Do we have any gymnasts here this evening? Well, I’ll have to apologise in advance for what I’m about to say…But, have you ever watched a gymnastics competition? In Australia we’re all great fans of gymnastics, we never do gymnastics, we never go and watch gymnastics, but whenever the Olympics or the Commonwealth games are on we love to watch them on the telly. In fact we’re like that with pretty much any sport. Anyway, being Australian I’m a big fan of gymnastics, at least I’ll watch it every two years when it’s on television…And I find it absolutely fascinating – the things those gymnasts can do to their bodies.
I’m particularly impressed with the rings, the sheer strength required to pull off those moves is astonishing. Those guys are amazing.
But the thing is; if you stop and think about it for even the shortest amount of time you realise that gymnastics is absolutely, spectacularly, pointless. There is absolutely no rational explanation for what those people are doing. It’s not like track and field events where there is some historical association with battle or something. Gymnasts throw their bodies around on a sprung floor, or fling themselves around a high bar or dangle from a pair of ropes – and sometimes suffer spectacular accidents – for what? There’s not even a ball to kick or a goal to aim at.
The whole exercise would be a complete waste of everybody’s time except for one little thing. There’s a panel of judges, who judge the performance of the competitors so there can be a winner. If there was no judging, then the whole thing would be an absolute waste of time.
When it comes down to it you could say the same of pretty much any sport - without judgement the whole thing breaks down into absurdity. And the point for us this evening is that it’s not just true of sport, it’s true, full stop. Without judgement our lives are completely empty and meaningless. If there is no judgement after death then there is no point to our lives. We’re absolutely meaningless, our lives amount eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.
But God is there, and there will be judgement, and I can say that with absolute certainty. It’s true, I know it’s true. God not only exists, he is going to judge the world. We can know it, not because of a theoretical proof, but because God has acted in time and space to make it crystal clear to us, he has made it clear by raising Jesus from the dead. That’s why tonight, as we conclude our Easter reflections, I want to talk to you about judgement and the meaning of life.
Our passage is Acts 17: 22-31. In this passage Paul speaks to the foremost philosophers of his day and he tells them that they need to get to know the true and living God because God will judge all men by justice. And they can know it because Jesus has been raised from the dead. What he says still stands as a challenge to us today.
I have three points to make from this passage and they are:
1) Jesus’ resurrection means that God is real;
2) Jesus’ resurrection means that there is judgement after death; and
3) Jesus’ resurrection means that there is meaning and purpose in life
I’ll start with God’s reality:
First, Jesus Resurrection means that God is real.
Paul makes God’s reality clear to the philosophers of Athens in verses 24 – 28, have a look at those verses:
“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. 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. 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.”
You’ll notice that this is not an argument for God’s existence. Paul is not laying out a logical sequence here for the philosophers to consider. He simply states the facts. That’s the way the Bible consistently treats the issue of God’s existence. It’s like me standing here in front of you tonight: I don’t need to argue for my existence, the fact that I’m standing in front of you speaks for itself. You can consider what sort of person I am, and how you’re going to respond to me, but the question of whether I am or not has already been settled. That’s the way it is in the Bible. God acts – he speaks, he creates, he judges and he saves – his actions are seen and experienced and known. So God’s existence is not in question.
For our purposes tonight it’s worth noticing that Jesus’ resurrection is unquestionably an act of God. God raised Jesus to life again. He was dead. He was buried. He lay in the tomb through two nights. On the third day God raised him bodily from the tomb and he walked, talked and ate with his disciples. The question is not ‘does God exist?’, but ‘what is God like, and how should I respond to him?’
Well the ancient philosophers believed in God, sort of, but they had no idea what God was like and how to respond to him. It is these questions that Paul answers in Acts 17. What is God like? God’s not limited like the idols around Athens – God is the creator. He made the world and everything in it. He didn’t form the world from pre-existing material; he made everything that is out of nothing. There was a time when God existed and there was nothing else, no universe, no matter compressed to an infinitesimally small space ready to explode in the big bang, no matter at all, just God and nothing else. Then God spoke and the universe and everything we see around us came into being.
The Epicurean philosophers Paul was speaking to thought everything was material, even the gods - matter was eternal, gods were not. But the real God is far greater than that, he exists outside the material realm, he existed before it, and it exists only at his command.
So then, how should we respond to God? Well, a God like that doesn’t need men to build him a temple and gather food and drink. As Paul says ‘he does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything’. God is the one who gives life to every living creature, he rules over each and every one of us – it is God who determines where we live and how long we have. We may not be aware of God’s influence over our lives, but he rules over us all the same.
The Stoic philosophers Paul was speaking to believed fate directed all of their lives. But it’s not fate that governs our lives – no impersonal force – but God, a personal, relational God who can be known and who wants to be known. Men and women were made for relationship with this God.
Since these things are true the philosophers of Athens need to change their view of God. God is not the idols of Athens, pieces of stone carved into shape, or gold or silver beaten into form. God is not something we create with our hands for our ends. God created us.
And we need to change our view of God too, because God isn’t the god we hear about in our culture either. He’s not a crutch that weak willed people invented because they can’t cope with the world the way it is. We didn’t make God up, God made us up. For all our science and progress we’re no closer to the truth than the philosophers of 2000 years ago. The world today is full of ridiculous beliefs about God. In time the beliefs of our culture will be seen to be just as empty and ridiculous as ancient Greek beliefs look to us today. God can’t be replaced by ‘mother nature’ and the world can’t be explained simply by time, chance and replicating DNA.
Rather, there is a God who created all things. God remains in control of the world that he has created. And this God is personal, he can be known, and he wants to be known. We know this because God raised Jesus from the dead. God has revealed his power over life and death. And in so doing God has given us a firm assurance that there will be a day of judgement. On that day all of our false views about God will be revealed for what they are – wrong – and we turn now to look at that day as we move on to point two, because:
Secondly, Jesus’ resurrection means there is judgement after death.
This is the conclusion of Paul’s argument. Have a look down at verse 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. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he 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.”
What is Paul’s logic here? Well, in the resurrection of Jesus the judgement has already begun. In Jesus’ death and resurrection we see a glimpse of what is to come. Judgement on sin is brought forward in time and space and Jesus endures the judgement of the whole world.
When Jesus died on the cross those who had eyes to see could understand that he was the son of God. However the cross without the resurrection is ambiguous, it could be simply another death, another end to another promising life… but when Jesus rose from the grave his death was marked out as radically different to every other death. We can be certain that he died under the judgement of God, and when he rose the judgement was completed, the punishment was finished. He has won the victory over sin and death. He rose from the grave and ascended into heaven as the ruler over death. So now Jesus is Lord over life and death, he is the one who has the power to judge on the last day.
And so Paul says that the resurrection proves what is going to happen on the last day, proves that God is going to judge the world with justice, proves that Jesus is the man appointed to judge. It proves what is to come because it’s already started.
Do you see how it works? Jesus has already passed through judgement; he has already entered into life with God in heaven. Because he has gone ahead we can be sure that we’ll follow. And on the other side, Jesus has already suffered the punishment for sin. All who doubt that God will judge sin need look no further than the cross. Judgement is a reality, and we will all face God’s judgement on that day. Christians need have no fear of that day because we will follow Jesus into life with God, but if you’re not trusting in Jesus’ death and resurrection on your behalf, you have the same judgement he went through, with the absolute certainty that you will be found wanting.
The NT speaks of Jesus’ resurrection as the first fruits of the harvest. You know the crop is about to ripen when the first fruits are visible on the vine. I’m learning about this at home at the moment. We’ve got a little chilli plant on our kitchen windowsill. The poor thing, we’ve nearly killed it twice. Last time we went on holidays all but two leaves shrivelled up and dropped off. The chillies died on the branch. I thought the plant was dead. But we put it in a bucket of water and the plant had an amazing recovery, it even budded all up and down the plant and produced new leaves and then lots of little chilli flowers. A couple of weeks ago one of its flowers produced a chilli. Now it’s covered in chillis. That first chilli told us that our plant was going to produce fruit. We haven’t killed it and it’s going to provide a whole crop of chillis, and we’ll be eating hot chilli stir fries. It’s the same with Jesus, he endured judgement and then rose from the dead. Because he’s risen we know there is a just judgement and there is a life after death. He is the first fruit, the one chilli that comes out before all the others and lets us know that the rest are on the way.
So we the resurrection tells us that there is a God and there will be a day of judgement, and I want to suggest to you finally that this is a good thing, because without judgement, without justice, the world is empty and pointless, and that brings me to my last point:
Thirdly, Jesus’ resurrection means that there is meaning and purpose in life
There is meaning and purpose in life because nothing is forgotten, nothing is unimportant. God knows what we do, he knows everything we go through, and he will bring every action, every thought, into judgement at the last day. And it is precisely this judgement that makes sense of life.
Without judgement nothing that we do would have any meaning or purpose at all. All morals would be relative, all beliefs irrelevant. In fact we would end up with the relativistic post modern world people experience today: A world where euthanasia and abortion are more acceptable to some than eating meat; A world where respected ethicists argue that clever apes are more ‘human’ than infants or the handicapped and so are worthy of more respect. We end up with a world where we can never expect justice; where Robert Mugabe is free to do whatever he likes in Zimbabwe, and what you believe is just as valid as what I believe, even if you believe in suicide bombing or overthrowing the government.
For all its absurdity there is a logic to all of this. If there is no outside reference point, if there is no God and no judgement, then justice is completely relativized. All we have is what seems right to whoever’s in charge.
If there is no judgement, no justice, then there are no controls on my behaviour. No one is weighing it up to see if I’ve done the right thing. And when I look around I see that quite often the best way forward is by cheating and stealing – well why wouldn’t I? If no one is ever going to call me to account for using and abusing you, well why not?
Not only that, but, if there is no judgement then nothing I do matters. In the end we are just DNA carriers passing on our genes to the next generation, products of time and chance, prey to the forces of the universe, adrift in an endless void; empty and meaningless.
Do you see why the world is in a mess? Abandon judgement and not only are we free to do whatever we want with no consequences, but we ourselves become meaningless and insignificant, nothing we do can ever be of any consequence.
I suspect the rich and powerful in our world understand this very well, everything in life is available to them, but nothing seems to satisfy. Perhaps that’s why this idea keeps coming up in Hollywood movies. Take Ground Hog Day for instance. The film stars Bill Murray. Somehow Bill’s character gets stuck in time, reliving the same day over and over again. Every day he wakes on the same morning. Once he figures out what’s going on he starts to see the possibilities. He gets drunk every night, he stuffs himself with cream buns and donuts, he squanders large sums of money, he picks up girls, he drives the wrong way up the railway tracks, he robs a bank – it doesn’t matter what he does, because tomorrow he’ll wake up and none of it will have happened.
Eventually he stops having fun. We see him out at a bar with a couple of drunks and he says to them ‘what would you do if nothing you did mattered, and every day was exactly the same?’ and one drunk looks up at him and says ‘that pretty much sums it up for me’. And Bill goes off and commits suicide. Of course it doesn’t work; he wakes up the next day back in the same place, he has to learn the true meaning of life, or something.
But it makes the point doesn’t it – if nothing we do matters, if there are no consequences, then life isn’t worth living. There is no meaning and purpose in a world without consequences. A world like that isn’t worth living in.
In the end we need judgement to make sense of this world, to give us purpose and meaning for life. And Jesus’ resurrection tells us that judgement is coming. Jesus’ resurrection tells us that the world is not meaningless and purposeless.
So why should we remember the resurrection? Because it provides the answer to the question of life, the universe and everything – the answer to the questions that have troubled philosophers and scientists throughout history. In the resurrection of Jesus we have definitive proof that God is there and that there will be judgement after death. As a result there is meaning and purpose in life, meaning that is found in getting to know the God who made us.
Of course, there is more to be said about all of this – the knowledge that there is judgement after death is only good news if we know that we’re not going to come up short. The knowledge that God will definitely punish sin isn’t very good news to a bunch of sinners like us. But if we’re following Jesus the judgement that we deserve has already fallen on him, and we know the outcome of our judgement – we will certainly follow where he has gone ahead of us. So if you’ve put your trust in Jesus you can face the coming judgement with confidence. But if you haven’t yet put your trust in Jesus then the coming judgement can only be terrifying. So pay attention to the resurrection, recognise that God is there and that he is going to judge us all at the last day and put your trust in Jesus.