Proclaiming the Unknown God: Paul's Mars Hill Discourse.
Acts 17:22-23So Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, "Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, 'TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.' Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.
The Apostle Paul in his second missionary journey found himself in Athens after the uproar following his ministry in Berea led the believers there to send him away from the spot of trouble. Finding himself in Athens — a city notable in the first century for its art and magnificent architectural masterpieces, his strong monotheistic mind and knowledge of God's saving grace was deeply troubled by the overt idolatry prevalent in Athens.
In his attempt to do something about the matter, he begun to minister the gospel both in the religious and civil spaces; his ministry to Athenians particularly the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers prompted his invitation to Mars Hill where he was expected to make a public presentation of his message. Mars hill (or the Areopagus) is a prominent outcropping of rocks that functioned as a court for trying civil and religious matters.
In proclaiming the gospel to the Athenians on Mars Hill, Paul recognized that they are a very religious people and in making mention of the altar consecrated to an Unknown God, we must not think that Paul was trying to reveal the identity of that one out of many gods found in Athens— instead he alluded to that altar to show the Athenians that their overt superstition is proof of their desire to worship the one true God albeit they neither know Him nor have a relationship with Him and right now, Paul is going to show them who the true God is and how to worship Him.
Paul's Proclamation of God's Divine Attributes.
1. An Overview
After his introduction, Paul set out to declare unto his audience elements of God's divine attributes. In doing this, he develops a sound and biblical theology without necessarily quoting from the Jewish scriptures but instead, borrows from their own literature in order to connect with them; he recognised enough common ground to make a reasonable point of departure.
Also, Paul paints a picture of God that spans through the entire period of human existence — from creation, through redemption to the final judgement and then he demands for an appropriate response of faith, thus putting Jesus as the fulcrum around which all of human history and our individual eternal destiny revolves.
2. Paul's Proclamations
There are at least seven proclamations in Paul's sermon that reveals unto his audience essential qualities and attributes of God. Firstly, Paul states that God is the Almighty Creator and secondly, the Universal Lord
The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands;
and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation...
In this twin proclamation, Paul contradicts the philosophies of polytheism, naturalism and Greek superiority held by members of his audience; boldly, Paul declares that God is the source of creation — the cosmos and all else found in the world and since He is creator, He stands apart from his creation.
Again since He is Lord over all, he cannot be confined to a shrine to be worshiped and everyone everywhere, both Greek and non-Greeks are answerable to His authority.
It should be noticed that Paul made these statements with enough conviction in the divine character so much so that though overlooking pagan temples, he could boldly tell his audience that God does not dwell in those buildings made by human hands thus upending a religious system that has existed for many many years.
Thirdly, he states that God is the Bountiful Giver.
...nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things...
The one who gives to all does not depend on our gifts or offerings. Paul here echoes the words of Isaiah the prophet and David the king—
Thus says God the Lord, Who created the heavens and stretched them out, Who spread out the earth and its offspring, Who gives breath to the people on it And spirit to those who walk in it...
Bless the Lord, O my soul, And all that is within me, bless His holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, And forget none of His benefits;... who satisfies your years with good things, So that your youth is renewed like the eagle.
Bless the Lord, O my soul! O Lord my God, You are very great; You are clothed with splendor and majesty, He sends forth springs in the valleys; they flow between the mountains; they give drink to every beast of the field; The wild donkeys quench their thirst. He causes the grass to grow for the cattle, and vegetation for the labor of man, so that he may bring forth food from the earth, and wine which makes man's heart glad, So that he may make his face glisten with oil, and food which sustains man's heart. The young lions roar after their prey And seek their food from God. They all wait for You To give them their food in due season. You give to them, they gather it up; You open Your hand, they are satisfied with good.
The Apostle James says the same thing in his epistle—
Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.
So, the one, true God is the almighty creator, the sovereign Lord over all and the one from whom all things are supplied; hence we don't worship him or give him things to satisfy a lack in Him, instead he made us all for the purpose of relationship and fellowship.
Fourthly, He is the Divine Designer who is separate from his creation but concerned about it and has a purpose for it.
...and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us...
Paul is convinced that creation is an output of God's creative genius, but more than that, he says here that imprinted into creation and humanity is a divine design— the purpose of which is a relationship with God.
This statement puts a whole a new perspective on his next proclamation where he states that God is the Eternal Father—
...for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, 'For we also are His children.' Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man.
All of humanity irrespective of language, tribe, ethnicity or historicity can be said to have been created in the image of God and this imago dei is present in everyone — corrupted though by the fall, it is present still. There is a sense in which we can talk about the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Men though it is merely in the natural standpoint and not in the spiritual sense of the word.
However, this natural origin in God is the basis for which God is according to Paul, the Gracious Redeemer, who not only created the world, designed a particular purpose for it, also he designed a way of redemption, thereby making it possible for man to fulfill God's purpose for his existence.
Acts 17: 30
Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent...
In this statement, we see the breadth, the depth and the length of God's redemptive Grace. God's will is that ALL people in ALL parts of the world will come to a knowledge of God's provision for salvation and quit trusting themselves and their works and put their faith in God's provision. This change of heart from a reliance on self to a trust in God is exactly the definition of biblical repentance — initiatory repentance that is, which is the flip side of faith.
Why is this repentance important? Important enough for it to be a command from God? Paul answers in the climactic end to his sermon: God is Creator, Lord, Provider, Designer, Father and Redeemer but also the Righteous Judge.
Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead."
God has made a way by which fallen humanity can be restored to a relationship to Him and this way is by faith in Christ— the one who died for our sins and was raised for our justification. (See Romans 4:25). Paul did not say here that God will judge the world because of sins or evil deeds but simply he states that in the judgement, the issue will be, "what did you do with Christ — God's provision for sinful humanity?"
God is the Creator of the world and all in it, He is the sovereign Lord over all who cannot be confined to a shrine; He is the source of life and all we need, He has a design for humanity and all of us regardless of race, tongue or culture are his offspring. In the past, God overlooked our ignorance about his nature, but now in view of certain judgement, he commands everyone everywhere to quit trusting in themselves for salvation and to put their faith in Christ the Saviour who not only died but was raised to life as proof of his saviourhood.
For the Christian Worker
1. Persecution is Not Reason Enough to Stop Proclaiming Christ.
2. We must be Willing to Engage our Neighbours with the Proclamation of God's Truth both in Religious and Civil Contexts regardless of the Range of Responses we may Receive.
3. Religion oftentimes is a pointer to the Desire in the Heart of the Religious to Worship God— Explore that Desire and Take Advantage of it.
4. Most human cultures retain elements that though corrupted, to a large extent point to the invisible qualities and attributes of the Divine nature. When we see such elements, we should use them as opportunities to proclaim the truth of the Gospel Message.
For the non-Christian
Time is Limited. God has been Gracious. Repentance is Urgent. Righteous Judgement is Certain. Christ Jesus is the Judge. The resurrection is crowning evidence. To Deny any of these for whatever personal or philosophical reason will be disastrous.