My thoughts today are based on the story of Paul and Barnabas while they were in Lystra, a city in central Anatolia, part of present-day Turkey. While Paul was speaking, his gaze came to rest on a man listening to him speak who was “crippled at birth”.
Paul saw the man had faith, so he loudly told the man to stand up. (Acts 14:8-10) The man sprang up, and the crowd was awed, saying, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” (Acts 14:11)
The people in Lystra were pagans. They worshiped Roman gods and, perhaps, other gods as well. They started calling Barnabas Zeus and Paul Hermes and began making preparations to worship them.
When Paul and Barnabas realized what was happening, they were appalled! They rushed into crowd, saying, “Don’t do that! We are just men like you!” (Acts 14:14-15 (paraphrasing)). Then, Paul addressed his pagan audience like this:
“[W]e bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things[i] to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.”
This is, perhaps, the first sermon preached in the early church to people who are not Jews. The pagans did not believe one God. They didn’t understand Mosaic Law, the concept of sin or the prohibition against worshiping idols considered to be false gods.
Thus, Paul didn’t address them as he did his Jewish audiences. He didn’t appeal to Mosaic Law, or accuse them of sin, or call them to repent.
Just as the Gospel is good news to the Jews, it is good news to the pagan Gentiles. The message, however, is different. Paul urged them merely to “turn from vain things to a living God”!
By “vain things” Paul meant their gods, the idols that the pagans worshiped. Instead of calling them idols, as he would have done to a Jewish audience, he referred to them descriptively by their character – their worthlessness, emptiness and utter inability to accomplish anything.
We have a hard time relating to idol worship in the 21st Century. Idol worship is so Bronze Age! Our ancestors long ago stopped believing in gods and sacrificing to them, right?
Tim Keller, in his sermon, The Gospel for the Pagan, paints a different story. These pagans were not so different from us.
In a polytheistic society, of course, people worshiped and sacrificed to a variety of gods. There was no supreme god. People had to decide what gods to worship. Thus, people chose gods to worship based on how those gods could help them.
A a merchant might sacrifice to the god of commerce. A farmer might sacrifice to the god of agriculture. Other people might sacrifice to the god of art and music, or love and beauty, or a combination of gods, depending on what was most important to them.
Keller says that sacrificing to the god(s) of choice was, in effect, worshiping the things people valued most. By sacrificing to the gods of commerce, agriculture, art and music, love and beauty, etc., they were worshiping whatever it was the god represented. Whatever a person sought help for was the thing from which they sought meaning in life, hope and fulfillment.
Thus, says Keller, “vain things” (idols) are things that “promise fulfillment, but leave you empty”.
We may think of ancient pagans as a brutish and unsophisticated lot, but we are no different than they in the sense that we sacrifice for the things we think will fulfill and satisfy us. The only difference is that we have dispensed with the representative gods.
The person who values career, or accomplishment or being respected by peers as a matter of first priority will sacrifice for those things. The person who thinks that love, romance and family are the highest forms of meaning will devout primary attention to those things. The person who loves art and music will sacrifice for those things and from them seek meaning and fulfillment.
We aren’t that different, really from our pagan ancestors, though we might scoff at the idea of gods, as in idols. We have our gods, though. We just don’t call them names or ascribe human personalities to them.
Paul’s message to the pagans in Lystra was, “These are worthless things!” They can’t fulfill you. Only the Living God can do that. His message has more application to us in the 21st Century than we might think at first glance.
God, of course, made all things we value. Those things are good, but they are empty substitutes for the God who made them. They are vain pursuits by themselves, and they cannot ultimately satisfy us.
Paul might have been thinking of Ecclesiastes when he addressed the pagan crowd. “Vanity[ii] of vanities! All is vanity.” (Ecc. 1:2)
Ecclesiastes is not an overtly “religious” text. It reads like something a more modern existentialist would write. Indeed, it has been a prominent theme in literature and music. Shakespeare, Tolstoy, T.S. Elliot, Hemingway, George Bernard Shaw and Ray Bradbury, among others, paid homage to Ecclesiastes. Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder and Los Lobos have paid tribute to Ecclesiastes as well.
Ecclesiastes praises the gaining of wisdom, but even wisdom, in the end, is nothing but vanity (meaninglessness and futile) if all we do is live for a short time (like a breath or vapor) and die. Even seeking wisdom, ultimately, is “striving after wind” (Ecc. 1:17) because of death.
Wisdom is futility, because the fate of the wise and foolish, alike, is the same. (Ecc. 2:12-17)[iii] “There is no lasting remembrance.” (Ecc. 2:16)
We may read from the ancient Book of Ecclesiastes and think, “But there is a lasting remembrance, and what we are reading is proof of it!” We read Shakespeare’s sonnets and Keats’s Ode to a Grecian Urn, both of which express a longing to be remembered, and we might agree to disagree. All is not vanity; we remember.
But, let’s get some perspective here. Keats died 300 years ago. Shakespeare died over 500 years ago. The writer of Ecclesiastes might have died 2500 years ago.[iv] Even if Ecclesiastes was written by Solomon, who is sometimes attributed to it, he died about 3000 years ago.[v]
We don’t really know. History gets a little fuzzy the further back we go (which is part of my point here).
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
The ancient writer of Ecclesiastes was, perhaps, more candid and honest than we tend to be about our place in the universe. The words, “nothing new under the sun” were written perhaps over 3000 years ago.
What is 3000 years? Is that a long time? Or a short time?
It depends on perspective. We seem to think for all of our modern sophistication and technological advances that we are wiser than the people who came before us, but what will people remember of us in 3000 years?
(If humankind is even still around in 3000 years!)
For perspective, consider that the Kish Tablet is widely considered to be the oldest confirmed writing at about 5600 years ago (3400 BC).[vi] We have virtually no memory longer ago than 6000 years.
We have to sift through layers of earth even to get clues to our existence much more than a couple of thousand years ago.
Civilization began only about 6000 years ago, but humankind can be traced as far back as 200,000 years according to modern science.[vii] The first human-like beings may date back 2,000,000 years.[viii] Thus, the traceable history (remembrance) of humankind is only three percent (3%) of the totality of the existence of humankind and three tenths of a percent (0.3%) of the history of the existence of human-like beings. That means that most of the “remembrance” of humankind is lost.
Let’s take it a step further.
Life, itself, may have begun as long ago as 4,000,000,000 years.[ix] Thus, the existence of human-like beings is only five one hundredths of a percent (0.05%) of the history of life on Earth, and human history is traceable for only 1.5 millionths of a percent (0.00015%) of the history of life on Earth.
Our entire known history is barely a wisp of vapor in the eons of time that life has existed on earth. Our history barely registers on the historical timeline of human-like beings, which, itself, is but a breath compared to history of life on Earth.
Now consider that our brief existence will end long before the ultimate demise of life on Earth. According to the science, the universe will eventually peter out in a Big Crunch[x], heat death[xi], Big Freeze[xii] or be torn apart and swallowed up by dark energy[xiii]. Long before that, human life will cease on Earth despite our best efforts to prolong it.
The eventual fate of the universe may depend on whether the universe is “open”, “closed”, “flat”, or something else, but life will end long before that outcome is realized, and life will struggle in the “tribulation” of those changes in the universe that snuff it out.
Christians believe also that the world as we know it is going to end[xiv]. Of these things, the Bible and science “agree”.
When we consider the history of people, and the utterly brief existence of any one person in the context of human history and life on earth, we realize how meaningless, futile and vain it all is, especially if there is nothing else to it.
To what do we owe any gods? What fulfillment or satisfaction can we pinch out of our sacrifices to things that can not begin to have any meaning in the grand scheme of things?
To this inevitable, indisputable problem, Paul has an answer – “a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them”, including us. In past generations, Paul says, God allowed all the people of the Earth to “walk their own ways”. To another pagan crowd in Athens, Paul added this:
“[God] gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him.”
Paul goes on to say, “Yet [God] is actually not far from each one of us”, as even the pagan poets have sensed; for “[i]n him we live and move and have our being”. (Acts 17:28 (quoting Epimenides of Crete))
It’s funny that we might think of ourselves more highly than ancients did in the grand scheme of things. Of course, we have accomplished much more than they, right? Our skyscrapers are monuments to our own delusionary thinking in this respect like a grand anthill might be to a colony of ants.
We put our proverbial eggs into baskets that cannot begin to hold the meaning, value or hope that we ascribe to them. The answer for our own existential angst and longing is the same as the pagans in the 1st Century. Only a Living God can rescue us from the futility and vanity of our lives.
[i] “Vain things” is translated from the Greek word, mátaios, which is derived from mátēn, meaning “without purpose of ground”, aimless, fleeting (transitory) and ineffectual. It is translated variously “vain, unreal, ineffectual, unproductive; practically: godless” and futile, useless, vain things and worthless.
[ii] Also translated meaningless or futile, from the Hebrew word, hebel, meaning “vapor, breath”. It is variously translated breath (5), delusion (2), emptily (1), emptiness (2), fleeting (2), fraud (1), futile (1), futility (13), idols (7), mere breath (2), nothing (1), useless (1), vain (3), vainly (1), vanity (19), vanity of vanities (3), vapor (1), worthless (2).
[iii] “So I turned to consider wisdom, insanity, and foolishness; for what will the man do who will come after the king, except what has already been done? Then I saw that wisdom surpasses foolishness as light surpasses darkness…. And yet I know that one and the same fate happens to both of them. Then I said to myself, ‘As is the fate of the fool, it will also happen to me. Why then have I been extremely wise?’ So I said to myself, ‘This too is futility.’ For there is no lasting [forever] remembrance of the wise, along with the fool, since in the coming days everything will soon be forgotten. And how the wise and the fool alike die! So I hated life, for the work which had been done under the sun was unhappy [evil] to me; because everything is futility and striving after wind.”
[iv] See Ecclesiastes on Wikipedia.
[vi] See Oldest Known Writing in the World at oldest.org.
[vii] See How Long Have Humans Been On Earth? By Elizabeth Howell for Universe Today, January 19, 2015.
[viii] See How Did Humans Evolve? By Becky Little for History, March 5, 2020.
[ix] See Frequently Asked Questions about Evolution at Evolution on PBS.org.
[x] See Big Crunch on Wikipedia.
[xi] See Heat Death of the Universe on Wikipedia.
[xii] See Future of an Expanding Universe on Wikipedia.
[xiii] See Big Rip on Wikipedia.
[xiv] Matthew speaks of “famines and earthquakes in various places…. [of which]l these are but the beginning of the birth pains” (Matt. 24:27) and “Heaven and earth will pass away” (Matt. 24:35); Luke speaks of “signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress … because of the roaring of the sea and the waves…. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” (Luke 21:25-26); Peter says, “the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved….” (2 Peter 3:10);