Please find below my teaching notes to Pt. 2 “To the Unknown God” from the current teaching series, Unknown God, at Grace Community Church. Click here for the audio or video of this teaching. (c) 2013, Terry Broadwater.
Acts 17:22-23 So Paul, standing before the council, addressed them as follows: “Men of Athens, I notice that you are very religious in every way, 23 for as I was walking along I saw your many shrines. And one of your altars had this inscription on it: ‘To an Unknown God.’ This God, whom you worship without knowing, is the one I’m telling you about.
The Background: Paul is standing before the Areopagus- the Supreme Court of Athens. Basically, he has been asked to explain what he believes. It is one of the most dramatic scenes in the New Testament as Paul is preaching the gospel in the intellectual capital of the world, to Gentiles who do not know anything about Christ, on their turf, and at their invitation!
Which is all about SEEING and STATING the OBVIOUS…
Paul begins with a very simple statement: “Men of Athens, I NOTICE that you are very religious in every way…” Some translations say, “You are very superstitious.” Paul chose a word that was deliberately ambiguous. The fact was, they WERE religious AND they WERE superstitious!
Why is this important? Because HOW we approach people in regards to spiritual or religious things is critical; especially in our postmodern culture! If Paul loses his audience either by boring them or insulting them he’ll never get them back again.
Do you know someone who’s had the experience? First exposure to Gospel or Christ/Church was bad??
To Paul the Athenians were like blind men groping in the dark toward a God they did not know and could not find (Acts 17:27). How would you treat a blind person? Make fun? Criticize? You cannot insult a person into the Kingdom of God. Again, this may not be popular- be careful about what you put on Facebook or such media…
Were not the Athenians idolaters? YES, and Paul knew it, and it grieved his spirit. But he didn’t begin by saying, “I’ve come to expose your sin, you dirty, wretched, hell-bound, idol-worshipping, heathenistic pagans. Thank God I’m here because I’m going to lead you to Jesus!” They would have tuned him out real fast!
Fact is, Paul was telling the truth- the Athenians were very religious. Some historians suggest there were 30,000 altars to various deities in Athens. There are about 320 official “religions” in the US, which does not include the multitude of other ways we try to fill the spiritual void in our lives.
What’s this say?
People are inherently religious! We see this both historically in the ongoing study of man and certainly it is quite evident in our world today… All people by nature seek ultimate meaning and purpose outside themselves! Which means…
People are involved in some type of spiritual quest! When Paul told the Athenians they “were very religious” he’s simply acknowledging the fact that they are searching for “truth” that they knew existed but could not find. Again, every person we encounter today, as well as each of us, are “seekers!” Jesus actually applauded this when he said, “Seek and you will find…”
People are inclined to make “idols!” WHY? Because we suppress the true knowledge of God which is the nature of our “flesh.” We were made to KNOW God, but this is suppressed by sin, which then leads us to make and worship “false gods.” Read more on this in Romans 1:18-32.
So, practically, in keeping with Paul’s statement, we need to see that people are already very religious yet very lost in their quest for spiritual truth! When the opportunity presents itself, like Paul, we can simply state the obvious and hopefully find the opportunity that he did to share the Good News.
It’s crucial to FIND the COMMON GROUND and CREDIBILITY for ENGAGEMENT…
Having pointed out how religious they were, he then offers this: “…for as I was walking along I saw your many shrines. And one of your altars had this inscription on it: ‘To an Unknown God.’
Why is this important?
First, it tells people that we’ve taken the time to get to know the communities, the city we live and work in, etc. Like Paul, we’ve got to be observant. We’ve got to take the time to really get to know places and more importantly, people! Highlands Ranch is different than Hagerstown! How well do we know our “city”- the nuances, the niches, the needs?? Getting to really know people affords us the opportunities to connect and engage intelligently! Jesse & Haley Steinert sharing on “their” generation…
Second, this statement tells us that Paul found a natural point of contact or common ground. As he walked through the city, he saw “shrines” to every conceivable deity. Historians tell us that the Athenians built altars not only to their main gods such as Zeus, Athena, and Aphrodite, but also to abstract concepts such as justice, modesty, shame, fame, rumor, energy, and virtue. They were trying to cover all the bases. They could never be sure they had covered all the gods and goddesses so they kept on building more altars…
AND 30,000 was not enough because they and one, or even several that were erected for THE UNKNOWN GOD! In India, 320 million… not enough! In America, 320… but not enough!
What’s this say? It speaks of how insufficient our human intellect and wisdom really is! It speaks of how spiritually hungry are soul, inner being really is! It speaks of how sinister hell really is! In all of our intellect, human ingenuity, and invention, we are all still very LOST and in the DARK in our attempts to find ultimate meaning and purpose. Without finding and knowing our Creator we can never know why we were created. Yet, within every person is a desire to WORSHIP… even an “unknown god!”
It’s simply a lack of REVELATION! People cannot reason their way to God. People need a revelation OF God! How can we reveal God to people??
What is the “common ground” you already have with people?? Where do you already have credibility?? Work, family, cycling club…
Everyone is worshipping something but they’re not sure it’s the answer!
That’s why IGNORANCE CAN BE an INVITATION…
The last thing Paul says almost sounds crazy unless you really appreciate is tact in saying it: “…This God, whom you worship without knowing, is the one I’m telling you about.”
Notice “worship without knowing.” It really means “in ignorance!” Very tactfully Paul is telling them they really don’t know what they’re talking about. “You admit there is a God you don’t know…. so let me tell you about Him!” Isn’t that clever?? Talk about a great evangelistic strategy!!
Why is this important? When people do get to the point when they admit they really don’t know much about God or church or Jesus or what is really truth, etc., that they are ignorant about those things… IT’S AN INVITATION TO TELL THEM!!
Inevitably, in the course of really getting to know people, finding the common ground and connect points, gaining credibility with people, it won’t be long until they admit their ignorance (and I don’t say this in a condemning or crude way) about God and you can seize the opportunity to tell them about Him! Many times that means just share your story!
Why is this important?
Because the “door” has been opened!! And like Paul, when the door of opportunity opens we need to be prepared to step in and sometimes we can even create that door and tell them how Christ has changed our lives!
Ricky Van Pay is here today and I don’t think anyone illustrates better what Paul pulled off in Athens than what Ricky is doing in Boulder! Check out more about his ministry here.
Think about it this way!
What Paul did in Athens, each one of us can do today. Written on every heart is the inscription “TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.” Maybe that’s even you right now…
Your friends and co-workers were made to know God. Your loved ones were made to know God. They were created to worship God with their lives as a “living sacrifice” to serve God’s purpose in being on this planet and in this world at this time, as we all were! And there is something inside unbelievers that makes them yearn to know the true and living God. It is our privilege to say to our friends, “I will make him known to you.”
Between you and your unbelieving friends and family there is abundant common ground if only you will look for it. The Holy Spirit prepares unbelievers to hear the gospel message and one significant way he does it is by making them dissatisfied with the way they are right now. In the futility of their searching, ultimately there comes the moment of “I really don’t know…” and we can be there to bring the revelation of God, his love, his mercy, his grace, into their lives!