The new tree of the knowledge of good and evil

From last week’s message on Acts 17:16-34

Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.

So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for

“‘In him we live and move and have our being’;

as even some of your own poets have said,

“‘For we are indeed his offspring.’

Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them. – Acts 17:16-34 (ESV)

Paul begins this episode provoked in spirit over the idolatry all around him. Indeed, Athens was so full of idols that they even had a catch-all altar to the “unknown god”, just in case they missed one.

It’s easy from our modern perch to ridicule the ancients for their idolatry, but if you think about it our generation is no different. The joy that explodes in social media over the release of a new phone OS, the way we fawn over our celebrities, the energy and time spent pursuing that ancient, unholy trinity of sex, money and power; all of this points to a society no more free of idolatry than Athens was, and probably even more idolatrous. We don’t bow before statues, but there are all sorts of things that get us out of bed in the morning that aren’t Jesus.

Paul takes the opportunity in a culture awash in idolatry to introduce them to the one true God. He is a God who has been unknown to his audience, for the most part, though they have been given clear communication of him from creation and have been feeling their way toward him all this time. Of course, when you are groping in the dark you will make mistakes, for our God doesn’t need or want all these man-made temples and sacrifices into which they had put so much energy. This is a God who is very near, and who created everything and everybody.

Paul then comes to the point.

“The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

Jesus is the turning point of history. Jesus has come, has lived a perfect life, has suffered under God’s wrath for our sins, has died, and has been raised again. Jesus is the great decision of God to save his offspring, and about whom a great decision is called for in each one of us. Repent, or not. Trust in his great gift, or don’t. Reject our idols and worship the one true God, or continue swimming in a sea of idolatry. Breathe the free air, or drown.

When Paul speaks of the resurrection, some of his listeners begin mocking him. This is because the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the greatest event in the history of the world and is itself the hinge upon which history swings, but it is also a great scandal and offense to our natural minds, living as we do with the natural assumptions of karma and natural ignorance and misconceptions of holiness and unholiness. Into this ignorance Jesus steps, and in him the cross truly becomes the new tree of the knowledge of good and evil, because when we see him high and lifted up we finally see what holiness truly is, and can discard all our self-idolatry and our misnamed, false goodness. In the cross we also see what unholiness truly is, because of our own deep evil that put Jesus there. The cross is like looking in a mirror that shows us our true reflection. It isn’t pretty, in fact it’s horrifying, but Jesus is beautiful. When he is lifted high he will draw all men to himself.

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. – 2 Corinthians 5:21 (ESV)

Jesus is alive! He has come to free us from idolatry and hopelessness and sin and bring us home to wholeness and holiness and him. Praise his name!