For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD…
I. THAT MAN, WHEN LEFT TO THE EFFORTS OF HIS OWN REASON, NEVER DISCOVERS THE CHARACTER OF THE TRUE GOD. The most probable explanation of the inscription is the carefulness of the Athenians not to exclude any God.
1. That there was originally an adequate revelation of God is not properly to be doubted (Romans 1:20; Psalm 19:1, 2). In addition to the silent testimony of nature were direct and verbal communications to patriarchs, etc.
2. Nevertheless, the knowledge of God became beclouded, and errors encrouched with fearful rapidity and success. There was a depraved principle in the heart of man urging him to devices, whereby God might be banished from his mind, and his passions set free from control. From this source sprang up idolatry. "They did not like to retain God," etc. (Romans 1:21-23, 25).
3. This fatal principle which led to the loss of the knowledge of God, prevented it from being restored. Having extinguished the light, it perpetuated the darkness. There were many centuries during which the human intellect was able to open all its resources, and to practise all its powers, but none retraced their steps to the Divine Being. "The world by wisdom knew not God"; "the age of reason" was an age of idolatry, pollution, and despair.
4. With reference to subsequent ages, and our own, the fact and its explanation are the same, as India, China, Africa, etc., testify. If, however, we are pointed to the writings of Deistical philosophers who have professed to argue the existence of God from the light of reason, we are not to be misled by the pretensions of unprincipled plagiarists who have but borrowed the guidance of revelation, without having had the honour to acknowledge it.
II. THAT IT IS THE OFFICE OF CHRISTIANITY TO PLACE THE CHARACTER OF THE TRUE GOD IN FULL AND DISTINCT REVELATION. The circumstances just illustrated constituted a necessity for a revelation. Proceeding on this necessity manifestations were given to the patriarchs of the supremacy and grace of the Most High. Then followed the calling of the Jews, the giving of their law, the solemn warnings against idolatry, institutions designed to preserve them from the infection of surrounding nations, and the ministry of the prophets. At length, "when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth His Son," and then came the ministry of the apostles. Recognising all this, note —
1. That the revelations of God in Christianity are furnished in connection with a method of redemption, from which their clearness and lustre are derived. The purpose of the gospel is to explain and apply a scheme of sovereign mercy by which man is to be redeemed from his apostasy. The existence of such a scheme had been announced immediately after the fall, and was shadowed forth in type and prophecy, and employed, harmonised, and displayed the perfections of God. Hence our Saviour frequently spoke of His work as "glorifying the Father." In the Cross Mercy and Truth meet together, Righteousness and Peace kiss each other, and in that Cross we see that "God is love."
2. That these revelations are designed for diffusion through the world. The earlier dispensations were systems rather of defence than attack, of conservation than conquest. But the gospel was "good tidings...to all people." Prophecy announced it as such, the "propitiation for the sins of the whole world" made it such, and the apostles were sent to preach it as such.
III. THAT IT BECOMES THE DISCIPLES OF CHRISTIANITY TO EXERT THEMSELVES FOR THE PROMULGATION AND TRIUMPH OF THEIR RELIGION. The conduct of Paul, whose "spirit was stirred within him" not only to indignation but to service, is an example to all. Consider —
1. Reasons which are uniform and permanent in their appeals. The work of promulgating the truth —
(1) Has been committed by Christ to His Church as its specific duty.
(2) Vindicates and in the highest measure secures the Divine honour.
(3) Imparts exalted happiness to mankind.
2. Reasons which are derived from the peculiarities of our own times — the extraordinary facilities which are now provided for the dissemination of Christian truth.
Parallel VersesKJV: For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.
WEB: 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 you worship in ignorance, this I announce to you.