Acts 17:22-23
Great Texts of the Bible
An Unknown God

And Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus, and said, Ye men of Athens, in all things I perceive that ye are somewhat superstitious. For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. What therefore ye worship in ignorance, this set I forth unto you.—Acts 17:22-23.

1. The story of St. Paul’s visit to Athens in the seventeenth chapter of the Acts gives us the points of contact and of difference between the philosophy of the ancient world and the gospel of Jesus Christ. The circumstances introduce the speech, whose brief outline of only about three hundred words is yet enough to show St. Paul’s courage as a Christian and his skill as an orator. Adroit in conciliation, delicate in suggestion, thorough in its adaptation, simple and sweeping in its logic, issuing in that testimony of which he dare not be silent, and which is still the crux and the scandal of worldly wisdom—it is characteristic of St. Paul from first to last.

2. Silas and Timothy had been left behind at that Beroea where the Scriptures of the prophets had such honour, and, waiting for them all alone, Paul saw Athens where the only prophets are the poets. It was the city of Athene—goddess of skill and wisdom. All Hellenic art and story and worship and thought centred there. For what it was it stood peerless, supreme. Beautiful for situation, and adorned beyond the rivalry of all later ages, of vast intellectual prestige, of a never-satisfied mental curiosity—it was “the eye of Greece,” and it is the wonder of time.

3. No man of ordinary taste and culture could stand in the midst of its glories without a feeling of æsthetic enthusiasm. Yet St. Paul was moved only by an intense pity and indignation. There was the Parthenon, beautified by the skill of Phidias and Praxiteles; there the Areopagus, crowned with its colossal image of Mars; there were the famous schools of philosophy by the Ilissus. On every hand were images of gods and heroes. Pliny says that the city contained three thousand such effigies. It was a proverb, “There are more gods than men in Athens.” The Apostle possibly walked down the Street of Hermes, where a winged figure adorned the front of every house, or along the Avenue of Tripods, lined on every side with votive offerings made by grateful athletes to the gods who had helped them in the games. Gods everywhere: gods on pedestals, in niches, at the corners of the streets—gods and demigods, good, bad, and indifferent—a wilderness of gods! And the heart of the Apostle was moved within him as he saw the city full of idols.

4. Over all was the breath of moral decay. Citizens and all comers alike were having leisure for nothing else than to tell or to hear some “newer thing.” The latest novelty was the most welcome—quid nunc? Aristotle and Plato were long dead, and less noble forms of thought now ruled this city of discussion. And this degeneracy of thought showed the incompetency of even the loftiest type of unleavened human reason to resist the sensualism that seeks its end in pleasures, and the fatalism whose pride of aspiration finds its conclusion in despair. What philosophy as such could do, had there been done. Idolatry had exhausted invention. Priests, sacrifices, shrines, festal days, were always in evidence; but this capital of æsthetics was still hopelessly unsatisfied and restless—unhappy and impatient—and ritual had lost its earnestness.

When love begins to sicken and decay,

It useth an enforced ceremony.

5. There was no difficulty in getting an audience in this paradise of gossips and saunterers, with its shibboleth, “What’s the news?” The Athenians quickly gathered about the Apostle—men, women, priests, and philosophers, all sorts and conditions of people. And he spoke to them of Jesus and the Resurrection, or as the Greeks had it, Jesus and Anastasia—a pair of new deities. He who introduced a god into Athens was counted a public benefactor. The interest of his audience was thus enchained at once. To know, therefore, more of this peculiar doctrine, they led St. Paul to the Areopagus, a little rising ground within the city to the north-west of the market-place, so called from a celebrated temple upon it dedicated to Ares or Mars, in which was wont to meet a venerable body of senators, who formed a political and judicial Council which also went by the name of the Areopagus. Eastward from this hill and temple of Mars was the acropolis or citadel, overlooking the whole city and crowned with the magnificent temple of Athene Promachos, the guardian or tutelary goddess, and other public edifices of rare architectural beauty. In every other quarter there were numerous temples and fanes filled with images of their gods. To win over the learned philosopher as well as the other intelligent and cultured citizens, St. Paul accommodated himself, as was his wont, to the time, place, and people.


Gods Many

“In all things I perceive that ye are somewhat superstitious” (or “very religious,” R.V. mg.).

1. Let us look at this word which St. Paul uses. It is very difficult to represent the meaning of the Greek word in our language. The Revised Version has modified the Authorized Version by introducing “somewhat” instead of “too,” according to the classical idiom by which the comparative of an adjective may be used to express the deficiency or excess (slight in either case) of the quality contained in the positive. But the quality in this case may be good or bad, since the adjective deisidaimon and the cognate noun may be used of reverence or of superstition. In classic use the word appears very often in a good sense, and many authorities are agreed in taking it so here. But there is no reason to suppose that St. Paul’s words were an accommodation to the usual practice of Athenian orators to commence with a mere compliment. At the same time it is possible that with delicate tact the Apostle made use of a word of doubtful meaning, which could not possibly provoke hostility at the outset, while it left unexpressed “with kindly ambiguity” his own judgment as to the nature of this reverence for the Divine.

2. Our modern atmosphere is charged to saturation with temptations to overestimate the value of natural religions. Let us all the more carefully arm ourselves against them. In warning us against this overestimate of natural religions, St. Paul may perhaps be allowed to give us also a name for it, by the employment of which we may possibly be able to put a new point on our self-admonitions. He calls it “Deisidaimonism.” And perhaps, in the absence of a good translation, we may profitably adopt the Greek term to-day, with all its uncouthness of sound and its unlovely associations, and so enable ourselves to make a recognizable distinction between that general natural religiosity and its fruits, which we may call “deisidaimonism,” and true religion, which is the product of the saving truth of God operating upon our native religious instincts and producing through them phenomena which owe all their value to the truth that gives them form.

As you look out over the heathen world with its lords many and gods many, and see working in every form of faith the same religious aspirations, producing in varying measure indeed, but yet everywhere, to some extent, the same civilizing and moralizing effects—are you perhaps sometimes tempted to pronounce it enough; possibly adding something about the special adaptation of the several faiths to the several peoples, or even something about the essential truth underlying all religions? This is “deisidaimonism.” And on its basis the whole missionary work of the Church is an impertinence, the whole history of the Church a gigantic error; the great commission itself a crime against humanity—launching the Christian world upon a fool’s errand, every step of which has dripped with wasted blood. Surely the proclamation of the gospel is made, then, mere folly, and the blood of the martyrs becomes only the measure of the narrow fanaticism of earlier and less enlightened times.1 [Note: B. B. Warfield.]

On the other hand, there is an attitude to other religions which has hindered the progress of Christianity. It is the attitude of ignorance and contempt. By unduly depreciating all other religions we have placed our own in a position which its Founder never intended for it; we have torn it away from the sacred context of the history of the world; we have ignored, or wilfully narrowed, the sundry times and divers manners in which, in times past, God spake unto the fathers by the prophets; and instead of recognizing Christianity as coming in the fulness of time, and as the fulfilment of the hopes and desires of the whole world, we have brought ourselves to look upon its advent as the only broken link in that unbroken chain which is rightly called the Divine government of the world.1 [Note: Max Müller.]


An Unknown God

“I found also an altar with this inscription, To an unknown God.”

1. At first sight it would appear that when the Athenians had erected an altar to every possible god that they knew or could think of, hardly content with their efforts to stand well with heaven, they then proceeded to something further. Lest they might unwittingly have overlooked or omitted some deity that expected their votive offering, and that they were bound to worship, with a pious zeal which the Apostle could not but admire they erected yet another altar which they left un-appropriated. But not to leave the entablature of this altar entirely blank, they filled it in provisionally with this strange dedication: To an unknown God.

The feeling of an uneasy conscience is shown similarly in the Penitential Psalm which a Babylonian king, about 760 b.c., addressed to his offended deity—

Against a God, known and unknown,

I have committed errors, I have multiplied rebellions:

I am afraid, I dread the look of Thy divinity.2 [Note: A. Smythe Palmer.]

2. God is to-day to a very large number of men, some of them men of culture and influence, an unknown God. And that openly, argumentatively. They hold that God cannot be known. They have even invented a title for their attitude to God, calling it Agnosticism. But agnosticism is not something that simply affects religion, it is something that affects all life. The only men who have ever done anything worth doing in the world are men who have acted from deep and profound conviction; and if we are to-day to have an agnostic age, then it is a very bad lookout for those who want to see the life of their country grow more noble, more humane, more just and more free. You can see the effect of agnosticism to-day from the top of the life of this country to the bottom. It has affected politics. We are in an age of “unsettled convictions.” All the vacillations and hesitations of to-day are very largely the result of the fact that we have been losing our hold of the great driving principles that made humanity advance in the days gone by.

The contrast is striking between the light humour of Matthew Arnold’s prose writings and the gloom of his poetry. In the poems, which are so admirable in their way, one may not doubt that his inmost feeling finds expression. There pervades them a tone of sadness—a sadness without remedy and without solace. Faith gone, the fountains of joy are dry. And yet he sees that the millions—

have such need of joy!

The want of the world is——

One mighty wave of thought and joy lifting mankind amain.

But the poet sees no ground of hope. He has no counsel to give to mortals, in their unquenchable yearning for bliss, but to “moderate desire,” to be content with what a few days on earth may yield. A lesson may be read in Tennyson the reverse of the despairing inference of Arnold—

My own dim life should teach me this,

That life shall live for evermore,

Else earth is darkness at the core,

And dust and ashes all that is;

This round of green, this orb of flame,

Fantastic beauty; such as lurks

In some wild Poet, when he works

Without a conscience or an aim.

You can feel the sort of pessimism and scepticism which is round about us, in the very literature of the land. One man said the other day, that the poets who used to sing the Divine hope into the heart of man are singing agnosticism, pessimism, scepticism. John Davidson writes—

Sunset and sunrise came,

The seasons passed, the years went slowly by,

But still to me the Universe was dumb.

William Watson describes his search for the voice of God, and this is how he concludes—

Above the cloud, beneath the sod,

The Unknown God, the Unknown God.

And that is all. And Swinburne, most brilliant of all, says this—

We have said to the dreams that caressed us,

The terrors that smote us—good-night and good-bye.

“Good-night and good-bye” to every dream of God that ever came to men in the form of religion! “Good-night and good-bye” to the summons of your God to a holier life, and the offer of God of forgiveness, courage, peace, and all things that make life worth living! Oh, how different it is from the men who spoke to the generation that has just gone by—a bigger generation, take it all in all, than ours. Listen: there was Browning describing himself as a man who was very sure of God. You know the story how a lady once, towards the end of his life, asked him about his faith. And he quoted three lines of his own—

That one Face, far from vanish, rather grows,

Or decomposes but to recompose,

Become my universe that feels and knows.

And then he added: “That is the Face of Christ, and that is how I feel it.” And when a man has looked up into the face of Christ like that, he has got something to teach us then that is worth teaching—very much better than to teach us to say to the dream that caressed and the terror that smote us “Good-night and good-bye.”1 [Note: C. Silvester Horne.]


The Only Living and True God

“What therefore ye worship in ignorance, this set I forth unto you.”

1. Notice how St. Paul meets his hearers on their own ground. He recognized a form of genuine piety (so the word used in the original Greek for “worship” implies) as shown in the existence of the altar. “That Divine nature which you worship,” he says, “not knowing what it is (notice, he did not say ‘ignorantly worship,’ as in the Authorized Version), this very thing I set forth to you.” In these words lay the answer to the charge that he was a “babbler,” a “setter forth of strange gods.” “I” is emphatic: I whom you regard as a mere babbler proclaim to you, or set forth, the object which you recognize however dimly, and worship however imperfectly.

2. It was a bold thing that St. Paul did when he stood up to tell the men of Athens the nature of the true God. The philosophers of an earlier time, such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, had had splendid visions of the truth, but they had not done much to enlighten the people. In the world of St. Paul’s day there were “gods many and lords many”; and yet there was nothing that the world of St. Paul’s day so greatly needed as the knowledge of the true God.

3. There is nothing that the world of our own day more greatly needs than the knowledge of the true God. For it is only the thought of a God, present indeed within, but in every respect above us, that can uplift humanity and lead it onwards to its goal. Present-day philosophy seeks to support religion, but its exponents have such disputations amongst themselves that those who have not specialized in their lore scarce know what to make of it. They seem all to have a measure of truth, but none of them, perhaps, the whole truth. But, although we may have doubts as to how far “the Absolute” of some modern philosophers can answer to the idea of “God,” whether indeed it be not a gulf rather than a God, it is cheering to see how almost all, whether Absolute or Personal Idealists, Ideal Realists, Spiritual Monists or Pluralists, Pragmatists or Humanists, seek to maintain in their own way the reality of God, the value of Faith and Religion, of Freedom and Immortality, without meaning to sacrifice either Divine or human personality.

4. Not only the old Atheism but even Agnosticism is already being left behind. There may be a good deal of practical undefined agnosticism. But the theologian, and the person whose direct interest is religion, will do well to hold fast to the fact of Revelation; only it must be more broadly and more truly conceived. We can know God only in so far as He reveals Himself. He is partly revealed in nature; but if we stop with nature we shall come short of the knowledge of a God who is really higher than ourselves. For man is more than nature. St. Paul certainly pointed the Athenians to God as the Creator of the world who, just because He is “Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; neither is he served by men’s hands, as though he needed anything, seeing that he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things.” He declared His omnipresence and nearness to all, “for in him we live and move and have our being”; and he quoted the saying of certain of their own poets: “For we are also his offspring.” So far, his teaching might be expressed in terms of the Eastern fable of the fishes who sought to behold the sea—

O ye who seek to solve the knot,

Ye live in God, yet know Him not;

Ye sit upon the river’s brink,

Yet crave in vain a drop to drink;

Ye dwell beside a countless store,

Yet perish hungry at the door.

The revelation of God in nature is that of an omnipresent, all-embracing, all-working Power, an Infinite Reason which is manifested in the unvarying order of the world.

5. How are we to find the true God?

(1) St. Paul teaches us that in order to find God we must get at the true idea of God. The faculty of religion in the Athenians was keen but uninformed. St. Paul set forth the true object of worship, first, as “Maker of the world,” or in their own language “the cosmos,” with all the order and beauty, adaptation and design, harmony and conspiring motions and uses of all inanimate existences and living beings in it. And He is not only the Creator, who, having once completed His work, and arranged for its maintenance, has left it to go on by itself, like a man who constructs some curious contrivance to go for an indefinite period, and takes no further care of it. But just as He constructed, so He continues to superintend the evolutions and workings of this huge machine of the universe. He presides at the helm of providence. He is “the Lord,” the possessor and master of heaven and earth. And being so great, and high, and infinite, of Almighty power, spirituality, and prescience, He necessarily could not dwell in temples made with hands. Neither could He be served or ministered to by men’s hands, as though He needed anything, seeing He giveth to all creatures life, and breath, and whatever else may be necessary for their sustenance and continuance. So that the Athenians must henceforth attach to their idea of God the predicates of daily and direct providence, together with a spirituality and omnipotence ever at work, energizing throughout the length and breadth of creation, as well as the predicate of original creative power.

(2) But more than this, man everywhere is by creation the son of God. All nations of men who dwell on the broad earth must acknowledge the one Fatherhood. No one particular people, neither the Greeks, nor their Roman conquerors, neither the Jews, nor any other, could engross to themselves the Divine favour. All were brothers, of whatever race or language, without exception, bearing in their make and constitution the Divine impress, endowed with that faculty of religion, in virtue of which they were all drawn to seek after God, if haply they might feel His presence, and discover His working in the creation around, and in the providence over them, since He was at all times immediately near, present in their hearts in the power of His love and holiness. The great Father of men had been schooling and disciplining His children, through the whole course of history, by the varied dispensations of His providence. He had fixed the bounds and determined the ages and periods of human life, both in single persons and in nations. Jew, and Greek, and heathen alike had been tending and hastening toward the goal of human history, the advent of the Redeemer, and the Promulgation of a wholly spiritual and universal religion, in which the ideas of the one fatherhood, and sonship, and brotherhood of the human family would be finally realized. Knowing, therefore, so much of God, and of our relation and dependence upon Him, for “we are also his offspring,” it was not reasonable to think that the spirituality and infinity of the Deity could be worthily represented by figures, or images, or material symbols of any sort, although men everywhere have fondly endeavoured to realize His presence under some visible emblem or form.

(3) Further, St. Paul went on to declare that in Jesus Christ God had revealed Himself in His moral character, as the God of Righteousness. If in the past He had seemed to slumber, He was now awake; if He had overlooked the ignorance of the past, He would do so no longer; for He had “appointed a day in which he would judge the world in righteousness by the man whom he had ordained; whereof he had given assurance to all men in that he had raised him from the dead.” Righteousness was the ruling passion in St. Paul’s soul, and as he looked around on that world of many gods and of much wickedness, his spirit was mightily stirred to declare to it a God of Righteousness who should judge the world righteously.

(4) And this righteous God is both immanent and transcendent. He is immanent. The revelation of the true God in Christ teaches us that man is God’s organ, God’s son, to learn and to give expression to the will of his Father. The reason why the world is not better than it is, and why individual lives often remain on such a low level, is because men have been looking too exclusively to a God outside themselves, slow to learn where the living God is, or, having learned, reluctant to do His will—perhaps because it called for sacrifice. The power of the revelation of God in Christ is in the fact that Jesus stopped not short of the complete sacrifice of Himself in order to do the Will of God. So entirely was He one with God, so completely was He the Continuator of the Divine working in the world. Moreover, since it was the very life of God that moved in Christ—God as the living God—we see God Himself in Christ accepting and submitting to the actual order of the Universe, and in that Divine silence which makes human life often seem so dark and tragical, enduring the worst that man can do to man, suffering the result in this life of the sin of humanity. In this light we see that the actual order is an absolutely necessary one—necessary for the making of man and for the accomplishment of the Divine purposes concerning him; therefore, one to be accepted, not only in submission, but in faith and hope.

The belief in God’s Fatherhood is the belief in the immanence of God. It is the faith that His interests are bound up with the interests of the tiny sparrow, maimed by a stone from some ruthless hand, and perishing in its pain, as surely as with the spiritual progress of Augustine or St. Paul or the genius of Shakespeare. If a sparrow could fall to the ground without God, then one would have very little confidence in the Divine dealings with the greatest soul. A God unjust to a sparrow would be unjust to all. But if God is really the principle, both differentiating and integrating, that made and guides and informs the whole universe, that is the glory of the wayside flower, and of the farthest star; if the hurt sparrow dies into the life that gave it being, then we have hope for the sparrow and for the souls of men. The universe was not cast off by God, to plunge itself into this terrible travail—conflict and anguish and death—without Him. His life and thought are in the slayer and the slain. At the last analysis of inorganic or organic matter we come to God. It is our name for the sum of Being—the All in All.1 [Note: May Kendall.]

He glows above

With scarce an Intervention, presses close

And palpitatingly, His soul o’er ours:

We feel Him, nor by painful reason know!

The everlasting minute of creation

Is felt there; now it is, as it was then;

All changes at His instantaneous will,

Not by the operation of a law

Whose maker is elsewhere at other work.

His hand is still engaged upon His world—

Man’s praise can forward it, man’s prayer suspend,

For is not God all-mighty? To recast

The world, erase old things and make them new,

What costs it Him? So, man breathes nobly there.2 [Note: Browning, Luria.]

But the revelation in Christ shows us that the true God is also transcendent—everywhere present. He was not merely within Jesus by His Spirit, He was at the same time the Father to whom Jesus prayed and whose will He ever sought to do. Immanence is not identity. Man is not himself God, nor the only temple of His presence. Otherwise there would be no God above us to worship, and whose will it is ours to do. As Eckhardt (who has often been accused of the Pantheism which he here opposes) says: “The fundamental thought is the real distinction between God and the world, together with their real inseparability; for only really distinct elements can interpenetrate each other.” As with the growing plant, its life-principle is at once in it as the vital energy (spirit of life) which it obeys in its development, and above it as the Ideal to be realized in its perfection, so is it with man in relation to God. As Jesus taught, the ideal of our life is nothing short of God Himself in the form of sonship towards Him and likeness to Him. It is only when this ideal is reached that man is “one with God,” and that in man the immanent Divine is one with the transcendent. It was this that was realized in Christ and manifested in the culmination of His life in the sacrifice of the Cross.

What we need so much for our life is to believe in and realize this presence of God, both as a Holy Spirit within us and as the Infinite Spirit “around us ever.” His presence within makes itself felt in that something that would always lift us higher and lead us to follow and act out that Best which has ever the supreme claim upon us. His presence without is revealed in the Providence that orders our life, in that higher Will which we cannot alter or resist, in trustful acceptance of which in everything we alone can have peace; and in that Greater, Wiser, and Better than ourselves whom the heart craves for, and whom it finds in prayer, on whom we can cast our burdens and be sustained, to whom our labouring souls can come and find rest, to whom we can commit our way, ourselves, and all persons and interests we are concerned for, and find “the peace of God which passeth all understanding” guarding our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. “Little children,” writes the Apostle, “keep yourselves from idols.” This is the true God and eternal life. We cannot see God, but

High above the limits of my seeing

And folded far within the inmost heart,

And deep below the deeps of conscious being,

Thy splendour shineth; there, O God, Thou art.1 [Note: W. L. Walker.]

An Unknown God


Burrell (D. J.), The Gospel of Gladness, 96.

Hessey (J. A.), Moral Difficulties, iii. 37.

Knight (W. A.), Things New and Old, 207.

Miller (J.), Sermons Literary and Scientific, 1st Ser., 63.

Neale (J. M.), Sermons preached in a Religious House, i. 27.

Palmer (A. S.), The Motherhood of God, 93.

Price (A. C), Fifty Sermons, x. 137.

Salmon (G.), Cathedral and University Sermons, 103.

Smith (H. A.), Things New and Old, 130.

Stryker (M. W.), The Well by the Gate, 73.

Tyng (S. H.), The People’s Pulpit, New Series, iv. 233.

Vaughan (J.), Sermons (Brighton Pulpit), xi. No. 849.

Walker (W. L.), The True Christ, 31.

Warfield (B. B.), The Power of God unto Salvation, 219.

Pulpit Encyclopædia, i. 74 (Horne).

The Great Texts of the Bible - James Hastings

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