We are continuing our series on the book of Acts. Throughout the book, we have seen how the Gospel of Jesus confronts all kinds of sins. The self-righteousness of the Pharisees, the Satanic worship of Simon, the persecution of Saul…
But today, we are going to look at a time when the Gospel confronted a weird kind of sin. A kind of sin that is STRANGE, but not all that uncommon in our modern world. In fact, if we’re not careful, it can become a problem here at Gethsemane. In the next minutes, we want to identify (1) what the weird kind idol worship is (2) how does it manifest itself in our own lives and (3) how do we defend against it? Before we begin, a prayer: Lord, strengthen us by the truth; your Word is truth. Open our eyes to see what you want us to see; our ears to hear what you want us to hear and our hearts to believe what you would have us believe. Amen.
I. A Weird Kind of Idol Worship
The lesson starts in Acts 14:8 in a place called Lystra. Before we get into what happens there, let’s briefly recap where Paul and Barnabas have been so far:
Pisidian Antioch. While there, Paul and Barnabas had the opportunity to preach in the synagogue. The response? A few believed; others argued with them; shouted at them; and verbally abused them. When Paul responded by taking the Gospel outside the synagogue and to areas where people that weren’t even associated with the synagogue were, the opposers tracked him down, orchestrated a mob and threw Paul and Barnabas outside the city.
Iconium. While there, Paul and Barnabas again preached in the synagogue. Again, some believed. And again, some resorted to verbal abuse to get Paul to shut up. Paul responds by speaking boldly for the Lord (v. 4), but again the opposition is strong. The people of Iconium begin to plot, not just to throw Paul out the city, but to stone him to death – a fate avoided because of a few loving friends who sneak them out of the city.
In short, things weren’t going that well for Paul and Barnabas.
The Mission Trip had become a bit of a downer.
I imagine they hoped things would get better soon.
In Lystra, there sat a man who was lame. He had been that way from birth and had never walked. He listened to Paul as he was speaking> Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed and called out, “Stand up on your feet!” At that, the man jumped up and began to walk. (v.8-10)
If you’ve been following this entire series, maybe you’re starting to think: “Another paralyzed man made to walk?” Isn’t that like three times already?
Peter did it. (Acts 3)
Philip did it. (Acts 8)
Peter did it again. (Acts 9)
And now Paul did it.
But it doesn’t get any less impressive, does it?
He had been lame…from birth.
That means he had never walked.
He had never stood.
He had never taken a step.
Never done a burpee.
And all it takes is him hearing about Jesus’ incredible power…
About how He healed the paralyzed.
About how He healed the lame.
About how He walked again after his own predicament – this thing called death – where you really can’t move at all – and yet Jesus rose from the dead and walked again!
About how He promised all who believed in Him healing in heaven.
The man hears all of that, believes and is healed.
This wows the crowd!
They see the man healed.
And they started chanting…
…but not for God.
When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” Barnabas they called Zeus and Paul they called Hermes. The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to Paul and Barnabas. (v. 11-13)
In the world of the Early Church, Greek was the main language that just about everyone knew. It was useful for trade and communicating between countries. It’s similar to English in today’s world. If you know English, you’ll be able to communicate in just about any country.
Paul had probably been speaking in Greek with the crowd. But when the crowd sees what happens, they are so excited that they immediately revert back to their Lycaonian language.
It’s kind of like if you’re practicing Spanish. And you’re thinking really long and hard about words to use. You’re considering tense and voice and mood. Until…you a get text message that your grades are in and you got an A” and you start shouting: “Awesome!” No Spanish; just English. It’s your heart language that speaks when you’re excited.
That’s the reaction of the crowd. They begin shouting in their native tongue with excitement because they believe that Paul and Barnabas are gods. More specifically; they call Zeus and Hermes. Those are the names of the Greek gods which had a very prevalent religious following in the Ancient World. Zeus was the god of thunder. He’s the one who hurls lightning bolts from the sky. Hermes was the messenger god – he’s the one who brought messages from the gods of Mt. Olympus to the people of earth.
Nowadays there aren’t a lot of people that still believe in these gods. It’s kind of an ancient, defunct religion. But it still holds some power in Hollywood. Including one of my favorite versions from the movie Hercules: Zeus and Hermes. (If this is what people thought of when they mentioned Hermes, I’d be a bit upset if I was Paul… Why does Barnabas get the big muscular guy?)
The people don’t stop at calling Paul and Barnabas gods; they want to worship them like gods. The priest of Zeus was nearby. He runs to the local temple. He opens it up with his keys. He grabs some of the oxen that they were going to sacrifice to Zeus later that week; he takes down some of the incredible, ornamental wreaths around the temple, and he makes his way back to the crowd – ready to offer his gifts to Paul and Barnabas.
The people are smiling.
They people are shouting.
The people are thinking that Paul and Barnabas are gods!
How are Paul and Barnabas going to react?
To be fair – this must have been pretty nice.
Recently, they had been verbally abused, rejected and threatened with being stoned.
It must have been nice to have a crowd that loved them so much that they LITERALLY: worshipped the ground they walked on.
Paul could tell them to “Go, get us a hammock.”
To “Go, grab us a margarita.”
To “Go, cut down some palm branches and keep them waving as we, your gods, begin our cushy new life and reign over the city.”
It might be nice to have people worship you like a god…
That’s not what Paul and Barnabas do…
They get an interpreter.
They find out that the crowd thinks their gods.
They tear their clothes in agony.
And rush out into the crowd shouting:
“Friends, why are you doing this? We too are only human, like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God.” (v.14-15)
Did you hear that?
Their message is to turn from THESE worthless things.
As turn from this worthless kind of idol worship.
And that worship kind of idol that you are worshipping…
WRITE THIS DOWN: Idol worship is fearing, loving or trusting anything more than God. The specific weird kind of idol worship that the people of Lystra were dealing in was fearing, loving and trusting in Paul and Barnabas more than God. It was putting people – even Jesus preaching people - above God.
II. A Not So Weird Kind of Idol Worship
But we are 21st century Americans.
We are an enlightened people.
We wouldn’t worship humans…right?
Remember the definition of idol worship:
It doesn’t necessarily mean that you bow down and worship them or that you hold worship services where you sing at a big statue of some person.
It means, loving, trusting, or fearing something or someone more than God.
And if that’s the definition, maybe this weird kind of idol worship is more common than we thought.
Here are a few ways that this weird kind of sin is plaguing society and maybe even plaguing your life.
This might be an easy one to see. Because the truth is that humans spend more on Instagram to see if the Kardashians have any new hairstyles than they do in the Bible to see if God has anything holy we need to emulate.
And it’s not just looking up to them either.
Imagine for a second that there a new social issue comes up. Some people say one thing about it. Other people say another thing.
But before you make a decision on how to react to the issue, you check to see –
What does Emma Stone have to say about that?
Did Arnold Schwarzenegger approve?
I can’t weigh in on the issue until the Rock posts a witty comment and tells me how to think.
Why go to a sinful people for how to think on an issue?
Why not go to God who is ALWAYS good and in fact invented absolute morality?
To trust a celebrity over God, that’s a weird kind of idolatry.
Notice I didn’t say science. I am not anti-science at all. I enjoy making a baking soda volcano as much as the next guy. Science is good. Science is valuable. Science helps you understand the complexities of God’s creation.
But science also has subjective presuppositions that go with it. When a scientist has the presupposition that there is no God and can be no God and anything not explainable by science must be a lie – then scientists will tell you that…
There’s no way that the miracles described in the Bible can happen.
There’s no way some dude died and then came back to life.
There’s no way some dude walked on water.
There’s no way some God made this world in 6 24-hour days.
There’s no way some dude made some paralyzed guy walk by just telling him to.
Here’s where it gets dangerous: If you trust that scientist, more than the God’s Word, then who you are really trusting?
God wants us to use His Word to inform our understanding of science.
Not scientists to inform your understanding of the Bible.
Because that’s trusting a scientist whose been here 40, 50, 60 years? More than God who was around since before eternity and has shown no signs of aging.
To trust a scientist over God… that’s a weird kind of idolatry.
This happens every time that elections roll around whether you are Democrat or Republican or any other kind of party. We listen to our favorite candidate speak. We become engrossed in their promises. We live and breathe whatever it is they are saying – and we put our trust in them to make our lives on this earth better.
And then when it doesn’t? We have a tendency to double down.
We have a tendency to defend that person no matter what they say and do.
Even if what they say and do is not godly. (And by the way. If you think I’m talking about one particular person right now, you’re wrong. This applies to a plethora of politicians from a plethora of political parties).
If the words of a sinful, fibbing politician become bigger dogma than the words of God, that’s a weird kind of idolatry.
Maybe you saw this one coming. This is essentially what happened with Paul and Barnabas. The people worshipped those who told them about worshipping the true God more than the true God. To be fair – this isn’t as obvious as it was in the story. There aren’t any hymns sung to the glory of me.
But…this is a danger.
A couple of years ago. I had been helping someone out over a few months. There had been counseling. There had been teaching. There had been phone conversations where I pointed them to Jesus and they found comfort.
But one week – as I had told this person – I was on vacation. I went up to the Midwest. I was visiting family and I saw his phone call. I saw it and tried to focus on my wife. They called again; I said …Nope I gotta focus on my wife. Finally, a third time… I figured it was an emergency.
“Yes, this is Pastor.”
“Pastor! We’ve got a problem. My wife said this, and I think she’s wrong. Can you please tell her so?”
Well…I’m kind of on my vacation.
Please, pastor? You’re the only one that can help.
Actually. No. God can help. Right now, I’m working on my family and I’m working on connecting with my wife.
But God can help. He speaks in his Word. He answers prayers.
Did you try any of that?
“So, you’re not gonna help then?”
Did you know that I have never seen that person again? It wasn’t for lack of trying, but I think it highlighted an issue:
That person trusted me more than God.
And that cannot happen.
And if you trust me, or some other pastor, or some other theological speaker more than God…
That’s a weird kind of idolatry.
To be fair – we could keep going on with this list, but I think you get the point.
If you fear, love or trust a person…any person more than God, then you are just like those people in Lystra. You are committing idolatry.
If you have been committing idolatry, you need to do exactly God, the real God says and “Repent. Turn from these worthless things to the Living God.” (v14)
III. The Real God
Because the REAL GOD? He is capable of immensely more than any human being. Listen to three quick reasons that Paul gives for worshipping the Living God:
1. He made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them…(v. 15)
We aren’t just talking about some celebrity who made one platinum record, but God who forged the very minerals necessary to make the entirety of all platinum within the bellows of earth.
We aren’t just talking about some scientist who has invented a way to identify one strand of DNA, but the God who invented and distributed every single strand of infinitesimal DNA in the history of the universe ever!
God is so much more powerful than any human could dream to be.
2. He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons…and plenty of food... (v.17)
We aren’t just talking about some politician who might make your life on earth better for a bit…if they can get their laws to pass and if they don’t change their mind, but we are talking about the God
who has provided food for the whole world.
Who keeps the sun shining.
Who keeps the rain raining.
Who keeps the plans growing.
Who has given you broccolis and bananas, grapes and grape wine, corn on the cob and the corn necessary to make the Dorito!
God takes cares of you – even when you don’t believe in HIM and don’t give HIM glory – he takes cares of you.
And beyond that – God promises to take care of you for eternity.
God is so much more consistent than any human being could ever be.
3. He Fills your hearts with Joy. (v.17)
We aren’t talking about some pastor -- who might be able to help you feel a bit better…if he isn’t distracted, if his training allows and if he’s not sleeping.
God is always able to help.
He’s never distracted.
He knows all things.
He has never slept and will never sleep…not even for an afternoon nap.
God is constant.
And God brings the ultimate joy! Because…who else do you know that can save you from sin?
No human can save from sin.
Only God himself who came down as a human to save us from sin.
Want proof? Easy.
Most humans die. Many humans that many have looked up to over history have died:
Julius Caesar? Dead.
Stephen Hawking? Dead.
Jesus? He died, but then…He did the one thing that no living human has ever been able to do – He brought Himself back to life.
This is Jesus.
This is the REAL, LIVING GOD.
If you put your faith in Jesus, He provides complete, absolute forgiveness for all your sins of idolatry.
For all the times you have trusted others more…
For all the times you have feared others more…
For all the times you have loved others more…
Jesus brings absolute forgiveness.
IV. WHAT NOW?
Look at how this lesson ends. Paul tells them that he’s not God and the people get rather upset.
In fact, what happens is that the riot group from Antioch meets up with the people who plotted in Iconium, they make their way to Lystra – rile up the crowds there and suddenly:
The very group that had previously been worshipping Paul, drag him outside the city.
They throw him on the ground.
They shout violent and vicious things.
They pick up stones.
They hurl them at his head.
He falls to the ground in the heap.
And the people? They cheer.
They high five.
They leave feeling pretty good – they’ve killed that God lover.
But Paul? He’s not dead.
God has given him life.
And he gets up.
And he brushes himself off.
He meets up with Barnabas and keeps preaching about Jesus.
Friends, you do the same.
Keep trusting in the TRUE God.
Keep preaching about the TRUE God.
And the true God…He will give you Life. Amen.