The Unknown God Whom Everyone Knows

Tom Nettles
| Acts 17:16–34 | January 8, 2018

Context: Paul had ministered in Thessalonica and Berea before he went to Athens.

  • The ministry of the missionary team in Thessalonica and Berea followed the pattern of attendance at the Synagogue, reasoning from the Scripture.
  • His method was to demonstrate that, according to a proper synthesis of all the prophecies, the figures, the types, the nature of sin, the character of God, the actual blessings of salvation and other things that the Christ as promised in the Old Covenant must be a single figure who, not only would eventually assume the throne of David as a conquering king, but would suffer to obtain the forgiveness of sin and rise from the dead. In other words, Paul would proclaim what Peter called “the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories” (1 Peter 1:10, 11).
  • Then he would introduce them to the life, ministry, claims, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, showing that he was the Christ. The long-expected Messiah had come and was even at that time reigning in heaven until the redemption of the purchased possession (Ephesians 1:14).
  • On both occasions some [“A great many” in Thessalonica and “many [with] not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men” believed in Berea.” On both occasions the source of the gospel message was exposition of Scripture.
  • Jealous Jews stirred up trouble on both occasions so that Paul and Silas had to leave. From Berea, Paul went alone, waiting to be rejoined by Silas and Timothy.

 

I. Paul’s provoked spirit leads to engagement with Jews and Greeks.

A. Paul could not help but be provoked when he saw the most basic revelation of the Law being broken (“Thou shalt have no other gods before me; Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.”) Their multiplicity of idols was also an insult to human intelligence as an expression of the image of God.

B. This led him to divide his time between the synagogue and the market place.

  1. In the synagogue he could reason from the Scriptures in the way he had done in other cities. He would begin with the Scripture picture of the Christ and show that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ. His knowledge of Scripture as the word of revelation from God, his persuasion of its unerring truthfulness, his personal knowledge of Christ in the forgiveness of sins, his knowledge of Christ from the Old Testament and from his reception of apostolic revelation, and his continued practice of taking every thought (both his and others’) captive to Christ prepared him for the dialogue and teaching in the synagogue and would give contour and content to his reasonings outside the synagogue.
  2. His speech in the market place was no less centered on the basic realities of the gospel. He would not have the same component of Old Testament authority, but his discussions would center, nevertheless, on Jesus of Nazareth whose earthly ministry ended in a resurrection from the dead. All intellectual and moral questions would have their final answer in Christ.
  3. Stoics and Epicureans followed philosophical schools that had developed in Athens.
  • Stoics found virtue mainly in the avoidance of negative passion (apatheia-from which we derive our word apathetic). The school of thought was founded in Athens in 294 BC by Zeno. It is probable that the moral tone of the system came as a result of Zeno’s early knowledge of Semites in Cyprus of which he was native. Some of his opponents claimed that he was not Greek, but Semitic, therefore inferior in mental capacity. The system, however, was an amalgam of Platonism, Cynicism, and Heraclitus’s view of the rationality of the material universe (the principle of logos, or word from which we get the term “logic”), which would not have been alien to the biblical doctrine of providence. Their overall theology was a materialistic pantheism. The Romans Cato, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius were influenced by stoicism and as a system it bolstered Roman jurisprudence. While it was aware of the irrational and destructive tendencies of the lower passions, it had little confidence that an exuberant joy could be achieved. The truly wise man submits to the necessities engineered by “Nature” and achieves a calm passionless command of emotion. There is that, so Seneca surmised, in which a wise man excels God. Paul probably had encountered their thought in Tarsus and knew points of common ground and the points of clear distinction in relation to the gospel. (Some information from ISBE)
  • Epicureans, an older philosophical sect founded ca. 341 BC, looked upon the goal of life as achieving individual security and pleasure. Though this is a type of egoistic Hedonism, Epicurus did not look at pleasure as a focus on the pleasure of the moment, largely consumed in the immediate satisfaction of bodily desires. Rather, he looked more to the life of the mind and the goal of achieving “imperturbability.” There were similarities to the Stoics in the goal of control of personal desires; the Epicurean, however, looked for absence of pain, while the Stoic looked for a conscious rational discipline of mind and affections. They would have been together in the market place involved in discussion because of their similarities on the one hand and their difference of ultimate goals on the other. Paul would have discovered a good, old-fashioned, theological/philosophical debate on the meaning of life and how to achieve it.
  • Paul’s views, historically founded in the person of Jesus and his resurrection seemed odd to these philosophers. Their discussions were built on intellectual speculation derived from undemonstrated premises. These were what Paul called “plausible arguments” in Colossians 2:4 based on “elemental principles” as he noted in Colossians 2:8. Their arguments had a seeming cogency but they travelled on roads built in mid-air with nothing substantial or demonstrable to support them. Paul had a historical person, who did demonstrably historical wonders, who made claims to which there were witnesses, and who rose from the dead to give credence to his teachings and to seal the nature of the work he had done. As Paul spoke of “Jesus” and “Anastasin” (the word for resurrection), they thought that he was presenting two strange deities.
  • They invited him to speak about these new ideas to the philosophical council known as the Areopagus. They were all about “new” things, not necessarily good or true things.

 

II. Paul Speaks to the Council of the Areopagus.

A. He called attention to their concern for the knowledge of God.

  1. Paul began by noting that they looked upon religion as important and worthy of serious discussion. He was not insulting them but was beginning by appealing to the reality that every human mind has questions about their own existence, the nature of virtue, the reason for death, if there is self-consciousness after death, and the relation of personal responsibility to the seeming fatefulness of all things. He was identifying with them in the value of these kinds of questions.
  2. He pointed out that their seriousness about the importance of these questions was demonstrated in establishing an altar inscribed “To an unknown God.”
  • That they did not feel fully satisfied in the success of their present state of knowledge about these important questions was fully demonstrated by their admission of a major gap in their state of worship.
  • Paul had no such dissatisfaction or lack of confidence. The God that they knew must exist but about whom they felt perfectly ignorant was, in fact, the only true God and the one about whom Paul would speak. “What you worship in ignorance [or as unknown], this very one I announce to you.”

B. He founds his discussion on creation. (24-26) There can be only one independent being; all other beings are dependent. And there must be one independent being for it is impossible for there to be an infinite regress of dependence. There can, therefore, be only one self-existent being; all other beings do not have their being in themselves but receive their being from another. And there must be one self-existent being for an infinite regress of beings receiving their being from another is absurd.

  1. Paul knew this necessary relationship of beings philosophically, but he knew it with certainty by revelation. He affirmed the first truth of revelation, the most basic question of existence, why does anything exist. God made the world and all that is in it. The world does no hold different spheres ruled over by different gods, but all things came for the one God, the Creator. The biblical doctrine of creation is fundamental to all other biblical truths and permeates the biblical record with its vital presence (Genesis 1:1; Exodus 20:8-11; Isaiah 40:28; Psalm 89:11-13; Psalm 19:1-6; Psalm 24:1, 2; Psalm 90:1, 2; John 1:1-5; Acts 14:15; Romans 1:20; Ephesians 3:9; Colossians 1:15-17; 1 Timothy 4:1-5; 2 Peter 3:5-7; Revelation 4:11; Revelation 21:1,2).
  2. Since he transcends all things, has made all things, and rules over heaven and earth, we cannot contain him in any temple or house that we might construct for his presence (Isaiah 40:16, 17). Their attempts, therefore, to find a place for every god shows a fatal misperception of the nature of deity.
  3. His eternal self-existence and perfect self-sufficiency mean that we can do nothing to benefit him for there is nothing that he needs from any created thing. “Or who has first given to him and it shall be repaid to him? For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:35, 36).
  4. All nations have arisen from one man. None have any intrinsic superiority for all share alike in their origin from Adam. All were represented by him as their covenant head and have thus participated with him in his first disobedience and verdict of death on its account. There are no “children of a lesser god,” for “He made from one man every nation of mankind.”
  5. As Creator, he began the created order with its purpose fully in mind and with all of the events by which he would culminate its purpose. He works “all things after the counsel of his own will;” “He uphold all things by the word of his power;” “All things were created through him and for him” (Ephesians 1:11; Hebrews 1:3; Colossians 1:16). Paul is straightforward about the sovereign purpose of God in creation and providence, in controlling all nations and disposing of all things as seems fit in his infinite wisdom: “Having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation.”

C. He extrapolates on the concept of the image of God. (27-29)

  1. Three centuries later, Augustine said, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O God; and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in Thee.” It is impossible that we will not seek God. Paul says that the natural impact of creation and providence should be that his creatures desire to know him. The reality that he is present in the entire created order through his immanence and immensity; evidence of him is so pervasive that he cannot be escaped. It should be the normal response and immediate witness of every human soul that they see God, know God, and love God. “He is not far from each one of us.
  2. Even Aratus, the Stoic poet, contemplated that human rationality was a witness to the rational order of the world and the universal logos. “We are his offspring,” so he said, and Paul wanted to affirm in even stronger terms, “In him we live and move and exist.” Matthew Henry noted, “It is not only owing to his patience and pity that our forfeited lives are not cut off, but it is owing to his power, and goodness, and fatherly care, that our frail lives are prolonged. There needs not a positive act of his wrath to destroy us; if he suspend the positive acts of his goodness, we die of ourselves.” With such utter dependence, strong likeness, nearness, and moral and rational affinity, our not knowing him, the one true God, shows that some terrible tragedy has happened to human perceptions and abilities to draw the proper conclusions from the compelling evidence.
  3. The presence of idols, therefore, is evidence of this rational and moral tragedy that has captured the human soul. Paul uses the word “ought not,” indicating both the rational and moral misstep in looking to idols of gold, silver, or stone as representative of the nature of divinity. Even we, though we have physical form, cannot be represented in our most remarkable features by inanimate things. Much less can God, who is Spirit and does not have a body or any segmented parts, be represented by such cold, lifeless, still, manageable things. And the very idea of plurality in a being who in any common conception of deity must be the supreme being is absurd and a first order moral failure. There can be only one supreme being and any being that is not supreme is not God. And to worship what is not God is the fountain from which flow all types of perversions of morals and rationality.

D. He immediately infers moral responsibility (30). The full display of divine wrath is on the verge of appearing.

  1. “Times of ignorance” does not mean absolute ignorance, for Paul has just indicated how present is the knowledge of God. This phrase refers to a time prior to the coming of Christ and the completion of his appointed work of redemption. In Romans 3:25, Paul wrote of God’s forbearance in passing “over the sins that were previously committed.” Punishment for sin was not enacted on the saints, but forgiveness was given them in light of God’s full manifestation of justice in the cross. The cross justifies God’s forbearance but also warns that full wrath for sins will not be abated, but its certainty is seen in that he required of his own Son the ransom price for his people.
  2. Now, since the coming of Christ and the display of wrath on the cross, the full implication of having been satisfied with such ignorance is about to be shown. Warning comes, therefore, in light of the reign of the resurrected Christ (Psalm 2:10-12). Periodically, God had demonstrated great measures of wrath to nations that gloried in their idolatry, their pleasure, and their show of power in cruelty (Habakkuk 2; Nahum; Isaiah 16; Ezekiel 25-32). Soon, the infinite blameworthiness of lack of the knowledge of God will be seen. Paul could have had in mind this specific encounter with paganism when he wrote Romans 1: 18-32, which he introduced with these words: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them” (18, 19).
  3. “All people every where should repent.” None is exempt in any part of the earth. No matter their religion, their remoteness from culture, their accumulated spiritual darkness enforced by generations of superstition and false religion, all are commanded to repent. This clearly indicates that every species of unbelief has arisen from heart corruption and rebellion and must be cast aside as sin against the one true God.

E. He particularizes this judgment in the person of Christ. This explains the “Now.”

  1. God has fixed a day in which he will judge the world. Isaiah 24 (NKJV) depicts this day in sobering images. Verses 4-6 read, “The earth mourns and fades away, the world languishes and fades away; the haughty people of the earth languish. The earth is also defiled under its inhabitants, because they have transgressed the laws, changed the ordinance, broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore the curse has devoured the earth, and those who dwell in it are desolate. Therefore the inhabitants of the earth are burned, and few men are left.” Peter speaks of the absolute certainty of this appointed day: “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed” (2 Peter 3: 10). This will come when all into whose heart the Lord has granted repentance have come to salvation.
  2. The world will be judged in righteousness. Righteousness is an absolute standard, not a sliding scale in light of culture, or supposed sincerity, or opportunity. “The judgment of God is according to truth.” (Romans 2:2). Divine patience is not designed to indicate that judgment will be mitigated, but to bring sinners to repentance. “Do you despise the riches of his goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4).
  3. The man who will judge is the one appointed by God and whose worthiness to judge is seen in his resurrection from the dead. As Peter preached at Pentecost, “It was impossible for death to keep its hold on him,” for, having died under the power of sin, his full propitiation rendered death’s hold on him of no effect. Jesus is appointed as Judge and, as “It is appointed unto man once to die, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:27,28). Redemption from sin is accomplished. When Christ comes again, he will bring the redemption to completion of all those who “eagerly wait for him,” and all others will see him as the judge before whom “every mouth will be stopped and the whole world held guilty before God” (Romans 3:19).

 

III. Luke summarizes the results of Paul’s witness succinctly.

A. We find three responses to Paul’s witness.

  1. At the mention of the resurrection, some sneered. This did not fit their pre-set philosophy and so in spite of the claim of the reality of a historical event, they simply dismissed it as incredible. Sin loves unfounded assumptions, despises evidence, and seeks to cast ridicule on the truth.
  2. Some wanted to think about this and hear Paul at a future date. Were they ever given the opportunity to hear him again? We are not told. Often, if we are unwilling to pursue a thing to the end when its importance is most impressed on our minds, seldom do we return to consider it.
  3. Some “joined him and believed.” We are are given two names, one a participant in the council of the Areopagus, Dionysius, and the other a woman named Damaris. Paul was not slack in his gospel preaching, but moved through every aspect of biblical revelation and climaxed the presentation with the reality of judgment on the basis of Christ’s resurrection.

B. Some have sought to criticize Paul for seeking to engage the Athenians on the basis of some elementary commonly held beliefs. This is a short-sighted criticism. At every point, Paul was emphasizing core biblical doctrine, as we have tried to illustrate, leading ineluctably to the finality of Christ as redeemer and judge. We should be glad to have the example of such a courageous presentation of the gospel in a sophisticated pagan environment.