The Apostle Paul began his stirring speech to the idolatrous people of Athens with this preface: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; 23 for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you…” (Acts 17:22-23) Paul’s mission and passion was to bring the saving grace of God to the gentiles, a people typified by idolatry. In this particular place, the people had obsessed themselves so much with serving all the god’s in their pagan world they made certain not to forsake any god by worshipping a deity known to them as “the unknown god”. They knew nothing of this supposed god, but still they offered him their service and worship.
This situation in Athens some 2,000 years ago is certainly absurd, but it may not be as unique as most people might first assume. As Paul explained, there was indeed another God, unknown to them, but their worship to him was of course inappropriate and insufficient. The errors of their worship are evident – they worshipped God not even knowing God and with practices God never endorsed. Such apparent idolatry is ancient history in most of the industrialized world, but sadly, the errors of their worship still contaminate many modern religious organizations. Without careful attention to our own practices we might find ourselves worshipping an “unknown god”. How can the errors of their idolatrous worship taint the worship in the Church today? The scriptures explain.
Knowing God in Worship
In their attempt to worship God, the Greeks made some inaccurate assumptions about his nature and really didn’t know him at all. Acts 17:25 alludes to one of these presumption. Paul explains, “Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things…” In this passage the term worship means served or sustained. The Greeks assumed that this unknown god was like the other god’s of their culture, depending on their religious rituals for sustenance. They believed their worship was a kind of nourishment to the gods.
Paul’s effort to reshape their thinking about God’s nature emphasizes an important element of worship. To worship God a Christian should first know God. When his nature or his expectations are misunderstood our worship is potentially damaged and undermined altogether. Unfortunately, the problem has never been confined to idolatry. Romans 10:1-3 describes how misconceptions about God and his will became the downfall of the Jews. Paul says, “Brethren, my heart's desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved. 2 For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. 3 For they, being ignorant of God's righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God.” Even with their good will and good intentions, the Jews’ inaccurate assumptions about the Lord numbed them to the truth of the gospel and rendered their religion futile. Even after the advent of the Messiah, the Jewish people attempted to worship God with the works of the Mosaic Law and without the Savior. They had created their own standard of righteousness rather than recognizing the righteousness of God. No measure of enthusiasm or sincerity can compensate for fundamental misunderstandings about the nature of our Lord. A Christian must approach the Lord understanding his nature, knowing his will.
How does this issue manifest itself in churches today? Many religious organizations maintain unbiblical doctrines based on basic misconceptions about God. Churches teach that God is too loving for there to really be a Hell, too gracious to require works in his plan of salvation, and too big to save only Christians. The Lord is certainly loving, gracious, and wills to save all people, but these aspects of his nature should not be applied so broadly as to negate the clear teachings of the Bible. A Christian must approach the Lord understanding his nature, knowing his will, seeking to see the Lord as he is.
Approaching God on God's Terms
In the Bible, God defines his character and his will, but he also defines characteristics of appropriate worship. Just like the people had erred in their assumptions about God’s nature, they were also mistaken in the means through which they worshipped him. In Acts 17:24, Paul says, “God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands.” The implication seems to be that the Athenians worshipped this unknown god in the ways that idolatrous people usually do, with alters, idols, temples, self-mutilation, and all forms of immorality and sensuality.
What’s the moral of the story? Worship can happen anywhere, at anytime, but true worship is not just anything. Through the scriptures, worship is a way of approaching God, but God must be approached on God’s terms. In other words, worship is only what God endorses as worship, as an appropriate way to serve him and become near to him. The Church in Galatia is also chastised for attempting to approach God outside of the prescribed means. Paul says in his letter to the Galatians, “I testify again to every man who becomes circumcised that he is a debtor to keep the whole law. 4 You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace” (Galatians 5:3-4). The assumption among the Galatians was that God’s grace could be accessed through the worship and sacraments of the Old Testament law, namely, circumcision. According to Paul, such a supposition is so opposed to the basic tenets of the gospel that one attempting to approach God in this way actually severs himself from God. When the Savior died on the cross the Law of Moses died with him (Colossians 2:14) and Jesus Christ became the only avenue to the Lord. Worship through Christ is fruitful only as it reflects the means of worship described in the New Testament scriptures.
How is this issue infecting churches now? Like the Jews and Greeks, modern Christian denominations have a habit of supplementing the biblical pattern of worship with more progressive and stimulating styles of worship. Rather than embracing the simplicity in the New Testament way of worship, churches digress to the old patterns in the Mosaic Law using instrumental music, ornamental priestly vestures, incense, and other practices omitted from the New Covenant. Like Paul explains, such practices were "a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ" (Colossians 2:17).
As Paul observed, the people of Athens were certainly very religious, but the ineptness of their worship has left us with a valuable commentary on God’s expectations of his people. In our worship, the Lord requires that we work to know him, understanding his nature, and serve with only with the worship he requires.