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My last Forbidden Bible Verses post on Acts 17:16-21 discussed Paul’s time in Athens. Various philosophers invited him to address the Areopagus.

They were intrigued by this notion of Jesus and the Resurrection, which they thought were a god and a goddess, respectively. The Areopagus was not only the most learned location in Athens but also a court in charge of all things, including affirming new deities. The Athenians could not get their fill of idols. They thought that perhaps Paul could come up with two more.

The following passage, which is in the Lectionary, is from the English Standard Version with commentary from Matthew Henry and John MacArthur:

Acts 17:22-31

Paul Addresses the Areopagus

22 So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man,[a] 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 26 And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, 27 that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, 28 for

“‘In him we live and move and have our being’;[b]

as even some of your own poets have said,

“‘For we are indeed his offspring.’[c]

29 Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. 30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

Paul was cordial to his hosts and began by acknowledging their idolatry by saying they were ‘very religious’ (verse 22). Whereas others might have rushed in like a bull in a china shop, Paul was warming up his audience.

Straightaway, he zeroed in on the altar dedicated to the ‘unknown god’, whom they worshipped even if they did not know its identity. Paul declared that he would explain the unknown God to them (verse 23).

Matthew Henry explains the three historical theories as to who or what the unknown god represented (emphases mine below):

Various conjectures the learned have concerning this altar dedicated to the unknown God. [1.] Some think the meaning is, To the God whose honour it is to be unknown, and that they intended the God of the Jews, whose name is ineffable, and whose nature is unsearchable. It is probable they had heard from the Jews, and from the writings of the Old Testament, of the God of Israel, who had proved himself to be above all gods, but was a God hiding himself, Isaiah 45:15. The heathen called the Jews’ God, Deus incertus, incertum Mosis Numen–an uncertain God, the uncertain Deity of Moses, and the God without name. Now this God, says Paul, this God, who cannot by searching be found out to perfection, I now declare unto you. [2.] Others think the meaning is, To the God whom it is our unhappiness not to know, which intimates that they would think it their happiness to know him. Some tell us that upon occasion of a plague that raged at Athens, when they had sacrificed to all their gods one after another for the staying of the plague, they were advised to let some sheep go where they pleased, and, where they lay down, to build an altar, to prosekonti Theo–to the proper God, or the God to whom that affair of staying the pestilence did belong; and, because they knew not how to call him, they inscribed it, To the unknown God. Others, from some of the best historians of Athens, tell us they had many altars inscribed, To the gods of Asia, Europe, and Africa–To the unknown God: and some of the neighbouring countries used to swear by the God that was unknown at Athens; so Lucian.

In declaring the unknown God to them, Paul was acknowledging what some of the greatest Greek philosophers believed, that there was indeed a Supreme Being and Creator that ruled over the earth (verses 24-27). Furthermore, the Athenians already worshipped their unknown god, so he was not new to them. Paul shone a light on the unknown god and turned him into the known God.

Henry explains that while a handful of the greatest philosophers believed in a Supreme Being, most others, along with most Athenians, preferred the mythology surrounding their many other gods:

He confirms his doctrine of one living and true God, by his works of creation and providence: “The God whom I declare unto you to be the sole object of your devotion, and call you to the worship of, is the God that made the world and governs it; and, by the visible proofs of these, you may be led to this invisible Being, and be convinced of his eternal power and Godhead.” The Gentiles in general, and the Athenians particularly, in their devotions were governed, not by their philosophers, many of whom spoke clearly and excellently well of one supreme Numen, of his infinite perfections and universal agency and dominion (witness the writings of Plato, and long after of Cicero); but by their poets, and their idle fictions. Homer’s works were the Bible of the pagan theology, or demonology rather, not Plato’s; and the philosophers tamely submitted to this, rested in their speculations, disputed them among themselves, and taught them to their scholars, but never made the use they ought to have made of them in opposition to idolatry; so little certainty were they at concerning them, and so little impression did these things make upon them! Nay, they ran themselves into the superstition of their country, and thought they ought to do so. Eamus ad communem errorem–Let us embrace the common error. Now Paul here sets himself, in the first place, to reform the philosophy of the Athenians (he corrects the mistakes of that), and to give them right notions of the one only living and true God, and then to carry the matter further than they ever attempted for the reforming of their worship, and the bringing them off from their polytheism and idolatry. Observe what glorious things Paul here says of that God whom he served, and would have them to serve.

Paul went on to cite verses from the great philosopher Epimenides of Crete and the poet Aratus, both of whom believed in one Being (verse 28). This emphasised Paul’s (verse 27):

Yet he is actually not far from each one of us,

In other words, Paul wanted the Athenians to know that this unknown god of theirs was the real, true God of all and that He is very close to His offspring (verse 28).

Paul had been educated in Greek philosophy and culture, so he could ably meet the Athenians on their own ground.

Paul then took that further by saying that God is not an idol or an object (verse 29). Henry’s commentary states:

If this be so, 1. Then God cannot be represented by an image. If we are the offspring of God, as we are spirits in flesh, then certainly he who is the Father of our spirits (and they are the principal part of us, and that part of us by which we are denominated God’s offspring) is himself a Spirit, and we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device, Acts 17:29. We wrong God, and put an affront upon him, if we think so. God honoured man in making his soul after his own likeness; but man dishonours God if he makes him after the likeness of his body. The Godhead is spiritual, infinite, immaterial, incomprehensible, and therefore it is a very false and unjust conception which an image gives us of God, be the matter ever so rich, fold or silver; be the shape ever so curious, and be it ever so well graven by art or man’s device, its countenance, posture, or dress, ever so significant, it is a teacher of lies. 2. Then he dwells not in temples made with hands, Acts 17:24. He is not invited to any temple men can build for him, nor confined to any. A temple brings him never the nearer to us, nor keeps him ever the longer among us. A temple is convenient for us to come together in to worship God; but God needs not any place of rest or residence, nor the magnificence and splendour of any structure, to add to the glory of his appearance. A pious, upright heart, a temple not made with hands, but by the Spirit of God, is that which he dwells in, and delights to dwell in. See 1 Kings 8:27,Isa+66:1,2. 3. Then he is not worshipped, therapeuetai, he is not served, or ministered unto, with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing, Acts 17:25. He that made all, and maintains all, cannot be benefited by any of our services, nor needs them.

Finally, Paul concluded by exhorting the Athenians hearing him to repent, as God commands (verse 30) because the day will come when the risen Christ, appointed by God, will come again in judgement of the whole world (verse 31).

What did the Athenians make of Paul’s discourse? Find out in tomorrow’s Forbidden Bible Verses.

Next — Acts 17:32-34

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