The Unknown God

by David Padfield

While on his second missionary journey, the apostle Paul visited the city of Troas on the Mediterranean coast. While in Troas, Paul saw a vision in the night, "a man of Macedonia stood and pleaded with him, saying, 'Come over to Macedonia and help us'" (Acts 16:9). Paul boarded a ship at Troas, crossed the Aegean Sea and landed at Neapolis, and from there traveled inland to "Philippi, which is the foremost city of that part of Macedonia, a colony" (Acts 16:12).

As we open the seventeenth chapter of Acts, we find Paul leaving Philippi and travelling through Amphipolis and Apollonia, and then entering "Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews" (Acts 17:1). For three Sabbaths Paul preached in the synagogue of the Jews, "explaining and demonstrating that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, 'This Jesus whom I preach to you is the Christ.'" (Acts 17:3). Some of the Jews were envious of Paul's success and caused an uproar in the city. "Then the brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea. When they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews." (Acts 17:10).

Luke's estimation of the residents of Berea was that they "were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so" (Acts 17:11). Then the Jews from Thessalonica came to Berea and stirred up the crowds again and the brethren "who conducted Paul brought him to Athens" (Acts 17:15). The distance between Berea and Athens was 250 Roman miles—a journey of three days by sea or twelve days by land.

Idolatry In Athens

Supposing Paul arrived by ship, he would have landed at Piraeus and would have gone north from the harbor and entered Athens by the "Double Gate" on the west side of the city, where four highways converged. Before passing the gate, however, he would have gone through an extensive cemetery, where he would have noticed the graves of many distinguished Athenian citizens, the most famous being Menander, the son of Diopithes.

Passing through the gates, Paul would have seen the Temple of Demeter with statues of the goddess and her daughter. A little further on he would have passed the statue of Poseidon hurling his trident. Beyond this, he would have seen the statues of Healing Athena, Zeus, Apollo, and Hermes standing near the Sanctuary of Dionysus.

While Paul waited for Silas and Timothy, whom he had instructed to join him as soon as possible (Acts 17:15), he must have explored the city in the same manner in which tourists do today. He could have visited the Royal Colonnade, the Metroum or Sanctuary of the Mother of the Gods with her image.

In the agora the Apostle would have passed what sometimes called "the Music Hall at Athens," the odeon, a small roofed theater. In the agora the Athenians had an altar of Mercy, which stood in a grove of laurels and olives. Close to the agora, in the gymnasium of Ptolemy, there was a stone statue of Hermes, and a bronze statue of Ptolemy.

Wherever Paul turned, he must have seen statues, temples, and shrines. There was the Sanctuary of the Dioscuri, the Serapeum in the lower part of this city, the Temple of Olympian Zeus southeast of the Acropolis, the Pythium on the southern side of the Acropolis, the Sanctuary of Dionysus at the foot of the Acropolis, and many more.

Entering the Acropolis he would have passed two statues of horsemen facing each other on opposite sides of the road. On his right, on the western edge of the Acropolis, was the Temple of Victory Athena, the so-called Wingless Victory. Paul would have looked towards the sea and seen the Bay of Phaleron, perhaps with grain ships from Alexandria, Egypt.

He would have visited the most famous and beautiful of all Greek temples, the Parthenon, and then the Erechtheum standing on the northern edge of the Acropolis. Here his eyes must have fallen on the oldest and most venerated statue of Athena, which like that of Diana of Ephesus, was believed to have fallen from heaven (cf. Acts 19:35). Finally, there was the most conspicuous statue of the city-goddess, a dedication from the spoils of the Battle of Marathon.

An ancient proverb declared that there were more gods in Athens than men, and wherever the Apostle looked, in niches and on pedestals, in temples and on street corners, were gods and demigods. Busts of Hermes were on every corner and statues and altars were in the courtyard of every home.

Among this forest of deities Paul discovered one altar dedicated to the "unknown god." There are many examples of similar inscriptions in the Greco-Roman world. The idea, of course, was that these altars to the "unknown gods" ensured that no deity was omitted from worship.

Paul In Athens

Paul must have been appalled as he looked upon all this idolatry, for "his spirit was provoked within him when he saw that the city was given over to idols" (Acts 17:16). Paul, a devout Jew, had been taught from childhood that, "You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself any carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth." (Exo. 20:3-4).

He turned to his task preaching and first went into "the synagogue with the Jews and with the Gentile worshipers," then in the marketplace (Acts 17:17-21).

Certain "Epicurean and Stoic philosophers encountered him" and brought him to the Areopagus (Mar's Hill, KJV), where the supreme court of Athens had often met. The hill is in the middle of the city—sixteen well worn steps lead to the summit from a plateau between the Areopagus and the Acropolis. The King James Version of the New Testament calls this place Mars' Hill, while most other translations call it the Areopagus. Greeks called their god of war "Ares," while he was called "Mars" by the Romans. While on the Areopagus, in the shadow of the Acropolis, Paul preached one of the most memorable sermons recorded in the Bible (Acts 17:22-31).

Paul's Sermon

If you were to put Paul's sermon into outline form, I think you would have three main points, the first being the power of God. His power "made the world and everything in it." The universe itself declares His power, "for since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse" (Rom. 1:20). The Psalmist David said, "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork. Day unto day utters speech, and night unto night reveals knowledge." (Psa. 19:1-2).

Paul told the Christians in Colosse that by Christ "all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him (Col. 1:16-17). As the Apostles saw demonstrated, even the winds and waves of the sea are subject to Him (Matt. 8:23-27).

The second point of the sermon would be the omnipresence of God, for "He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:27-28). Our God is not limited by space. At the dedication of the first Temple, king Solomon said, "But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain You. How much less this temple which I have built!" (1 Kings 8:27). Neither is our God limited by time, for "with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day" (1 Pet. 3:8). Moses, in prayer, said, "Lord, You have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, Or ever You had formed the earth and the world, Even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God." (Psa. 90:1-2).

The final point of Paul's sermon was that God "has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead" (Acts 17:31). God's plan was that "repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations" (Luke 24:47). All men will be saved the same way. When Peter went to the house of Cornelius, the first Gentile to obey the gospel, he said, "In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him.." (Acts 10:34-35).

NOTE: The section "Idolatry In Athens" was compiled from several sources, including: St. Paul In Greece, by Otto Meinardus; The Acropolis Of Athens, by A. L. Oekonomides; and, New Testament History, Acts, by Gareth Reese.