Opinions on faith and life

The Unknown God

2008-05-13

Toward the end of Acts, in chapter 17, the apostle Paul is in Athens and is invited to speak to their philosophers about his “strange teaching”. He begins with the statement “I see that you are very religious”, which came from his observation of the many shrines to various gods in the city. They even included one to “The Unknown God”; the people wanted to be sure they didn’t leave any god out. But when Paul said, “Let me introduce you to this God you worship in ignorance”, what did he mean? Was he considering them “saved”?

Today it is popular to view spirituality as “religious practice”, in any and every form, be it meditation, bowing low in prayer at prescribed times and in specified ways, chanting, or a thousand other things. We observe that people “are very religious”, very zealous for their practices and traditions. But this no more makes them right in the sight of God than when a despot gives alms to the poor to soothe his conscience. Is God really after this from us? In Isaiah 58:5 we read,

Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?
While the specific context there is fasting, the passage is all about attitude. Even the following verses there are not about simple outward performance, but about motive and purity of heart.

So although Paul commended the Athenians for their religious devotion, he did not leave them there, but presented the gospel to them. Today, such a thing would be seen as intolerant and bigoted. How dare Paul imply that their religion wasn’t good enough! How dare he presume to lecture them about what’s missing in their religions? Today’s churches would run him out of town on a rail. The fact is that Paul was using the shrine to The Unknown God as a “hook” or tie-in to present the gospel to them, not condoning their religions or telling them they were just fine as they were.

Notice where he went next: creation. These were not Jews who already believed in the One True God who created the heavens and the earth (and still needed Jesus to be saved!), but people without any consensus of the nature of God. Paul had to “start from scratch”, and that meant appealing to observation of the world. He also corrected their concept of “small gods” in saying that the true God is not to be contained in temples or in need of our offerings. And then he boldly told them that God would no longer tolerate their ignorance! God was now commanding them to repent, that is, to change their minds. (“Repent” doesn’t imply sin at all, but only changing one’s mind. The context must tell us what is to be “repented” from, and here it is to turn from false beliefs about God.)

As a final insult, by today’s standards, Paul actually held over the Athenians the impending Judgment Day of God, and that this judgment would come through the One God appointed, the One whom he identified by raising him from the dead. He didn’t get to name Jesus, because the crowd dismissed him at that point. But this was no surprise to Paul, who wrote to the Romans about Jesus being a “stumbling stone”. And it is still, to this day, the Resurrection that sets Jesus apart from all contenders, and the Resurrection that makes people stumble.

This should be our emphasis, in a world which is turning back to the pantheon of gods and finding it not only impossible but offensive to even think about defining God or saying there is only One. We should always have been emphasizing the Resurrection, because it is the stamp of authenticity that tells us the God of the Bible is the true God, and the Bible is his true Word. Next time someone asks how you can know which religion is right, just point them to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. He alone can turn unknown into known.