Knowing the Unknown God

As I climbed the flight of stairs I kept arriving at doors that had strange brass faces. Some faces were kind of smiley while others looked rather evil. A number of doors also had statues resembling weird creatures. One part of me wanted to leave, but another wanted to knock on doors and preach. I mean why would anyone worship these things? Was it a case of following a cultural superstition, or did they actually believe these things existed? Were you ever in this situation?
When the apostle Paul walked around Athens and saw all their objects of worship he felt ‘distressed’ (Acts 17:16-34). But instead of wanting to leave, he had a strong desire to convince the Athenians to turn from their false gods and worship the God of Israel. Paul was so disturbed by the images that he broke with his usual practice of preaching only in the synagogues and started preaching openly in the marketplace. He didn’t want to just speak to Jews; he wanted to reach these Athenian Greeks.
Marketplaces are great for preaching. People use them as places to meet, and you can always find a number of individuals standing around waiting for a friend or a customer. And the philosophers and public speakers of Athens had caught on to this and used the market to get an audience to promote their latest ideas. Noticing this Paul decided to use the same ‘platform’ to preach about Jesus.
After a while some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers decided to give this new speaker an ear, but they struggled to understand Paul and even accused him of ‘babbling’. This was probably more a reflection of their pride than Paul’s clarity. Philosophers take a lot of pride in their ability to think clearly and utter wisdom.
However, this accusation was not as serious as the one that followed. Some other listeners said he was promoting foreign gods, and this was not allowed. The promotion of gods was strictly controlled by a city council called the Areopagus (named after Ares – the Greek god of war). So Paul was hustled away to the Areopagus so that his teaching could be inspected. But this was no problem to Paul; the council that controlled religion in Athens was exactly who he needed to convince!
As Paul sat before the council he was asked to explain his teaching, and Paul then stood and said “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious.” This was a compliment, and he knew they would take it well. A religious council wants to be religious and knowledgeable in all religions. We should all take note of what Paul is doing here. It’s wise to be friendly with people of other religions before attempting to persuade them to adopt your beliefs.
But Paul had just begun, and his next statement can only be described as wisdom from heaven. He said “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.” In other words, Paul was claiming that the God he preached was not foreign at all, for they had already built an altar to Him. And by their admittance they did not know him and needed to learn more about Him. So the council was caught in a situation where they could not accuse Paul of breaking their laws, and they were obligated to hear more about this God they were honouring. The unknown God had arranged this perfectly!
Again we can learn from Paul’s inspired strategy. Paul starts with something the Athenians know and accept, and uses that as a basis for speaking about what they don’t yet know or accept.
Here in Mombasa a large portion of our friends are Muslim. If we want to share our faith with them we start with something that they know and accept. For example: Jesus is a prophet and is called the Messiah. We can agree on this because it is in the Quran and the Bible. But then we ask why Jesus is the only prophet that is called the Messiah (Anointed One). Was he the only anointed prophet? The Quran doesn’t explain what a Messiah is, but the Bible does. And the Bible tells us that the Messiah is more than a prophet; he is also a king, priest, and suffering servant. These extra functions provide ways to explain how Jesus rules, sacrifices for sin, and why he died and rose again. We move from what people know to what they don’t yet know.
So having established that his God was not foreign, Paul begins to explain what they don’t yet know about Him. And we could summarize what he said with four points:
1) This God doesn’t need a temple. He is Lord of heaven and earth (24) (i.e. He is transcendent)
2) This God is close – ‘In him we live and move and have our being’ (28) (i.e. He is immanent)
3) This God doesn’t need anything from us – He is self-sufficient (25) (i.e. He is omnipotent)
4) This God is our source – ‘We are his offspring’ (29). We don’t make him; He makes us (i.e. He is the Heavenly Father)
This is not a comprehensive theology, but what a fantastic start! Especially when facing a pagan council. What Paul delivered in one message has kept theologians thinking for centuries!
But Paul wasn’t finished. He told the council that this God called everyone everywhere to repent.
You do have to wonder if that upset them just a little bit, and whether they were left looking for a basis to reject him. If so, the opportunity came a sentence later when he said that this God “has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.” The idea of God raising the dead did not go down well and the listeners soon became hecklers and Paul stopped speaking.
Fortunately the hecklers were not the only ones present. There were others that said they would like to hear more of Paul, and still others who believed and became followers there and then. Among these was Dionysius who was a member of the council and who must have been very helpful to Paul as he attempted to start a congregation in Athens.
Paul’s experience in Athens was a fulfilment of a call Jesus had given him after he converted on the road to Damascus. At the time the Lord said of Paul, “This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings” (Acts 9:15). And here Paul stood before a religious council in the ruling city of the Greeks; a city that is now referred to as ‘the cradle of western civilization’. But to be this it needed Christianity; and this was the precise moment that Christianity was birthed in the Athens; a city that was transformed by Christianity but still carries the name of the goddess Athena.
It’s interesting to note that the salvation of the Greeks had been on Jesus’ heart from even before his crucifixion. In fact the salvation of the Greeks seemed to trigger the crucifixion. It was when Jesus was told that some Greeks wanted to see him that he said “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:20-24). It was as if the Father had told Jesus ‘When the Gentiles come knocking, you know it’s time to lay down your life for the sins of the world’. This makes sense because it was the cross that enabled the blessing of Abraham to go to all nations.

Other Illustrations used: Greece from the air | Hindu apartments | Carl Madeiras Video

Closing Song: At Your Name – ‘Lord of all the earth we shout your Name’

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