Our subject this Easter Sunday is Athens in New Testament times. Athens was [and still is] a city with magnificent ancient buildings. Its Acropolis contains one of the seven wonders of the world. Athens had been [and still was] a city of books and learning.
One day the apostle Paul found himself in Athens. But how had that happened? Let me take you back to that first Good Friday.
Jesus Christ, after a wonderful life, was cruelly crucified. But then, the greatest event in the history of the universe took place. After three days, Jesus, who had died, was raised from the dead. His body was transformed and the tomb where he had been buried was now empty. The disciples at first were frightened following the crucifixion. But when they met the risen Jesus, the Bible tells us, he said to them "do not be afraid". That is still the great Easter Message. Who needs to hear that message this morning?
In a world that is filled with dangers and violence, the words of Jesus Christ - "do not be afraid" - are as relevant as ever. So Christ comes to you today - in the middle of a family tragedy, a business tragedy or a physical tragedy - and says: "Do not be afraid. I am alive. I can help you."
Jesus, however, did not only say, "Do not be afraid." He also said, "Go and tell" - others - in fact, everyone. And the disciples obeyed. But when you tell people of Jesus and the Resurrection, they will often hate you and oppose you. And Paul hated people telling the good news of Jesus and his Resurrection. In fact, he tried to arrest some of them.
One day he was on his way to make arrests in Damascus when something happened that changed his life. He, too, met the risen Jesus. And the risen Jesus also told Paul to go and tell others. So he did. He travelled all over the Mediterranean world proclaiming the message about "Jesus and the Resurrection." Eventually he reached Athens as we heard in our bible reading from Acts 17. There he soon found his way to the Agora - or the Market Place - where ...
"... all the Athenians and the foreigners ... spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas" (Acts 17.21).
But Paul was not impressed with their ideas even though they were very religious. Why? Because he found the city "full of idols". They basically had invented their own gods. Athens was one of the most "multifaith" of cities. It had temples to scores of gods and goddesses. But did Paul say, "so long as you are being 'spiritual' and 'religious' that is OK?" No! We are told that he was "greatly distressed".
Are you distressed at false religious beliefs or atheistic beliefs today? If you are concerned for the truth, you must be. Paul was then very politically incorrect. He said that there was just one truth - secular or religious. And the Resurrection proved that the truth was only in Jesus.
David Watson, the evangelist, once said: "The tomb of Lenin is one of the show pieces in Russia. And it is not an empty tomb ... The bones of Lenin are in Moscow. The bones of Mohammed are in Medina. The bones of Buddha are in India. But in Jerusalem is the empty tomb."
That was in line with Paul's argument. So then we read that the Athenians ...
"... took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus [or Mars Hill - a hill down from the Acropolis]" (Acts 17.19-20).
And at that meeting of the Areopagus Paul wanted to say to these Athenians three things.
First, he said that GOD IS OUR CREATOR.
God caused this world and universe of space and time. It didn't cause him. And God caused all people in every age and every place. They didn't cause him. Of course, God used (and uses) secondary causes to achieve his will, like your mother and father to create you. But he is still our great creator. Paul told the Athenians:
"The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and ... from one man he made every nation of men." (Acts 17. 24,26).
And that too is good news. God is in control - he always was and he always will be. God was in control when Christ died. Mysteriously Christ's enemies were fulfilling God's purposes for the salvation of the world. On the Cross Jesus Christ was dying for our sin and rejection of God. He was bearing our guilt in our place so that we can be free and forgiven. God was in control that first Easter.
And God is in control now in the 21st century. That also is why you need not fear. So trust him. And God will be in control when history ends and your history ends. That is why, if you trust him, you need not fear the future and you need not fear death.
God is the creator who sustains the world. He was, is and always will be in control.
Secondly, Paul said to these Athenians that GOD WANTS to have A PERSONAL RELATIONSHIP WITH EACH ONE OF US.
He said to the Athenians:
"God did this [create us] so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him" (Acts 17.27).
By his holy Spirit God is here this morning and he is wanting each person in this building to have a personal relationship with him. These Athenians had no personal relationships with their idols or indeed with the god they called "the unknown God." But Jesus died so that we might freely relate to Almighty God as our heavenly Father, with sins forgiven and the power of the Holy Spirit to live a life that pleases him.
Do you have a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ? You can if you trust him.
Thirdly, Paul taught the Athenians that God is not just almighty, and personal. He also is concerned with right and wrong. HE IS OUR JUDGE.
This is how Paul ended his speech at the Areopagus:
"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" (Acts 17.31).
Paul taught that God will overlook the past. "But ...
"... now he [God] commands all people everywhere to repent" (Acts 17.30).
That means you are to have a "U-turn" as the politicians call it.
Chuck Colson, a White House aide to President Nixon and convicted for the Watergate Scandal, was converted while in Prison. He then founded the Christian Prison Fellowship. He tells of one Easter when he was visiting a Prison in America.
As soon as he got inside a man came up to him who had been in the audience the previous Easter for Colson's visit and talk. The man told Chuck Colson how his life had been full of bitterness. He was bitter to the guards, bitter with his fellow inmates, and bitter in himself. But Chuck Colson had challenged the prisoners to look at Jesus, as had the two thieves on the crosses next to Jesus that first Good Friday. Then they should say, as the thief who repented said, "Lord, I am guilty. Remember me."
And the prisoner said, "I then went back to my cell and I prayed. Since then they've had my body in this prison but they haven't had me!"
He was a changed man. That was repentance and the power of the risen Jesus. Another prisoner he visited that day was on Death Row itself. He also had also trusted Christ that previous Easter.
He now said: "When I was on the outside Easter meant new clothes ... but now I know what Easter really means."
He knew that Christ had conquered death which was soon to be a terrible reality for him. But death meant now the hope of heaven.
There is to be a day when Jesus Christ will judge the world. Yes, the gates of heaven are now open. But heaven is not for everyone. God created everyone and loves everyone. But you are not automatically a child of God with God as your personal heavenly Father.
You need to be born again into his family. And you are born again as you trust Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord as did those men in that prison. And Paul was saying this is not just some man-made theory. No! It is proved by Jesus being raised from the dead. So God is our creator, he is personal and he will be our judge.
What, then, was the reaction to this message? And what is the reaction today to preaching about Jesus and the Resurrection?
In Athens, first, we are told
"when they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered" (Acts 17.32).
They laughed - as though the whole thing was a joke. People do that today. They say that the bible is a myth; and so you are silly to trust the bible. This Easter some in the media are saying you can't believe Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the four Gospels in the Bible. You must believe much later documents, like the Gnostic Gospel of Judas. What nonsense!
Christians in the 2nd and 3rd centuries read those later Gnostic writings - including the Gnostic Gospel of Philip behind Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code - and rejected them as false and foolish. Nor were those early Christians naïve. They could weigh evidence. And they had a principle from the Bible that you needed two or three pieces of evidence to take something seriously. With the biblical Gospels they had not two or three, but four pieces of evidence. These four Gospels are remarkably in agreement over the Resurrection and they were written when eyewitnesses were still alive - not like those much later Gnostic writings. You have to take the biblical Gospels seriously.
Nor was the Resurrection wish fulfilment. The disciples were not expecting to see Jesus. Mary did not see the gardener and think she saw the Lord. She saw Jesus and thought he was the gardener. Nor were the disciples making up these stories. If they had been, they would never have suffered persecution and death for Jesus' sake.
So some sneered and laughed at the idea of the Resurrection.
But then others put off a decision about Jesus Christ. They said, "We want to hear you again on this subject." Some genuinely are wanting more evidence. But others have thought quite enough. Like many people in Jesus day, they are asking for more evidence but not open to conviction. As Jesus said in one of his parables,
"they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead" (Luke 16.31).
Remember you can't put off that decision for ever. One day it will be too late - when Christ comes to judge the world.
Finally, we are told that in Athens there were a "few [who] became followers". They became Christians. How? They "became followers ... and believed." They believed and trusted Christ. Trusting Christ is like going on a cable car. You commit yourself because you have sufficient evidence that the vehicle is safe. So they accepted what Paul said, and committed themselves to Jesus Christ as Lord.
Paul on another occasion said:
"if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved" (Rom 10.9).
Who needs to do that this morning?