The Unknown God Is Made Known!

The Unknown God Is Made Known!

In our study in the book of Acts, we’re going to shift from Peter’s sermon in chapter two to Paul’s sermon in chapter 17. The events recorded here are taking place at least seven years after the initial outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit upon Jews who had gathered from all nations for the Pentecost celebration we’ve been considering.[1] During this interim Saul, the persecutor of Christians, after his encounter with the risen Christ on the Damascus Road,[2] had become Paul, slave of Jesus Christ and apostle to the Gentiles.[3] And his passion to preach and reach out to others about the truth of the risen Christ was no less strong than that of Peter.

In this portion of Acts 17, we find Paul in Athens not due to his carefully planning out his evangelism tour, but because his life had been threatened while preaching in Berea (current day Veria), a city also located in Greece. But this chapter begins with Paul in Thessalonica, a third city in Greece, preaching in a Jewish synagogue and reasoning from the Scriptures with those who were gathered, “explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead,” verse 3. And though we’re told, “Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women,” in verse 4, we’re also told that a mob formed and began a riot in the city as they searched for Paul and Silas, verse 5. And the reason given for their rioting was that Paul and Silas were “defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus,” verse 7. In other words, not for the first time, Jesus’ kingship had been misunderstood as being political rather than cosmic. Consequently Paul and Silas were sent away to Berea—approximately 50 miles away—by the believers by cover of night (10).

So you would think that given the danger they had experienced once Paul and Silas arrived at Berea, they would have learned their lesson and kept their mouths shut. But you would be wrong! Because the first thing they did when they arrived in Berea was to go to the synagogue to preach. And, once again, we’re told about both the fruit of their ministry and the danger of their ministry in verse 12. On the one hand, once again as a result of their preaching, “many of them believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men.” But on the other hand, verse 13, “when the Jews in Thessalonica learned that Paul was preaching the word of God at Berea, some of them went there too, agitating the crowds and stirring them up.” So think about it: those who had chased Paul and Silas away from Thessalonica viewed their teaching as such a threat that they, too, traveled 50 miles—keep in mind that there were no cars back then—when they heard that Paul and Silas were preaching in Berea. Therefore, once again, Paul had to leave that city. And we’re told, “Those who escorted Paul brought him to Athens”—that’s almost 150 miles away[4]—“and then left with instructions for Silas and Timothy to join him as soon as possible,” verse 15.

So, essentially, Paul was sent to Athens for his safety’s sake. Yet his concern wasn’t for his own safety but for those who didn’t know Christ Jesus. As Paul was waiting for Silas and Timothy to join him, we’re told in verse 16, “he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” In fact Athens was so full of idols at this time that one ancient source, Petronius, asserted that “it was easier to find a god than a man in Athens”![5] And though we may find his observation humorous, to see a city full of so much idolatry—so full of the worship of false gods—grieved Paul. So what did he do? Well, having preached in Jewish synagogues in Thessalonica and Berea, he similarly found a synagogue in Athens where “he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there,” verse 17. And here in Athens, the birthplace of western philosophy, in verses 18–20 we learn that “A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with [Paul]” because what was new to them in Paul’s preaching was “the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.” This was something they hadn’t heard about before. So eventually, “they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, ‘May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.’” This request by the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers was no doubt music to Paul’s ears. And I love the parenthetical note in verse 21: “(All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)”

Now what follows is known as Paul’s Mars Hill sermon named after the Areopagus which literally means the “hill of Ares.” Ares was the Greek god of thunder and war and Mars was the Roman equivalent to Ares[6]—hence “Mars Hill.” According to one source, “This is a hill near the Acropolis where in ancient times a council had met. The council became the city council of Athens, and in Roman times it was the court supervising morals, education, and religion.”[7] So this would be the ideal place for Paul to speak about Jesus Christ. And not one to pass up any opportunity to preach the Gospel, we’re told beginning in verse 22, “Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: ‘People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.’” So unlike the majority of those who live in Massachussetts who are at the bottom of religiosity, as we learned last week about, those living in Athens would have been at the top of a religiosity list. The Athenians were very religious. They were so religious that they even had an altar to an unknown god, thus covering all their bases in case they had accidentally overlooked any god. And notice how clever Paul is. He tells them that since they had built an altar to a god whom they didn’t know, Paul was going to fill them in on who this God was. Far be it from Paul to allow them to remain in ignorance, worshipping a god they knew nothing about!

So beginning in verse 24, Paul began with what God had disclosed in the book of Genesis[8]—although Paul didn’t bother to provide chapter and verse. The first thing he told them was, “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands.” God is far bigger than anything humans can imagine. Human-built temples can’t contain him, no matter what their size. Not even the temple of the Parthenon in Athens—which was 45 feet high and 98 by 63 feet—could contain God. And not only does God not live in human temples but, verse 25, “he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.” So the sacrifices the Athenians brought to these sundry gods was all for naught. The God who made heaven and earth and all that is in it doesn’t need temples built by human hands nor anything humans might offer him. God being God, he has no need for humans to do anything for him in order to make him complete. He is complete already. He not only created humans and the world and everything that is in the world, but he is the one who sustains the world for he is the giver not only of human life and breath but of everything that exists.

Next Paul turns to another portion of Genesis, God’s creating Adam and Eve from whose offspring all of the nations of the world came to exist. But again Paul, knowing his audience—Greeks wouldn’t necessarily have known the Old Testament Scriptures—he summarizes biblical teaching as he tells them in verse 26, “From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.” Now keep in mind that Athens was populated by both Athenians and foreigners (verse 21), so in making these points Paul is highlighting not only God’s sovereignty but also the common bond all humans share given their common ancestor.

And then Paul goes on to explain God’s plan for the nations in verse 27: “God did this”—that is, he made all nations from one man so that they should inhabit the whole earth—“so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him[9] and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.” So all along, God’s plan in creating humanity was that people in all nations would seek him—reach out for him—and, most important of all, find him. God made us for himself. He made us to know him. And these Greeks, being so very religious, presented themselves as God-seekers as testified by the many altars they had built for so very many gods in Athens. So Paul is trying to scratch where they itch. Having presented to them God’s plan and desire that people would turn to their Maker, Paul notes that God being God, “he is not far from any one of us.” God is there for the asking.

And what Paul does next is to affirm the teaching of two of their very own Greek philosophers. Though his audience might not have been familiar with the Scriptures given by God, they no doubt were familiar with their own philosophers. So Paul first references the Cretan philosopher Epimenides[10] who observed about God, verse 28, “For in him we live and move and have our being.” And because what Epimenides said about God here was consistent with what God disclosed about himself in Scripture, Paul is able to affirm Epimenides’ teaching on this point. If we live—and move—and have our being in God, then certainly God is near, not far from any one of us. Surely God does desire that people from all nations should seek—and reach out for—and ultimately find God. And similarly, the Cilician Stoic philosopher Aratus[11] had observed, “We are [God’s] offspring.” Again, since Aratus’ observation on this point is similarly consistent with God’s disclosure in Scripture, Paul is able to affirm his teaching. All humans can trace their origin to God who gives everyone life and breath and everything else.

In fact Paul goes on to connect the biblical teaching of the God of creation who from one man made all the nations that they might seek, reach out, and find him, with the God of the Greek philosophers in verse 29: “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill.” God shouldn’t be thought of as being made by humanity nor does his value derive from the value of the materials used in creating these idols, no matter how valuable these materials may be—whether gold, silver or stone. The reality lies in the other direction—God gives us value; we don’t ascribe value to him.

And then Paul warns them beginning in verse 30 how, “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.” As we saw Peter do last week with the Jews who had gathered from all nations to celebrate Pentecost, Paul here is calling those who are listening to repent. To turn from their customary way of thinking about god and gods to the way the true known God would have us think about him. And the first step to coming to know the God who made them and whom they formerly did not know was to repent; to express genuine remorse over their wrongdoing; to turn from their former ways of thinking about him and turning instead to the way he had now disclosed himself in his Word and in his Son.

And Paul places this repentance within the context of God’s judgment and human accountability to him in verse 31: “For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” God will judge the world and though he knows when that day of judgment will be, we don’t so repentance ought not be put off for that day can arrive at any moment. As Paul states in the latter part of this verse, the reason this judgment can happen at any time is because he has raised from the dead the means of that judgment. As we’ve seen more than once since Easter, by raising Christ from the dead, God has indicated not only that Jesus Christ was indeed his promised Messiah, but also that he has accepted the sacrifice Jesus Christ has offered on behalf of humanity’s sin. For in him were placed the sins of all who belong to him. And he is now the only means of God granting forgiveness for human repentance.

At the end of this chapter we’re told again the results of Paul’s preaching, specifically his preaching the “resurrection of the dead.” There are three responses. Though none sought to persecute Paul as had occurred in Thessalonica and Berea, in verse 32 we’re told first that “some of them sneered.” Why sneering? Probably because though Greeks believed in the immortality of the soul, the belief that the soul is eternal, they didn’t believe in the resurrection of the body. As Plato’s Socrates taught, Greeks viewed the soul as being better than the body, that the body was the prison of the soul.[12] So talk of a bodily resurrection would have made no sense to them. Why raise a body that was such a hindrance to the soul’s proper functioning in the first place? What would be the point in God raising Jesus from the dead? Wouldn’t this have been a regressive action rather than a progressive one? Remember that it was a group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers who had initially brought Paul to the Areopagus given his preaching concerning “the good news about Jesus and the resurrection” in verse 18. And, again, as stated in verses 19 and 20, they had asked him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.” So apparently this first group rejected what Paul had to say so he still had his work cut out for him if he was to make any headway with them. Unlike Greek doctrine, Christian doctrine values our bodilyness. Scripture tells us that God created the material world including humans, body and soul, and pronounced his creation “very good”; too, God took on a human body in the person of Jesus that we might know what God is like and what humans were intended to be like; and, finally, Jesus’ resurrection was a bodily one—and so will ours be one day.

Now a second group at the Areopagus responded by saying to Paul, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” So with them a door may have been opened for future preaching and teaching although it’s difficult to say for sure given the parenthetical note in verse 21 already noted that “the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.” So it’s possible that this group merely viewed Paul’s preaching as an opportunity to discuss an intellectually interesting idea rather than understanding it as it was—a life-changing truth.

And last but certainly not least, a third group is mentioned in verse 34 where we’re told how “some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.” Among these, Paul’s preaching of the Gospel had hit its intended mark for they had taken his teaching to heart and turned from their ways to the Christ who died and rose for them.

Paul’s life is impressive, isn’t it? The transformation that took place in him after he met the risen Christ on the Damascus Road embodies repentance. He who at one time had dedicated his life to persecuting Christians, imprisoning them and putting them to death, had now dedicated his life to testifying to the truth that Jesus was the Christ, God’s chosen Messiah, the one through whom God had provided salvation and eternal life with him to any and all who would repent from their ways and turn to him and seek to become like him.

Paul’s personal safety didn’t matter to him. If the Thessalonians put his life in jeopardy, he would go to the Bereans; if the Bereans put his life in jeopardy, he would go to the Athenians; if some of the Athenians sneered and rejected his message, he would go and proclaim the Gospel to other Athenians.

And notice that though Paul was one of Christ’s chosen apostles who not only knew the Hebrew Scriptures inside and out, that is our Old Testament, by virtue of his rabbinic study and training, but also became a God-inspired author of much of the New Testament Scripture, even someone so grounded in his study and experience of God in Christ was unable to bring to faith all who listened to him: Many rejected and even sought to persecute him; others were left with questions concerning what he had preached; but others did come to a saving faith and knowledge not only of their Maker, but also of their Redeemer, Christ Jesus, their Lord.

And I think this should provide encouragement to you and me as we seek to share the truth of Jesus Christ with others in word and deed. Though we’ve made note of it before, it’s worth reminding ourselves that we are unable to save anyone because ultimately salvation is a work of God’s Holy Spirit, who is able to convince and convict others of the truth of who God in Christ is. But difficult to understand though it may be for us, God desires to use us as the means through which his Holy Spirit works. This is part of the implication of what Scripture teaches. Jesus not only taught that the sum of the law and the prophets is that we love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength and our neighbor as ourselves, but in our connectedness with other fellow travelers on earth, our heavenly Father wants us to be the means of making God’s love and truth real to others. So when we love and care and pray for one another, we not only demonstrate that we are family to one another but we demonstrate that together we are children of our Father in heaven who wants us to be holy as he is holy; who by his Holy Spirit wants us to display the fruit of his Spirit in word and deed: namely, to be people whose lives individually and corporately are marked by love—and joy—and peace—and patience—and kindness—and goodness—and faithfulness—and gentleness—and self-control.[13] And as we seek to live for and bear witness to God’s goodness, may those who in our day view God as one is unknown, and maybe even unknowable, be enabled by his Spirit to come to a saving faith and knowledge of Christ Jesus who not only died for them but who rose bodily from the dead for them, thus opening a path to our loving and heavenly Father.

Let us pray.

[1] AD 30 is the Acts 2 giving of the Spirit at Pentecost; AD 37 is the giving of the Spirit to Cornelius as recorded in Acts 10 and 11.

[2] Acts 9:1–17.

[3] Romans 11:13: I am talking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I take pride in my ministry; Galatians 2:8: For God, who was at work in Peter as an apostle to the circumcised, was also at work in me as an apostle to the Gentiles.; Ephesians 3:8: Although I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ,….

[4] 227 kilometers or 141 miles.

[5] Crossway ESV Study Bible note on verse 16.

[6] Athens came under Roman rule in 146 BC.

[7] Reformation ESV Study Bible.

[8] Genesis 1:1: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

[9] ζητεῖν τὸν θεὸν εἰ ἄρα γε ψηλαφήσειαν αὐτὸν καὶ εὕροιεν. ESV: “feel their way toward him”

[10] Seer and philosopher-poet c. 600 BC (7th or 6th century). As Paul notes, Epimenides was from Crete, Greece.

[11] (315–240 BC)

[12] Per Plato’s Phaedo which provides the account of Socrates’ trial.

[13] Galatians 5:22–23: 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

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