To the Unknown God

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Map of Paul's Second Missionary Journey

While on his second missionary journey, the Apostle Paul visited the city of Troas on the Mediterranean coast. While in Troas, a vision appeared to Paul in the night. In that vision “There stood a man of Macedonia, and prayed him, saying, Come over into Macedonia, and help us” (Acts 16:9). After he had seen the vision, Paul, Silas, and Timotheous (Timothy) immediately “endeavoured to go into Macedonia, assuredly gathering that the Lord had called [them] for to preach the gospel unto them” (Acts 16:10).

They boarded a ship at Troas, crossed the Aegean Sea, and “came with a straight course to Samothracia, and the next day to Neapolis; and from thence to Philippi, which is the chief city of that part of Macedonia, and a colony: and [they] were in that city abiding certain days” (Acts 16: 11-12).

As we open the seventeenth chapter of Acts, we find Paul leaving Philippi and traveling through Amphipolis and Apollonia, and then entering “Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews” (Acts 17:1).

And Paul, as his manner was, went in unto them, and three sabbath days reasoned with them out of the scriptures, opening and alleging, that Christ must needs have suffered, and risen again from the dead; and that this Jesus, whom I preach unto you, is Christ (Acts 17: 2-3).

Some of the Jews were envious of Paul’s success and caused uproar in the city. “And the brethren immediately sent away Paul and Silas by night unto Berea: who coming thither went into the synagogue of the Jews” (Acts 17:10).

Luke’s estimation of the residents of Berea was that “These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so” (Acts 17:11). Then the Jews from Thessalonica came to Berea and stirred up the crowds again and “then immediately the brethren sent away Paul to go as it were to the sea: but Silas and Timotheus abode there still. And they that conducted Paul brought him unto Athens: and receiving a commandment unto Silas and Timotheous (Timothy) for to come to him with all speed, they departed” (Acts 17: 14-15).

The distance between Berea and Athens was 250 Roman miles — a journey of three days by sea or twelve days by land.

In Acts 17:16 we learn that “while Paul waited for Silas and Timotheus (Timothy) at Athens, his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry” (Acts 17:16). Before examining the sermon that Paul would preach in this city on Mars Hill, it would prove helpful to know of some of the things that Paul saw that became the foundational structure for that sermon.

Ancient Rome and Pompeii

Supposing Paul arrived by ship, he would have landed at Piraeus and would have gone north from the harbor and entered Athens by the “Double Gate” on the west side of the city, where 4 highways converged. Before passing the gate, however, he would have gone through an extensive cemetery, where he would have noticed the graves of many distinguished Athenian citizens, the most famous being Menander, the son of Diopithes.

Passing through the gates, Paul would have seen the Temple of Demeter with statues of the goddess and her daughter. A little further on, he would have passed the statue of Poseidon hurling his trident. Beyond this, he would have seen the statues of Healing Athena, Zeus, Apollo, and Hermes standing near the Sanctuary of Dionysus.

Parthenon and Acropolis

While Paul waited for Silas and Timotheous (Timothy), he must have explored the city in the same way tourists do today. He could have visited the Royal Colonnade, the Metroum or Sanctuary of the Mother of the Gods with her reputation.

In the Agora he would have passed what is sometimes called “the Music Hall at Athens,” the Odeon, a small roofed theater. In the Agora the Athenians had an altar of Mercy, which stood in a grove of laurels and olives. Close to the Agora, in the gymnasium of Ptolemy, there was a stone statue of Hermes, and a bronze statue of Ptolemy.

Wherever Paul turned, he must have seen statues, temples, and shrines. There was the Sanctuary of the Dioscuri, the Serapeum in the lower part of this city, the Temple of Olympian Zeus southeast of the Acropolis, the Pythium on the southern side of the Acropolis, the Sanctuary of Dionysus at the foot of the Acropolis, and many more.

Entering the Acropolis he would have passed two statues of horsemen facing each other on opposite sides of the road. On his right, on the western edge of the Acropolis, was the Temple of Victory Athena, the so-called Wingless Victory. He would have looked towards the sea and seen the Bay of Phaleron, perhaps with grain ships from Alexandria, Egypt.

He would have visited the most famous and beautiful of all Greek temples, the Parthenon, and then the Erechtheum standing on the northern edge of the Acropolis. Here his eyes must have fallen on the oldest and most venerated statue of Athena, which like that of Diana of Ephesus, was believed to have fallen from heaven (cf. Acts 19:35). Finally, there was the most conspicuous statue of the city-goddess, a dedication from the spoils of the Battle of Marathon.

There is an ancient proverb which declares that there were more gods in Athens than men, and wherever Paul looked, in niches and on pedestals, in temples and on street corners, were gods and demigods. Busts of Hermes were on every corner and statues and altars were in the courtyard of every home. Among this forest of deities Paul discovered one altar dedicated to the “unknown god.” There are many examples of similar inscriptions in the Greco-Roman world. The idea, of course, was that these altars to the “unknown gods” ensured that no deity was omitted from worship.

As was his policy in every city that he visited, he first took the matter before his brethren. “Therefore disputed he in the synagogue with the Jews, and with the devout persons, and in the market daily with them that met with him” (Acts 17:17). Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoics, met him (Acts 17:18).

Paul Preaching on Mars Hill

Although he was faced with a difficult audience to preach to, Paul did not start with making similarities between the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers; he started by teaching them about the death and resurrection of the Messiah. He did not begin with what they had, but what they did not have. It was then that some said, “What will this babbler say?” Others said, “he seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection” which was something that they had never heard of before. (Acts 17:18).

These philosophers of the day prided themselves with keeping abreast of the newest philosophies, and so they were intrigued by Paul’s message and were eager to hear these latest teachings.

And [so] they took him, and brought him unto Areopagus, saying, may we know what this new doctrine, whereof thou speakest, is? For thou bringest certain strange things to our ears: we would know therefore what these things mean (Acts 17: 19-20).

Standing in the midst of Mars Hill, Paul began his sermon with the bold proclamation, “Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious. For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you” (Acts 17: 22, 23).


I cannot help but wonder if the Apostle Paul were to visit some of our modern-day cities, how different would he find them than that of the ancient city of Athens? As he took the time to tour our cities, what would be some of the false idols of worship that he would find? Would he find that we also have “altars” marked with the inscription, “To the Unknown God?” If he were to preach today, which group of people would we find ourselves being a part of?

  • The Jews – people with a religious history, people who would consider themselves to be on God’s side by tradition.
  • The devout persons – people who may or may not have a religious history, but people who are being, or at least trying to be, as religious or God-fearing as they possibly can.
  • People in the marketplace – people who have no religious history or religious leaning. Just ordinary people who happen to be in the marketplace at the same time as Paul and just happen to casually bump into him.
  • The Epicureans – people who are sensualist. If they cannot touch, taste, or at least see something, then they have no interest in it. Some of these people might be party people, people who live for the moment, or people who are out for instant gratification. Others may be hard-working, practical people.
  • The Stoics – people who are materialists. They believe that everything comes down to matter or actually fire. They also believe in a cosmic order, that there is a greater good or orderly principle that somehow arranged everything on earth to be a functional expression of intelligence.

The word translated “superstitious” in verse 22 is deisidaimonia. It literally means God-fearing or religious. And so, here was Paul telling a group of party going, practical, and materialistic people that they were too religious. How could that be possible?

Religion or some aspect of religion is all around us no matter where we go. Turn on the television and you will be able to find various programs representing the beliefs of several different faiths and denominations. In the local grocery stores, among the books and magazines, there are Bibles and books on various religious topics. In the card section of stores there are cards for all sorts of occasions that have Bible verses in them. In almost every hotel a person can find a copy of the Bible placed in one of the bedside drawers. There are Christian bookstores, and even some of the top ten best sellers in secular bookstores are Christian, or written by Christian authors, not to mention the Christian magazines and posters that you can buy.As a person drives around town he also finds that there are churches of all different faiths and denominations.

Is all of this exposure to religion a bad thing? In and of itself it is not. However, I believe that there is a real danger in that for all the Christian posters that we see, cards and books that we read, and even good sounding words that we hear, there are people who are worshiping a God they do not know. There are people who may know His name, have attended Sunday school from their youth up, can quote many scripture verses by heart, can tell you about some of the main characters in the scriptures, and may have even been educated in a Christian institution. But, the real question is, do they really KNOW Him, or are they worshiping an “Unknown God“?

Paul Preaching on Mars Hill

The Apostle Paul continues his sermon in Acts 17:24-26:

God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; and hath made of bone blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation.

Paul is teaching that it is God who made us, and if He made us than He owns us. Therefore, He has every right to decide our future. He is also teaching that God is still in control of all things. He did not create the world and then go and sit down and leave the world to its own devices.

Sometimes when we go to church we put on nice clothes, smile at everybody and do all sorts of good things because we know that God can see us. However, when we go back to the privacy of our own homes, sometimes we tend to think that it is alright to do whatever we like, or we go to our jobs and show our true natures. We need to remember that, “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, beholding the evil and the good” (Proverbs 15:3). We must get out of our minds that God is only someone we meet at church. God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. He sees and hears everything, and He even knows what we are thinking at any given moment.

Paul is also teaching that God cannot be worshiped with works. Some people seem to think that by doing good deeds, or giving away large sums of money, or by any number of other pious activities that they are perhaps winning special favor with God. What they fail to realize is that God is the one who gives us life. Every breath we take, we take because God allows us to. God is also the maker of all things, and so everything that we make with our hands is constructed out of materials that He has already given us. Furthermore, God is not the partial owner of anything. He is the full and rightful owner of everything. A person may say that God owns the cattle on a thousand hills. That is indeed true, but He also owns the hills, and furthermore He owns the grass which the cattle graze on those hills.

Paul further emphasizes these points as he continues his sermon in Acts 17:27-31:

That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us: for in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring. Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device. And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent: because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.

Again, Paul used an illustration the Greek philosophers would have known and understood by quoting from sources they were already familiar with. He wanted to establish the fact that we are beings created from a higher power. He reasons that if we are created, who then can create a god that supposedly created us? For we also know that in God we live and move and have our being. Paul begins with what they know, and then refutes and leads them to the true God, the only God who can save. There is no watering down the message here. Paul is condemning this culture for their ignorance and foolishness. He is not using their language style or reasoning. He is not trying to copy the culture, imitate it or simply “upgrade it” with a Christian message. But first, he uses it simply to start with a common point of knowledge. He is preaching the truth, in a relevant way they can understand.

Some Christians have no interaction with the world around them. They tend to stay within their own safe circles, never reaching anyone with the Gospel. The Gospel, which literally means Good News, was never meant to be kept to ourselves or contained within the four walls of a church building. Our faith needs to be spread to every area of life and the community surrounding us. This does not contradict the fact that we should be in the world, but not of the world. There is a difference between allowing the world to influence us and us influencing the world around us. Jesus Himself best illustrates this truth in His prayer found in John 17:13-18.

We cannot afford to simply adapt to the culture around us. In that case, we lose the Gospel message entirely. Instead of adapting to culture, we must seek to transform it. To do this, however, we cannot be ignorant of it. Christ has called us to go into the entire world and proclaim the Gospel. Therefore, we should be able to relate to those around us. A proper view of the Gospel forces us to understand we are all sinners in dire need of God’s grace. Because of our common depravity and need, we can relate to those around us. If we are following the Lord and doing what we know to be right, then we will not allow our shortcomings to hinder our efforts to share the Gospel with others.

Paul now begins to draw the net. He tells his audience that in the past, God may have tolerated their sin because they did not know the truth. But now however, they have been told the truth. They are told they must repent. They must turn from their wicked ways. They are left with no doubt of what it means to come to Christ. Paul speaks of the judgment that is to come. He also tells them they are completely without excuse, for Christ has raised from the dead. They know who the Savior is. They cannot plead ignorance. God Himself has made this known.

And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked: and others said, we will hear thee again of this matter. So Paul departed from among them. Howbeit certain men clave unto him, and believed: among the which was Dionysius the Areopagite, and a woman named Damaris, and others with them (Acts 17: 32-34).

Not many were won over in this sermon, but that is not why Paul was there. He preached to a diverse group of people. He preached the same message without wavering or compromise. Some were saved. Not all, not many, but some.

There will be some who simply will never accept the truth. No matter what is said, no matter what evidence is given and no matter what line of reasoning is used – their hearts will remain hard. Do not get discouraged and frustrated by these people. Keep on doing what God has called you to do. The final results are up to Him, not you.

There will also be some who simply want to think it over. They want to ask a ton of questions and debate you into the wee hours of the night. They want to discuss, discuss and discuss, but never settle the issue. They want to explore other options, but consider themselves to be open to the possibility of accepting the Gospel and coming unto Christ. Do not get trapped into their snares. Often times they will trap you into discussions and never let go. They waste your time with meaningless debate that keeps you from sharing the Good News with others who really want to listen and come unto Christ. In all things, keep the faith and continue to be about the Father’s business!