.
But I wonder: Have we made too much of a couple of verses in the Bible? Is this really the heart of the Christian gospel – that God cannot be served as though he needed anything, but loves to serve those who know they need mercy?
Confirmation from Jesus’ own Words
Let me just look at one other verse of Scripture with you to confirm that we are at the very core of the Christian gospel. The verse I am thinking about comes straight from Jesus himself and is found in the Gospel according to Mark (10:45). It goes like this: “Even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”