Acts 17:16-34
To The Unknown God

Authored By Rev. Takao Kiyohiro, Tokyo, Japan

Seeing A Whole Gob Of Idols

1. Paul left Berea and came to Athens.  It looks like Paul had originally never intended to evangelize Athens; for, his next destination was Corinth the capital of the province Achaia and his sojourning at Athens was for the purpose of waiting for Timothy and Silas.

2. However, while he looks around the city his heart was moved.  In verse sixteen it says, "While Paul was waiting in Athens for two persons he was enraged seeing there were idols all over this city."  Why was he enraged?  Because he was a Jew?  So did he get mad seeing idol worship which contradicted the ten commandments?  No, that's not why.  The average Jew wouldn't become indignant though a Gentile did something to break the ten commandments.  [They wouldn't feel anger] because they knew the original ten commandments were given to Israel.  So then why was he upset?  He was upset because he saw them under the control of idols and [this] posture truly was a grief to him.

3. The city of Athens was loaded down with god after god of idols.  It has been said as much that the number of gods was larger than the number of people.  Why in the first place is the number of gods worshipped so outlandish?  There is an altar that expresses the circumstances quite well on which is engraved [the inscription] "To The Unknown God," which will come later in the text.  As far as this matter of "The Unknown God," we have an episode reconstructed from historical sources as follows.

4. A plague spread rampantly in the sixth century before the common era (or 600 B.C.).  Back then people thought the cause [of the epidemic] was they had gotten one of the gods angry.  The leaders inquired with all they had into which god they had gotten mad.  But, they did not discover which god was angry.  A poet by the name Epimenides of Cyprus appeared on the scene. He concluded that the one who was angry was "a god not known" yet in Athens and he made one suggestion.  First, select a number of sheep and let them get hungry by not giving them any feed to eat.  Then, release them where there is grass.  Then the sheep will eat the grass according to their natures.  However, if there is a spot somewhere where they did not eat the grass, build an altar there.  Thus goes the story of the altar built for "The Unknown God" and the diminishing of the spirit of the epidemic.

5. From this story we can see at the background to where the worshipped gods grow in number is the fundamental "fear" humans have.  They worship because when they don't keep worshipping they don't do well because ["the gods"] do something evil.  We who live in this country understand this quite well.  How often do we hear similar kinds of things-- stories of how our ancestors or others-- were cursed because they did not worship ["the gods"!]  Also, we see that many of the old customs tied up in idol worship began with an individual walking alone bound with superstitious fear and then a manifestation of it which winds itself in the daily lives of the people.  This is how a person gets controlled by idols, controlled by superstition, and controlled by fear.  [People] live while carrying the burden of an unnecessary load because of being related to idols.  What Paul saw was the saddening posture, the reality of the people of Athens under such [weight].  An anger arose inside him towards the control the idols held.

6. Because of this he began to proclaim the gospel in Athens as well.  He gave the gospel in synagogues on the Sabbath day and on other days at the open squares.  The squares were the place of activity for the Greek philosophers.  Paul debated with them, too.  Among the various schools which put their focus in Athens we have here the examples of the sects of the Epicureans and the Stoics.  Perhaps it was the people from the Epicurean school who said, "This chatterbox, what is he trying to say?"  I think since they did not acknowledge the reality of the next world they probably had a difficult time understanding Paul's speeches.  Furthermore, I think there were persons from the Stoics of an essentially pantheistic persuasion who said, "He looks like a person who preaches foreign gods."  The text says in verse eighteen that " was because Paul was informing them of the gospel with reference to Jesus and the resurrection, but the Stoics might have understood it as Paul preaching a god named "Jesus" and a god named "Resurrection."

7. The debate with these particular philosophers opened a path for Paul.  Please look at verses nineteen on.  "Then, they brought Paul along to Areopagus and thus they said, 'Won't we have you tell us what kind of thing this new teaching you are expounding is about?  You are informing us about something strange, but we want to know what it means,'" (verses nineteen through twenty).  Areopagus (Ares Hill) was the name of the hill to the west of the acropolis, but what is mentioned here is the place of the court and the congress, the oldest places in Athens.  Paul was taken there.  Some believe that Paul was not taken there just out of simple curiosity but for the purpose of reviewing and discussing his teachings because it was the responsibility of the members of the congress to determine whether they could let Paul continue his teaching from then on.  However, Luke dares to explain the reason which they brought him as "All the Athenians and the foreigners residing there only passed the time in talking and listening to whatever was new."  This viewpoint is somewhat extreme, but actually it is equivalent to the words "ignorant era" which is recorded in verse thirty later on.  I'll touch on this matter later.  Any way, Paul gave the sermon at verse twenty on under these particular circumstances.  So, next, let's look at the contents of what he relates to them.

The Sermon At Areopagus

8. Paul began to speak as follows.  "Paul stood in the middle of Areopagus and said. 'All you Athenian gentlemen I notice you are fervent in faith on all particulars.  While walking on the road and when I saw the various objects which you worship I also discovered the altar on which is inscribed [the inscription] 'To The Unknown God.'  So then, I will inform you of whom you are ignorantly worshipping," (verse twenty-two).

9. The Athenians were certainly people of deep religious devotion.  The altar "To The Unknown God" symbolically expressed how deeply religious they were.  In other words, whoever was the object of worship was really not so important.  If the previous episode were true, the reason they built an altar was "so that the epidemic would go away," and it did not really matter to them one bit who was angry in the first place.  It's probably the same in places where other idols are worshipped.  After all, any name of a god will do.  The concern of the people is to get prayers answered by whomever is worshipped at the place and to be freed temporarily from their terrors.  A similar thing is evident even around us.  For example, people who go to the Tenman Shrine before school exams have no interest in Sugawara No Michizane in particular.*  Also, for the persons who clap their hands before the Jizo** [statue] it doesn't matter to them whoever the Enlightened One might be.  While they worship him the fact it doesn't matter who the counterpart is is a very strange thing to say when you think about it.

10. Then Paul used the altar "To The Unknown God," which he had seen in the town, as a springboard and began to speak about "Who is the one who ought to be worshipped?"  Please look at verses twenty-four on.  "That One is God who created the world and all things in it.  Since this God is Lord of heaven and earth, he does not dwell in temples made by hands.  And, he doesn't need to have anything done in service for him by human hands as if he was lacking in anything, because this is God the One who gives to all persons life, breath, and everything else besides that," (verses twenty-four through twenty-five).

11. Actually, the One who ought to be worshipped is the One who is the Creator (of the world and all creatures in it) and who is Lord of the universe.  With the exception of the creator, nothing should be taken as a target of our worship whether it be some human, some spiritual being, or even someone with supernatural powers.  When a person is gripped by the many kinds of fears out there and begins worshipping creation it is because he or she is not worshipping the One who is truly the Creator who ought to receive awe.  So, Paul said, "The One who is Lord of heaven and earth does not live in temples or anywhere," and he continued on saying, "he doesn't need to have anything done in service for him by human hands as if he was lacking in anything." This reflects the situation in Athens where the festival was fundamentally considered "waiting on the gods."  God has no need of such service and being waited on.  As is visible around us, [God] has no need of the intricate religious services called "otsutome.***"  Instead, Paul says, "because this is God the One who gives to all persons life, breath, and everything else besides that."  The problem lies at the point where we do not understand everything is  God's gift [to us].  To start with, even the breath of our life is a gift from God.  Our existence [is a gift] that is kept alive by the Creator.  Because we do not keep aware of that fact, we become captives to superstition while gripped by unnecessary fears or we are engaged in dickering and bargaining for answers to prayers.

12. He continues on further.  "God began to create all races from one single person and he caused them to live over the face of the earth, and set the seasons and set the boundaries of their habitations.  This is so that man would be made to seek after God and if they would look it seems that they would be able to find God.  Actually, God has  not been separated far from any of us.  Even according to what your poets among you have said, 'We live, move, and exist in God,' and 'We also are his posterity.'  Since we are God's posterity, we should not think this One who is God is the same as statues made with gold, silver, or stone built by human skill and thought," (verses twenty-six through twenty-nine).

13. It seems this first part corresponds to verse eighteen "he seems to be one who preaches gods from a foreign country."  What he is telling forth is not about the God of the Jews.  When it comes to God being Creator, he is Creator of all races of people.  He has made all humans to live in order and not in chaos.  What in the world is the purpose of this orderliness?  He says, "It's so he might cause a person to seek god."  It's also a matter of God seeking a relationship with us.  So, if we had only sought after him, he would grant that we be able to find Him and live with Him.

14. The One who is the Creator is truly near us.  Paul does not quote the Old Testament on that point but quotes and speaks the words of the poets of another religion familiar to the Athenians.  They were originally spoken in regards to Zeus.  But, Paul uses them for the Creator and says, "Since we are God's posterity..."  Of course, he is not agreeing with pantheistic ideology.  He says "the posterity of God" in the context of a relationship with the Creator and his creation.  At any rate, the point is "If God is [our] parent, we must not put Him with what humanity, who is His posterity, has built of their gods, namely as something subhuman."

15. So, Paul's sermon heads for a conclusion, which is, a call out to "repentance."  He makes an appeal that they turn to the Creator.  Please see verse thirty and following.  "Well, God has looked at these ignorant such times with a wink, but now has commanded all people everywhere to repent.  That is because he has set a day when he will judge this world righteously in accordance with the one person whom he has chosen ahead of time.  God has raised this person from the dead and given proof of it to all people," (verses thirty through thirty-one).

16. Paul takes up the issue of "the ignorance" of humanity.  This word "ignorant" is a very unpleasant word because it seems that calling a person "ignorant" smacks of arrogance.**** However, I think we should still listen to these words as a message God is addressing to us today through the Bible.  As I touched on before, this message corresponds to the previous one in verse twenty-one.  People are eager to hear something new.  But, the Bible declares that they are ignorant as far as what they really should know.

17. Today all kinds of information abounds around us.  We can get in real time any kind of the latest info from the opposite side of the globe by means of the internet.  Today, there is a sharp thirst for knowledge among people.  New publications of subjects are fought for and sought for sale and people throng into cultural lecture halls everywhere.  But, in the important turns of life, in the crisis situations of life or death, or in the major times of life related to matters of destiny, people are still as yet under the control of  fears which have no firm foundations, and things shaken about by superstition take place.  Why in the world is this so?  When the Bible says they are "ignorant" regarding situations which they should know, isn't it then surely true at that point?

18. Paul said, "The era of ignorance is over."  The fact is in Jesus Christ the era of ignorance is over.  At the point in time when God resurrected Christ and placed him as Lord of the whole world the era of ignorance was over.  The situation which humanity ought to know has been completely revealed in the existence of this person and his words.  Christ is the final address of God to humankind.  Therefore, when God accomplishes his righteous judgment at the end times, he will ask whether you received his message addressed to you.  Christ is the final judge.  The time of ignorance is long over.  Consequently, he has commanded that we repent.  He is looking for us to turn to him.  We are being called to turn to God the Lord of the universe who revealed himself in Jesus Christ and to our Father who is near by, and we are being called to fear with reverence this One and live in worship of Him.

19. The response to Paul's sermon was divided into three parts.  Some people mocked.  They heard what Paul was saying as something that was entirely foolish.  Some said, " We will have you tell us again some other time."  They delayed their decision.  It seems like they would not make a decision, but in reality, they made a significant decision to spend precious time of their life longer just as they were without changing.  The third [group] of people entered into faith.  They began to live by turning to God the Lord of the universe.  Those people did not seem to be many at all.  Was Paul responsible [for so few decisions by the people]?  No, he wasn't.  Paul told what he was supposed to tell.  When the word of God is given out, then after that the responsibility to live it is on the ones who heard it. 

End Notes:

*Sugawara No Michizane was a scholar who was deified as a god for students and enshrined at Tenman.

**Ojizosans are stone statues with a read bib that are prevalent in rural areas.  Many religious people give them a simple sign of worship when passing by the Jizo, which is supposed to be the statue of a Bodhisattva (an enlightened one) called "Jizo" a guardian deity of children.  Very few of the worshippers of the statues know who it represents.  Polytheism results in many strange and peculiar forms of religiosity.

***Otsutome: Buddhist religious services.

****This is close to being a curse word in Japanese; it is close to the worst word you can say to a person.

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