Victory on Earth Day – part 5

The effect of the cross on the major influences in our culture 

In 1 Corinthians 1:22-23 Paul talks about the “Jews demanding miraculous signs and the Greeks looking for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified.”

So here’s another victory that Christ won for us on the cross: He freed us from thinking we’re missing something, or that we’re lacking something as Christians, if we’re not experiencing or feeling any need for miraculous signs, or we don’t have brilliant minds like the great Greek philosophers. To Paul, a Christian doesn’t need a great mind or miraculous signs to experience “the power of God and the wisdom of God,” verse 24.

That’s enlightening, because many Christians today are still seeking and demanding signs and wonders as evidence that the Holy Spirit is at work in a person or a church, and it’s still a popular pastime in Christianity to mix the gospel with Greek philosophy – both of which have set Christians at odds with each other, and given the impression that Christians are extremely confused. And what makes that such a crying shame is that Paul made it absolutely clear where the real power and wisdom come from.

Paul explains in verse 17 that he’d been sent by Christ “to preach the gospel, not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” And by ‘power’ Paul meant the Holy Spirit’s power, as we see in chapter 2:4, when he writes, “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.”

So Paul is making a clear contrast here between the Holy Spirit power and wisdom released by the cross of Christ, and the power and wisdom of the Jews and Greeks. And he makes sure the Corinthians understood the symptoms of each, too: It was Jewish power and wisdom when the emphasis was on miraculous signs; it was Greek power and wisdom when the emphasis was on the teachings of their philosophers; but it was Holy Spirit power and wisdom when the emphasis was on what Christ won for us on the cross.

And Paul stuck to that, as we see in 1 Corinthians 2:1-2, when he said straight out that he “did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom” when he talked about God; instead he was “resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” It didn’t mean he only preached Christ crucified, because in chapter 15 he also talked about the importance of Christ’s resurrection, but in dealing with the influence of Jewish and Greek thought on the Corinthian church, it was the victory Christ won on the cross that Paul concentrated on first of all.

And that was important, because most of the Corinthians weren’t all that bright “by human standards” (1:26), but God had purposely chosen “the foolish things of the world to shame the wise” (27). And that soon became evident, because the Corinthian Christians – “lowly” and “despised” though they were (28) – could see right through the hollowness and pointlessness of all that so-called wisdom of the “scholars” and “philosophers” (20). They could literally “nullify” it and dismiss it (28), because they’d learnt through Paul’s preaching about Christ crucified that there was nothing in Greek “wisdom” that made any sense of what their destiny was as humans, or what life was all about in the here and now. The Corinthians discovered, therefore, that, simple though they were, they didn’t need to be impressed or intimidated by anything Greek.

Well, that took care of the Greeks, but there were scholarly Jews in their city too, claiming they had the answers to human life and destiny in their obedience to the Law, backed up by all those miraculous wonders God did for his chosen people in the Old Testament. But the Jews, like the Greeks, didn’t have anything to boast about either, because, as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 1:30, it was only in “Christ Jesus who has become for us wisdom from God” that the answers to human destiny and purpose could be found.

So Paul is making some pretty bold statements here about the two greatest influences on the culture of that time. He could do that, though, because he knew that “the wisdom of this age” and “the rulers of this age” were “coming to nothing,” 1 Corinthians 2:6, and in their place, verse 7, had come “God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began.”

It was never in the realm of Jewish or Greek thought, therefore, that God’s plan and purpose could be discovered. So all that deep Greek philosophy – that is still so admired and revered today – actually offers us nothing, says Paul.

That’s a serious and rather worrying claim Paul made, though, because, to quote one historian, “The ancient Greeks are the corner stone of (our) Western philosophy. If you were born in a country in Europe, a country settled by Europeans, or a country at any point ruled by a European power, the essence of Greek philosophy has found its way into your worldview in one way or the other. Capitalist or communist, liberal or conservative, Coke or Pepsi, the people who have had the greatest influence on the way we think and how we live in the Western world took their cues at some point from a Greek. Over nine times out of ten this Greek will be Plato or Aristotle of Athens.”

It’s interesting, then, that Paul himself passed through Athens in Acts 17, where he entered into public debate with the two leading schools of Greek philosophy at that time, the Epicureans and the Stoics (18). And Paul was very open to what they believed. He didn’t attack their ideas; instead, he started out with: “Men of Athens; I see you take your religion seriously,” verse 22.

It was obvious just walking round the city and seeing all their “objects of worship” (23) that these Greeks really believed there was a spiritual realm inhabited by gods. But in his discussion with the Epicureans, Paul discovered they believed the gods were distant and uninvolved in our human problems, so like many people today the Epicureans dismissed the whole idea of eternal punishment in an afterlife, and they concentrated instead on what makes us humans the best and happiest we can be in the here and now.

The Stoics, meanwhile, believed all humans already had the divine within them, which put the emphasis on living and behaving like divine beings in this life now – or be reborn to repair the damage. Either way, Stoic or Epicurean, the focus was SELF, of lifting oneself to a higher level of morality and wisdom so you stood out from the rest of feeble, misguided humanity. It was clear to Paul in his discussions with these philosophers, therefore, that neither group had any clue as to what “God destined for our glory before time began.”

So he told them. He gave his “testimony about God” (as he called it in 1 Corinthians 2:1), which focused on God creating and settling humans on this planet for one very specific purpose, Acts 17:27, which was to “seek God and perhaps reach out for him and find him,” and “he’s not that far from each one of us” because we are his “offspring” (29). And, shockingly, this highly personal connection with a very real Creator God could also be made without any need for splendid temples (24), or “images made by man’s design and skill” (29).

You’d think that would be a huge relief for Jews and Greeks alike. The Greeks, for instance, wouldn’t have to spend all that money building massive temples to their gods, or searching endlessly for answers to what life was all about, with each great Greek philosopher coming up with a different answer. Aristotle, for instance, came up with a totally different idea about life than Plato. And the Stoics and Epicureans were like chalk and cheese as well.

It should have been a relief for the Jews too, though, because God had always shown how close he was to Israel by filling their tabernacle and Temple with his presence in very obvious ways, like he did in the days of Moses and Solomon. But for hundreds of years since the Jews had rebuilt the Temple on their return from captivity in Babylon, God had not filled the Temple with his presence. But here was Paul saying a Temple building wasn’t required anymore anyway for seeking God and finding him. What a relief.

And think of the huge relief today not having to build great edifices to God to make God’s presence feel real to people, that for centuries afterwards require huge amounts of money and manpower to prevent them crumbling into ruins. And what a relief that you don’t have to read endless books of philosophy and theological jargon by people with brains the size of pumpkins but can’t put anything in simple terms for little people as to what life is really all about.

Well, Paul probably had a brain the size of a pumpkin, but he admitted to coming to the Corinthian Christians “in weakness and fear, and with much trembling,” 1 Corinthians 2:3, because he realized it was only since Christ died on the cross that God was now revealing “by his Spirit” (10) what he’d “prepared for those who love him” (9). Now was the time God was opening up his “secret wisdom,” and Paul had better get it right, rather than being drawn in like everyone else to Jewish and Greek ideas, because – as he explains in verse 12 – “We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that WE may understand what God has freely given us.”

That, according to Paul, is where the power and wisdom of the Spirit is manifested: It’s in making clear to us what God has freely given us – and what he’s FREELY given us too, not what’s required of us. Paul has already made it clear that it’s not required of us to know or need anything “except Jesus Christ and him crucified,” because it’s Christ’s death, not miraculous signs and human wisdom, that releases the power of the Spirit to enable us to grasp what was “destined for our glory before time began.”

And isn’t that what we want to know more than anything else? As humans with curious minds and worries about death, of course we want to know what our destiny is. What is the point of being alive if there’s no purpose to life? And if God really did create us, what did he have in mind for us? I mean, who needs signs and wonders and all those wildly different ideas the Greeks churned out about life, when the question still begs answering: ‘What exactly WAS destined for our glory before time began?’

Was it what the Greeks thought? Well, if we’re talking Plato, his version of the glorious destiny for humans was freeing our immortal souls from everything physical, so our souls could wing their way back to the heavenly world of the gods to live in happiness and freedom from all human ills forever. And if that sounds terribly familiar to the traditional Christian view today of our souls being whisked off to heaven, it’s because Plato is the source of it. Plato also came up with it long before Christ died too, so Christ’s death wasn’t necessary.

The Jews, meanwhile, did not believe souls would go to heaven forever. Their version of God’s glorious destiny was the Messiah arriving to resurrect their nation to begin a Golden Age here on the Earth, and all a person had to do in the here and now to be part of the Messiah’s kingdom on Earth was obedience to the Torah. So the death of Christ wasn’t necessary to the Jews either.

In neither case, Jew or Greek, was Christ’s death needed. To Paul, however, it was central to grasping our human destiny – and to making it possible.

So what difference DOES the death of Christ make? And isn’t that the most important question we have to answer as Christians? What’s our destiny, and what’s Christ’s death got to do with it? Well, according to Paul, it’s the Spirit who reveals that to us and not the wisdom of men (1 Corinthians 2:5), since “man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them” (2:14). We won’t get any help from the Jews or Greeks, then.

Fortunately, we know what the Spirit revealed, because it’s right there in Acts 3:18, when Peter, inspired by the Spirit, explains: “this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Christ would suffer.” From that one verse we not only find out WHAT our glorious destiny is – it’s all written down in the Old Testament prophets – we also know HOW that glorious destiny was made possible: By Christ’s suffering and death.

And if anybody should have known that it was the Jews, who’d lived in hope for centuries for what the prophets had predicted, which is why Peter yelled out “Repent” in Acts 3:19, meaning “It’s about time you Jews woke up to what the prophets actually said, because they included Christ’s suffering.” It had been there in their Scriptures all along, that the suffering and death of Christ was the key to “the times of refreshing coming from the Lord” (19).

Peter now knew, with the Spirit’s help, that Christ’s death had unlocked the floodgates to the glorious destiny for humans described by the prophets, and it was beginning right then and there. There was no waiting, like the Jews thought, for the Messiah to come and resurrect their nation and start a new golden age – because the Messiah had already come and started it.

That’s why their Messiah had died. He’d died first and foremost for the Jews so that their “sins would be wiped out” (19). And why was that so important? Because the Jews were the ones through whom the times of refreshing would begin. God had sent Jesus to THEM (20), to bless THEM first of all, by turning them from their wicked ways (26) – and because Jesus had successfully completed that in his death and wiped their Jewish slate clean, they could now turn their attention to what he was now doing as the resurrected Jesus in heaven. And the Holy Spirit in Peter made that clear too, in verse 21, that Jesus was now at work “until the time comes for God to restore everything (in its fullness), as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.”

Jesus is at the helm, in other words, as captain of Spaceship Earth, and he’s steering us relentlessly in the direction of what the prophets predicted would RESULT from Jesus’ suffering and death. The restoration of everything, exactly as they predicted, was now in progress. This wasn’t some Greek fantasy of souls going to heaven, or some Jewish fantasy of God doing more miraculous signs to prove he was making them great again. This was the beginning of the time clearly predicted by the prophets when God would restore all that he’d originally intended for humans before he’d even set this creation in motion. He’d drilled out the cancer with Jesus’ death, and now he was putting things right.

That’s why Paul told both Jews and Greeks in Athens in Acts 17:30, that “God has overlooked your ignorance In the past, but from now on he’s telling everybody to repent and get on board, because God has already set a timeline for putting everything and everybody to rights, AND he’s got the man in place to make it happen too, the proof being his resurrection from the dead.”

Imagine being a Jew or Greek hearing this, though. It was shocking. For a Jew expecting a resurrection from the dead at some later date when the Messiah arrived, this was the most shocking news possible. You mean, the resurrection from the dead had already happened? That would be like telling someone today, who lives for the day when Jesus returns to straighten out this world, that Jesus has already returned and he’s been straightening out this world for the last two thousand years. He has? That’s nuts, because where’s the proof of it?

It was the same reaction in Athens too: “When they heard about the resurrection of the dead,” Acts 17:32, “some of them sneered.” To both Jew and Greek this was off the wall, that God, or the gods, had resurrected a human being from the dead, who also happened to be Jesus, to sort the world out and put it to rights, AND it was happening at that very moment.

But some were intrigued by this idea, verse 32, because they said, “We want to hear you again on this subject,” and some, verse 34, “became followers of Paul and believed.” And one of them was “Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus,” the highest and most aristocratic court in Greece for dealing with civil, criminal and religious matters. Here’s another man, then, like Paul, with a brain the size of a pumpkin, and an earned reputation for being sound-minded and scholarly too, who is able to put all his Greek upbringing and Greek thought behind him on hearing that there’s a man in place already who’s got what it takes to rule the world and he is making happen what God created us for.

To Dionysius, whose every day must have been filled with court cases dealing with all sorts of human issues, this must have been a huge relief, that someone had all this under control and was putting this sad, confused, unsolvable mess of humanity to rights. And think what that means to us today, that this message actually got through to a man like that living in a culture just like ours, that’s just as Greek today as Athens was.

Such is the effect the cross of Christ has on the culture, therefore, when it includes the message of what his death won for us. It won for us A MAN, a real live man like one of us – not some ‘Unknown God’ or distant, far off gods, or gods supposedly within us, like the Greeks were stuck with and so is our culture today. Paul broke through all that confused mess of Greek thought and ideas to reveal this picture of a man at the helm of Spaceship Earth recruiting people into the greatest adventure of all, of working in close relationship with him as fellow offspring of the Creator God to put this world to rights.

What a relief to hear that it wasn’t Plato’s idea that we have no greater destiny in life than our souls being taken to heaven. And what a relief to hear that it wasn’t the Jewish idea that the Messiah hasn’t come yet, so we have to wait for the times of refreshing and the golden age on Earth to begin.

What a relief to realize too, then, that we’re not just treading water in this life until the time comes for us to float off to heaven, or the Messiah eventually arrives. Instead, Christ’s death has given us some real purpose in this life now, because it’s opened up the chance to reach out and find God, and tune into what he planned for us humans before time even began.

And it’s all based on that MAN, a man who happens to be a “judge” too, Acts 17:31, a man like Dionysius himself, in other words, whose life in the Areopagus Council revolved around trying to unravel the mess people had got themselves into, and trying to provide justice and hope for the endless victims of crime and abuse, and trying to sort out the very real, practical issues that ordinary people struggled with every day – that the Greek philosophers, even with their pumpkin-sized brains, had NO answers for.

All the Epicureans had to offer struggling humanity was the typical siren song of our culture, that the main purpose in life is pleasure. The Stoics, meanwhile said the opposite, that the main purpose in life is resisting pleasure and emotion of any kind, because we’re supposed to rise above such mundane things. Well, go tell that to some poor chap in the street whose life is nothing BUT raw emotion and little pleasure as he watches his family starve because he can’t find a good job, or a greedy landlord upped the rent, or he lost his savings in a scam, or his wife has left him, or he hasn’t been paid for weeks by his employer.

Thanks a lot, great Greek philosophers, because you’re no help at all. But then along comes a Jew offering his solution instead, and this time it’s a religious solution, that God will show you the way with miraculous signs and get you through with miraculous solutions, and you have every right to demand such miracles because God has to answer if you trust him – the same old “name it and claim it” routine still sweeping through Christianity today.

Paul dismissed it all with just one word: “Repent.” Put all that Greek and Jewish stuff into the incinerator, and get our minds on some real hope, of a man who came back from the dead who understands human problems, because he’s a human, and he’s got solutions that are just and perfect and practical.

But what would be “just, perfect and practical” in your estimation? Would it lean to the Jewish side, of God having to answer our needs and problems with miraculous signs, like a healing, or a vision, or winning the lottery? There are lots of people offering those things today, including Christians, but that wasn’t what Paul was offering people in Acts 17 in a culture just like ours.

The perfect Greek solution, meanwhile, was either doing whatever gives us pleasure because God seems far away, or having the grit and willpower to control our bodies because God isn’t far away. But pleasure seeking or pleasure denying weren’t Paul’s solutions either in a culture just like ours.

What a relief to know that if I can’t afford a vacation every year in Bermuda I’m not missing anything. Or if I can’t control my sweet tooth I’m not a failure. Or if miraculous signs, gifts and wonders aren’t happening in my life it doesn’t mean I don’t have the Holy Spirit. All those things we can totally ignore, dismiss and nullify, just as the Corinthians did, because Dionysius gives us the context of Paul’s gospel message.

Dionysius responded as a man in the thick of human troubles. He knew firsthand what wrecked people’s lives as the trail of criminals and helplessly addicted humans passed before him. I imagine he shook his head at times at the utter stupidity and pathetic weakness of humans, while at other times he went home shattered at the suffering he could not solve.

But along came Paul, Acts 17:18, “preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection,” which was so new to those Athenians that they hauled Paul up to speak before the Areopagus Council (19). And there Paul told them what he’d been telling people ever since he began preaching in Acts 9:20, that “Jesus is the Son of God,” which the Athenians took to mean he was “advocating foreign gods,” Acts 17:18, but Paul meant Jesus was the literal offspring of the Creator God, whom God had appointed Judge of all human affairs to bring about the restoration of all things, Acts 3:21.

And hearing Paul say that suddenly gave Dionysius hope, that there really was a God in heaven who had freely given the solution to every human ill. And he’d done it in a man too, a man who understood and died for humanity, who was now in the realm of the gods bringing about God’s glorious destiny for humans predicted by the Old Testament prophets. Such was the effect of the cross in ripping people out of the influence of their culture, as it did to several people in Athens (Acts 17:34), and to many of us in the same kind of culture today.

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