Introduction: After leaving Philippi, Paul went through Amphipolis, Apollonia, Thessalonica, and Berea, with varying success and persecution. He then came to Athens the center of learning and culture of the ancient Greeks. While he waited at Athens for the arrival of Silas and Timothy, his "spirit was provoked within him as he beheld the city full of idols;" which led him to preach in the Jewish synagogue and in the market place every day. He also came in contact with the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. They insisted on him delivering a public discourse in a prominent place in the city with the avowed purpose of learning "what this new teaching is." So Paul delivered this famous sermon from the place called Mars Hill as recorded in Acts 17:22-31. An analysis of this sermon and its startling similarity of application to modern conditions is evidence of the divine inspiration by which Paul spoke and the fact that human nature does not change.
1. "Very religious." Paul had observed that they were a very religious people. A people may be very religious and still not be Christian. The King James Version says, "Too superstitious." The marginal reading in the American Standard Version is "somewhat superstitious." Religion may be on a low plane and be merely superstition, as in the case of savage peoples, or is may be a combination of several elements: for example, the Roman Catholic religion is a conglomeration of Judaism, Christianity, and heathenism. The Athenians were "too religious:" they had too much religion of the wrong kind. America today is "too religious." The popular notion is that we do not have enough religion, but we have too much. It is true that we do not have enough pure religion practiced, for James says, "Pure religion and undefiled before our God and Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world." (Jas. 1:27); but it is also true that we have a conglomeration of religions, all claiming to be pure Christianity and offering salvation to deluded man in the name of God. In the New Testament there is set forth one church, one way of salvation, one authorized form of church government, one plan of divine worship, and one guide in all of these matters. Paul to the Ephesians put it this way: "There is one body, and one Spirit, even as also ye were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all, and through all, and in all." (Eph. 4:4-6). And Paul told the Romans that, "there is no distinction between Jew and Greek: for the same Lord is Lord of all, and is rich unto all that call upon him." (Rom. 10:12). The Lord, therefore, gave just one plan of salvation. The Gentile is saved on exactly the same terms as the Jew and the Jew on exactly the same terms as the Gentile. But looking over the religious set-up of our times, we see hundreds of different "bodies," "faiths," and "callings," as well as the more than "one hope" of the premillennialists, who have at least two—one on this earth and one after that, whatever it may be. The charge Paul brought against the Athenians of being "too religious" may very appropriately be brought against the denominational religious set-up of the world today.
2. What they worshipped. Paul was also interested in what they worshipped. "For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, To an unknown god." The Greeks, like all of the ancients, had a multiplicity of gods. Their main interest was to keep all of their gods in a good humor with them so that no calamity would be inflicted upon them by incurring the disfavor of some god. And since they attributed to their gods all of the passions of men, they included that also of jealousy. In the fear that there might be a god they did not know about, and neglecting him, might bring down his wrath upon them, they had erected this altar "To an unknown god." Paul very wisely began where they had left off and told them of the one true God. But think for a moment of the millions today, who like the Athenians, are ignorant concerning the God of heaven and the true worship he requires of all who approach his holy presence. Paul said to the Ephesians, "Wherefore be ye not foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is." (Eph. 5:17) No man can approach God who does not know him. "It is written in the prophets, And they shall all be taught of God. Everyone that bath heard from the Father, and hath learned, cometh unto me." (Jno. 6:45) Again, the utter impossibility of coming to God without knowing him, is stated by Paul in these words, "How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?" (Rom. 10:14) And verse 17 states, "So belief cometh of hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ." Yet millions of otherwise intelligent people are taught, and believe, that God communicates to them directly in some sort of mental telepathic way. In this they show that they do not know God.
3. "What therefore ye worship in ignorance…" Not knowing God, it followed logically that they worshipped in ignorance. Not knowing God nor the Scriptures, denominationalists worship God today in ignorance. They know only what they are told by their preachers and editors; and since these are interested chiefly in furthering their partisan interests, they are unsafe teachers and prefer to keep their members in ignorance of what God actually requires in worship. A second hand knowledge of the Scriptures is a dangerous thing. But bad as it is to worship in ignorance, it is still worse to worship in willful ignorance. Speaking of religious scoffers who would scoff at the idea of the second coming of Christ, Peter says, "For this they willfully forget… (2 Pet. 3:5) These scoffers forget on purpose what they knew the word of God taught. Many religious leaders of today know the truth on the plan of salvation, organization, and worship of the New Testament church, but knowing that to admit it would ruin their sects, they feign ignorance of the truth and contend for false positions. God demands an intelligent worship for those who would worship him. A knowledge of God's will is necessary. His plan of worship is clearly and intelligently set forth in the New Testament.
4. Paul told the Athenians that God dwells not in temples-made with the hand of man. All about Paul stood the magnificent temples erected to pagan deities. Paul was challenging a system of worship that had been accepted for hundreds of years and was closely entwined with their political, social, 'intellectual, and economic life. They had been taught that idol worship in highly ornate temples attracted the benign attention of the gods. It is startling to observe here the parallel between these heathen temples full of images of what they conceived their gods to be and Catholicism. The Catholics erect magnificent cathedrals and fill then with the statues of what they conceive Christ, his apostles, and "the saints" to be. As the pagan worshipped before an image of Zeus or Apollo, so the Catholic prays before an image of some "saint." Since Paul here declares that "God dwelleth not in temples made with hands," we might inquire, where does he dwell? This same apostle answers the question, when to the Ephesians he wrote, "So then ye are no more strangers and sojourners, but ye are fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God, being built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the chief corner stone; in whom each several building, fitly framed together, groweth into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom ye also are builded together for a habitation of God in the Spirit." (Eph. 2:19-22). Here Paul plainly declares that God dwells in the church.
5. God created man to seek after him. "… me made of one every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed seasons, and the bounds of their habitation; that they should seek God… The Creator intended for man to "walk in paths of righteousness for his names' sake," but man has always had a different notion. God said through the prophet, "… it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps," but man thinks that he knows more than God. Beginning with Cain, who offered the first substitute in worship because he thought to direct his own steps, down to the modern denominational practices of patting in instrumental music, human societies, ecclesiastical organizations, a separate priesthood composed of pope, cardinals, prelates, monsignors, archbishops, bishops, etc., and every other human device that God has not authorized, man has shown plainly that he does not intend to "seek after God" in God's appointed ways. Man does not seek after God; but prefers to seek after worldly glory and engage in excess of pleasure and foul dealing.
6. Man ought not to have a warped conception of God. "Being then the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and device of man." These Athenians had a warped conception of God. Men today may not be idolaters as the Athenians were, but they have just as warped a conception of him. In the beginning it is said: that "God created man in his owns image." The Athenians created God in their image. Men today make God in their own image. They try to make God say through their false interpretation of the Scriptures that their human organizations are divine. They attempt to prove everything by divine authority from popery to rolling in the straw. What is this but trying to make God in man's image? God said through Jeremiah, "Every man is become brutish and is without knowledge; every goldsmith is put to shame by his graven image; for his graven image is falsehood, and there is no breath in them. They are vanity, a work of delusion, in the time of their visitation they shall perish." (Jer. 10:14, 15). The "goldsmiths" or founders, or fashioners of denominations are deceived by their own creations.
7. God overlooked the times of ignorance, but now commands all men everywhere to repent. The maker and perpetuator of false religions and systems has no excuse today for not knowing and doing his Maker's will. The implication is clear that all men must turn from their "brutish" conceptions of God to the truth, for God commands it. But as in Athens, where the majority mocked, and some were puzzled, so today men mock the true gospel and content themselves with the idea that the majority cannot be wrong; and that just any church will do and take them to heaven. To turn from the beautiful temples of the gods they had created and which were marvels of beauty and human perfection of art, was a difficult step for the Athenians. To the man who is "wedded to his idols" of human doctrines and institutions today, is equally a hard step for him to take. Yet God commands "all men everywhere" to give up their misconceptions of himself and the worship he expects, and turn to the truth. This truth can only be obtained by a devout and sincere study of the word of the Lord.
8. "He hath appointed a day in which he will judge the world." This judgment day is set in God's mind. Man does not know when this day is coming, but he can be ready when it does come. It is not in the province of man to put in his time speculating about when this day is to come, but to give his time and efforts to being ready when it does come, no matter when. The teaching of Jesus on this point is always timely. "Take ye heed, watch and pray: for ye know not when the time is. It is as when a man, sojourning in another country, having left his house, and given authority to his servants, to each one his work, commanded also the porter to watch. Watch therefore: for ye know not when the Lord of the house cometh, whether at even, or at midnight, or at cockcrowing, or in the morning; lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping. And what I say unto you I say unto all, Watch. (Mark 13:33-37).
9. The Results. When the assembly of intellectuals heard of the resurrection from the dead, some mocked and others said they would hear Paul again sometime. Isn't that typical of the reaction to the gospel today? When a true gospel preacher sets forth the gospel plan of salvation by faith, repentance, confession, and baptism; the New Testament plan of church organization, work and worship, many mock— "Why, the very idea of baptism having anything to do with salvation! That's Campbellism!" Others say they have never heard anything like it and will "think it over." Members of the Lord's church in this section have come in contact with many soldiers, especially from the Atlantic seaboard states, who are simply astounded at the doctrine of "one Lord, one faith, and one baptism."
10. "But some believed." Among them was Dionysius, the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris. The gospel today, as then, will be accepted by some. We are not promised that the gospel will be believed and accepted by all to whom it is proclaimed, but we are commanded to go and preach it to every creature. Our task is large, but our stewardship demands that a "man be found faithful." (I Cor. 4:2).