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.

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