Vol. 8, No. 2
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Paul was traveling on his second missionary journey when he arrived in Athens around A.D. 54. The account we are about to study takes place on Mar's Hill in Athens. Athens was the "seat of Greek literature and art during the golden period of Grecian history"(Rushmore 4). The Athenians were also known for their great interest in worshiping gods (Rushmore 4). The altar to which Paul is referring when he makes his speech is probably just one of the several altars with the same inscription (Rushmore 4).
In Acts 17:22, Paul began his speech by accusing the Athenians of being "too superstitious." The word "superstitious" properly means "reverence for the gods." In a positive sense, it denotes a suitable fear and reverence for the gods, while a negative sense indicates an excessive dread of anger from the gods (Barnes'). Whether or not one looks at the word "superstitious" in a positive or negative light, it is preceded by the word "too." This word indicates an abundant amount of that superstition. Paul was simply stating that the Athenians had an excessive amount of reverence and fear for their gods.
Paul reached the above conclusion by perceiving and beholding the numerous altars and the religious actions of the Athenians. The word "perceived" in 17:22 indicates that he came to a conclusion based on evidence (Barnes'). The word "beheld" in 17:23 means that he "looked again" or "considered" what he saw (Biblesoft's). Their "devotions" were their acts of worship (Biblesoft's). Undoubtedly, he noticed their varying forms of worship and their multiple altars while walking through the city. He therefore concluded that they had too much reverence and fear in respect for their gods.
Acts 17:23 records Paul finding an altar with an inscription to an "Unknown God." The word "unknown" simply means that they did not know who or what this "god" was. The Greek word for "god" in this case simply denotes a supreme being (Biblesoft's). In the same verse, Paul makes the observation that they are worshiping this god "ignorantly." The term "ignorantly" just denotes that they did not know the name of the god for whom the altar was erected. Further, they did not even know if they are worshiping this god correctly, because they knew nothing about him (Barnes').
Paul then used this opportunity to teach the Athenians about God. Paul used the phrase "him declare I unto you" in verse twenty-three. This means in no way that they were correctly worshiping God, but did not know his name. Nor does this imply that they were doing anything in their worship pleasing to him. This phrase does indicate, however, that Paul was using this opportunity to inform the Athenians about the one true God that they were neglecting.
Not only did Paul give the "unknown god" a name, but he also proceeded to proclaim the attributes of God to the Athenians. In 17:24, Paul first stated God is the Creator. He does this in an attempt to dissuade the Athenians of their idolatrous ways into the realization that there is but one true God. This one simple statement that God was the Creator made a significant impact on the Athenians. First, it indirectly opposed their belief of polytheism. Second, the statement "opposes the opinion that matter was eternal; that all things were controlled by Fate; and that God could be confined to temples" (Barnes'). The simple statement of God as the Creator compromised their beliefs.
In the same verse, Paul stated that God is the "Lord of heaven and earth." One who is Lord of heaven and earth would be the Ruler of heaven and earth. "It is highly absurd, therefore, to suppose that he who is present in heaven and in earth at the same time, and who rules over all, should be confined to a temple of an earthly structure, or dependent on man for anything" (Barnes'). One may recall that God's presence was on earth in the Holy of Holies under the Old Testament Law. God was not confined to that space nor was he instructed to occupy that place by man. This simply means that God is everywhere and does not dwell where man has designated.
In Acts 17:26, Paul uses the phrase "hath made of one blood all nations." This phrase indicates once again that God, as the Creator, made man. Once again, it opposes their opinions and beliefs regarding the origin of the all things.
Acts 17:27 indicates that man was designed by God to seek God. The verse states, "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." Remember that the previous verse showed that God created man. The word "that" as used here indicates "for the purpose of." It can then be concluded that God made man with the desire to seek him. The verse also states that when man seeks God, he will find God because he is never far from us.
"For in Him we live and move and have our being" is found in Acts 17:28. The phrase "in Him" indicates that we live "by Him" or "depending on Him" (Barnes'). Without God, we would not be able to sustain our own lives. God provides us with everything we need to survive. When you think about that, you realize that our lives would never have begun if it were not for God the Creator.
Verse thirty is a very familiar verse to most. The "times of this ignorance" indicate a time period when the people were ignorant of the one true God (Barnes'). The Athenians were truly ignorant of God and all things pertaining to him. God "winked at" or overlooked this ignorance, alluding to the patience of God (Wycliffe). Paul then makes it known that these people as well as all others were now to repent.
The reason God desires everyone to repent is evident in verse thirty-one, "Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness." God has set aside a day in which Jesus will judge all the world. Notice that we will be judged "in righteousness." This means we will be judged as to whether or not we lived our lives in accordance with God's Law.
Think to yourself whether or not you have been living in accordance with God's Law. Think to yourself how Paul would have addressed you if you were in the crowd at Athens. Judgment is coming. If one is in the same condition as those to whom Paul was preaching, a change is needed. Ignorance of the Law will no longer be tolerated.
Studying the Word of God produces Bible faith (Romans 10:17). Repentance, or turning from current ways toward God, is a must (Acts 8:22). One must then confess Jesus as the Son of God (Romans 10:9-10) and be immersed in water for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38). According to the latter portion of Revelation 2:10, a life of faithful obedience to God is also required. Only then will judgment be favorable for the soul.
Barnes' Notes. CD-ROM. Seattle: Biblesoft, 1997.
Biblesoft's New Exhaustive Strong's Numbers and Concordance with Expanded Greek-Hebrew Dictionary. CD-ROM. Seattle: Biblesoft and International Bible Translators, 1994.
Rushmore, Louis. Introduction of the Acts of the Apostles. Unpublished class notes. n.d.
Wycliffe Bible Commentary, The. CD-ROM. Chicago: Moody P, 1962.