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The Unknown God – Acts 17:14-21


The Unknown God

Text:   Acts 17:14-21

The Greeks at Athens had heard Paul speaking about Jesus and the Resurrection.  We know that everywhere he went Paul preached about the Cross, about Jesus who died and rose again from the dead for all our sins.  His message never varied. Read, 1 Corinthians 1:23-25, 1 Corinthians 2:2    So now he is standing in front of the most exclusive court in the ancient world.  Let’s just look at his opening remarks, his assessment of the religious disposition of the people of Athens. This is an important step in coming to an understanding of the masterful and uncompromising, and yet carefully contextualised gospel message that Paul will preach to these high ranking citizens.

The Acropolis, Athens, with the Parthenon – a pagan temple. Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

1 The Athenians had Idle Curiosity. 17:19-20  

There are two things to note here:-

  1. The Gospel always seems strange to the ungodly. You are bringing some strange things to our ears.  Paul was preaching about Jesus.1 Corinthians 1:18.
  2. These Athenians ENJOYED novelty.  17:21  The Athenians spent all their spare time hanging out in the Agora, idly speculating about new ideas and philosophies. Not so that they could commit to it, repent and believe in it, but simply as a form of intellectual stimulation.   It’s bad enough when the ungodly display this fascination for novelty over revealed truth, but when it occurs in the visible church the consequences are serious indeed.  C/f 2 Timothy 4:3-4.

Still, the Lord used this thirst for novelty, for it was because the Athenians had such a fascination with ‘new things’ that Paul had an opportunity to address them in the marketplace, and it was why he was brought to the council to explain further.

2 The Athenians had an Impotent Religion. 17:22-23  

Paul’s opening remarks to the council were very gracious, and no doubt the Athenians may have taken them as a compliment – he says that they are very religious!  They probably thought that was a good thing!  What did Paul really think of their religion?

  • A religion of idolatry.  Paul would have been brought up in the spirit of Deuteronomy 6:4-6   He would have been utterly repelled and distressed and upset by the Greeks’ idolatrous religion.  Athens was a city of idols. Idols were everywhere, and the people bowed down to them and worshipped them, contrary to the second commandment. Exodus 20:4-5,  We get an insight into what he would be thinking in 1st Corinthians 10:20,    Like the Romans in Romans 1:22-23, they erected statues and likenesses and they called them ‘gods’ and they ‘revered’ them, respected them… 
  • A religion of futility.  It was a religion of sorts, practiced in Athens, but not a real religion, it was a deeply distressing religion! It was a godless religion. Empty, false religion is the religion of death.   

So, the Athenians were religious, – a pointless, Christ-less, cross-less religion that will be utterly useless in eternity.   It was blasphemous, it was idolatrous, it was futile, it would lead to the eternal loss of the soul.  Religion cannot save.  I might even suggest that most of the ‘religious’ people in NI have a religion just like this. 

3 The Athenians had Ignorant HeartsI even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD.  

Paul had obviously walked around Athens, and had been looking at the idols and reading the inscriptions.  He was a cultured man, and would probably have appreciated the masonry, the art, the architecture and the sculptor’s craft.  Looking at great workmanship and objects of beauty doesn’t make you a participant in the idolatry these things represent.  

So Paul observed their empty vain religion, and he used it to great effect. For the Athenians it was a fantastic application.  These people were the cleverest people in the world, living in the most intellectual environment in the world, and yet by their own admission there was something they didn’t know.  Something really important.  The word ‘unknown’ is our word agnostic. ἄγνωστος (agnōstos).  Paul’s sarcasm must have been obvious to them.  The people who knew everything, were forced to admit that they didn’t know God.  

What about us.  Jesus said, “Matthew 16:26 For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?”  What benefit is it to be the cleverest, most erudite, most qualified, peer-reviewed, widely published university professor in the city of Oxford, and be ignorant of your Creator, before whom you will one day stand, and give account.

So Paul’s important witness before the Areopagus has begun.  In our next study, we will see his strategy, and how the sermon develops.  Meanwhile, my underlying thesis is that these Athenians were not so very different from every modern ungodly member of society.  

© BobMcEvoy February 2021

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