Summary: Paul confronts the Athenians with an Unknown God - that alter was placed for the God who removed the epidemic from Athens ... they wanted to know his name
Acts 17:16-32 (NLV)
While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply troubled by all the idols he saw everywhere in the city. He went to the synagogue to reason with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles, and he spoke daily in the public square to all who happened to be there.
He also had a debate with some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. When he told them about Jesus and his resurrection, they said, “What’s this babbler trying to say with these strange ideas he’s picked up?” Others said, “He seems to be preaching about some foreign gods.”
Then they took him to the high council of the city. “Come and tell us about this new teaching,” they said. “You are saying some rather strange things, and we want to know what it’s all about.” (It should be explained that all the Athenians as well as the foreigners in Athens seemed to spend all their time discussing the latest ideas.)
So Paul, standing before the council, addressed them as follows: “Men of Athens, I notice that you are very religious in every way, for as I was walking along I saw your many shrines. And one of your altars had this inscription on it: ‘To an Unknown God.’ This God, whom you worship without knowing, is the one I’m telling you about.
“He is the God who made the world and everything in it. Since he is Lord of heaven and earth, he doesn’t live in man-made temples, and human hands can’t serve his needs—for he has no needs. He himself gives life and breath to everything, and he satisfies every need. From one man he created all the nations throughout the whole earth. He decided beforehand when they should rise and fall, and he determined their boundaries.
“His purpose was for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him—though he is not far from any one of us. For in him we live and move and exist. As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ And since this is true, we shouldn’t think of God as an idol designed by craftsmen from gold or silver or stone.
“God overlooked people’s ignorance about these things in earlier times, but now he commands everyone everywhere to repent of their sins and turn to him. For he has set a day for judging the world with justice by the man he has appointed, and he proved to everyone who this is by raising him from the dead.”
When they heard Paul speak about the resurrection of the dead, some laughed in contempt, but others said, “We want to hear more about this later.”
Many years ago, I heard the history of these alters to an “Unknown God.” It is particularly relevant, because it is a story of an epidemic that had hit Athens.
They had presented offerings to multiple gods who either weren’t able or didn’t care enough to respond. At wits end, they contacted an oracle who told them they were under a curse, and the only solution to the epidemic was to contact a miracle worker named Epimenides who lived on Crete.
The story goes that he listened to the people, then told them how to appease whatever God was holding them accountable for their sins. They were to bring in a flock of sheep, and wherever one lay down, an alter was to be built and they were to sacrifice the sheep on such an alter, wherever they lay down. The alters were designated to an “Unknown God.”
After admitting they did not know to whom they were sacrificing, they repented, and followed his instructions, and the epidemic came to a close.
Did Paul know this story? In the second century, the author Diogenes Laërtius included this story along with multiple quotes from Epimenides in his book “Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers.” One of these quotes is used by Paul in his letter to Titus (Titus 1:12). So there is little doubt that he had heard of the actual source of the alters to the unknown god.
This was a well-known story in Athens, and over time there had been much speculation about who was this “unknown god.” It is certain that at one point or another, those who wanted to debate the issue would rise to the occasion and advocate why they were sure they had the answer.
So, Paul using this emblem to intrigue them was not a random act, but Paul was trying to get their attention. Athens was saved … but who saved them?
Today, in our lives, it is very easy to be a lot like the Athenians of those days. Like them, we see the epidemic (a pandemic in our case) surrounding us. Like them, we turn to various sources trying to find the answers. And no matter where we look, there are no answers. Scientists, Doctors, Experts, Politicians, all come to us with what they hope is the answer. But the disease rages on.