Life is full of disappointments – they are to be expected. Paul seems to have faced one of his in Athens. But these dark patches on our journey through life are not a sign that we’re on the wrong road. Rather we must press on believing in the Lord who brings light after dark, life after death.
On arrival in the ancient city, Paul was distressed to see so many idols (Ac 17:16). His response was to preach publicly about Jesus and his resurrection (Ac 17:18). The theme, however, confused many and so Paul was taken to the Areopagus to present his ideas before the city’s wise men (Ac 17:19). There, he preached the supreme God to whom all owe worship and love (Ac 17: 24). Hence, their idol-worship was wicked foolishness (Ac 17:29) which God had been slow to punish but for which he now commanded repentance (Ac 17:30). God had shown his intention to punish by appointing a judge whom he miraculously raised from the dead (v31).
God will judge this world. We will all answer to the Lord of heaven and earth. Jesus will test the world by God’s ways, as made visible in his own perfect life. How will we compare? Terribly. As our every thought, emotion, motive, word and deed are exposed, we will see clearly how many sins we have committed against God. What excuse will we be able to offer for them? None! So what hope can we have for such a terrifying day? Only Jesus. His life may expose our sins but his death can also bring their forgiveness. Faith in him can prepare us for the coming judgement.
In Athens, however, they are blind to their sins. So Paul preaches an idea which challenges their intellectual arrogance: resurrection. Had Paul just dwelt on Jesus’ life and death then his hearers may have listened with less pride. Socrates, the revered philosopher of Athens, was condemned to death by the Areopagus in 399BC for despising the city’s gods. Maybe they could compare Jesus with Socrates and give Paul’s message a little respect. But his mention of resurrection damaged any such good opinion, since many in the room know what silly nonsense the idea is (v32). As is obvious to all, the dead stay dead – Socrates did not return! There are all kinds of theories about what happens to the dead – soul separation, reincarnation, ghosts etc. – but no reliable evidence for any of them because no-one comes back from the dead to tell us. The nearest we ever get is resuscitations of folk who were very close to dying. But the truly dead do not return.
Resurrection, however, isn’t as ridiculous as some Areopagus members believe. If they’d just listen to Paul then he could give them reasons to believe. Firstly, there is what Paul said earlier. Life on earth only exists because God has caused it to happen (Ac 17:26-28) and so there’s no reason why God shouldn’t raise a dead person; the only question is whether it has occurred. And Paul’s answer to that is: yes, as seen by eye-witnesses (1Co 15:5-8). But was Jesus resuscitated? No, the Romans knew how to kill people (Jo 19:34). Was Jesus a ghost? No, he had a real body (Lk 24: 39). Did others make up the story for their own benefit (Mt 27:63,64)? No, that was prevented by the authorities (Mt 27:65,66) and why would the disciples maintain such a lie when it brought them pain (Ac 5:40) and death (Ac 7:58). The evidence says that something clearly took place in Jerusalem which utterly transformed the lives of Jesus’ followers. But on top of that evidence, Jesus’ resurrection also makes sense because it fits so well with his life and ours. His closest friends saw a life in him like no other – free of sin (He 4:15), unworthy of death (Ac 2:24), it was the life of God himself (Jo 1:1-5); and Jesus said it could not end (Mt 16:21). And our lives need resurrection. Humanity has longed to escape the blight of evil and death but has never been able to do so. Jesus’ life and resurrection offers the only way to realise those longings.
Jesus’ resurrection is only a dopey idea when we close our minds. But, sadly, many in Athens do (v32) and so, though there’s some interest in further discussion, Paul leaves (v33). A few become his followers (v34) but it seems no real church is formed. Outwardly, then, Athens was a failure for Paul’s mission. But not because he did anything wrong. It was just an example of the depth of proud mankind’s sinful blindness. However, less disappointing days were coming for Paul.