Acts 17:16-21 (NIV)
16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. 18 A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. 19 Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.”21 (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)
Tonight, I want to address one of the most impactful ideas I have come across (beyond the gospel) in a while and I am completely in debt to the writing and preaching of Tim Keller in his book “Counterfeit Gods” and his many messages on the topic. It has opened my eyes to see why I do what I am doing and why others do what they do. It has helped me see clearly why I and other do the things we do.
Most of us are completely blind to this reality even though it is one of the major themes of the whole bible.
This is the issue of idolatry. From this passage, we gain a great insight into the identification of idolatry, the nature of idolatry and then the key to overcoming idolatry.
So, let us dive right in.
1. Identifying Idolatry (Seeing behind everything)
In our passage it says that while Paul was in Athens he saw Idols everywhere, and we might be tempted to say what does this have to do with us today in the 21 century? I mean, Athens is literally full of statues and Idols, it was an ancient and superstitious society, we have moved on from there and there are not many idols around Jo’burg today right? Well, no.
You see, Luke, in acts, uses a very unique word for see here in this passage. Luke could have used other Greek words that mean to see, however he doesn’t he uses the word Theōreō which we get our English word theorise from. It essentially means to see behind or below everything.
Paul theorised, or saw behind everything was idolatry. And although it was statues in Paul’s day the idols have remained with us till today.
You see in Scripture; an idol is essentially a good thing that we have turned into a divine thing. For example, Aphrodite was the goddes of fertility and her son Eros (sexual love), now fertility and sexual love, are good things, the problem is that when we make these our ultimate things the things we gain our meaning from that they start to destroy us.
We were never made to get our happiness, meaning, significance from the things of the world. And so when we try to they end up owning us and enslaving us and destroying us.
An idol is not simply a statue we bow down to it is the thing that we worship other than God. And church everyone worships! Even the atheist; he will worship his intellect, or relationships or other good things.
Keller put it this way;
“…every person, religious or not, is worshipping something – idols, pseudo-saviours – to get their worth. But these things enslave us with guilt (if we fail to attain them), or anger (if someone blocks them from us), or fear (if they are threatened), or drivenness (since we must have them). Guilt, anger, fear, and drivenness are like fire that destroys us.
Church, we today, like in Athens live with idolatry everywhere, and it is the cause of much of the problems we see in our society.
Which leads me to…
2. The Nature of Idolatry (Idols are everywhere)
Now Athens, had (some commentators say) some 30000 gods! That means that everything was an idol.
And now let’s be real that is the sign of an opulent, but also a desperate society. It was a society where any desire could be met, yet every desire was left wanting because it cannot be fulfilled in this life. Therefore, the number of idols grow and the depth of the idolatry deepens. The problem is that the depth of the desperation, and violence and despair grows as well.
I want you to see that what the Bible is warning us against 2000 years ago is just as prevalent today; we make good things ultimate things! We make them the source of our meaning, our hope, our happiness and then wonder why we feel desperate and drained, and venerable.
Behind most sins, and most of our problems is idolatry; we are worshiping something other than God and it is destroying us.
Some of us in fact have many idols, things in our lives that are driving us; that are not God, and we are enslaved to them. It could be sex (if we can just have the right sexual experience then my life would matter), or tribe/race (my people are inherently better than others), it could be a cause (if we could just liberate people) it could even be success (if I make just so much money or achieve this reality then life will be good and I will be happy).
Humans are idol factories by nature.
Now as I have said none of these things are bad in themselves, it is just when we make these things the source of our happiness, or worth, or significance or hope that they enslave us, and destroy us, turning us into beasts of humans.
The first key to overcoming our own Idols and the idolatry of the culture that we find ourselves in is to know that it is there.
Church it is there! Everyone suffers from this! Everyone is seeking meaning from something, and ultimately that seeking meaning from something other than God is destroying us our relationships and everyone around us!
So how do we actually overcome this?
3. Overcoming Idolatry
I want to talk about this in two capacities, firstly is our own hope from our personal idols, and then how to free others from their idols.
a.) Overcoming Personal Idolatry
The way we overcome our idols, and the only way we can do this is as Paul was advocating in this verse; Paul preached the Gospel and the resurrection of Jesus Christ – Vs18
This might be an overlooked passage; but it is crucial, as the only possible way to overcome our idolatry is to full our hearts with Christ and the gospel and the hope of the resurrection.
You see the only way that you can overcome your idol is not to deny it, to simply know about it, and then deny yourself, you have to replace your love of that idol, you have to see your true salvation, hope and significance in another. If not you will simply change the nature of your idolatry.
This often happens to Christians, we come to the gospel and get saved, however, still love our old Idols and because of this we will just religiously justify our old ways.
An example of this would be that before we were saved we had our idols in power and victory; we found our significance in these things, we get saved, and realise that being brutal at work and dealing with people harshly is unbecoming of a Christian so we change, however, let someone disagree with us theologically, etc and you will see that same beast come out. We have just Christianised our old idols.
Jacob is a great biblical example of this; he grows us as the deceiver, and literally swindles his own brother. Then has a religious experience while running away (in his experiences the ladder to heaven), however, his idolatry is never dealt with so we see this come out again (in difference ways) in his dealing with Laban (His father-in-law) or his wives (Leigh and Rachel) however, it is only when he wrestles with God and God through his love deals with his idols outright do we actually see Jacob walk differently.
The reality is right now, God will be pursuing you in the area of your Idolatry if you are a Christian; this is why he is sending trials and troubles your way; to show that your hope is Him, not what you previously though it was.
The reality is that because we worship these things, we love them, we won’t give them up until we find something (someone) lovelier to worship – that happens in Christ and the gospel.
When we can see ourselves as loved, not because of what we do but because of Christ, when we see Christ as more beautiful that our idol, only then will it break its power over us.
The goal is to see what in your sin or your addiction you are running to, to find your meaning, your happiness, your worth or your salvation etc. Then to bring the love of Christ to that, and experience His overwhelming reckless love for you in spite of that sin!
This is what loosens our love for idols, because it truly satisfies us and shows up the emptiness of the idols.
The next question is how do we do this in others.
b.) Overcoming Idolatry in Others
There is two realities that we have to get if we are going to be effective in overcoming others idolatry; firstly it comes down to how we feel about people and secondly it is how we engage them.
In terms of how we feel, we must pick up the same attitude that Paul had, which we see in verse 16; Paul was greatly distressed.
Now the word used here is very interesting because it means greatly stirred, and a careful word study reveals that it is the way that God feels when he sees man in his idolatry, and is always followed by God is a jealous God.
Why is God greatly distressed and jealous of our idolatry? Because he deeply loves us! You see most of us have only a negative view of jealously, however, jealousy has a positive reality; if you are in a marriage, you should be jealous of your spouses’ love, you should not like to share it.
God is jealous because he knows that we are made for Him and he knows that our idolatry will destroy us so he is also deeply distressed at our idolatry.
Paul shared this distress, it is not a distress of superiority; knowing that you have all the answers, Paul’s distress is a distress of knowing that people are living with things that they are hopelessly blind to and hopelessly enslaved to. So it will be with love and gentleness yet a firmness over the seriousness of the situations that we will address people.
We must remember when we are addressing these realities we are undermining the ground of someone’s being. We cannot just be brutal, but with the same love that Christ deals with us we deal with others. So that is how we feel, so how do we engage them?
We go to them to the market place and synagogues, in the passage Paul went to where the people where, in the synagogues as well as the market place to engage people.
This means essentially, we have to take our faith to our world. We cannot be content to be locked up in this little church, and hope to change the world; we have to go to the world and engage them with the hope of our freedom, with the distress over their enslavement and bring hope.
Church we have an incredible and powerful love and hope in Christ Jesus, a hope that can truly change the world and free them from the things that truly enslave them, the question is if we love them enough to engage them with jealous love, and if we are willing to go into the world with this hope and actually engage people where they are?
This will define what impact we have in the world for the Gospel…