The Apostle Paul liked to quote contemporary celebrities such as Aratus when he was at Athens. At the time of writing this, I’m in the Philippines, and following Paul’s example I’m here quoting one of that country’s icons. José Rizal once said: “One only dies once, and if one does not die well, a good opportunity is lost and will not present itself again.” A statement like that has a resonance with many Filipinos, and leads easily into how various Bible writers have developed that same point of life’s one certain event and what lies beyond it (e.g. Hebrews 9:27). The Apostle Paul himself talked about death being ‘gain’ (Philippians 1:21) provided we share his assurance that when we depart this life, we will be with Christ (Philippians 1:23). That, and that alone, would be dying well and making the most of the opportunity.
When the Apostle Paul wrote those last referred to words from the capital of the Roman Empire, Roman roads were at the cutting edge of the then communications network; nowadays, of course, it’s the superhighway of cyber-space that dominates our communications – and I’m making use of it as I prepare this: an updated medium for an unchanged message. Sometimes in this far eastern setting, the most effective way to interact with an audience and provoke participation is through text-messaging as virtually everyone there has a basic mobile phone – more of a necessity than a luxury when access to infrastructures is limited. Back then, say when at Athens 2,000 years ago, Paul would have preached in the common Greek which was more or less the universal language in which to reach the most people then, just as the English language often is today.
The gospel – core and culture
It’s impressive to see how Paul also adapted the presentation of his core Gospel message to whichever culture he was engaging with. To Jewish audiences, he styled it around the theme of updating their expectations surrounding God’s kingdom. But since this wasn’t relevant background as far as Gentiles were concerned, Paul used a different approach for them. At Athens, he tapped into their religious uncertainty and their quest for new discoveries. As he introduces God to the people of Athens, he begins with the observation that they’re worshipping something other than the real creator God. For them, the substitutes were objects made of ‘gold or silver or stone’, crafted by human skill which they were worshiping, but for us it’s more likely to be whatever we fill our lives with or whatever we dream about or whatever we devote the majority of our time and energy and money to. Our god is whatever we think will bring us satisfaction. The problem is that it doesn’t. The substitutes didn’t work 2,000 years ago and they’re still not working today. The rock musician still sings ‘I can’t get no satisfaction’; and the philosopher agrees that ‘there’s a God-shaped hole inside each one of us’ and trying to fill it with other things doesn’t work. We end up feeling empty simply because you and I were made to be in a relationship with God – our creator. Only that can fulfil and truly satisfy in a lasting way which meets our in-built capacity.
At Athens, the Apostle Paul goes on further to introduce God to them as the creator. He begins by referencing ‘the God who made the world and all things in it.’ A typhoon blowing through a junkshop has no chance of rearranging all the scrap and junk randomly in such a way that a brand new, fully working car appears. Time and chance alone cannot create a universe like ours. Things cannot make themselves all by themselves. It’s a fantasy to think that the laws of physics can actually bring into existence the reality which they merely describe. It’s a sophisticated fantasy, for sure, but it’s a fantasy nonetheless. Simply because ‘to create’ is a part of a verb, and a verb needs a subject. In the same way as a watch needs a watch-maker, so this world needs a world-maker. All talk of a blind watch-maker is absurd when we take a moment to consider seriously the complexity of the genome of a mere germ – which it takes the power of 128 computers to simulate. As confirmed by the best established of scientific laws, left to themselves things tend to become more and more chaotic, and definitely not more and more complex. When even what we think of as the simplest things turn out to be very, very complex, we need to rethink the fairy-tale that once upon a time it all emerged from nothingness by pure random chance and gradually made itself complicated over deep time.
The Bible’s verdict
The judgement of the Bible on those who reject the clear evidence of a supernatural designer is that they are being ‘wilfully ignorant.’ And Paul was trying to end the time of ignorance when at Athens by telling them that the world-maker is the one whom the Bible introduces as God. What’s more, it tells us later on in the New Testament that he’s come as near as breathing. Yes, he once entered this creation of his. And so it tells us about Jesus who walked on water, calmed storms, turned water into wine and cured diseases. He finally rose from the dead in the miracle which is the hardest of all to dispute, because it’s supported by changed lives around the world – still happening even 2,000 years later.
WThe next point Paul made was to affirm that God is good and ‘he himself gives to all people life and breath and all things.’ God provides everything for our need but not for our greed. God provides us with everything we need to enjoy life. In fact, more fully than you can imagine, for the Bible goes on to show the extent of God’s generous heart in the person of Jesus Christ who reached out and touched the untouchables and brought joy, relief and blessing into the numerous lives reported upon in the four Gospels. Their recorded reactions echo down through time to us: ‘He has done all things well’, as ‘He went about doing good.’ ‘He saved others’ out of many a desperate situation.
Next Paul follows this up by saying that we each already have a sense of this true God. For whom do we turn to in difficulty? Whom do you tend to blame when tragedy strikes? In fact, tragedy can’t be considered a problem unless deep down you actually believe in God. For atheists have no-one to blame. To them there’s nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. Equally, atheists have no-one to express their gratitude to. It’s not convincing, is it? Instinctively, we reach out for God – especially for comfort in our troubles, and express our hurt and anguish in our confusion. If only we could connect more strongly with the reality Paul expressed to the Athenians, ‘[God] is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist.’ But we can know so much more when once we encounter God in Jesus Christ.
Preaching for a verdict
There was always a point to Paul’s preaching. He preached for a verdict. He left the audience in no doubt as to what response was looked for. At Athens, he tells them God had overlooked the times of ignorance but was now declaring to them their need to repent in view of the day already appointed for God’s judgement when he will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom he has appointed – even the one he’s raised from the dead (Acts 17:30,31). We’ll all stand before God’s appointed judge – he’s the same one who once hung on the cross, judged by the world. Once judged by the world, and bearing the world’s judgement, he will soon judge the world. But he will judge us in righteousness. The world judged him unjustly, served him an injustice, he died the just for the unjust, but he will judge us with perfect justice. There’ll be no hiding, no excuses, no defence – but there can be salvation. There’s one condition, and one only: that you repent and take up the pardon he’s now offering at this time.
About 1830, a man named George Wilson killed a government employee who caught him in the act of robbing the mails. Wilson was tried and sentenced to be hanged. The President of the United States, Andrew Jackson, prevailed upon by the accused’s friends, sent Wilson a pardon. But, Wilson did a strange thing: he refused to accept the pardon. No one seemed to know what to do because of this, so Wilson’s case was sent to the U. S. Supreme Court. Chief Justice Marshall wrote this verdict: “A pardon is a slip of paper, the value of which is determined by the acceptance of the person to be pardoned. If it is refused, it is no pardon. George Wilson must be hanged.” And so he was. If we refuse the pardon God offers now, we too will be sentenced – and in our case that means sentenced to the second death, even the lake of fire. (ESV).