Truth To Pagans

April 14, 2024 Speaker: Ray Lorthioir Series: Sermons 2024

Passage: Acts 13:16–49, Acts 17:22–30

Sermon 4-14-24

Pastor Ray Lorthioir

Trinity Lutheran Church

W. Hempstead, NY

The Third Sunday of Easter


Truth To Pagans

Jesus Himself commissioned the Apostle Paul to be His apostle — His sent one — to the gentiles. And so it was the converted Pharisee, Paul, who had to look into the massive task of bringing Jewish good news to the vast masses of the world’s population that had hitherto been very resistant to anything Jewish. For as the Lord’s brother, James, said in Acts 15:21,  “. . . ‘from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.’” Yet, the number of gentile converts to Judaism was miniscule. How was it that Paul could expect anything different?

Two reasons. First, was His commissioning by Jesus for the task. Giving his testimony, Paul said in Acts 22 17-21, “17 ‘When I had returned to Jerusalem and was praying in the temple, I fell into a trance 18 and saw him saying to me, “Make haste and get out of Jerusalem quickly, because they will not accept your testimony about me.” 19 And I said, “Lord, they themselves know that in one synagogue after another I imprisoned and beat those who believed in you. 20 And when the blood of Stephen your witness was being shed, I myself was standing by and approving and watching over the garments of those who killed him.” 21 And he said to me, “Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.”’” So, if Yahweh, the Son, commissions you to bring His Word to the Gentiles, will the result be different? Absolutely.

Second, Paul knew the prophecy found in Isaiah 49. Indeed, Paul and Barnabas used that prophecy to confront Jewish opponents in the city of Pisidian Antioch. We read in Acts 13:46-48, “46 And Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, ‘It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles. 47 For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, “I have made you [Messiah] a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.”’ 48   And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.” The “light for the Gentiles” words are the quote from Isaiah 49:6.

Paul and Barnabas preached twice in the synagogue of Pisidian Antioch a week apart. It was in response to the second sermon that some of the Jewish attenders at the synagogue began to contradict Paul, resulting in the verses we just read. However, in Acts we only have the outline of the first sermon. Therefore, we’ll have to assume that the second sermon was similar to the first. But, because Acts says that nearly the whole city came to hear the second sermon, we can probably assume that it was geared a little more to the Gentiles.

In the first sermon, Paul recounted a brief history of Israel from the Exodus through to King David. He then noted what Yahweh had to say about David. Acts 13:22-23, “22. . . he [God] raised up David to be their king, of whom he testified and said, ‘I have found in David the son of Jesse a man after my heart, who will do all my will.’ 23 Of this man’s offspring God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised.” And with these words Paul established Jesus as a human being of David’s royal lineage. This is important because of the prophecy given to David in 2Samuel. 7:16, “‘And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.’” Paul did this introduction to set the stage for everyone present who had been instructed in prophecy, both Jew and Gentile.

To this introduction, Paul connected the current news that he and Barnabas had brought. First, he told that John the Baptist had come preparing the way for Jesus. Then, Paul gave this account of Jesus in Acts 13:26-30, “26 ‘Brothers, sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you who fear God [Gentile converts], to us has been sent the message of this salvation. 27 For those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers, because they did not recognize him nor understand the utterances of the prophets, which are read every Sabbath, fulfilled them [the prophetic word] by condemning him [Jesus]. 28 And though they found in him no guilt worthy of death, they asked Pilate to have him executed. 29 And when they had carried out all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. 30 But God raised him from the dead, 31 and for many days he appeared to those who had come up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are now his witnesses to the people.’” This was a brief summary of the facts of Jesus’ ministry as given by eyewitness testimony. 

Paul then went on to show how the facts of Jesus’ life and ministry agree with what is prophesied about Messiah in Moses and the Prophets. So, we read in Acts 13:32-36, “32 ‘And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, 33 this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus, as also it is written in the second Psalm, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you.” [Psalm 2:7] 34 And as for the fact that he raised him from the dead, no more to return to corruption, he has spoken in this way, “I will give you the holy and sure blessings of David.” [Isaiah 55:3] 35 Therefore he says also in another psalm, “You will not let your Holy One see corruption.” [Psalm 16:10] 36 For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was laid with his fathers and saw corruption, 37 but he whom God raised up did not see corruption.’” Notice all the emphasis here on the Scriptures that prophesy Messiah’s resurrection from the dead. Christ’s resurrection is the heart and soul of the good news. Without a resurrected Jesus, there’s no Christianity.

Finally, Paul gave a stern invitation to believe the truth of what He was proclaiming. Acts 13:38-41, “38 ‘Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, 39 and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses. 40 Beware, therefore, lest what is said in the Prophets should come about: 41 “Look, you scoffers, be astounded and perish; for I am doing a work in your days, a work that you will not believe, even if one tells it to you.”’”

Notice, there was no altar call. Paul simply promised the Gospel: forgiveness of sins and freedom from sin in the resurrected Messiah Jesus. The Law can’t free us from sin because it accuses us of sin. But Jesus can free us from the chains of sin. That’s a further miracle of the Gospel. Finally, Paul ended by taking a warning from the prophet, Habakkuk, and applying it to Jesus. Many will refuse to believe the message of the Gospel when Messiah comes, resulting in their eternal destruction. Therefore, Paul strongly urged his hearers not to be one of the scoffers, but to accept the truth of the news he and Barnabas had brought. 

My guess is that the Gentiles would have had little knowledge of the prophecies Paul used in the first sermon. Therefore, in the second sermon either he had to explain them to the massively Gentile audience or he might have left them out entirely. But apparently the news that a human being had actually been resurrected from the dead and that in Him both Jew and Gentile alike could be resurrected from the dead, forgiven of sin and set free from the chains of sin created a powerful stir in Gentile hearts.

Remember. These Gentiles were pagans. They had no knowledge of Yahweh, sole Creator of everything that exists. They did not have His Law. They had only just heard this good news of resurrection. But, it was enough to get them rejoicing and very intrigued. For, no god or goddess they had ever worshipped had ever resurrected a dead human body to immortal life. In all the religions of the pagan world, no bodily resurrected immortal human being had ever dined with His followers over a forty day period, as Peter testified that Jesus did in Acts 10:40-41, “41. . . God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, 41 not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.”

And as long as we’re in this section of Acts, there’s one more thing about Jesus that needs to be proclaimed. Acts 10:42-43, “42 And he [Jesus] commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. 43 To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” This was and is the greatest good news.

Jesus will judge the world. In case you didn’t notice, there’s a deep threat there. Those who love being their own gods will be permanently removed from Yahweh’s righteous presence to go into the evil that they may not be aware that they’re craving. However, those who call upon the Name of Jesus — the Messiah, the Son of God — have their sins forgiven by His atoning sacrifice for sin on the cross. And when sin is removed, what remains is righteousness — the righteousness of our Creator. Therefore, those who have been made righteous through the forgiveness of their sins have nothing to fear before the righteous judge of the world. 

Now in our time, when resurrection good news comes, the world, our sinful flesh and the devil rant and rave against such good news. It can’t be so, they say. It’s all wishful thinking and made up myths. But, what they say is all lies and made up myths. For, out of all the information that comes to us from ancient history, news of the resurrection of Jesus Christ is tops in terms of its reliability. As I’ve said before, scholar, Gary Habermas, is finishing work on four volumes of evidence that Jesus of Nazareth existed, was crucified, died, was buried and was resurrected from the dead. And even skeptical scholars have been forced to admit the facts under the weight of the evidence that’s been assembled. Of course, you won’t hear any of this news through media that belong to the world, our sinful flesh and the devil.

Now, we come to an important point concerning the resurrection. If there is a God who can resurrect a dead human body into immortal eternal life, free from every defect of this life, then what else can He do? To see what the Apostle Paul does with this question, let’s check out the teaching that he gave to the Athenian philosophers as recorded in Acts 17. Acts 17:22-23, “22 So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: ‘Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23 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.’”

Ancient Athens was a city of pagan idol worship. There was a temple and altar to every god and goddess known to the ancient world. In addition, there was an altar to the unknown god. This altar had been erected 600 years earlier during a plague that was ravaging Athens. None of the known gods and goddesses had responded to the Athenians’ cries for mercy. Therefore, one wise philosopher suggested that they sacrifice and pray to an unknown god. When they did so, the plague was stopped. So, Paul, fully aware that they had once prayed to Yahweh without knowing it, took the ball and ran with it.

Acts 17:24-27, “24 ‘The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 26 And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, 27 that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him.’”

Paul packed a tremendous amount of Moses and the Prophets into these simple statements. Without insulting the Athenians, he pulled apart the assumptions of their idol worship and replaced those assumptions with news about the true God they had previously known nothing about. So here are the salient points. First, there is a Creator God, maker of everything. Second, being Lord of heaven and earth, this Creator God needs nothing from us. Third, we humans exist only because He created us — and that from one initial human, Adam. Fourth, this Creator God has mapped out our existence on His earth, including the boundaries of nations. Fifth, the Creator God hides in His creation, but is available to be found by any who seek Him. What’s the most important point here? There is a Creator God. It was news that the Athenian philosophers did not know. More on this momentarily. Let’s finish the sermon.

Acts 17:27-31, “27. . . ‘Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, 28 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.” 29 Being then God’s offspring, 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. 30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 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.’”

Once Paul proclaimed the resurrection, the meeting broke down because some were incredulous. Others wanted to hear more. And some were convinced. But Paul packaged many points in with the resurrection of Messiah Jesus. So let’s tick them off. First, we live and move and have our being in our Creator. Second, He made us to be in relationship with Him as His offspring. Third, our imaginations are useless when it comes to picturing our Creator. Fourth, the time of serving gods and goddesses we’ve created for ourselves is over. Fifth, human history on this planet will come to a conclusion. Sixth, our Creator will judge us by His standards of righteousness. Seventh, He has appointed a human being to do the judging. Eighth, the bodily resurrection of this man into immortal righteous life proves that He has the right to judge the earth.

So, here in Acts 17 Paul makes a direct connection between the resurrection of Jesus and Yahweh, the Creator of heaven and earth. What is the God who raised Jesus from the dead also capable of? If He can resurrect the dead, could He have formed the entire creation? And if the hearer connects the dots, a whole new world opens up for him or her.

When we looked at Paul’s analysis of paganism in Romans 1:18-32, we saw the following sequence. First, a culture denies the plain evidence in front of their eyes that this world and this universe have a brilliant Creator with vast power and authority. Second, they start to glorify something that’s created instead of its Creator. Third, they give thanks to that object of worship instead of the Creator who sustains them. Fourth, their thinking about life, how to live life and their role in life becomes confused. Fifth, they encompass themselves with lies about reality and so the darkness of despair and the futility of life press down on them.

Therefore, when we compare Romans with what we’ve seen of the two teachings in Acts, we see that the resurrection of Jesus did just the reverse. It opened an exciting door for Gentiles. They knew nothing about Yahweh, Creator of heaven and earth, and His ways. But when they accepted Yahweh through the resurrection of Jesus, the futility of pagan thinking and the darkness of heart and spirit left them. There are similar things happening at the present time.

So, how might all this help in evangelizing? Many of you have family members and friends that have been deceived by the futile philosophies and darkened thinking of this world. Try this. Ask them what they think of the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Tell them you’re curious. Don’t dispute with them. Just find out what they think. Keep on asking questions about what you hear them say. If they make a claim about anything, ask them on what basis they’re making the claim. After the conversation, make a list of all the objections they might have to Jesus’ resurrection. Then at the Bible studies or at a special meeting we can compare notes and begin to develop ways of responding to the common objections we hear.

As we see especially in his address to the Athenian philosophers, St. Paul had accurate knowledge of the way the people he was addressing thought about life. He turned that knowledge into effective ways of explaining God’s truth to them. We can do the same.

The world, sin and the devil definitely want to strangle the news of Jesus’ resurrection with falsehood in order to render it ineffective. But freed from the strangling lies, the good news is as effective as it’s always been. Lord Holy Spirit sees to that. For just as the Gospel once penetrated pagan culture, it can do so time and again. Let us take heart. It all begins with the bodily resurrection of Messiah Jesus. And that very fact is the antidote to all the paganism we’re seeing. For as we will begin to see next week, it changes the thinking and behavior of all those who receive it. Amen.

All Bible quotes are from the ESV.

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