I was a law student at Gonzaga University for one year. My grade for the entire year’s work was based on one exam in each class at the end of the year. Papers, quizzes, and homework contributed nothing to my final grade. The entire years work rested on the output of one exam in each class. The pressure was tremendous. I spent the entire year thinking about, preparing for, and hoping that I would do well on that exam. My answers would be judged by my professors and I would be graded accordingly. The stress was incredible.
Similarly, each of us faces a final exam. It is ultimate. By contrast all other exams are trivial. In addition, the requirements are impossible, and the stakes are infinitely more important. How we perform will have eternal, irreversible consequences. It is the final judgment. It is not a popular subject today. It was not a popular subject in Paul’s day, yet he was willing to trust his evangelistic efforts to the proclamation of this event.
To put Paul in a modern perspective, lets assume you had an opportunity to present the gospel to a room full of Harvard philosophy students . Would you start with the final judgment? That would be the last subject on most of our minds. To do so would be very controversial. It would take great courage. We would need to overcome the fear of rejection.
But, that is exactly what Paul did.
The Areopagus was the council that ruled Athens. It’s prestige was great, going back centuries. It was the forum for the social elites, the center of the secular intellectual world of the first century.
However, when asked to share the Christian message to the Areopagus Paul spoke with amazing boldness. He didn’t speak of God’s love. He didn’t make lavish promises of a happy, trouble-free life. Instead, he warned them of the judgment to come. At the climax of his testimony he boldly proclaimed—
“God 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” (Acts 17:31).
People were no different then. First century intellectuals were no more open to news of a final judgment than they are today. The Areopagus were just as offended as a group of Ivy League philosophy majors would be today.
Why did Paul discuss the final judgment? His presentation of the gospel flowed out of very specific assumptions about God and man. The final judgment is reality. Every human being is hurtling toward this, the great defining moment of our existence. God expects perfection. It takes great humility to accept this. God engineered the gospel to reverse the affect of the Fall. That means He engineered it to produce humility. That is why Paul told the Areopagus the truth. He explained the final judgment because it is true. He explained it because it humbles pride.
P.T. Forsyth (1858-1921) wrote, “The question of judgment is where all other questions end. It is the central question in religion. How shall I stand before my judge? …The question is not about our views; nor is it about our subjective state—how do I feel? But our objective religion—how do I stand?” And T. David Gordon, from Grove City College adds, “The great seriousness of the reality of being human, the dreadful seriousness of the coming judgment of God, the sheer insignificance of the present in the light of eternity—realities that once were the subtext of virtually every sermon—have now disappeared, and have been replaced by one triviality after another.
How about you? Where do you stand on this important subject?
I recently was a part of a history conference on the conversion of the Anglo Saxons, and was surprised in my studies how central preaching the Final Judgment was to the conversion of the Tribes. For them, a coming judgment was freedom from both an impersonal Fate and capricious gods.
Yes – but I don't think that this should imply that cultural sensitivity has no place in preaching the gospel; boldness and truth must go hand-in-hand with care for what the audience is thinking. Of course, watering down the gospel into yummy bite-sized pieces does no one any good (health-n-wealthism?) – but is the answer therefore yelling at people when they walk by on their own business? Probably not. We all hate THAT guy on our campuses . . .