Acts Part 28: To an Unknown God

Acts 17:16-34 NIV

16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17 So 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. 18 A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. 19 Then 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.” 21 (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)

  1. Athens: Located in the Roman province of Achaia in the Southeast peninsula of Greece, Athens was an intellectual and cultural center that exported its ideas throughout the Empire.
  2. The city was full of idols: Confronting idolatry was nothing new to Paul (recall the time the Lystran people tried to worship him and Barnabas), but the presence of idols was especially thick in Athens. With the temples and objects of worship in the city, it was that there were “more gods than people” in Athens.
  3. The marketplace: Paul preached to Jews in the synagogues on the sabbath, and to Gentiles in the marketplace on the other days. There was no pulpit for him to monologue, so Paul had to “reason” (Greek, dialegomai), answering questions and exchanging ideas with others. Speakers Corner in London is a modern example of a “marketplace” of ideas. Many Christians will never stand behind a pulpit to give a sermon, but we will have opportunities to converse with the people around us about our faith.
  4. Epicurean and Stoic philosophers: For our purposes, we will not get into to minutia of either of these philosophies. They are named in inspired Scripture for a reason to give an impression of the dominant worldviews Paul had to contend with. They each present claims about reality, morality and the meaning of life. Today there remain many different philosophies claiming to have truth and answers to life’s big questions, but with no reference to God or Jesus (Colossians 2:3, 8).
  5. This babbler: Paul’s preaching of the Gospel was mocked because his audience had no point of reference for it.
  6. Areopagus: Literally, “Mars Hill,” where the city council ruled on matters of philosophy, religion and education. Paul suddenly had a major platform to preach the Gospel.
  7. Doing nothing but talking: Athens attracted people who loved simply to debate and indulge the newest ideas. While intellectual pursuits can be good, the Bible makes clear that the Athenians pursued them to a fault, making them unproductive and combative. We must always be careful that we not only “talk the talk” but we “walk the walk” (1 Timothy 1:4; 4:7; 1 Corinthians 4:20).

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.

24 “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. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 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. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

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. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 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.”

32 When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” 33 At that, Paul left the Council. 34 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.

  1. Very religious: Despite wanting to appear as sophisticated intellectuals, the Athenians were deeply spiritual and superstitious.
  2. Unknown god: Paul began his address, not by quoting Scripture or referencing the God of Israel, but instead appealing to an “unknown god” which the Athenians were familiar with (cf. 13:16-41). Even with their many gods, they built an altar to a god they didn’t know just in case they had offended him somehow. This bears witness to the image of God that allows, even these arrogant, superstitious pagans, to occasionally grasp at truth about God. The truth here being that, for all their religiosity, the Athenians did not know the true God.
  3. The God who made the world: Paul weaves a narrative that explains the world and the God who made it. He did not surrender his convictions, but spoke in a way so as to build an intellectual bridge for an audience that was unfamiliar with the Scriptures. His points are thoroughly biblical: (1) God made the world, (2) God gives to all beings, (3) God made all nations from one blood, (4) God has guided humanity, (5) God will judge the world, (6) God raised Jesus from the dead.
  4. Some sneered… some… believed: Paul’s claims about the resurrection struck a cord with this crowd whose philosophy taught them that to seek release from their mortal bodies. There were three responses to Paul’s message: (1) mockery, (2) faith, and (3) procrastination.
Previous Acts Part 27: Searching the Scriptures
Next Acts Part 29: Do Not Be Silent