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"Spirit-Provoking Idolatry"

MESSAGE FOR MAY 29, 2011 FROM ACTS 17:16-34

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Read Acts 17:16-34

                This week, as we continue in the book of Acts we move into what has been called “the most important episode of Paul’s second [missionary] journey.[1]  In the last 100 years, as we in the western church have sought to bring the gospel to people in vastly different cultures, this text has perhaps been more instructive than any other in the New Testament in helping us contextualize the message of the gospel so that it can be understood and believed by people in cultures very different than ours.  As we have mentioned twice before, Paul does not address the pagans in Athens in the same way he does the Jews and God-fearing gentiles in the synagogues.  Though Paul’s message in Athens is a helpful model for presenting Biblical the gospel to people who have almost no knowledge of the Bible, the real message of the text is not in the method of Paul’s preaching, but in its content.  And the main content of the message falls under the broad heading of Paul’s response to idolatry or an idolatrous culture.  This is important to us because as an apostle, Paul sets the example for us of how to respond within our culture that is littered with as many idols as Athens.  Our idols are not of the marble or gold variety, but are what Ezekiel speaks of in 14:3 where God says of his people, “3 Son of man, these men have taken their idols into their hearts, and set the stumbling block of their iniquity before their faces...”  Ours are idols of the heart—things or people we look to instead of God to give us only what he can give.  Paul’s address on Mars Hill can be very helpful in motivating us as we work to tear down our present idols and refuse to accumulate more of them. 

Paul comes to Athens, a city teeming with idols—row upon row of beautiful, gold, silver, bronze and marble statues representing the countless idols of the Greek pantheon.  What is his response to this?  This is very important for us to know because idolatry is our most basic spiritual temptation.  Virtually any sin we commit can be traced back to an idolatrous heart.  In Romans chapter one, Paul argues that all unrighteousness is rooted in the sinner’s rejection of God (whom they can clearly see in creation) in favor of idols.  Chapter 1:21-22 says, “21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.  Paul says the essence of fallen humanity’s problem with God is–our rejection of him in favor of idols of various kind.  He says--that root sin not only brings God’s wrath, but our idol-making is itself an expression of God’s wrath as he gives fallen people over to the idols they so deeply crave.

Paul’s response to this idolatry is to be strongly repulsed by it.  Paul’s initial response to idolatry is in verse 16 here Luke writes, “Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. 

We discover why he responds so strongly to idols in his message at Athens by what he says about them and the Athenians worship of them.  Paul is all alone in Athens as he waits for Silas and Timothy to join him and he takes that time to survey the spiritual landscape of Athens, which was probably no real surprise to him.  Athens was known throughout the Roman Empire for its high concentration of idolatrous images and statues.  One Roman satirist quipped about Athens, “It was easier to find a god there than a man.”[2]  As Paul is surveying Athens, he is unable to look with indifference on these idols.  As a theologian, he understands these Athenian pagans are, like all people—born to worship and without the truth of the Bible they will by default be compelled to idolatry.  But that knowledge of the inevitable idolatry of a pagan culture--“What would you expect here among these pagans?” did not keep him from an impassioned response.  Neither did he look upon these idols with detachment--“Well, God has a lot of work to do here through me.”  Either of those would have been understandable, but those are not Paul’s initial response to these idols.

          Initially, these idols don’t elicit from Paul an analytical response.  There was nothing indifferent or detached about how Paul’s reaction to them.  His response was not fundamentally intellectual, but strongly spiritual and emotional.  “…His spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols.”  That word “provoked” indicates that Paul was deeply angered by the sight of these idols.  He got worked up—he became indignant about—repulsed by all these idols.  Why do you suppose Paul reacted that way when this scene would have hardly been a surprise to him?  We get help from that word “provoked.”  It’s never used in this particular context in the New Testament, but we do find the Greek translation of the Old Testament using this word is two very helpful contexts. The first is Deuteronomy 9:7 where Moses is preaching the Jews to prepare them for their conquest of the Promised Land.  He says, “7 Remember and do not forget how you provoked the LORD your God to wrath in the wilderness. From the day you came out of the land of Egypt until you came to this place, you have been rebellious against the LORD.”  We see this word again in Psalm 106:28.  In this Psalm, the author cites historic events from Israel’s past to demonstrate that, in spite of Israel’s rebellion, God remained faithful to them.  He says, “28 Then they yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor, and ate sacrifices offered to the dead; 29 they provoked the LORD to anger with their deeds, and a plague broke out among them.”

          Both of those texts in the Greek translation of the Hebrew use the same word Luke uses here and both of them describe God’s response to idolatry.  Luke’s use of this word here is intentional.  His point is to show that Paul’s response mirrors God’s response to idols.  Paul was indignant to the idols because God is indignant to idols.  Paul was provoked in his spirit at the sight of all these idols because that was and is God’s response and Paul—as a Spirit-controlled believer will reflect God’s response to idolatry.   Exodus 34:14 says, “(for you shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God).  God’s jealousy for the exclusive worship of humanity is so much a part of his character; it’s one of his names.  God’s name “Jealous” draws our attention to the fact that God has the absolute, sovereign and exclusive right to receive worship from his human creatures he created in his own image.  When his exclusive right to receive worship is not afforded to him by sinful, rebellious humans, his jealousy—his passion for the glory of his name is provoked.  He alone is deserving of all praise and glory and honor and when his creatures give that to something or someone else, his response is jealousy.  This is not pettiness on God’s part, any more than it would be petty for you to be angry if you discovered your spouse was cheating on you.  That kind of egregious personal betrayal is worthy of a jealous anger and that is just how God responds to idolatry.

          Another reason why God is so jealous over idols is related to how humanity is to glorify God apart from overt worship.  The Bible teaches that God created humanity in his own image and likeness so that we would reflect his image to the created order and therefore magnify him.  A portion of God’s glory would be manifest in each of his human creatures because they bore the stamp of God’s image.  Idolatry hinders and even prevents humans from reflecting God.  The reason is because the Bible teaches that God created humanity in such a way that they must reflect or resemble what we revere, either for ruin or restoration.[3]   We are reflectors by nature—this is just how God made us.  If we revere idols—that is, if we substitute things or people for God and his rightful place of preeminence in our lives, we will reflect or resemble our idols.  By contrast, if we revere God, we will increasingly reflect or resemble God. We see this principle in Second Corinthians 3:18 where Paul says, “18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”  As we worship God, beholding his glory, we are gradually transformed into the same image because we were created to reflect what we worship.

          The same truth can be negatively applied and we see this throughout the Old and New Testament in texts like Psalm 115.  Verses 4-8 says of the idols of pagan nations, “4 Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. 5 They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. 6 They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. 7 They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat. 8 Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them.”  The Psalmist is saying that if what you worship as an idol is spiritually insensitive, you will resemble that and be so dead to spiritual truth that you will not even be able to discriminate between God and dead, senseless idols. The reason is because of the spiritual axiom—humans reflect or resemble what they revere. 

          Can you see why this would bring God’s jealousy?  He created humanity to reflect him and him alone.  But, when we bow down or revere idols of any kind, we reflect them—we become like ­them.  Right now, one of the culture’s idols is Lady Gaga and it’s no accident that our culture is becoming more like Lady Gaga—outrageous and without shame.  It’s not only that because our culture has wickedness in it that Lady Gaga springs forth—it works the other way as well.  The culture increasingly becomes like their idols.  Paul is provoked in his spirit at the sight of all these idols because God, in his zeal for his glory seen in his exclusive right to be worshipped and reflected by his human creatures—is jealous over idols that steal this glory.  Those truths are, broadly speaking why God and Paul are repulsed by idols.  Now, let’s look at the truths about idols we find in this text to see what it is that incites both God and Paul’s jealousy.  In verse 18, Luke records, “18 Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection.  When the Athenians overhear Paul teaching in the marketplace about Jesus and the resurrection, their idolatrous minds hear him as a preacher of foreign divinities.  That means that Jesus is reduced to one of many possible “foreign divinities.” 

The first evil of idolatry captured here is:  Idolaters incite God’s jealousy because their worship of pagan gods implies that these idols are like God.  God is an object of worship—Zeus is an object of worship---therefore, God must be a lot like Zeus.  One of the most repeated truths in the Old Testament is the utter uniqueness of God—he must be differentiated from every other being.  2 Kings 19:15 “15 And Hezekiah prayed before the LORD and said: “O LORD, the God of Israel, enthroned above the cherubim, you are the God, you alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; you have made heaven and earth.”   Nehemiah 9:6 6 You are the LORD, you alone. You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and you preserve all of them; and the host of heaven worships you.   Psalm 4:8 “8 In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety.”  Psalm 86:10 “10 For you are great and do wondrous things; you alone are God.”  Isaiah 37:20 “ 20 So now, O LORD our God, save us from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you alone are the LORD.”  2 Samuel 7:22  22 Therefore you are great, O LORD God. For there is none like you, and there is no God besides you, according to all that we have heard with our ears.”   2 Chronicles 14:1111 And Asa cried to the LORD his God, “O LORD, there is none like you to help, between the mighty and the weak…  Psalm 86:8  8 There is none like you among the gods, O Lord, nor are there any works like yours.  Jeremiah 10:6 -76 There is none like you, O LORD; you are great, and your name is great in might7 Who would not fear you, O King of the nations? For this is your due; for among all the wise ones of the nations and in all their kingdoms there is none like you.”

          Are you getting the idea that God’s uniqueness is a truth he wants to be made crystal clear? To group God in with any other creature is to denigrate him by robbing him of his utter uniqueness.  Yet, this is what idolaters do.  Often, they will acknowledge the God of the Bible and Jesus, but in their idolatry, they make him one of many gods and that provokes God and it provokes Paul.  God is jealous to be worshipped as the solitary, Sovereign of the universe who will never share his glory with another so called “god.” Another truth about idolatry brought out here that provokes Paul’s anger is found in verses 19-21.  Luke writes of Paul, “19 And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” 21 Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.”  Another evil of idolatry is:  Idolaters incite God’s jealousy by their worship of “ gods” that are objects of mere intellectual novelty, but not genuine worship.  

These men in the Areopagus were always accumulating more knowledge for the sake of accumulating knowledge.  Their gods were not really objects of worship, but instead intellectual novelties. They didn’t want to know more about Paul’s God so they might worship him over other gods.  They were simply curious and wanted to know more.   They have no concept of God’s sovereign authority.  To them, this God doesn’t sit on a throne but rather--on the pages of a book.  To them, he was a benign or harmless concept which they sought to investigate.  He is an object of curiosity, not worship.  There are people like this today—even in evangelical churches.  These people really enjoy learning theological facts and the wonders of Biblical truth—it fascinates them to learn more about God, but they don’t know him personally and certainly don’t worship him with surrendered lives.  They like the classroom, but are lost when it comes time to sing praises.  God stimulates their intellect, but doesn’t control their hearts.  Unlike these Athenians, Paul’s great learning about God led him to deeper, more profound worship of him—not intellectual curiosity. 

Another evil of idolatry as practiced in Athens that provoked Paul is:  Idolaters incite God’s jealousy by worshipping gods that are not transcendent.  Paul is contrasting the God of the Bible with these pagan gods of Athens and says in verse 24, “24 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.  The pagans understood their idols as having a need to be worshipped or sacrificed to—they allegedly consumed the food offered to them.  In many ways the idols were only bigger, more impressive versions of the idolaters.  There was no sense in which they were transcendent beings who were in a wholly different category than their worshippers.  Contrast that with Psalm 50:9.  Beginning with verse nine, God says, “9 I will not accept a bull from your house or goats from your folds. 10 For every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. 11 I know all the birds of the hills, and all that moves in the field is mine. 12 “If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and its fullness are mine.”

The God of the Bible is transcendent—he is qualitatively different than us—he doesn’t need us, we need HIM!  He has no intrinsic need of our worship, but he created us and therefore owns us and has a right to our exclusive worship.  The gods of the pagans lived in earthly temples.  When Solomon dedicated the Jerusalem temple he said, “27 “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built!”  Solomon knew that God was transcendent—he didn’t live in houses built by men—the heavens are too small to contain God!  When these Athenians worshipped their pagan gods, they were giving their devotion to “gods’ only slightly removed from them.  When they could have been worshipping the God who is above all—who dwells in unapproachable light, before whom sinless angels must veil their face—whose glory is lethal to humans, they were instead worshipping needy, creature-like images.  Tha’s pathetic. And it provokes God’s jealousy.

A final evil of idolatry and why the idols in Athens provoked Paul is: Idolaters incite God’s jealousy because they worship gods they create.  In verse 29 Paul says to these pagans, “…we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.”  Worshipping a person or thing that idolaters create in their minds is a twisted reversal of God’s design.  God’s arrangement is—God creates worshippers—worshippers do not create gods.  And yet we create our gods because they allow us to be the center of the universe.  We create gods that serve us—that give us pleasure—rather than we giving God pleasure.  The gods of the Greek Pantheon often utilized shrine or “sacred” prostitutes because sexual rituals were an expression of worship to them.  Wasn’t that convenient--that this particular god just happened to require this kind of worship?  You may wonder, “But what about those people who punish themselves and bring pain to themselves in the service of their idols?”  That’s just a matter of delayed self-centered, gratification.  These people believe that if they abuse themselves now—or strap a bomb to their body and get blown up, they will get to heaven.  It’s still SELF-centered because it involves their attempts to be good enough or do enough in order to get to heaven and find ultimate pleasure.  These worshippers are ultimately concerned about their own glory, not God’s.  Their suffering for their god is very self-serving because in their minds it makes them deserving of pleasure based on their sacrifice, not Christ’s.

People love their idols because they can control them and get what they want by means of them.  Paul in Ephesians 5:5 says, “5 For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.   Paul equates idolatry with covetousness or the desire for things you don’t have but think will make you happy.  If only we could only have a cabin—we’d be happy. If only I could marry so and so, I’d be happy.  If only I could hold a certain job, I would be fulfilled.  That’s idolatrous because it’s looking to things or people to do what only God can do—bring us ultimate joy.   Even many church-going people are guilty of this when they create God in their own image.  You’ve heard expressions of this before.  They claim to worship the God of the Bible, but say things like, “My God would never send people to hell.”  Or, “My God would never allow that tragedy to occur.” Or, “My God would never deny a person financial wealth.  Those people are ascribing qualities to God that are simply not consistent with how he is revealed in Scripture.  They have rejected the God of the Bible and re-created him in their own image and likeness.  Their values become his values.  Their priorities become God’s priorities.  Their way of relating to people is God’s way of relating to people.  Paul is provoked by this because he knows and serves the God of Psalm 115:3.  3 Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.  God does not reflect us—we are to reflect him.  He will not allow us to define who he is—he gave us a Bible full of truth about him to do that.  As we close, let’s think about some questions for our application.

First, what spiritual weaknesses and vulnerabilities do we bear because we have come to resemble what we revere? For instance, over the past 60 years, there has been an explosion in media.  Believers in our country are daily barraged with radio, television, film, the internet and other media and the vast majority of the content of that media bears two qualities.    Much of it expresses a worldly view of life and much of it is if not evil, is at best, shallow.  Many in Christ’s church revere media in the sense that we see and hear far more of this shallow, worldly content than we do Scriptural truth in our reading, praying, meditating, studying and fellowshipping with Christ’s church.  Is it any mystery why the church in North America is rightly criticized for its worldliness—it resembles the world and its shallowness—we tend to have an inch-deep, user-friendly God who asks very little from us and is satisfied with even less?  We resemble what we revere and based on the amount of worldly and shallow media many of us take in, compared to the amount of truth about God; it should come as no surprise that we are at times frustrated by our spiritual shallowness and our worldliness.  Think through what your greatest spiritual frustrations are in your walk with God.  If spiritual shallowness—you are unwilling to suffer or even earnestly seek after God—or if your life looks too much like the world, could it be because you spend more time with shallow and worldly media outlets than the Lord of the universe?  The devil loves it when our standard for the media—“I won’t watch it if it’s profane.”  To be frank, he doesn’t need it to be profane—there are plenty of profane people around.  What he wants from Christ’s church is shallowness and worldliness—which we increasingly manifest as we spend more time with media than we do with God.  That kind of church is no threat to him and will fill the corridors of hell with very disappointed people at the judgment.

Second, what do you covet?  What do you think would make you appreciably happier?  Ephesians 5:5 equates covetousness with idolatry.  Do you covet a promotion at work, more money, more talent, beauty, athleticism, a spouse or significant other, a bigger house, recognition, sex?  If we believe those things will make us happy, then we are not finding contentment in God who alone can give us lasting joy.  When we covet something as our idols, we are also saying to the world that God is like more money, a bigger house or anything else we think can make us happy because what we idolize in this way, we are equating with God.

Finally, are you provoked like Paul by the idolatry you seen in our culture?  Paul shared God’s jealousy for his name and that caused the idols of Athens to make him angry.  Is our zeal for God’s name so strong that it causes us to burn with indignation at the rampant idolatry of our culture?  If we are controlled by the jealous Spirit of God, the idols of our world will incite our anger.  The fact that so many of us barely even notice the idols of our culture, much less are angered by them tells us that God’s name and fame are not nearly as important to us as they should be to a person who claims to be his child.  May God give us grace to go to the cross—receive forgiveness and find the strength in Christ to throw down our own idols out of a desire for God’s glory and may we covet God alone for our lasting joy. 

[1] Fitzmyer (1998:600) as quoted in Bock, Acts, ECNT p. 558

[2] Bruce, The Book of Acts, p. 277

[3] This is the language of Greg Beale in his excellent book, “We Become What we Worship,” IVP 2008, p.307.


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