Imagine you just received an anonymous check of 1 million dollars in your mailbox. You find out from the bank its the real deal. The money is right when you needed it. Your family is on their last welfare check and debtors are coming to claim your home. I’d bet you want to find out who sent you that check to thank them. But how would you find that out? Would you solicit on Facebook? Would you try to bribe the post office? Would you call up everyone you knew over the phone? Well the Greeks had their own strategy; simply erect an altar to an unknown God!
The passage in question comes from Acts 17:23 which states:
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.
Here Paul is preaching in Athens and is using objects his audience would be familiar with to build a bridge to communicate the gospel. In this case, he chooses an altar with an odd inscription to explain that Christ is the God that altar was devoted to. But this leaves us with many questions. Was Paul really relating to his audience (stoics, philosophers)? Why did was the altar erected in the first place? Why did the Greeks not know who this God was (after all, they had a God for everything)? How is this unknown God related to Christ? Thanks to archaeology and other ancient writings, these questions can be answered.
As cool as it might be to live in the Ancient world, one thing that really sucked living in the ancient world is that you generally didn’t live very long. You could have died of war, famine or disaster. But what really claimed the lives of many was disease, specifically the plague.
It’s said that plague has killed more people over history than all other factors combined
Plagues have claimed the lives of hundreds of millions (if not billions) of lives over the course of our human existence. From the plagues of Egypt, to the plagues of Revelation, they have always been around. Back then you didn’t have modern medicine or sanitization to treat waste so disease spread quickly in large, over-crowded cities. This made the Greeks of the 6th Century B.C easy targets.
A Greek philosopher-poet named Epimenides records the episode. A plague breaks out throughout all of Greece, including Athens, and panic spreads. The elders of Athens are gripped with fear. Perhaps the city is under a curse, they reason. One elder pipes up, suggesting one of the God’s have been offended. Urgently, sacrifices are offered to all their various false Gods. It’s the 4th of July all over again.
But despite all their efforts, nothing works. Turning to the oracle, the priestess suggests that another God has been offended, an “unknown” god that needed appeasement. The elders frantically turn to Epimenides for guidance. Epimenides plan is an odd one, but they comply. He tells them to send out hungry sheep of all different colors into the field to graze. Epimenides makes a prayer to the “unknown God”, asking that if any of these sheep stopped to rest instead of grazing (their natural inclination), that area was deemed sacred by this god and worthy to be sacrificed.
Believe it or not, there were sheep that stopped to rest, and yes they were quickly sacrificed to the “unknown” god. Strangely, the Athenians recovered from the plague within a week. Afterwards, altars were erected to honor this “unknown” god as a tribute and atonement.
This story provides much context into what Paul was preaching about. The inscription he saw was likely a relic to this event. His audience of highly educated stoics and philosophers would have easily recognized its historical backdrop. They would have debated who this God was for centuries by now. Don’t forget Paul himself was not a lightweight, being highly educated as a Jew and a Roman citizen. I believe he knew what he was talking about.
Do you know what puts the cherry on top of all of this? None of this is made up. In fact, we have dug up many of these inscriptions “to an unknown God” throughout all of Greece. The image you see on the top is just one of them.
While Paul’s literary device was not effective in saving the masses, it touched the hearts of a few. Those few, Dionysius and Damaris held high positions of authority. Their influence was key toward spreading the gospel quickly in Athens. When I think about evangelism as it relates to this passage, it doesn’t need to be big and flashy. It doesn’t have to be a Billy Graham crusade. But when it’s creatively presented in a language that people understand, it’s super effective!
Hopefully this will excite you to re-read the last half of Acts 17. I challenge you to read it again in light of this, and may the Holy Spirit bring you new insight into his word today.
“Bible Dig” is a new series where we take short one-liners in the Bible and delve deep into its historical and contextual background to gain a deeper appreciation for the scriptures. Whether you’re new to the Bible or a hardcore Bible nerd, there’s going to be something for everyone. I’ll be throwing in as much intrigue, humor, and application along the way. I hope you’ll enjoy reading these as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them.