Acts 17: just another God?

So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”

Acts 17:22-23 (NIV).

The scene that met Paul in Athens was typical of the Roman Empire of the day. 

As he wandered through the Areopagus, at the heart of the bustling ancient city, he was confronted by the presence and veneration of countless gods, goddesses, and mystery divinities. The ancient world was “very religious”. Just as much as our own contemporaries worship celebrities, money, fashion and sex, the ancients were worshippers. In many ways they worshiped the same gods as the world around us, they merely personified them. In Plutus they had a god of money, in Aphrodite a goddess of sex. So when Paul passed the “objects of worship” in ancient Athens, he was met not with idols of meaningless false gods, but with manifestations of the false gods the Roman world had raised up as a result of their sinful rebellion against God.

In the absence of an object of True Worship, human beings then and now turn to objects of comfort and self-centred gain and worship them. The Roman merchant would pray to Neptune ahead of a sea voyage – to ensure calm sailing and safe arrival of their cargo. The Roman soldier would pray to Mars before battle, to beg for victory over inferior foe. The traveller would submit to Mercury when setting off on a journey, to ask for safe roads and swift travel. You get the picture. In the absence of a true focal point for human worship, the sinful heart erects false gods to come to. 


The Roman world was full of gods. There was a god or goddess for every event and occasion, and if you couldn’t find anything at home, then divinities from abroad were more than welcome in the Roman pantheon. The polytheistic religious attitude of the ancient world incorporated the likes of Isis and Osiris from Egypt, and Mithridates from the Orient. If you still couldn’t find the god you needed publically, then the household gods, or lares, were personal deities found and worshipped in small shrines in every Roman home. There was no state religion, because the state was religion. The Emperor himself encouraged worship of the imperial ancestors, and imperial cults sprung up across the empire venerating past and present Roman Emperors.

So when Paul moves to speak of this Unknown God, he makes a radical call.

“Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

Acts 17: 29-31 (NIV).

Paul calls his Athenian audience to repent. Because his True God is not some metal or stone image carved by their sculptors. Nor is he content with ignorance and half-hearted service. Paul’s Christian God does not want you only to heed him on odd days of the week, or at times when you need a hand in a crisis. Paul’s Christian God wants repentance from ignorance, and lives given over to Him before His final judgement comes. This message itself is even more countercultural. The gods were certainly seen as powerful and mighty beings. But they were by no means sovereign. The current gods of Rome and Greece were believed to be ruling (under Jupiter, the King of the gods) merely because they overthrew a divine race of Titans and stole their power and authority. There is no sense in which their rule is eternally assured, certainly no sense in which their sovereignty is so total as to one day call the men of the world to a final judgement. Such teaching contradicts everything the ancients believed. Even their notions of judgement at death were profoundly different: with most believing that all the deceased passed on to a shadelike existence in the underworld, where a mere few enjoyed the semi-passable eternal existence of the Isles of the Blessed.

No, Paul and the faithful of the Early Church taught one God supreme in authority, sovereignty and judgement. And when Paul made known the unknown God, he was asking his pagan audience to turn from their false gods and humble themselves before the one true God. The one God who could satisfy them, the one God who could save them.

Paul was not preaching just another god to fit into their crowded marketplace. He was preaching the one true God, the one true saviour and the one true judge. 

Citizens of Heaven

Paul’s Claim

Being a Roman citizen was a big deal. It afforded protections, rights and liberties simply not available to other classes. And until the third century, this status was the prize of the chosen few. The advantages are seen in the book of Acts. Having been beaten and imprisoned in Philippi, Paul and Silas alarm their captors by revealing that they are in fact Roman citizens (16:37-38). But in Acts 25, Paul uses his citizenship for the ultimate end: to appeal to directly to Caesar.

Paul answered: “I am now standing before Caesar’s court, where I ought to be tried. I have not done any wrong to the Jews, as you yourself know very well. If, however, I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die. But if the charges brought against me by these Jews are not true, no one has the right to hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar!”After Festus had conferred with his council, he declared:“You have appealed to Caesar. To Caesar you will go!”

Acts 25:10-12

Paul could make this appeal because he was a citizen of Rome. His special status meant he had the right to special treatment. The vast majority of those living inside the borders of the vast Roman empire were not citizens. They were either allies or aliens, but neither had the rights of the citizen. It was a special claim and a special status, it was a big deal.

After Caracalla

In AD 212, the Emperor Caracalla changed what citizenship meant. Before his rule, citizenship was a prized asset, the possession of the few and a key social marker distinguishing the privileged few from the masses.

But in AD 212 Caracalla issued an edict of universal citizenship. Suddenly, this changed everything. This edict (the inventively named Edict of Caracalla) granted citizenship status to ever free man in the Roman Empire. You might think this was a wonderful thing, suddenly everyone was special! But the reality is, when everyone is given this special status, it’s not longer really that special.

When citizenship was reserved for a social elite, it had meant something. Clearly it meant enough for Paul to get the special treatment his status deserved. Citizenship status mattered in the ancient world, and when Caracalla challenged that, it became a far less important commodity.

Citizens of Heaven

But up until the third century, this language of citizenship was impressive. In Acts 16 the revelation that they had been beating and mistresting Roman citizens shocked the captors of Paul and Silas. In Acts 25 it led to an appeal straight to Caesar. Citizenship in the ancient world really did matter.

And so as Paul wrote to the small Philippian church, he reminded them where their citizenship truly was, and this was incredible news.

Our citizenship is in heaven, and we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Philippians 3:20

Paul tells the first century Philippian church – slave or free, man or woman, Roman, Greek or Jew, that they have citizenship. But this citizenship is not the flimsy Roman kind, great as all that is, this is citizenship of a much greater kingdom. An eternal one, a heavenly one.

The Philippians are citizens of Heaven. This is their status. The perks and privileges of citizenship are theirs. Not just any citizenship, but Heavenly citizenship. The Bible fleshes out what this means for the believer. Our citizenship is so special because not only it is of Heaven, but we are adopted by the King of Heaven.

The heir of the Roman Emperor had special access to his court. Paul could appeal to see the Emperor as a perk of citizenship, but the heir to the empire? He could walk right into the throneroom at any time. We are citizens of Heaven, and we are adopted children of the King of Heaven.

See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!

1 John 3:1a

In fact, Hebrews tells us that quite literally we can approach the throne room of God because of this new status of citizenship and divine relationship.

Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

Hebrews 4:16

And as children of the King? We are heirs and coheirs with Christ.

Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

Romans 8:17

Scripture is wonderfully clear on the status of the believer. We are God’s children, citizens of and heirs to His kingdom. And this is something God has bestowed upon us. The Bible explains what this  bestowing means for the believer. It means God has bestowed love on us (1 John 3:1, Ephesians 2:4), grace (1 Cor 1:4) and indeed every spiritual gift (2 Peter 1:3-5, Eph 1:3).

Our heavenly citizenship is an incredible status. Such language was music to the ears of the small and suffering Early Church, and it ought to cause us to rejoice as well. So let us reflect on and rejoice in our status, and let us obey Paul: let’s eagerly await the return of our Saviour from this Heavenly kingdom.

‘Food sacrificed to idols.’ 1 Corinthians 8 in Context.

This blog is a little different. My church recently had a sermon on 1 Corinthians 8. In this chapter Paul addresses the response of the Corinthian believer to the problem of food that has been sacrificed to idols (vs1).

The pastor who preached this sermon was really helpful in unpacking the cultural background Paul is writing in and this blog is my effort to put those thoughts down on screen for people to engage with.

Paul’s argument in this chapter is that this sacrificed food is as an issue of strong/weak believers. In a similar manner to his teaching in Romans 14 and 15, Paul encourages believers for whom this food is not an issue to be wary of the impact it may have on believers who may still see such food as defiled. If it could be a stumbling block for someone, Paul says he would never eat meat again, rather than defile a brother with sin!

But why is this an issue? Whether preaching this text in church or tackling it in a personal devotional, let me flesh out the cultural background to Paul’s instruction.

Roman religion was transactional. If one wanted to thank the gods for something, or ask the gods for something, or even to apologise to the gods, then they had to give something. Sacrifice. The worshipper parted with a sacrificial item in return for the good favour or grace of the god or goddess to whom their worship was aimed.

And food was a common sacrifice in the Roman world. The gods feasted on the action of giving and the aroma of the sacrifice. A portion of the food may have been burnt in order to send up to heaven this fragrance of sacrifice, but the food “sacrificed to idols” that Paul was concerned with would have been more than just what was consumed by the fire. The food would be a gift to the gods, left in the temple and consecrated as holy to a particular god or goddess. But the food could then go on to be part of a sacrificial feast which the people shared with the gods.

Food sacrifices could include bread, grains, wine, fruit, meat, cakes and much more. It could even include whole animals, which would be roasted over a fire, part consumed by the flames and part by the priest and the people.

So what was the problem facing Christians in this setting? Temples, idols and altars were everywhere. Think of Paul in Acts 17. In verses 22-23 Paul talks of how he walked round the city seeing their many “objects of worship”, so many in fact they even have an altar to an unknown god!

Because it was so widespread, the Christian couldn’t avoid the religion of the Roman world, and in the food sacrificed in the temples of the ancient world, they were faced with a moral dilemma. Could they eat it? The Christian knew such food, which was available all over the towns and cities they lived in, was sacrificed to gods that didn’t exist and thus had no power or meaning. But they also knew such food was defiled (1 Cor 8:7). It was offered to false gods and idols. It was food of pagan religion. Could the Christian eat it?

Paul says yes.

But should they?

Paul says maybe.

If it would cause the weaker brother, unable to move past the purpose of the food sacrifice, to stumble into the sin of eating food offered to a god who is not God, then it ought to be rejected. But if those involved recognised that food “does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do” (vs8), then they were free to eat, what difference does it make asks Paul?

Food was sacrificed to idols as part and parcel of pagan religion in the ancient world. Much of that food was then kept and distributed by the priests and temple workers, it was often free to take and eat.


Should the Christian get involved? Paul says this is a matter of freedom, but also of showing grace to the weaker brother.

We ought to read this passage as a challenge to our own freedoms. By God’s wonderful grace we are eternally free in Him. There is much we can do as we live for Him. This specific example, food sacrificed to idols, though an issue for the Corinthian church, is rarely an issue for the modern church. But Paul’s point translates directly. Are we to put exercising our freedoms above looking our for the moral purity of our brothers and sisters? By no means. Just because we are free to do something, might not mean it is right. If it were to cause our brother to sin, we ought to mirror Paul in his meat eating example of vs13. If doing ‘x’ might cause our weaker brother to sin? Then it would be better that we never do ‘x’ again!

In grace we are free. But in our freedom we can extend grace.

The First Atheists

So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”

Acts 17:22-23 (NIV).

The scene that met Paul in Athens that day was typical in the Roman Empire of the time. As he wandered through the Areopagus, at the heart of the bustling ancient city, he was confronted by the statues, veneration and worship of countless gods and goddesses. The ancient world was certainly “very religious”.

The scholar Keith Hopkins chose to title his book on the religion of the ancient world “A World Full of Gods.” This is no exaggeration. There was a god or goddess for every event and occasion, and if you couldn’t find anything at home, then divinities from abroad were more than welcome in the Roman pantheon. The polytheistic religious attitude of the ancient world incorporated the likes of Isis and Osiris from Egypt, and Mithridates from the Orient. If you still couldn’t find the god you needed publically, then the household gods, or lares, were personal deities found and worshipped in a small shrine in every Roman home. Even the Emperor was the object of divine worship, imperial cults were found across the empire venerating Emperors past and present.

This is the world in which Paul found himself walking as he journeyed through ancient Athens, and it is the world that the Early Church continued to operate in for hundreds of years. It wasn’t until the early 300s that the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the legal faith of the Empire, and even then it took hundreds of years for the stronger pagan cults to disappear.

So what does this make the Early Church? In a world busy with gods and divines of every kind, the Early Church was radically countercultural. Accepting only one, true God. Rejecting all others.

Early Christians were Atheists.

Didn’t see that one coming? Odd though it may sound to us, the charge of atheism was a popular one levied against the Early Church. Why so? Because when Paul promised to make known to the people of Athens their unknown god, he wasn’t asking them to make space for another deity in their pantheon. He was arguing for the existence of a God who utterly disproved and removed any claim of divinity that every other being had. Christianity was radical because it was monotheistic.

The third century Christian thinker, Tertullian, had this to say in response to unbelievers challenging the atheism of the Church.

“You say we are atheists, and will not offer sacrifices for the emperors. Well, we do not offer sacrifice for others, for the same reason that we do not for ourselves — namely, that your gods are not at all the objects of our worship.”

Tertullian, Apology, 10.

The Early Church were atheists because their worship was directed not at traditional gods, but at the God of the Bible.

The Early Church rejected the sin, error and misdirected worship of these pagan religions because they knew there was only one God worthy of worship.

Our own world is full of gods. In the same way the pagan Romans worshipped a god of every occasion, our own culture is obsessed with money, fame, sex and popularity. Our culture is obsessed with self-promotion in these areas. Our culture is obsessed with worshipping things that make us feel good.

The Early Church faced a backlash for denying worship directed at the wrong things. When we aim our worship at God alone, we are denying people and things the praise they think they deserve. But Scripture is clear on what worship is, and who deserves it.

“You shall fear only the LORD your God; and you shall worship Him and swear by His name. “You shall not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who surround you”

Deuteronomy 6:13-14 (NIV).

Only God deserves our worship. False gods don’t. Celebrities don’t. The gods of the people around us may have changed from those surrounding the Early Church, but the truth of Scripture hasn’t. Because of who He is and what He has done, our God deserves our worship, undividedly so. In the first few centuries the Church looked ridiculous denying the might of Rome for the praise of their God, but they knew what we do too, that only He is truly worthy of worship. These early atheists were not ignorant of the one God that truly deserves their respect, honour and worship.