Acts 17:24&25 “God ‘does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.’”
When I had my first goldfish we got a semi-globe that used to round the bulb in a railway carriage and the fish seemed content to swim round and round that for a few years. Then we built hutches for my mice and rabbits and guinea pigs. We had chickens in the 1950s and Dad built a large coop for them with wood from railway sleepers. When an estate of prefabricated houses was built in Merthyr many of the townspeople went to examine them. These prefabs had indoor toilets. So what do men build for their gods? They build temples for them with their own hands. In other words you erect as lavish a building as you can afford with gold leaf and precious stones and glowing cedar wood and silver statues and ornate furnishings. The temple staff are dressed in the most ornate clothes and they lead the daily ceremonies. Great sacrifices are regularly made to these gods, and as a result the god of this temple is persuaded to descend and live in the shrine that’s been set up to honour him. The gods identify with their representations – the idols that are there at the heart of the building. So worshippers are drawn there in order to please these gods. They believe that their activities and requests will be far more acceptable there than if they repeated a prayer before they slept, or stroked the bite-sized idols they had in their homes. People also made pilgrimages from a distant part of Greece, maybe one of the islands, and they came with a special gift to the god at his temple. You paid the priests a big fee and then you would be welcomed to sit in the special seats at the front, very close to the god.
That is what these Greek teachers and philosophers listening to Paul in Athens, who made up the couple of dozen members of the Areopagus, had always thought. They were no more sophisticated than are the guardians of Lourdes today, or the priests of the millions of Asian temples. It is a big business today, as in Athens where there were many hundreds of temples, and thousand of shrines and altars. “We’ve got the best temples on the planet!” That was their boast. The finest of Grecian craftsmanship had erected them. There was the Parthenon, and the Temple of Minerva made of Pentelican marble with its 46 Doric columns adorned with sculptures and friezes, while its inner walls were adorned with the choicest paintings. No expense had been spared. And Paul had arrived in Athens from Philippi where the group of Christians were meeting in the open air or packed into a large room with the smell of cooking still in the air, locking the door because of the suspicion and hostility of the authorities and grumbling neighbours. These Christians had nothing to offer in terms of architecture and magnificence, and yet who today knows what these Greeks believed who went to temples and hoped in those gods. Nobody worships them today and yet there are ten million gospel congregations in every part of the world today meeting with the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul was there on Mars Hill speaking to these hostile men about the one true and living God. He has told them that God made the world and everything that is in it. He is Lord of heaven and earth. That was great positive message with which the apostle began his proclamation. Then you will notice how he progresses. It is with a couple of negative statements and one great positive affirmation.
You ask, “Why did he need to be negative? Please be positive.” But in the Garden of Eden God said to our first parents, “Help yourselves to all the fruit from all the trees of the Garden, except just one. Don’t take fruit from that tree.” And even the Lord Jesus was negative in the Sermon on the Mount wasn’t he? “Don’t be like the Pharisees. Don’t pray on street corners. When you fast don’t cover you face with ashes. When you give don’t do it publicly. Don’t let you right hand know what your left hand is doing. Don’t worry. Don’t build your house on sand.” And when God gave his law there were just two commandments that were positive. The rest said, “Thou shalt not . . .” We learn from the negatives. Don’t be drunk with wine, wherein is excess, but be filled with the Spirit. As Tozer would say, “You have to breathe in the oxygen, but you also have to breathe out the poison.”
THE ONE TRUE GOD DOES NOT LIVE IN TEMPLES.
The Old Testament Christians were made only too aware of this truth. Solomon’s temple was designed by Jehovah. He gave the king the blueprint and every single detail of colour and fabric and measurement and the materials, the wood and metal, and it was all followed. Then there was the auspicious opening and dedication of this temple. Solomon stretched out his hands to heaven and this is what he said, “Will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!” (I Kings 8:27). That was a theme believed and preached to the people in the Old Testament. The Temple was an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace – God dwelling with them day by day. Isaiah says at the opening of the very last chapter of his prophecy, chapter 66, “This is what the LORD says: ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. Where is the house you will build for me? Where will my resting place be?” You imagine the universe, its billions of galaxies and a billion, billion suns. God says, “That will do very nicely as my throne and I will use the planet earth like the wooden foot benches in many of the pews to rest my feet.”
The Jews in Jesus’ day were fixated with the Jerusalem Temple, and they were outraged when Stephen the first martyr quoted that very verse from Isaiah 66 and condemned them for loving the mere sign of God’s dwelling place more than what the sign was pointing to, the reality of Jesus the incarnate God living among them. They mocked Christ and destroyed him for saying that if the temple were demolished then in three days he would build it again. He wasn’t talking of the shadow of God’s presence, but the living reality of the God who had come and tabernacled himself among them. They might kill the man Christ Jesus but he was greater than death and on the third day he would rise again. Stephen scorned them, quoting Isaiah 66 and then crying out to them so boldly, “You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him!” (Acts &:51&52).
Our God cannot be confined to temples made by hands. It would be like putting a whale in our goldfish bowl. Or as impossible as squeezing an elephant into a rabbit hutch. Or keeping an eagle in a chicken coop. God is both eternal and infinite. Now each of those terms, eternity and infinity, describes different aspects of God’s nature. Eternity is more about time, while infinity is more about space. When we say God is eternal, we are saying that he transcends time, and when we say God is infinite, we are saying that he transcends space. Therefore, God is not only timeless but also endless, boundless or limitless. And, because he is without end, God is not measurable or quantifiable. Therefore, neither science or mathematics can account for him.
Thou art a sea without a shore, a sun without a sphere;
Thy time is now and evermore; Thy place is everywhere
For many centuries, our church fathers had a statement that they regularly invoked in discussions of matters like these. They said simply these four words, “God is always greater”. In other words, they resorted to declaring that no matter how hard we try to fathom and sum up and describe the nature of God’s immensity, we will for ever fall short.What respect we need for the majesty of the Author of the Universe? Isn’t that the reason we feel a dagger in our hearts when people shout out the name Jesus, or Christ? We worship a Lord who is so much larger and vaster than the entire universe.
There is that remarkable verse in Ephesians chapter 4 and verse10. It is about Jesus Christ and his coming into the world and finally his ascension to the throne of God, and Paul says this about our Lord, “He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe” The man whom people are blaspheming is the one who fills the whole universe! There is nowhere in earth or heaven where he is not. How immense does that make Christ? Consider the fact that you can fit one million earths inside the sun, and the sun happens to be quite a small star. There are other stars in our galaxy that are 800 times larger than the sun. The next closest star to us beyond the sun is four light years away. There are 200 billion stars in the Milky Way – our own galaxy – and there are a 100 billion other galaxies! It is beyond our imagination to grasp the immensity of the universe, but our God is bigger. We just cannot comprehend how great is God.
The incident is told of Augustine, the old preacher and theologian, who had been thinking of the immensity of God, and that day he was walking along the beach and observed a young boy who was a simpleton, carrying a bucket and running back and forth pouring water into a hole he’d dug. Augustine asked him, “What are you doing?” The boy said, “I’m trying to put the ocean into this hole.” And it was then that Augustine suddenly realized that he had been trying to put an infinite God into his finite mind, trying to fit the whale into the goldfish bowl.
So, if God is that big, then how small does that make us? But there is a better question to ask. If God is that big, then why does he care so deeply about people who are so small? God’s immensity makes me feel tiny, but at the same time, God’s immensity also makes me feel loved. Let me explain why. When I read King David’s words in Psalm 8, I gain an appreciation for what God’s size has to say about my own smallness. “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens…when I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?”
And God’s answer to David’s profound query is . . . “Yet you have made him a little lower that the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; and you have put all things under his feet.” So, the answer to the question about the relative worth of tiny people like us is this. We have value because God has set his love on us. He made us valuable when he created us, and redeemed us, and joined us to Christ, and he will glorify us together with him.
And, why should God do all this? I mean, why in the world would God be so prodigal in his love for us? Well, the answer to that question is earthed in his immensity. You see, God cares for us in that way because just as he is infinite spatially, God is also infinite affectionately. Whatever God is, he is that immeasurably. Therefore, this means that just as God is infinitely great with no north, east, south, west, a sea without a shore, so he is also infinitely gracious, patient, generous, merciful and loving! So, God’s immensity, though profound and humbling, has much to say about him and about us. His love is as great as his power and knows neither measure nor end, and so there is hope for the dirtiest speck in his creation. There is a poem I have come across and I don’t know who wrote it. Maybe you can find out. It goes like this . . .
“Lord”, I said, “I want to be your man, not my own,
So to you I give my money, my car, even my home.”
And, smug and content I relaxed with a smile
And whispered to God, “I bet it’s been a while
Since anyone has given you so much, so freely.”
His answer surprised me. He replied, “Not really;
Not a day has gone by since the beginning of time
That someone hasn’t offered meager nickels and dimes,
Golden altars and crosses, contributions and penance,
Stone monuments and steeples. But why not repentance?
The money, the statues, the cathedrals you’ve built,
Do you really think I need your offerings of guilt?
What good is money that’s meant only to salve
The hurting conscience that so many of you have?
Your lips know no prayers; your eyes no compassion.
Oh, but you go to church when church-going is in fashion.
“Just give me a tear, a heart ready to mold,
And I’ll give you forgiveness and a message so bold
That a fire will be stirred where there was just death,
And your heart will be flamed by my life and my breath.”
I stuck hands in my pockets, and kicked at the dirt.
It’s tough being corrected; my feelings were hurt.
But it was worth the struggle to realize the thought
That the cross isn’t for sale and Christ’s blood can’t be bought.
So, how big is your God? The user-friendly god is apparently not very big, because those who serve him feel free to change his word at their discretion and offer to him worship that really pleases and entertains them. They live as they please and get encouragement from preachers to do so. Is our God big enough to cause us to want to please him in worship? Is he big enough to cause us to mortify our stubbornness and obey him? Is he big enough to cause us to mourn our sins? Is he big enough to cause us to respect every commandment he’s given us?
We pay lip service to the vastness of God, and yet we’re not happy people because we’ve got our minds set on stuff. Stuff captivates us, and we put our confidence in stuff and God. We have our job and God; we have our husband and God; we have our strong body and God; we have our good job and God; we have our home and God. We have our ambition for the future and God, and so we put God as a plus sign after something else. Our problem is that we are putting our confidence in stuff and not in our immense God. You’re made in the image of God, and nothing short of God will satisfy you. As soon as I set my hopes and comforts upon stuff and status and people then something will die in my heart. How dare I think that I can make a life in my way and then presume that God will be pleased to come and fill it. “I will build such a temple that God will be bound to move in!”
2. THE ONE TRUE GOD IS NOT SERVED BY HUMAN HANDS.
If you feel strong and self-sufficient and morally in sync with God, and able to serve God and make independent contributions to God and his work, then there’s bad news in Paul’s words to the Areopagus, “God is not served by human hands as if he needed anything.” In other words, if this message is true about God, then autonomous and self-sufficient people who think they can negotiate with God are deluding themselves.
This is what threatened Paul in his early career, and made him hate Christianity. He was an ambitious Pharisee. He’d reached a status in religion and morality beyond all his peers. His whole identity hung on serving Jehovah with resolve and strength and rigor and accuracy and beyond any one of his contemporaries. This was his identity. This was his boast and significance. And then a message about God came to him that said, “God is not served by human hands as though he needed anything. We are saved by the crucified hands and feet of the Son of God, and only in that way. All we can do is put our empty hands out to God and ask him for mercy.” Well, Paul didn’t think that this was good news. It was shattering. His whole life was blown to pieces. “What have I worked for? Why all this study of God’s law, and all this moral striving if God cannot be served by my hands?” It would be like spending your life pumping iron only to discover that the final contest of life is calculus not physical strength.
So the radical Christocentric redemption of Christ didn’t come to Paul as good news. He kicked against it. It was shattering. All his own religious accomplishments were horse manure. It was the worst news he had ever heard as a self-confident moral and religious man. But on the other hand, this message of the accomplishment of Jesus Christ is the best news in all the world – that God is not served by human hands as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all people life and breath and all things. If you are weak and helpless and sinful and know that any good you do, you need God’s help to do, then this comes as the best news in the world. That God is the kind of God who cannot be served, but loves to serve. His message to the world – the Christian gospel – is not a “help-wanted” sign, but a “help available” sign. It is not that God needs a man like you but you need a God like this! God is not seen as the one we do things for, building temples and making expensive sacrifices, as though he needed anything, but God is the one gives to all people life and breath and everything. We are debtors to him for simply everything. To those who feel cool and morally self-sufficient this is bad news. It threatens to take away every basis for boasting. But to those who feel morally desperate and hopeless and lost before a holy and infinitely righteous God, this is good news. Maybe a God who doesn’t need me would be willing to be for me the one I so greatly need.
Consider one word of the Lord Jesus to confirm that now we are at the very core of the Christian gospel. The verse I am thinking about comes straight from Jesus himself and it’s found in the gospel according to Mark chapter 10 and verse 45. It goes like this: “Even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Here we have Jesus himself telling us why he came into the world. This is the central Christian claim: Christ, the Son of God became a Son of Man and lived among us. Why? Did he come to recruit workers and servants for God? Did he come like an employer’s company scout going to a job fair at a college to find bright, young, able workers to help him keep his company afloat and prosperous?
No. That is not why he came. The words of Jesus are crystal clear: “The Son of Man did not come to be served . . .” He did not come in need of us. God is not served by human hands as though he needed anything – neither is his Son, the Son of Man. It’s the same point. God is not served and Jesus is not served, as though they were in need of anything. Jesus came, not because he needed us, but because we needed him.
Specifically, how do we need him? There are hundreds of ways that we need him. But he tells us the main way in the rest of the verse: “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” We need to be ransomed. Every one of us. And there are no exceptions. What we need most of all is someone who will be our substitute and die in our place. Because the Bible says, “the wages of sin is death.” When a glimpse of honesty lightens up our lives for a moment then we know that we’ve neglected and offended God very deeply. He’s not been first in our lives. He hasn’t even been second or third or fourth. He’s been an also ran and we don’t care, and we that this is a great offence to him.
So we’re in no position to serve him, or impress him in any way with our abilities or our moral prowess. We’re not thinking that we’re doing God a favour by being good and going to church every Sunday. We’re rebels at the root, and God is not our loved and honoured and trusted and treasured king. We’re captive to sin and destined for a righteous judgment. That is why our greatest need is not for health, or wealth, or marriage repair, or a job, or for obedient kids. Our greatest need is someone to die in our place and ransom us from the penalty and power of sin, so that we escape God’s judgment and enter eternal life.
So Jesus asks us please to listen, “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.” Jesus is the very one we need above all other needs. God sent his only Son to pay the price that we could never pay: an infinite ransom price because of an infinite debt to God because of our sin. Only the Son of God could pay that. Only he is infinite.
So the incredibly good news today is that God is so great and so self-sufficient that he cannot be served as though he needed anything, and his Son Jesus Christ is so great and so valuable that his death in our place is a completely sufficient ransom to pay all our debt to God. Less is insufficient; more is not needed, for more than all we find in the blood and righteousness of Christ. We are confronted with this . . . will we believe it, and will we receive God’s serving us by not sparing his Son and see this as the most precious gift in the world? Believing . . . Receiving . . . Not serving with our hands and so getting into heaven that way. Serving with our hands come later. It is the fruit of Jesus giving his life as our ransom, making us right with God. God sets us right through the death of his Son in our place and we receive this right standing, this peace and acceptance and hope not by working for God, but by trusting in his work for us.
What then is the Christian life? What does it mean to be a Christian? How do you live as a Christian? Well, it doesn’t mean to become a Baptist. It doesn’t mean to become a confirmed Anglican or to have done an Alpha Course. Those labels don’t make anybody a Christian. They never have and they never will. Being a Christian means, in the words of John Piper, getting up in the morning and saying in your heart: “Jesus, you are my Saviour, my King, my Friend, my Treasure, my Hope, my Joy, my Guide, my Protection, my Wisdom, my Advocate, my Strength. I need you, I love you, I trust you to be all that for me today. I know you have given me muscles and a mind and a will. I know you intend for me to use them all in doing things that are just and loving and God-honouring. You have shown me that without you my will is rebellious, my mind is darkened, and my muscles obey the rebel will and the darkened mind. And so, Lord Jesus, I need you every day. Work for me today – not because I deserve it, but because you paid my ransom. Serve me today – to subdue my will, so that I love what you love and find joy in doing your will; to bring light to my mind, so that I think the truth and see you for who you are, infinitely valuable and beautiful. And so may my body magnify you whether in life or death.” Coming to God each day just like that shows that we’ve seen it . . . we realize what it is to be a real Christian.
The good news today is not that God offers to keep us from death or suffering. He doesn’t. Or that God is alive and gives us what we want. He doesn’t. The good news is that God works for those who wait for him, even in suffering and death. He forgives all our sins, he removes all our guilt, he takes away all our condemnation through the death of Jesus. And in the place of sin and guilt and condemnation God works for us – he makes himself our Servant and good Shepherd not only at the cross but every day of our lives. He gives us all we need richly! He pursues us with goodness and mercy. He works all things together for our good – even the hardest things. He never leaves us or forsakes us so that “we confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid. What will man do to me?’” (Hebrews 13:6). And in the end he will carry us safely through death and bring us home to heaven and everlasting life and joy. And there too he will serve us. He will never surrender the all-glorious position of his infinite self-sufficiency as the overflowing fountain of life and joy. His closing word to you today is this (Matthew 11:28-30): “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” The yoke of faith and obedience is easy and light because even when he puts it on us he carries it. “Fear not, for I am with you, be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand” (Isaiah 41:10).
19th July 2015 GEOFF THOMAS