Flicking Off Paul

Bible text: Acts 17:16-34

The apostle Paul’s sermon to the Athenians, recorded in Acts 17, has always fascinated me.

It expresses some of Paul’s most polished rhetoric. He speaks to a sophisticated Athenian crowd. So he takes an uncharacteristically philosophical approach to presenting the gospel. He never quotes the Old Testament. Instead he quotes Greek poets and thinkers.

The crowd listens attentively until he begins to speak of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. At that point, some of the crowd scoffs. Others wander away. It’s as if the crowd is flicking off Paul.

Why? What is such a turn off about speaking of the resurrection? For one, no educated Greek or Roman would have believed in it. It was nonsense. Death involved a separation of the soul from the body. And the body decayed into dust never to be reconstituted.

But more than finding it nonsense, those educated Greeks and Romans would have found the message repulsive. For among this crowd, death involved a welcome liberation of the trapped soul from the body. At death the soul was set free from its bodily prison, free to ascend to the world of the immaterial spirit, which was its true home.

This was certainly the view of Socrates as expressed in Plato’s dialogue The Phaedo. And by Paul’s time it had largely become a given within the Greco-Roman mindset.

This mindset tended to regard the material world as inferior, if not corrupt. It was subject to constant change; therefore, was always unstable. The world of the body was subject, too, to disease and pain. The body died and decayed. The material world tended to be dirty and to smell.

The Greek mind longed for that divine world where nothing changed, where all was immortal, but immortal by being permanently stable. It was to be found in the world of the spirit and mind.

The thought that one would return to the world of matter and the body would then have been a horror to a sensitive Greek or Roman mind.

This mindset differed dramatically from the mindset we find in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. Certainly the world of matter is subject to change, to death, and decay, but the Biblical mindset still regards the world of matter as of great value. It is the good creation of God.

The resurrection of the body represented, therefore, a reaffirmation of the goodness of matter. It says: Matter matters, whether it be in the world of food, medicine, sex, art, technology, or economics.

But more, the resurrection of the body represents the fulfillment of the longing of matter, to be united with the world of spirit in an unbreakable union, a union that does not abolish or destroy matter, but transforms and glorifies it.

The great hope and promise of the Bible is the coming of that day when the material world becomes an eternal and glorious sanctuary for the Lord.

Now this involves a dramatic re-evaluation of the value of the material world. In his ministry Jesus feeds the physically hungry. He heals the physically sick. He also lifts the guilt of sin from the burdened soul. He confers emotional and spiritual peace. And he promises the gift of eternal life.

He never pits the physical dimensions of his ministry against the spiritual dimensions. Both have equal value. Both represent components of the experience of salvation.

And so should they for the church that ministers in his name. Yet throughout our history Christians have compromised this holistic vision. We have tended to suppress the material side of life and exalt the immaterial. We can’t quite escape the legacy of the classical Greek mindset, which continues to seduce us.

And so many Christians today continue to flick off the holistic gospel of Jesus and Paul, and settle for something second best.