Lord’s Day Message
Immanuel Community Church, Concord, NH
Voices of the Resurrection: Paul – the Voice of Reason
From the dawn of time until the days of the Enlightenment, not just western man, but every person was taught to understand his own existence and meaning as being derived from the existence of a god or gods outside himself. Every culture understood that all that happened was because of the gods. As the ancient Hebrews understood it, our purpose as created beings was to worship and serve the Creator. From the dawn of time until the days of the Enlightenment, the statement that gave man the greatest sense of dignity and purpose was God saying, “I am.”
Beginning in the early 1600s, as the Renaissance in Western Culture began to emerge from the Dark Ages, a group of philosophers, led by Rene Descartes, changed all of that. Man’s reference point for meaning and being suddenly switched from God to man himself. For the first time it was said that it was possible for man to know truth apart from the revelation of God. If man in his ability to reason could discover truth and create beauty without God acting first, then meaning was possible apart from God. For the first time in history, the self could give meaning without the action of God. From the days of the Enlightenment until sometime in the early 20th century, the statement through which man understood meaning and derived purpose was Man saying, “I am.”
But the age of the machine changed all of that again. The shift really started in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, as people became more and more necessary to the running of the machines that made modern cities possible. The real avalanche that changed the statement of purpose once more came with the invention of the first interchangeable part. Now the machine could be mass-produced, and all machines of the same type could be used to replace the parts of other machines of that type. The idea of spare parts did a lot to change how man saw the universe around him. Now God was no longer saying, “I am.” Nor was Man saying “I am.”
The statement had been reduced to “It is.” and Man’s search for meaning – a meaning that had now been lost to him as he was absorbed into the machine – began. Francis Schaeffer, the mid-20th century Christian philosopher wrote, “If man is determined, then what is, is right. If all of life is only mechanism -- if that is all there is -- then morals really do not count. Morals become only a word for a sociological framework. Morals become a means of manipulation by society in the midst of the machine.”
How do you explain to a person who believes they are, at best, part of a vast meaningless machine, that they have meaning that has been given to them by a Creator who loved them into being and who defended that meaning with his very life and who sustains that meaning by his continued intimate involvement in every moment of their affairs?
The Apostle Paul gives us a pattern for what happens when a person leaves his or her own comfort zone and enters the world and context of another and does the hard work necessary to speak meaningfully the narrative about Christ into the other person’s situation.
When you think about it, Paul was the perfect person to find himself in Athens in the middle of the first century. He was born in Tarsus, which is in Southern Turkey today. In the last century before Christ’s birth, Tarsus was a prominent city in the Roman Empire, and was also the birthplace Mark Antony. Paul was brought up in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic city, a real melting pot of its time. He was an ethnic Jew and studied under one of the great rabbis of the time, Rabbi Gamaliel. He was also a citizen of Rome, not an easy thing to acquire for a Jew of that period. If he were alive today we would think of him as a World Person – comfortable in many cultural contexts.
However, by the time Paul went to Athens he had been converted to Christianity and his reputation on the World stage was greatly changed. I don’t know if you remember the period when folk singer Bob Dylan announced to the world that he had become a Christian or when Chuck Colson, special counsel to President Nixon converted, but in both cases their whole public perception was altered in a major paradigm shift.
But an altered reputation doesn’t change a person’s talents, gifts, and abilities. Dylan was still a powerful musical interpreter of his generation, and Colson still had a penetrating legal mind. Paul had learned philosophy and rhetoric, and so came to Athens ready to use logic and reason on his audience.
The text of Acts 17 begins by saying that while Paul was waiting at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. He became internally upset, not because Athens was cosmopolitan. It had been that way when he was a young man and had undoubtedly traveled through Athens doing business for Rome. What had changed wasn’t Athens. What had changed was Paul’s perception of Athens. Now, when he returned to this great city of philosophy, literature, art, and culture, instead of seeing a great and glorious city, Paul was made uneasy and really sick at heart because for the first time he realized the full extent of the idolatry built into the pantheon of gods.
Some people get provoked and become violent. Other people get provoked and start a political campaign. When Paul got provoked, he argued. Remember, this man wasn’t a natural preacher. We don’t have a lengthy sermon by him, such as we do with Peter or Stephen. What we have is a series of letters in which he argues logically and forcefully for Christ. We also have his remarks before the Areopegus, the court of public opinion, the Lyceum of Athens where great ideas were discussed and judged. The Areopegus that met at the Rock of Ares, what we know today as Mars Hill.
Paul used his powers of reason and rhetoric contextually. He argued in the synagogue in Athens, speaking to his fellow Jews about Jesus. He also argued in the marketplace where he spoke to non-Jews about the same Jesus. That’s where he ran into trouble with two groups, the Epicureans and the Stoics. The Epicureans taught a kind of material determinism in which all of the bodily pleasures are shunned in order to achieve ordered happiness, the idea of taking the highest material pleasures in life in small quantity so as not to lose the specialness of them or desire them too greatly.
The Stoics, on the other hand, taught self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions; the philosophy holds that becoming a clear and unbiased thinker allows one to understand the universal reason. The one taught the shunning of the body, the other taught the shunning of emotion as a way of bringing yourself into harmony with the gods.
Paul’s presentation of salvation through Christ alone so completely angered these two groups that they immediately packed him off to the Areopegus. For once the Epicureans and the Stoics found themselves on the same side. They called him a babbler to his face, and they were going to tear his logic apart limb from limb. They were going to make a laughing stock of this man Paul in front of the faculty of Harvard, as it were, in the Areopegus on Mars Hill. And Paul, with no particular preparation, put the message of Christ in the context of their culture.
While the mob had swept him along the streets up to Mars Hill, Paul had kept his wits about him and noticed among the statues that lined the broad carefully laid out street; among all the statues to all of the Greek Pantheon Paul noticed a single statue with the inscription, “To an Unknown God.” There it was. There was his connection to these people. This was how Paul would place Christ squarely in the context of Athenian culture.”
Paul doesn’t need to make a long sermon. In just 18 verses he shows how Christ is the answer to all of their questions. The Epicureans and the Stoics were saying that philosophy, and not religion was the way to harmony with the I Am of the universe. The Jews Paul had been speaking to in the synagogue were saying the complete opposite. Paul brings Jesus to both places. Jesus is the answer to religion and culture.
Paul begins in verse 22 by saying, “I see that in every way you people are religious.” Jesus is the answer to philosophy. The people of Athens were willing to listen to Paul instead of just throwing him out of town on a rail because he had rightly understood that their popular culture. He was in no danger of being brought up on charges because his teaching about the Resurrection was new and different and these people were all about what was fashionable and provocative. Jesus is the answer to popular culture.
When they reached the Areopegus Paul connected the dots. Standing before him were the great secularists of his century, and here he was standing in one of the premiere venues for philosophical discourse. He begins his argument by explaining the relationship between the unknown god they claim to worship and the God of the Universe. He doesn’t say, “By the way, your religion is a fraud, you should try mine.” With great respect to the history of Athens, with great respect to the politics of Athens, with great respect to the thinkers of Athens, Paul says, “What you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” He is filling in the missing pieces by way of revelation. Instead of blowing them out of the water, Paul is getting into their boat with them and rowing an extra mile. Jesus is the answer to the unknown.
Having established that their unknown God is actually the Creator of the Universe, Paul pulls together science and religion: “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything.” What Paul is saying here is as huge to the Athenians as Einstein neatly explaining in four letters the structure of space-time when he published his paper "On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies," in 1905. E=MC2. It is elegant. It is brief. It is a global statement. Jesus is the answer to questions about the Universe and the Natural World.
Completely without apology, Paul introduces what was to them a thoroughly new concept. Their mythology explained how the Greeks were made, how Athens was established. But even the Greeks knew that the Romans had their gods and the Egyptians had theirs. The unknown God gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. He never says, “and your pantheon is a mere myth.” He never says, “you’ve been lied to.” He never says, “the only hope for your culture is to become like my culture.” These are the things the church has been saying to popular culture ever since the Renaissance. The great failure of Protestantism is that it forgot the lesson learned by the Irish missionaries who changed the culture of the Celts by living among them and letting them see that Jesus is not just my answer. Jesus is the answer.
“God gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” You see these statues to Ares and Hermes, to Athena and to Dionysus? These statues would not exist if it weren’t for Jesus.” In Colossians 1:17 Paul writes, “he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” He is merely echoing what Jesus himself said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” Paul offers no lengthy philosophical defense of what he is saying. He knows these are not things you can argue someone into believing. He simply states what he knows to be true. Jesus is the answer for all mankind.
This is not a message for Rome or for Athens or for Jerusalem only. This God “made from one man (Adam) every nation of mankind.” There is nothing unique or particularly more godly about the American Republican form of democracy. God, Paul says, has “determined allotted periods and the boundaries of the dwelling places of all nations,” for the purpose “that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him.” God has a purpose in all nationhood. And Jesus is the answer to global politics.
Now, with great respect, never once saying anything to suggest that he believed how they arrived at this point in their history was wrong, Paul draws his whole argument together for the people standing in front of him. “You know, he is actually not far from each one of us, for “‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, “‘For we are indeed his offspring.’” He hasn’t given them a couple of quotes from a Bible they have no regard for. He has just quoted the Cretan philosopher Epimenides, and the Cilician Stoic philosopher Aratus. Jesus is the answer to poetry.
“We ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.” Jesus is the answer to art.
Finally, after all of this, Paul makes a simple presentation of who Jesus is, what he has done, and what people may do to know this Jesus for themselves. “God commands,” Paul says, “all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” Jesus is the answer for you and for me and for all who hear.
Jesus is the answer.
Jesus is the answer.
On the Day of Pentecost, in Jerusalem, 3000 people came to Christ because of Peter’s preaching. It was an absolute avalanche of evangelistic fruit. That’s not the way it went down for Paul in Athens. There it was more like what you’d expect if you gathered a group on the streets of Concord, or Boston, or New York, and met their culture in respectful, positive, logical terms, with Jesus. Some, the text says, mocked. Others, true to their contemporary Athenian culture said, “We will hear you again about this.” Paul was fashionable to them. And after all the hoopla was over, quietly, “some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.”
In Christ you have the answer to religion, and to popular culture. In Christ you have the answer to the unknown, to science, and the universe. In Christ you have the answer for all mankind, for poetry, and for art. In Christ you have the message that all may repent, though not all will.
Look around you at the context of daily life and learn to place Jesus in context for people. They will most likely won’t invite you to speak at Harvard, though occasionally a Christian voice does. But if you bring Christ to them instead of expecting them to come to the Church and find Christ here, you will find yourself invited into their homes, their workplaces, their schools, their parks. You will find yourself invited into their lives. And you will find there that Jesus fits, without any stretch or imagination required. He fits their art, their poetry, their politics, their philosophy and their science. He fits, because Jesus is the answer.