22 So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 26 And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, 27 that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, 28 for
“‘In him we live and move and have our being’;
as even some of your own poets have said,
“‘For we are indeed his offspring.’
29 Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. 30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he 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.”
32 Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” 33 So Paul went out from their midst. 34 But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them. – Acts 17:22-34 ESV
Paul found himself in Athens, all alone, and surrounded by false gods and philosophers who found his message regarding Jesus and the resurrection a bit strange, but equally intriguing. They invited him to address The Council of the Areopagus. The council was made up of aristocrats of noble birth who were members for life. They were a semi-judicial body who, according to the Encyclopædia Britannica, maintained “guardianship of the laws.” These men were powerful and influential, and Paul’s appearance before them was due to their view of him as “a preacher of foreign divinities” (Acts 17:18 ESV). The Epicureans and Stoics who had heard Paul sharing in the marketplace were intrigued by what they deemed as “new teaching.” And Luke makes it clear that Paul was simply “preaching Jesus and the resurrection” (Acts 17:18 ESV). What Paul had been teaching was new to them. They had not heard it before. And so, Paul, taking advantage of the opportunity provided to him by God, addressed this distinguished crowd with his characteristic boldness and zeal.
The first thing Paul did was complement his audience on the obvious nature of their religious passion. There were idols to gods everywhere. The city was literally chock-full of statues and altars to deities of all kinds. In fact, they even had an altar dedicated to an unknown god, a point that Paul would exploit for his own purposes. In reality, the abundance of idols in the city had greatly disturbed Paul when he first walked through its streets. Luke records that Paul’s “spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16 ESV). The Greek word Luke used is paroxynō, which means “to irritate, provoke, rouse to anger.” Paul had been upset by what he saw. But he would turn that initial revulsion and resentment into a desire to speak truth to those who were living under the false assurances and faulty hopes they had placed in their pantheon of fictitious gods.
Paul capitalized on their altar to the “unknown god”, promising to introduce them to the deity of whom they knew nothing whatsoever, but whom they worshiped nonetheless. For Paul, this was an outright tragedy. These people were worshiping a god they didn’t know, offering sacrifices in an attempt to somehow appease and placate it. How did they know what the god required? They didn’t. How would they know if the god had been satisfied with their efforts? They could only guess. But Paul wanted them to know that this “unknown god” could actually be known and, not only that, they could know if he was satisfied with them. Paul began by explaining that the God to whom he was referring was the creator of the universe and all that it contains. And this God was not relegated to living in temples made by men or trapped in the form of an idol shaped by the hands of men. This God was independent of and completely non-reliant upon men. As a matter of fact, men owed everything to this one God, including their very breath and life. It was to this God that all mankind owed its existence. He had made them in His own image and placed them on the earth so that they might seek and know Him.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul would articulate the undeniable reality of God’s revelation to men as evidences in His creation. But he would also reveal that man failed to recognize God and honor Him for who He was.
20 For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God. – Romans 1:20 NLT
And Paul would go on to explain that men, unable or unwilling to see the one true God, began to take their innate understanding and awareness of His presence and create their own gods on whom to bestow their worship, honor and praise.
21 Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused. 22 Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools. 23 And instead of worshiping the glorious, ever-living God, they worshiped idols made to look like mere people and birds and animals and reptiles. – Romans 1:21-23 NLT
The streets of Athen were filled with statues and altars to the gods they had created – substitute gods – created by men to stand in the place of God Almighty. Paul even used quotes from two well-known ancient Greek poets, Epimenides and Aratus, to support his contention that the God of whom he was speaking was the creator of all things.
“In him we live and move and have our being…”
“For we are indeed his offspring…” – Acts 17:28 ESV
There was only one God who created all things. There was only one God who was the legitimate Father of all mankind. The rest were charlatans and fakes. If God had formed man, Paul reasoned, how could man then turn around and fashion Him out of gold, silver or stone? This was illogical. Men didn’t make God, it was the other way around. And while God had chosen long ago to overlook the ignorance of men, Paul warned that those days were over. He had revealed Himself, not just through creation, but in the life of His Son, Jesus Christ. God had taken on human flesh and come to dwell with men. The apostle John put it this way in his gospel:
So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son.
– John 1:14 NLT
And Paul made it clear that the time had come for all men to repent, to change their minds regarding false gods and their offers of fake hope, futile attempts at achieving human righteousness, and wrong notions regarding future judgment. Paul pulled no punches when he stated that God, “has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed” (Acts 17:31 ESV). These men had been intrigued by Paul’s discussions regarding Jesus and His resurrection from the dead. And that was the very man to whom Paul was referring. He had not been simply a man, but the very Son of God and the Savior of the world. Not only that, He would be the judge of the world. And the proof of Jesus’ divine nature and God-appointed role as both Savior and Judge had been His resurrection. God had validated Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah and the payment for mankind’s sin debt, by raising Him back to life. Not only had the myriad of gods living the streets of Athen never lived, they had never died and been raised back to life. They were and always had been lifeless and impotent.
But Jesus was and is different. The author of the Book of Hebrews wrote:
2 And now in these final days, he [God] has spoken to us through his Son. God promised everything to the Son as an inheritance, and through the Son he created the universe. 3 The Son radiates God’s own glory and expresses the very character of God, and he sustains everything by the mighty power of his command. When he had cleansed us from our sins, he sat down in the place of honor at the right hand of the majestic God in heaven. – Hebrews !;1-2 NLT
Jesus was and is the creator God.
God created everything through him, and nothing was created except through him.
– John 1:3 NLT
15 Christ is the visible image of the invisible God.
He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation,[e]
16 for through him God created everything
in the heavenly realms and on earth.
He made the things we can see
and the things we can’t see—
such as thrones, kingdoms, rulers, and authorities in the unseen world.
Everything was created through him and for him. – Colossians 1:15-16 NLT
Jesus was God in human flesh. He had been sent by God to pay for the sins of man and, when His work was completed, He had been raised back to life and returned to His rightful place at His Father side, where He now rules and reigns.
But it was at the mention of the resurrection of Jesus that some in Paul’s audience experienced a disconnect. Most Greeks in Paul’s day would have rejected the possibility of resurrection. It wasn’t that they didn’t believe in an afterlife, but that the body and soul were two separate things that would no longer be joined together after death. Restoring a dead body to life was not only unfeasible to them, it was unattractive. In the Greek mindset, separation of the soul from the body was a good thing.
But Paul’s efforts did not go unrewarded. In Isaiah 55:11, God declares, “It is the same with my word. I send it out, and it always produces fruit. It will accomplish all I want it to, and it will prosper everywhere I send it.” Paul had spoken the truth regarding God, His Son and the offer of salvation. Luke records that, while some mocked and others deferred judgment, some believed, and he gives them names: Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris. There were others as well who remain unnamed, but the bottom line was that Paul declared the truth about a God, a man, and a day. God was that unknown God to whom they had erected an altar. Jesus was the man appointed by God to judge the world in righteousness. And that day of judgment was coming. Paul’s audience, at one time ignorant of these truths, was now without excuse.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.