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Introducing the “Unknown God”

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: Acts 17

We should never be intimidated by the arguments or actions of people who oppose the gospel of Christ. Such responses come only from people; the truth we proclaim comes from God. When we faithfully speak His Word, He will use it for His glory.


Chapter 17 of Acts opens with the missionary team of Paul, Silas, and Timothy, arriving at the city of Thessalonica. As usual, Paul enters a Jewish synagogue. Verses 2 and 3 summarize for us his ministry:

On three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures . . . proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.”

As a result, many people believe in the Lord Jesus.  

The Jewish leaders then stir up opposition, and a mob arrives to attack the house of Jason, where the missionaries have been staying. They drag Jason and others off to the magistrates, who threaten to throw them into jail.  

Not willing to risk the lives of the missionaries, the church “immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea” about sixty miles away (verse 10).

Their ministry here in Berea once again begins in the Jewish synagogue. Notice the response here in verse 11:

These Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.

We are told that many of them come to faith in Christ. However, when Jewish leaders from Thessalonica hear about the missionaries preaching in Berea, they soon arrive and start to stir up the crowds against Paul and his companions. Verse 14 tells us that Paul slips out of town and travels all the way to Athens, nearly 200 miles to the south. Silas and Timothy remain behind to organize and strengthen the brand-new local church in Berea.

God obviously wants Paul to deliver the gospel in Athens. This was the renowned philosophical center of the ancient world. Socrates and his brilliant student Plato had taught here, as well as Plato’s protégé Aristotle. This city was very affluent; even the ruins still seen today speak of its glory. 

Athens also was a center of idolatry. While waiting there for Silas and Timothy, “[Paul’s] spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols” (verses 16). Historians have even reported that in Athens there were as many statues of the gods as there were people.

Paul does not waste any time; he begins speaking in the synagogue to the Jews and in the marketplace to the Greeks. He is evidently overheard by Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. Epicureans believed that pleasure is the chief pursuit of man. Stoics believed that the goal of man was to feel neither pleasure nor pain but to master his emotions.

Well, some of these philosophers refer to Paul as a “babbler” (verse 18)—literally a “seed-picker.” In other words, they think Paul has picked up various ideas, and is now passing them off as his own in an attempt to become a famous philosopher himself. Others are confused by Paul’s preaching on the resurrection of Christ.

So, they take him up to the Areopagus, a hilltop where the leading officials and philosophers held court. They are curious; they are intrigued with Paul and want to hear more from him.

Paul begins building a bridge to them with a gracious opening line: “I perceive that in every way you are very religious” (verse 22). Then he mentions one particular altar he noticed in Athens, an altar dedicated to “the unknown god.” It seems the Athenians were so afraid of overlooking a god, that they built an altar to one they might not know.

Historians tell us that some 500 years earlier, Greece was overwhelmed with a terrible plague.  Hundreds were ill and dying, and people were desperate for a cure. They sacrificed to all their gods, but nothing seemed to help. Finally, a famous poet from Crete named Epimenides came up with a plan. He went to this same hilltop, the Areopagus, with a flock of sheep. He released the sheep to roam about, and whenever one of them lay down, the sheep was to be sacrificed to the god of the nearest temple. The assumption was that the angry gods would draw the sheep to themselves. The problem was, when the sheep were turned loose, they came down that hillside and some of them lay down where there was no temple nearby. The people did not know what to do. So, to cover their religious bases, they built an altar and sacrificed the sheep on that spot. When the plague ended, they raised a monument and inscribed upon it, “To the unknown God.”

Paul arrives at this same hilltop and effectively says, “I know the name of that unknown God. Let me introduce Him to you.”

Paul begins to describe God as “the God who made the world and everything in it, [and] being Lord of heaven and earth, [He] does not live in temples made by man” (verse 24). He begins with creation. And beloved, more and more today, as people lose any knowledge of the true and living God, the best place to start is Genesis chapter 1.

God is the Creator and the source of life. Paul says, “He made from one man every nation of mankind” (verse 26). There are many nations and ethnicities but only one race—the human race, created by God. The Greeks knew nothing of a personal, caring God.

Paul goes on in verse 26 to declare that God has “determined allotted periods and the boundaries” of people’s dwelling places. That is, God determines the existence and even the borders of every country on earth. God has determined how long America, or China, or any other country is going to be around. God is in control of the nations.

Paul then quotes two Athenian poets who acknowledged that all people owe their existence to God. Now these Greek poets are referring to their god, Zeus. Paul is not trying to prove his point by way of pagan poems; he’s brilliantly using their poems to illustrate his point that the true God is the source of life. He alone is the Creator.

The poets knew there was a creator. They just got the wrong one!

After introducing the true and living God, Paul moves to the verdict, which is basically this: “Since you have been created by God, you are accountable to God.” That is the reason, beloved, people do not want to believe in the creator God. They know that means they would be accountable to Him and even stand before Him one day. And that is exactly what Paul concludes with in verse 31:

“God . . . has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

God has overlooked their past ignorance—that is, He has not brought them to judgment yet. But they need to repent because Jesus, raised from the dead, will one day judge them all (see John 5:25-29). Paul is not engaging in a philosophical debate here; he is declaring the gospel of the risen Savior and warning of coming judgment.

Beloved, the gospel is not an option; it is an ultimatum. Paul’s sermon can be summarized this way: There is one God; there is one human race; there is one Savior. Therefore, there is one Judge who will come one day.

Paul makes it clear that there are not many gods, but one God. There are not many roads that lead to God, but one road. And that road is Jesus Christ. And the proof of Christ is His empty tomb.

Well, the responses to Paul’s message are varied: some mock him; others are curious and want to hear more; and some believe.

People listening to me today are responding the same way. What about you? Do you mock the gospel? Do you procrastinate, curiously waiting to hear a little bit more? I am praying you will surrender to your creator God and accept His Son, Jesus, as your Savior. If you have not done that, do it today.

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