June 21, 2010 David Balzer

Acts 17:16-34: Meet the Unknown God

How well do you know your culture? Let’s see how you go with this quiz.  Multiple choice question number 1. “The cat Dolls” is

A.    a top-selling music group

  1. a new cartoon
  2. a new series of toys aimed at Tweenies.
  3. A new range of soft chewable toys for your pets.

Question 2. PSP stands for

  1. polysulfur propylene – a type of plastic
  2. people speaking to people – a communication software program
  3. Power Surf People – a brand of surf wear.

C.    Playstation Portable – a computer game machine

Question 3. The Lake House is a new release movie about;

  1. Fun and games during University summer holidays
  2. A rower’s quest for Olympic glory
  3. Two soul mates separated by time and a magic letter box.
  4. A tragic tale of engineering and building mistakes in the construction of poor foundations of a waterside mansion, which ends up falling into the lake.

Question 4. “Yasmin’s getting married” means

  1. There’s another wedding on Neighbours
  2. In the next Harry Potter book, there’s a wedding.
  3. A supermodel and a rock star are getting together.

B.    Channel Ten has a new reality TV show

How well did you do? My guess is the Youth did better than some of us oldies.

It doesn’t take long before you’re out of touch with the brand-new things going around. But perhaps not as out of touch as the British Lord Chancellor was.

A few years ago, Elton John was knighted. Probably close to the number one recording artist in the world. But as he stood up after being knighted by the Queen. The announcement was made by the Lord Chancellor. Reading straight off his alphabetical list. “Arise Sir JOHN ELTON”.

He had NO IDEA who Elton John was!

We can have a bit of a laugh at that. The old British aristocracy. So out of touch. But the sad thing is, when you think about it, a lot of Christians would be in exactly the same boat.

How much do YOU know about where our culture is headed? What are people listening to? Watching? Spending their money on? Filling their time DOING?

What’s the most popular WEBSITE? What’s at the top of the music charts? Number one film? What are the top-selling electrical gadgets? What books are people reading?

Because if you want to SAY SOMETHING to the community, if you want to say something as a Christian to the non-Christian world, a good place to start is where THEY ARE. Instead of where WE ARE.

Because if you start where WE are, they won’t have a CLUE what you’re talking about. As far as their mindset, their worldview. Their language. So few Aussies today have ANYTHING to do with Christians/ we’re not even using the SAME WORDS half the time.

It’s up to US to be building the bridge towards THEM.

1. Don’t get angry, get moving

To say something to non-Christians, we need to start where THEY are, not where WE are. Which is exactly what the Apostle Paul does as he arrives in Athens.

Athens. It’s the capital city of Greece. Have a look where it is on the map. Paul’s just arrived there from Berea.

It’s an amazing place, and you might have even been there yourself. One of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, where you can still see the evidence of the incredible architecture; and the artworks. Thousands of years old, but still there today.

Except that, what these days we call works of art, back then were IDOLS. That they WORSHIPPED. Beautifully carved stonework. Inlaid. Covered with gold-leaf. Breathtakingly attractive.

And while tourists today might Ooh and Aah as they walk around, Paul did something DIFFERENT. See it there in v16. He was GREATLY DISTRESSED. Idols EVERYWHERE. Gods for every conceivable area of life. For rain and sun. For luck and war. For fertility and love. For protection. For wealth.

Someone once said about Athens, it was easier to find a GOD THERE than a man.

He was some time, doing a spot of sightseeing on his own, waiting for Timothy and Silas. But when he sees how many idols there are all over the place. How blind the people were. How futile their efforts were. What a wasted life it was to devote themselves to gods they’d made with their own hands. Then, he HAS to do something. But notice what he DOESN’T do.

When Paul comes face to face with a city full of idol worshippers, his response is NOT TO GET ANGRY. It’s not to march around with a placard and start a demonstration. His response as someone who wants to see GOD GLORIFIED, his response is that he’s DISTRESSED. Cut to the heart. He doesn’t get ANGRY, he gets MOVING.

And maybe instead of getting ANGRY when WE see things happening in our society we don’t like, when we see things like the MARDI GRAS, or ABORTIONS, or PRO-MUSLIM RIGHTS. Or Sunday trading.

Instead of being ANGRY AND SELF RIGHTEOUS, maybe a better starting point is that we should be DISTRESSED. And moved by our COMPASSION. Rather than by what, in some Christians, looks more like self-righteous indignation.

And so, Paul, moved by compassion, has to speak. He gets MOVING. So, v17, he goes to the synagogue FIRST. Reasons with the Jews and Gentiles who are there.

Not a bad starting place. But that’s not all. They’re not really the ones who are serving all the idols. So where ELSE does he go? The marketplace. Right in the middle of town. Where all the hustle and bustle and noise is. Finds a soapbox, stands up. And begins to speak. Or maybe he just wanders around chatting with people.

But WHATEVER he does, he DOES it. Day after day. To ANYONE who’d listen. Whoever happened to be doing their shopping that day.

What’s the equivalent of the marketplace for US in Blacktown? Perhaps it’s the Doonside Festival. That’s not a bad place to start.

But let’s not pat ourselves on the back too quickly. One day a year hardly compares with day after day, does it?

Perhaps if you’re an Aussie bloke, it’s the Pub, or the Sports Club. If you’re a woman, perhaps it’s Mum’s playgroup, or tennis, or the hairdresser.

Or maybe it’s on the sidelines of the kids’ soccer. Or pushing the kids on the swings at the park. Or sitting in the doctor’s waiting room.  Or working out together at the gym. If we want to be like Paul, that’s where we’ve got to be.

And we need to fill those places with , consistent, God-soaked conversation. Talking that’s a LIFESTYLE thing. Something we do without even planning for it. We do hanging over the back fence. Or waiting for the bus. Or while the groceries are bagged.

It doesn’t JUST go on the calendar, it happens ly – SPONTANEOUSLY – as we get to know those people around us. It needs to happens with INDIVIDUALS as well as what we do as church.

And day after day. That’s what Paul’s doing. And it doesn’t take long before people start to notice. V18.

18 A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.

He starts getting HECKLED from the crowd. Some Epicureans and some Stoic philosophers.

Which is the OTHER thing Athens was famous for. Idols/ and PHILOSOPHERS. Great thinkers like Aristotle and Plato. And in THIS case. Epicureans and Stoics.

Who make strange bed-fellows. They almost believe the OPPOSITE things to each other. Epicureans believe the goal of life is PLEASURE. “Eat, drink and be merry. For tomorrow we die.” That’s their motto. Plenty of THOSE still around today!

On the other hand, the Stoics stressed the importance of REASON and ETHICAL and MORAL DUTY. Don’t get emotional, just roll with the flow of the Universe.

But whatever the thinking, verse 21 sums it up. Here’s the Hitchhiker’s Guide to Athens.


Like one long episode of Seinfeld, or Friends. Hang loose, and talk about nothing at all. Sit around and drink coffee, and chew over the latest trends in philosophy.

And here, they’ve found ANOTHER new idea – in PAUL. And they both join forces in RIDICULING him. “What’s this BABBLER saying?” They call him, literally, a SEED-PECKER.

The picture is of a hen pecking around the barnyard. A seed here and a seed there. A bit of this and a bit of that. In other words, Paul was simplistic and not thought-out. He’d just grabbed whatever he liked the sound of, and mixed it all in together.

Which is a bit RICH coming from a group of people who love nothing better than spending all day doing JUST THAT. Picking over any new idea that comes along. Like the left-over roast chicken carcass. Looking for any little morsel worth nibbling on. In a city with THOUSANDS of idols. Where they just keep adding more and more, just in case they MISS one.

2. Proclaiming the unknown God

But Paul seemed to have an effect on at least SOME of them. Look at v19.

19 Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean.”

It was the ultimate compliment. Like being invited to address the National Press Club. Or the National Geographic Society. “Give us your best shot. Make it as clear and well-thought-out as you can” And we’ll let you know what we think.”

This is Paul’s big chance. He’s PROCLAIMING THE UNKNOWN GOD. It’s a much better gig than the marketplace. Like being upgraded from busking on the street corner, to singing on the main stage at Big Day Out.

So how’s he going to do it? Like I said at the beginning, we need to be keeping IN TOUCH WITH OUR CULTURE. That we need to have our FINGER ON THE PULSE of how people are THINKING. Building bridges. Finding common ground.

And if you watch Paul in action at the Areopagus, that’s EXACTLY WHAT HE DOES. Will you notice, first of all, as he talks to a bunch of TOTAL OUTSIDERS, that the message Paul delivers in verse 22 to 31, is VERY, VERY DIFFERENT to the sort of thing he says when he’s talking to the JEWS.

To the Jews, it’s a whole bunch of quotations from the Old Testament scriptures. Matching up THE PROMISES with the MESSIAH. We saw that LAST week.

But this is different. Plenty of Old Testament IDEAS. But the only two things he directly quotes are a line from THEIR VERSION OF ELTON JOHN. Their favourite poet. Verse 28. WE ARE HIS OFFSPRING. And the only other thing Paul quotes to them is an inscription off one of their IDOLS.

Now think about that for a minute. The first thing he says.

Because when he first sees their city full of idols, you know already Paul’s DISTRESSED BY IT. But when he starts TALKING to them, you wouldn’t guess that, would you? He’s actually gone around READING THE INSCRIPTIONS. Thinking it through.

Because in verse 22 and 23, he’s looking for COMMON GROUND. “Men of Athens. I see that in EVERY WAY YOU ARE VERY RELIGIOUS.” Too right they are. Gods EVERYWHERE.

But being RELIGIOUS is a LONG WAY from BEING CHRISTIAN. Which flies in the face of what many Aussies think being a Christian is about.

3. Who made who?

And so Paul goes on. And he quotes from something he’s seen/ that makes the PERFECT BRIDGE for what he wants to talk about. As he’s walked around Athens, he’s spotted AN ALTAR. With an inscription on it.

These Athenians, they’re so worried they might have missed making an idol to some god or other, they’ve made ONE EXTRA. To the GOD THEY DON’T KNOW. Just in case.

It’s a bit like at the American War memorial in Washington DC. Where they have a TOMB OF THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER. The remains of an unknown soldier killed in battle who represents the loss of ALL UNKNOWN SOLDIERS.

Except in America there was a huge stir a few years ago, because it turned out that the US Army knew EXACTLY who the unknown soldier killed in Vietnam was. And they hadn’t bothered telling his family. The Unknown Soldier was KNOWN AFTER ALL.

Well, Paul’s going to do the same thing here. The Unknown God was KNOWN AFTER ALL. Verse 23. Read what he says

“For as I walked around and observed your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something UNKNOWN, I’m going to proclaim to you.

And in verse 24 to 31, the next 7 verses, that’s exactly what he does. A talk with one key point. That he presses home. He says, DON’T WORSHIP IDOLS THAT YOU’VE MADE. Worship THE REAL GOD. Who MADE YOU!


They’ve build their beautiful temples. They’ve carved their incredible idols. They’ve got their hundreds and hundreds of mythical gods who they’ve got to appease with all their sacrifices. But the point is, it’s all MAN MADE. They’ve created their own gods in their own image. To suit THEM.

Paul says the REAL God isn’t like that at all. The God they don’t know. Is the EXACT REVERSE. Look at verse 24;

“The God who made the world and everything in it IS THE LORD OF HEAVEN AND EARTH, and doesn’t live in temples built by hands.”

You can’t CONTAIN GOD. Just the opposite. GOD CONTAINS YOU. Verse 28; and he quotes THEIR OWN FAVOURITE POET. He says, you know this already. Your own poet says it. IN HIM WE LIVE AND MOVE AND HAVE OUR BEING. We are HIS offspring. He determines US. We are defined because of him. Not the other way around.

See, that’s what it’s like when you make an idol, isn’t it? You INVENT A GOD FOR YOURSELF. You figure out the sort of god YOU’D LIKE. A comfortable god. A god in your own image, who doesn’t make too many demands. And you carve it the way you reckon it should look; and you build the temple for it; and you say, I’VE DONE A GREAT JOB. So now THIS GOD’S going to do what I want.

And you hear people saying pretty much the same thing TODAY. ‘I’d like to think God is LIKE THIS. Or like THAT.

“I think he’s loving and forgives me. That he doesn’t mind what I do. That he’s tolerant.”

“I like to think of God as like a WIND. Or a WAVE. Or a FORCE.”

“I’m spiritual. But I’m not interested in a god who tells me what to do, or how to live.”

Or even, “I don’t reckon God’s there at all. I make my OWN decisions. I control my own destiny”. That’s probably lots of Aussies.

But it’s still serving a god. It’s just that YOUR god is looking back at you from the mirror.

Making a god in your own likeness. The way you like.

Trouble is, the REAL GOD; the God they DON’T KNOW – is the God who made THEM. To do what HE WANTS. Keep reading from verse 25; he’s not served by human hands as if he NEEDED ANYTHING – because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. And he says in verse 26, he MADE US. And he put us where he wanted us. And he determines the times and the places FOR US; exactly how he wants it.

A very different picture from the sort of tinny little gods in Athens. Even if the tinny little gods looked big and golden.

Verse 29 sums it up. Read what he says. He says THEREFORE, since WE ARE GOD’S OFFSPRING – he MADE US, he designed us in incredible detail – we shouldn’t think that the divine being is like gold… or silver… or stone – an image made by man’s design or skill.

(Here’s the sting) In the past God OVERLOOKED such ignorance. But NOW HE COMMANDS ALL PEOPLE… everywhere… TO REPENT.

Exactly the same message Paul and the other apostles have been preaching all along. Whether to Jews or Gentiles. Turn back to the God who made you. The essence of the Christian message.

And I need to ask, have YOU done that? Or are you serving the god of yourself? Are you the centre of your world? Or is GOD?

Because God’s set a day when everything you’ve ever said or done is going to be judged – with absolute justice. And Paul says, we’re going to be judged by JESUS HIMSELF. And God’s given proof of that. By raising him from the .

God’s already got the day picked out. When you’ll face the prospect of being treated by HIM/ in the same way you’ve treated HIM NOW. Whether you’ve spent your life worshipping THE CREATION. Or the CREATOR.

Which is where you’ll see Paul ends his speech.

And the usual thing happens. Some just laugh. Others say, WE WANT TO HEAR YOU AGAIN. And keep their options open.

And you’ll notice some believe – Dionysius, in verse 34, a member of the Areopagus; a woman called Damaris; and a few others.    Not a huge result. But a start.

Now just to finish up, can I say to you again that ATHENS is very much like Australia today. A melting pot of religions and ideas. Not the sort of blatant idolatry as in Athens… but something very close. People setting their own course. Planning their own futures. Building their own world. A world where THEY are god.

Which is just as much a form of IDOLATRY as anything in Athens.

If you think we still live in a CHRISTIAN SOCIETY in a CHRISTIAN COUNTRY, think again. The fact is, we’re getting back to square 1. Where Paul started out. And so maybe we need to learn from his example. People STILL need to be told to REPENT. And TURN BACK TO THE GOD WHO MADE THEM. People still need to be WARNED ABOUT JUDGEMENT. Because it’s REAL.

But in the way we do that, we need to learn what it means to BUILD COMMON GROUND. To go to the market place. And start talking to people in a language they understand. And to make contact with the sort of things they’re watching, and listening to, and thinking. So we can bring them from THERE… back to the GOD WHO MADE THEM.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *