To an Unknown God: How to Find Common Ground
June 14, 1998
If you ever attend seminary, you will study a subject called homiletics. That’s a course where you learn how to prepare and preach a sermon. During my days at Dallas Seminary we actually had three courses in homiletics. In the first one they taught us the rudiments of public speaking, in the second one we learned how to put a sermon together, and in the third one we preached our senior sermon to our classmates. I remember that in the middle course, when my professor gave me the evaluation sheet, two words were written in large letters on comments section: Slow Down!!!!!! It was an appropriate comment because back then I preached like Machine Gun Kelly.
I remember that each student had to meet with a professor after our senior sermon for some final words of advice. It happened that my homiletics professor that year was Dr. Duane Litfin, who years later become the president of Wheaton College. He was very gracious and complimentary when we met, but I do remember that he told me that I should probably stay down South because he wasn’t sure that my preaching style would work in the Midwest. As I look back, I think he was probably right—at least at that point in my life. Of course that was 20 years ago—and he had no idea that he would one day be at Wheaton and I had never even heard of Oak Park. Many important things had to happen to me before I would be ready to come to this church.
One of the things they teach you in homiletics is how to prepare a good introduction. I’ve heard it said that a preacher has at most 30 seconds to gain the attention of the audience. If he stumbles coming out of the gate, most of the people will drift off—even though they appear to be listening intently. To be effective, a good sermon introduction must do three things: 1) introduce the subject, 2) capture the attention of the audience, and 3) touch a personal need. And most of the time, you’ve got to do all three things very quickly. I can tell you from experience that it’s not an easy thing to do. Most preachers—myself included—work hard on our introductions because if you lose your audience at the beginning, you rarely get it back.
A Magnificent Introduction
This is a sermon based on a sermon introduction. My introduction to this sermon took about 400 words. The introduction to Paul’s message at Mars Hill in Athens took only 53 words—proving that I am verbose and he is concise. Yet those words—brief as they are—did the job. They introduced his subject, caught the attention of his hearers, and most definitely touched a personal need. Without further ado, let’s take a look at that famous introduction:
“Men 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. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you” (Acts 17:22-23).
By any standard, this is a masterpiece. Remember where it takes place. Paul is standing before the Areopagus—the Supreme Court of Athens. As the only Christian in the city, he has been asked to explain what he believes. It is one of the most dramatic scenes in the New Testament—Paul preaching the gospel in the intellectual capital of the world.
His words are clear, concise, and very much to the point. More than that, they point out what it means to become “all things to all men”(1 Corinthians 9:22). We know that Paul as a Jew could speak to his own people. But here we see him before an audience of Gentiles who have never heard of Jesus Christ. Standing on their turf, at their invitation, he starts where they are and uses this opportunity to preach the gospel to them.
I. Paul’s Observation—You are very religious
Paul begins with a very simple statement: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious.” Some of you may have a translation that reads, “You are very superstitious.” Paul chose a word that was deliberately ambiguous. It could mean either “religious” in a neutral sense or it could mean “superstitious.” No doubt the men of Athens took it as a compliment about their religious nature, while Paul himself regarded them as extremely superstitious. Both meanings were true. They were religious and they were superstitious.
First words matter. If he loses his audience—either by boring them or insulting them—he’ll never get them back again. To Paul the Athenians were like blind men groping in the dark toward a God they did not know and could not find. But no kind person makes sport of the blind. Write it down in large letters: You cannot insult a person into the Kingdom of God. Were not the Athenians idolaters? Yes, and Paul knew it, and it grieved his spirit. But he didn’t begin by saying, “I’ve come to expose your sin, you dirty, wretched, hell-bound, idol-worshipping, heathenistic pagans. Thank God I’m here because I’m going to lead you to Jesus.” They wouldn’t have given him the time of day if he had said that.
As a matter of fact, Paul was telling the truth. The Athenians were very religious. One writer says there were 30,000 altars to various deities in Athens. Another says it was easier to find a god than a man in Athens. Still another called Athens one large altar.
Three Important Truths
We learn three important truths about the nature of man from Paul’s introduction: 1) Mankind is inherently religious. Anthropologists tell us that every society on earth—no matter how primitive—has some conception of a higher power. It may be evil spirits that inhabit the rocks or unnamed deities who send death and destruction on the earth. Or it may be some mystical force that fills the universe. But all people by nature seek ultimate meaning outside themselves. 2) Even the most corrupt religion demonstrates man’s innate capacity to know God. I think this was the point Paul meant to emphasize when he said, “You are very religious.” It’s not that Paul approved of their idolatry. But he recognized it as the gropings of men for some truth they knew existed but could not find. 3) Idolatry exists because the human race has suppressed the true knowledge of God. We were made to know God, but when we suppress the truth of God found in creation and written in our own hearts, we always turn to idolatry. That’s Paul’s point in Romans 1:18-21 where he says that the truth about God is “clearly seen” by each person. But when we suppress that truth revealed to us and in us, there is nothing left but idolatry, and after that sexual sin, and after that every kind of sin, and after that, the total collapse of morality (Romans 1:18-32).
Dr. James Montgomery Boice put it this way: “The reason men and women do not know God is that they do not want to know him.” Sometimes we wonder why unbelievers won’t respond to our arguments. Even after we answer all their questions and fully explain the gospel, why won’t they come to Christ? It’s because their questions weren’t the real problem, their problem is the idolatry in their own heart. They want their idols more than they want to know God. Until a person is ready to turn from his idols, he cannot embrace the living and true God (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10).
That brings me back to Paul’s statement—”You are very religious.” He used an ambiguous word in a correct way. Both meanings were absolutely true. On one hand, he compliments them on their religiosity. On the other hand, he dismisses it all as superstitious idol-worship. I doubt if the men of Athens caught the double-meaning of his words, but it’s clearly there nonetheless.
II. Paul’s Illustration—To an unknown God
Having pointed out how religious they were, he then offers the following illustration: “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” (v. 22). This is important for several reasons. First, it would tell the Athenians that Paul had taken the time to get to know their city. Then as now, Athens was one of the most beautiful cities in the world with many amazing works of art on almost every corner. This is a key principle, isn’t it? You’ve got to get to know people if you want to talk to them intelligently. It’s as if someone said, “This week I toured Chicago and visited the Art Institute, the Field Museum, the Adler Planetarium, watched the Cubs at Wrigley Field, and ate lunch at Michael Jordan’s Restaurant. Let me tell you what I saw.” We’d listen because we would know that the person took time to get to know something about Chicago. That’s what Paul did when he went to Athens.
Second, this statement tells us that Paul found a natural point of contact. As he strolled through the city, he saw altars to every conceivable deity. Historians tell us that the Athenians built altars not only to their main gods—such as Zeus, Athena, and Aphrodite, but also to abstract concepts such as justice, modesty, shame, fame, rumor, energy, and virtue. They were trying to cover all the bases, so to speak. They could never be sure they had covered all the gods and goddesses so they kept on building more altars.
30,000 Altars is Not Enough!
As Paul toured the city, he came upon an altar with a strange inscription: “TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.” There were a number of these in Athens. Several centuries before this, a plague hit the city and a man from Cyprus advised them to take a flock of black and white sheep to the Areopagus and let them go. Wherever a sheep stopped, they would kill the sheep and offer it on the nearest altar. If there was no altar nearby, they built one and dedicated it to “the unknown God.” Evidently Paul found one of these altars and used it as his opening illustration.
Think about this for a moment. Thirty thousand altars in one city and still they weren’t sure they had enough. I remember going to India several years ago and seeing the same thing—altars to various Hindu deities everywhere we went. When we traveled in rural areas, we saw little shrines set up near bridges and in every little village. Those shrines were dedicated to spirits or gods of each bridge and each village. No one knows how many gods there are in Hinduism—hundreds of millions, I suppose, because anyone who wants his own god can have one. It’s the same in India today as in Athens 2000 years ago. When you don’t know the true God, you always turn to idols. And not just one, but to many idols, because one is never enough.
This testifies to three truths: 1) The insufficiency of human wisdom. Not long after he left Athens, Paul wrote to the believers in Corinth (a city not far from Athens). In 1 Corinthians 1:21 he says that “the world by wisdom did not know God.” I wonder if he was thinking of his experience on the Areopagus as he wrote those words. If any society could have known God through human wisdom, it should have been Athens. But even the wisdom of Plato, Socrates and Aristotle is not enough. It can enlighten your mind, but it cannot save your soul. There must be something more. 2) The hunger of the human heart. You’ve heard me speak often about the “God-shaped vacuum” inside every heart. It’s there because God put it there, and if people will not fill the vacuum with God, they will always fill it with something else. Solomon reminds us in Ecclesiastes 3:11 that God “has put eternity in their hearts.” And St. Augustine prayed, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”
Finally, this teaches us the necessity of divine revelation. Athens represents the “City of Man” at its best—and it’s still not good enough. You can’t reason your way to God because human reason has been darkened by the Fall (Ephesians 4:17-19). We can still think but we can’t think God’s thoughts unless the Holy Spirits illuminates our minds so that we can see God’s truth. The way to heaven must be revealed from above.
III. Paul’s Proclamation—What you worship in ignorance
Now we come to the most courageous part of Paul’s introduction in verse 23: “Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.” Notice the phrase “as something unknown.” It really means “in ignorance”—though the hearers wouldn’t have taken it that way. He tactfully tells them they don’t know what they are talking about—which is literally true. It’s as if he is saying, “You admit there is a God you don’t know. Very well, then. I happen to know that God and I will now proclaim him to you. I will begin where you end.”
This is tremendous evangelistic strategy. How could they be offended when he starts by quoting from one of their own altars— “TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.” By admitting there is more to God than they know, they have opened the door for Paul to preach the gospel boldly.
This is what I mean by finding common ground. It doesn’t mean compromising your values in order to preach the gospel. Paul isn’t compromising anything here. He’s just finding a way to gain a hearing with these highly intelligent people. And how did he find it? The same way you will in your own evangelism—by listening, by reading, by watching, by observing, by paying attention to what people say and do. Since God has set eternity in every human heart, sooner or later that longing for eternity will express itself in one way or another. Pay attention and you’ll see it when it happens. That’s your common ground. It’s your open door to share Christ.
That leads me to suggest a simple prayer: “Lord, give me an open door to share Christ this week. Amen.” If you pray that prayer, just keep your eyes open and your ears tuned in because sooner or later, you’ll sense the “God-shaped vacuum” inside the heart of those who don’t know Jesus. When the door opens, just step in and tell them about Jesus. That’s what Paul did. You can do it too.
Day in Our Village
This afternoon we’re celebrating Day in Our Village. In the next few hours more than two thousand people will visit our property, listen to the music, buy some food, play some games, and maybe even take a shot at the pastor in the dunking booth. Most of the people who visit us today have never come to a worship service. And most of them won’t consciously be coming on our property in order to find Christ. This year all our workers will have buttons that say, “Ask me what I love about Calvary.” And inside the little bag of information we’re giving away is a hand-colored note from our children that says, “Why I love my church.” Under the leadership of Bev Kvasnicka, our Director of Children’s Ministries, our kids prepared 400 notes to give away to our guests this afternoon. Here are some of the reasons why our children love Calvary: