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?”

Why Would God Harden Pharaoh’s Heart? And How Did He Do It?

We are not programmed to obey God so that we are able to love Him.

The Bible is a complex and rich tapestry, but we often fail to see the patterns, let alone the overarching pattern, of it. For me at one time, it was like looking at a tapestry from the wrong side – just a jumble of threads going seemingly everywhere and nowhere, without any discernible design.

At the same time, the Bible is not safe. I found it to be a harsh reflection of me when I read it for the first time. It was dangerous.

It commanded itself to me, but I didn’t always like what I saw or felt. Primarily, I didn’t like what reflected back at me about myself.

I will never forget the day in a world religion class as a college freshman that I read these words:

“For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”

Hebrews 4:12 NIV

I wasn’t a believer then, but I could see it, and it made me feel uncomfortable. Even though the rich meaning of Scripture was veiled to me at the time it reflected back to me and probed my heart to expose the worst aspects of me.

I read in the words of David today in my reading from the Psalms:

“With the merciful you show yourself merciful; with the blameless man you show yourself blameless; with the purified you show yourself pure; and with the crooked you make yourself seem tortuous. For you save a humble people, but the haughty eyes you bring down.”

Psalm 18:25-27 ESV

God deals with each of us according to our own hearts. We see Him presently “as in a mirror dimly”, Paul says, “but then we shall see Him face to face!” (I Corinthians 13:12 ESV) We see God in this life through our own reflection, which may not always be clear.

We see in Scripture our own hearts mirrored back at us, and we see God as if He were standing over our shoulders looking on. How we respond to what we see and to determines how He reveals Himself to us.

As I read through Exodus in my daily reading, I read the passage in which God told Moses he would harden Pharaoh’s heart. Moses would do miraculous things in front of Pharaoh, but Pharaoh would not be moved by them. (Exodus 4:21)

This seems odd at first blush that God would do that. How can we blame Pharaoh for his hard heart if God hardened it? Why would God even do that?

Continue reading “Why Would God Harden Pharaoh’s Heart? And How Did He Do It?”

How Should the Church Act Regarding Authority?

If we have to ignore Scripture and the character God desires to work in us, we are moving in the wrong direction!

I come back to this with a heavy sigh. I started it yesterday as the news unfolded of people breaching the Capitol building as the Trump rally changed gears. I know there were people there peacefully gathering, but a good many of them crossed the line.

As I watched the events unfold, I struggled to find some solid ground to stand on as I see people who call themselves Christians continue to support Trump regardless of what he says and does. At best, he sent mixed messages that were ambiguous enough to encourage what happened. At worst he incited insurrection, and stood by watching it happen, saying nothing until it was too late. Even then, it was a poor excuse for what he should have said.

The thing that troubles me most as I think about these things is the way Christians who support Trump and this “resistance” at at all costs ignore Scripture that is inconvenient. Paul defined the way followers of Jesus Christ should act regarding authority:

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”

Romans 13:1-2

Peter, the rock on whom Jesus said he would build his church, said the same thing:

“Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him….”

1 Peter 2:13-14

If anyone thinks insurrection is justified because Democrats are “bad” today, consider that Peter and Paul said these things at a time when their world was ruled by Nero.

Nero was a bad leader, even by pagan, Roman standards. He considered himself God. He persecuted Christians and had them publicly killed, setting them on fire at night to light the City. Peter and Paul were both martyred under the rule of Nero.

Democrats are not nearly as bad as Nero. Peter’s and Paul’s words were spoken at a time much worse than the political squabbling today. We can’t justify resisting authority because Democrats are bad – not when we consider the context in which Peter and Paul told believers to respect governing authorities!

At the same time, I am aware that people may justify their resistance on other grounds. Peter, himself, resisted the governing authority in the Book of Acts. Peter and John were arrested for preaching. (Acts 4:2-3) They were commanded not to preach about Jesus, but Peter and John refused to comply, saying,

“Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” 

Acts 4:19

They were arrested again for refusing to remain quiet. (Acts 5:20) Again, they were commanded not to speak. Again, they responded, “We must obey God rather than human beings!” (Acts 5:19) This time they were flogged and let go.

So which is it? Submit to authorities? Or boldly rebel?

It seems like a conundrum. Do we get to take our Pick?

Maybe those are not the right questions to ask. Maybe we need to be more careful to weigh the words of Peter and Paul together with their actions and divide the Word of God more accurately.

Continue reading “How Should the Church Act Regarding Authority?”

On the Delusion of Plausible Arguments, I Hold to Christ in Me

As I read through Scripture, I am always looking to understand it better. At the same time, I am listening for God to speak to me. In the process, I notice things. Like today. I noticed Paul’s statement to the Colossians:

I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments.

Colossians 2:4 ESV

Hmmm… the delusion of plausible arguments. That’s an interesting phrase…

Paul is writing to the people in Colossae, a very Greek city. He had already been to Athens where the Athenians and foreigners who visited the city spent their time telling and listening to the latest ideas. (Acts 17:21)

In our modern view, we might imagine an ancient think tank in which new ideas are explored and developed toward some greater ends. We might be tempted to see Athens as an incubator of ideas for the benefit of mankind.

Luke, the writer of Acts, was not being complimentary, however, when he made this observation. The context suggests a contrast between a desire for novel ideas and a desire for truth. Ideas for the sake of ideas and novelty for the sake of novelty may be an erudite pastime for the bored elite who enjoy comfort and privilege, but they are not noble pursuits in themselves.

Unless one has a desire to know truth, entertaining new ideas is only an exercise in futility, diversion and delusion. The ancient writer of Ecclesiastes, writing about a millennia before Paul set foot in Athens, recognized “there is nothing new under the sun” – even back then. (Ecc. 1:9) Chasing after ideas that are new for the sake of novelty is just a distraction from the truth. It is meaningless!

Paul views the sharing of ideas for the novelty of them in the same way modern people might play video games or read a book – entertainment to pass time. He had no time for such things.  

Truth had been revealed to Paul in the form of the risen Jesus, whom his people had crucified, and Paul had persecuted. Paul’s whole life was interrupted and set off on another course one day as he traveled with the intention of arresting and imprisoning Christ followers in Damascus.

Paul’s life would never be the same. By the time Paul wrote the letter to the Colossians, his motto had become “to live is Christ and to die is gain”. (Phil. 1:21)

If we can tell anything about the biographical and autobiographical sketches of Paul in Acts and his letters, we can see that Paul was fiercely and uncompromisingly concerned about truth. That attitude led him to persecute the followers of Christ with zeal when he thought the truth lay in that direction.

It was Paul’s commitment to truth that prompted him to turn in the opposite direction and accept Jesus whom Paul had persecuted as his Lord and Savior. Paul gave himself completely to be a servant of the risen Lord to the point of sharing in his own body the sufferings of Christ, as he described to the Colossians. (Col. 1:24)

Paul’s turn of phrase, perhaps, is what caught my eye as I read through Colossians this morning: the delusion of plausible arguments.

Continue reading “On the Delusion of Plausible Arguments, I Hold to Christ in Me”

Turning to the Lord, the Veil is Removed

But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.

2 Corinthians 3:16

Paul, the First Century Hebrew of Hebrews, wrote the statement above. He knew what he was talking about. Before a personal encounter with the living, risen Jesus Christ, Paul was aggressively opposed to Jesus and his followers.

He experienced life with a veil over his eyes, but he didn’t know it. That is the nature of a veil: what’s behind it is hidden. You don’t know what you don’t know until the veil is removed. When the veil is removed, a person see what was once hidden from view.

For Paul, the veil was removed suddenly and in dramatic fashion. Complete with a flash of light, a voice from heaven and blindness that was removed when the truth of Paul’s encounter was revealed (Acts 9), Paul’s experience was a bit unusual.

These words, though, are a common description for many people, regardless of the drama, or lack thereof: when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. They resonate deeply with me.

The words, though, resonate deeply within me. The truth of Christ was veiled to me for many years. I became a searcher of truth, looking in all the suspect places, until “one day” the veil was removed when I turned to the Lord.

It wasn’t a sudden thing leading up to that point. It was a process. There were markers along the way that I followed, and some gates I went through. In the end, as it seemed the pointers were directing me toward Jesus, I turned to him; and, indeed, the veil was removed.

Looking back, we might say, I was blind, but now I see.” During the process, it doesn’t seem quite like that at all.

Continue reading “Turning to the Lord, the Veil is Removed”