“While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. … Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said:
“People 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. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you”” (Acts 17:16, 22-23).
An unexpected ministry
I doubt Paul planned Athens in his missionary journey but (by providential direction) he landed a unique opportunity to stand before the elite philosophers of Athens at the meeting of the “Areopagus” (or, the Latin equivalent, “Mars Hill,” v.22).
The title “Areopagus” survives today as the title for the Greek Supreme Court.”
Paul’s opening statement
“Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious” could be positive or negative. The King James translates it negatively, “Ye are too superstitious.” Remembering that the apostle “was greatly distressed to see that Athens was a city full of idols” (v. 16), it is possible that “You are very religious” was meant to be a negative assessment.
The word Paul used also could be taken as a courteous opening comment before he exposed the futility of idolatry.
It’s notable that Paul does not say: “Men of Athens, what are you a bunch of fools you are that you would fill your city with stupid idols made by man?” He appears to be starting on a more courteous note with a veiled rebuke.
Perhaps Paul was saying, “Men of Athens you appear to be very serious about religion.” But then he immediately points out the futility of their religious search: “I even found an altar with this inscription: To an unknown God.” In a way, Paul was saying, “Gentlemen, I would like to tell you why things have not added up for you.”
The fact that their idolatry did not add up, is evidenced in the inscription on one of their altars: “To an unknown God” Was this their way of saying, “In case we missed some deity out there (and we think this is possible), we’ll dedicate an altar to the one we overlooked.”?
Were they confessing the ultimate frustration of idolatry? This seems to be the way Paul viewed their situation. Paul used their inscription as his point of connection to introduce to them the God they missed. In his ministry among the Jewish people, Paul reasoned out of the Scripture. This group has no point of reference in Scripture so Paul uses a different text to open his message. Note also that Paul does not quote Scripture but uses truths that align with what Scripture teaches.
A closer look
“Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you” (v. 23b).
Paul was not just proclaiming another deity to take its placed in the pantheon of gods. He’s not accommodating their polytheistic worldview. He proclaimed the God who is Creator and Lord of heaven and earth. The One who said, “I am the Lord and there is not other” (Isaiah 45:5).
Paul knows the God they missed in their search for deity. His proclamation of the true and living God focused on the nature of God and human responsibility to God.
When Paul said, “you are ignorant of the very thing you worship” or “what you worship or reverence as something unknown, I am going to proclaim to you,”
He acknowledged that the Athenians were worshipers but not true worshipers. Their worship was not just authentic but slightly misinformed. They were not “unconscious worshippers” of the true God. They didn’t even know or understand who the true God is (thus the amazing presentation of God in vv. 24-31).
Some wrongly assume that if people are sincere in their worship, even if misinformed and misdirected, they will be accepted by God.
Misinformed and misdirected worship is dangerous because it ends up being what God hates– idolatry!
Even those who do believe in the true God, Jehovah, the Maker and Lord of heaven and earth, must be careful not to hold wrong views about him or to speak wrongly of Him (cf. Job 42:7).
“The most revealing thing about the church is her idea of God, just as her most significant message is what she says about Him or leaves unsaid, for her silence is often more eloquent than her speech. She can never escape the self-disclosure of her witness concerning God. Were we able to know exactly what our most influential religious leaders think of God today, we might be able with some precision to foretell where the church will stand tomorrow” (A.W. Tozer, The knowledge of the Holy).
No doubt this elite council of Greek philosophers found it difficult to accept Paul’s exposure of the ignorance of their worship because he (as a Jew) would presume to teach Athenian intellectuals truth about deity.
Notice that Paul used the “I” of apostolic authority: “I am going to proclaim to you.” For some, this was too much and they condescendingly sneered at him after he presented God to them. Although humans are intuitively worshipping beings, two of the most prominent obstacles to true worship are human arrogance and love of sin.
A question worth asking
Are you “greatly distressed” by the ways that people eclipse the knowledge of the true God and to rob him of His glory?
Let me ask it this way, since God the Father has exalted Jesus to the highest place of honor and given him the name above all names, does it bother you that your neighbor, co-worker, fellow student, or family member does not worship Jesus Christ? (Eph. 1:19-21; Phil. 2:9; Col. 1:18; I Pet. 3:22; Heb. 2:8).
“This is the zeal of the people of God that without exception every knee and every tongue should acknowledge the supreme honor given to Jesus” (John R. W. Stott).
This zeal for Christ integrates the worship and witness of the church.
How can we worship Christ and not mind that others do not? Our worship of Christ impels us to witness to Christ, in order that others may come and worship him too.
Reflect on Paul’s presentation of God: 10 points about God