AN UNKNOWN GOD
Princeton Christian Church
Acts 17:16-34 12 November 2023
Today we are taking a trip to Athens, Greece. Athens, in the early days of the church of Jesus Christ, was the world’s center of culture. It was also the center of religion and philosophy. You may notice I didn’t say Athens was the center of Christianity but only the center of religion, which, of course, in truth, are two very different things.
Paul waited in Athens for his fellow workers, Silas and Timothy, to rejoin him (17:14). However, as Paul waited there, he was not idle. His waiting was more energetic than the work of many. He immediately began to speak to the people there about his God.
Paul was in a city, probably the best well-known city in the world at that time.
Athens was a city filled with art, architecture, poetry, and wisdom. It was considered a place of excellence.
It was a place you would make your vacation destination. This was a place where a person could spend days looking at the statues and prominent man-made things that were so much a part of the city.
But none of these things impressed Paul, except that he did see them in their relation to God, or more rightly – against his God – the One True God.
The statues of Jupiter and Mercury, the Acropolis, the Parthenon – all of these structures were nothing – powerless – marble and stone in the presence of the overall idolatry of the people.
These clearly showed that the Athenians were without The True God and, therefore, without hope in the world.
And that is when Paul caught sight of the altar with the inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD.
On that altar and that inscription, he immediately saw proof of the need for God and of the inability of the natural man to find Him.
This universal idolatry caused the Apostle to speak out, reasoning with Jews and Gentiles, in the synagogue and the marketplace.
He was compelled to try to bring home to the people of Athens a knowledge of the true God.
There were four things about God that Paul emphasized before his well-educated audience:
1. The forbearance of God – We read in verse 30: In the past, God overlooked such ignorance.
The nature of this ignorance is that the people were simply ignorant of God Himself.
Pagan worship regarded gods as confined to a temple while they held court.
Pagan worship also had different gods for different places and consisted of honor paid to statues whose very beauty focused more on themselves than on the deity they represented.
2. Ignorance of man’s relation to God.
Pagans thought of God as far off, that he was unconcerned with the world and had no relationship with the world and the people in it.
To the pagans, God had no real connection with them, so they lived their lives as though he really did not exist.
They did not think it worthwhile to retain a knowledge of God.
So, what is the cause of this ignorance?
1. The first cause of this ignorance is Sin
God had made man upright and in full communion with Himself. But then sin entered, and God and man became separated.
Gradually, knowledge of God and man’s relationship to Him faded. The result was pagan worship.
Romans 1:28 says: “And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper.”
2. A second cause of this ignorance is Self-Will.
Self-will is always included in sin and is the opposite of submission.
The result is dense ignorance and blank despair suggested by the very inscription on the altar Paul saw in Athens. They believed that there is an Unknown God – or, more rightly – a god who cannot be known.
We have said that God overlooked this ignorance. How did He overlook it?
1. He overlooked it by not granting further knowledge of Himself. Centuries passed, and the darkness grew greater.
2. He overlooked it by not punishing the pagan nations: Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Media, Greece, and Rome. All of these nations were allowed to continue in their own ways to this point.
Why did He overlook the ignorance of the nations? God surely didn’t regard knowledge of Himself to be of no importance. Sin is sin – at all times – every day, in every way – sin is sin. God would not be God if He were ever indifferent to sin.
1. God’s ignoring of sin was temporary – to prove the human need for God and man’s inability to find God by his own power.
2. Still more, because of the Divine plan of salvation to send Someone who could dispel the ignorance and banish the darkness that filled the world without God.
In Galatians 4:4, Paul writes: “When the fullness of time had fully come, God sent His Son…
3. The Gospel is the revelation of Christ as the One able to destroy the work of the devil shown in man’s ignorance and sin.
The second thing Paul emphasized to these pagans about God is:
The Commandment of God. Verse 30 – But now He commands all people everywhere to repent.”
There is no longer any forbearance on the part of God. He no longer looks the other way.
1. The time of testing is over. The altar to the Unknown God proved that the world, through its wisdom, did not know the true God – 1 Corinthians 1:21
2. The work of salvation is completed through Jesus Christ – the object of the coming of Christ is three-fold:
a. To reveal God to man –“That we may know Him that is true.”
b. To show man’s relation to God – “We are in Him that is true.”
c. To deal with sin as the cause of the former ignorance – “Keep yourself away from idols.”
What has replaced the forbearance of God?
Forgiveness – this is the essential point of Paul’s message to the city of Athens.
Forgiveness is a new reflection of the past and a new resolution for the future.
It is a change of mind about God and man’s relationship to Him. This change of mind results in a change in life’s direction.
It is starting to live in the light, coming out of the darkness.
What does forgiveness do for us?
It gives the mind a new perception of sin.
It gives the heart a new repulsion against sin as guilt before God.
It gives our will a new choice of God’s law, truth, and holiness.
The third thing Paul emphasized to Athens was The Appointment of God.
“For He has set a day when He will judge the world with Justice by the Man He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead. ” Acts 17:31
The future judgment is inevitable – " He will judge.”
Human philosophy has obscured even the vague idea of a future punishment. But such preaching is much needed today.
Even as believers, we need to be certain of the judgment seat of Christ –
1 Corinthians 5:10 – “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.”
The future judgment is universal – for all the world. There will be no exceptions – “all must appear. " No one will be excused due to their status in life.
Revelation 20:12 says that all – the great and the small – will stand before the judgment seat where the Book of Life will be open to reveal all our deeds.
This future judgment involves Justice.
The full answer will be demanded for every disregard of privilege and every abuse of opportunity.
Those who never heard the Gospel and are still ignorant of sin through no fault of their own will be judged according to their knowledge.
But those to whom God’s command to repent has come will be judged differently.
In all cases, however, refer to Genesis 18:25 – “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”
The Appointment of the Judge – Judgment is by the Man – Jesus Christ. Why?
Because He is one with us.
He will know our abilities and can have that sympathy that is so necessary to true righteous judgment.
Because the Man who died is the Man who lives and who will judge, we shall be shown to be without excuse in meeting Him as Judge.
We have either accepted Him as Savior, or we have rejected Him as nothing.
God has ordained Him and set His seal upon Him, honoring Him because of His life and work.
The fourth thing Paul emphasized to the people of Athens:
The Assurance of God
He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead (vs. 31).
Judgment does not rest simply on words, but also on fact.
Specifically on this fact:
The resurrection of Christ.
This assurance is given by God --- Why?
The resurrection of Jesus Christ proves many things
Among them – are God’s thoughts of Christ and purpose for Christ, which included the appointment of Him as Judge of all men.
The fact that God raised Him from the dead is God’s testimony to the world that there will be a future judgment of sin by Him.
No fact in history is more certain and more capable of proof than the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and it carries with it the certainty of judgment.
This assurance is given to all. How is that?
By the fact that the Holy Spirit is now in us --- stirring, convicting, converting our hearts.
If Christ had not risen and ascended back to His Father, the Holy Spirit would not have descended.
The resurrection of Christ gives us hope for a resurrection for all of us.
This assurance shows the reality of future life – death is not the full stop to life.
It is continued and completed in the world to come.
This assurance includes the resurrection of the dead – of all mankind.
So, as we conclude: What is the message from Paul to the people of Athens?
1. The longsuffering of God concerning the past ignorance.
2. The law of God concerning our present duty.
3. The judgment of God concerning our future life.
What was the result of Paul’s sermon?
1. There were immediate results with comparative failure – no church was established – discouragement prevailed
2. The Athenians mocked the messengers; few believed
3. They procrastinated – they said they would hear the message another time – did they ever have the opportunity?
What was the cause of such a barren result?
As long as the hearers had their ears tickled or were intrigued by new ideas, they were interested.
But when it came close to their conscience and required a change in lifestyle and submission to Christ, they said, “Thanks, but no thanks” and left those who preached Christ.
When Paul made speculations about God, they were all ears.
When Paul spoke about changes and amendments to their lifestyle, they said NO and walked away.
How is it in our little corner of the world today?
People still mock the truth of God and His Son. Many still let the opportunity to accept the gift of His Son pass and put off a decision until a more convenient time (which translated means “until I have had all the pleasure of life and am ready to settle down”).
Some have heard the Gospel message so often that they might have become indifferent or immune to it.
We need to face the truth now and yield to God in these ways:
Conviction of our mind
Confidence of our heart
Control of our will
Conversion of life
Give it all to Him who can save you for now and for eternity.
Paul states it very well as to the urgency of coming to Christ in 2 Corinthians 6:2:
“Behold, now is THE ACCEPTABLE TIME, behold, now is THE DAY OF SALVATION.”