Acts 17- To an Unknown God

Our reading from Acts today has some interesting lessons about sharing what we believe.

The first lesson has to do with knowing who you are talking to. The message has to be something the listeners can relate to. You don’t talk to a child the way you talk to an adult. You don’t talk to a Buddhist in the same way that you might speak to Muslim, or an atheist.

So who is Paul talking to here?

Paul has arrived in Athens. This is a city known for its philosophy. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were sons of the great city of Athens. It was a major center of culture, art, and religion. … As a modern equivalent, you might imagine a place like Oxford or Cambridge.

There were a couple of important philosophies floating around Athens at this time. The Epicureans believed that the gods didn’t have much to do with humanity. The gods gave no more thought to human beings than human beings give to ants. The universe was governed more by chance, than any sort of divine plan. They didn’t believe in an afterlife and developed a philosophy based on squeezing the most pleasure out of life without destroying yourself in the process. To become addicted to drugs might not be the best plan because it is short lived pleasure that is not sustainable- friendship should also be valued as a pleasure, for example.

The other philosophy floating around was Stoicism. Stoics acknowledged a supreme God, but it was more of a pantheistic understanding of God. Almost like God is the soul of the world. This philosophy was about fate, and facing the difficulties of life, doing your duty, and living in harmony with nature. It was important for them to be self-sufficient. The stoic faces life with a calm acceptance. That can be good if you get in a car accident and learn to stay calm rather than fly into road rage. The stoics can sometimes be accused of apathy, however. There is a story about a stoic sage who, upon hearing the news that his son had died, responded, “I knew I sired a [mortal] human being”. A bit cold.

This was the atmosphere Paul was walking into. He tried to find a starting point with them. He couldn’t just start quoting Scripture. They didn’t care about that. When Paul was speaking in synagogues to Jewish people he could start with Scripture. He could speak about temple sacrifices, and the covenants. He could point to passages and use them to talk about Jesus.

But in Athens he needed a different starting point. …

First, he acknowledged their instinct to worship. He says they are a very religious people. There are altars everywhere. There was a Roman satirist who joked that it was easier to find a god in Athens than a man. Many of these temples and altars and statues were incredibly beautiful works of art. It was easy to see that they were very religious. …

We, too, should be willing to recognize a good instinct in people’s lives. Paul doesn’t come in with a fire and brimstone sermon pronouncing doom on their paganism. He recognizes their instinct to worship as a good thing. We should also be able to see the good in people’s lives- maybe the way they care for their family, or maybe they show compassion for animals, and care for the creation.

Secondly, he then pointed to one of their altars that was dedicated to “an unknown god”.[1] Essentially, they are admitting there is a god out there they don’t know. … Well, Paul is happy to inform them of who this God is. In fact, that is probably the truest altar in the city. God is not in favour of engraved images and this is probably because they are too confining. Once you carve a statue of God you make him small. God is beyond our images. God is bigger than our words about God. So, in a sense there is always more unknown about God than known because God is so much more profound than we can say or understand. So, “to an unknown god”? That’s pretty good. …

Think about this in terms of people’s lives. Where to they have this yearning towards something they can’t quite touch that hints about God. … Maybe it’s a yearning for justice and for moral right and wrong. Where does that right and wrong come from? Where do human rights come from? Are they fashions that can go out of style, or do they seem to be built into the fabric of reality. …

Or, maybe you see in them a great yearning to understand the universe as a place of great and profound order- from the smallest atom to the greatest galaxy. All of it has laws that govern how it behaves and if those laws were slightly different we wouldn’t have a universe that sustains life. That recognition and appreciation for the laws and design of life might lead one to wonder why the universe has that kind of order to it. …

Or maybe they have had a profound experience that they just can’t explain. It made them feel like they weren’t alone in the universe. They felt that there was some deep meaning to reality that was beyond their ability to describe it. What was that? Where did it come from?

... Perhaps these are little altars to an unknown god. Perhaps these are ways that God is already trying to get their attention.

Thirdly, he quotes their own poets and philosophers to support his message. This shows how well-educated Paul was that he was able to quote their own people. This shows that he has taken the time to appreciate what they value. Paul doesn’t start with Jesus. He starts with talking about the Creator of all things. This is something their own philosophers have been interested in for centuries. In the midst of his discussion about the Creator, who not only created, but also sustains all life, Paul quotes Epimenedes from the 6th century BC saying, “in him we live and move and have our being”. He describes God as being close to use and yet there is a mysterious separation between us. God wants human beings to find Him- to know him. … He quotes the Stoic poet Aratus (3rd C BC) saying “we are his offspring”. … The main point I want us to see is that he is quoting authors the Athenians found respectable and important.

If you have a neighbour or a coworker from Morocco, it will go a long way to do some research into that country. What is the capital city? Who is the author or movie director the Moroccans are most proud of? How do they say “Hello”? What would it do for your friendship for them to know you spent the times to learn about their culture?

What would it mean to have a discussion with a Buddhist friend and for them to know that you have read The Way of the Bodhisattva by Shantideva. What if you quoted it, 
“This body I have now resigned to serve the pleasure of all living beings. Let them ever kill, despise, and beat it, Using it according to their wish. And though they treat it like a toy, Or make of it the butt of every mockery, My body has been given up to them…” (Taking Hold of Bodhichitta 3.13-14).
 What if you discussed that passage in relation to Jesus emptying himself on the Cross (Is 53; Phil 2).

And later on, what if you read to them again from the Way of the Bodhisattva
“And may the blind receive their sight, and may the deaf begin to hear, … and may the naked now be clothed, And all the hungry eat their fill. And may those parched with thirst receive Pure waters and delicious drink” (Dedication 10.18-19).
 Say you read to them about Jesus encountering John the Baptist’s disciples coming to him with a question about whether he is the messiah-
“Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them” (Matt 11:4-5).
 Maybe that would make for an interesting conversation. And maybe they would be more interested in that discussion if we were more willing to show interest in what was important to them.

Maybe they aren’t religious at all. I recently watched the latest Star wars movie called The Force Awakens. We have also been doing a study on the book of revelation. And I’m seeing all kinds of connections between this vast unstoppable brutal army, not unlike the Roman Empire and this little group of rebels that don’t seem to have a hope. And yet, they win. And who would have guessed that this little weak group of disciples who followed a crucified man could have overtaken the Roman Empire. Maybe our hearts resonate with that story because they point to that greater and truer story. There are hints of the Gospel all over. Sometimes we are called to be the ones that point to it.

There is a lot in that passage but I think we need to end it here. But I hope that you have seen in Paul an example you can learn from. God help us to love our neighbours enough to talk with them about things that truly matter in kind and gracious ways. And May God open doors so those conversations can happen. AMEN

[1] For those who are interested in the history see- Pausanias’ Description of Greece in 6 volumes, of the Loeb classical Library, ed. W.H.S. Jones, vol1, 1918, book I.1.4.


  1. This is great Chris! A resounding AMEN. I do find, however, in a world where we have so much access to so much information and so many stories, that it takes a lot of prayerful discernment to know where to put my attention and what to study. We can't do/learn it all! Perhaps it is always best to start with what God is doing in our immediate and peculiar circle. I prayed once for God to bring me a Muslim friend, so I could better understand their beliefs and replace my fear with love. He started by giving me a devote Muslim co-worker, then a young Muslim girl who was dating a Christian, then a refuge from Iran, a new convert to Christianity, and his secular wife brought up under Islam...all within months! Then God provided me with a Mentor who is called to reach out to Muslims with the love and truth of Jesus! Be careful what you pray for ! :) I learned lot of about Islam and Muslim culture and people in a short period of time, naturally and enthusiastically! It was not something I 'set out to do' . For me, I needed the context of a relationship to motivate me, otherwise the temptation would be (and still is) to fill my head with knowledge and wait for an opportunity to "prove my faith" to the Muslim. Or to become so overwhelmed that I do nothing. The motivation must always be love, not gaining knowledge to win arguments. You make this beautifully clear in your blog. The interest we have shown in my former colleagues life and faith has drawn him to us with questions about our faith, to this day. We have been able to mentor the young Muslim woman as she prepares to marry into a Christian family and considers the cost of giving her life to Jesus, and we continue to walk with the refugee couple as they study God's word and wrestle through some pretty difficult situations as they adjust to life in Canada. All the result of asking God to bring someone into my life for the purpose of bringing Him glory! Anyways, all this to say that I love how you put into words our Christ-like call to enter into peoples lives and bring Jesus into their world. Thank you Chris!


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