The Fifth Sunday of Easter April 24, 2005
206(1-6), 465, 197, 206(7-10)
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
Then Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; 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: 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. Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things. And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their pre-appointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’ Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising. Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead.”
Dear Friends in Christ, through whom we know the Father:
Our text today follows Paul as he worked to reach the people of his day who were supposedly “in the know,” but who did not know Christ. We will see Paul bringing good news to ancient man, as he preached the Gospel to the men of Athens. We will see that this Good News I. Dispels the ignorance of idolatry II. It makes God known in Jesus Christ and III. It remains Good News for modern man.
Paul is in Athens—the cultural heart of ancient Greece. Five hundred years earlier, Athens was in her Golden Age, influenced by the likes of Plato, Pericles, and Sophocles.
The Golden Age of Athens had passed by Paul’s time. The clear thinking fostered by Socrates and Aristotle had degenerated. Luke observes: “For all the Athenians and the foreigners who were there spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing” (Acts 17:21).
What Paul brought to them was indeed a “new thing.” Twenty strenuous years in the service of the Gospel hadn’t diminished Paul’s enthusiasm for bringing people the message of a resurrected Jesus Christ.
Paul found an Athens in which noble culture and logical thinking without a godly basis had run their course. Not having a basis in eternal truth, Athens became a sort of Wal-Mart of religious thought. Paul wandered around and observed the statues, temples, and shrines. The Athenian gods and goddesses were often human in form, but others combined human bodies with animal heads. In the name of religion people purchased little statues or frequented temple prostitutes.
When the Christian spirit sees such things it becomes disturbed and angry. That was the case with Paul. He was seeing firsthand the haunting fear of polytheism (having multiple gods). The more gods a man imagines there to be the less certain he is of having pleased them all. Ignorance, when it comes to God, is not bliss; it is tyranny. Paul realized this when he came across an altar dedicated to “The Unknown God.”
You have to credit the Greeks for being honest. They weren’t sure of who this god was or how he was to be worshiped, but they built an altar to him nonetheless. The many altars to many gods including the “Unknown God” is a demonstration of the natural knowledge of God. There is an innate consciousness of God that is imprinted on the heart of every human being. It can be blocked out, it can be perverted, but man is still without excuse for not recognizing that there is a God who made the heavens and earth and all that is in them.
Human beings have questions that beg to be answered: How did we get here? How shall we live? Who put us here? Why did He put us here The answers people seek to such questions are thwarted because of sin. Sin has its root in trying to cut the true God down to size, trying to give man mastery over his Maker. When that is the attitude, (and that is the very nature of sinful man), a complete knowledge of God is simply impossible. Paul, in Romans l, describes the result: “Although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man; and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things” (Romans 1:21-23). Welcome to Athens!
But Paul came with Good News for the people who carried on their lives under such a dark, lingering ignorance. The Gospel turns people from idolatry to true knowledge of God.
This true knowledge comes through the revelation of God’s saving grace in Jesus Christ. Paul had spent half a lifetime thinking he knew God, but all the time resisting His grace. Paul now knew the futility of outward piety and self-imposed works. Only when he came to understand Jesus of Nazareth did he really know God. Jesus who died on a Roman cross and was rejected by Israel’s finest was Paul’s hope and salvation!
Paul well understood that a crucified Jesus was an offense to self-righteous Judaism. He also understood how a gracious Jesus Christ—a God who loves and gives freely and unconditionally—would seem like foolishness to the Greeks. But He proceeded to tell the men of Athens what they did not yet know. He began patiently—noting their religious tendencies—and spoke to them of what seems obvious to you and me: God, who is Lord of heaven and earth cannot be housed in a temple—made with hands. God who is holy and all-glorious, cannot be won over by our miserable little statues and trinkets, nor by our own deeds.
God is beyond human imagination and art. He cannot be represented by an animal’s body or human face. He cannot be honored by a graven image. But He did come to us, taking on the flesh and weaknesses of man, the burdens of humanity, and finally the sins and guilt of mankind. God in Jesus Christ suffered for the sins of the world, and in this manner reconciled the world to Himself. Peace has been made. God opened the way for ignorance to be buried in the grave.
Paul affirmed the Greeks’ natural knowledge of God—He is not far from any one of us! But then He gave them hope and truth: This Jesus, God in the flesh, has come for you so that you can come to God. This Jesus has taken away every spot and stain of unrighteousness, so you need never fear that the true God has turned against you. This Jesus, having died once for sin, now lives to rule in majesty! God raised Him from the dead. Why? To confirm before the world that Jesus is His beloved Son and our Savior.
It will be on the basis of the righteousness of Jesus which we receive through faith that we will be judged. The urgency of grace put stress in Paul’s voice. He no longer spoke for himself, but let the true God speak: “God commands all men everywhere to repent.” [v.30]
Of what should they repent? A lifetime of ignorance and pursuing all the wrong avenues. Paul, the former Pharisee, knew all about that. There was but one hope for ancient man. He must abandon all trust in idols, worship of false gods, and the righteousness of his own deeds. God had revealed Himself to them through the Good News which Paul shared. By believing it—by faith in Christ over all other knowledge, wisdom, and thought—ancient man would be saved.
The Good News continues even today. There is Good News for modern man as well. We live in a world where the works of the Devil never fail to astonish us. We too look around at our own nation, our own neighborhood, and are “provoked” by the ignorance and unbelief around us. Foundations that even the Greeks enjoyed have eroded in our day—recognition of a Creator, a sense of responsibility toward a divine being—these have been obscured in an educational system and popular psychology based on evolution and humanism. At its best, the humanist—hopes to get man to cooperate in a spirit of self—preservation (“if we all work together, we can make this world a better place”). But it is at its root a selfish materialism—a belief that true happiness lies within the material world. The sinful heart inevitably lands in a “me first” outlook on life and that is a doomed philosophy.
However, like Paul, we have an opportunity. A risen and glorified Jesus Christ is good news to modern man. Let us practice Paul’s gentle and tactful way of proclaiming the God who is present everywhere. Let us call with Paul to one and all, urging them to repent before the God who will judge. Let us with Paul confess the God who makes Himself known for joyous salvation in Jesus Christ.
Our best testimony begins today, in living with the awareness that Jesus’ coming is imminent and that we should not let spiritual needs and duties go begging. Our best testimony is nurtured at home by consistently nourishing ourselves and our children with God’s Word and by applying His truths to our lives. Our best testimony is by standing together as a church and synod with a united confession and commitment to our Lord Jesus.
Let us submit to one another in Christian love and address together our spiritual needs—both young and old. Are we doing what needs to be done to give our children a solid Christian foundation? Are we helping the aged with their fears and souls’ uncertainties? Are we edifying one another in love by sharing the good news of our salvation in Jesus Christ?
With grateful hearts, let us give thanks for the grace we have been shown—that God has preserved the pure doctrine of Scripture among us. What of our wealth would we withhold from our Lord if it can be used to help train and send forth people ready to be witnesses to our God? Like Paul, we have the opportunity to witness a changeless Christ to a changing world. Dear Jesus, help us in this. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.