How Does a Living God Relate to a Pagan World?

We have our gods, though we don’t give them names or ascribe human personalities to them.

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.”

Acts 14:15-18

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.

Continue reading “How Does a Living God Relate to a Pagan World?”

What Was God Doing with Time and Eternity?

Why would God set up the universe so we would be cognizant of time?

The Christian understanding of God is that of “the” ultimate (maximal) Being, the architect and creator of everything (all that is seen and unseen as we say). God is the First and the Last. Reality does not exist outside or apart from God. Space/time (the universe we know) was created by God.

Christians also believe that God is transcendent (other) from the universe He created. When the writer of Hebrews says “the universe was formed at God’s command” and “what is seen is not made out of what is visible”, he is saying that God initiated the material universe from His immaterial, preexisting being by His command (will) out of nothing.

Nothing?

Yes, no material thing.

This is hard for us to grasp. It suggests that God is, in essence, immaterial – like unembodied mind or pure consciousness or something like that. It’s a mystery. We can’t go back prior to the beginning and “see” what reality or God was like, but we understand that the material universe had a beginning, which means that God is something other than material.

The beginning of the universe is confirmed by science. The universe began from the point of singularity that can be calculated to a point of mathematical precision. Before that point, which we can trace to the millisecond, we can go no further. This is a boundary beyond which our ability to fathom the material universe cannot go.

God, therefore, exists “outside” (transcendent from) the space/time continuum that we know as the universe. He is somehow different and distinct from it. As best as we can determine, He is timeless and immaterial

This concept of God differentiates Christianity from all the Eastern religions and from all forms of pantheism and paganism.

Though we may struggle to know “what God is like”, we can know something of God through the material reality He created in the same way we can know something of an artist from the art he creates. Knowing something about the artist from his works, though, isn’t the same as knowing the artist himself.

Still, we are not left completely in the dark. Paul says that God made Himself evident in the world He created. (Rom. 1:20) The fact that something exists instead of nothing is indicative of a creator God. We can know something of God by the very fact that He created a material world that is separate and “other” than Himself.

In a material world, we have to strain to find mutuality “others”. It doesn’t come naturally. We are very conscious of our separateness – from each other and our creator – so much so that we have some difficulty connecting with (emphasizing) others, and we are tempted to believe we have no creator.

Not being of the same “substance” as God (timeless and immaterial – what Paul calls “heavenly” or “spiritual”), we know the material world much more intimately than the realm in which God exists (not that He doesn’t also exist in this material realm – though He transcends it). Yet, being made in God’s “image” suggests that we also have some ability to connect with His immateriality in some sense.

I say these things in preface to my thoughts today, which come from the Old Testament: the book of Genesis, and the book of Ecclesiastes. My thoughts begin with the beginning:

“And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years….'”

Genesis 1:7

This isn’t the actual beginning, but very close to it. It is the first thing God does after creating “the heavens and the earth” (which is the Hebrew expression that means the universe). His first act of creation after forming the material universe was to call into existence “lights in the expanse of the heavens”, and He did it for a purpose.

(Not that these separate aspects of creation were necessarily a linear progression in the sense of completely separate “acts” of God. We might read these passages that way, but it isn’t the only way to read them.)

What was the purpose for which God established lights in the expanse of the heavens? To separate day from night and for signs, seasons, days and years – to establish measurements of time.

Interesting…. God wouldn’t need those things to measure time. What is time to God? Why did He create ways to measure time?

It seems obvious that He created the ability to measure time for us. Why, though, should we even want to measure time?

Maybe a better question is: why would God want us to measure time?

We don’t really question our need to measure time. We just do it. We take time for granted, and our “need” to measure it

But why?


And why would God set up the universe that way so that we would be so cognizant of time? He obviously desired it and designed the very universe to make us cognizant of time, but why?

Continue reading “What Was God Doing with Time and Eternity?”

Nothing New Under the Sun

The writer of Ecclesiastes said about 1000 years before Christ that “there is nothing new under the sun”. People in the post modern world may disagree but there is one thing hasn’t changed.

BEIT SHEAN,ISR – JUNE 17: Visitor walks near Pillars in Ancient Beit Shean on June 17 2009. Beit She’an is one of the most ancient sites in Israel: it was first settled 5-6 thousand years ago.

“Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.”[1]

This was the explanation for the philosophers wanting to hear what Paul had to say when he was in Athens. They brought him to the Areopagus so they could hear “the new teaching” he was explaining in the synagogues and market places.[2] They wanted to hear what he had to say, presumably, because it was new.

I have a friend who is always looking for a new way of looking at things. He is a very philosophical and thoughtful person, but he thinks he would be bored in heaven (as he imagines the heaven of clichés would be – clouds and harps… and he is probably right about that[3]).

But the writer of Ecclesiastes said about 1000 years before Christ “of the writing of many books there is no end”; yet “there is nothing new under the sun”.[4] Ironic, isn’t it, that my friend who is always looking for some new thought to chew on is no different than the Athenians in Paul’s day who were interested in “nothing except telling or hearing something new” (nearly 2000 years ago), and 1000 years before that people were doing the same thing.  Yet, what is there that is really new?

Another good friend of mine, Gary Hill, who is a chief author of the Discovery Bible (an incredible NASB Bible packed with scholarly resources for the serious Bible reader[5]), described to me how seminaries require doctoral students to choose theses that have never been covered before. The pressure to come up with something new encourages people to go searching for premises that often stray from the the narrow path that Jesus talked about, who is in his very nature the way, the truth and the life.

The desire for something ever new is nothing new under the sun. It is an age old desire that the writer of Ecclesiastes criticized 1000 years before the Athenians idolized new ideas 2000 years before post modernists championed the idea “that truth is relative and truth is up to each individual to determine for himself.”[6] The idea that each individual can manufacture his or her own truth is simply an extension of this lust for something always new.

Though the writer of Ecclesiastes said about 3000 years ago that there is nothing new under the sun, the Athenians were still looking for something new 1000 years later.  Two thousand years after that, one thing hasn’t changed: people in the current, postmodern world are still looking for something new .

Oh that people would long for truth, rather than novelty, for faithfulness rather than change for the sake of change.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

[1] Acts 17:21

[2] Acts 17:19

[3] In reality, heaven is something we couldn’t even imagine. “Things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard,

And which have not entered the heart of man, all that God has prepared for those who love Him.” (1 Corinthians 2:9)

[4] See Ecclesiastes 12:12 and 1:9

“That which has been is that which will be,

And that which has been done is that which will be done.

So there is nothing new under the sun.”

[5] The philosophy behind The Discovery Bible is to empower people to appreciate the rich beauty of Scripture contained in the original Hebrew and Greek languages by gleaning insights from the original languages that don’t translate well into English. The Discovery Bible maps out all the emphasis in the original languages of Scripture.  It contains a symbol system for marking the original verb tenses that are quite different from English, adding depth and understanding of the word of God, along with other features.

[6] Postmodernism as described at http://www.allaboutphilosophy.org/postmodernism.htm

Here Today and Gone Tomorrow

What gain is there to the person who toils for the wind?


“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world.” (1 John 2:15‭-‬16 ESV)

This was “the verse of the day” today, and it’s a timely one. It’s easy to get caught up in this world, what is happening day to day and thinking about the future… in this life… and forget about or gloss over the importance of the kingdom of God.

Jesus came preaching the kingdom of God. Jesus came looking for followers. He challenged people to leave behind the things that anchored them to this world. To the rich young ruler, he said, “Give everything to the poor and come follow me.” When Jesus invited Peter and his brother Andrew, “Come follow me,” they left their nets to follow him.

But, it isn’t just about leaving things behind. The reason John urges us not to love the world is that “the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.” (1 John 2:17) Paul said the same thing to the Corinthians: “[T]his world in its present form is passing away.” (1 Corinthians 7:31) Why would we want to hold onto it?

Continue reading “Here Today and Gone Tomorrow”

Under the Sun

We chase after those carrots. When we catch one, there is always another carrot to chase.


“What advantage does a man have for all the work he has done under the sun?” (Ecclesiastes 1:3). The Book of Ecclesiastes is sobering, though it is one of my favorite books in the Bible. I was drawn to it in college because of the candid assessment of life that it reveals. That candid assessment was refreshing to me as a young adult as I surveyed life and my place in the world.

We work most of our lives to earn a living, to keep up appearances, to obtain things, to advance our station in the world, to keep our yards neat and clean. We go about our labors often without much thought for why we do it. I don’t mean that we don’t have goals. Of course we do, but our goals are temporal.

I am reminded of the carrot attached to a stick mounted on the harness of a horse. We chase after those carrots. When we catch one, there is always another carrot to chase. Often we don’t achieve our goals, and we are left unsatisfied as a result. The truth is, though, even when we do achieve our goals, we are rarely satisfied by having attained them.

The author of Ecclesiastes takes a step back from the busyness of life, as I was doing in college. The author contemplates the arc of life, the beginning to the end, and asks what it all means. We rarely do that. But, if you stop to think about it, what is the point? We labor and toil on this Earth through our 60, 70, 80 or more years, but for what? What do we get in the end?

Continue reading “Under the Sun”