It falls to me to have the happy privilege to open the Word of God to you and consider the resurrection and its importance, and I want to do that. I want to do it from a text that may be a little surprising to you; it’s the seventeenth chapter of Acts, Acts chapter 17. You can turn to it in your Bible, and we’ll be there in a few minutes.
Job posed the question, “If a man dies, shall he live again?” That is the ultimate question. Is death the end, or is there life after death? The Bible answers resoundingly, yes, people will live again. Not only will you live again, but you will live again forever, forever; it’ll never end. And though there’s no time, there will be an unending moment of eternal life; and it will not be some kind of mystic consciousness or some altered state, or you come back as some other person; nor are you just going to be folded into a piece of some eternal, collective mind. Every human being who has ever lived will live after death, personally, as you. You’re not going to be folded into some nonpersonal entity; every individual will live personally. And not only will you live forever personally, in terms of your conscious spirit, but you will be raised from the dead. Every human being will be raised from the dead to live forever.
In the fifth chapter of John, our Lord lays this out very directly. Listen to what He said, starting in verse 24, John 5:24, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.” And then verse 25, “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” The dead—all the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and they will live. Verse 28 adds, “Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, and those who committed the evil to a resurrection of judgment.”
I think we understand the resurrection unto life, but we have to also understand the resurrection unto judgment. Everyone will live forever, everyone. You will either be a part of the resurrection to life or the resurrection to judgment; there’s no confusion on that reality. Nobody’s life comes to an end at death, no one. You live forever, and you live forever in one of two places: in the presence of God or outside of His presence; and there’s a gulf fixed between the two so that you can never cross from one to the other. Luke 16:26 says the gulf is great, and there’s no way to go from one eternal destiny to another. You are sentenced there eternally, forever. That makes this the most important reality that you could ever think about, because it will last forever.
I don’t think people understand that everyone will rise from the dead, in some kind of body fit for heaven or fit for hell, and stay that way forever. The apostle Paul understood this; the apostles themselves understood it, and they preached the resurrection—not only the resurrection of our Lord Jesus but the resurrection of saints, and the resurrection of unbelievers. The resurrection of unbelievers is also described in the book of Revelation, when all the graves will yield up a new body suited for the lake of fire. So I think it’s important for us, in understanding that when we say the Lord raises the dead, we mean He has the power to raise and will raise everyone who has ever lived. Paul understood the importance of this. And let’s go to the seventeenth chapter of the book of Acts and see how Paul, in this most amazing event, articulated the reality of resurrection.
Now we find him, in verse 16, in Athens. He is being hounded and hunted and chased down by his enemies. For his own safety, his friends send him to Athens because Athens is a huge city. You can get lost there. It’ll give you some anonymity and some safety. And so Silas and Timothy stay behind in Berea. Paul goes to Athens, and he’s there waiting—and that’s where we pick up this story in verse 16.
“Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens”—let me just say a little bit about the city, so you have kind of the setting. This is the most celebrated city in the ancient world. Literature, art, philosophy, politics, architecture, and religion had reached their sort of human apex there. It was a city of ideas. It was a city of philosophy. It was, really, the university of the ancient world. And even though at the first century they were under Roman rule technically, they never gave up their intellectual and religious freedom. They prided themselves on what they possessed in terms of human achievement. In fact, in verse 22, Paul notes that “you are very religious in all respects.”
Somebody might think that Paul would be happy about that. Wouldn’t a religious man be happy to be in a religious city? Well, I suppose so, if you thought there was no difference between religions. But since there’s only one true religion, and everything else is false, Paul was profoundly disturbed by the religion that he saw in Athens. They were very religious. They had every god possible in the pagan pantheon. Every public building was dedicated to some god, devoted to some deity. And then there were temples, and there were shrines and altars all over the city of Athens. For example, the Hall of Records was the temple to the mother of gods, Cybele. The council house, where the city council met, was the temple dedicated to Jupiter and Apollo. The theater was dedicated to Bacchus, the god of debauchery and indulgence.
So there were gods everywhere; they were ubiquitous. They were the collection of gods that represented what man thought was the most advanced kind of culture. And that collection of gods was particularly represented on the Acropolis. “Acropolis” means a high place. Cities had a high place where they fortified themselves in the event of war, and they elevated things of importance to the high places. And I’ve been many times in the Acropolis in Athens. Some of the ruins of their temples are still there to this day. So that’s where we find the apostle Paul. He’s in Athens, he’s made his way into the city’s population—we’ll see that in a moment—and he eventually finds himself on the Acropolis right in the middle of all the false religion.
There wasn’t just religion, there was also philosophy. In fact, if you think about the city of Athens, you will remember from your history classes that from Athens came Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Zeno, Epicurus—leading philosophers. Oratory found its apex in Athens, and even sculpture and artwork and architecture found its pinnacle there as well. It was a breathtaking city in Paul’s day. It still is geographically breathtaking this day. With the mountains and the sea and the architecture and the gold and the marble and all of the gods represented everywhere, all the philosophers and religious people, it was proud of its human achievement.
It is to this city, Athens, that Paul arrives. He’s alone, as I said, he’s hunted, he’s hated, he’s pursued. He’s there for some safety and some rest. A good place to lose yourself, a big city. That’s where we pick the story up in verse 16: “Now while Paul was waiting for them”—that is, for Silas and Timothy, his companions—“at Athens, his spirit was being provoked within him as he was observing the city full of idols.”
If you were a bricklayer and you visited Athens, you would see the buildings and note the bricks. If you were a policeman, you would look and be interested in crime that was going on there. If you were an architect, you’d be looking at the beauty of the edifices that had been designed and built there. Everybody has a perspective in life, and Paul’s was a spiritual perspective for sure. He saw a city full of idols.
He wasn’t swept away by the architecture or any of the other features of the city, it was the idolatry that provoked his spirit, agitated him to the point where he will give up his anonymity while he will come to the surface in the most public way possible, because his heart is so disturbed by the city full of idols, for two reasons really: one, he knew it was deception for the people; and two, blasphemy toward God.
It reminds me of Henry Martyn, who went from England to India as a missionary, and when he got to India, he was set to serve the Lord in reaching Hindus. So early on in his time there, Henry Martyn went to a Hindu temple. He found something very disturbing there among many things; he found a syncretistic picture of Muhammad in a Hindu temple, and at the feet of Muhammad, lying prostrate in worship of Muhammad, was Jesus Christ. And Martyn wrote in his diary that day, “This picture excited more horror in me than I can well express. I was cut to the soul at this blasphemy. I could not endure existence if Jesus was not glorified. It would be hell to me if He were to be always thus dishonored.” And when asked why he felt like that, he replied with these words: “If anyone plucks out your eyes, there’s no saying why there is pain. It is feeling, and it is because I am one with Christ that I am thus dreadfully wounded.” That’s what a man of God sees when he looks at a society that is given over to Satan, given over to false religion, given over to sin, given over to hopelessness and human ideas.
So he couldn’t stay quiet, verse 17: “He was reasoning in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles”—“God-fearing Gentiles” were Gentile proselytes to Judaism—“and in the market place every day with those who happened to be present.” He was everywhere every day. He could not be silent. He could not hide the truth. He could not tolerate the deception that had captivated these woebegone souls, nor could he tolerate the dishonor to his Lord. Boldly, openly, publicly, he confronts all of it.
It wasn’t just religion; verse 18 also refers to “the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers [who] were conversing with him.” So eventually in his conversations with the Jews and the Gentile proselytes and the people in the marketplace, he finds his way, or they find their way to him, so that he engages with the philosophers—Epicureans and Stoics. They’re conversing with him. Their assessment of him in verse 18 is he’s an “idle babbler,” he’s an “idle babbler.” Literally, that’s a “seed-picker.” It describes a gutter sparrow, who just flits and flies around and picks up bits of this and bits of that. He’s like, you could say, a philosophical bag lady; it’s just a bunch of trash that he has scavengered. That was a demeaning response to Paul, obviously. It didn’t deter him.
Others, in verse 18, gave him a little more benefit of the doubt: “‘He seems to be a proclaimer of strange deities,’—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection.” So now we know what his subject was: Jesus and the resurrection.
Just a little bit of background about the Epicureans and the Stoics, because that was a very popular set of philosophies in the ancient world. Epicurus was born in 342 BC, four hundred years before this, and he taught that everything happened by chance. No one is in charge, you’re just flotsam and jetsam, you’re a cork in the surf, and you’ve got to do whatever you can. There are gods, but they are apathetic, they are indifferent, they are detached. So you’ve got to get a grip on your life. Death is the end of everything. Make your life whatever you want it to be. There’s no afterlife, there’s no future, there’s no eternity, and there’s no resurrection.
That Epicurean philosophy is expressed in words written by the British writer A. C. Swinburne. He said this: “From too much love of living, from hope and fear set free, we thank with brief thanksgiving whatever gods may be that no life lives for ever; that dead men rise up never.” Death is the end. So what did you live for? Pleasure. No morality, no philanthropic approach to life; you grab satisfaction. You were a materialist; the chief goal of your life was to find pleasure from your human desires because this is all there is.
The Stoics were similar to that. They were basically started by a man named Zeno, another philosopher, born in 340 BC, and Stoic comes from stoa, the Greek word for porch, because Zeno used to teach on his porch, and the people who originally listened to Zeno were called the “porchers,” or the Stoics. And they were pantheistic. Everything is god; everyone is god. You control your own life; there’s no one to turn to; there’s no help. And they, too, said no future, no future. Nothing after death; this is it.
Stoicism and the attitude that’s inherent in stoicism was well expressed by William Ernest Henley, back in the 1800s in a famous poem that he wrote, titled “Invictus.” Listen to what he wrote; this is a stoic approach to life. “Out of the night that covers me, black as the pit from pole to pole, I thank whatever gods may be for my unconquerable soul. In the fell clutch of circumstance I have not winced nor cried aloud. Under the bludgeonings of chance my head is bloody, but unbowed. Beyond this place of wrath and tears looms but the Horror of the shade, and yet the menace of the years finds and shall find me unafraid.” And then his final stanza: “It matters not how strait the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” No immortality, no morality, no afterlife.
With philosophies like this, they scorned Paul, or they mocked him as if he were simply expressing a new and strange kind of religion, a strange deity, because this was new to them. Jesus and the resurrection? Jesus is a man who was God. You know what Paul told them about Him: that He was the Son of God, He was the eternal second member of the Trinity, was born as a man, lived as a man in the world, a righteous life, died a substitutionary death on the cross and rose from the dead. This just was not something they could accept. They thought Paul was kind of a lowlife, some kind of a low-rated intellect—if you could even call it that. He was not to be believed. They were cruel to him, because there was mockery in response to what he said. They’d never heard of such a man, who was God, who came into the world as a baby, who lived, who was executed on a cross, and who rose from the dead and is the King of kings and Lord of lords. This is not something they had ever heard.
So they had to find out what to do about him. And you go to verse 19: “They took him and brought him to the Areopagus.” That’s a court. Thirty people sat on that court, thirty men; and that was the court that adjudicated in all the issues that were important to the people. So they brought Paul to—this is an official court; this is a supreme court of Athens. And they say, “May we know what this new teaching is which you are proclaiming?” “We want you to explain this to the court, the Areopagus.”
The Areopagus had—a version of the Areopagus had, long before, tried Socrates. So this, again, is that same court. They dealt with civil cases, criminal cases, philosophies and religions, and they even rewarded virtuous citizens. They did some positive things. Their real job was to protect the population from blasphemous false religion. That was a pretense, obviously, because that’s all they had.
But notice verse 21, they were busy doing this: “All the Athenians and the strangers visiting there used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new.” So I suppose if that’s all they ever did, was talk about something new, that the court was busy trying to rule on the viability of these things. This is the sad reality of agnosticism, if you will. This is the reality of not knowing. You never are satisfied, always needing something new, because nothing up to that point had satisfied. Only the truth can set you free, Jesus said in John 8. Apart from that, you’re in an endless and hopeless search. That is really a testimony to the disturbed minds of these people. Nothing ever finally really settled.
So Paul sees an amazing opportunity to preach the gospel to the judges, and the philosophers, and the leaders, and the intellectuals, and the common people, and the Jews, and the Gentiles. He’s going to give them the truth they really desperately need. And his message has three points, OK, so we’re going to look at them.
Three points. “This is true religion,” says Paul; “I’m telling you the truth. This is reality; the search is over. The search for satisfaction is over. You don’t have to live with the horrors of dissatisfaction, even though you’re hopelessly religious. I’m going to tell you the truth.”
He wants to make three points. Number one: God is knowable. God is knowable. Look at verse 22, “So Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus”—the court—“and said, ‘Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, “To an unknown God.” “To an unknown God.” Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.’” Paul used that “unknown god” as a launch point for his message. “If you’re still not sure about who you should trust, if you still think there’s some god out there that can protect you, that can save you, that can deliver you from your enemies, that can protect you from the plagues—if you think there’s some god out there that you don’t know, you’re right. There is the true God. And I want to proclaim Him to you. God is knowable.”
The agony of agnosticism is you never know. The agony of going from one religion to another, to another, to another, and never being satisfied is what happens when you’re searching through a panoply of lies and deception. Very religious, like Paul talked about to Timothy, “ever learning but never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.” In fact, Petronius, an ancient writer, said, “In Athens it’s easier to find a god than a man.”
Just some background to “the unknown god”: Six hundred years before Paul’s visit, historians tell us that a terrible, deadly plague hit Athens. And when that happened, they wanted to find the god who had been offended. But that’s tough because they’ve got endless deities. So one man stepped up, by the name of Epimenides, and he had a plan. He said, “Take some sheep, and from the center of the city let them run everywhere through the city. Wherever they lie down, the first time they lie down, you kill the sheep there and offer it as a sacrifice to the nearest god, the nearest temple, the nearest shrine, the nearest representation of some deity. And if the sheep lies down and dies, or lies down and you kill the sheep and there are no gods nearby, erect a shrine to ‘the unknown god.’”
They actually believed that when things went badly, there was some deity that was furious with them and bringing all this harm. They had no way to identify that deity other than something as ridiculous as that. So Paul says, “Look, you don’t need to have any mystery about the true God. I’m going to tell you about the God who is knowable.”
And notice what he says about Him in verse 24: “The God who made the world and all things in it”—He’s the Creator God. You can’t create your own gods, which is what idolaters do. You can’t create your god; that’s folly. Read Isaiah 44, the stupidity of carving some wood and then saying, “That’s the god that I worship,” as if that god is superior to the man who made it out of wood. This God, the true God, is the one “who made the world and all things in it”; He is the Creator. Epicurus said matter is eternal. The Stoics said matter is god. Paul says, “No, God is God. He is the Creator.” And that makes sense because every effect has to have a cause.
He further then says, “He is,” verse 24, “Lord of heaven and earth.” See, not only is He the Creator, He is the owner. He’s the possessor of all that He created. Psalm 24:1, “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof; the world, and all who dwell in it.” This is the true God.
Furthermore, He is transcendent: He “does not dwell in temples made with hands.” He’s transcendent. He doesn’t live in any temple, any shrine, or any idol. Not only that; in verse 25, verse 25 says, “Nor is He served by human hands.” He’s self-sufficient, self-sufficient. This is what theologians call the aseity of God; He doesn’t need anything. That’s what he says: “[He’s not] served by human hands, as though He needed anything.”
This God is the Creator of everything. This God is the possessor of everything. This God transcends the entire creation and any edifices dedicated to Him. This God has nothing that He needs from His creation. And then he says, “He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things.” He doesn’t need anything from us; He gives us everything, everything.
In verse 26 he says He’s sovereign over history: “He made from one”—that’s Adam—“every nation of mankind.” There’s only one race; that’s the human race—all goes back to Adam. And He designed “every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth”—He designed where they would live—“having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation.” He decides what nations live where, when. He controls history totally. Deuteronomy 32 says, “The Most High gave the nations their inheritance, when He separated the sons of man, He set the boundaries of the [nations].” God determines national history.
All this speaks of His transcendence. He is the Creator, the possessor. He is far above His creation. He needs nothing from His creation. He is the life-giver. He is the author of history. This God is knowable.
But then the second point is so interesting. God is knowable, and number two, God is near. God is near. Verse 27, he continues, “[If] they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us.” “He’s not far.” He’s transcendent in one sense, but He’s immanent in another, meaning near.
How so? Because verse 28, “In Him we live and move and exist . . . even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children.’” Some secular poets concluded that the creation had to be the product of a Creator. God is not far. If you would seek God, if you would grope for Him, you could find Him because He’s not far from each one of us. That’s why in Romans 1 it says that if you reject the knowledge of God you are without excuse, because that which may be known of God is manifest in creation and in moral law in the heart of everyone.
The reasonable thing is in verse 29, “[We] then [are] the children of God, [so] we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man.” You don’t make God, God makes you. God makes you. And Romans 1 says when you reject the God of creation, the God of Scripture, and you make your own god in His place, the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against you, and society begins to tumble down through immorality, homosexuality, and insanity.
God is knowable, and He is near. And then Paul’s final point is God has spoken. God has spoken. Verses 30 and 31, this is so important: “Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should”—what?—“repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.”
God has spoken. In fact, it’s actually the word “command.” “God is now commanding,” in verse 30. He is now commanding. Previous to the arrival of Christ, there was a lot of time in which God didn’t say anything about terminal judgment. It had been a long time—2,500 years since the Flood—and there was no specific warning about coming judgment. It doesn’t mean that sin didn’t have consequences—of course it did; it always does. But there had been a period of time in which God had not hung Damocles’s sword over the head of the population of the world.
But that all changed when Jesus arrived. When Jesus arrived, He is introduced as the one who “will judge the world in righteousness.” He is the Judge, and God furnished proof of Him being the Judge by raising Him from the dead. That’s also in John 5: God gave Him judgment as the second member of the Trinity risen from the dead.
So while God has in the past not declared specific, terminal judgment, He, since Christ has come, is doing that; and since Christ has risen from the dead, identifies the Judge. And now all of a sudden the resurrection of Jesus Christ is bad news, bad news. It was good news back in verse 18, when he was preaching the gospel of Jesus and the resurrection. Here, when he preaches judgment, it is bad news, bad news.
And what should be our message? What should be our message in any era, including now? How do we present the gospel? The popular way is to say, “God loves you just the way you are. He loves you unconditionally.” That’s not the message. Just a simple examination of the four gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—you’ll find one verse that talks about God loving the world: John 3:16. That’s the only verse in four gospels. But what you will find Matthew, Mark, Luke, repeatedly, is the word “repent.” And that is the message that Paul gives in verse 30: “God is now commanding to men that all people everywhere should repent,” because you’re facing judgment under the Judge who is none other than the Man, Christ, who was raised from the dead.
This is the message. This is our message. I know it’s maybe going to offend somebody, but that’s the message. It’s not, “God loves you unconditionally,” it’s, “Repent,” and it’s a command: “Repent.”
John the Baptist came preaching, “Repent.” Jesus came preaching, “Repent.” Matthew 3, Matthew 4, Mark 1, Mark 6, Luke 13, Luke 5. The book of Acts chapter 2, verse 38; chapter 3, verse 19, “Repent, repent, repent, repent. Turn from your unbelief; turn from your sin.”
What does it mean to repent? Well, let’s look at James 4. James 4 and verse 7. James 4:7, “Submit therefore to God.” This is submitting fully to God: Turn from sin to God. Turn from false religion to God. “Submit . . . to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.” So you’re leaving the kingdom of darkness for the kingdom of light.
Verse 8, “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.” And here’s what repentance looks like: “Cleanse your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, you double-minded.” Here’s the attitude of repentance: “Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy to gloom.” True repentance is a heart-wrenching reality because you are literally confessing God is your sovereign. You’re turning your back on the devil; you’re going in the direction of God, who comes close to you. You move away from sin, impurity; and it’s a deep, deep kind of repentance where there’s misery and mourning and weeping. That’s repentance.
In 2 Corinthians chapter 7 there’s another text that defines repentance. Listen to chapter 7 of 2 Corinthians, verse 9. Paul says, “I now rejoice, not that you were made sorrowful”—no, we’re not talking about sorrow; you can be sorry about the consequences of sin, you can be sorry about your life, you can be sorry about things you did. But Paul was not talking about being made sorrowful—“but that [you’re] sorrowful to the point of repentance; . . . made sorrowful according to the will of God, so that you [move from sin to obedience].” Then he describes that. It is in verse 10, “a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death.” Sin and guilt produces suicide. Repentance is very different. What does repentance involve? Verse 11, “Godly sorrow,” a “vindication of yourselves”—and that is a desire to truly live consistently with your profession. “Anger,” “fear,” “longing,” “zeal,” “avenging of wrong”—these are all the kinds of characteristics that describe repentance.
A message of the church in the world is, “Repent. Repent.” You wouldn’t think so, but it is. Repent, because the Judge is near the door. The Judge has been identified already as the Lord Jesus Christ, and God made Him Lord and King and Judge by raising Him from the dead. So Paul says God is noble, God is near, and God has spoken.
What was the response? Look at verse 32: “When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some began to sneer”—more scorn—“others said, ‘We’ll hear you again concerning this.’ So Paul went out of their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.” One of the judges, Dionysius, part of the Supreme Court of Athens, believed in the gospel and the resurrection. Some mocked, others postponed—and some repented and believed.
This is apostolic evangelism, and it features the resurrection and the coming judgment. Too little is said about the coming judgment, but God has already declared the coming Judge and the coming judgment. The day is fixed and inevitable. And the results of that day will be a resurrection for everyone. And then, with a renewed body, you will live forever, either in heaven or in hell. It’s eternal. Death is not the end; death is only the beginning. Let’s pray.
Lord, it’s a sobering reality to think about these things. We thank You for telling us. We thank You for showing us. We thank You for revealing the reality of Your future plan. And may sinners be terrified at the thought of living outside Your presence in conscious punishment forever, a moment that never ends, a moment of punishment. Lord, on the other hand, we ask that You would be gracious and open the hearts of sinners who have been impenitent, and enable them to turn from their sin, turn to God, put their faith in Jesus Christ as the gospel is expressed in the book of Acts.
Thank You for the promise of eternal life. But Lord, we see it: It’s good news for those of us who believe, and it’s horrible news for those who don’t. So make it clear to every mind and every heart, and may they not only read what You have said in Your Word, but may they hear Your voice calling them to faith and repentance, calling them to salvation. That’s our prayer, in Christ’s name. Amen.
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