“So Paul stood in the middle of the Areopagus and said, ‘Men of Athens, I see that in all ways you are very religious. For while I was passing through and observing the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: ‘To an Unknown God.’ Therefore, what you worship without knowing this I proclaim to you.” -Acts 17:22-23
This story is one of my favorites in the Bible. The Apostle Paul uses his intellectual craft and philosophical background to speak truth and clarity to the Athenian sophists of his day. This passage is a great reminder that apologetics, or defending the biblical worldview, is just as pertinent today as it was 2,000 years ago.
As you can see from the text, the Athenian people were very religious. They had so many gods and goddesses they worshipped. In fact, they made sure not to miss any of the gods by placing an altar to an Unknown God. It’s clear these people were attempting to seek the supernatural through rituals and ceremonies rather than by an authentic relationship.
In the next few verses, Paul makes a clear statement about the nature of God. He differentiates religion from relationship. He plainly states that God is not unknown, but has made himself known. This is what he says in the following verses:
“The God who made the world and all things in it, Since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by hands. Nor is he served by human hands, as if He needed anything, since He Himself gives to everyone life and breath and all things. From one He made every nation of men to live on the face of the earth, having set appointed times and the boundaries of their territory. They were to search for Him, and perhaps look around for Him and find Him. Yet He is not far from each one of us, for in Him we live and move and have our being.” -Acts 17:24-28
The apostle Paul flips the notion of religion on it’s head. He counters the sophists and philosophers ideas of who God is, as this mysterious entity that requires special knowledge to a God that has clearly revealed Himself to humanity.
Furthermore, he adds that the supreme God does not live in temples made by hands. He is much greater than this. Not even the heavens and the earth can contain His infinite being. He also doesn’t need to be served by human hands; for He is sufficient and doesn’t need constant rituals or ceremonies to make his presence even greater.
Paul is revealing that God is more interested in having a relationship with us than offering religious rituals that are impersonal and man-centered. For He says that God is not far from each one of us. For in Him we live and move and have our being. This means we are the temples of the living God. We are created in the image and likeness of God.
Can you imagine how shocked the Athenian people were hearing this? They were constantly told that one needs secret knowledge to know God, but Paul says God reveals himself clearly in nature. In fact, He dwells within each of us. He also shows these people that God doesn’t need candles to be lit in honor of him, but would rather have our own hearts on fire. In other words, to focus our attention on building a relationship with the Holy one of Israel.
In the end, Paul gets a mixed reaction from the crowd. This is what God’s word says in Acts 17:32-33
“Now when they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some began scoffing. But others said, ‘We will hear from you again about this.’ So Paul left from their midst and some men joined with him and believed-among them Dionysius (a member of the council of the Aeropagus), a woman named Damaris, and others with them.”
Humans have free will and choices, either to accept or reject the Messiah of Israel, Jesus. Even today, people either scoff at the resurrection of Jesus from the dead or they embrace Him. When we share our faith, it’s not up to us to convert the heart. Only God can do that.
I really enjoy the end of this story. You see how some people believed, from high-ranking members of society like Dionysius to regular folk. At the same time, you realize people will reject the Son of Man as well. But God’s story will go forth. People will continue to hear the good news that God saves sinners. Therefore, do not lose hope but share this wonderful news because people are ready to embrace it. The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few. Will you commit to being God’s laborer today? Blessings!