22Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26From one ancestor£ he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27so that they would search for God£ and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ 29Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
After leaving Lydia’s home in Philippi, Paul and Silas reached Thessalonica. They continue to preach about Jesus and things went well at first, but soon, the Jews chased them out.
They traveled on to Berea, and things were going well until the Jews from Thessalonica showed up and caused trouble for them. So, the believers sent Paul to Athens, and the plan was for Silas and Timothy to catch up with him there.
So, what is the story behind the altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god”? In his book, “Eternity in Their Hearts”, Don Richardson writes of the story behind this.
About 500 years before, there was a terrible plague in Athens, and many were dying. They offered sacrifices to every known god and goddess, but to no avail. Out of desperation, they sought the help of a famous philosopher of Crete, named Epimenides.
Epimenides surmised that there is a god that they are not aware of that is more powerful than all the gods and goddesses to whom they offered sacrifices. And they can only hope that this powerful god would be willing to help if asked.
Epimenides instructed the Athenians to release a flock of sheep in the early morning, when they would be the hungriest. Wherever a sheep laid down instead of eating, they were to erect an altar and sacrifice the sheep to the unknown god. Numerous sheep laid down, and they were sacrificed, and the plague abated. Over the years, appreciation for the unknown god became less and less, and most of the altars broke down. But there were those who remembered and thought it was important to preserve one. So they chose the best preserved one and maintained it.
Is it possible that Paul knew this story when he preached on Mars Hill? It is probable, since we see in Titus 1:12, Paul quotes Epimenides: “It was one of them, their very own prophet, who said, ‘Cretans are always liars, vicious brutes, lazy gluttons.’”
In his message, Paul brings up the altar to the unknown god. He is reminding the people of the time when the unknown god that saved their ancestors from the terrible plague fiver hundred years previous – The god that was more powerful and merciful than any of the gods and goddesses they knew – Is none other than the God that Paul is preaching about. And now that Paul has revealed the identity of God, they can no longer continue to live in ignorance. They must repent of their sins and accept the grace that He is offering.
Paul’s message to the people of Athens was customized for them. This message would not have meant much to other people. We too, when we are called to witness for the Lord, must try to know our audience and what is likely to connect with them. We need to spend time in prayer, asking that the Holy Spirit will reveal the best way to reach the audience to whom we are to witness.
John 12:12-16 is the normal passage to be preached from on Palm Sunday. It describes how a few days before Jesus is to be crucified, He enters Jerusalem, riding on a young donkey. It also specifically says that although people didn’t understand the meaning of this at the time, they will, once Jesus was resurrected. Jesus knew that the people who were following Him had wrong expectations of what the Messiah was going to do. So, He did and said things that might have been incomprehensible at the time, but would help them to understand what His mission was all about, once He was resurrected. He knew His audience well.
So, let us be thankful for what Jesus did for us, to prepare us to understand the nature of His messiahship and why He had to die on the cross. Let us take Paul’s example of using the people’s memory of the altar to the unknown god to reveal God’s truth in a way that has the most impact for those particular people. What is most impactful is not going to be the same story or the same Bible verses every time we witness. It will be different, depending on the person. That’s how God works with us. Each one of us has a unique story about what caught our attention that started our path to receiving God’s offer of forgiveness and salvation. And likewise, each person we are called to witness to, has a best way to be witnessed to. So let us pray and be guided by the Holy Spirit when we are called upon to witness for the Lord.
(the above is a summary of the message shared by Shun Takano at our Sunday worship on April 10, 2022.)