The thinkers and philosophers who gathered to grill the apostle Paul on his beliefs atop the Areopagus had heard many things in their time. Athens had always been a centre of knowledge and education; it was the city that had produced Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates and it carried the intellectual stature to match that tradition.
The men Paul spoke with probably thought they had heard every idea under the sun. According to Luke, the historian who travelled with and wrote about Paul, they did little else with their time but talk about and listen to ideas.
A revolutionary claim
There was something that Paul said that was different, however, something that was a shocking claim then and remains a shocking claim today: He argued that a man had died and came back to life, not just in a presumed afterlife but in the present reality.
“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 human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 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 everyone by raising him from the dead.”
– Acts 17:29-31
For thousands of years cultures have understood death to be the final word for our bodies. The Greek take on death at that time could be summed up by Athene’s words in Homer’s Odyssey:
“Death comes to everyone alike, and not even the gods can fend it away from a man they love, when the destructive doom of death lays a man low and overpowers him.”
– Athene, Odyssey (3.236-8), Homer
Not even the gods could defeat death; Zeus himself couldn’t extend his rule over death. People believed that, at times, death could be tricked or cheated but ultimately it always prevailed. It was the same in Ancient Caananite culture; their god, Baal, could not defeat Mot.
Death was final, but this God, the God who made Himself known on earth through Jesus, could overcome even death. That is what sat at the centre of Paul’s beliefs and what sits at the centre of Christian belief today as well.
Paul’s teaching wasn’t revolutionary because he spoke about justice or morality—the Greeks had a moral teacher in Socrates and they executed him for his efforts—it was revolutionary because of this singular claim; that a flesh and blood man had died and been raised again to life.
Paul’s teaching was revolutionary because of this singular claim; that a flesh and blood man had died and been raised again to life.
Whether in the light of ancient mythology or modern medical science, that is an extraordinary claim to be making. At another point in his writing, Paul lists the people who witnessed this amazing thing so that people would be able to fact check him on it (1 Corinthians 15:3-7).
It’s too easy to fall into some form of lifestyle Christianity, living by a moral code, ticking off the culture points of whatever tradition we’re in, and missing the power of the resurrection for our everyday lives. The resurrection should permeate our thinking; if death cannot hold the one we follow then what does that mean for our lives?
On the macro level, of course, it points us to eternity. A new heaven and a new earth which we can partake in, but it also points to the power available right now in the everyday. How many circumstance, problems, troubles, do we cave into and accept as beyond hope? Yet even far beyond the hope of good fortune, science, or sorcery, Jesus emerged from the tomb.
“I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die…”
– John 11:25
The resurrection of Jesus establishes hope that goes beyond anything that the world can throw at it. The most powerful weapon that can come against humanity no longer gets to have the final world. There is hope in life and hope even in death.
Christianity is not about a moral code, or a prescribed lifestyle, it’s about the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
A powerful declaration
As followers of Christ we shouldn’t be shy about declaring this. When Paul walks into the Areopagus he’s not cowed by the knowledge and culture of the day but boldly declares that Jesus Christ is risen.
The response to such a declaration will always be mixed. There are people who will laugh, people who will say you’re crazy or ignorant, but also? People who will be curious, people who will want to know more, and people who will believe.
When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” At that, Paul left the Council. Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.
– Acts 17:32-34
We are Christians because we believe that Jesus Christ died and was resurrected. The whole Christian faith hangs upon the truth of this event. By defeating death Jesus liberates us, to be a part of His kingdom means that even the very worst that this world can throw at you does not hold the ultimate victory.
As we sign off on this study series, I’ll leave you with the words of Tom Wright:
To preach the Resurrection is to announce the fact that the world is a different place, and that we have to live in that “different-ness.” The Resurrection is not just God doing a wacky miracle at one time … this was the turning point in world history.
– N.T Wright