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ACCEPTABLE WORSHIP (8): Ignorant Worship of Athens

Athens AcropolisAthens was renown in the ancient world for its learning, its philosophy, and its art. Ancient Athens is still renowned today. A “Google” of Ancient Athens yielded about 5,070,000 “hits.”

This was the city of Socrates and Plato. The Acropolis, pictured here, is almost 500’ high. Many temples were located on the top of this impressive hill, the most famous of which was the Parthenon, shown here in the top center. This hill of many temples was in view from the Areopagus where Paul gave his famous “Sermon on Mars Hill.” (Areopagus translates as Hill of Aries, who was the Greek god comparable to the Roman god, Mars – hence the Areopagus is Mars Hill.)

Acts 17:15-34 describes Paul’s work in Athens. These twenty verses contain all the Bible has to say about Athens, except for Acts 18:1, which simply records that Paul left Athens to go on to Corinth and 1 Thessalonians 3:1 where Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica that he sent Timothy to them while he himself was left alone in Athens. Half of these twenty verses record Paul’s sermon.

The city itself was distressing to Paul. He did not see the many temples as things of beauty and art. He saw them as evidence of a people depraved in heart and soul by their idol worship. Though he was alone in the city, he was not idle. He dialogued with Jews and devout Gentiles in the synagogue and with Epicurean and Stoic philosophers in the market place. This later group had difficulty understanding Paul. They asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others said, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods” because he “was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.”

This group of philosophers invited Paul to speak at the Areopagus where he began:

Men of Athens! I see that it 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. (NIV)

Yes, Paul acknowledged that the Athenians were very religious (the KJV has “too superstitious” for “very religious”). He offered to introduce them to the unknown god whom they “ignorantly worshipped” (KJV), and proceeded to challenge their entire world view with the story of a God who created all things but who is not served by men’s hands as though He depended on them for anything. Instead, He is the God who has given us all things, including life and breath itself.

He spoke of Man as being God’s offspring (as, he said, “some of your own poets have said”). This meant that we should not think of God as being a creation of the hands of men from gold, silver, or stone shaped by Man’s design and skill.

Certainly, there is no higher example of Man’s design and skill in building temples and statuary art than in Athens. If man could have created a god by his craft, Athens would be the place where it would have happened.

The sophisticated Athenians did not present a receptive field for Paul’s message. His sermon spoke about the ignorance of their worship. He mentioned this twice; he spoke of the unknown god whom you “ignorantly worship” at the beginning; near the end he said, “God overlooked such ignorance” in 17:30.

He also spoke of their need for repentance in view of a coming judgment, which is assured by the resurrection of the One who is to be the judge. This sermon provoked them to mockery. Some, however wanted to hear more and a few followed Paul and believed.

Worship Without Knowledge

The Athenians were among those who “know not God and obey not the gospel” (cf. 2 Thessalonians 1:8). Not knowing God, they could not worship Him, except to erect an altar “to the unknown god.” Paul asked in a letter to Rome, written from Corinth about 50 miles from Athens,

How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” (Romans 10:14).

Did he have the city of Athens in mind as he wrote?

Jesus, speaking to the Samaritan woman at the well, addressed a similar problem there:

You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22).

The problem was ancient, for Hosea in the eighth century B.C. also addressed the same issue:

My people are destroyed from lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge, I also reject you as my priests; because you have ignored the law of your God, I also will ignore your children. The more the priests increased, the more they sinned against me; they exchanged their Glory for something disgraceful. – Hosea 4:6-7.

The people of Hosea’s time rejected knowledge, ignored God’s law, and exchanged the Glory of Israel for something disgraceful.

Paul’s message in Romans 1:18-31 is very reminiscent of this passage from Hosea. In Romans, Paul said men suppressed truth, refused to glorify God as God, “and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles” (v. 23). As a result, their sins and sinfulness increased more and more – just as in Hosea’s day, “The more the priests increased, the more they sinned against me.”

Ignorant worship leads men further and further away from God. As they follow their own imaginations, they go deeper and deeper into sin and depravity. Such worship leads to slavery to gods that are no gods, but demons.

The sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s Table and the table of demons. – 1 Corinthians 10:20-21

Whereas worship of God brings one closer to His likeness and character, worship of demons leads one deeper into depravity and degradation.

God does not seek ignorant worship. He wants us to love Him with our whole being, including our minds. In fact, this is the first commandment.

Jesus replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” – Matthew 22:37-40

Ignorant worship may be very zealous, very emotional, and very satisfying to unregenerate man’s nature. It can “feel good” – but it will not bring us closer to God. The best we can say for it is that it is “spiritual.” We must remember, however, that you can be very “spiritual” without God, for there are evil spirits as well as the Spirit of God.

Ignorant worship, in the end, does not worship God, but something that is devilish. So, let us seek to know God, or as Paul said in his sermon on Mars Hill:

God did this [i.e., create all men and all nations from one man to inhabit the whole earth] so that men would seek Him and perhaps reach out for Him and find him, though He is not far from each one of us. “For in Him we live and move and have our being.” As some of your own poets have said, “We are His offspring.” – Acts 17:27-28

God is our Father who is in the Heavens. He formed us in His image. Something within us yearns to worship. If we do not know God, or if we reject God, we will find something to worship, for “There are gods many and lords many” (1 Corinthians 1:5).

Yet, to us, there is but One God worthy of our worship. Let us seek Him and Him alone. No, we do not have to know everything about God to be able to worship Him, but we must “believe that He is and that He rewards those who diligently seek after Him” (Hebrews 11:6). This is the lynch pin of our faith.

Let us heed the admonition of Jesus, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only” (Matthew 4:10). Remember also His promise in John 8:31-32.

To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “if you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

NEXT (9) Self Imposed Worship

PREVIOUS: – Vain Worship of the Pharisees

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