Question: "Who is the unknown god in Acts 17:23?"
Answer: In Acts 17, Paul arrives in Athens, the citadel of the many Greek gods. In that city was the Areopagus, or Mars Hill, where a council of civic leaders met. This council, also called the Areopagus, had charge of religious and educational matters in Athens.
While in Athens, Paul was provoked by the many idols he saw. As was his custom, he went to the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews and God-fearing Gentiles. He also preached to those in the marketplace. That is when he encountered the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, who were always looking to discover something “new” to discuss. The Epicureans were followers of Epicurus (341—270 BC), who taught that happiness was the ultimate goal in life. The Stoic thinkers regarded Zeno (340—265 BC) as their founder. He was noted for promoting the rational over the emotional. Both Epicurus and Zeno believed in many gods.
Hearing Paul teach about Jesus, the philosophers had Paul come to the Areopagus and asked him to tell them about this “new,” strange teaching he was proclaiming. Standing in the midst of the Areopagus, Paul tells those gathered that he realized Athenians were very religious, having seen their many objects of worship. But one altar among the many caught his attention. On it were inscribed the words “TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.” In their ignorance, the Greeks had erected an altar to whatever god they might have inadvertently left out of their pantheon. Paul masterfully uses this altar as an opportunity to share the one true God.
Since the Greeks obviously didn’t know who this god was, Paul explains that this “unknown god” was the biblical God, the Creator of heaven and earth, who does not dwell in temples made with hands. Actually, God is the Source of life for all nations, and He is really the One they were unwittingly seeking. Paul says God is near; in fact, “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:27–28). The Greeks, however, were unable to find the true God on their own, so God came searching for them. He calls all men to repent and accept Jesus Christ, who was raised from the dead and will judge the world in righteousness.
Paul’s mention of the resurrection brought a varied response from the philosophers. Some sneered outright. Others said they wanted to hear more from Paul (Acts 17:32). Praise the Lord, some believed. One of the members of the Areopagus, named Dionysius, exercised faith in Christ, and several other Athenians also became Christians that day.
The “unknown God” desires to be known. That is why He has spoken to us through His Word; that is why He sent His Son into the world (Luke 10:22). God can be known through faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus said, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).