Alfred Place Baptist Church

17:22-23 To The Unknown God

Acts 17:22&23 “Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: ‘Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.”

The Areopagus was a small and powerful body of men numbering less than 30 people. They were men who had formerly held office in the city. They were aristocratic Athenians. Their reputation and influence was widespread. One of their concerns was activities of itinerant teachers who traveled around Greece giving lectures, and they exercised some control over those men. The apostle Paul had been attracting comment as a crowd gathered around him as he preached every day in the market place, and so the Areopagus requested that he came to them and gave them an account of himself and his beliefs. It was an informal meeting in which this council would come to some judgment as to whether to bring formal charges against Paul or not. “Clarify your message,” they were asking him, because what they’d heard so far concerning Jesus and the resurrection was incomprehensible to them.

What an opportunity for Paul. “Come and explain Christianity to us.” His words would be heard and then discussed for days afterwards. It was like the TV interviewer Joan Bakewell inviting Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones onto her programme to answer her questions about the Christian faith. We still watch that classic encounter with delight and are so pleased that it’s on the web. So here, surrounded by the Areopagus Paul would summarize his gospel; he would conclude, and the men would ask a few questions. Then everyone would go home, but the ‘buzz’ would spread across Athens. “Heave you heard what happened at the Areopagus today. There was a man there named Paul and he was defending his teaching about someone called Jesus whom Paul reckons to be the Son of God and someone who rose from the dead.” “No!” “Yes, that’s what he claims, and that he saw him alive after he had been crucified.” “No!” “Yes, that’s what he said to the Areopagus.” It was a God-created opportunity to introduce Jesus Christ to a city that had never heard of him. God gives us opportunities to speak a word for him.

The gospel has nothing to fear from such open discussions. We have nothing to lose in putting the Christian message forward at work, over a meal, at a tutorial, on the radio even, on the Internet. Paul wasn’t afraid of standing in the public square and preaching Jesus Christ and his resurrection, and then explaining and answering opposing views head on.

HOW PAUL ADDRESSED THEM.

“Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: ‘Men of Athens!’” (v.22). Standing was the custom in Gentile nations for a teacher, or for a defendant. We see from Paul’s whole speech that he was respectful and gentle. We also see what he was not. Not a comedian. From their expressions it wasn’t going to be a friendly session. They took themselves very seriously; their sense of humour was not their strongest point. He didn’t start with jokes. Neither was Paul a revolutionary to stand and declaim on the rights of man, snarling his opposition at the aristocracy. Neither stance was suitable for a Christian testimony.

Paul was going to give them a totally new view of themselves, and of the world they lived in, and of their future, life after death and the judgment. So there was no place for arrogance as he addressed them. That would have been the end of his defence. His actions and his spirit would have drowned his words. They wouldn’t have listened. So he is very polite as we are all called to be, giving honour to those to whom honour is due. When Peter tells us to be ready to give a reason for your hope to anyone who asks you then remember he adds that we must do so “with meekness and respect” (I Peter 3:15). There is little place in public defence of the faith for ridicule and superiority and name-calling and mockery. They are inappropriate weapons in our armoury. Rather, love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentle and goodness are to be the channels by which we speak, but most of all with the belt of truth and the graces of courage and wisdom. It is especially important for teenage Christians in school drawn into an argument with their teachers. Be respectful and humble at all times.

Consider Luther before the Diet at Worms, his life at stake, his death by being burned alive was a very real threat. They had burned his books. He was next. Luther’s arrival at Worms was very different from Paul’s arrival at Athens. The apostle got off the boat and slipped into Athens, no one noticing him, but once the news spread that Luther had arrived in a cart at Worms 2,000 people turned up – out of their homes and away from their work – to escort him to his inn. We all know his famous concluding words to the Emperor and the tribunal judging him: “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason, I do not accept the authority of popes and councils for they have contradicted each other. My conscience is captive to the word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. Amen.” It was extraordinarily courageous and dignified.

WHAT PAUL SAID.

“Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: ‘Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious” (v.22). This last word, translated here in the N.I.V. as ‘religious’ was rendered ‘too superstitious’ by the Authorised Version. Neither translation seems just right to capture the meaning of the word in the original. If Paul were saying that they were very ‘religious’ then that seems to be paying them a complement and Paul wasn’t doing that. Paul was not prone to flattery and there was a rule in the Areopagus that no invited speaker was to use flattery to gain its support. But if on the other hand Paul was saying to them that they were “too superstitious’ and gullible then he would be beginning his speech by criticizing them, which also wasn’t his intention. This actual Greek word seems an umbrella term to cover both ideas. Maybe Paul chose this word precisely for the sake of its ambiguity. These wise men would be thinking, “Why has Paul chosen this word to describe us? For its good sense or its bad?”

What Paul was commenting on was the fact that religion was buried deep in the psyche of every member of the Areopagus and pervasively through the whole city of Athens. Even these philosophers showed that they were conscious that there are powers above us and beneath us and around us and inside us – other than the physical and sensual realities that we can see and taste and smell and weigh and record and photograph. That sense of God is deeply ingrained in the hearts and consciences of all of us.

In the Old Testament it is laid down that if we say there’s no God then that’s an indication of our folly, because that is what foolish people say in their hearts. Because the evidence for the existence of God is overwhelming – both around us in creation and within us by our consciences. The Bible assumes that every man has some religion and that he is actively clamping down on this voice speaking to him telling him that the God of the Bible, the God of creation, lives and that God is calling on him to worship and serve him. A sense of God is normal and ubiquitous for the entire human race; a lack of the sense of God is quite abnormal. We are living in quite abnormal times in Wales.

So Paul was reminding them of their sense of God; ‘you are a religious people here in Athens.’ We cannot but be religious. Every galaxy and every molecule in the universe bears the hallmark of its Creator. Look around you! Look at the sky and the sea and the cloud formations. Use a telescope or use a microscope. Whatever you’re observing contains the personal autograph, or the fingerprints, or the DNA of the Word who was with God, without whom was not anything made that was made.

The revolutionaries during the French Revolution said that they would pull down the steeples of the churches and rid the land of Christian superstition. But the Christians replied by saying, “Yes, you may, but you cannot rip the stars from the night sky.” The moon and the planets preach to the world of men the being and the existence and the attributes of Almighty God. Paul was telling the Areopagus that they were religious, that they had a common memory, and it’s there still today within the heart of every natural man and woman. It goes all the way back to Eden, and not many weeks will go by without God summoning this person or that person, in their millions, to stand before the divine tribunal. They lie awake, unable to sleep, at 2 a.m. and God brings his law to bear upon them and they are lost for words. They can’t justify themselves. Paul says, “You are very religious because you are surrounded quite inescapably by the revelations of God.”
If we could summon the apostle here to Aberystwyth this week and drive him to the campus then what would he say to the staff and students at the college? Derek Thomas, an old student, imagines him saying something like this; “Men and women of the university, I saw that in every way you are religious. As I walked around the university I observed carefully your objects of worship. I saw the TV screen altars where you watch and worship the sports deities, soccer and rugby. I saw the science building, where many go and they place their faith for the salvation of mankind in science. I found the fine arts building, that altar where artistic expression and performance seem to reign supreme, without subservience to any greater power. I walked through your halls of residence and observed your sex-goddess posters and beer can pyramids. Yet as I walked with some of you I also saw the emptiness in your eyes, and sensed the aching in your heart. I perceived that in your souls there was yet another altar, an altar to the unknown god whom you suspect may live. You have a sense that there is something more than these humanistic and self-indulgent gods. What you are longing for as something unknown, I want to declare to you now.”

There is, what the French Christian and mathematician, Blaise Pascal, so famously observed as, “a God-shaped void in the heart of every natural man.” Man can’t help it, you see. Man was made for God. He was made for worship. Every man, every woman, in this world – even if they’ve never heard the gospel – is made for worship, and worship they will. They will form their own gods, a multiplicity of gods. For what can be known of God, (Paul says it in his letter to the Romans), “What can be known of God is plain to them, and that is clearly seen, so that we are all without excuse.” Paul is on a collision course with unbelief. “Him, whom you ignorantly worship, let me declare to you, the true and living God. Oh that you might know him for yourselves! That is why I’ve come to Athens. You are religious, yes in every way, but you don’t know God. You know him, and yet you pervert him. You know him, and yet you sit on that knowledge. You know him, and yet you form another god out of your own imagination, and you bow down at the feet of that god.”

3. PAUL HAD FOUND AN ALTAR TO THE UNKNOWN GOD.

This is what he says, “As I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD” (v.23). The N.I.V. captures the activity of Paul well when it says that he “looked carefully.” The word means a survey, an inspection, a scrutiny, like a sheep farmer purchasing a new ram at the local market, checking out the animals very carefully.

Now it is true that no altar has yet been discovered by archaeologists with this inscription, “TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.” One may well be discovered in the decades ahead. But we do have references to such altars. There was a plague that spread through Athens in the year 550 B.C. and no medicines could kill the virus and no amount of sacrifices could extinguish the plague. Then the philosopher Epimenides counseled the people and told them what needed to be done. “Let loose a number of black and white sheep on the Areopagus,” he said, “and whenever a sheep settles down and rests then there set up an altar.” So they did that, and not knowing the source of the plague’s elimination then the people of Athens set up these altars to unknown gods. “To the God Whom It May Concern” were the words inscribed on them. These altars were there on Mar’s Hill.

Imagine it! Thirty thousand altars in one city and still they weren’t sure they had enough. You go to India and there are shrines set up near bridges and on the outskirts of every town and village. No one knows how many gods there are in Hinduism, hundreds of millions I suppose, because anyone who wants his own god can have him. What was true in Athens is also true in India today.

Then Paul says this, “Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you” (v.23). You all understand that Paul is not saying that God is unknowable. Let’s make sure we are not thinking like that. Let’s translate it as, “You worship him, not knowing him” They were worshipping in ignorance. It was not an edified and educated worship. It was superstitious worship, hunch worship, self-taught worship. By what they were doing before altars and going to temples with their sacrifices they were acknowledging the existence of these mysterious and unknown forces who were lording it over their lives, however they lacked knowledge of the god to whom they were making sacrifice. They had failed to find God the inscription was saying. Paul is tactfully telling them that they didn’t know what they were talking about. He was saying, “You admit that there’s a god and that you don’t know him – THE UNKNOWN GOD. I want to say to you that I am someone who does know him, and I will now proclaim him to you. I will begin where you end.”

They were brilliant men, the most outstanding thinkers and scholars in the world. They were not a community of cannibals. This was a city which took pride in its intellectual prowess. This was the old Harvard, this was the old Oxford and Cambridge. This was a city that could boast such thinkers as Plato and Socrates and Aristotle amongst its old boys, and yet in spite of those distinguished alumnae their ignorance of God supported Paul’s great statement that, “the world through wisdom did not know God.”

We can’t assume today that if someone is using the word ‘god,’ and that he worships ‘god’ that he means what a Christian means by that word. For us God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth. That is the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s definition of God. The Father is God. The Son is God. The Holy Spirit is God. These three are one God. That is the historic Christian statement concerning who God is. But very few people will confess that such a one is their God. The professor and writer, N. T. Wright, speaks of his early years as the chaplain of Worcester College at Oxford University. He tells us how he’d arrange to spend a few minutes with each first-year undergraduate at the beginning of the academic year to welcome the student to the college and make some initial acquaintance.

Most students were happy enough to meet with him, but as they drank coffee and chatted a number would make some comment like this, though often a bit tongue-tied in saying it, “You won’t be seeing much of me at the chapel services Dr. Wright; you see, I don’t believe in God.” Now N.T. Wright would smile kindly at them and nod his head, and then he would ask the student, “Oh, that’s interesting; which god is it you don’t believe in?” He tells us,

“This used to surprise them; they mostly regarded the word ‘God’ as univocal (in other words, always meaning the same thing). So they’d stumble out a few phrases about the god they didn’t believe in – a being who lived up in the sky, looking down disapprovingly at the world, occasionally ‘intervening’ to do miracles, sending bad people to hell while allowing good people to share his heaven. Again, I had a stock response for this very common statement of ‘spy-in-the-sky’ theology: ‘Well, I’m not surprised you don’t believe in that god. I don’t believe in that god either’” (N.T.Wright, Jesus and the Identity of God,” Ex Auditu 14, (1998), p.44).

Now this response surprised many students. Numbers of the college chaplains had way-out views of religion. There was in fact a rumour that claimed half the college chaplains at Oxford were atheists. So some students drinking coffee with N.T.Wright might have thought that he was saying that he didn’t believe in God either, that he belonged to the anti-God brigade. Wright would put them right. “You see,” he’d respond; “I believe in the God I see revealed in Jesus of Nazareth:” What most people in our post-modern, Western world mean by ‘god’ is not our view, our orthodox, historic, confessional Christian understanding, our Christ-centred view. Their god is very vague; sometimes he’s no more than a projection of the kind of person they would like to be.

Now all the Christians gathered here today want you very much to believe in God, in other words, the God of whom Jesus Christ spoke – and no other. The one of whom he said that if we have seen him we have seen the Father. The one of whom Jesus said, “I and my Father are one,” the God who spoke in old times through the prophets but in these last days has spoken to us through his Son. The God of the Bible. Not the God who makes women second class citizens, not the God who only wants our money, not the God who opposes us having pleasure, not an obviously white European God. We want you to believe in the God who is revealed to the world supremely in Jesus Christ our Lord. This is what Paul was saying.

HOW PAUL MADE A PROCLAMATION OF THIS TO THEM.

This is what he said to them, “what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you” (v.23). This word ‘proclaimed’ is used frequently in the book of Acts and also in the epistles regarding the spread of the gospel. Certainly the gospel spread because it was known and understood. Certainly it spread because it was lived out in Christian living and in their dying. But it also spread because it was proclaimed to the world. We read such statements as “the word of God was proclaimed by Paul and Barnabas,” and “the testimony of God was proclaimed to the Corinthians,” and so on. Paul was conscious that he had received a divine commission to speak on behalf of God. He was an apostle of Jesus Christ; he had seen the risen Lord. He proclaimed the message like a herald sent by a king to declare his regal word, or like an ambassador sent by his country to speak to another nation. The word ‘proclaim’ suggests an authority, a confidence that what was being said was the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth worth believing, worth living for and dying for.

You can proclaim softly and gently. Of course! You can proclaim with a voice breaking with emotion, taking deep breaths to stop choking up. That is powerful proclamation. But on the other hand you can shout and yet not proclaim. You are just being loud, and after people have been shouted at for 15 minutes they feel like shouting back. But part of apostolic proclamation is a conviction that what is being said has the utmost relevance for you, and you, and you all, and every single hearer, for your life and your needs at this very moment. There is nothing more important for you to heed that the gospel of Jesus Christ, the one risen from the dead. The speaker who addresses you is constrained to speak it to you. That is true heavenly proclamation.

Where is the source of this proclamation? Where does it come from? It doesn’t come from within the man himself. If it does then it’s all a matter of strong personalities and human charisma and man manipulation and the X factor. Peter scorns such authority when he points out this; “we are not lords over those entrusted to us” (I Pet. 5:3). We are not bullies. A true preacher is nothing more than a beggar telling other beggars where to find bread. We are sinners speaking to sinners. We’re little more than that, but we are nothing less than that. You are hungry to know the God whom in ignorance you’ve been worshiping too long. I can tell you about him, where to find the bread of life. In the words William Ogden’s hymn,

“I’ve a message from the Lord, Hallelujah!
This message unto you I’ll give.
‘Tis recorded in His word, Hallelujah!
It is only that you ‘look and live!’”

“Look unto me all ye ends of the earth and be ye saved; for I am God and there is none other.” The message is from the word of the Lord. So the heart of this apostolic proclamation is not to be found in mere man, in a man’s pleasing personality and natural gifts and winsomeness so that everyone loves him. He may have all that – but yet be unable to make natural and effective proclamation of the gospel. Neither is true proclamation to be earthed in scintillating theological training, nor does it come by the hands of a bishop upon his head, nor is it found in orthodoxy alone, nor in his attendance at conferences, nor in the books he’s read – all of which may be very valuable. But the proclamation comes from one who feeds on the proclamation of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Peter, James, Jude and the writers of the New Testament and the Old Testament, feeding voraciously on them, or we could say that he has to stand on their shoulders. Proclamation also comes from appropriating the same Spirit that was in those apostles that he might be in him too. God must be with you! When Samuel was brought before the people of Israel it was vital that he should be known as the messenger of the Lord, and we are told, “The LORD was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba recognised that Samuel was attested as a prophet of the LORD” (I Sam. 3:19&20).

Amongst those men whom God has used mightily in the past, then one of the greatest Welsh proclaimers was Howell Harris. This is what he wrote: “My food and drink was praising my God. A fire was kindled in my soul and I was clothed with power, and made altogether dead of earthly things. I could have spoken to the King were he within my reach – such power and authority did I feel in my soul over every spirit. I lifted up my voice with authority, and fear and terror would be seen on all faces. I went to the Talgarth fair, denouncing the swearers and cursers without fear or favour. At first I knew nothing at all, but God opened my mouth filling it with terrors and threatenings. I was given a commission to rend and break sinners in the most dreadful manner. I thundered greatly, denouncing the gentry, the carnal clergy and everybody.” That was an awakening ministry, and every true exhorter has some of that courage.

Then joined to the message was this great apostolic ‘I’! Paul announced quite baldly his intention, “I am going to proclaim to you this God.” This is the one who once said to a group of believers in a place where his authority was being challenged, “Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” It is very straightforward. Why should you believe? Why should you become a Christian? One reason is this, that one of the people who saw Jesus Christ alive from the dead wrote down the message he’d received from the Son of God, and this man, Paul, is telling us these truths as to who we are, what’s wrong, who God is and how we can be redeemed, by putting our trust in the Christ.

Here in Athens before the burghers of the city, Paul was not facing an attentive believing congregation of Christ’s disciples, but still he spoke with the same authority to them as God’s messenger to them, just as when he’d written at the close of one of his letters, “what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord” (I Cor. 14:37).

The men of the Areopagus had never heard anything like it in their lives. They must have sat transfixed by his very manner of speaking – as much as by what he actually said to them. His authority demanded a listening, while his words required a response of belief and repentance. How is it with you? Do you ever yearn for something better? That is the beginning of prayer. Tell the Lord Jesus. Do you ever ache for the plight of others in this groaning world? That’s the beginning of sacrifice and the killing of self. Are you ever dissatisfied with your life? That’s the beginning of a longing for a new life, the life of God, the life of heaven, eternal life. Are you ever dissatisfied? That is the yearning for immortality. Then you must have dealings with the living and risen Jesus Christ. Take it to the Lord in prayer. Tell him about it. Tell it to Jesus. You must . . . you must . . .

5th July 2015 GEOFF THOMAS