Note: The following is a guest post by Dr. Byron Curtis, Professor of Biblical Studies at Geneva College.
Babbling. Lots of talk is just that: babbling. Babbling, of course, is babbled by babblers. There’s no need to pay attention. It’s all just gas.
“What’s this babbler trying to say?” That’s some Athenian’s question about the Apostle Paul, newly landed in that great Greek city to preach the gospel. This babble-story is told in the New Testament, in Acts 17. It proves to be no babbling at all, for the talk’s all true, and it’s of Jesus and the resurrection.
Paul’s just fled from deadly peril up north in Macedonia. There he’d faced anti-gospel riots in both Thessalonica and Berea. These rioters had put Paul’s new converts at risk, and targeted the apostle for death. It took a strong-armed squad of Macedonian Christians to whisk Paul safely away south. Now in Athens—a city of cool tempers and cooler philosophers—the anxious apostle awaits word about his friends up north. Have these new Christians survived?
While he waits out the worrisome days, he turns tourist. Then, as now, Athens boasted some of the most beautiful buildings in the world. But this accidental tourism soon turns sour: “the city was full of idols.” That discovery drives him to do what he loves best: he preaches. This piqued the attention of the philosophers:
“What’s this babbler trying to say?”
“He seems to be peddling foreign gods.”
They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.—Acts 17:18
A babbler babbling? And about foreign “gods”—plural? It seems that the Gospel is so unknown to Athens that the philosophers think Paul’s “gods” are “Jesus” and “Resurrection.” Our author, Luke, even pokes this bit of fun at them: “they spend their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas” (Acts 17:21). Perhaps they’re the real babblers in the story. So they invite Paul to join them in their philoso-gab, with “Jesus” and “Resurrection” as the newest fling.
“Jesus and the Resurrection”? It is a lovely pairing indeed. In Paul’s marketplace preaching, those two words must have gotten major air-time. To the young Christians of Corinth, Paul tags his preaching with another pairing: “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:2). The last line of the Acts sums it up with yet another pair: Paul “proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 28:31).
“Jesus and the Resurrection”
“Jesus Christ and him crucified”
“The kingdom of God and the Lord Jesus Christ”
It’s hard to miss the point: it’s all about Jesus. It’s his cross, his resurrection, his lordship, and his Father’s blessed kingdom. And all that we might find rescue from sin and death, to enter that everlasting blessedness.
In that ancient world, people didn’t readily believe in resurrections. We moderns think they were gullible. Not so. They understood death more clearly than most Americans. This year of COVID-19’s brought us closer to their ancient clarity. The great Greek stories held forth dread. No hope of resurrection, and only the dimmest assertion of consciousness post-mortem: voiceless shades crossing the River Styx into Hades’ endless night.
The greatest of all Greek stories, as famous in Paul’s day as it is in our own, is Homer’s Iliad. Every war story you’ve ever heard is already in it. There “man-slaughtering Hector” has himself been slaughtered by “fleet-footed Achilles” in revenge for Hector’s slaying of Patroclus, Achilles’ dearest friend. Somehow in the odd chances of gods and war, Achilles finds himself host to Hector’s grieving father, Priam, King of Troy:
Both were overborne as they remembered:
the old king huddled at Achilles’ feet
wept and wept for Hector, killer of men,
while great Achilles wept for his own father
as for Patroclos once again, and sobbing
filled the room.
Achilles then gently addresses his noble enemy:
Gods out of the sky sent you this bitterness:
The years of siege, the battles and the losses.
Endure it, then. And do not mourn forever
for your dead son. There is no remedy.
You will not make him stand again.
(Iliad, Book 24, lines c 510–20 and c 545–550)
Lesson? No hope for the living. No help for the dead. “There is no remedy.”
No wonder these philosophers scoffed at Paul, the babbler who peddled a god called “Resurrection.”
But that “god” called “Resurrection” resists all efforts to bury him. He insists on rising.
It was during those weeks in Athens that Paul penned these words back to his new friends in perilous Thessalonica:
Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.
Hope for those who’d been converted only to be murdered for it? Yes . . .
For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. (1 Thessalonians 4:13–14)
Such stark contrast between pagan despair and Christian hope! In Christian hope, just as Jesus’s tomb proved temporary, ours shall be as well. And the world itself shall rise in “the restoration of all things” (Acts 3:21).
The case is compelling: without the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, there’s no way to account for the fact of Christianity, no way to explain its grip on the apostles, no way to explain their willing martyrdoms, no way to interpret the fact that, ere long, millions of residents of that no-hope Greco-Roman world believed in Jesus and the resurrection. And no way to make sense of our own hope.
“Jesus and the Resurrection” is no babbling. It is the great presupposition, the premise by which all of Christian history stands, the foundation upon which the Church of Jesus rises, and the holy, hope-filled power by which it advances into all the world—to the glory of God.
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