Confronting Idolatry

Posted: January 30, 2012 in Uncategorized
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Acts 14:8-20, “Confronting Idolatry”

It was during my first days in Bangalore that I was reminded of Paul’s missionary journeys through Asia (modern-day Turkey).  Hearing the Muslim calls to prayer – the Hindu songs to wake up their false gods – seeing the Hindu temples scattered throughout the city – all of it demonstrated how much spiritual darkness is in the land of India.  Paul encountered much of the same thing when he and Barnabas traveled to Lystra, as recorded in Acts 14.

It was Paul’s 2nd missionary journey.  He had already seen much fruit in ministry and much persecution along the way.  He and Barnabas even experienced persecution in their home city of Antioch as the Jews saw multitudes of Gentiles come to Christ and receiving the promises of God.  Yet despite the resistance, the disciples were filled with joy and the Holy Spirit (Acts 13:52), and they went on their way.  The 1st city Paul and Barnabas came to was Derbe, and the Jews had followed them there to stir up persecution again.  They then came to Lystra where something interesting happens: instead of Gentiles coming to faith in the One True God, these Gentiles attempted to worship Paul and Barnabas AS God…idolatrous worship.

Acts 14:8–20 (NKJV)
8 And in Lystra a certain man without strength in his feet was sitting, a cripple from his mother’s womb, who had never walked. 9 This man heard Paul speaking. Paul, observing him intently and seeing that he had faith to be healed, 10 said with a loud voice, “Stand up straight on your feet!” And he leaped and walked. 11 Now when the people saw what Paul had done, they raised their voices, saying in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” 12 And Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. 13 Then the priest of Zeus, whose temple was in front of their city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates, intending to sacrifice with the multitudes.

  1. Idolatry is rampant in the world.  It was certainly rampant among the people of Lystra.  These were utter pagans, without any worship of the true God.  When they heard Paul teaching with authority (divine authority because of the gospel), and when they saw that authority demonstrated by miraculous power, they disregarded everything Paul said and attempted to claim that he and Barnabas were the false gods of Greek mythology.
  2. Granted, the miracle that Paul performed was amazing!  A man who had been lame from birth was completely healed.  The whole city had seen this man all of his life.  They knew his physical problem.  They understood that the miracle wasn’t some sort of sleight-of-hand or some sort of trick.  When Paul commanded him to stand on his feet (due to his faith in Christ), the man didn’t merely stand up slowly – he jumped up in the air and walked around!  This wasn’t a “maybe” healing; this was complete healing and restoration due to the power of God.  In response, the people were amazed and attempted to bring sacrifices to Paul and Barnabas in order that they could worship them as gods.  The people of Lystra were lost in utter darkness and given over to the idolatry that was in their hearts.
  3. Idolatry is rampant in all the world.  It’s everywhere in every culture during every period of history.  Mankind has never been able to escape the temptation to force God into our own pre-conceived images and notions.  Although mankind generally recognizes that God does exist, mankind wants a god that can be controlled.  In our sin, we try to reverse the order of things.  Instead of recognizing that man was made in the image of God, we try to make God into the image of man.  We come up with all sorts of false ideas of God in an attempt to convince ourselves that the god we have made is worthy of worship.  We worship the gods made in our image because ultimately we want to worship ourselves.
  4. Obviously, this is no surprise to God.  Paul wrote of it in detail as he began his letter to the Romans. [BIBLE: Romans 1:18-25]  God makes it plain that no matter where we might live, His person, power, and character is revealed to every man.  Creation testifies of its Creator.  There must be someone perfect to have come up with the incredible design found throughout the universe.  Even atheistic evolutionary biologists cannot help but refer to the wonderful “design” of the animals they study.  The psalms tell us that the heavens declare the glory of God (Ps 19:1).  Yet man chooses not to worship God as God, and our thoughts become darkened.
  5. This has been the case throughout history.
    1. It happened with the early men and God judged the world through the flood.
    2. It happened with the Hebrews when they worshipped a golden calf the very moment Moses was receiving instruction from God.
    3. It happened with the later Jews as king after king raised Asherah poles and high places and worshipped the Baals.
    4. It happened with the early church.  The canon had not closed before Jesus was chastising the local churches about false doctrines and false gospels.
    5. It happens among the pagans today.  We see obvious examples in Hinduism, but every false religion among man is idolatry towards God.
    6. We even see it among born-again Christians.  Sometimes we have a celebrity culture in which man is held up almost to the point of being infallible.  We hold up certain popular pastors to an impossible position.  To call someone the “evangelical pope” is a contradiction in terms!  Other times we worship our stuff or our comforts.  It’s idolatry, plain and simple.
  6. Idolatry may be natural among men, but there is no doubt that it is sin.  It’s addressed in the 1st 2 of the 10 Commandments.  (1) You shall have no other gods before Me.  (2)  You shall not make any graven images.  Both address idolatry!  The 1st addresses the priority of God among all else.  The 2nd addresses the act of making God something that He is not.  We can do that with a hammer & chisel – we can do that with paint/wood – we can even do that in our minds.  We think: “If God is real, surely my God would do ____.  My God would never do _____.”  To be clear:  if YOUR god does not line up with the description of the God of the Bible, than YOUR god is a false god and an idol.
    1. It’s also addressed in the Greatest Commandment.  Jesus said we are to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength.  We are to love God with everything that we are and with everything that we have.  If we do not do this, and we’re dedicating that love to something/someone else, it’s idolatry.

14 But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard this, they tore their clothes and ran in among the multitude, crying out 15 and saying, “Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men with the same nature as you, and preach to you that you should turn from these useless things to the living God, who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and all things that are in them, 16 who in bygone generations allowed all nations to walk in their own ways. 17 Nevertheless He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good, gave us rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness.”

  1. Idolatry is confronted by the witness of God.  Paul and Barnabas stood up among the people of Lystra and did everything possible to stop them from committing this blasphemous idolatrous act.  They tore their clothes in demonstration of extreme grief, and declared to them the witness of God.  God is not a myth – He’s the Living God.  God is the Creator of the heaven and earth; not a part of creation.  God is a merciful God who allowed men the opportunity to repent from sin, even though we do not deserve it because of our rebellion against Him.  God has given a testimony of this fact by the creation around us.  The handiwork of God ought to draw our attention to the One who is higher than the heavens.  The fact that the already unfathomably large universe is continually expanding ought to cause us to wonder about the One who is infinitely bigger than infinite space.  His mercy in giving us life and food ought to cause us to seek out the God who is rich in love and mercy.
  2. But it’s not just creation; it’s also our conscience.  Our conscience testifies of a Law-Giver.  The fact that we inherently recognize the concepts of right/wrong and good/evil shows that there is a moral standard to the universe.  Granted, different cultures allow different things to be seen as good & evil, legal and illegal.  (The treatment of women, and the existence of slavery, for example.)  But every culture recognizes some form of good/evil. Thus there must be a standard from which all cultures have departed.  The Bible tells us that this is the result of our conscience bearing silent witness to the law of God. Romans 2:14–15, "(14) for when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, (15) who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them)" []
  3. Question: “Why don’t we worship false images/ideas about God?  What does it matter?  Maybe we’re just calling God by different names.”  It may sound like a reasonable argument, but it’s totally illogical.  Granted, God can have different names in different cultures – some of that is simply the difference in language.  Jesus is “Jesus” to the English-speaking world, “Isa” to the Arabic, “Iesous” to the Greek, “Yeshua” to the Hebrew, etc.  But the real question is: how do we know that all of those names refer to the same Person?  By comparing their descriptions & definitions. If we’re talking about the 2nd Person of the Trinity, the Word of God through whom God the Father created the world, then we’re talking about the same Jesus who died upon the cross for sin & rose from the grave and offers to save any and all who come to Him in faith.  Yet if that’s my idea of Christ & your idea of Christ is a lesser god-like being who is the brother of Lucifer & something that you can hope to achieve to become, then I can say without question that we’re not talking about the same “Jesus,” even though we might both use the same word in English.  We can call something a “table” all day long, but if we cannot agree on a definition of 4 legs & a top, then we’re not talking about the same piece of furniture, no matter what term we decide to use.  There is ONE true image of God: Jesus Christ (Col 1:15).  If we cannot agree upon HIM, then we do not worship the same God.  Idolatry is wrong because it’s making an image of God other than the one that God already provided for us in His Son.
  4. Like Paul, we still are to confront idolatry among men with the witness of God as revealed in the Bible.  That’s the essence of the Great Commission.  There are multitudes of people who are utterly lost and doomed for hell because they are deceived and blinded by their idolatry.  As we share the Scriptures with them, their eyes become open.  (Just as the Bible tells us – “Your word is a lamp unto my feet & a light unto my path” Ps 119.)  When Peter preached the word of God at Pentecost, the people were cut to the heart and 3000 were saved.  The Scriptures clearly reveal the Risen Jesus and the testimony of the Resurrection cannot be ignored.  Like Paul, we have a responsibility to confront idolatry, even in our own culture.  False images and ideas of God are made to be evident in the light of the word of God and the gospel.
    1. Is there any idolatry in your own life that needs to be exposed?  Have you submitted yourself to the razor-sharp two-edged sword of the Spirit to allow God to cut out any areas of false worship?

18 And with these sayings they could scarcely restrain the multitudes from sacrificing to them. 19 Then Jews from Antioch and Iconium came there; and having persuaded the multitudes, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing him to be dead.

  1. The witness of God will often face resistance.  Paul and Barnabas pleaded with them to stop, and the people ignored their witness.  When the apostle would not receive their worship, the masses were easily turned against him by the Jews who were following from Antioch.  The enemy does not give up easily, and around the world we can expect resistance to the gospel and much persecution.
  2. This was not the first time Paul was persecuted, and it surely would not be the last.  Of course Paul was simply following in the footsteps of our Lord Jesus.  If Jesus faced persecution, surely we can expect it as well.  In fact, Jesus explicitly told us as much. John 15:19–20, "(19) If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. (20) Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will keep yours also." []  Notice the certainty in Jesus’ words.  He doesn’t say “maybe they will persecute you,” but it’s a foregone conclusion that “they will also persecute you.”  As Paul later wrote, “Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution." (2 Tim 3:12).
  3. Believers in India definitely experience persecution as they confront idolatry in their own culture.  SIM told us that they estimate 5% of their over 1000 pastors face some form of persecution every single day.  That’s 50 pastors per day.  If you knew that someone from our own church had been jailed because of his/her faith, how fervently would you pray?  We need to remember that the “church” is far larger than our local fellowship.  Born-again Christians are suffering at this very moment.  Someone else will be persecuted as we eat our lunch today.  And on & on.  Persecution is real and we do not have the luxury of forgetting to pray for believers who face it.
    1. Yet someone says, “At least we don’t face persecution here in the USA.”  Granted, there’s no comparison between what we go through and what other believers endure every day.  (Which could be one reason why the Church is growing by leaps & bounds overseas & has fallen into lukewarmness here in the States.)  Yet we cannot be blind to the fact that persecution will come.  In our culture, freedoms are more easily eroded away and forgotten instead of being taken by force.  Our enemy is subtle, and one of his tactics is to lure the Church to sleep.  Beware.

20 However, when the disciples gathered around him, he rose up and went into the city. And the next day he departed with Barnabas to Derbe.

  1. Believers deal with persecution by perseverance.  What an amazing thing it was that Paul got back up again!  Obviously he had experienced a miraculous healing from a physical standpoint, but he also surely experienced the supernatural touch of God on his emotions as well in order to jump right back into ministry.  He didn’t take a week off to relax, or even a couple of days to recover.  He went the very “next day” to Derbe in order to preach the gospel there.  Those people also needed to hear about Jesus, and Paul wasn’t going to let something like persecution stop him from doing what the Lord Jesus had called him to do.
    1. Believers never stop witnessing for Christ – it’s simply what we do.  Will there be resistance?  Yes.  But that doesn’t change the fact that we’ve been given the Great Commission. 
    2. Objection: “Maybe we can just go to safe places.  Why go somewhere that we’re not wanted?”  Because Jesus wants THOSE people saved, too.  Jesus didn’t tell us we could pick & choose which nations to go into & make disciples; He told us to make disciples of all nations.
  2. Notice that the disciples had gathered around Paul.  Unfortunately the Bible doesn’t tell us what they were doing – but I’d love to know!  Perhaps they were praying for him – perhaps they were tending to his wounds, but all we could guess would be pure speculation.  What we DO know is that the disciples did not abandon Paul in his time of need.  To have gathered around his (supposedly) dead body would have been a public statement that they supported him…easily endangering themselves in the process.
    1. Some people wonder how they can help the persecuted church.  After all, it’s not like we can take the power away from the secret police, calm the Hindu mobs, change oppressive governments, etc.  What we CAN do is stand with them and pray for them.  We can join in the ministry of presence.
    2. What we cannot do is fall into complacency.  We dare not be complacent!  How can we even think about being lazy in our own faith when our own spiritual family is suffering?  They need more than our complacency & half-hearted concern.  They need our fervent prayers and resources.
  3. So how can we persevere?  It seems so difficult.  On the surface, it would seem to be so.  After all, if we were promoting a political party that no one wanted and we were placed in danger because of it, there’s no doubt that we might get burned out and change parties.  Obviously Christianity is not politics, but do believers who face persecution get permanently burned out & give up on their faith?  If they do, I haven’t met anyone as an example.  On the contrary, persecution tends to strengthen someone’s faith; not weaken it.  The pastors in India were filled with all sorts of experiences.  One man was the only believer in his entire village, and on occasion had to hide in a chicken coop for safety away from the mobs.  Another man was beaten and left for dead in his village (and carries physical scars to this day).  Other pastors are routinely harassed by the police.  These were not men who were discouraged in the slightest…they were full of joy!  No doubt they experienced some low emotional times along the way, but their testimony was one of perseverance and joy in Christ.  Exactly like Paul and Barnabas.
  4. So what made the difference?  I suggest that the answer is found before Paul’s 2nd missionary journey had ever begun.  Acts 13:52, "And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit." []  They were filled with the Holy Spirit!  Paul never attempted to do the work of God in his own power; he relied upon the leading and empowerment and filling of the Spirit.  There is no way Paul had the strength to face what he faced, at least in his own power.  But when he wasn’t relying on his own power, he had all the strength that he needed!  As he later wrote to the Philippians, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Phil 4:13)
    1. Are you relying upon the strength of Christ?  Have you asked in faith to be filled anew with the Holy Spirit?  Persecution makes it clear how utterly reliant we are upon the power of God.  But persecution is simply a crucible that makes things so much more intense.  We are no more independent of our need to be filled with the Spirit in times of persecution than we are in times of crisis in our marriages.  HIS strength is sufficient for all the trials we face.

Conclusion:
So we know that idolatry is rampant and to be confronted by the witness of God.  We understand that our witness will be resisted and that we are to persevere by the Spirit.  Now what?

  1. Be faithful in your own witness
  2. Pray for the persecuted
  3. Support the persecuted however you can.  We don’t talk much about financial giving on a normal basis, but this is one area that we can do so without hesitation.
  4. Go meet them & help them.

The bottom line?  There is a lost and dying world out there.  People are blind and totally given over to their depraved idols.  They face doom and eternal hell without the saving grace of Christ – and yet Jesus still died for them.  Someone has to tell them about Jesus…may it be us!  God looks around today and speaks the same thing to us as He did to Isaiah – “Who will go for Me?”  May we be the ones to answer the call!  May we be those who take up the charge of the Great Commission!  Keep in mind that persecution isn’t a sign of things going wrong; it’s a sign of things going right. When believers are persecuted, it means that the gospel is being preached and the enemy is threatened.  Praise God that the threat is not empty!  Our Lord Jesus has won the war – may He give us the strength to fight the battles that remain.

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