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Unveiling the Unknown God

21 Feb

Paul stood up in the Areopagus and addressed the council and other bystanders from Athens. He told them that earlier he had toured their city: I passed by and beheld your devotions (Acts 17:23; cp. verse-16). The Greek word for devotions (KJV) is sebasma (G4574) and is used in Hellenistic Jewish literature for ‘objects of worship’ (see Wisdom 14:20; 15:17 and Josephus’ Antiquities 18.9.5). This same word is used in 2Thessaloninas 2:4, which Paul wrote while at Athens to be sent along with Timothy (cp. 1Thessalonians 3:1-2).

While touring Athens, Paul was provoked by the inordinate display of idolatry there, and his zeal for God was what provoked his debates both in the synagogue and in the agora (Acts 17:17). Now, when he addressed the Areopagus council, Paul spoke of the Athenians as having three misconceptions about God. First, God is the Creator of all that is and therefore doesn’t dwell in temples made by men (Acts 17:24). Secondly, since he daily gives to mankind all that men have, he doesn’t need what men could give him (Acts 17:25). Finally, since we are his creation, we ought not to believe that we are able to **create** him through our art or imagination (Acts 17:29).

Paul is saying that men seek to worship what they can create (imagine with their minds and form with their hands), place limitations upon (e.g. place in a temple men create), and a god who has needs men are able to supply. This is the god the Athenians had created, what form they had molded or given the god or what temple sheltered it was not the point. Men desire to manipulate God, because we are afraid of the God who cannot be made to do as we please. Yet, what sort of god would that be, that men could fully know and manipulate to meet all our desires and needs?

No, Paul publically and unashamedly proclaimed THE God is the Creator of all that exists (Isaiah 42:5; cp. Genesis 1). HE (Greek is houtos and is emphatic and therefore not a pantheon of gold and silver idols) is Lord of heaven and earth. How could the ‘Lord of heaven and earth’ fit in a temple or any building erected by men (cp. 1Kings 8:27-30)? Paul was emphatically stating the Shema: “Hear O Israel: the LORD our God is one LORD” (Deuteronomy 6:4).

THE God whom Paul unveils has no needs that could be supplied by men (cp. Psalms 50:8-13). Josephus quotes Solomon, the king, as saying: “It is not possible by what men can do to return sufficient thanks to God for his benefits upon them, for the Deity stands in need of nothing and is above all such requital…” [Josephus: Antiquities 8.4.3 (emphasis mine)]. How could any god be master or lord of heaven and earth, if he had needs that could be supplied by men? Paul reveals THE God who is self-sufficient and in need of nothing from mankind, and cannot be thereby manipulated by men to do as we wish.

Finally, Luke has Paul quoting from one of the Grecian poets or philosophers, an authority they would recognize. It would mean very little to his audience for Paul to quote from the Hebrew Scriptures as his authority, but just as he introduced THE God to them through one of their own idols built for the unknown deity,[1] Paul reinforces his argument through one of their own authorities. Whether or not Paul is quoting Epimenides is not known for certain, for the precise line is not known.[2] Nevertheless, Paul’s point is, since we are God’s creation (image, offspring, kin etc.), God created us and not the other way around. It behooves mankind, therefore, to honor God in a manner suitable to his majesty. We are not free to imagine God to be like ourselves (our person or according to our imagination). His form, majesty, character and almighty power cannot be limited to what we are able to imagine of him or what we are able to construct out of precious metal, stone or wood. THE God is more that that—more than us—more than what we are able to do or imagine.


[1] Even if the alter referred to God in the singular, it would have had polytheistic intentions—i.e. to any unknown god. Yet Paul used this obvious pagan form of devotion to refer to monotheism, showing that Paul’s quoting the Greek poets didn’t mean he endorsed their conclusions.

[2] Luke Timothy Johnson; The Acts of the Apostles; page 316.

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