Athenian Religion
Acts 17:23
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. The materials for an introduction are found in the following suggestive passage from F.D. Maurice: - "This language assumed that the Athenians were in search of God; that they were ignorantly worshipping him; that they had a sense of his being a Father; that they wanted some one living human image of him, to supplant those images of him which they had made for themselves This teaching was adapted to all that was true and sound in the Greek mind. The Greek asked for one who should exhibit humanity in its perfection; and he was told of the Son of man. He felt that whoever did so exhibit humanity must be Divine. The Son of man was declared to be the Son of God. He had dreamed of one from whom the highest glory man could conceive must have proceeded. He was told of the Father. He had thought of a Divine presence in every tree and flower. He heard of a presence nearer still to himself." We may learn from St. Paul's speech how we ought to think of the Gentile nations of the earth, and what it lies upon us to do on their behalf. He shows us what "gospel" - what "good news of God" - has to be taken to the nations; and, by his example, he indicates in what spirit the message should be taken. Speaking amidst the surroundings of idol altars, statues, and temples, St. Paul -

I. RECOGNIZES THE RELIGIOUSNESS OF THE ATHENIANS. He was placed in a position of exceeding difficulty. To have attacked those pagan divinities in the very midst of their sanctuaries and altars, and before the very court which guarded the national religion, would have closed the cars of his audience to any message which he might deliver, and might have put him in some personal danger. In his speech he heartily recognizes the worshipping instinct; he sees the dissatisfaction with all existing forms of worship which indicates an aching and yearning of soul to know the full truth of God. To the unrest which the strangely inscribed altar revealed, he made his appeal. He does not attempt to break down their confidence in Zeus, Athene, or their companion divinities. He appeals to the want which no mere deification of human attributes or powers of nature could possibly satisfy. St. Paul admits a real worship in paganism. He admits that the incompleteness and imperfectness of the worship followed from their ignorance, He attempts to guide the worshipping faculty aright, by instructing their understandings, and by declaring positive truths of Divine revelation.

II. THE APOSTLE PLAINLY MARKS THE ERRORS OF THE ATHENIANS. He does not hesitate to say, "ignorantly worship," even to those who prided themselves on their learning. He accepts their own confession that they did not know the God to whom they raised their altar. They were wrong in their cherished conceptions of God, and wrong in the worship they offered to him. They lowered the very idea of God, by likening him to mere man-made images of gold and silver. They offered things to one who, being a Father, cared for hearts, and for things only as they carried messages of love and trust. The sacrifices of the true God are a "broken and a contrite heart," and they who "worship the Father must worship him in spirit and in truth." Three conceptions of God are essential as the foundations of true doctrine and true worship.

1. His unity. "There is no God but God."

2. His spirituality. "God is a Spirit."

3. His righteousness, He has been called, and the name has in it good suggestion, "The Eternal who makes for righteousness."

III. THE APOSTLE DECLARES THE TRUTH WHICH THE ATHENIANS MISSED. "Him declare I unto you." We may briefly summarize his presentation of the gospel revelation, as adapted to the Athenians.

1. He announces God to be a personal Being: no more force, like the sunlight or the evening breeze. No mere quality or virtue, such as they deified, raising altars to fame, to modesty, to energy, to persuasion, and to pity. God is living. He is one. He is the Source of all life, all breath, all being. You cannot imprison God in a statue, even though you may mould it of priceless gold. You cannot enshrine God in a temple, however gorgeous it may be.

2. Then St. Paul explains God's seeming indifference to men through the long ages. It was a mystery, but only the mystery of patient, forbearing love, which waited until the children put all their souls into the cry for him.

3. And, finally, he tells them that the waiting-time is quite past, and the great Father has come to the children now, asking their trust and their love. And the Father's nearness is to be apprehended through the human manifestation of his Son. "He preached unto them Jesus." - R.T.

Parallel Verses
KJV: 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.

The Unknown God
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