What can we learn from Paul’s use of the Altar to the “Unknown God”? (Mars Hill, Athens Acts 17:22-31)

What can we learn from Paul’s use of the Altar to the “Unknown God” (Mars Hill, Athens Acts 17:22-31):

This is a great case study in the Book of Acts of sharing the Gospel with people who have no Biblical background or worldview.  We can learn some things regarding this from this passage that might help us in our Gospel efforts.

Many Christians will read this passage and have no idea of the Amazing and Miraculous History behind the scenes regarding the “altar to the Unknown God” that the Apostle Paul used to his advantage to Preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  This background history blew me away when I find out.  So, I encourage you to click this link, read the article and then come back for the rest of this study.  The Historical background to Acts 17:22-31 – go to this link for more historical background:  http://christiansincrete.org/news/to-an-unknown-god/

Let’s analyze and see how Paul handles this golden opportunity to share the Gospel:

  1. Paul the Apostle had an opportunity to speak to the pagan Philosophers and other Stoics about Jesus Christ, about the Gospel of God.  Those he was talking to would have no basis or understand very little of the Israeli/Hebrew Bible of their day.  These hearers of Paul did not have a Biblical Base from which to draw from.  Paul could have quoted directly from Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc., for Example:
    “Athenians, in Isaiah chapter 7 verse 14 God says… a virgin will bring forth a son…” 
    Paul recognized their basis for their World-View, in which Quoting the Bible would be meaningless, in their case.
  2. Paul does not quote the Bible (any of the Old Testament) in this passage.  He does use Biblical Concepts/Principles in his Speech to them on Mars Hill.  He mentions God is creator, that we all need to repent and believe in the Resurrected “Man” who will Judge the world, etc.  Paul does not shy away from Biblical Concepts, but he does not quote directly from the revealed Word of God to his hearers.
  3. Paul understands their Culture and History and knows of a real, historical event (mentioned above, please go the link above for more on this)
    Paul uses that artifact in their midst, something irrefutable, something undeniable: the “altar to an unknown god”  as his launching point to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with them.  He used something well known in their cultural and historical consciousness as a place to START with them.
  4. How does this passage help us, in our Post-Biblical, Post-Literate, Nintendo society?  How can it help us in spreading the Gospel?
    FACT:  We live in a society that is NOT like the society in which our Christian, God-fearing founders of the USA lived.  They used and respected the Bible in all aspects of life (home, family, politics, business, etc.)   Those “founders” lived in a Bible-saturated society and culture.
    We no longer live in that kind of society, today.  We can wish things would go back to the “good old days”, the way it used to be, but until then, we have to live in the NOW.  Yes, it is sad, but we need to face reality.  We are, today, very much like Athens was during the time Paul was preaching the Gospel to them.

What are some things we can learn from Paul on Mars Hill in Athens (Acts 17:16ff):

  1. We should understand the people, the culture and the history of those we are attempting to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with.  No need to stress out, just learn and relate to folks in the process.
  2. It would be good to find something in their personal culture/history or our shared culture/history that they/we can relate to that is irrefutable and undeniable… in which God has intervened.In our Western World culture, such as in the USA … our cultural worldview is very much influenced, more and more by anti-christian, secular, humanistic, atheistic values… with Evolution as its basis.  This is why I find myself using, increasingly, the Truth about The DNA / RNA / Protein Information System within our Cells when I attempt to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the lost.  I found that I can help a person agree with the 10 Commandments, that they may have broken them, and they might be considered “sinners”.  But, when I move to the next step: to God’s Authority over us, based upon the Bible, that is when things tend to go south.  Most folks tend to disagree that the Bible is the Word of God, and thus, God and the Bible have NO authority over them, nor are they accountable to God because of the Bible, etc.  So, it seems to be almost futile to try to “prove” that the Bible is the True Word of God at that point… but I can use something that “speaks” about God, who to them, might be the equivalent to being an “unknown god”.  This “unknown god” has a history and has intervened. Introducing the “unknown god” in their midst … by using the DNA / RNA Information System.  This SYSTEM is in all living cells and is undeniably Designed by Intelligence.  Prescriptive Information ALWAYS comes from Intelligence. Always!  This can be an “altar to an unknown god” – a starting point in our culture, right now.  Today, we find almost every Police/Crime Drama on TV uses “DNA Evidence” in almost every episode.  The concept and the word “DNA” is everywhere in our culture. DNA and Genetics are talked about all the time, such as with people trying to find their ancestry, ethnicity, etc. and folks are using DNA Testing for Medical reasons, etc.  Because DNA is used so much in our culture and so many folks use “Evolution” as their excuse to reject the Bible …  I use this as the “altar to an unknown god” for our Gospel advantage.  I ask folks who deny that the Bible is true and authoritative
    “Where does the Highly Complex and Ordered Information in our Cells, in our DNA, come from?” — Then I just wait for their answer.  If they don’t have a clue, I help them a wee bit.If this is over their head, I try to find something else as a starting point … I find out why they are rejecting God and the Bible, etc.  But, it seems, increasingly, more people are understanding the implications of DNA regarding INFORMATION.  The overwhelming reason folks REJECT the Bible today, in the USA, is because of “Evolution”.  “Evolution” is the Main EXCUSE used by those who REJECT the Bible … so if they are going to use that Excuse then…
    ==> Ask them for Evidence to support their premise.
    Then be armed with some basic facts about DNA such as “it is a Digital Software Information System” – it might be good to memorize that phrase.

    A famous quote to use is one by Bill Gates (if they don’t know who he is, ask them if they ever heard of Microsoft Windows or just Microsoft – then let them know Bill Gates is the founder, etc.)
    Bill Gates said: “DNA is like a computer program but far, far more advanced than any software ever created.”


    Then ask them, to explain how an “Advanced Computer Software” designed itself by accident and then somehow found its way into all of the 100 trillion cells of their body and in all of the living organisms all over the earth.
    God might use this undeniable, irrefutable TRUTH to cause them doubt in their own atheistic, evolutionary belief system (God willing), if they are honest with themselves.


    Then, if they respond with humility and honesty ==> “I am not sure …” or “Maybe something or someone did this…”  we may have brought them, face-to-face with their “altar to an unknown god” and they might actually see it standing right in front of them (ref. Acts 26:18).

    The next step is to help them with the concept of this “unknown god”, that He is knowable and He designed and created the whole universe, not just LIFE, but everything that is.

    At each step, we need to pay attention to how they respond. If they respond with humility and honesty, move on to the next step…:

    ==> God created us to have relationship with Him, but our original parents sinned against God and we, today still suffer the consequences of that sin, we inherited that sinful nature, etc.  
    God must judge sin, because He is holy (you can ask,” does this make sense”?)

    If these truths do make sense to them, then you can use the 10 Commandments and go through a few of them, just to help them see that they,  indeed, are sinners, etc.   If there is a real God who created everything (as seen in DNA),  then He has the right to want us to obey His rules.  Since, He created and owns the Universe, it is His Universe, He calls the shots, etc.   These concepts might be hard for some folks.
    .   .   .

  3. If the person is at the point of agreeing that God exists (some sort of “unknown god” but He created everything, etc…) and he/she agrees that he/she is a sinner and that God is Holy and will Judge sin…
    Then, and only then, share the Gospel, the Good News about Jesus Christ … His Person and His Crucifixion, Death, Burial, and Resurrection, etc… (sufficient sacrifice for our sins, etc.).
    That is when a person can receive the Truthcan Repent (“… God commands everyone everywhere to repent …”)… and Trust in Jesus Christ for his/her salvation, etc.

We live in a culture and time in which it is almost parallel with Athens on Mars Hill at the time Paul the apostle preached to those Stoic Philosophers in the AreoPagus.

Instead of bowing down to statues (idols, formal, religious idolatry), today, we have a new Idolatry: today we call it “Evolution”.  This new Idolatry is a new religion in which their “creator” they worship is themselves (humanity/humanism), worship of our “ape-like ancestors”, worship of four footed creatures, birds, crawling creatures and pond scum, etc. According to that “theory” –  All of this happened by accident, with no purpose, with no intelligence behind it… all of these things are our “Evolutionary Creator” (ref.: Romans 1:18-22).

So, in our sharing of the Gospel, we must find those points of irrefutable, undeniable interventions of God in which the hearers we are attempting to reach can relate to and agree with, in some way.  Paul did this really well as recorded in Acts 17:22-31… Therefore, we, too, can do the same, in Jesus’ Name.

Also, a bit of a WARNING … when a culture is at that point (like ours is today) …  NOT many may respond (real repentance and faith in Christ, etc).  If you read the rest of that passage in Acts 17, just a few responded to Paul’s proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

If you read Acts 17:16-21 – Paul had already Reasoned with Many folks in the local Synagogue and in the Open-Marketplace in Athens prior to his time up on Mars Hill.  Of all that work and effort he did, not many responded to the Gospel he was preaching and Reasoning with, etc.

Tidbit of Info:
Reasoning implies, personal conversations with people.  Reasoning does NOT imply Open Air Preaching (a one way monologue/shouting/preaching) on a Soap Box in a town square.

What opened the doors for Paul to be able speak to that special group of “Philosophers” up on Mars Hill in the Areopagus?  It was all that work Paul was doing in town in the Synagogue and in the Open-Marketplace, prior to Mars Hill.  Someone in the “club” of the Areopagus (i.e.: Mars Hill) heard Paul speaking about Jesus (Iēsous) and the Resurrection (anastasis) and those philosophers who overheard Paul thought Paul was spreading a new religion about 2 new gods (i.e.: Iēsous and anastasis).  So, Paul was invited to the Areopagus to speak to that exclusive group.  Thus, he was invited to speak there, because of all his effort prior to that event, as recorded in Acts 17:16-21.  Paul did NOT go up to Mars Hill, on his own, plop down his soapbox and start open-air preaching (uninvited).  It was the Prior Work that started earlier… when Paul arrived, after he saw the city full of idols.  Paul was heartbroken for the folks of Athens because of their massive and open idolatry and I think he was praying, as well because of that heart-brokenness.  This compassion is what motivated him to go out and Reason in the Synagogue and in the Open-Market place with folks … which then led to the Mars Hill speech of Acts 17:22-31.

THE LESSON: each one of us might want to have some sort of ministry or some sort of “service unto God” that starts out large, hugely successful, fully mature, big, explosive at FIRST.  BUT, in most cases, it is the unseen, prior, faithful work, the plowing, while not wanting any glory for one’s self (but only for the Glory of God) that eventually leads to God opening up opportunities that leads to reaching more people, effectively.  Paul was faithful “out of sight” BEFORE God opened up the next doors.  Awesome lesson.

This passage, I am sure, has many more golden nuggets to find… search it out and share them with others and obey what you learn.


I hope this was encouraging to you.
If it is, please, pass this on to others.
God Bless y’all   🙂

Pastor Andy Thomas
(843) 814-1110
   New LIFE Fellowship


One thought on “What can we learn from Paul’s use of the Altar to the “Unknown God”? (Mars Hill, Athens Acts 17:22-31)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.