When Paul was in Athens (read Acts 17.16-34), as was his common practice, he reasoned from the Scriptures to prove Jesus as the Christ. The very thing he did in Thessalonica and in Berea, he did everywhere he went. Scripture tends to give brief summaries of what was said by the apostle, rather than his entire dialogue. However, what is revealed to us is that the heart of his message was Jesus. The gospel of God focuses on, and finds its being and purpose in, the good-news of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, the Son of Man, the great I AM.
It was always Paul’s contention to preach “Christ crucified” (1Cor 2.2), and to focus on the judgment of all found in our Lord’s resurrection (Acts 17.30-31). Apart from which, the Christian faith is meaningless. However, the converse is also true—the cross of Christ and the resurrection of our Lord (i.e. empty tomb) are only meaningful to believers. This is clearly explained by the very apostle we find in Athens preaching (Acts 17.16-34), which was the content of a previous post (The Apostle Paul the Babbling Beggar).
Listen to his own testimony…
- “For Christ… [sent me] to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1Cor 1.17-18; NIV).
Paul admits that the cross of Christ is powerless (i.e. emptied of its power) when divorced from the wisdom of God. True wisdom is sourced in God (Psa 111.10), from which all knowledge comes (Prov 2.6-8; Col 2.3). Not, the philosophy of fallen human beings.
Paul says that this idea is crazy and devoid of meaning (i.e. foolish) to those who are perishing. Who are the ones who are perishing? Those who are not in Christ. The apostle makes a needed distinction between those who are perishing and those who are not; the ones who are not perishing are the people who have been saved by the power of God.
It is not the wisdom of man that saves a man, but the power of God who saves the man.
- “For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe” (1Cor 1.21).
I know what you’re thinking, “God…saves those who believe!” Absolutely right! This is true, but before you do the victory lap, ask and answer the following question: “How?”
How is it that you believed, if the rest of the world did not? Since they view the cross of Christ and the resurrection of our Lord as utter foolishness? To the unbeliever the gospel of Jesus was not good news, but insanely moronic news. So how are you, a member of this world, a believer? Why did you find the cross of Christ and the resurrection of the Lord not foolish?
Paul answers that question if you’d keep reading:
- “but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1Cor 1.24; italics added).
Those who have been chosen, or appointed, or elected by God—both Jews and Greeks—Paul says, identify the work of Christ, the grace afforded to us as the power and wisdom of God. The emphasis is on what has been done for us. It is by God’s power that we are saved in Christ, that we enjoy the fruits of being delivered from sin.
The very truth we find him proclaiming at the end of the first chapter, saying “God chose…so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus…Therefore, as it is written: ‘Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord” (vv.28-31; summarized the emphatic points). Our being “in Christ,” Paul explains in another place, is due to the action of God—i.e. an expression of His will and purpose—in accordance with “the riches of [His] grace that he lavished on us” (Eph 1.8a; cf. vv.3-12).
Therefore, Paul “resolved to know nothing…except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1Cor 2.2). Rather than appealing to some other standard to show the validity and veracity of the gospel, the apostle’s message was “not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirits power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power” (1Cor 2.4b-5).
Human wisdom leads up a dead-end road. This is demonstrated in Jesus’ crucifixion at Golgotha. For “none of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1Cor 2.8; emphasis added). But they did, because the message of the cross of Christ and His resurrection is spiritually discerned, and man left to His own abilities is not able (cf. 1Cor 2.14).
WHY ALL OF THIS TALK? THE RESURRECTION
A common assumption is made that all we need to do is preach Jesus’ resurrection today. If we can get people to see the truth of the resurrection of Jesus, then people will believe. Andy Stanley, who has adopted the mindset of Norman Geisler, William Lane Craig, and many other significant Christian leaders, believes that if we can tether our message to the resurrected Jesus—i.e. the empty tomb—then that is all that is really needed.
Show them this evidence historically, apart from direct or sustained appeals to the Bible (we don’t want to get in any of those unnecessary biblical questions like inerrancy, etc!), and people will believe.
Besides the fact that the cross and resurrection of our Lord are meaningless apart from biblical testimony, many Christian leaders believe they have found a better way. Even though the very Lord they profess to believe in says it can’t be done, they have convinced themselves, “Oh, yes it can!” Interesting…um, who has the authority to say what can and can’t be done? I was pretty sure calling Jesus Lord settles that issue: “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” (Luke 16.31; ESV).[i] “Yeah, but that’s a parable,” individuals like Stanley claim, as if that settles the matter.
“Oh! It’s a parable…Ah, I see that makes it…what less meaningful? Less true? Jesus you idiot! You taught people with parables rather than just saying it. Had you just said it, that would have been better. Then people would know that you were speaking truthfully, not figuratively.”
Is that what you think? Is that how you deal with the wisdom writings in the Bible? They use figurative language (poetic language even!) and so we can’t take them literally.
- Person 1 says, “Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink.” And then explains to Person 2, “You can’t drink the water fella, its no good. Either its poisoned by minerals or by decaying bodies, by either way its not safe to quench your thirst.”
- Person 2 responds, “Well, you spoke figuratively there, so you must be wrong. I can’t take that literally.”
Now you may think I’m being a bit ridiculous, but the truth is many use those type of arguments all the time to get around what the Bible teaches on a given subject. It is true that figurative language is symbolic. But it is equally true that if you understand the symbols you can derive the true meaning of what is being said.
Jesus’ meaning is pretty clear: If people refuse to repent when they have heard the Word of God—by the way “Moses and the Prophets” is a figure of speech meaning the O.T.—then they will not believe even if someone has risen from the grave. It is not until the power of God has been demonstrated in the life of the individual in question by the Holy Spirit’s regenerating activity that spiritual truths make sense and are, consequently, embraced.
LETS HEAD BACK TO ATHENS
When Paul was in Athens, he proclaimed the cross of Christ and our Lord’s resurrection. The intellectually wise, the best that Athens could offer, called him a gutter-sparrow; a moronic babbler of strange deities. In so doing, they claimed he was a fool and they were wise. He didn’t understand the nature of reality, the truth of things, but they did. And yet, they were the ones confused over the truth. They were the one’s demonstrated to be steeped in ignorance[ii], though they mockingly laughed in derision at the apostle’s claims (Act 17.32).
However, what is laid out before us in Acts 17:16-34 is a demonstration of the power of God at work in the hearts of fallen people. For as Paul was seen leaving (Acts 17.33), some followed: “But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them” (Acts 17.34; ESV).
On that day God called (chose/elected/appointed) one of the members of the Areopagus to new life, even a woman of evidently some repute, as well as others who were not named nor numbered. Paul was wiser than the wisest men that the world had to offer, and he expressed this wisdom not by appealing to men with evidences divorced from Scripture, but evidences rooted in Scripture from which their true meaning is derived.
Had the approach from popular Christian apologists, pastors, theologians, etc. of which Stanley is an advocate, been advanced by Paul two things would have occurred. First, he would have denied what he had set out to prove in 1Cor 1-2 that faith in the cross and resurrection of Christ is spiritually discerned. Belief is brought about by a demonstration of God’s powerful wisdom, not man’s. Second, he would have dishonored Christ and His Word by assuming that some other standard would have been on par with the Spirit’s testimony.
Notice that I didn’t say faith in Christ wouldn’t have come about as a possible result. While, our methods may at times dishonor our Lord, His divine purposes still see the light of day. Our God can strike a straight blow with a crooked stick, just look at how He used sinful men and women in the past to bring about what He had formerly intended.
That truth, however, does not remove our responsibility to using His wisdom and knowledge instead of our own.
[i] When Jeff Durbin tried to prove his point to Andy Stanley in their debate on “Unbelievable” Stanley’s go to was “well, that’s a parable….” This a common rescuing device used by those who desire to skate by uncomfortable passages of Scripture that infringe upon their own preconceived ideas.
[ii] Before the Areopagus—the gathering of the intellectually elite in Athens—Paul points out their ignorance. They had mocked him in the market saying, “You ignorant fool.” And yet, when he begins his defense of the Christian faith, he points out that they are in fact the ignorant ones, “What therefore you worship as unknown [i.e. in ignorance], this I proclaim to you” (Acts 17.23b). How often have we read this passage and passed over this gentle rebuke of Athenian wisdom by Paul?