Men of Athens or Disciples of Jesus?
Godís word for our attention today is the account of Paulís teaching at Athens in Acts chapter 17. In this account Paulís teaching is put to the test. Is it true? It is worth believing? Those are the questions we sometimes also have.
Before I go further I would like to pray: Heavenly Father, I see so many different religions around me. How can I know which of these is true? Lead us to the truth, and give us faith to accept it. In Jesusí name, Amen.
Paul was on his second journey to bring the Gospel to the nations. Lately he had caused a lot of commotion in two different towns. His friends thought that it might be wise for him to take a little break by resting in the city of Athens. Athens was already a famous city in Paulís time. It had been and continued to be the home of great philosophers and intellectuals. But Paul could never take a vacation from the good news of Jesus. He went to the Jewish synagogue and taught that Jesus was the Messiah. Again this created controversy, and the controversy spilled out into the streets. A group of intellectuals overheard the debate. They wanted to hear more of this teaching, and particularly they wanted to know about Jesus and the resurrection. They called Paul a "babbler" and a preacher of foreign divinities. The things he was saying sounded strange to their ears. Luke tells us that the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time "in nothing except telling or hearing something new."
Paul accepted their invitation and addressed the men of Athens in the midst of the Areopagus. Was his teaching true? Was it just another religious idea among many? Paul observed that they had many objects of worship, and that they even had an altar with an inscription: "To the Unknown God." Paul jumped at this opportunity to make known to them the true God. This is the God who created the world and man. This is the God who would judge the world in righteousness.
I. The God who Created the World and Man
There is a story about Daniel that may well be true. For reasons we do not know it was not included in the accepted Old Testament. The story is about an idol named Bel, who was presented to Daniel as a living god. The priests of Bel pointed out to Daniel that every day food sacrifices were brought to the image, and every morning they were gone. This they said proved that Bel was alive. Daniel challenged the priests. One evening after the sacrifices had been placed before the idol, Daniel spread ashes all over the floor in the room were the idol stood. The next morning Daniel showed the priests many footprints leading in and out of a secret door. The priests entered through this door each evening to collect the food. Bel was a creation of the priests- a virtual god.
The city of Athens was filled with the symbols of virtual gods like this. But the real problem, as Paul showed them, was that these gods were all created by men. The true God is not created by men, but God has created the world and man. The most idolatrous religion that we bump into everyday is the religion of secularism. Secularism teaches that there is no being to call god, but that we or the universe we live in is god. Secularist doctrine goes further to teach us that there are no rules to obey except the ones we make. Saddest of all it teaches that this life is all that there is. The religion of secularism is not a joyful or hopeful way of life. It leads some to despair and destruction. Others plunge into the pursuit of pleasure. But for all it ends in nothingness. The Bible is true when it says, "The fool says in his heart, Ďthere is no God." (1)
The God Who Judges the World in Righteousness
Having confessed his faith in the true God who created the world, Paul moved on to confess our relationship to Him. "But now He commands all people everywhere to repent" (2). The God who created all things is also the God who saves. He saves for the sake of Jesus, "whom He has appointed," and He has given us assurance "by raising Him from the dead" (3). The word "judge" here can be used to describe both salvation and punishment. Those who repent of their sins and trust in Jesus He will judge in righteousness to be saved. Others who will not repent will be judged in righteousness to be condemned. Itís not our righteousness thatís on trial, but rather our faith in Jesusí righteousness. St. Peter describes the salvation of the repentant sinner so well when he says, "For Christ also suffered once for sins the righteous for the unrighteous that He might bring us to God" (4). Peter says that He was put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit in which He went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison. Jesus proclaimed His righteousness in His resurrection in the depths of hell and in the ascension to the right hand of God.
Now the men of Athens had never heard anything like this before. They recognized many gods, and just in case they had left one out they even recognized the "unknown god." To think that there was one way to be saved by the righteousness of Christ was simply unthinkable. A lady named Kathy went to a family reunion. A discussion arose regarding salvation. She objected to the idea that Jesus was the only way of salvation. She didnít think it was important whether one followed Christ or Krishna or Mother Earth. She thought her family was narrow minded and arrogant to think that Jesus was the only way to be saved. She thought that if salvation is so important God would have provided many ways to get there. Ray, another relative explained it in this way. God is not cruel. It is in love that God offers one way of salvation. It would have been cruel for God to offer many doors, many different, contradictory paths to salvation and then to ask us to guess which ones were right. God gave us one way of salvation, and He gave us assurance of that in Jesus Christ, who rose from the dead.
A missionary to India once went to several villages explaining the way of salvation in Jesus. In sermon after sermon he noticed that the people all were nodding their heads approvingly. Gradually it occurred to the missionary that these people believed there were many paths to salvation. It was easy to accept Jesus as another way. The missionary changed the emphasis of his presentation. He spoke directly of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Instantly the approving nods gave way to intense expressions of thought and consideration. Every religion has a grave. Only one is empty.
There were three responses to Paulís message. You can remember them as the three "Lís." Some laughed. They mocked Paul and his talk about the resurrection. Others said they would hear Paul about this later. The last group loved the message. Luke tells us they "joined them and believed." Of the group that believed two are mentioned by name- Dionysius the Areopagite and a lady named Damaris. Many people today are still laughing when they hear this message or when they see people taking it so seriously. Many others are still putting their response off till later. You and I are among the group that loves this message. As we know we must give an account of life before the almighty God, who made heaven and earth, we are glad to know that He has accounted to us the life of His dear Son.
The tomb is empty. Christís righteousness is my righteousness. Now I want to live with Him and for Him. Now I want to put away all the words and works of darkness. As Jesus Himself said, "If anyone loves Me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him" (5). As God makes His home with us now by faith, I promise that you will not be estranged from Him in the judgment. Many will weep and cry for having laughed or for having waited for later. But many will shout for joy.
A few moments ago we sang the hymn, "Dear Christians, One and All Rejoice." This was one of Martin Lutherís earliest hymns. He heard the happy tune from a traveling artisan. He wedded to it the happiest thoughts of his lifeóthe Gospel story of Jesus and our salvation by His righteousness. Dear Christians, the Holy Spirit wants all of us to be lifted out of the mire of a life to the hope of and assurance of salvation in Jesus.
1) Psalm 14.1 2) Acts 17.31 3) Acts 17.31 4) 1 Peter 3:18 5) John 14.23
Pastor Michael P. Walther
Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 5, 2002
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Collinsville, Illinois
Michael P. Walther, Copyright, 2002
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