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Hope for Needy Skeptics… and for Us All

Acts 17:16-33; 26:22-29

Some pastors complain about people who go to church only on Christmas and Easter. I want you to know I’m glad simply that you are here. In fact, I know that I have a few friends coming today who adhere to other religions and I’m glad you are here too. Easter really is a day that both the regular churchgoer and those new to the church should show up. If you want to know what this faith in Jesus is about, then this is the day to be in church. After all, the Bible declares clearly that at the heart of its message is that Jesus “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred people at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have passed away. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles… (1 Cor 15:3-7).”

Then, the Bible goes on to tell us that Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is not an optional extra that some Christians believe and others don’t. To the contrary, the Bible says, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead… (1 Cor 15:17-20).”

So, if you want to understand what the Christian faith is all about, you need to show up at church on Easter! On this Resurrection Day 2013, we look at two episodes in the Bible in which a Jewish scholar named Paul, who had met Jesus personally, explained the Christian message to two groups people who knew very little about the Bible. What he focused on was the resurrection. Here’s what happened:

Episode 1: Street Preaching at the Rose Parade
(actually, at Athens’ Areopagus in Acts 17:16-31)

This first event took place in the cultural and educational center of the ancient world, i.e., Athens, Greece. This setting was not unlike Southern California. Paul was in the midst of their main gathering place, called Aeropagus. I envision it as being just a bit like being here in Pasadena in the middle of the Rose Parade crowds. Celebrities and political leaders were there. PhD students from Athens-Tech were there. Paul looked around him and saw that a lot of the people were religious but he thought to himself, “They don’t really know that God has come into this world. These people need to know that if we repent of our sins and believe in Jesus, we’ll find forgiveness and a new life. These people need to know that Jesus overcame sin and death through his resurrection.” Read the whole text and you’ll feel Paul’s passion. Paul felt deeply that these people needed to know about Jesus!”

So, Paul told them that they all knew in their hearts that there is some sort of God in this universe. Being the scholar he was, Paul used examples from Greek literature and art to show how people in their own culture knew that there was more that is real in this universe than just material things. And, Paul said, the God they intuitively know exists has made himself known. Paul said that the one true God is not a part of creation – God is not some sort of thing we make with our own hands or minds. No, he said, God made us! And, Paul added, God made us to know him.

Paul said that the opportunity to find forgiveness, freedom from guilt and shame of the past, and to enter into a relationship with God has come to all people. Listen to Paul’s words: “Now God commands all people everywhere to repent.For God has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. God has given proof of this to everyone by raising Jesus from the dead.”

People seemed to listen intently to the sermon until Paul mentioned the resurrection from the dead. The minute that was mentioned, “Some mocked.” Earlier, when Paul mentioned resurrection, the people in Athens called him a “babbler who was teaching strange things.”

Here’s my point: To a crowd knowing nothing about Jesus and the Bible, Paul focused on the Easter message. He told them about Jesus, God’s Son, coming into history to forgive sins. But the proof of this being true, according to Paul, was the resurrection. Without the resurrection of Jesus, he preached, sin cannot be forgiven and evils like death cannot be overcome.

Episode 2: Defending the Faith at City Hall (Acts 26)

In our second story, Paul was in deep trouble. He had been arrested in Jerusalem for preaching about Jesus and saying that all people from all people groups could now be in God’s family. Then, he was seized, bound and taken to the ruling council. But, the news got out that a group had pledged an oath not to eat or drink until they had killed Paul. So the authorities whisked Paul (a Roman citizen) out of Jerusalem and took him up the coast to the beautiful new administrative center of Judea called Caesarea. While there, Paul was called to give testimony before two high officials, 1) Festus – the Roman Governor in charge of this entire area and 2) Agrippa – the local Jewish King. The way Festus framed the problem is found in 25:19: “There is a dead man named Jesus whom Paul claims is alive.” So, the heart of the matter was Easter.

Paul’s message to the two men was what we call the gospel: “I personally met Jesus when I was on a trip to persecute Christians and Jesus has changed my life. Jesus is the Son of God who came to earth, suffered and died on a cross out of love for all people. He did it to pay for our sins so that all people – Jew and Gentile -- can come to know God through faith in him. How do we know that’s true?” See Acts 26:23 -- “Jesus rose bodily from the dead.” We know God is greater than our sin because Jesus was able to bear its penalty and overcome it. We know God is greater than any problem we face in this world – even death – because Jesus experienced it and overcame it. In history, Jesus died and rose again! That’s what Paul said.

Festus was listening contentedly to this until Paul spoke about resurrection from the dead. But, when he heard that, he shouted in 26:24: “You are out of your mind, Paul! Your great learning is driving you insane.”

To this Paul said, "I’m not out of my mind. I’m quite rational. I’m simply speaking to you about what happened. And, you can ask King Agrippa about it.” Here, we find a remarkable statement in the Bible. Look at Paul’s words to Festus in 26:26: The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner.

In other words, this claim that a man who was truly dead has risen from the dead has been witnessed all over our country. A group of women were the first to see him. Then some followers along the road to Emmaus. Then, the 12 disciples. Then – well, about 500 people have already given personal testimony to the fact that Jesus is alive. We know he died – really died. But, he has risen.” All this had happened just about 15 years before. The witnesses were still alive. Paul was saying, “The king knows this. The evidence is indisputable. I’m not out of my mind.”

And as always, Paul called these two men to repent and believe in Jesus. And this was the interchange: Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?” Paul replied, “Short time or long—I pray to God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am (i.e., a Christian), except for these chains (26:27-28).”

From These Episodes through Me to You this Easter 2013

#1: Our Questions

After an Easter message I gave in Chicago back in the 1990s, I had a wonderful man come up to me and say, “Pastor Waybright, I’m not religious but you gave a good speech today. My wife has been coming to church and she said you are an educated men. I know you had to talk about resurrection today but now, you can tell me – you don’t really believe that story happened do you?” He went on to tell me what I had heard often, i.e., that he believed that the ancient people were gullible and uninformed and believed in things like miracles. But that we know better now. Yes, of course, a few gullible people still hold on to their old religious superstitions but not educated people…”

So, listen to me today: Ancient people were not as gullible and uninformed as we moderns like to think. In both of the stories we heard today, when Paul talked about resurrection, people mocked, sneered and called him insane. They were no less intelligent than we – and they knew that when a person dies, really dies, that person should not be expected to be eating fish and having meetings (as Jesus did) afterward. In Athens, all the philosophers, whether Epicureans or Stoics, believed that when a person died, that person ceased to exist. A few believed in the immortality of the soul, i.e., that people may have some sort of spiritual existence after death floating around on clouds or re-entering into other life forms. But, the Easter message of Jesus rising bodily from the dead and promising us our own resurrection? No, they rejected that.

So, if that’s true, why did people all over the world believe in the resurrected Jesus before the end of a century? And the answer to that is found in what Paul said to Festus, “Look at the evidence as the answer to your questions. This resurrection really happened in history. Credible witnesses saw Jesus crucified and then risen. Hundreds of us are witnesses to this. It didn’t happen in a corner. It’s true.”

And I ask you to consider the evidence too. Some people say the early church people made up the story. But, they said the first witnesses were women. Women were not even allowed to be witnesses in a courtroom in Israel. Who would make up a story in the first century that has women as the first witnesses? They said women were the first witnesses because – women were the first witnesses! They saw the death of Jesus and then the risen Jesus.

Then, consider the disciples. One day they were hiding in fear in an upper room. The next day they were out telling everyone about Jesus. What changed them? They had met the risen Jesus! If they were making all this up, would all of them be ready to die for a hoax? No, the only explanation was that it happened.

So, I urge you to face up to your questions about the resurrection of Jesus. Look intently at the evidence. Be skeptical today about your own skepticism. As I said to that skeptical scholar in Chicago, “I do believe Jesus rose from the dead. And I believe if you will look at the evidence carefully, you will too.”

#2: Our Hopes

I dare not let you leave an Easter service without telling you how the message of resurrection offers hope to the biggest needs and longings of our hearts. “Like what?” you ask.

The impact of death – In A Happy Death, Albert Camus had Patrice asked his girlfriend Marthe to choose what he would do for a day that she enjoyed most -- and then after that day, she would die. Marthe said that knowing she would die so soon would take the joy away. “Why?” she was asked. “What does it matter if you exist for two or for twenty years? Don’t you know that whether you live a day or many years, that pleasurable thing will be taken away?" This is the reality that all of us must come to grips with. If we live for our jobs, our pleasures, or our successes, we will find that death takes them away. Jesus’ resurrection declares to us that this life is not all there is. “Where, O death, is your sting? Where, O grave, is your victory. Thanks be to God who gives victory through our risen Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor 15:55,57).”

We know that death robs us of our possessions, our careers, our talents and our loved ones. But death’s sting has been taken away and swallowed up by eternal life. That’s one reason we celebrate Easter.

The senselessness of injustice – Do you ever have times when you see things in this world and say, “That’s not right? That evil should be punished… That person got away with murder…” There are authorities in this world that sometimes work hard to bring justice: Parents in homes. Judges in the courtroom. Teachers and principals in schools. But, human authorities often fail at bringing justice and, as we all know, injustice is rampant in our world. But, God says, there is a real life beyond this world. And, God promises, “Evil will be punished. Goodness will be rewarded. I am a just God and you will see that I will make all things right.” Jesus’ resurrection is the evidence that God is greater than all the evils in this world and the promise that there is a life beyond this life in which justice will prevail.

The longing for tomorrow to be different from yesterday – You experienced a baptism in the service today. In that baptism you heard that a person was “buried with Christ in his death.” That meant that all the sins, guilt and shame of the past were taken care of by what Jesus did on the cross. Sins are washed away.

And then you heard, “You are risen to walk in newness of life.” These were not children who were baptized. These were people who have long pattern of doing things in certain ways. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn said, “Human nature changes not much faster than the geological formations of the earth.” Is there hope that their lives can be different? Is there hope that you can be different – your family can be different – your marriage can be different?

The Bible says that the power that raised Jesus from the dead comes into our lives when we trust Jesus. We identify with his resurrection life and begin to experience his presence and power. Here the words of the Apostle Paul in Eph 1:18-20: I pray that… you may know the hope to which he has called you…, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strengthhe exerted when he raised Christ from the dead

And the response God calls for in the light of the resurrection can be seen in the call to respond Paul gave in the book of Acts:

God commands all people everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30).

Do you believe (Acts 26:27)?


To His glory,

Dr. Greg Waybright
Senior Pastor

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Greg Waybright • Copyright 2013, Lake Avenue Church