THREE: KNOWING THE UNKNOWN GOD (22-32a)
In chapter 3 of this story we come to Knowing the Unknown God. Read 22-23. Paul is about to preach a brilliant sermon that would make any Christian beam but instead it makes these philosophers balk. Except one philosopher – Dionysius. Paul was hitting home with this guy.
Paul starts out by acknowledging their religious devotion by saying, “I see that in every way you are very religious.” Of course they were, remember that it was their idols all over the city that distressed him (v16). This is Paul’s clever “on-ramp” to get onto his homiletic highway. This is just good evangelism and preaching: finding something in your audience’s environment and using it illustratively to teach them about God. Jesus did this masterfully, whether referring to Himself as the bread of heaven after feeding the five thousand with a few loaves, or, when speaking to fishing communities along the sea using parables of a dragnet and sorting fish to teach about the kingdom of heaven.
Here Paul refers to an idol in Athens – a statue dedicated to an unknown god. I discovered the Greek word for “unknown” here is “agnostos” – where we get our English word “agnostic”. An agnostic refers to someone who believe some sort of supreme being exists but we can’t know that supreme being. In Athens at that time this Agnostos – this “Unknown god” – was credited for all sorts of things that happened in the city. If some disaster occurred in an individual’s life or on a city-wide scale, everyone thought that this “unknown god” did it and they needed to propitiate him. J.B. Philips says “Public or private disasters indicated to the Athenians the existence of some god they did not know and could not invent, who needed to be propitiated. This god was Agnostos.” (Phillips, p350).
So Paul is going to tell them who this unknown god is. What does he say? (Read 24-31). At another time I want to come back and spend several weeks on this sermon of Paul’s. However, for today I want us to see how he broadly covers two topics: God’s Identity and God’s Instruction.
God’s Identity is what Paul launches with in verses 24-28. I say he starts preaching in verse 24 because unless you’re preaching about God you’re not preaching. He didn’t talk about himself, his church, his accomplishments, trendy ideas or faddish concepts. He gets down to business and tells them what they’ve never heard before: the wisdom of who God is.
He tells them that this God is the Creator and the Ruler of everything that is. This God is transcendent – He is a Being existing in a reality that is beyond and above our reality. Nothing – absolutely nothing – is needed from us for Him to exist. In fact, as the only Self-Existent One, He is also the one on whom all living things depend. All things live only because He makes them. He is also the sovereign God who determines the course of history, even placing people in their exact locations and at the exact time in history that He as God decides.
But this God is also not a God who desires to remain as “Agnostos” to the Athenians. In His glory He wants these men to know Him personally, getting up close and personal with Him. He does not hide far off, but, He has come to them and through His own Self-Revelation educating them then and there on His Identity. And as you see Paul describe fatherly aspects of God we must ask ourselves: How could this Father not want His children to know Him and not want His children to reach out for Him? Here is Agnostos. They have been introduced to the true identity of this Unknown God.
God’s Instruction is what we see in the second section of Paul’s sermon, verses 29-31. God’s instruction to men everywhere is that they repent. Repent. Turn from your false notions of who God is and start believing the truth. Turn aside from the idols, the false images, the ideas of what men think up about God’s likeness. That is what an idol is: a false mental construct of what God is like. Before gold or silver or wood is ever shaped into a physical image by man’s hands it is first formed as an image in the mind of man. Idolatry starts within a man’s soul, not on the workbench.
Idols are not just physical icons made by physical materials that people bow down to. Looking into the Scriptures we see the nature of idols:
- They are the things we look past God for when we aren’t trusting Him to provide. We look to our idols for physical, emotional, psychological and even spiritual benefits.
- Our idols also feed our sinful cravings: the NT calls sexual immorality and greed idols that we are to abstain from.
- Idols are the things that dominate our time, focus, energy and resources. A good way to “calculate” what may be an idol in our life is look at what always comes first. What is the untouchable in our life that everything else always takes a backseat to? What is everything else always being sacrificed for?
- Idols are also things we look to for our sense of validation, importance, pride and bragging rights. What are we obsessive about that we find our ego is fed by?
If we look to something other than God for these then it is possible we are entertaining an idol in our life.
Application #1: Are we forming idols in our own life? Each of us ought to look carefully into the mirror. Are we allowing our job, money, possessions, image, success, sports, recreation, hunting, video games, or lust to be an idol? Good things can be made bad things when they are given the wrong priority in our lives. Even the best things in life we find Scripture cautions against making idols: family. Remember Jesus said if anyone loves mother or father, son or daughter more than Me he is not worthy of me (Matthew 10:37).
Application #2: Be willing to tell people the truth of their error. Do you see how Paul, speaking to the most brilliant men in civilization, calls them ignorant? Paul doesn’t mention sexual immorality, or greed, or drunkenness, or murder, or pedophilia. He strikes the heart of their identity, the source of their greatest pride: their intelligence. “In the past God overlooked such ignorance”. In other words, God has overlooked your ignorant idolatry – your uneducated ideas of God, your low theological IQ. This is not to be insulting, certainly Paul wasn’t trying to level insults at all. But in order for someone to come to Christ they must see their sin – their own personal sin before God.
FOUR: FOOLISH IS THE NEW WISE (32b-34)
Our final chapter is titled: Foolish is the New Wise. Notice verses 32-34 with me, [Read]
Paul preached the wisdom of God to these men and in their worldly wisdom they concluded it was foolish. Greeks seek wisdom 1 Corinthians 1:22 says, but, Romans 1:22 says, claiming to be wise they became fools. All the wisdom in the world couldn’t make them wise about God. For, in their wisdom they did not know God according to 1 Corinthians 1:21. God asks in 1 Corinthians 1: “[Where is the wise man, the scholar, the philosopher of this age? God has frustrated the wisdom of the wise.]”
They sneered because Paul mentioned “resurrection”. And common Greek belief excluded a physical resurrection of the body. The reason was that the body – according to Greeks – was inherently evil, as was all physical matter. This is part of the Greek philosophy of Dualism, which goes on to assert that while all physical matter is inherently evil, all that is spiritual is inherently good. That is why the idea of once being liberated from the evil flesh at death only to then come back in the flesh was such an abhorring thought to Greeks. It’s like being let out of prison only to be thrown right back in.
Paul finds some people interested, probably just the intellectual curiosity of people only interested in what’s trending ideologically. But, his preaching isn’t a total loss on the Areopagus. Some men and women start following Paul and believe what he taught. One man named is Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, and one of the leaders Paul had just preached to. It was dawning on him while Paul preached this Foolishness is the New Wise.
You have to imagine the humility of this man to take the step of following Paul out of the meeting and seeking more of his teachings. While all the others were sneering he believed. Like Nicodemus and the Sanhedrin, he was one of the very few who in the face of intellectual, political and social pressure chose Christ. Dionysisus’ decision came at a cost. But the decision brought benefits that far exceeded the cost. Like Paul in Philippians 3 he now counted everything he was, everything he had, everything he accomplished not as trophies to admire, but, as rubbish to be cast aside to take hold of Jesus Christ. For in Christ he found what he could never find in philosophy, in politics or in culture. He found life.
Application: What cost are we willing to endure for Christ? Jesus said, “If anyone confesses me before men I will confess him before my Father in heaven. But, if anyone is ashamed of me before men I will be ashamed of him before my Father in heaven, and before all the holy angels.” Paul said “I am ready to give my life for the sake of Christ”. Peter told Jesus, “We have left everything to follow you.” What cost are we willing to endure?
Dionysius’ story is one where we see the failures of intellectualism to discover God and satisfy the soul of man. We see too the temptation of intellectual pride overcome by humble acceptance of the foolishness of God. Foolishness that is the new wise. We also see a man who knew the cost of getting up from his seat to go and follow Christ. Like Matthew and Zaccheus leaving their tax booths; like Peter, Andrew, James and John leaving their fishing boats; like Paul leaving his Pharisaical career; like Barnabas leaving the Levitical priesthood, Dionysius left the Council to go after Jesus.
It’s an honorable cost in light of Jesus’ cost. Second Corinthians 5:15 says, “And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.”