THE UNKNOWN GOD

Mike Johnson

At the Areopagus, in the very well know city of Athens, Paul preached a sermon to a group philosophers and well educated men.  He started his lesson by saying, “for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you:” (Acts 17:23).  Paul then proceeded to tell these idolaters about this “unknown” god.  How did Paul end up in Athens and how, once there, did he get the opportunity to preach this sermon? Consider some background information.

 BACKGROUND INFORMATION

 While on the second missionary journey (recorded in Acts), Paul and his fellow workers (Silas and Timothy) came to Troas where he saw a vision in which a man from Macedonia stood and pleaded with him.  The man said, “Come over to Macedonia and help us” (16:7). Entering Macedonia, (which put them in Europe) they traveled to Philippi where Lydia and her family were baptized (16:15).  Also, after being arrested, Paul and Silas converted the Philippian jailor and his family (16:30-34). Next, they went to Thessalonica where he preached about the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and some became believers (17:4). Due to opposition, he was forced to leave for Berea where many became believers.  Here, Paul found these to be more noble (fair-minded- NKJV) than those in Thessalonica, “…in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so” (17:11). Troublesome Jews followed him there and stirred up the people.  After this, the brethren from Berea accompanied Paul to Athens (17:15) while Timothy and Silas stayed behind.

When Paul got to Athens, he was highly disturbed as he saw a city full of idols. In fact, there were so many in this city one ancient writer (Petronius) said it was easier to find a god than a man in Athens. Paul was going to wait for Timothy and Silas, but he was so disturbed by what he saw, he began to immediately teach on a daily basis.  He reasoned (“disputed-KJV) in the Synagogue with the Jewish and Gentile worshippers (17:17) and also taught in the market place. At the market place, he spoke to whomever was there which included Epicurean and Stoic philosophers who ridiculed him and misrepresented his teaching (17:18). But, since the Athenians were always wanting to hear something new, he was invited to speak at the Areopagus.

At the Areopagus, Paul first preached about God.  He could not teach them about Christ, the son of God, if they did not even believe in the true God.  They had an altar to the “unknown god” whom Paul said they “ignorantly worshipped” (17:23). Please note the following eight points which Paul made about God in his sermon. He taught that Jehovah:

  • created the world and all things therein (24a);
  • is the Lord of the heaven and the earth (24b);
  • does not dwell in temples made with men’s hands (24c);
  • is not worshipped with men’s hands (25a);
  • gives to all life, breath, and all things (25b);
  • created from one blood every nation (26-27a);
  • is not far from each one of us (27b);
  • is the one in whom we live, move, and have our being (28a).

Speaking against idolatry, he then drew the following conclusion: “Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising.” He then called for a response, calling upon them to repent (vs. 30-31), and told them WHY they needed to.  Acts 17:30-31, which serves as a climax of Paul’s sermon, says, “ Acts 17:30-31 says, “Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead.” Please consider some important lessons from these verses.

ALL MUST REPENT

Earlier, Paul has spoken of the heathen nations. Verse 30 speaks of God “overlooking” (for a time frame) but not excusing their ignorance (Rom. 1:19, 3:23, 6:23).  For a time, God did not try and “break it up;” He did not send prophets to them.  However, in the Christian Age, He presents a universal and consistent call to repent.  The Epicureans, Stoics, Jews, and Gentiles all had to repent. On the day of Pentecost, the people were told they needed to repent and be baptized for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38).  In Acts 3:19, Peter said, “Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.”  God requires all to repent today!

THE JUDGMENT IS A MOTIVATION TO REPENT

There are various motivations which should cause a person to repent.  We should, for example, be motivated because of God’s goodness, and His love for us.  Romans 2:4 asks, “Or do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance?” Further, Romans 5:8 says, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” God loves us, and He sent His son to die for our sins.

Verse 31, however, teaches the final Judgment should also motivate us to repent as it points out all must repent because God has appointed a day in which He will judge the world.  This has been called the “heavy artillery” of repentance.  We obey God because of our love for Him, but, we also repent because one day we will have to face the Judgment.  2 Peter 3 speaks of Christ returning in judgment as a thief in the night and points out the earth will be destroyed.   The conclusion is drawn in verses 11-12 which says, “Therefore, since all these things will be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved, being on fire, and the elements will melt with fervent heat?” Thus, the return of Christ, the destruction of the earth, and the Judgment should motivate us to live righteously.

THE WORLD WILL BE JUDGED IN RIGHTEOUSNESS

 In mythology, deities were thought to share every human sin, only to a greater degree. However, verse 31 teaches we will be judged “in righteousness.”  Man is held to a very high standard. Note Psalm 9:8 which says of God, “He shall judge the world in righteousness, And He shall administer judgment for the peoples in uprightness.”

Unrighteousness is defined in the Scriptures, as acting contrary to Biblical teaching, i.e. to commit sin or practice unrighteousness.  I John 5:17 points out “all unrighteousness is sin,” and Psalm 119:172 reveals that all of Gods commands are righteousness. In John 12:48, Jesus said, “He who rejects Me, and does not receive My words, has that which judges him — the word that I have spoken will judge him in the last day.” Roman 2:16 points out, “in the day when God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, according to my gospel.”  In II Corinthians 5:10, Paul revealed, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.”

We will all be judged by the very high standard of “righteousness” which is defined in the Scriptures.

CHRIST WILL BE OUR JUDGE

 Verse 32 points out Christ will be our judge. It has already been noted we will be judged by the words of Christ (Jn. 12:48), Jesus will be our judge, and the gospel will be the basis of that judgment (Rom. 2:16).  Also, in John 5:22 Jesus taught, “For the Father judges no one, but has committed all judgment to the Son.” In Acts 10:42 Peter said, “And He commanded us to preach to the people, and to testify that it is He who was ordained by God to be Judge of the living and the dead.” (Please note also Mt. 25:31-46, 7:21-23.)

To back up this point, he noted that God has raised Jesus from the dead.  This gave Him the right to judge mankind.  Jesus repeatedly stated He would be raised from the dead, and God would not have allowed an imposter to be raised. Romans 1:3-4 speaks of Christ and says, “concerning His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, and declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead.”

THE RESPONSE

 Seemingly, Paul was interrupted at this point.  No doubt, he meant to develop more the theme of Christ’s divinity. As today, there were different responses to the message of God’s Word. Consider the three reactions.

  • Some Mocked (v.32) – They apparently thought his teaching was absurd. It may be that they not only mocked him with their words but with their sneers and expressions.  Many people respond to gospel preaching in the same way today.
  • Procrastinated (v. 32) – Some said, “We will hear you again on this matter.” This may have been a polite way of rejecting Paul’s message as some do today. Many people today will say, “I know I ought to obey Christ and one of these days I will”  but they never do. But, perhaps some liked what Paul said, and were making an honest statement.  They truly wanted to hear more later.  Either way, delay is very dangerous.
  • Believed (v. 34) – Paul may have left discouraged, but we are told that later some came to Paul who further taught them and they became believers.

 CONCLUSION

Paul went to the great city of Athens.  Being disturbed by the sin (idolatry) he saw, he began to immediately preach the Word of God. He spoke to both the Gentiles and Jews.  Among these were people who held the Epicurean and Stoic philosophy. He did not back down from boldly proclaiming the truth when he got the opportunity to present a message about God in the famous Areopagus. He then boldly called on the people to repent!  From his sermon, we learn about God, Christ, and the need for all to repent.  What a valuable message for mankind!