Epimenides and the Unknown God

  Acts 17:16-34


Last week we saw Paul and Silas in prison in Philippi. After they were released, they traveled to Thessalonica (Acts 17:1-9) where they had a very successful ministry. So successful, in fact, that the local Jews who had not believed began to oppose them and finally caused them to be run out of town.

The little band of missionaries moves on to Berea (Acts 17:10-15), where, again, they find great success in spreading the Gospel. But, when their opponents from Thessalonica found out that they were in Berea, they came there and caused trouble for them. Paul, once again, must leave town. Timothy and Silas stay behind in Berea as Paul is escorted to Athens. That is where our reading for this morning begins.

While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. (Acts 17:16).

To say that Athens was “full of idols” is something of an understatement, indeed, it was said that “In Athens one is more likely to meet a god than a man.” That is true statistically--it is estimated that there were 30,000 different idols in Athens in Paul’s day, but only about 10,000 people.

Whenever Paul entered a new city, he would go to the Jewish synagogue first. There he would find people who had a common understanding of God through the Hebrew scriptures. And he would find those Gentiles who had come to the Jewish synagogue to learn more about this God who seemed so much more substantial, more glorious and more grace-filled than the many gods if pagan idolatry.

But the text says that Paul spoke in the marketplace also. So, we see God sending his word among the purely heathen Gentiles—those who had no background in the Old Testament Scriptures.

Hearing Paul teach about Jesus, the philosophers had Paul come to the Areopagus and asked him to tell them about this “new,” strange teaching he was proclaiming. The two main groups of philosophers were the Epicureans and the Stoics. Who were these people?


·         Everything happened by chance.

·         If there were gods, they were so transcendent as to be unknowable.

·         There was no afterlife.

·         Therefore, the highest good in life was to be happy—not necessarily in immoral behavior, but they sought to experience the best this life had to offer, because this one life was all there was.


·         There is a god, but it is an impersonal god which permeates everything.

·         The goal was to “be one with god”.

·         Everything in life is pre-determined.

·         Therefore, accept whatever life sends “stoically” (the English word comes from the name of the philosophical school).

These philosophies are still alive today. They are all around in the New Age teachings and in the materialistic

How do we relate the gospel to people who have no knowledge of the Bible and whose conception of God has little in common with the God of the Bible?

Note how Paul does this in vs. 22 onwards.

Let me begin with a story:

In the 6th Century BC Athens was stricken by a terrible plague and the city elders were at a loss to know what to do about it. They had tried sacrificial offerings but to no avail. As many did in those days, they consulted the Oracle of Delphi for wisdom. The priestess said there was another god who remained unappeased for their treachery. Who was this unknown god? The priestess did not know but advised that they should send a ship to the island of Crete and fetch a man called Epimenides who would know how to appease the offended god.

Epimenides landed at Piraeus and was amazed as he approached the city of Athens to see that the road was lined with the images of many gods; gods in their hundreds collected from the religions of the peoples surrounding them.

Epimenides suggested that indeed there must be a god unknown to them great enough and good enough to do something about the plague if they invoked his help. But, the elders questioned, how could they call upon a god whose name is unknown?  Epimenides responded any god good and great enough to do something about the plague is probably also great and good enough to overlook their ignorance if they acknowledged their ignorance and called upon him.

Epimenides advised the elders to seek a sign from the unknown god. He told them to graze a flock of sheep some white, some black on the grassy slope of Mars Hill. He then prayed something on the lines of…

“O thou unknown god! Behold the plague afflicting the city.  And if indeed you feel compassion to forgive and help us, behold the flock of sheep.  Reveal your willingness to respond, I plead, by causing any sheep that pleases you to lie upon the grass instead of grazing. Choose white if white pleases; black if black delights.  And those you choose we sacrifice to you – acknowledging our pitiful ignorance of your name”

Although it was early morning when the sheep were at their hungriest and therefore unlikely to stop grazing, some sheep settled down to rest and these were separated from the remainder of the flock for the sacrificial offering. Epimenides ordered altars to be set up on the spots where each sheep lay down.  On each altar they were to inscribe the words “agnosto theo” meaning “to an unknown god”.

Within a week, the Athenians stricken by the plague recovered.

Paul knew the story of Epimenides and the Unknown God. It becomes his opening to present the gospel to the Athenians. Isn’t that amazing? This story had sat like a time-bomb for six centuries until Paul uses it to show that God of the Bible, was not a “foreign god” as his adversaries claimed (v.18) but a God who had already intervened to bring help in the affairs of Athens.

Point: Wherever we go to sew the seed of God’s word, we find that he has already been there preparing the ground.

So, that’s Paul’s introduction. Now, let’s look briefly at the body of his sermon.

His first point is . . .

God Is Creator and Provider of All (vs. 24).

The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.

Paul explains that this “unknown god” is the Creator of heaven and earth, who does not dwell in temples made with hands. God is self-sufficient—the only truly self-sufficient being. We should not think that he needs our service.

Your idols are an affront to the one true God.

Secondly . . .

God Is to be Sought by All (vss. 27-28).

27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him

Until this day you have been groping in the dark. But you have not found him. God has created men to seek after him. That is what Paul means in verses 26 and 27:

From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him

Your failure to find God is not his fault, as if he has been standing aloof. No, in fact (quoting Epimenides) . . .

he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’

The problem is not that God is unwilling to be found, it’s that we are unwilling to find him. We will seek him in all manner of places—except in the one place he is to be found.

Finally . . .

God Is the Judge of All (vss. 29-31).

God has overlooked the ignorance of man until now – in Christ the full-blaze of the knowledge of God has come (vss. 29-30).

29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.

To worship gods made by human hands is absurd, an affront to the true God. But he has overlook their sin until now. Now he has spoken through his Son and he calls on all men to repent and believe in Jesus Christ or face judgment.

31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.

Paul’s mention of the resurrection brought a varied response from the philosophers. Some sneered outright. Others said they wanted to hear more from Paul (Acts 17:32). Praise the Lord, some believed. One of the members of the Areopagus, named Dionysius, exercised faith in Christ, and several other Athenians also became Christians that day.

Some have criticized Paul’s address before the Areopagus. They point to the meagre response and say, “See, Paul should have stuck with the basics and not tried to engage the philosophers on their own ground.” They say that Paul, himself, recognized his mistake and determined from then on, as he told the Corinthians, “I deteremined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). But I wonder if Dionysius or Damaris or any of the others who believed that day thought that Paul had wasted his time. The amazing thing about Paul’s encounter with the philosophers on Mars Hill was not how few believed, but that any of them believed at all!

Whenever we engage with a non-believing world some will sneer, some will postpone their decision, but some will believe—and that is miraculous!