How often do we worship an unknown god, created in the image to which we think God must certainly conform? Granted, I don’t know many (OK, I don’t know any) professing Christians who have literally forged a god of “gold or silver or stone,” but I know a few who have created “an image made by human design and skill.” (NIV) In reality, I’m not sure I know anyone who hasn’t done this at one time or another. This is a passage pointed at philosophers and those who are well and widely learned.
But there is something ironic about this Athenian culture, something sprinkled with humility in the midst of polytheism/pantheism. The tendency of the very religious is to believe they have a handle on God, but the people of Athens clearly understand they do not. They are meticulous in their worship of many gods, as Paul notes with the use of the term, deisidaimonesteros, a word with dual meaning that may indicate intense devotion or superstition. At the end of the day there stands an altar to the unknown God, to the one they cannot quite figure out or perhaps the one of whose existence they are not even convinced, but they do not want to offend… just in case another god looms somewhere beyond their awareness, even though they are so very spiritual.
In some ways, this is the stuff folk religion is made of, even in our churches today… even among the well meaning devout. As Wesleyans, we should not fall into the trap that exposes, and subsequently requires worship of, the god who is inaccessible, the god who looks on from far away just waiting to condemn the world, the god who expects an altar and an idol, the god whom humanity creates for the sake of revenge, power, and control, but whom we could never fully know, because this god is as inanimate as stone. This god is unreal.
Thank goodness God “has overlooked such ignorance,”(NIV) for a time, because without this grace we would all surely be condemned. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that God’s prevenient grace has been extended in this passage and in the lives of everyone who desires to worship the God they do not yet know. And in fact, God’s action is to send someone to the Athenians who might explain the mystery!
Paul says, “So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.”(NIV) One of the great things about God is that God understands our needs and works with people and creation to bring about redemption. Here, God uses Paul. And Paul appeals to what the Athenians understand.
The people of Athens expected the divine to be found in creation, and yet, at least in some sense, to be untouchable. Paul masterfully expands on these ideologies, essentially insisting that they are not mutually exclusive.
God, “does not live in temples built by human hands.” (NIV) God, “is not served by human hands.” (NIV) And yet, God, “is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’” (NIV) God may not ‘need’ us in any sort of strict literal sense, but Paul turns the Greek concept of divinity on its head, making the impervious vulnerable. If we live in God (as opposed to the other way around), God is certainly affected by our being, just as humanity is affected by anyone or anything that permeates the body, mind, or spirit. “This Supreme Personal God is the source of life, breath, and everything.” This God does not exist outside of, or apart from, the universe, as the gods of the people of Athens. Instead, this God is intimately intertwined with the whole thing. All of it.
Of utmost importance in this address to Gentiles is Paul’s assertion that humanity is universally God’s concern. All nations come from one person. God has marked history and boundaries in such a way that, “we are [all] his offspring.”(NIV) In a cultural climate that was still hesitant to accept the Gentiles as part of the people of God, this teaching is critical. They are worshipping an unknown God, but they don’t have to. They, too, can know this God, this only true God. Salvation is for everyone. And let it not be lost on us that this identification as God’s offspring speaks directly to humanity being created Imago Dei. If people are the very image of God, there is no need for an inorganic rendering. What an enormous misunderstanding, people of Athens and religious people of our time who want to paint a picture of who God is! There is no need. God has already done this by creating us in God’s very own image.
Does that make us God? Well, of course not. None of us is a perfect depiction, for our human nature, our sinful nature, has marred the perfection of who God is. If we turn entirely toward the type of divine seeking found with the Greek philosophers and Stoics, we will be left with nothing but another type of idol, worship of knowledge and self fulfillment. After all, “Materialism, pantheism, fatalism, and pride were the leading features of this philosophy.” But we cannot dismiss reason out of hand as a way to encounter God. If we’re truly Wesleyan, we know that reason is, in fact, one lens through which we should view life and theology, striving to make some sense of the mysterious. God’s image does, indeed, appear to include the capacity for wise contemplation, but, “although philosophers spoke of conversion to philosophy through a change of thinking, Paul here clearly communicates the Jewish doctrine of repentance toward God.”
Greek philosophers may have seen a change in mind as the full scope of redemption. Paul’s address takes it a step further and indicates that, “there is an interplay between God’s will and man’s activities, difficult as it is for us to see with our shortened vision.” Penitence and what we do next also matter.
And it should not be left unsaid that there is, indeed, one who is both fully human and fully God, the only one who perfectly embodied the Imago Dei—Jesus. When Paul refers to the past, when, “God overlooked such ignorance;” (NIV) the verbiage indicates that this was in direct relation to “the times before full knowledge of God came in Jesus Christ.” Paul certainly speaks of judgment, but more than that he speaks of the revelation of Christ and the fact that the time for ignorance has passed away, because resurrection changes everything. The same God who offered prevenient grace to those who lacked the details to understand or know God fully now offers redemptive grace to all who will embrace Christ in both death and resurrection, understanding that the once unknown God is now known and one.
 See John B. Polhill, Acts, vol. 26, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 370–378.
 A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1933), Ac 17:22–31.
 James M. Freeman and Harold J. Chadwick, Manners & Customs of the Bible (North Brunswick, NJ: Bridge-Logos Publishers, 1998), 529–530.
 Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), Ac 17:22–31.