Acts 17:29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone – an image made by man’s design and skill”
Paul has explained to these Greek philosophers the nature of the one and only God, the Creator and the Sustainer of all of life. Now the apostle advances and he proceeds to tell them how this God should be worshipped. Let’s pause for a moment and make this observation concerning . . .
1. THE COURAGE OF THE EVANGELIST.
How brave was the apostle Paul. What a gutsy evangelist, utterly unafraid. In this incident that we are considering in Acts 17 the apostle reminds me of Daniel in the lion’s den. A number of factors make his bravery outstanding. Consider that he was all by himself, and that he was standing and speaking in Athens itself, not a Greek fishing village, but in the very heart of the mighty Greek culture. In that city he was on Mars Hill, at a meeting of the Areopagus, required to give an account of himself by this council of the leading philosophers and aristocrats of the city. He was explaining to them the truth of the Christian religion that he’d been preaching in the past weeks in the city market place. All of his hearers were idol worshippers – without exception, but he didn’t flinch to show to these leaders the total contrast between their worship and the worship that the one true and living God required. There was no statement he made to the effect that “these Greeks liked to worship the gods that they believed in in their way, while he preferred to worship Jehovah God in his way. They were all different paths but they were leading them all up the same mount.” Nothing like that at all! The path the Greeks were taking was leading them up Mount Olympus where all the gods fought and made love and cursed their opponents and blessed their yes-men. Paul’s path required Christians to go up Mount Calvary where the Son of God was giving himself as a ransom to obtain our forgiveness because he loved us in spite of our sin. By the risen Christ alone we come to God. We are told in the 18th verse that in the market place “Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.” He was determined to know nothing else in his proclamation.
Again we see Paul’s courage because surrounding him on Mars Hill were three of the most imposing idols in the entire city of Athens, all of them depicted the goddess Athene the patron saint of the city, after whom the city was named. He was preaching in the shadow of this intimidating triad, but he was fearless. He had told Timothy, “God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline” (2 Tim. 1:7). There was fist in age an ugly ancient statue of Athene (which its worshippers claimed had fallen out of the sky from the planet Jupiter) and so it was venerated for it alleged origins and antiquity. Another was quite a contrast, made by the most famous of Greek sculptors, a man named Phidias and it was made out of ivory and gold. The third statue of Athene was huge, the size of Nelson’s Column, and in it Athene was portayed as a warrior queen with a long spear in her hand. Sailors twenty miles out to sea in the Saronic Gulf could see the sun glittering on that spear.
Paul was preaching in the shadow of those revered idols and he told those idol-worshippers straight, “we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone – an image made by man’s design and skill.” Paul was simply declaring our timeless message, that God had sent his Son into the world in the fulness of time and he is the divine being, our Lord and Saviour. The choice before us is the worship of Jesus Christ or some kind of idol. You cannot have them both. Of course in a democracy we maintain certain freedoms, denied and made illegal and punished by many different kinds of totalitarian regimes. In Aberystwyth the Muslims may freely worship every Friday in a building off Llanbadarn Road that they are using as a mosque; the cults may hold their worship services. There are occasional visits from Hare Krishna, and so on. Freedom to gather and evangelize is important in a democracy governed by men, but within the Christian church we are governed by God and we are limited into giving him what he requires. “Worship me in this way . . . this kind of service gives me delight . . . did I say that I wanted such an activity as you are performing?” So here we see first the exemplary courage of the apostle Paul.
2. WHAT IS WRONG WITH IDOLATRY?
Image worship, you understand, is making and telling a lie about God. This is what makes it so terribly serious. God is full of incomparable glory while the idol is made like corruptible men and beasts. That idol is visual deceit! God is the invisible Spirit while the image is material and visible. That again is a lie! Let’s summarize what’s wrong with idolatry . . .
i] Idolatry is an attempt to control God. Some of you know the Catechism’s definition of God: “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth.” The God presented to us in that brilliant answer is an immense God. Then we further learn from the testimony of Scripture that this God is triune, the Father is God, the Son is God and the Holy Spirit is God. These three persons are one God. Wow! We have no experience of such a God when we look around us. Everything else we see is one, and one alone. Again, everything around us had an origin, but this God is without a beginning. There always was Father, Son and Holy Spirit. So the God of the Bible is different, and he can seem almost inaccessible and remote, and here there is danger. I mean that thinking of God exclusively as infinite and omnipotent and invisible can result in a reaction, in a kind of counterpoise, in order to bring him close to us by making an icon of God. And eventually this is an attempt to control him, to reduce him, to manage him, to bring him down to size. Idol makers are attempting to bring the Almighty down to manageable proportions so that they can control him. “We’ll get him inside the four walls of a temple; we’ll put him within a statue. Then we know always where he is; we make him accessible to us and we go to him there when we please; we do something for him there so that then he can do something for us, and then we leave him there, and get on with our lives.” But the reverse is in fact the case. The truth is that God controls us; we live and move and have our being in God. Our life, movement and character are all in God. He is sovereign to save and bless. Of God, and through God, and to God are all things.
There was an incident in the Old Testament (in fact it is in I Samuel 4) when the Israelites were fighting and being defeated by the Philistines, and so the Israelites tried a last ditch attempt at victory. They brought the ark of the covenant into the camp. They were treating the throne of God as a good luck charm, and when the people saw the ark coming along they whooped and jumped with glee, but instead of a victory over the Philistines there was a second defeat, and the ark was captured by the Philistines as booty. The ark by itself was powerless. It became an ornament, a mere box made of acacia wood with a gold top as soon as the Lord disassociated himself from it. He identified with it as long as he saw fit, but once it became an idol God quit the box! There was an Indiana Jones film called the Raiders of the Lost Ark and there the ark was imagined to be like at atom bomb, and if it were discovered somewhere in the Middle East today it would have preternatural powers. No! It would be a dusty old box and nothing more. That is true for every image of God that people build. God is free to totally ignore it. “You’re on your own folks!”
So in history we can see all sorts of representations of God, like Stonehenge, totem poles, idols, some carved and embellished with paint, gold leaf and precious stones – in these ways men were feebly grasping at the God who inhabits eternity! The Old Testament Christians knew the God who had spoken to them through the prophets. They heard his voice from Sinai, the God who there established his tabernacle while just outside it there was an altar of sacrifice.
This was the way in which God had been meeting with them for 1400 years, and yet throughout these centuries he also was preparing them for something better. The way to himself that God had showing them at that time was incomplete – throughout the Old Testament. That incompleteness was always before them while the promise of the one who was one day to come, who would bruise the serpent’s head, was yet unfulfilled. No Messiah yet. Do you see how that incompleteness was displayed in the Temple in a special way? I am talking about the Holy of holies, in God’s inmost room. Behind the curtain that separated it from the outer sanctuary, in that little room there was a single seat, God’s throne whose top was made of gold. It was called the Mercy Seat. But no one was sitting on that seat; no one ever sat there. It was vacant. No man, not even the high priest on one day in the year, would sit on that holy seat. It was a prophetic visible statement. In other words, one coming day God was going to send Someone made in his own image, to occupy that throne in this world, exercising his power over demons, and creation and disease and death, and his name would be called Wonderful Counsellor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. Of course God was with them in the Old Testament time, but one day God would come really close and tabernacle among them, pitching the tent of his body in their valley. The seed of the woman would come and crush the head of the serpent. He would come at his own time, the fulness of time, and all their attempts to bring him closer by making a golden calf or worshipping the brazen serpent would never bring him any nearer, but rather drive him away. We cannot control God. What else is wrong with idols?
ii] Idolatry fails to capture the majesty of God. So to the Old Testament Christian pagan idols were disdained. No respect was given to them at all. They were a hoot. How could anyone be so ignorant as to worship an idol? Hear the psalmist in Psalm 115; “They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but they cannot see; they have ears, but cannot hear, noses, but they cannot smell; they have hands, but cannot feel, feet, but they cannot walk; nor can they utter a sound with their throats. Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them” (Psa. 115:5-8). There is no divine majesty about an idol! Listen to Isaiah in his famous 44th chapter in his derision of idol worship. It is wonderful poetry and magnificent literature: Isaiah is talking about the man who makes and worships idols. “He cuts down cedars, or perhaps took a cypress or oak. He let it grow among the trees of the forest, or planted a pine, and the rain made it grow. It is man’s fuel for burning; some of it he takes and warms himself, he kindles a fire and bakes bread. But he also fashions a god and worships it; he makes an idol and bows down to it. Half of the wood he burns in the fire; over it he prepares his meal, he roasts his meat and eats his fill. He also warms himself and says, ‘Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.’ From the rest he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships. He prays to it and says, ‘Save me; you are my god.’ They know nothing, they understand nothing; their eyes are plastered over so that they cannot see, and their minds closed so that they cannot understand. No-one stops to think, no-one has the knowledge or understanding to say, ‘Half of it I used for fuel; I even baked bread over its coals, I roasted meat and I ate. Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left? Shall I bow down to a block of wood?’ He feeds on ashes, a deluded heart misleads him; he cannot save himself, or say, ‘Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?” (Is. 44:14-20). What wonderful holy disdain for the utter folly of idol making and idol worship. Paul tells the Romans that men “worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator – who is forever praised” (Romans 1:25). When the living God appears and gives conviction and life and illumination and a new birth then people destroy their idols. Unconverted idol worshippers flee away from their icons to the clefts and crags of the rocks, away from God’s consuming fire.
You see what is wrong with idols? Say you make an idol of Jehovah in the form of a mighty bull with great horns and shoulders, then how can that image convey the compassion of God or the pity of Jehovah? Say you carve an idol to look like a gorgeous woman, can that image convey the justice and righteousness of God? Our God’s attributes are many; he is not simply the god of strength or of tenderness or of beauty or of righteousness or of pity or of love. He is all of those graces, and many more, and an idol can convey a couple of those attributes. How can you worship . . . worship some inadequate pathetic idol who needs to be washed and vacuumed each week? All idols are subject to decay and to woodworm and theft and redundancy. But God says, “I am the Lord. I do not change.” The Lord is the same yesterday and today and for ever. God is sovereign majesty and we can’t have him just where we put him, in our grasp, under our control. He will surprise us! He will humble us! We will give us the wine of astonishment to drink! We will reel and stagger like drunken men. All we do lies naked and open in his sight, but all that he is does not lie naked and open to any but the Son alone. No one knows the Father but the Son and those to whom the Son reveals him. So idolatry fails to capture the sovereign majesty of God.
iii] Idolatry is a failure to believe God’s covenant promises. There is no need for an idol to be set up in our meeting because of what the Lord has said; “I will never leave you . . . I am with you always even until the end of the world . . . where two or three are gathered together in my name I am there in the midst.” There is no need for someone with a vivid imagination to consider how Jesus might actually look, and then invite a sculptor to carve a statue in that image, pay him for his work and then set up that icon of ‘Jesus’ in this room. No! No way! Christ is here now, the real Jesus. A pastiche of Jesus would detract from his real presence. Imagine a husband making a mannequin likeness of his wife and putting it in various rooms when his wife was there! Would she be happy with that? Of course not. She would be insulted and angry. “You have me,” she’d protest, “Why do you need that . . . thing to remind you of me? I’m not dead and I’m not absent.”
God is not unreachable. God is not capricious. He keeps his word. We don’t have to get a telescope to look for him, or go to the radio telescope in Jodrell Bank to listen to some faint crackling sounds he makes from millions of miles away. God’s commandment is not in heaven or beyond the horizon over the Bay so that you cry out, “Who will ascend into heaven for us and bring him to us that we may hear and do his will?” Because he’s made his promises, and he is saying, “the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart so that you may do it.” In other words there is no God who is so close to his people as our Lord. We don’t see him or touch him, but he comes and speaks to us and he meets with us week by week. If you are not hearing him then there is something wrong with your walk with God. There is no need of a statue of God here today. It would be no help to us whatsoever, in fact it would be a terrific hindrance to our belief. We walk by faith not by sight.
3. WHAT ARE OUR IDOLS TODAY?
The apostle John wrote one letter to the whole church. He wrote two tiny letters to individuals but one letter to the church. He comes to its end, his final sentence of departure, and he gives them one last word. Would it be an expression of his love, or a desire for God to come and bless them in his absence? No, he scratches his head, and the Spirit of God helps him, and he says his last words. This was his final utterance; “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols” (I Jn.5:21). All of us have idols. We sing these familiar words,
“The dearest idol I have known, whate’er that idol be,
Help me to tear it from thy throne and worship only Thee.”
What are our idols? They are legion. We don’t have to scratch our heads and finally think something might . . . possibly . . . be . . . our . . . idol? A man makes an idol of his wife. A woman makes an idol of her son. She takes his occasional letters around to her neighbour and reads to that lady her son’s opinions of the government and its mistaken policies. “Help!” thinks that poor lady, “What boring tosh to write to your Mum!” Again, sport is an idol. The Welsh rugby coach is labeled our ‘redeemer.’ Sex is an idol to millions. Aldous Huxley the atheist once wrote that he and his intellectual peers objected to the ten commandments because they interfered with their quest for sexual liberation. Our nation and our language can become an idol. People will never miss a political party conference but they won’t worship God their Creator and Judge. Plenty of idols are found in a college: are university common rooms typically characterized by humility and generosity of spirit? What you will find is over-much pride, posturing, power-playing, politics and political correctness, a false tolerance that is polite towards those who agree but angry and hostile towards those who disagree. Plenty of idols exist in those ivory towers. Our idols are many. Men make an idol of a political party and economic theories. Women worship angels. Men worship automation and technologies. Teenagers worship their i-pads and i-phones. Have you sat with a few teenagers? They are all internet surfing. Conversations are odd. Their eyes glance at you and then they are glued to their screens. It rules their lives. They are living not in reality but in virtual reality through games and Facebook pictures. They do the same with living God; he is marginalized from their lives, squeezed into a corner and glanced at once in a blue moon. Then there are older people, both men and women who worship those with whom they are in a relationship. Little children, keep yourselves from idols!
We challenge all those idols. We don’t scold modern idolaters for their inferior moral standards or their mushy views of truth. No point in shouting at them. We know that they are sinning by sleeping with their girlfriends or boyfriends, but we tell them also that they are sinning because they are looking to their romances to give their lives meaning, to save them and make them better people, to give them what they can find ultimately only in the living God. Such idolatry can only lead to anxiety, jealousy, obsessiveness, envy, and resentment. Jesus Christ the resurrection and the life, the one who gives rest to those who come to him is their only hope for forgiveness, and their only hope for true freedom.
4. WHERE WE SEE THE REAL IMAGE OF GOD.
So the living God possesses a total intolerance of idols. That was the message that our brave young apostle Paul brought to the philosophers on Mars Hill. Don’t make an image of God because God has sent his own image to men, even his incarnate Son. He is the one who sits on that empty seat and he does so today ruling over us from the right hand of God. He has brought us here today away from idols to meet with him through the word. God alone has the power and the aesthetic sense and wisdom to create his very own image. Angels can’t do it. In vain the first born seraph tries to capture the image of God. “I will do it this way,” God says. “I will show you more clearly than ever before what I am like. My Son, who is one with me, equal to me in power and glory, will live among you for decades, share totally in your lives, and in him you will behold my glory – the glory of the only begotten of the Father full of grace and truth.” God was saying that he wanted no more sacrifices and offerings in the Temple. That whole dispensation was ending and that he had prepared a body for his coming Son.
So Jesus of Nazareth has come and everything he is and has said and done revealed to us God. We have no vivid physical description of him, how tall he was, what was the colour of his eyes, etc. and so every portrait of Jesus is wrong. Every picture is the result of poor, fallen, human imagination. It is a portrait merely of his human nature, but the Lord Christ was more than a man. He also had and has a divine nature. There were two natures in one person. The problem with images of God comes when you are shown portraits of Jesus. Most children’s story books deal with this problem very well. They show the reality of Jesus without offering a portrait. The illustrations in Children’s Bible Stories are not considered to be exact representations. They present the physicality of Jesus without creating an icon. You understand that looking at Jesus’ face is to worship him. We reach children’s hearts not by offering them crayons to draw Jesus but by showing them how to talk to him where he now is, listening to them.
So there are these films of Jesus, one produced by Campus Crusade with an actor playing our Lord and saying to the viewers at the end, “Come to me!” as if he were the real Jesus. There is Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion of Christ.” I know a man with no interest whatsoever in worshipping God or in listening to me talk to him about God, who swears by that film. He had seen it four times the last time I spoke to him. The film captures a sinful actor, who is being produced and directed by sinful men, who is acting the human nature of Christ, but no mortal can act the divine nature of Christ. So there is distortion. Whereas in the Bible you meet the God-man in all that he does. Jesus Christ “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” (Cols. 1:15). “For in Christ lives all the fulness of the deity in bodily form” (Cols.2:9). You freeze-frame Jesus on his knees washing the feet of his disciples. That is the fulness of the deity in bodily form. You freeze-frame Jesus making a whip and driving the cheats and thieves out of the temple, and you see the image of the invisible God, the Lord whom you have to deal with. You hear Jesus speaking of going to prepare a place for us in his Father’s house and coming back and taking us to himself, and you hear the comforting God addressing his disciples. You tremble at the warnings of Jesus about the fires that are not quenched and the worm that does not die and the wailing and the gnashing of teeth in hell and you are trembling at God. God and Jesus are one. They are different persons, but they are the same being.
I tell you, whatever we may add to our worship that God has not commanded us to add, has the fearful tendency of drawing us into idolatry. Look at an Anglican christening and all the ritual, and what the priest says about the change that has taken place in that baby when he has sprinkled water on its head! And there are many other human additions that once they get added to a worshipping congregation cannot be removed without terrible trouble and splits.
What need do we have of adding things to our worship? We can’t see with our eyes the Jesus who is with us now today, but we can hear him speak. Letters and comments came to me about the messages of last Sunday, and it was clear from them that the Lord was speaking to young and old people alike. Remember the great commandment given to us on the Mount of Transfiguration? “This is my Son whom I love. Listen to him!” His Spirit works by the word, gives life and light and understanding in the word and this is the means that the Spirit uses in order to open people’s hearts for worship. True worship is our actively adoring the Father, our Creator, Sustainer, God of providence and Saviour, through his Son. His Spirit is praying in us and for us and is drawing us to hear God and dialogue with God. So our worship is both spiritual and physical worship. We present our bodies to God as living sacrifices. That is physical. We say, “Take my lips, and my hands, and my feet, and my heart, and my intellect, and I will be ever, only, all for thee.” That is physical. As we worship Christ we worship God made flesh. I exhort you to have a heart that praises God, a heart from sin set free. But I also exhort you to present your physical bodies to God in acts of worship. We are together the body of Christ, not a statue!
Let me tell you of a young man who prepared a place of worship in his room. He set up on the wall a photo of Salvador Dali’s painting of Christ on the cross with planet earth in space spinning at his nail-pierced feet. Then the young man put two candles each side of it. Then he put a little bench in front of it. There was no Bible. He was seeking to create a ‘mood’ for worship. You walk around churches and you see this done everywhere, an alcove for worshipping God with certain ornaments and pictures and crucifixes and muted light coming from a stained glass window and a faint odour of incense in the air, all in an attempt to create a ‘mood’ for worship. I am saying that if you don’t have the Lord Christ in your heart, if your hopes are not in the finished work of the Lord Jesus alone as your only basis of forgiveness and eternal life, then you are deluding yourself with trust in any religious feelings you might have of being put in the mood. Jesus Christ has put God in the mood to accept us, and bless us, and so only by the living Christ, not by pictures of him or crucifixes of him, or music about him, but having him as our mediator with God, our advocate on our behalf can we worship him in Spirit. He takes away our coldness and forgives our wandering thoughts while in God’s presence, and our muddled theology, and our selfishness in prayer and our weak conviction of sin and our lack of strong love, and then he makes our worship, the worship we feebly give God in Jesus’ name, acceptable and pleasing to God. That worship is a fragrant offering to God because it goes to God through the living Christ.
I want to encourage you today in your worship. If you have been a Christian for any length of time at all, then you realize that the further you walk along the road to Christian maturity your faith is like a mustard seed, and how desperate is your own sin. You say from your heart, “Lord it is my chief complaint that my love is weak and faint.” You ask yourself, “Have I ever really worshipped God at all?” The publican as he left that temple on that day, having beat his breast and looked down into the dust saying, “God be merciful to me a sinner,” crept away from that Temple his tail between his legs, thinking, “Surely there’s little hope for a sinner like me. How will I begin to worship God?” But Jesus says that he went away, justified, declared righteous by God, because he had borne testimony before God of his conviction of how he had sinned and his need of divine mercy.
Listen to John – “Little children, keep yourselves from idols!” Listen to Moses and the psalmists and prophets warning of the folly and danger of idol worship! Listen to Paul, “We are God’s offspring and we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone – an image made by man’s design and skill.” I warn you that if you reject the preaching of the gospel of the crucified, risen Christ then the horrible alternative could be some sort of idol or another, and finally your own ideas, “I think of God like this . . .”. You are pretending to be wiser than God, who will have his people instructed not by dumb images but by the lively preaching of the word. This is crucial. God through the power of preaching, through the foolish message we preach, will have believers saved, and at the same time bring to nothing the wisdom of this world. Listen to the Word of God. Don’t make your own image of God. Attend to the pure preaching of the word because that’s the way God through the Spirit leads his people. If you have problems with the preaching in a gospel church then you probably have problems with God. Deal with them on your knees in the presence of God.
4th October 2015 GEOFF THOMAS