To the Unknown God
September 15th, 1963 @ 7:30 PM
TO THE UNKNOWN GOD
Dr. W. A. Criswell
9-15-63 7:30 p.m.
On the radio you are sharing the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. This is the pastor bringing the evening message, an exposition of the middle part of the seventeenth chapter of the Book of Acts. The message is entitled To the Unknown God.
And let us read together and out loud the section of the seventeenth chapter of the Book of Acts that will comprise the basis of this exposition. Acts chapter 17, and we shall read the text and the context, beginning at verse 16 and reading through verse 31. The Book of Acts, beginning at verse 16 in chapter 17, and reading through verse 31. It is a story of the message of Paul that he delivered before the great Athenian high court that met on Mars’ Hill. Now let us read together and out loud, beginning at verse 16:
Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry.
Therefore disputed he in the synagogue with the Jews, and with the devout persons, and in the market daily with them that met with him.
Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoics, encountered him. And some said, What will this babbler say? other some, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection.
And they took him, and brought him unto Areopagus, saying, May we know what this new doctrine, whereof thou speakest, is?
For thou bringest certain strange things to our ears: we would know therefore what these things mean.
(For all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing.)
Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars’ Hill, and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious.
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.
God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that He is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands;
Neither is worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed any thing, seeing He giveth to all life, and breath, and all things;
And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation;
That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after Him, and find Him, though He be not far from every one of us:
For in Him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also His offspring.
Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device.
And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent:
Because He hath appointed a day, in the which He will judge the world in righteousness by that Man whom He hath ordained; whereof He hath given assurance unto all men, in that He hath raised Him from the dead.
This is one of the most remarkable and one of the classic instances to be found in history and in literature. Anything that concerns ancient Athens is in itself, per se, marvelously interesting. All of the culture, and life, and civilization, and type of government that we know today and enjoy in America had its birth in that city of Athens.
When Paul therefore came to Athens on his second missionary journey, you have a situation in itself that is filled large with every continuing interest. Here is a despised and outcast Jew, preaching a crucified Jesus, the hope and the Savior, he says, of our souls [Hebrews 10:39]. And before him is a great city, a cultural university city, that has given itself for centuries to the perusal and the seeking after all things knowledgable. They worship art, literature, science, advancement, progress, knowledge, experiment, teaching, learning; it is truly the greatest aggregate of university men, the greatest literary leaders, the finest thinkers the world has ever known, these Athenians. Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, and a thousand other of the geniuses of mankind; never in the history of the world has there been an aggregate of able and gifted men such as Athens gave to the world.
So when Paul comes to Athens, immediately there is an immeasurable and illimitable interest. Now being persecuted out of Macedonia, he left [Timothy] and Silas in Macedonia and came down to Athens alone [Acts 17:14-15]. And so the story begins, “While Paul waited for them in Athens, his spirit was stirred in him” [Acts 17:16]. What an unusual waiting, “while Paul waited in Athens.” As he looked at the city, there was a paroxysm, that’s the Greek word parōxuneto, there is a paroxysm, a stirring in his soul, in his heart. This waiting of Paul is a very interesting thing. Some of you have experienced things like that, while you’re waiting; the things that can happen and the things that can stir while you’re waiting.
I was preaching one time, way out in the Knob country, in the hill country of Kentucky. And on a Saturday afternoon, coming to the county seat town, I was waiting there on the courthouse lawn. I got into the beatenest altercation I ever fell into in my life. I wasn’t doing anything. I wasn’t stealing any bank. I wasn’t robbing any store. I was just a-waiting there on the courthouse lawn. Well, somebody found out that I was a young preacher from the seminary. I was getting educated, and I was holding a revival meeting in that county among those Knobs.
Well, all those folks up there believed in foot washing. So the very first thing that happened to me, I was standing there on the courthouse lawn a-waiting, I found myself in the middle of a hornet’s nest of foot-washing Primitive Baptist people. They asked me whether I believed in foot washing or not. That’s the way they started off. Well, I said, “It all depends. Yeah, I believe in washing feet. I hope all of God’s people wash their feet.”
“No,” they said, “do you believe it’s an ordinance in the church?” I said, “Why, certainly I don’t believe it’s an ordinance in the church, because it’s not an ordinance in the church!” Well, man, the fur began to fly and the sparks began to ascend. One of those fellows in the store, they told me, a lot of things going on out there.
A fellow came in the store and the storekeeper asked him, “What in the earth is happening out there on the courthouse lawn?” And the man that walked into the store said to the keeper of the store, he said, “Well, you see that young fellow out there? Well, he doesn’t believe in foot washing, and they’re just going around and around.” The things that can happen, just while you’re waiting!
Well, that’s the way with the apostle Paul. While he waited in Athens, his spirit was stirred in him, parōxuneto; spirit was stirred in him when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry [Acts 17:16]. Now, I can understand the feeling of the apostle Paul as he walked through Athens. Wherever they could put a god, there they put one. The statuary in the city was the glory of the metropolitan university town itself. Up and down the streets pedestals, temples at crossroads, everywhere those glorious and beautifully executed statues, idols; I can understand how Paul was stirred in his soul. You couldn’t go through India and see those people bowing down before those gods and images and not feel it in your soul. One of the most unusual temples I ever looked upon in my life is the Kali temple, K-a-l-i, Kali temple in Calcutta, and there’s a certain god in that temple to whom sterile women can pray that they have a family. If a girl is married in India and she doesn’t have a child immediately, then the man has the privilege to put her away, to push her out, and to find him a woman who can bear him a child. And to be a widow in India is a sentence of death in itself.
They ostracize. They have no citizenship. They have no social acceptability. It’s like dying, and those desperate young women in that temple there in India, praying to a god that couldn’t see and couldn’t hear and couldn’t feel, that they might become mothers, that they might keep their husbands and their homes—oh, the stirring of just looking upon it!
Can you imagine what a Mohammedan feels, and what a Jew feels, when he goes into a so-called Christian church, and he sees it there filled with idols and people bowing down before gold, and silver, and wooden, and stone images? That’s how Mohammedanism gained its great thrust in the earth. It was a violent reaction to idolatry in the great churches of the Levant, of Egypt, of the Mediterranean world.
What about us? In the great cities of America, in Dallas, is there idolatry? Our idols don’t assume the form of gold and silver images. We don’t bow down before graven statues. But, oh! the gods in the city of Dallas that men worship; the sign of mammon is everywhere. Success and pleasure and self-indulgence, the seeking after vanity; these things are our idols!
And in the great universities of our land, such unnamable, indescribable idolatry; their god they call nature, and their bible they call a textbook of science, and their altar is experiment, and their worship is evolution, and their word of heaven is progress, and their key life is in culture and advancement. “The spirit of Paul stirred inside of him, as he saw the great city wholly given to idolatry” [Acts 17:16], just like a man sensitive to the Spirit of Jesus feels that same stirring in his soul today.
So Paul, as he began to speak to the people, Paul began to talk about the true and the One and the only God. And then some of those Epicurean and Stoic philosophers listen to him. Says he’s in the marketplace, he’s on the street. He’s walking up and down and he’s talking about the Lord Jesus, the true God. And so some of those, an Epicurean, said, “I wonder what this spermalogos,” spermalogos, you have it translated here “babbler,” “I wonder what this spermalogos would have to say, if he had anything to say” [Acts 17:18]. And that’s the way it is in the Greek. “What will,” you have it translated, “What will this babbler say? What would this spermalogos say, if he had anything to say?” That word spermalogos is one of the most interesting words you could find. You could translate it “seed-picker.” You could translate it “chatterer.” You know like in the marketplace you have the sparrows around pecking the little seeds and crumbs on the marketplace. Well, that’s what they refer to him; he was a spermalogos. He was a chatterer, a seed-picker; “What would he have to say, if he had anything to say?”
And others said, “Well, you know he seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods,” plural. Now, how did they get the idea of plurality in gods in Paul’s preaching the Lord Jesus? Because he preached unto them Iēsous and anastasis, translated here, “because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection” [Acts 17:18].
You see, Jesus would be a male god, and anastasis, “resurrection” in Greek is female. It is feminine. It’s feminine gender, anastasis. So when they heard the apostle Paul preach Jesus, and the resurrection, Iēsous and anastasis, why, they said, “Now that’s a pair of gods we never heard of in our lives. What a strange pair. Now we’ve heard about Jupiter and Juno, we’ve heard about that pair of gods; and we’ve heard about Venus and Adonis, we’ve heard of that pair; and we’ve heard about Isis and Osiris, we’ve heard about that pair; and we’ve heard about Baal and Astarte, we’ve heard about that pair; but who ever heard of the strange gods Iēsous and anastasis?
So they said, “We got to hear about these new gods.”
So they took Paul and brought him unto Areios Pagos. Now here in the nineteenth verse you have it spelled out in an English word: “And they took him and brought him unto Areios Pagos.” Down here in the twenty-second verse, they translate Areios Pagos, “Mars Hill.” Mars, the god Mars, in Greek is Ares, and the adjectival form of it, Areios, Areios Pagos. Pagos is the Greek word for “hill.” Mars’ Hill, the court of the Areopagus; it was the court; Mars’ Hill was the place where the supreme court of five hundred met.
It was the noblest pulpit in all of the earth. It was the finest dais. It was the greatest stand in all of this known world. That’s the place where Demosthenes delivered his great orations, his Philippics against Alexandria of Macedonia. That’s the place where Pericles stood up, in the golden age of Athens, and delivered those marvelous orations.
Why, a man never had an opportunity in the history of the world as Paul had when he stood there on Mars Hill, the court of the Areopagus, the court of the five hundred, and not only those supreme justices listening, but all of those Athenians gathered round listening to this man as he set forth those strange gods, Iēsous and Anastasis [Acts 17:18].
How did he do? Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus, in the midst of Mars’ Hill [Acts 17:22]. Some of you’ve been there. It’s a hill below the Acropolis and in front of the Acropolis. And as you stand there on Mars Hill, where the supreme court of the Athenians met, and where all of the philosophers gathered to listen to a man who had a great something to say, as they stood there, this is the great entrance into the marvelous, incomparable collection of buildings on the Acropolis. Just beyond, crowning it off is the Parthenon, dedicated to the virgin goddess of Minerva, or Pallas Athena, the great goddess who sprang full born from the brow of Jove. Oh, what a marvelous sight it must have been when those incomparable buildings were in their pristine glory! And Paul stands there to speak to those Athenians.
So he begins, “Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things”—and what an amazing translation here— “I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious” [Acts 17:22]. Man, that would have insulted them to begin with. When you’re talking to somebody and trying to get their sympathy and their interest, you don’t want to stand up and say, “Now, listen, I’ve come here to talk to you skunks today.” You don’t start off like that. No!
“Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are deisidaimonesterous.” Now, all that’s one word. Sometimes Greeks will build words like Germans do. Deisidaimonesterous: that was the finest compliment that Paul could pay those Athenian people. Now, may I translate it exactly as it says? “Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very reverent, you are most religious, you are wholly and deeply devout, deisidaimonesterous; I see in all things” [Acts 17:22]. Now, is that true?
Oh, listen to me! Don’t forget that when Paul stood there to speak, there were so many things that he had in common with those Athenians. They were not atheists. They were not agnostics. They were not infidels. Those men believed in divine government. They believed in the supernatural. They believed in the reward of good and evil. That’s where you get that word “nemesis.” Nemesis was the Greek goddess that pursued those unto death and destruction who did wrong in this world. Oh, so much! So much did those Athenians have in common with the apostle Paul! They believed in God—plural, though. Then Paul continues his address:
For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, your reverential respect to the deities, I found an altar with this inscription, agnóstos theos, agnóstos theos—To the god we do not know, to the god we are trying to find, to the god we have never met— agnōstos theos, “To the Unknown God.”
Now look at this: “Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship”; oh, no! Same word: agnoeō, “The God therefore whom you agnoeō, whom you, without knowing, without realizing, whom you worship, Him I declare unto you” [Acts 17:23]. Oh, what a way to begin a message to those cultured Athenians!
You see, those Athenians had studied and studied and studied, and had come to the very brink of finding the truth, and never found it. It seems that they had traveled to the very height of glory, and then it was shut out with a veil and a cloud. They had come so nigh. I tell you, you read some of those philosophers and you think you’re reading prophets. They had come so nigh to the truth of God, and yet had never quite grasped, had never quite seen. And Paul says, “Whom therefore you agnoeō, unrealizing, you seek for and worship and desire; Him declare I unto you” [Acts 17:23]. Then he preached the blessed Lord Jesus [Acts 17:24-31].
Now the conclusion of my sermon; this hunger in a man’s heart for God, I think it is universal. Some men baffle it and beat it, and try to destroy it, and pride themselves in their wickedness, and in their infidelity, and their rejection, and in their unbelief. Listen, the very restlessness of their souls is an eloquent testimony of the hunger and the emptiness of their hearts, hungering after God, thirsting after God, wanting God. And all of the amassing of wealth in the earth can’t feed the soul, and all of the empty happenings and pleasures of life don’t satisfy the heart. That’s why out there in Hollywood they take their lives with sleeping pills and barbiturates and tablets; having all the wealth in the world and experiencing all the glamour and glitter and pleasure of life, they’re empty! You don’t escape that. God put that in a man’s soul.
How do you find Him? How do you find Him? The agnosto theo, that unknown God, how do you find Him? [Acts 17:23]. What’s His name, and what is He like? That’s the message of Paul. Not in philosophy; you can philosophize forever and you never know Him. Not in metaphysics. Not in books of science. Not in empty pleasures and the sterile rewards of this life. Well, who is this God? What’s His name, and how do we meet Him? And where do we find Him? That’s the message of Paul.
Our God, the true God, is one that you can feel and know. Hands have handled Him, ears have heard Him, eyes have seen Him [Luke 24:39], hearts have been blessed by Him, lives have been changed by Him. And though now not with mortal and physical eyes do we see Him, yet eyes of faith make Him as real, and as dear, and as precious, and as close, and as able today as He was in the days of His flesh. “Whom therefore ye agnoeō, without realizing, whom therefore ye agnoountes, without realizing, you worship Him, I declare unto you” [Acts 17:23]. A God, the real God, the only God whom we can know and love, approachable by anyone, however humble, known to any humble spirit, however learned, the great God who came down in the likeness of human flesh [John 1:14], and spoke to us as a man would speak to his friend, and who speaks to us today; that God, that God.
I don’t know of a better way to say it than to follow a story I heard of a London preacher, so learned, so educated, so brilliant. And Sunday after Sunday, in his pulpit, to his fashionable congregation, he lectured on the physical, metaphysical, economic, worldwide psychological, sociological problems of the day, speaking in learned language, speaking of these current issues. Upon a day, there came to his study at the church a little ragged urchin of a girl, and she said her mother had sent her, and was he not the preacher? And her mother, sick, had asked for him to come and to visit her. He asked the little girl where her mother was; she spake of an address in a tenement section down on the Thames River. Why, he never, he never soiled his garments. He never got the dust of such stuff on his feet. Pastor of that fashionable church in London, he demurred, he hesitated. The little girl was so insistent. Was he not the pastor of the church? Was he not the preacher? Her mother sent for him. She was so sick. He decided to go.
Side by side they walked through the streets of London, down to the tenement section on the banks of the Thames; here a certain one, climb all the stories up to the top, inside of a dirty and filthy room, and there on a filthy bed lay an emaciated and a dying woman. He took his seat by her side, said he was the preacher; little girl had said she’d sent for him, now what could he do to help?
And she said, being ill, and not able to recover, she wasn’t able and ready to die, and would he tell her how to find God and heaven? So he started out. He started out in the language that he used in the pulpit, with the ideas, those philosophical ideas about God and about immortality and about the world to come. He began to talk to her in the language and the nomenclature and the vocabulary of his learned pulpit, and with the ideas that he’d been lecturing to his people about in the days and years that are past.
She didn’t understand his language, much less the ideas he was trying to present. He bowed his head. He said, “Lord, help me to help this poor woman.” And when he had his head bowed, there came back to memory the day when as a small, small lad, he stood at his mother’s knee and listened to the simple stories of the blessed, blessed Jesus.
And in the simplest language he could command, he began to tell that poor woman how the Lord looked down from heaven, in our sin and sickness and death, and God loved us; and He sent His Son, our Savior, into the world to speak to us words of cheer and comfort and encouragement [Matthew 11:28-29]. And He died on the cross to pay the penalties in His own blood for our sins that we might be clean in the presence of the Lord [Ephesians 1:7], and after the third day He ascended into heaven [Luke 24:50-51], where there He awaits for those who love Him [John 14:3; 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10]. And as he began to tell the simple story of the blessed Jesus, that poor, unlearned woman began to nod: “Oh yes, oh, oh, yes, yes, oh yes, oh yes,” and finally, “and I can trust a Savior like that. Oh, yes! Oh, yes!” [John 3:14-16].
The following Sunday morning, when the fashionable and learned preacher stood before his congregation, he recounted to the people the event of the week before, and closed his story with this sentence: “My dear people, I want you to know I got that woman into the kingdom of heaven that day; but what is more, I got in, myself.” Oh, what a way, what a way!
Shall we philosophize about God? Never! Shall we write Him in some metaphysical category, to editorialize about Him and discuss it as though it was experimental, or problematical, or dialectical? No! Our Lord is somebody to feel, and to love, and to adore, and to worship, and to trust, forever and forever and forever. “As I passed by, and beheld your devotions, the hunger of your heart, I found an altar with this inscription, agnōstos theos, “TO A GOD WE DO NOT KNOW,” Him therefore whom you agnoeō worship, Him declare I unto you,” the blessed Lord Jesus [Acts 17:23].
And there’s a fullness, and an answer, and a gladness, and a glory in Him that can be found in no other way; ours for the loving, ours for the trusting, ours for the inviting, ours for the having, ours for the receiving, ours for the asking [John 1:12]. And that’s our appeal to your heart tonight. Coming to the blessed Lord Jesus: “Here I am, pastor, here I am. I give you my hand. I do give my heart in faith and in trust to Him” [Ephesians 2:8]. Would you do it? While we sing our invitation hymn, in the throng in this balcony round, you, somebody you; in the press of people on this lower floor, a family you, one somebody you; as God in His Holy Spirit shall open the door, shall make the way, come, into the aisle, down to the front: “Here I am, pastor. Here I come.” If for any other reason you’d like to come; “Pastor, there’s an emptiness in my heart. I want God to fill my soul.” Come, we’ll pray together. “Oh, pastor! That God might have me!” Come, we’ll ask Him to take us. Whatever the Spirit of God shall lead in the way, we follow after: “Here I am. Here I come,” while we stand and while we sing.
I. While Paul waited in Athens(Acts 17:16)
A. Second missionary
journey – Paul alone in the great university city
B. He was greatly moved
when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry
1. While I waited
on the courthouse lawn in Knob country
2. My own heart
moved in Calcutta, the Kali temple
II. In the marketplace
A. Confronted by sarcastic
Epicureans and Stoics
B. Thought he spoke of
two new gods – Iēsousand anastasis
III. On Mars’ Hill – Areopagus(Acts 17:19, 22)
A. Supreme court of the
B. A great congregation
– the court and the listening Athenians
C. Paul recognizes they
are deeply religious (Acts 17:22)
1. He had many
things in common with them
D. Their problem –
misdirected adoration(Acts 17:23)
IV. The knowable God
A. Hunger in man’s
heart for God is universal
B. How do we find Him?
– the message of Paul
preacher in fashionable congregation visits poor dying woman
a. Used simple language
to tell her of Jesus
C. An answer in Him that
can be found in no other way