The Fourth Sunday of Easter April 29, 2012
Acts 17:16-23, 31
1 Peter 3:13-22
7, 196, 370, 192(1-3)
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
Putting aside all pretense and hypocrisy, may you come face-to-face with your God today and confessing your sins, stand before Him confident in the righteousness of His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the full and complete forgiveness of sins. Amen.
“Possession,” as you may have heard, “is nine-tenths of the law.” It means, more or less, that if I’ve got my mitts on something, I usually get to keep it. The saying reportedly goes back to early English law and refers to the fact that if I am in possession of something, the other guy has to produce rock-solid evidence to prove it is his.
There is something powerfully persuasive in the human existence when it comes to the concept of ownership. The 17th Century English philosopher/historian William Godwin once wrote: “What magic is there in the pronoun ‘my’ to overturn the decisions of everlasting truth?”
Do you follow the sense of what Godwin was saying? That little word “my” tends to alter our perceptions and loyalties dramatically—often much more than is fair or reasonable. If it is “mine” it is instantly better. Once we adopt a position on a question, once it becomes our own, truth tends to take a back seat. Who hasn’t, for example, defended a certain position or opinion in a debate or argument that you knew to be flawed, or just plain wrong, for no other reason than that it was “my argument”? It all goes back to ownership—to “my.” In general, if it is mine, it must be right.
This is little more than a demonstration or manifestation of human pride, and it shows up in rather silly debates about football teams, schools, cars, even children. If it is mine, it is automatically better by default.
While such things are irritating and often divisive, the real problems show up when we apply such nonsense to our spiritual beliefs. In the end it really doesn’t which sports team is the best. What does matter is when you and I allow “my” to cloud our understanding of the truth of God’s Word. In other words, one of our most fervent prayers to our Creator God ought to be to strip each of us of the pride of “my” when we approach God’s Word. Sentiments like “I just think…” and “It just seems to me…” have no place in religion and the study of God’s Word. The only thing that we ought to be concerned with when we read our Bibles is “What does God say?” Like the young prophet-in-training Samuel, we are to approach our God with a simple, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening” (cf. 1 Samuel 3:10).
Human opinion is, in fact, most often a great obstacle to Christianity. Understanding this simple truth prepares us to approach and hear God’s Word, including today’s text—the Word of God recorded in the book of Acts, the seventeenth chapter. Here we will witness, among other things, the natural reaction of opinionated men when confronted with the true message of Jesus Christ.
Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new. So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you…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.” [ESV]
So far the verbally inspired words from God Himself. What a joy and privilege for a mere man to be able to read and study the very words of God and to have our own opinions guided by the Holy Spirit Himself. That our God would so guide each of us, we pray: “Sanctify us by Your truth, O Lord. Your Word is truth!” Amen.
Obviously nothing good happens when man allows his opinions to determine his religious truths and convictions. When man formulates or creates his own religion, the truths of God’s Word are never enhanced. They are always degraded. What results is never an improvement for how could any product of the mind of man ever improve upon that which comes from God? On the contrary, what comes from man is always hollow and superficial in comparison. Man makes religious fluff. He makes belief systems that have only the outward veneer of substance and truth and therefore make a mockery of that which is truly divine.
With that we join Paul in Athens. Our text tells us that Athens at that time was “a city given over to idols.” Paul even offered them what they undoubtedly took as a compliment: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.” [v.22 ESV] This was anything but a compliment from Paul. It was, to be sure, an acknowledgment that they were steeped in religious ideas, for we heard that “all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.” [v.21 ESV]
But isn’t that a good thing, to be very religious? The world supposes it is so, but not God. Not that kind of “religious.” Their brand of religious was a perversion and an abomination to God—something deserving of everlasting condemnation. He did not look on them favorably because they tried so hard—even to the point of erecting that altar “to the unknown god.” God looked with condemnation on their unbelief and idolatry.
Hear this and understand it well. God is never pleased by the observance of man-made religion, which is idolatry. Man is the only one that takes pride in his religiosity. God is not pleased with anything false or misleading.
The problem with the philosophers in Athens was, at least in part, that they were philosophers in Athens. Having plumbed the depths of their own minds, they came to the conclusion that they had actually been somewhere and accomplished something. And they congratulated each other accordingly.
We see in our text what happened when they actually encountered true religion of a divine origin—they were baffled by it, ridiculed it, and dismissed it. Do you recall their words? “’What does this babbler wish to say?’ Others said, ‘He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities’—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection.” [v.18 ESV]
Their reaction isn’t really all that strange, is it? It is the typical reaction of man to that which is above and beyond his mortal intellect. Paul could undoubtedly have ingratiated himself to the men of the Areopagus if he had just spouted some religious-sounding nothings like “To do is to be” or “Man is the measure of all things.” Had he said things like that, he probably would have been invited into the club and asked to return. As it was, they had pretty much heard all that they wanted to hear from him.
At what point did Paul lose them? When exactly did they turn away and lose interest? He lost them at the very point when his message departed from their rational point of view. Look back at what Paul had been telling them. He credited these men on their religious nature, remarking about the altar dedicated “to the unknown God.” He went on to explain how he, Paul, knew this “unknown God” and that he was going to tell them about Him. [cf. v.23] No doubt the Athenians were all ears at that point. Any people so zealous to know and please every god that they would erect an altar to an unknown god (just in case) would be keenly interested in hearing all they could about that god. Paul began by speaking to them on their own level. He made references to their everyday life and culture.
All of these things the men of Athens could accept. They could tolerate the concept of a God who made heaven and earth, as well as a God that was not made out of ordinary materials. It was not until Paul broached the first uniquely Christian (and illogical) truth that the men of Athens had any objection to what he was saying; and yet we note with great interest that it took only one such Christian saying. One was enough. Paul had only to mention the resurrection of the dead and the Athenians had enough.
Again, it was not as if these men weren’t religious—they were extraordinarily religious. It was not as if these men were like the thugs in Thessalonica who started a riot over what Paul was preaching because it interfered with their pocketbooks. These were civilized, religious men—wise men… and therein lay their downfall. Hear this well. Their earthly wisdom and preconceived opinions served only to confirm them in their damning unbelief. Learn this great lesson of our text: Religion, piety, civility—none of these did the men of Athens any good when it came to the life and death struggle between the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the hollow musings of man. The very intelligence of these men proved to be their undoing.
This same damning tendency is alive and well in each one of us. Recognize this in your own heart and the danger it poses to your eternal soul. Christians are continually tempted to abandon the simple truths of God’s Word in favor of our own wisdom, logic, intuition—call it what you will. Every single Christian carries a natural idea or conception of what is true and right. Solomon warned of the inescapable results of following our own natural preconceived notions when he wrote by inspiration in Proverbs 14:12: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.” Hear those words well, for they reveal the subtle, terrible nature of the evil that resides in every one of us. This malevolence is so terrible because, as Solomon warned, it does seem right to us. It seems natural, true, even logical. Whatever therefore conflicts with what we naturally imagine to be right is in constant danger of being dismissed as false.
The basic truth here is that natural man is comfortable with certain elements of Christianity, but only the non-critical elements. Unbelief tolerates Christian truth only until that truth begins to interfere with human reason. By nature you and I would have no trouble with kindness, gentleness, peace, and the like. That, however, is neither the sum nor the basic substance of Christianity. Such things are products or fruits of Christianity.
Christianity is much more, and herein lies the second great lesson of our text. Note that Paul did go on to say more. He could have meandered around in his speech at the Areopagus and never once offended them. What good would it have done them? Paul would simply have helped to confirm those blind souls in their unbelief. In fact, every time any Christian gives the impression to an unrepentant sinner that all is well between him and his God, he confirms him in his sins and in his unbelief. Every time you and I speak in “I’m okay, you’re okay” terms to an unbeliever, we make him even more of an unbeliever.
Here’s the tragedy of today’s one-size-fits-all religiosity. Damned sinners could quite easily practice such a religion for a lifetime and never once hear what they need to hear to be converted and saved. That simple, saving, illogical message is that faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins is the one and only path to Heaven.
Let the words of Paul to the men of Athens ring in your ears each time you are tempted to compromise your witness: “(God) 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.” [v.31 ESV] The world needs desperately to hear this very message. A good life and pious conduct will save no one. The world will be saved or damned alone on the basis of Jesus Christ. “He that believes and is baptized shall be saved. He that believes not shall be damned” (Mark 16:16).
Know then that unbelief will almost always sound and appear completely logical. It is by default what natural man will always choose. Saving faith, on the other hand, is a precious gift created in our hearts only through the working of the Holy Spirit.
Praise God that he has given this great gift also to you! A great change has been worked in you by God Himself, for you too embrace that which is foolishness to the unconverted wise of this world. You possess, even now, the simple confidence that your sins stand forgiven before your righteous Creator because those sins were loaded upon Jesus and carried by Him to the cross. There He paid for every single one of them. Rejoice then that this divine truth concerning Jesus Christ has also been revealed to you. This is the mystery of the Gospel—folly to the world, but the great and powerful key to life eternal for God’s children. Amen.
Ministry by Mail is a weekly publication of the Church of the Lutheran Confession. Subscription and staff information may be found online at www.clclutheran.org/ministrybymail.
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.
Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.