Who is the one true God?
Paul in Athens
My wife and I visited our son and his family in France last year. Although many French people are nominally Roman Catholic, it is largely an ungodly nation. There are old Roman Catholic churches in most towns, but attendance is low. We went to the Museum of Arts and Crafts (Musee des Arts et Metiers) in Paris. This is a science and technology museum showing the history of tools and machines developed by scientists and engineers dating from the 1500s to the present. Part of this museum is housed in an old church built in the mid-11th century (church of Saint Martin des Champs). The main church building houses old cars and flying machines and a long pendulum hangs from the dome (demonstrating the rotation of the earth). When atheism replaces Christianity, some church buildings become museums.
This post considers an example of spreading the good news about Jesus to those ignorant of the message of the Bible at Athens (Acts 17:16-34), which is often the case today. The main points are
– We need to begin with the fact that God is the creator of the universe
– He is outside creation, and
– People need to repent of their rebellion against God before He judges everyone in the world.
The context is Paul’s second missionary journey in about AD 50. Paul and Silas left Antioch in Syria and went through Syria and Cilicia (including Tarsus) strengthening the churches. They then travelled through Phrygia and Galatia visiting Derbe and Lystra. Then they were stopped by the Holy Spirit from going north or south, so they went west to Troas on the western coast of what is now Turkey. Then Paul received a message in a vision, “Come over to Macedonia and help us”. So, they sailed to Macedonia and travelled to Philippi. After casting out an evil spirit from a female slave, they were imprisoned. While they prayed and sang hymns at midnight, God sent an earthquake. After the jailer realized that the prisoners didn’t escape when they could have, his whole household believed in the message about Jesus.
Paul travelled through Macedonia to Thessalonica where he preached in the synagogue that Jesus was the Messiah. “He reasoned with them from the Scriptures”, which was the Old Testament. That was the method that Paul used in the synagogues because the audience was familiar with these Scriptures. Some believed the message, but some Jews were jealous and started a riot in the city. At night-time, Paul and Silas escaped to Berea. Once again Paul preached in the synagogue and many people believed his message. But when the Jews in Thessalonica heard about this they came and stirred up the crowds. They didn’t want him to proclaim that Jesus was the Messiah. Then the believers sent Paul to Athens, but Silas and Timothy stayed in Berea.
Sightseeing in Athens – v.16
Paul went sightseeing while he waited for Silas and Timothy to catch up with him. The Bible says, “While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols” (v.16NIV).
When he saw the idols of the many gods that were worshipped by the people of Athens (Appendix A), he was “greatly distressed”. Other translations say he was “deeply distressed” (CSB), or “deeply troubled” (NLT), or “greatly upset” (NET). The NET translation notes say that “the term could also be rendered “infuriated”. Paul became upset and angry that the worship due to the one true God was being directed at demons instead.
Athens was full of temples and shrines to many gods. They were worshipping many false gods. It was a pluralistic religious environment that is similar to what we have today.
Paul’s response to idolatry – v.17-18
Paul knew that the only message that could help these people was the good news about Jesus. “So, he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection” (v.17-18).
He spoke to three groups of people. First, he went into the synagogue and spoke to the religious people like he did in Thessalonica and Berea. Presumably he used the Old Testament to show that Jesus was the Messiah. Those following Judaism were opposed to idolatry but could do nothing to prevent it.
Second, he spoke to the common people in the marketplace where they socialized. These people were trapped in the superstition and fear of polytheism (the gods of many religions).
The third group was the philosophers. Two groups are mentioned here. The Epicureans thought the gods were remote and they didn’t interact with humanity. Practically, they were atheists. They denied a life after death. They were also materialists and felt that this life was the only thing that really existed and that, therefore, we should get the most out of it. They thought that the main purpose of life was pleasure. Their motto was “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” They were “existentialists”, living for the experience of the moment, which is a widespread philosophy today.
The Stoics were pantheists, they believed that everything is god, and that he does not exist as a separate entity but is in the rocks and trees and every material thing. Their attitude toward life was one of ultimate resignation, and they prided themselves on their ability to take whatever came. Their motto, in modern terms, was “Grin and bear it.” They urged moderation: “Don’t get over-emotional, either about tragedy or happiness.” Apathy was regarded as the highest virtue of life. They were fatalists. Today pantheism is prevalent in the environmental movement – they often worship nature.
The Epicureans called Paul a “babbler”, or a “foolish babbler” (NET), or an “ignorant show-off” (CSB). Another translation is, “What’s this babbler trying to say with these strange ideas he’s picked up?” (NLT). The NIV Study Bible says, “it referred to someone who picked up miscellaneous bits of useless information and then repeated them in a vain attempt to appear intelligent”. They treated Paul with distain – accusing him of picking up fragments of truth here and there and trying to impress people. They were interpreting Paul’s message through their own worldview. Today sceptics often treat Christian with distain – they don’t want to discuss the issues involved.
The Bible says, “Then they took him [Paul] and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus [a religious Council], where they said to him, ‘May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.’ (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)” (v.19-21).
The Stoics were more interested because Paul seemed to be talking about new gods – Jesus and the resurrection. All they lived for was to hear something new. So, they brought Paul to the Areopagus (Council) that looked after religious matters.
Paul’s message to the philosophers
Introduction – v.22-23
“Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus (Council) and said: ‘People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you”’ (v.22-23).
Paul began by complimenting them for being “very religious”. He probably did this to gain a hearing, although he knew that being religious was not good enough for the true God. The people of Athens worshipped many Greek and Roman gods and goddesses.
Then he said that he had seen an altar in the city “to an unknown god”. As they didn’t know about the true God, Paul crafted a message from this common ground to tell them about Him. He used this phrase to connect with them and to claim there is one true God. And to enlighten them about the true God. They worshipped many idols but didn’t know the one true God.
God is the creator of the universe – v.24
Then Paul claimed, “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands” (v.24).
Paul tells them that their ideas about God were completely wrong! The truth was opposite to what they believed. God created everything, so He doesn’t live in temples made by people. God was not created (like an idol) by a person; He is the originator of all things. And the Stoics were wrong, God wasn’t inside everything (pantheism). Instead, He was outside everything!
In the ancient world, they took a piece of gold or silver or wood and carved or formed an idol. They worshipped their own creations. Today we don’t use such images, but we see people idolizing things like possessions, careers, wealth and themselves. Idolatry is foolish – God made us; we can’t make God!
God is the sustainer of life – v.25
Then Paul said, “And He [God] is not served by human hands, as if He needed anything. Rather, He himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else (v.25). Paul says that God is a giver, not a receiver. He doesn’t need anything from people like the idols did. He gives life to all the living creatures and provides the resources that they require to thrive. All people and life come from God. Under pagan idolatry they had to bring gifts to the gods, and sacrifice to them.
God is the ruler of all nations – v. 26-28
Paul continued, “From one man [Adam] He [God] made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and He marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek Him and perhaps reach out for Him and find Him, though He is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring’” (v.26-28).
Paul gives God’s role in human history. First, we are all descendants of one man – Adam and Eve were the first parents. There is only one race of people: one species of humanity, homo sapiens. That’s why perpetuating racism is wrong. Second, He causes nations to rise and fall at specific times and to occupy specific lands.
The aim of history is that people might seek God and find God. The greatest reason for which human beings exist is that they might find the true God. The Bible says, “anyone who comes to Him [God] must believe He exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him” (Heb. 11:6). And “when you seek me [God] with all your heart … I will be found by you” (Jer. 29:13b-14a).
God is urging people to seek Him. He is a God who can be found. Those who think that they can live without God are deluded for in Him they live and move and have their being. It’s foolish to think that we can operate without God. Our very life and breath are coming from Him!
God is near us – v. 27-28
Next Paul says that God is not far from us. He quotes from two of their poets, “In Him we live and move and have our being”. We are fully dependent on God for our existence. And “we are His offspring”. He communicates in the language of their culture.
Humanity is made in the image of God. We are unique in God’s creation. We have a capacity to respond to God. But idols are an offspring of humanity. God was particularly near in the garden of Eden and when Jesus was on earth. And because He is a spirit, God is near to each one of us today.
God is outside creation – v.29
Now Paul comes to the main point about God. “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill” (v.29). People were looking for God in the wrong places. If we are made in the image of God, then God is not anything created by humanity. Idols are not divine. Instead, God is outside His creation. And God is alive whereas the idols were inert and dead. Where are you looking for God?
God will judge the world – v.30-31
Now Paul comes to the main point about humanity. “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now He commands all people everywhere to repent. For He has set a day when He will judge the world with justice by the man He has appointed [Jesus Christ]. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising Him from the dead” (v.30-31).
Because of their idolatry, they were ignorant (v.23, 30). But now they were no longer ignorant of the one true God because Paul had told them about Him. And because of their rebellion against God, they were commanded to repent. The root sin of these philosophers was pride (v.18).
When someone hears the good news about Jesus, they need to change their mind about God and stop acting as they did before. That is what repentance means — a change of mind. You are responsible to change your mind and claim the salvation which God has provided in Jesus Christ. Paul gives three reasons to change your mind and behavior.
First, God has fixed a day when He will judge the world. There is a day coming when every life will be evaluated, and justice will be done. The Bible says, “people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Heb. 9:27).
Second, the Judge will be Jesus Christ who has lived right here with us, who knows what human life is like, who has felt everything we feel. It will not be a Greek god, remote upon Mount Olympus
Third, God has made this evident to all by raising that Man (Jesus) from the dead. This is where Christianity ultimately rests. If you can disprove the resurrection of Christ, you can destroy Christianity in one blow. But as long as that fact remains unshaken, undestroyed, Christianity is indestructible. It rests upon that one great demonstrable fact – that God raised Jesus from the dead. That is the guarantee that all God says will happen.
The resurrection of Jesus is God’s way of proving to you that He is God. So, Paul urged them to stop worshipping idols and start worshipping God.
Response to Paul’s preaching – v.32-34
Next, “When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, ‘We want to hear you again on this subject.’ At that, Paul left the Council. Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus [Council], also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others” (v.32-34).
There were three kinds of response to Paul’s preaching. First, some rejected it. They sneered and ridiculed it. This meant they had no real defence to it. Greeks generally rejected the idea of the resurrection of a dead body.
Second, some put it off to another time. They delayed making a decision. Maybe they thought they were too busy or that it didn’t apply to them. But whatever was occupying them was distracting them from the most important issues in life. Who was the true God? And how must we respond to the revelation we have been given about the true God?
Third, some accepted the message and became followers of Jesus. In fact, two of the are named in the Bible, Dionysius (a member of the Council) and a woman named Damaris. So both men and women believed at Athens and a church was planted there. We never hear anything about it again, although the letters to the Corinthians may have been shared with the church in Athens, because the cities were not very far apart.
The whole gospel
The gospel is the good news that addresses the bad news. It involves: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration. God created a perfect universe, but because of the Fall into sin when Adam and Eve disobeyed God, the universe is now flawed. To fix the situation, God sent Jesus to enable redemption and restoration. Those who accept what Jesus did are promised eternal life in the new heaven and new earth, while those who reject it face eternal punishment.
The Jews already knew about the first two steps (creation and the fall into sin). And they were also promised a Messiah in the Old Testament. So Paul could begin His message to them by showing how Jesus was the Jewish Messiah. Likewise, when Billy Graham came to Australia 50-60 years ago, He preached to people who knew something about the message of the Bible.
But Paul had to address the first two steps when he spoke with those ignorant of the message of the Bible. He couldn’t explain how Jesus was a Savior (step 3) without looking at the reason why people needed to be saved. It was because of their sin and rebellion against God (step 2). The Fall also explains suffering in the world.
And he couldn’t explain people’s sin and rebellion against God (step 2) without explaining God’s perfect creation (step 1). Paul began according to their spiritual condition. He had to describe the nature of God. Likewise, today we need to explain the first two steps when speaking with people who are ignorant of the message of the Bible.
So, the main parts of Paul’s message at Athens were:
– Introduction. He began with the Unknown God because they didn’t know the true God.
– God is the creator of the universe
– God is the sustainer of life
– God is the ruler of all nations
– God is near us
– God is outside creation, and
– God will judge the world
– Now they knew who the true God was – He was known instead of unknown.
Also see an alternative summary of this message in Appendix B.
Paul’s sermon in Athens shows how to communicate the gospel to the non-Christian world. Paul spoke to three kinds of people: the religious (at the synagogue), the everyday person (at the market place) and to intellectuals (at the Council). The good news about Jesus is for everyone.
Paul caught their interest by saying that they were “very religious”, and he was going to introduce them to the “unknown god” mentioned on one of their altars. We live in a day of religious pluralism – there are many “idols” and many gods. Likewise, we need to catch people’s interest or begin on common ground when spreading the good news about Jesus. One way to begin a conversation on spiritual things is to ask, “What do you think happens after we die?”. Or, “Do you have any spiritual beliefs?”. Or if they have some problems, you could say, “I will pray for you”.
Then Paul said that God created everything and continued to sustain everything. The true God is outside creation. Any god (object of worship) that is a part of creation, is a false god. This is how to detect false gods – is the object of worship a part of creation or not?
Paul doesn’t quote from the Bible like he did when preaching to Jews in the synagogue. The Jews knew the Bible, but the philosophers didn’t. Instead, he put the message of the Bible into his own words. But the framework of what he says comes from the Bible. He covered the following key aspects of the gospel: repentance, the judgment, Jesus and the resurrection. See Appendix C for another instance when Paul spoke to those who were ignorant of the message of the Bible.
The main difference between the Christians that Acts was written to almost 2,000 years ago and us today is the idols that are worshipped. They worshipped gods and goddesses who they thought influenced their health, wealth, and life in general. Whereas we are often obsessed with:
– Social media
– Ourselves, maybe our appearance, or our fitness or health
– Sexual immorality, and people are proud of it. They are proud of what God calls sin!
When idolatry flourishes, Christianity declines and some church buildings become museums.
The main points for spreading the good news about Jesus to those who are ignorant of the message in the Bible are:
– We need to begin with the foundation of the creation and the Fall. God is the creator of the universe.
– God is outside creation.
– Because people have rebelled against God, they need to repent of their rebellion before He judges everyone in the world.
What is your response? Rejection? Put it off to another time, which may never come? Or accept the message and change your mind about God by trusting that Jesus died for your sin?
Appendix A: Idols
Idols can be identified at three levels.
– First, idols are man-made objects of worship, from small figurines to the massive gold and ivory statue of Athena that was inside the Parthenon in Athens (Lev. 26:1).
– Second, idols include the demons linked to such man-made objects of worship (Rev. 9:20).
– Third, idols are anything that people have put in their hearts that makes them sin (Ezek. 14:2-5).
Other Bible verses relating to idolatry (Ex. 20:1-6; Ps. 115:3-8; Isa.45:20-23; 1 Jn. 5:20-21).
Appendix B: What Paul said about the true God in Acts 17
– Creator (v.24). He made everything.
– Lord (v.24). He rules the world.
– Transcendent (v.24). He is outside the universe.
– All-sufficient (v.25). He doesn’t need anything, including us.
– Sovereign (v.26). He determines the rise and fall of nations.
– Immanent (v.27-28). God is knowable and close to us.
– Living (v.29) and not inert and dead like their inanimate idols.
Appendix C: Paul’s message at Lystra
This is another instance when Paul spoke to those who were ignorant of the message of the Bible. He says that God created everything and provides for all people.
14 But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting: 15 “Friends, why are you doing this? We too are only human, like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things [idols] to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them. 16 In the past, He let all nations go their own way. 17 Yet He has not left Himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; He provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.” 18 Even with these words, they had difficulty keeping the crowd from sacrificing to them (Acts 14:14-18).
Appendix A comes from BibleVerseStudy.com.
Written, February 2023
Anyone who starts with a mere presumption such as the existence of a “true God” is evidently not interested in reality but WANTS human-made fantasies of certainty — https://www.rolf-hefti.com/covid-19-coronavirus.html (“The 2 Married Pink Elephants In The Historical Room”)
“Separate what you know from what you THINK you know.” — Unknown
February 21, 2023 at 5:51 am
Thanks for the comment Hank.
How does the link to an article on COVID-19 relate to the existence of a true God?
February 21, 2023 at 7:57 am
Thanks for the comment Hank.
Everyone has presumptions (worldviews). Mine is that there is a true God, whereas yours seems to be that there is not a true God.
Here is one of the reasons for my worldview.
There are many different gods (worldviews). The main options are:
– They are all true. This is false because these gods (worldviews) are all contradictory in some significant way (otherwise they would not be significantly different).
– None are true. This is false because the natural universe exists and had a beginning which can’t be explained without a supernatural Creator (who is outside the natural universe) of matter/energy.
– Therefore, one of these gods (worldviews) is true.
February 22, 2023 at 8:35 am