Bible Verse Explanations and Resources


Acts 17:23

Adam Clarke
Bible Commentary

Beheld your devotions - Σεβασματα, The objects of your worship; the different images of their gods which they held in religious veneration, sacrificial instruments, altars, etc., etc.

To the Unknown God - ΑΓΝΩΣΤΩ ΘΕΩ . That there was an altar at Athens thus inscribed, we cannot doubt after such a testimony; though St. Jerome questions it in part; for he says St. Paul found the inscription in the plural number, but, because he would not appear to acknowledge a plurality of gods, he quoted it in the singular: Verum, quia Paulus non pluribus Diis indigebat ignotis, sed uno tantum ignoto Deo, singulari verbo usus est. Epist. ad Magn. This is a most foolish saying: had Paul done so, how much would such a begging of the question have prejudiced his defense in the minds of his intelligent judges! Oecumenius intimates that St. Paul does not give the whole of the inscription which this famous altar bore; and which he says was the following: Θεοις Ασιας και Ευρωπης και Λιβυης, Θεῳ αγνωϚῳ και ξενῳ, To the gods of Asia, and Europe, and Africa: To The Unknown and strange God. Several eminent men suppose that this unknown god was the God of the Jews; and, as his name יהוה was considered by the Jews as ineffable, the Θεος αγνωϚος may be considered as the anonymous god; the god whose name was not known, and must not be pronounced. That there was such a god acknowledged at Athens we have full proof. Lucian in his Philopatris, cap. xiii. p. 769, uses this form of an oath: νη τον αγνωϚον τον εν Αθηναις, I swear by the Unknown God at Athens. And again, cap. xxix. 180: ἡμεις δε τον εν Αθηναις αγνωϚον εφευροντες και προσκυνησαντες, χειρας εις ουρανον εκτειναντες, τουτῳ ευχαριϚησομεν ὡς καταξιωθεντες, etc. We have found out the Unknown god at Athens - and worshipped him with our hands stretched up to heaven; and we will gave thanks unto him, as being thought worthy to be subject to this power. Bp. Pearce properly asks, Is it likely that Lucian, speaking thus, (whether in jest or in earnest), should not have had some notion of there being at Athens an altar inscribed to the unknown God? Philostratus, in vit. Apollon. vi. 3, notices the same thing, though he appears to refer to several altars thus inscribed: και ταυτα Αθηνῃσι, οὑ και αγνωϚων Θεων βωμοι ἱδρυνται, And this at Athens, where there are Altars even to the Unknown Gods. Pausanias, in Attic. cap. 1. p. 4, edit. Kuhn., says that at Athens there are βωμοι Θεων των ονομαζομενων αγνωϚων, altars of gods which are called, The Unknown ones. Minutius Felix says of the Romans, Aras extruunt etiam ignotis numinibus. "They even build altars to Unknown Divinities." And Tertullian, contra Marcion, says, Invenio plane Diis ignotis aras prostitutas: sed Attica idolatria est. "I find altars allotted to the worship of unknown gods: but this is an Attic idolatry." Now, though in these last passages, both gods and altars are spoken of in the plural number; yet it is reasonable to suppose that, on each, or upon some one of them, the inscription αγνωϚῳ Θεῳ, To the unknown god, was actually found. The thing had subsisted long and had got from Athens to Rome in the days of Tertullian and Minutius Felix. See Bp. Pearce and Dr. Cudworth, to whose researches this note is much indebted.

Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship - There is here a fine paronomasia, or play on the words. The apostle tells them that (on their system) they were a very religious people - that they had an altar inscribed, αγνωϚῳ Θεῳ, to the unknown God: him therefore, says he, whom, αγνουντες, ye unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you. Assuming it as a truth, that, as the true God was not known by them, and that there was an altar dedicated to the unknown god, his God was that god whose nature and operations he now proceeded to declare. By this fine turn he eluded the force of that law which made it a capital offense to introduce any new god into the state, and of the breach of which he was charged, Acts 17:18; and thus he showed that he was bringing neither new god nor new worship among them; but only explaining the worship of one already acknowledged by the state, though not as yet known.

Albert Barnes
Notes on the Whole Bible

For as I passed by - Greek: “For I, coming through, and seeing, etc.”

And beheld - Diligently contemplated; attentively considered ἀναθεωρῶν anatheōrōnThe worship of an idolatrous people will be an object of intense and painful interest to a Christian.

Your devotions - τὰ σεβάσματα ta sebasmataOur word devotions refers to the “act of worship” - to prayers, praises, etc. The Greek word used here means properly any sacred thing; any object which is worshipped, or which is connected with the place or rites of worship. Thus, it is applied either to the gods themselves, or to the temples, altars, shrines, sacrifices, statues, etc., connected with the worship of the gods. This is its meaning here. It does not denote that Paul saw them engaged in the act of worship, but that he was struck with the numerous temples, altars, statues, etc., which were reared to the gods, and which indicated the state of the people. Syriac, “the temple of your gods.” Vulgate, “your images.” Margin, “gods that ye worship.”

I found an altar - An altar usually denotes “a place for sacrifice.” Here, however, it does not appear that any sacrifice was offered; but it was probably a monument of stone, reared to commemorate a certain event, and dedicated to the unknown God.

To the unknown God - ἀγνώστῳ Θεῷ agnōstō TheōWhere this altar was reared, or on what occasion, has been a subject of much debate with expositors. That there was such an altar in Athens, though it may not have been specifically mentioned by the Greek writers, is rendered probable by the following circumstances:

(1) It was customary to rear such altars. Minutius Felix says of the Romans, “They build altars to unknown divinities.”

(2) the term “unknown God” was used in relation to the worship of the Athenians. Lucian, in his Philopatris, uses this form of an oath: “I swear by the unknown God at Athens,” the very expression used by the apostle. And again he says (chapter xxix. 180), “We have found out the unknown God at Athens, and worshipped him with our hands stretched up to heaven, etc.”

(3) there were altars at Athens inscribed to the unknown gods. Philostratus says (in Vita Apol., Romans 6:3), “And this at Athens, where there are even altars to the unknown gods.” Thus, Pausanius (in Attic., chapter i.) says, that “at Athens there are altars of gods which are called the unknown ones.” Jerome, in his commentary Titus 1:12, says that the whole inscription was, “To the gods of Asia, Europe, and Africa; to the unknown and strange gods.”

(4) there was a remarkable altar raised in Athens in a time of pestilence, in honor of the unknown god which had granted them deliverance. Diogenes Laertius says that Epimenides restrained the pestilence in the following manner: “Taking white and black sheep, he led them to the Areopagus, and there permitted them to go where they would, commanding those who followed them to sacrifice τῶ προσήχοντι θεῷ tōprosēkontitheōto the god to whom these things pertained or who had the power of averting the plague, whoever he might be, without adding the name and thus to allay the pestilence. From which it has arisen that at this day, through the villages of the Athenians, altars are found without any name” (Diog. Laert., book i, section 10). This took place about 600 years before Christ, and it is not improbable that one or more of those altars remained until the time of Paul. It should be added that the natural inscription on those altars would be, “To the unknown God.” None of the gods to whom they usually sacrificed could deliver them from the pestilence. They therefore reared them to some unknown Being who had the power to free them from the plague.

Whom therefore - The true God, who had really delivered them from the plague.

Ye ignorantly worship - Or worship without knowing his name. You have expressed your homage for him by rearing to him an altar.

Him declare I unto you - I make known to you his name, attributes, etc. There is remarkable tact in Paul‘s seizing on this circumstance; and yet it was perfectly fair and honest. Only the true God could deliver in the time of the pestilence. This altar had, therefore, been really reared to him, though his name was unknown. The same Being who had interposed at that time, and whose interposition was recorded by the building of this altar, was He who had made the heavens; who ruled over all; and whom Paul was now about to make known to them. There is another feature of skill in the allusion to this altar. In other circumstances it might seem to be presumptuous for an unknown Jew to at tempt to instruct the sages of Athens. But here they had confessed and proclaimed their ignorance. By rearing this altar they acknowledged their need of instruction. The way was, therefore, fairly open for Paul to address even these philosophers, and to discourse to them on a point on which they acknowledged their ignorance.

Matthew Henry
Concise Bible Commentary
Here we have a sermon to heathens, who worshipped false gods, and were without the true God in the world; and to them the scope of the discourse was different from what the apostle preached to the Jews. In the latter case, his business was to lead his hearers by prophecies and miracles to the knowledge of the Redeemer, and faith in him; in the former, it was to lead them, by the common works of providence, to know the Creator, and worship Him. The apostle spoke of an altar he had seen, with the inscription, "TO THE UNKNOWN GOD." This fact is stated by many writers. After multiplying their idols to the utmost, some at Athens thought there was another god of whom they had no knowledge. And are there not many now called Christians, who are zealous in their devotions, yet the great object of their worship is to them an unknown God? Observe what glorious things Paul here says of that God whom he served, and would have them to serve. The Lord had long borne with idolatry, but the times of this ignorance were now ending, and by his servants he now commanded all men every where to repent of their idolatry. Each sect of the learned men would feel themselves powerfully affected by the apostle's discourse, which tended to show the emptiness or falsity of their doctrines.
Ellen G. White
Testimonies for the Church, vol. 8, 257

“The heavens declare the glory of God;
And the firmament showeth His handiwork.
Day unto day uttereth speech,
And night unto night showeth knowledge.
There is no speech nor language,
Where their voice is not heard.”
8T 257.1

Psalm 19:1-3. 8T 257

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Ellen G. White
That I May Know Him, 217.3

There are many who have not had the light, and they are not judged guilty. They mourn because of their human ignorance. They find nothing satisfactory, and thirst for a knowledge of the only true God. They have an ideal of God in their minds and they desire to find Him. He has entrusted light to His people to give to all those who are praying for light. He has sent forth His streams of salvation to refresh those who are athirst for a knowledge of truth, virtue, and holiness. To such we should speak as did the apostle Paul to the Athenians, “Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you” (Acts 17:23). Heavenly inspiration has come to men, and they have been entrusted with gospel truth, and have thereby been weighted with a solemn responsibility to devote their God-given powers to making God known to man. Christ says, “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3).... TMK 217.3

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Ellen G. White
Selected Messages Book 1, 292-3

In the person of His only-begotten Son, the God of heaven has condescended to stoop to our human nature. To the question of Thomas, Jesus said: “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me. If ye had known me, ye should have known my Father also: and from henceforth ye know him, and have seen him. Philip saith unto him, Lord, shew us the Father, and it sufficeth us. Jesus saith unto him, Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? he that hath seen me hath seen the Father; and how sayest thou then, Shew us the Father? Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? the words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself: but the Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works. Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father in me: or else believe me for the very works’ sake” (John 14:6-11). 1SM 292.1

The most difficult and humiliating lesson that man has to learn is his own inefficiency in depending upon human wisdom, and the sure failure of his own efforts to read nature correctly. Sin has obscured his vision, and of himself he cannot interpret nature without placing it above God. He cannot discern in it God, or Jesus Christ, whom He has sent. He is in the same position as were the Athenians, who erected their altars for the worship of nature. Standing in the midst of Mars’ Hill, Paul presented before the people of Athens the majesty of the living God in contrast with their idolatrous worship. 1SM 292.2

“Ye men of Athens,” he said, “I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious. For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you. God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; neither is worshipped with men's hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; and hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; that they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us: for in him we live, and move, and have our beings; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring. Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man's device” (Acts 17:22-29). 1SM 292.3

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Ellen G. White
SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 6 (EGW), 1068

20-25 (Psalm 19:1-3; Acts 17:22-29; 1 Corinthians 1:21; Colossians 2:9; Hebrews 1:3). Nature's Revelation Imperfect—The most difficult and humiliating lesson that man has to learn is his own inefficiency in depending upon human wisdom, and the sure failure of his own efforts to read nature correctly. Sin has obscured his vision, and of himself he cannot interpret nature without placing it above God. He cannot discern in it God, or Jesus Christ, whom He has sent. He is in the same position as were the Athenians, who erected their altars for the worship of nature. Standing in the midst of Mars’ Hill, Paul presented before the people of Athens the majesty of the living God in contrast with their idolatrous worship. [Acts 17:22-29 quoted.] 6BC 1068.1

Those who have a true knowledge of God will not become so infatuated with the laws of matter or the operations of nature as to overlook, or refuse to acknowledge, the continual working of God in nature. Nature is not God, nor was it ever God. The voice of nature testifies of God, but nature is not God. As His created work, it simply bears a testimony to God's power. Deity is the author of nature. The natural world has, in itself, no power but that which God supplies. 6BC 1068.2

There is a personal God, the Father; there is a personal Christ, the Son. [Hebrews 1:1, 2: Psalm 19:1-3 quoted.] ... 6BC 1068.3

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