To An Unknown God
September 10th, 1978 @ 10:50 AM
TO AN UNKNOWN GOD
Dr. W. A. Criswell
9-10-78 10:50 a.m.
On the radio and on television, it is a joy for us in the First Baptist Church in Dallas to welcome you worshiping with us this sacred hour. This is the pastor bringing the message entitled To the Unknown God.
In our preaching through the Book of Acts, we have come to the middle of chapter 17. And the message will be an exposition of verses 16 through 24. The reading of the text is this—Acts 17:16-24. It recounts one of the great dramatic moments in human history, when the apostle Paul stands in the great university city of Athens:
Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry.
Therefore discussed he with the Jews in the synagogue, with the proselytes—out on the streets—and in the agora daily with them that met with him.
And—there in the agora—certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoics, encountered him. And some of them—sarcastically, sardonically, uncomplimentary—said, What will this babbler say? And other some, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because Paul preached unto them—Iēsous and anastasis—Jesus, and the resurrection.
And they took him, and brought him unto Areopagus, saying, May we know what this new teaching, 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 the foreigners which are there spend their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing.)
Then Paul stood in the Areopagus, and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very reverent, deeply religious.
For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription—agnostō theō—TO A GOD NOT KNOWN. Whom therefore ye worship without knowing, Him declare I unto you.
What a dramatic moment and there follows after, as in sermons to come, his message on the deity and lordship of Christ, who became flesh [John 1:14], and revealed to us the way of salvation, God in heaven confirming it by raising Him from among the dead [Acts 17:31].
“Now while Paul waited for them in Athens”—there were four of them who crossed the Hellespont into Macedonia and there for the first time brought the message of salvation to Europe: Paul, Silas, Timothy and the beloved physician, Dr. Luke [Acts 17:15]. Dr. Luke was left behind in Philippi. Timothy was left behind in Thessalonica. Silas was left behind in Berea—later joined by Timothy. And Paul was alone in the famous university city of Athens, and while he was there, walking through the streets, seeing the people, his spirit was paroxunō—paroxunō. Paroxysm is a word that we have taken into the English language from that word paroxunō, paroxysm. A paroxysm is a great agitation in spirit or in physical frame. His spirit was agitated; greatly moved, stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry [Acts 17:16].
It was said that it was easier to find a god in Athens than it was to find a man. Wherever there was a niche or a corner or a place that a god or goddess could be placed, there the marble likeness was set. I could easily see how the spirit of Paul could be stirred, agitated by the sight of an idolatry like that. I felt that way in Calcutta, India, especially in the Kali temple. There, barren, sterile women went to pray to a fierce-looking likeness of a god. Their husbands were free to do as he pleased—to treat them as he pleased—when they were not able to bear children. And it was almost a desperate seeking out and reaching out and grasping for life itself as those poor Indian women, most of them very, very young, prayed before those idols. In my own heart just like this; his spirit fell into a paroxysm—stirred in him when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry [Acts 17:16].
Now we vainly suppose that we have advanced far beyond these idolatrous Athenians in our enlightened day. But that is a false assumption. For literally, there are more gods that are worshipped in Paris, and in London, and in New York, and in Los Angeles, and in Dallas than were worshipped in that ancient university city of Athens. We just call them by different names. But they command and consume our lives no less, and we follow after them with panting devotion. What once was called the god mammon, today, it’s riches, and wealth, and success, and fame, and achievement. And life is no less poured out before it in mighty immeasurable New York and Los Angeles and Dallas than it was in ancient Athens. We don’t call it Bacchus today. But it is no less the same in drunkenness, and in drugs, and in orgies, and in cheap devastating, debilitating, degrading entertainment. We don’t call the goddess Astarte, or Aphrodite, or Venus today; but it is the same hurtful destruction of the human body and the human spirit in promiscuity and in all kinds of sexual perversions. We don’t call it Mars today as though we were worshipping at the shrine of the god of war, but it is no less the same today in power politics, and in terrorism, and in the awesome confrontation between nations in the world who now possess devastating and catastrophic hydrogen and atomic bombs; just the same—just called by different words.
And with you, I am no less amazed that such idolatry should be in the far-famed, world-renowned university city of Athens. For the centuries, it was the very heart of intellectual affinity and proclivity and vast, vast contributions made to human culture and human life. Yet the city is filled with idolatry—this great university city of Athens. And lest we think that they lived in such an age as being unknowing, but we live in an age of vast enlightenment, I find the same idolatry on the campuses of our great universities in this same modern day—just alike, except it is called by a different word. Deity on the modern university campus is called nature. An altar is called experiment. Salvation is called inevitable progress and evolution. The savior is called culture, and enlightenment, and advancement. Heaven is to them now some fuzzy, dizzy, ephemeral, unformed, philosophical, speculative utopia. The Bible they call a manual of science. The same devotion, the same giving of heart and life—but not to the one, true God—but idolatrously devoted to the creation itself. What a tragedy! There in Athens; here on the university campuses of America. His spirit was stirred in him [Acts 17:16], as he saw the city turning aside from the exaltation and the praise and the devotion and the worship of the one true God, and giving itself to the study of, and the worship of, the creation—not the Creator.
So as Paul speaks, and as he talks, and as he visits, down in the Agora, in the marketplace, why, there were certain of the Epicureans and of the Stoics, two schools of philosophy, who ran into him [Acts 17:18]. And some of them sarcastically said—“Ti an theloi spermologos houtos legein.” That would be a pretty hard thing to translate, it is just about as sarcastic a sentence as the Greek could frame. Did you pick up the word spermologos? Spermologos houtos—spermologos—”seed picker.” The picture is a little bird picking up seed. And this fellow houtos, contemptuously—houtos, he is like a little bird picking up trifles—ti an theloi. “What would he decide to say if he had anything to say, this seed picker?”—translated here, “What will this babbler say?” [Acts 17:18]. And others said, “Well, he seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods—plural, gods, because Paul preached unto them Iēsous and anastasis”—Iēsous, male; anastasis, female [Acts 17:18]. And hearing him, they came to the conclusion that he was speaking to them about two gods—a pair of gods. Now they had been introduced to that all their lives—gods that were male and female. And they came in pairs: Jove and Juno; Venus and Adonis; Isis and Osiris; Baal and Astarte—always in pairs: a male and a female god. So, as they listened to Paul—Iēsous, male; anastasis female, it seemed to them he was speaking about two, new, strange gods, “Jesus and the resurrection”—Iēsous kai anastasis [Acts 17:18].
So they took him before the Areopagus [Acts 17:19]. The Greek word areios is an adjectival form from Ares. The Latin of Ares is “Mars,” the god of war; in Greek he was called Ares, in Latin he’s called “Mars.” And the adjectival form, Areos is definitive, descriptive of pagos, “hill”—Areopagus—Ares–pagos—Areopagus, Mars’ Hill. A little saddle from the Acropolis, and there is Mars’ Hill, Areopagus, and on that hill convened from time immemorial the Supreme Court of the Athenian state; Areopagus.
Seven hundred fifty years before Christ, that court was seated in that very place. And before that court, came some of the great men of all time and history. Solon appeared before the Areopagus. Pericles delivered some of his greatest orations before the Areopagus. Demosthenes, possibly the greatest orator of all time delivered some of his classic Philippics before this Areopagus. And to this present moment, to this day, the Supreme Court of the nation of Greece is called the Areopagus. And when they listened to Paul down there in the agora, they brought him up to the Areopagus, to Mars’ hill [Acts 17:22]. And he stood had there, crowded around with listening Athenians as he spoke of this new didachē, doctrine, teaching. And his message was one of tremendous import. As he spoke to those Athenians, they had more in common than we think for—for those Athenians believed in the supernatural. They believed in a great almighty creative power.
These modern day infidels say this world just created itself. Nobody created it. It just came into existence of itself, which is the most inconceivable, incredible persuasion that I think mind could imagine. Didn’t create itself, it just came of itself. There’s no intelligence back of it. There’s no God back of it. There’s no genius of hand creating back of it. It just came of itself. And you just, the whole human race, all of life, everything you see it just came of itself. They didn’t believe that. They believed that back of this creation was a creator. They believed in the supernatural.
Another thing they had in common; those ancient Athenians believed in the rewards for good and evil. When you read those ancient Greek tragedies by Euripides and by Aeschylus and by those other marvelous dramatists, the story usually will revolve around a nemesis—a goddess of vengeance who hounds to the grave, hounds to death, these who have murdered and done wrong in the sight of God. They believed in the reward of good and of evil in a nemesis, as they called it. They believed in a supernatural government. They believed in a great power above humankind—in supernatural government. And they were of all things deisidaimonesterous. When you read the King James Version, “Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars’ Hill and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are”—and they translate that word “most superstitious” [Acts 17:22]. Man that would have insulted them to begin with—in the first sentence. What Paul said is “I perceive that in all things you are deisidaimonesterous”; that is, “you are very religious; you are deeply reverent”—and they were. Wherever they could build a shrine or a temple and make it beautiful, there did they dedicate it to a god or a goddess—deeply reverent, deeply religious.
What a shame that they did not know the true God. What they need is enlightenment, direction, revelation, for their hearts were ready to worship. Socrates was put to death. He was given hemlock to drink to commit suicide. He was executed by this Areopagus, this very court, because they felt that he was leading the young people into infidelity and atheism, away from God—deisidaimonesterous, deeply religious, fervently and dramatically reverent.
Oh, what a tragedy! They need enlightenment. However humanity may be taught, the human heart and the human spirit is incurably and invariably religious. You can’t help yourself. You’ll find yourself giving yourself to something beyond yourself; you just will. That’s true of the whole world. It’s true of all of the generations throughout mankind’s history, and it is true of us today. There will be something outside ourselves to which we’ll give ourselves, pour the devotion and the energy and the love of our life. Oh, that this misdirected, idolatrous worship could be turned to the true and the living God! We need enlightenment, heavenly revelation. We need direction.
Some of you have been initiated in these days past, into the Masonic Lodge. In those first degrees, there is a beautiful, beautiful lesson, where the man blinded, is asked what he seeks, and his answer is “Light, more light, light.” I feel the same about the human heart and the human spirit. What we need is light, understanding, a revelation, a word from heaven that we might know, that our paths might be directed in a heavenly and rewarding way. God bless us that we might understand. Is that not what the wisest of the all men wrote in the Proverbs? The beginning of wisdom is the reverential awe and fear and worship of the Lord—deisidaimonesterous, deeply reverent, religious, the beginning of wisdom is there [Proverbs 1:7, 9:10].
And that is why this passage is so marvelous, “As I passed by, I saw an altar with this inscription: agnostōn theōn—To an Unknown God—to a god we do not know” [Acts 17:23]. “As I passed by, I saw an altar with this inscription: agnostōn theōn. Whom therefore ye worship agnostōn—whom therefore you worship not knowing, Him I declare unto you” [Acts 17:23].
Then he begins his marvelous sermon: “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” [Acts 17:24]. And I can just see the apostle as he stands there on the Areopagus, on Mars’ Hill, and says, “The Lord God that created us and the world in which we live and all that we see, is not a god that dwells in temples made with hands.” And with a great sweeping gesture, I can see the apostle turn to the Acropolis—right there. Have you been there?
Even the remains are dramatic, and startling, impressively beautiful. There crowning the Acropolis, is the Parthenon, doubtless one of the most magnificent pieces of human architecture the world has ever known. And inside of it, Pallas Athena, after whom the city was named, the patron goddess, Minerva, of the city of Athens. And there are those other magnificent temples to the Greek gods and goddesses. And with a gesture of his hand, the apostle stands in the Areopagus, saying, “God that made the world and all things in it, and us, dwelleth not in temples made with hands” [Acts 17:24]. And then he preaches the blessed Jesus: how the Lord God deity, took form and flesh, walked among us as a man, breathed our air, lived our lives, suffered our troubles and heartaches and fortunes, died our death—and God accepted His atoning grace in our behalf, in that, He raised Him from among the dead to be our Intercessor and faithful High Priest and Mediator in heaven [Acts 17:24-31]. What a gospel! What a gospel.
And to these who were seeking after Him, if perchance they might find Him [Acts 17:27-28]. Isn’t that an astonishing and amazing and yet no less true characterization of the human spirit? Agnostōn theōn, to a God we don’t know [Acts 17:23], somehow never arriving with all of the gods they had in that university city of Athens; and they were on every street, on every corner, on every hill, on every side; yet there was a lack and an emptiness, a void, a barrenness that yet remained. Always approaching something, but never quite touching it. Always pressing toward the brink of a knowledge, and never quite knowing it. Always almost achieving a breakthrough, but never quite seeing it. And the whole gamut of life is that for us, however the gods of wealth or of success or of fame or of pleasure may be worshipped, there is always in it a deep and abiding lack. You set your goal on money and be the richest man in the world and somehow, possessing it, it turns to dust and ashes in your hands. It cankers before your eyes. Turn your eyes to glory and success and fame and fortune and somehow is like dust and ashes when you possess it.
Dear people, I do not know of those more infinitely successful than say great Hollywood and Broadway stars. They are rich. They are famous. They are beautiful. They have everything. But did you know, if I were looking for someone to get drunk and to give life to drugs, that’s where I would look? And did you know, if I were seeking someone who is a good candidate for suicide, that’s where I would look? Isn’t it strange the emptiness of the emoluments and the rewards of this world?
And that was the Athenians, to all of the gods and the gods, there was still something lacking, something wanting. So they raised this altar, agnostōn theōn, to a god we don’t know. We haven’t found him [Acts 17:23]. And Paul raises his hand and points to the Lord in heaven, “Whom therefore you worship not knowing, Him declare I unto you” [Acts 17:23]. What you want, whether you realize it or not, is the fullness of the grace and goodness of the blessed Jesus. For this God that I declare unto you does not live in temples made with hands [Acts 17:24]. He lives in the human heart [John 14:23]. And we can know Him. And we can follow Him. And we can love Him. And He can talk to us. And we can pray to Him. And He lives and walks with us in this earthly pilgrimage [Matthew 28:20].
What a difference between an Apollos, driving his chariot with the sun over the chalice of the sky—Apollos and the blessed Jesus, what a difference. What a difference in the moon goddess Diana, Artemis, goddess of hunting; goddess of the night, goddess of the moonlight, and the blessed Jesus, who cried our tears, suffered our hurts [Hebrews 4:14-15], died our death [2 Corinthians 5:15], and now lives that we might have a faithful Intercessor in heaven who can be moved with a feeling of our infirmities [Hebrews 4:15]. O God, how blessed, and how precious the gospel is to us who have heard it, and have found strength, and comfort, and forgiveness, and refuge, and atonement, and hope, and heaven in the wonderful, wonderful Jesus [Hebrews 6:18].
And that is the gospel that we bring to you. He is ours for the having, for the asking, for the inviting, “I stand at the door of your heart, and knock. . .and if any one hear My voice, and open the door, I will come in” [Revelation 3:20], fellowship with him, break bread with him, walk with him, battle with him”; see us through. And that is our invitation in His name to you; this day, receiving the Lord Jesus as your Lord [Romans 10:8-13]. Opening heart, home, and life to the blessed Savior; rearing your children in His nurture and love [Ephesians 6:4]; inviting Him into your home and house [Revelation 3:20]; choosing Him as a partner in your life and in your business; talking to Him; laying everything before Him.
I was asked this week by a man who was so troubled in spirit, he said, “Do you think that if I were to lay all of my problem before Jesus that He would deign to look upon me and help me?”
I said, “My brother, try it. Try it. Just lay it all before Him. Tell Him all about it. And see if God doesn’t speak to you as plainly as you and I are speaking to each other now. Try it.” “Taste and see that the Lord is good” [Psalm 34:8]. Bow down at His blessed feet and see if He does not extend to you the golden scepter. “Come boldly,” He says, “to the throne of grace, and find help and strength in the time of need” [Hebrews 4:16]. That’s our great Lord and Savior.
A family you, bring the children with you. A couple you, or just one somebody you, in the vast balcony round down one of these stairways; in the throng and press of people on this lower floor, down one of these aisles, “We have decided for Christ and we are coming [Romans 10:8-13]. We will put our lives with you and we are on the way.” Make it now, decide now in your heart. And when you stand up, stand up coming down that way. May angels attend you as you come, while we stand and while we sing.
I. While Paul waited in Athens (Acts
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. My own heart
stirred in Calcutta, India
C. Modern idolatry
1. Just as many
idols consume our lives – only have different names
2. Same idolatry
on campuses of our great universities
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
A. Supreme court of the
B. A great congregation
– the court and the listening Athenians
1. Believed in
2. Believed in the
rewards of good and evil
3. They believed
in a divine government
4. They were
deeply religious, extremely reverent(Acts 17:22)
C. The problem –
misdirected adoration(Acts 17:23)
D. The need –
enlightenment and heavenly revelation
IV. The address of Paul
A. He introduces the
true God, who is not in manmade temples(Acts
B. The knowable God
1. What you want,
whether you realize it or not, is Jesus(Acts