The Power of Resurrection News

May 14, 2023 Speaker: Ray Lorthioir Series: Sermons 2023

Passage: Acts 17:16–31

Sermon 5-14-23

Pastor Ray Lorthioir

Trinity Lutheran Church

W. Hempstead, NY

Based on the First Lesson for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, Acts 17:16-31


The Power of Resurrection News

I was listening to an online bible study from one of our congregations in
The American Association of Lutheran Churches. At the beginning, a lay person spoke up and talked about a multicultural event that had been recently held in a nearby small city. The planners of that event wanted to celebrate the diversity of cultures in that city.

Some local Gideons decided that the event would present them with a good opportunity to hand out New Testaments. So they went. But the organizer of the event personally asked the Gideons to stop, giving the reason that they were making some people feel uncomfortable. In response to this news, the pastor leading the Bible study rightly exclaimed: “We’ve invited every god to our unity event except the One true God.” The pastor went on to say: “The way the system has been set up is that the only truth that will not be tolerated is that which comes from the one true God.”

He then noted that this has even crept deeply into the American church. It’s the King’s New Clothes principal. No Christian wants to appear intolerant. Therefore, we’ll denounce our own doctrine as intolerant in order to appear tolerant.

In case you don’t know the King’s New Clothes fable. Some hucksters come into a capital and find their way into the royal palace. They claim to be selling some magical royal clothing that is visible only to wise people. Fools can’t see the clothing. The king then asks them to show him the clothing. They open a chest and the chest is actually empty. But not wanting to appear a fool, the king raves over the “clothing” inside. Consequently, the king issues an edict. He is going to wear the new magical clothing in a parade. He makes it known throughout the kingdom that the clothing is invisible only to fools. Not wanting to appear fools, all the spectators in the parade rave over the king’s new clothes. But along the way a small boy gapes, points and exclaims loudly: “the king has no clothes on!” That breaks the spell.

Yahweh, the Creator of all things, is a most intolerant God. All must recognize that immutable fact. He says absolutely in Exodus 20:2-6, “2 ‘I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. 3 You shall have no other gods before me. 4 You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing love to a thousand [ generations] of those who love me and keep my commandments.’”

Those who hate Yahweh are those who love other gods. And what’s another god? We find a good definition in Martin Luther’s explanation of the first commandment in his Small Catechism. Luther wrote: “We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” This means that anyone or anything I fear more than Yahweh; anyone or anything I love more than Yahweh; anyone or anything I trust in more than Yahweh has become my god. Under this definition I can even become my own god.

Even Yahweh’s great Name is most intolerant. I AM WHO I AM. This Name means that we can’t make Yahweh who we want Him to be. We can’t make an idol of our own creation out of Yahweh. And that’s most intolerant. His very Name demands that we respond, “You are who you are and there’s no way I can change who You say You are.” 

Actually such a response is simply courtesy. What would you say to me if I demanded that you be who I think you should be? “Get lost!” would be a beginning, wouldn’t it? How much more, then, should we take the eternal living God at His Word when He declares to us who He is. Believing Him is not being intolerant. It’s merely being courteous.

But we’re by nature idolaters. We’ll absolutely make of Yahweh who we want Him to be. It’s a great sin — in fact, the primary sin. For, by making a “Yahweh” of our own designing we absolutely show unbelief. We refuse to believe He is who He says He is. Therefore, in our confession of sins, we should always include, “forgive me, Lord, for my idolatry.” He knows we can’t help it. That’s why He gave the Lord Jesus Christ as an atonement for sin — so He can forgive us when we confess the truth. And to our great good fortune He has given believers His Holy Spirit, so that we might begin to believe the truth about Him and gain understanding.

We’re going to examine this whole situation through the lens of this morning’s first lesson — Paul’s sermon in the city of Athens, Greece. But first, there’s some historical background concerning the sermon to consider. On my shelf I have a book called “Eternity in their Hearts,” first published in 1981. In it, author, Don Richardson, writes some historical fiction about an event in the history of Athens recorded in a third century A.D. work called “The Lives of Eminent Philosophers” by a Greek author, Diogenes Laertius. The story is also supplemented by passages from Plato’s work, “Laws,” and an editor’s footnote found in a translation of Aristotle’s work, “The Art of Rhetoric.”

It seems that in ancient times, Athens was a city that collected gods, goddesses and religious practices from all over the then known world. The purpose was simple. Should there be any trouble in the city’s corporate life, the correct god or goddess could be appeased through sacrifice in order to get rid of the problem.

From the record, about 600B.C. a terrible plague struck Athens that caused a massive loss of life. Sacrifice was made to every known god and goddess to no avail. Finally, a Pythian oracle, a priestess, declared to the city elders that they should bring to Athens a man named, Epimenides, from the island of Crete. He would know what to do.

When Epimenides arrived, he told the city elders that the reason the plague had not been alleviated was that the Athenians had angered a god previously unknown in Athens. Having collected every known god, the elders were amazed at this. So, they asked Epimenides the name of this unknown god. He didn’t know. But he assured the elders that if they were to seek this god, and he was pleased with them, he would surely forgive their ignorance of his name as well.

Epimenides arranged a test. He ordered that at dawn the next day flocks of hungry sheep that had not yet been permitted to graze should be brought to a grassy area of the city along with enough people that a man could follow each sheep as it was released to feed on the grass. Epimendes also ordered that enough masons and material be brought to erect altars.

So, the next day this was done. Epimenides predicted that if the unknown god was pleased with the Athenians' desire to sacrifice to him, he would have some of the hungry sheep lay down and rest rather than feed. To everyone’s amazement, this actually happened. Therefore, altars were erected where each animal had lain down and those animals were sacrificed on the altars. As a result, the plague miraculously ceased. This is why in Paul’s time, 600 years later, an altar existed in Athens dedicated to the unknown god. In his sermon, Paul took advantage of this history.

Now, Paul was in Athens because he had had to flee persecution in the city of Berea. As was his custom, Paul went to the synagogue in Athens and began proclaiming Jesus there. For Paul always went to the local Israelites first. But in addition Paul spoke in the Athenian marketplace. It was there that the Epicurean philosophers and the Stoic philosophers began debating him. To hear Paul out, they courteously brought him to a meeting of their debating society that met on the Areopagus, or Mars’ Hill.

So, here we get to see Paul preaching only to pagan gentiles. His audience consisted of men who had little clue who Yahweh is. Like all too many moderns, they did not believe that the universe is the product of a Creator. There was a synagogue in Athens. Therefore, Moses and the prophets had been preached there for a long time. Nevertheless, the average Athenian citizen ignored the Jewish God and sought out the pagan gods and goddesses for their spiritual and physical needs. The philosophers did likewise. Where to begin?

Paul began with the obvious things his hearers were familiar with. Acts 17:22, “. . . ‘Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious.’” This was obvious from all the divinities that the Athenians had collected over the years. But one of the altars to the unknown god built in the time of Epimenides was still there. So, Paul used that fact. Acts 17:23, “23 ‘For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.’” So, here’s a useful rule for evangelizing. Start with whatever the person and the culture of the person gives you.

Acts 17:24, “‘The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth. . .’” Paul immediately connected the great miracle of the plague — which everyone knew — with Yahweh, the Creator of heaven and earth. Paul didn’t put a name on the unknown God just yet, but spoke of one of His primary attributes: Creator.

Gentiles believed they could make houses for their gods and the god would live within. Jews believed a little different. The Jerusalem temple was a house for Yahweh, but since He is the Creator of everything, He cannot be constrained by a house. Therefore, Paul let this be known when he said, Acts 17:24, “‘The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands.’”

Then Paul went on to say, Acts 17:25, “‘And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.’” Certainly Yahweh commanded Israel to make all kinds of offerings to Him. But this was never because Yahweh needed anything. Rather, Israel needed something — atonement before Yahweh. Paul then went on to proclaim Yahweh to be the giver of life itself.

Continuing, he said in Acts 17:26, “‘From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.’” It’s obvious that Paul did not consider Adam to be some kind of mythical person, but rather, the actual ancestor of everyone alive on earth. He made this Biblical fact known to the philosophers. Not only that, Paul made it known that at the Tower of Babel Yahweh had assigned the descendants of Adam different areas of earth for their families, clans and nations. Greece was one of those territories.

Acts 17:27-28, “27 ‘God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. 28”For in him we live and move and have our being.” As some of your own poets have said, “We are his offspring.”’” The first quote is from Epimenides himself. Using nothing but the general knowledge we have from creation, Epimenides had concluded that one God is the creator and sustainer of all life, even though he didn’t know the Creator’s Name. The second quote is from the Greek poets Aratus and Cleanthus who lived about 300B.C. So, notice how Paul worked these quotes into his presentation.

Moving on, he said in Acts 17:29, “29 ‘Therefore since we are God's offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone — an image made by man's design and skill.’” In other words idolatry is false. But for the philosophers, Paul drew his conclusion not from Scripture, but from the general revelation previously discovered by Greek philosophers. In this way, he built on Greek history — something his hearers were more familiar with than the Old Testament.

But, then he went on to something brand new. Acts 17:30, “‘In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.’” In other words, up until the time of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, Yahweh had permitted the nations of the earth to steep themselves in idolatry. But when Jesus was resurrected, everything changed. All the nations of earth have now been commanded to abandon all other gods and return to their Creator, the one true God, Yahweh.

The late biblical scholar, Michael S. Heiser, made a scripturally backed case that at the Tower of Babel Yahweh divorced humanity. When Yahweh broke us up into the nations of the world with our various languages, He turned the nations over to  the high ranking spiritual beings He had created. In Scripture these are called elohim — translated gods. Several generations afterwards, Yahweh called a man named Abram and through him founded the nation of Israel. Eventually, in the time of Moses Yahweh called Israel into covenant with Himself. He would be Israel’s God and Israel would be His people on earth. But as for the rest of the nations, they were under the authority of these high ranking spiritual beings.

There was only one problem. These spiritual beings rebelled against their Creator. Instead of leading the nations into the worship of Yahweh, these beings proclaimed themselves gods and goddesses and led the nations astray into idolatry. Therefore, the ancestors of all gentiles worshipped pantheons of various gods and goddesses. If you’re gentile, that’s what your remote ancestors did. But did you notice that Saint Paul deliberately said that up to Jesus’ time Yahweh literally had overlooked such sin and rebellion against Him? This is the truth

But Scripture also prophesies that once Messiah appeared, all the gentile nations the world over would be turned back to Yahweh through Messiah. This, then, is what Saint Paul was proclaiming to the Greek philosophers. The time of Yahweh’s tolerance was over. This is exactly what Saint Paul meant when he wrote in Romans 1:18-20, “18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature — have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.”

In other words, from the time after the Tower of Babel onward, humans really have had no excuse if they denied Yahweh as the Creator of heaven and earth and devised their own creation myths through their gods and goddesses. Nevertheless, until Jesus appeared,  Yahweh did not hold this great sin against the nations.

But, with the appearance of Jesus, Yahweh’s tolerance ceased. Yahweh is now holding the nations accountable for the sin of denying Him as the Creator God they owe allegiance to. Yahweh’s wrath for such rebellion is being revealed through Jesus. Therefore, Saint Paul announced to the Athenian philosophers that the time had come for all nations everywhere to repent of rebellion and idolatry — including them.

And to prove that it was time, Saint Paul preached to the philosophers in Acts 17:31, “‘For he [God] has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.’”

Wow. This is how important the physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ is — not only to the Apostolic message of the Church, but to this world itself. Everything and everyone will be judged by our response to the news of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead — no matter how far back in history that event may be to those hearing the news.

The resurrection news that Paul brought to the Greek philosophers was at most a few decades old. There were numerous people still alive at the time who were eyewitnesses of Jesus’ bodily resurrection — including Saint Paul himself. And, this was probably the first time these philosophers were hearing the news. So their the reaction was predictable.

We read in Acts 17:32-34, “32 When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, ‘We want to hear you again on this subject.’ 33 At that, Paul left the Council. 34 A few men became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.”

All things considered, Paul’s sermon to the philosophers was successful. Resurrection news was heard. A few souls believed the truthfulness of the news. Out of this a church was eventually founded. 

But the way things played out in Athens was apparently typical of how pagan gentiles became Christians. They would believe in Jesus first. Through Jesus they would find Yahweh. Indeed, Peter wrote to gentiles in 1 Peter 1:21, 'Through him [Jesus] you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God.” In other words, you pagan gentiles gave up your gods and came to believe in Yahweh, the true Creator God, through news of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. And the resurrection of Jesus continues to be the inroad Christianity makes into every pagan culture.

But notice what’s going on in American culture. It’s the reverse. The old gods and goddesses are making a comeback. News about Jesus’ resurrection is being suppressed through mocking and scorn, even though it’s the most accurate and corroborated news from antiquity that we have at this point in history. In the name of tolerance, intolerance is being practiced — toward Yahweh, the Son. And so, where even a few years ago distribution of the New Testament at a multi-cultural event would have been seen as a very positive thing, now it can’t be done because it might make people feel “uncomfortable.”

I’ve got a news bulletin. Jesus has always made people feel uncomfortable! Ask the Greek philosophers. At the end of this life, we’re going to be judged by our reaction to the news of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. How uncomfortable is that? Make such news go away! But death is unavoidable. And then what? The wrath of God will be revealed against those who have scoffed at the truth. We’ve been warned. That’s how serious this news of resurrection is.

Therefore, the one area of certainty we want to have in life is that Jesus of Nazareth was bodily resurrected from the dead. All of your eternity and mine depends on it. For, if you’re certain of Messiah’s resurrection, you’ll be certain of the power of Messiah’s crucifixion for you — the suffering and death by which Jesus made atonement for your sin and reconciled you forever to your Father in heaven.

So, if you need to be more certain about Christ’s resurrection, talk to me. Lot’s of good scholarship has been done. I’ll give you some material to watch. For, there’s excellent reason to believe the resurrection news that the Apostles have brought to us from antiquity.

Mothers of this world. On this Mother’s Day, what is the best thing you can ever do for your children? Together with their father, teach your children Messiah Jesus, crucified and resurrected for their sin so that they may become the righteousness of God. The righteousness of Yahweh is what Yahweh created them to be. Set them on the road to eternal life with Messiah. Amen.

All Bible quotes are from the NIV.

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