THE UNKNOWN GOD Acts 17–18
“I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23).We must be very wise when we begin to proclaim a God who is unknown.
Paul was driven from Thessalonica by Jewish hostility (17:1–9), but found the Jews of Berea more ready to listen (vv. 10–15). Paul preached to philosophers in Athens (vv. 16–34) before moving on to Corinth (18:1–5), where charges made by the Jews were rejected by the Roman proconsul (vv. 6–17). Paul traveled with friends through Ephesus on his way back to Antioch (vv. 18–23). In Ephesus these friends, Priscilla and Aquila, explained the Gospel to a powerful preacher named Apollos who had heard only of John the Baptist’s preaching.
Understanding the Text
“A large number of God-fearing Greeks and not a few prominent women” Acts 17:1–9. Paul continued to preach the Gospel to his own people first. Even though only a few would respond, they deserved the opportunity to hear first. We mustn’t measure a person’s or group’s right to hear the Gospel by their response. Even if the response is as hostile as the Jewish reaction to the missionaries in Thessalonica, everyone has the right to hear. “The Bereans were of more noble character” Acts 17:10–12. The “nobility” of the Jews in Berea was displayed not by their willingness to hear Paul out, but by their careful daily examination of the Scripture to make sure what he said was true. It may be hard to grasp, but the “noble” Christian today listens to preachers skeptically. The minister who insists, “Trust me,” whether from the local pulpit or on the airwaves, doesn’t seem to realize that the Word of God, not his teaching, is our ultimate authority. So be noble. Listen, but then study the Bible to make sure what you hear from the pulpit is true. “He reasoned . . . in the marketplace day by day” Acts 17:16–21. Paul was forced to leave Berea when a delegation of Thessalonian Jews came there to stir up trouble. As the other members of his team still had an opportunity to minister, Paul went on to Athens alone to wait for them. The idolatry Paul saw in Athens upset him greatly. As well as minister in the synagogue on the Sabbath, he started a street ministry, talking daily with anyone who would listen. I learned about street meetings as a young Christian in New York City. A man was standing on a short stepladder, preaching in Rockefeller Center, just opposite Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. About a hundred folks were gathered around listening. I stopped for a while and then the man, hoarse from shouting, invited anyone who wanted to give a word of testimony to climb on his ladder. I certainly didn’t plan it, but suddenly I found myself standing there in my Navy uniform, preaching away. Street ministry isn’t popular or easy. Yet I later learned that one of the deacons in my local church had been converted in a street meeting. Paul showed us in Athens that it’s all right to adopt unorthodox ways to reach people who might not otherwise hear. Acts 17:18–33: While in Athens Paul addressed its philosophers on Mars Hill, shown here. His message on the nature of God and the Resurrection seemed foolish to most. But some believed, including one Dionysius who was a member of the “Council of Ares,” the local governing body. “Something unknown I am going to proclaim to you” Acts 17:18–32. Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill is a classic example of what today is called “contextualization.” He did not begin with quotes from the Jewish Scripture, or a review of Hebrew history. Rather Paul drew on pagan Greek poets to establish a point of contact, and then went on to proclaim God’s truth. Paul did not use pagan authors as authorities, and his use doesn’t suggest that what they said is necessarily true. But his quotes did set the stage for his teaching. That message directly confronted the worldview of his listeners. God is the Creator of the world and all in it. God is the Creator of all men, and all are responsible to Him. It is ignorant to think of the divine Being in terms of gold, silver, or stone idols. A day of judgment is coming, and the proof is that God has raised Jesus from the dead. It’s one thing to find a point of contact so we can tell them about a God they do not know. It is another thing entirely to abandon biblical truth so that what we say will be more “acceptable” to them. “When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered” Acts 17:32–34. If Paul had spoken only of the immortality of the soul, many more might have listened. That belief had deep roots in Greek philosophy. Instead Paul spoke of resurrection, a keystone of Christian faith and biblical revelation. Luke tells us that when this teaching was advanced some sneered—but others wanted to hear Paul again on the subject. It’s our task, as it was Paul’s, to present the truth of God without apology to those who do not know Him. Today too some will ridicule and turn away. But some will keep coming back, and some of these will believe. “A Jew named Aquila” Acts 18:1–3. This man and his wife Priscilla illustrate the mobility of people in the Roman Empire of the first century. The couple had been expelled from Rome. They settled in Corinth (v. 1), later moved to Ephesus (v. 19), and still later are found again in Rome (Rom. 16:3). They were tentmakers (leatherworkers) by trade, and very successful, for their home was large enough for church groups to meet there. This freedom to travel was a key to the spread of the Gospel in the first century, and the early Christians took full advantage of it. Today we should take advantage of every opportunity society affords to spread the Gospel where God is unknown. “Priscilla and Aquila” Acts 18:18. The first time Luke mentioned this couple, Aquila was named first. That’s appropriate. In the world of the first century, men were head of the house. But every other mention of this pair in Scripture names Priscilla first. Apparently she made the strongest impression, and very possibly was the one who took the lead in ministry. It’s likely that Paul’s relationship with women like Lydia of Philippi, the “prominent women” of Thessalonica, Damaris of Athens, and Priscilla of Corinth, helped shape the apostle’s far more liberal view of women and their place in ministry than he is often credited with. “Gallio was proconsul of Achaia” Acts 18:7–17. The response of the Corinthian Gentiles to the Gospel again aroused the hostility of unbelieving Jews. At this time Gallio, well-known in secular history, was proconsul. Gallio was the brother of Seneca, the philosopher and politician, and was an influential man in his own right. When the Jews tried to haul Paul into court on a charge of teaching an illicit religion, Gallio threw the case out. He was willing to hear civil and criminal cases, but not religious disputes. This decision by a well-known and highly respected proconsul set a precedent, and for over a decade after Christianity was given the protection of a licit faith. During that time Paul preached freely in the provinces, without fear of coming in conflict with Roman law. Again an attack by Paul’s enemies was deflected by God, and even used to make the Christian community more secure.
Speak Up-Wisely(Acts 18:18–28)
I always cringe a little when I hear folk speaking about “contending” for the faith. I get this picture of the grim-faced fellow who on the way out of church tells the preacher (loudly) how his sermon twisted the morning’s text. Or the young man who visited our congregation one Sunday morning, and ostentatiously walked out when Ruth Flood, who’s been a speech teacher in several Christian colleges, read Scripture from the pulpit. He was letting us know that we were ignorant of the fact that womenfolk shouldn’t get up on that platform. He was contending for the true faith. Actually, there are times when any of us need to be informed or corrected. But how a person tries to clear up another’s ignorance makes a big difference. There’s a right way and a wrong way to go about it. Priscilla and Aquila show us the right way. A fiery preacher named Apollos came into town, teaching the imminent coming of the Messiah. He had his Scriptures right. But he’d never heard about Jesus. All he knew was that John the Baptist had appeared in the homeland, and said the promised One was due to arrive. That was enough for Apollos, and he went out to preach the Good News as he knew it. It would have been easy for Priscilla or Aquila to stand up in that meeting and bring Apollos up to date. Or to correct him as they shook hands on the way out the door. Instead the couple invited him over for dinner, complimented him on his speaking, and “explained to him the way of God more accurately.” What a model for us to follow. Sure we want to clear up misunderstandings, and enlighten folks who worship a God they don’t really know. But let’s do so wisely. Not in public, where someone might be embarrassed. But in the warmth of our home, or the privacy of a friendly chat. Actually, I suspect that Apollos was too big a man, and far too sincere, to have been turned off even if Priscilla and Aquila had been as obnoxious as some of us Christians are. So perhaps Luke tells the story more as a reminder than anything else. The best way to present an unknown God is not to “contend” at all, but in a spirit of warmth and love to share our understanding of God’s great and wonderful good news.
Sensitivity to others’ feelings opens their ears.
For me ’twas not the truth you taught, To you so clear, to me so dim, But when you came to me you brought A sense of Him! And from your eyes He beckons me, And from your heart His love is shed, Till I lose sight of you and see The Christ instead. -Author unknown