PREACHING JESUS TO THE PAGANS
Written by Doug Ponder on December 30, 2012
Hedging Your Bets
Suppose you offer to take your friend to the movie for her birthday. As the opening credits begin, you lean over and whisper, “This movie is either going to be really good, or else it will be really bad.” What you were doing in that example is called “hedging your bets.” In other words, you were trying to avoid committing yourself (in this case, to a prediction about the movie you hadn’t seen yet). Most often we hedge our bets in the hopes of avoiding the negative consequences that come with being wrong.
The people of Athens were no different in that respect. They worshipped so many gods and goddesses that they eventually erected a statue to “the unknown god”—just in case they missed one. They were hedging their bets, hoping that perhaps, somehow, their feeble attempts to worship a god they didn’t know might please that god and make everything alright in the end.
Imagine the kind of fear that would produce! You might spend your days wondering if there is a god whose personality and presence you know nothing about. Perhaps you’d wonder whether this god is angry with you. Perhaps you’d wonder whether this god would do anything about the mess the world is in. You’d have no way of knowing. Fear would be your way of life. And so, you’d hedge your bets, hoping that a small statue to some “unknown god” might be just enough to please him (or her). But you don’t know the god’s name. You don’t even know what that god is like. And you live in a city full of beautiful temples dedicated to other gods, which make your statue to the unknown god look pretty pathetic. So much for hedging your bets.
Hello Paul, So Long Ignorance
Then Paul the apostle showed up, bringing a message of surprisingly good news for the people of Athens (and, indeed, the whole world). He told them, “The god you worship as ‘unknown,’ I will make known to you” (Acts 17:23). Unlike their idols of gold or silver or stone, the God who created the world and everyone in it is not the product of our imaginations. The creator God has always been there, distinct from his creation, as the logically necessary ‘first mover,’ the ‘uncaused cause,’ the ‘being without beginning’ that the Greeks had long theorized about. This is the God “in whom we live and move and have our existence” (Acts 17:28), as even their own pagan poets and philosophers had talked about. But the creator God is not weak, like the other gods the Greeks had worshipped. His power is not restricted to temples of stone. Rather, he is “the Lord of heaven and earth, who does not live in temples made by hands”(Acts 17:24).
Paul doesn’t stop there, however. He wasn’t content to convince them of the reality of the God who created the world and is “Lord of heaven and earth.” Paul’s point in all of this was to show the people their accountability to the God who had created them to know and worship him in the first place (Acts 17:26). “God has overlooked your ignorance,” Paul declares, “But now he is commanding everyone, everywhere to turn to him” (Acts 17:30). “For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed, and he has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31).
Maybe we’re tempted to think that God’s righteous judgment isn’t really “good news.” After all, isn’t judgment bad? Quite the opposite, in fact. Judgment is the declaration that this is good (and to be upheld) and that is bad (and to be avoided). And when people talk about judgment as if it were bad, they are overlooking the evil of the holocaust, or the genocide in Rwanda, or the terrorism of 9/11, or any other act of injustice, great or small, committed against God’s children, God’s world, and God himself. In the face of all that, we should be glad that there is a coming day when such atrocities will happen no longer.
Living in the Light of the Resurrection
Jesus’ resurrection is not only a sign proving that such a day is coming; it is also the means by which that day is becoming a reality. In Jesus, God is setting the world right by reconciling all things to himself (Col. 1:20; Eph. 1:10; 2 Cor. 5:19). In light of his resurrection, Paul seems to think it’s clear how we ought to respond. We are called to submit to Jesus, the just judge who is “the Lord of heaven and earth.” This is not some kind of reluctant submission, like some kind of medicine that is good for us but tastes terrible. Rather, it is a kind of joyful submission born out of a realization that we ourselves are the worst of what’s wrong with the world, that we are the ones who first and foremost need to be redeemed and renewed—all of which happens by his grace and in the power of the Spirit.
Joyfully trusting and submitting to Jesus never fails to changes us. It doesn’t leave us in apathy or unceasing rebellion against our Creator. Instead, it moves us to love him, to trust him, and to do what he says. As we see in the closing of this passage, Paul’s message about Jesus prompted his followers to “join” with the rest of Jesus’ people, because of their trust in him. And we do the same today whenever we regularly worship him together, constantly tell others about him, and actively serve others in his name.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.