In Acts 17:16-34 Paul continues on his missionary journey, at this particular time he is at Athens. Athens was known for it’s tremendous architecture, polytheistic gods, and it’s philosophy. The Greek philosophers were very famous throughout the land. Everyone knew who they were and they came up with many different ideas about life, death, and everything in between. This section of Scriptures talks about two very distinct types of philosophers. The Epicureans and the Stoics.
A little history before we begin. The views of the Epicureans and Stoics were very much different and apart from each other. They were almost enemies of each other. The Epicureans (in a brief summary) believed gods exist, but they have little part in our life. They did not make the world, and they believed in the evolution, and natural selection views. The Stoics however were the opposite. They believed in many gods and that Zeus is nature himself. So anything that happens in nature was according to Zeus’ will and design. So now having just a little background of what’s in the back of these philosophers minds, will help us better understand the situation.
So Paul is here in Athens waiting for Silas and Timothy to join him. He walks around and sees idols everywhere. So he begins to teach those who came by in the synagogues and marketplace. Then trouble arises. The philosophers arrive and hear him and they reject him. They want absolutely nothing to do with this strange man who showed up off the street teaching about some man who rose. But others take an interest and want to know more. In verse 18 of chapter 17 it says, “A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.” Some thought he was a “preacher” of their gods. Then as the story goes they bring him to the Areopagus, (which was the Greek council in that day). They wanted to hear him speak of about Jesus, yet maybe not in the way they were supposed to. The Athenians always were interested in new “religious” ideas, they worshiped their Greek gods and made many altars and statues. But one altar caught the eye of Paul and he brought this up as he is speaking to them in verse 23. “ 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.” They made an altar in case they missed a god or perhaps forgot one to worship. Well that’s true they did forget one, the only God that made them and everything else. Throughout the rest of the chapter Paul explains who God is and teaches about repentance.
The point I want to focus on is the “Unknown God” inscription on the altar. Sometimes we make ‘idols’ in our own life that we don’t realize we ‘worship’ in a way. The Greeks built an altar for a God they did not know existed. Paul knew that the philosophers would not listen to him, so he pointed to their own altars as evidence for the one true God. Anything can become an ‘idol’ for us if we put it before God. Money, clothes, and even food can become idols. We must be careful not to put anything before God, or we will get off on the wrong path. Proverbs 3:6 says “In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.” If we don’t acknowledge him, by worshiping other things, how will our paths be straight? They won’t, and if we don’t realize that early, it leads to destruction later.
When you imagine an idol, what do you see? A statue made out of stone, bronze, or other metals? Most people do because it’s what has been drilled into our heads from the ancient world. But we know that’s not the case. The Greeks worshiped gods that we now call mythical. But when Paul came to them they were very interested. As Acts 17:19-20 says, Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.” The Greeks were interested in what Paul was saying. Even though the Greek council always heard new ideas, they were still eager to hear. But Paul took it more seriously than they might have. He pointed to their own objects of worship and told them where they were in error. One altar they had that was to the Unknown God, was the only one they needed.
Two lessons we can learn from the Greeks. One, always be eager to learn more about God, even if you think you have him covered. Because you don’t, none of us will ever know everything there is to know about God because he is infinite. The second lesson, is to not put things before God that will prevent us from him. In other words, an idol. The Greeks would have never known about Jesus if it wasn’t for Paul pointing out the facts. Remember God always comes first, then everything will be given to you. “Thus they have an idol that they petition for victory in war; another for success in their labors; and so for everything in which they seek or desire prosperity, they have their idols, which they honor and serve.”- Hernan Cortes. This is a quote about how idols can be easily made. Matthew 6:31-34 says that if we seek God, they will be given to us. “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”- Matthew 6:31-34