The Good News (at Athens)

People at the end of the 20th century are not the first to ask questions about Jesus and the Resurrection. In Acts 17 verse 18 it says ...

Paul was preaching [at Athens] the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.

But the Athenians did not automatically believe what Paul was saying. So they convened the court of the Areopagus to look into things. You see, people in New Testament times knew how to sift evidence. You must not assume that doubt and scepticism are modern, and that the New Testament writers were uncritical believers in the Resurrection. The Jews, for example, also had their courts of law. They weighed evidence and decided how much it was worth. And they had a very important rule. The bible regularly speaks about it. And the rule was this: no evidence was admissible except on the testimony of two or three witnesses. This rule applied outside the courts. They used it to settle the calendar. Here is how it worked:

on the twenty-ninth of each month the calendar committee of priests sat in their committee room and waited until two witnesses arrived to report that they had seen the first thin crescent of the new moon; if they arrived before six o'clock, then the next day was the first of the new month, and if not, the next day was the thirtieth of the old month. One witness was not enough. There must be at least two, and even then they were closely questioned to make sure that they had seen the crescent moon in the right place and the right way round (so says Professor G.B.Caird of Oxford).

That was the Jewish mentality in New Testament times. People then were not gullible. People weren't just going to believe in the resurrection of Jesus without hard evidence. So you have four Gospels - not just "two or three" - as evidence for and witnesses to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Modern people are not the first to ask questions. In fact modern people are often more gullible that many in the first century. Who saw the Glenn Hoddle programme on Channel 4 this week? There was Hoddle, his healer and her husband - such nice people, but affirming without any evidence utterly implausible beliefs in reincarnation. And many, indeed millions today, like them believe in reincarnation. So with all that in mind, let's now turn to Acts 17. We will then be able to study the debate going on in Athens and Paul's answer. And my headings are first, THE AUDIENCE, secondly, THE MESSAGE, and thirdly, THE RESPONSE. But just to fill you in on the background. Here was the Apostle Paul on his missionary journey. While in Athens and waiting for his friends he took an afternoon off to do some sightseeing. I don't know if you have ever been to Athens. I have been there and the ancient part of the city, especially the Acropolis, is breath-taking for its beauty. But in God's eyes there is more to life than beauty. And the beauty in Athens was a mask for idolatry. So the result of Paul's sightseeing was not a card home to "mum" or "the children" on "the glory that was Greece". No! verse 16:

he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.

No multi-faith religion here for Paul. There was the one true God. And there were idols that were no-gods and false-gods. So Paul got into conversation with a whole range of people to make his position clear. And before long he is in the court of the Areopagus giving a full presentation. So let's now think about that presentation. First, however, THE AUDIENCE Who were Paul's audience? Look at verses 18-21:

A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with him. Some of them asked, "What is this babbler trying to say?" Others remarked, "He seems to be advocating foreign gods." They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. {19} Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, "May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? {20} You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean." {21} (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)

Who were these people - the Epicureans and Stoics? The Epicureans were followers of Epicurus, an Athenian who had been dead three centuries. Epicurus was a materialist. He believed ultimately that matter was everything. There was no life after death. And the key principle to life was pleasure. So these are your secular materialists - people like millions in the world today. By contrast the Stoics were followers of another Athenian, Zeno, who had overlapped with Epicurus all those centuries ago. But these Stoics were the rationalists. Reason must rule the emotions, so keep a stiff upper lip. Yes, there was a god, but not a personal god, rather some sort of "world soul" that was in and coexistent with everything - a sort of New Age pantheism. Paul was, therefore, arguing with people who were intelligent. Some were undoubtedly sexually decadent through the pleasure principle. But many were respectable and moral. All were confused spiritually.I am sure there are people like those Athenians here tonight. Like them some are looking for answers to questions of life and death. If so, listen to what Paul has to say. What then was his message? How did he explain "Jesus and the Resurrection". That brings us to our second heading. Secondly, THE MESSAGE First, Paul says that he has something to reveal - verse 23:

what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.

There was a series of religious programmes on the BBC on six major world religions, including Christianity, called Man in search of God. But that was misleading for the Christian faith. The prophets of the Old Testament, the Apostles of the New including Paul and supremely Jesus himself were clear on one point. It is this: fundamentally it is God that is in search of man, more than man in search of God. Jesus said,

"the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost!" (Lk 19.10).

That is the great truth about Jesus. That is why Paul was preaching "Jesus and the Resurrection." Jesus alone can show you who God is. These Athenians had a hazy belief in some sort of divine being - "an unknown God".To such people the Christian says: let me fill you in if you really want to know. I will tell you about Jesus because he has come to make the unknown God known. That was Jesus own message. He said:

"I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (Jn 14.6).

And then he said, something that is most amazing:

"Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father" (Jn 14.9)

That is why Paul is preaching about Jesus. But Paul starts off his explanation in the court of the Areopagus with God himself. He tells these Athenians that God is the creator of the universe and of human life, verses 24 - 26:

The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth ... he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men

So this world is not an accident. As Professor Carlstin the biologist from Princeton University once said:

the probability of life originating from accident is comparable to the probability of the Unabridged Dictionary resulting from an explosion in a printing factory.

Then he tells the Athenians that God is sovereign over the nations, verse 26:

From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live

Are you worried about the bombing of Serbia and what looks a frightening situation? But God is in control over the nations. He is working his purposes out mysteriously but definitely - that is what the bible teaches. You can be confident. God first seeks men, as we've said. But Paul teaches that God seeks to draw men and women to himself by putting it into their hearts and minds to seek him. They are not to be passive. So verse 27:

God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.

Who is seeking God tonight? C.S.Lewis said there was a God shaped blank in the human heart. So if you fill it with something other than the God of the bible you will not be satisfied. Augustine said that our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God. Centuries earlier Jeremiah had said:

You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart (Jer 29.13).

Are you confused or asking questions tonight? Jesus said: "seek and you will find" (Lk 11.9). That is a wonderful promise. Paul then says: "God is not far from each one of us." You see, by his Holy Spirit he knows all about us. He knows our inner most thoughts. The Psalmist says "he knows the secrets of the heart" (Ps 44.21). So, of course, God is not some inanimate object - verse 29 ...

... like gold or silver or stone--an image made by man's design and skill.

That, then, is the first part of Paul's message or presentation. He has been setting out the nature of God. And people still need to have that set out for them. In the current issue of Family Circle magazine Miriam Stoppard is reported as arguing that you must not teach children to think of God as a person but as a "force". The bible says, "nonsense". God is not "a man" - true; but he is certainly to be understood as "our Father". He is not an "it" but a "he". The Stoics believed in God as a world soul or force. Paul sought to put them wise. We must put modern Stoics wise! If that is the first part of Paul's message, what then is the second part? Well, it contains on the one hand a command; and on the other hand a warning. First there is a command to repent in verse 30:

In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.

That is still God's command. It is the command of a gracious God who is merciful; but it is definite and clear. You say, what is it to repent? Answer: you turn around. It means you have been going your way and now you decide to go God's way. You say, "yes, to Jesus Christ; and no, to yourself." You say, "but how can that be a command? Isn't it a question of faith? You can't switch on belief?" True! Sometimes people have intellectual difficulties. That is why they don't follow Christ. But often they have no intellectual problems. They are simply problems of the will. They can, but they won't follow Christ. I never forget those words of Aldous Huxley. He says:

I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning; consequently assumed that it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption ... For myself the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially and instrument of liberation, sexual and political.

Who tonight is saying "No!" to Jesus Christ because you know that to accept him means a change in your lifestyle? It means giving up some relationship that is wrong. You know there is a cost, and you are simply not willing. That is foolish. God knows what is best for you. His ways and plans are always perfect. But Paul doesn't only issue a command. There is also a warning of what will happen if you don't repent - verse 31:

he [God] has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed.

The New Testament makes it clear that Christ is going to return. This world's history will not last for ever. One day there is going to be an End. The bible has all sorts of ways of talking about the End. There is much we do not understand. But when it happens "every eye will see him [Jesus]" (Rev 1:7). It will be a day of judgment as Paul says here. But it will also be a day of salvation. Who will be those who are saved? Those who have come to the Cross by faith and thank Christ for bearing their guilt and sin; and who then trust in his resurrection power and his Holy Spirit for new life. Are you ready for that judgment day? It can come any time. The bible says, no one knows the day or the hour. You say, but how can you believe all that? I say, how can you not believe all that? Paul says, and this is the third part of his message, verse 31b:

[God] has given proof of this to all men by raising him [Jesus] from the dead.

On Easter Sunday morning we are going to be thinking about the Empty Tomb. So come back then if you want to hear more about the Resurrection. But the Empty Tomb which was a fact, and the appearances of Jesus, together with the willingness of the early disciples to die for Jesus, are sufficient proof that the Resurrection wasn't a myth but a reality. The Resurrection is what makes the whole difference between Christianity and the other religions. At the time of the French Revolution some were wanting to destroy Christianity and found new religions. One man tried, without success. His wise friend Talleyrand advised him: "there is one plan you might at least try. Why not be crucified and then rise again on the third day?" The resurrection proves the divine nature of Jesus:

who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead (Rom 1.4).

The resurrection proves the power of his Cross to forgive sins:

If Christ has not been raised ... you are still in your sins ... but Christ has indeed been raised from the dead (1 Cor 15.17,20).

And the resurrection proves the reality of life after death and ultimate judgment, as Paul told the Athenians. So what was the response to all this? That is our final heading. Thirdly, THE RESPONSE. There are only three responses possible. These were the three responses here in Athens - verses 32 and 34:

When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, "We want to hear you again on this subject." ... A few men became followers of Paul and believed.

You can sneer or mock the gospel of Jesus and the Resurrection and reject it. You can ask to hear more. Or you can believe. These were the responses in Paul's day. They are still the responses today. So I conclude with this question. If you haven't yet truly trusted in Christ and experienced something of the power of his Resurrection, what is your response going to be tonight? Are you going to sneer at the gospel. Oh, it's easy to do that. But in the light of the evidence for the Resurrection, it is not a reasonable response. Or are you going to say you want to hear more. If you genuinely want to discover more come again on Easter Sunday morning. But be sure you are not wanting to hear more because you want to avoid committing yourself to the risen Jesus. People can have enough evidence to trust Christ, but the devil tells them to wait and do nothing. If that's happening to you, resist the devil. Or are you someone who wants to take that step of faith and believe like those folk named at the end of our passage - Dionysius, Damaris "and a number of others" (v 34)? How do you take that step of faith and believe? You simply say:

"Oh! God, I do repent of my sins. I want to put you first in my life. I believe that Jesus Christ died for me and rose again that first Easter. I now seek his forgiveness and the strength of his Holy Spirit. So help me now to live for you."

Who needs to pray that prayer tonight?

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