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 Does it Mean that God Is a Person?


An elementary truth claim of Christianity is that God is a “Person”. Not a thing. Not a principal of reason or intangible construct, and not a feeling.

But what does that mean?

We may smirk at the practice of people in the Bronze Age who constructed gods out of hand-made objects and worshiped them. This was the ubiquitous practice of the people in the Old Testament. We may (or may not) laugh at primitive people who worshiped the sun, moon,  mountains and trees.

We are not much different from them, really, when we approach God as if God is an intellectual construct or feeling that we can conceive or conjure up. We are walking in the footsteps of our primitive ancestors when we see God as something indistinct from the universe. Our concepts may be more sophisticated, but only in degree.

The same is true when we view God as an abstract idea. An abstract idea, or ideal, is still a thing. Not a thing made of human hands, but a thing constructed by human intellect.

When we construct a god, whether by our hands or in our minds, or conceive of God as indistinct from the universe, we are not perceiving God in the way He is revealed in the Bible. These are “idols” that are poor substitutes for the Person of God.

Continue reading “What Does it Mean that God Is a Person?”

Prone to Wander, Lord I Feel It


I am catching up on my Scripture reading after a 9-day vacation in the north woods where my reading was sporadic. I am reading through the Bible chronologically. I am in Isaiah and Hosea as the prophets begin to address the coming doom for Israel and Judah who have continuously wandered in their faithlessness to God since they left Egypt.

Their’s is a spotted history, marked more by failure than success. The began grumbling and complaining soon after God led them miraculously out of Egypt. They made an idol of a golden calf even as Moses was meeting God on the mountain to receive God’s covenant. They failed to drive all the wicked people out of the promised land as God instructed, and they were influenced by them all the days they inhabited that land.

They set up idols in the high places where they offered sacrifices to the foreign gods despite all the efforts of God to establish a people for Himself to whom He could pour out His blessings and, through them, bless all the nations of the earth (such was His promise to Abraham). The cycle of sin and straying from relationship with God was growing ever worse as God raised up prophets to warn them.

The promised land, filled with milk and honey and all good things as it was, afforded the people wealth and comfort. In their abundance, they wandered further still from God.

“Israel is a luxuriant vine that yields its fruit. The more his fruit increased, the more altars he built; as his country improved, he improved his pillars.” (Hosea 10:1)

Those altars were the structures on which they sacrificed to gods – idols. The practice of sacrificing on altars seems strange to us today. We don’t make golden calves or build altars to gods. We aren’t like them. Right?

Continue reading “Prone to Wander, Lord I Feel It”

From There… God Changes Us

Red Rocks in Arizona by Chris Fraley


“But from there you will[1] seek[2][3] the LORD your God and you will find[4] him, if you search[5] after[6] him with all your heart and with all your soul[7].” (Deut. 4:29) From where? What is this verse speaking about? Continue reading “From There… God Changes Us”