By Pastor Glenn Pease
Does it ever bother you that good things that should happen don't, and bad things that shouldn't happen do? Dr. Larry Crabb whose book Inside Out was a great seller tells of the parents who decided to enroll their 13 year daughter in a Christian school. One of the teachers introduced their daughter to drugs, and she went on to develop a major drug problem which threw the whole family into chaos. Dr. Crabb tells of the respected elder in the church who molested his niece and caused her to grow up with all kinds of problems in sexually, which damaged her marriage.
Another Christian couple moved because of a great promotion, but they left the church where their children really got involved. When they moved the children never felt a part of the new church, and the they drifted from the Lord. Dr. Crabb is illustrating what we know to be true, and that is that there are a lot of awful things happening in the Christian community, and the question is why? Why are so many bad things happening to good people? This has always been a major issue, and Acts 17 opens up our eyes to a new way of looking at this issue.
Paul is experiencing a lot of bad things in this chapter. He is threatened by a mob and forced to leave two towns. He is deprived of the freedom to preach and the right to be with his companions. Paul, like his master, was despised and rejected of men and they would have killed him had they gotten their hands on him. Now we find Paul in Athens waiting for his companions to catch up with him. Verse 16 says he was greatly distressed to see the city was full of idols.
We pass by this and do not notice that Paul was not merely distressed, but he was greatly distressed. The Greek word is paroxumo from which we get the word paroxysm. It is a word we seldom use because we seldom have any occasion to do so. It refers to the most intense emotion we can describe. It is a fit, and attack, a violent convulsion of anger. It does not refer to just getting mad, but to a sharp intensity of emotion beyond this. This is the same word used in the Greek Old Testament to describe God's anger at the people of Israel for making the golden calf. It describes His wrath.
This word is rare in the New Testament. Paul is the only person ever connected with this word and its intense emotion. Here it is used to describe its emotion, and Paul used it once in I Cor. 13:5 when he said love is not easily provoked. Love does not lose its temper and go into a raging fit. These two references are all there is in the New Testament. It is rare because it is a rare experience. I suppose it is possible to live a lifetime and never feel this intense disturbing emotion. Why does Paul have it in this text? Because of the great idolatry he saw.
Let me suggest that this should still be the most madding thing to the Christian mind. But the fact is, idolatry is so in that we do not even see it, and the result is that Christians do not get intensely emotional about it and fight it. The consequences are that we see bad things happening to good people because of the power of idolatry. Paul suffered from both the Jews and the Gentiles because of idolatry. The Jews even had the right God to worship, for they worshiped the God of revelation, but they locked him into a legalistic system that made him just as limited as those who locked their God into a marble statue. There God was not alive and able to speak to them revealing His love in Jesus Christ. Their God was just like a dumb idol who never responded, and so when Paul came with a message from the living God they ran him out of town.
We tend to dismiss idolatry because we think only of those who have visible forms of idols. This is still a part of our world, and it is amazing that people in the modern century have been just as foolish as were the pagans in the days of the prophets. Jonathan Goforth, missionary to China, told of how a flood came and water entered the temple and began to soak the feet of the idol. As the water rose the small god of clay began to get soft and finally tumbled into the water. He describes his eyewitness experience: "I saw him after the floods had abated. O pitiful sight! His neck was broken, his ears were well nigh soaked off, his nose needed repairs. One arm was broken off at the shoulder, the other was out of joint at the elbow, several fingers were severed from the hands, and his spine was visible. It was only a straight stick plastered with mud. When I saw that wicked god, I did think those Chinese would never be so foolish as to reinstate that god again, but they did. As soon as the floods passed away, the old women went around collecting for temple repair. They repaired that temple outside and in, and replaced that god and gave him a new coat of paint. His eyes were left blank until the day for reopening the temple came. Then when all was ready, a painter painted eyes into the god, and then he was supposed to see once more."
We love idolatry stories like this for it is so obviously irrational, and it makes us feel good, for we are so distant from such folly. Nevertheless, we do not escape idolatry so easily. Consider this experience of another well known missionary to China. Isabel Kuhn was with the China Inland Mission. She wrote in her book In The Arena of how when she told her mother of her call to go to China, her mother responded, "If you go to China it will be over my dead body. I will never consent." You are thinking, of course, that her mother was not a Christian, but you would be wrong. Her mother was president of the Women's Missionary Society. She had opened her home to many missionaries, and was a mature Christian leader. It was her Christian lifestyle that led to daughter to be exposed to missions that she heard God's call to be a missionary.
What is going on here? What is the dynamic that is leading Christian people to suffer here? It is simply idolatry. This Christian mother did not have a clay small god she bowed down to, or a stone statue to which she prayed. But what she had was her own image of what her daughter should be, and that image meant more to her than God's will for her daughter. She resisted God because God was threatening her idol, and shattering her image of what ought to be. She had erected a mental image of her daughters life, and because it meant more to her than God's plan, that mental image was just as much an idol as a metal image. Just because the Christian escapes the lowest level of primitive idolatry does not mean they escape the higher and more sophisticated level which is just as dangerous, and which leads to much suffering.
Paul deals very strongly with this mental level of idolatry when writing in Col. 3:1-2. "Set your hearts on things above...set you minds on things above, not on earthly things." Then he gives examples of these earthly things in verse 5. "Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: Sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry." Paul is saying that Christian growth is a matter of a battle against idolatry. It is not a matter of sticks and stones, but of mental attitudes of coveting for the flesh. I want this and that, and I want to satisfy my body and my minds image of what is good regardless of whether it is the will of God or not. Idolatry is saying, "Not thy will but mine be done." This makes idolatry far more frequent in the Christian life than we thought.
Spurgeon said, "We are all idolaters. I say we are idolaters by nature-all of us." And because it is so, anything can become an idol. Every person in our lives is a potential idol. Every object we own is a potential idol. Every event we enjoy is a potential idol. Every value we treasure is a potential idol. This means that things that become idols are not necessarily bad in themselves. The problem is that anything or anyone that takes precedence over God and His will becomes an idol. It is not an idol in itself, but becomes such because of our perverted tendency to exalt our desires above the will of God.
It would take a lot of audacity for any Christian to say I never practice idolatry. It would embarrass us all if God opened His files on us and showed the computer read out on our lifestyle and what it reveals about our values. Would you want anyone to see your chart of comparison?
1. Time spent reading the Bible compared time spent reading the daily paper and magazines.
2. Time spent talking to God compared to time spent talking to others.
3. Time spent in telling others about God compared to time spent telling others about myself.
4. Time and effort spent building the kingdom of God compared to time and effort spent building up my own kingdom.
We could go on and on illustrating how many ways we put God in second place. The point of all this is that God's people suffer all kinds of things because of their idolatry. Christians put their culture above God and conform to the culture rather than what God reveals. They go right along with the popular goals of the day. The result is that the church if full of same scandals and the same suffering as we see in Hollywood.
Do you think Paul could come to any big city in America, as he came to Athens, and walked the streets and not feel the same deep disturbance that he felt there? Do you think he would be fooled by the fact that there were no images of gods on the street? He would soon see the mental images that motivate the American people, and he would soon recognize they worship their images. He would be saying that he perceives that we are a very religious people, but he would go on to lead us from our devotion to idols to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.
The only way you can ever overcome idolatry is to first admit you are guilty of it. The Jews who persecuted Paul would never admit it, and the result is they remain blind to the new revelation in Christ. The Jews who were willing to admit they may not have seen all that God had told them were open to new light. They escaped from the limited image of God they had to see His greater image in the risen Christ. We need to open our eyes to see reality as it is. We have a very limited image of God, and this can lead even Christians to be tempted to go into the god-making business. Don't kid yourself and think this is beneath you. Satan has deceived better people than any of us to make idols, and to put them in God's place.
Solomon was the wisest man of his world, and yet he became a fool by going after other gods. I Kings 11:4 says, "As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God." He didn't just give mental assent to idols either, but he put forth time, talent, and treasure for them. Verses 7 and 8 says, "On a hill East of Jerusalem, Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the detestable god of Moab, and for Molech the detestable god of the Ammonites. He did the same for all his foreign wives who burned incense and offered sacrifices to their gods."
Solomon was the first genius to think he could achieve world peace and make the world one big happy family by treating all gods and all religions as equal. It was a total flop, and it led to the division, and then the destruction, of his own kingdom. But since all men ever learn from history is that men never learned from history, many lesser men than Solomon have tried the same experiment with the same destructive result. When you forsake the God who made you for gods you make, you will end up God forsaken.
Hitler in Mein Kampf reveals his all absorbing god was the Aryan race. The supreme sin was to pollute this race. All right and wrong revolved around what was good for this race. If lying and murder was good for the race, then these were good things. If truth and justice were bad for the race, then they were evil. Nazism was a hideous idolatry, and millions were sacrificed to this god. As always idolatry ended in disaster, and yet men will never cease to keep trying to make their own gods. The reason is because man, like Satan, makes his first idol the self. Self is exalted above God, and this is the origin of all idolatry. In this state of self-exaltation men who can't create a worm begin to create gods for themselves.
Would a man who can't make a birdhouse have the audacity to try and build a space ship? Would a man who can't sing a note hope to get into an opera? Would a man who can't lift his suitcase enter a weight lifting contest? Men face up to their limitations in almost every area of life except when it comes to god-making. Here is where everyone feels confidant to compete, and the result is we have not gone beyond Athens, as we so proudly assume.
These Greeks were brilliant and creative people. Their civilization still has a major impact on our world today. It was the birthplace of democracy, and many of the great ideas we treasure today. The great orators and philosophers stood where Paul stood on Mars Hill. Socrates was there, and the Parthenon, one of the wonders of the ancient world, stood there. Inside was the great statue of Athena after whom the city of Athens was named. It was craved by Phidius the most famous sculptor of all time. But all of the genius of these people was not used for the glory of God who made them, but for the glory of the gods they made.
This is the real issue of life: Will we serve the God who made us, or the gods we make? This is the ultimate choice of all men and nations, and idolatry is choosing to serve the gods we make. It is the saddest aspect of the life of any people, or of any person, when the gifts God has given them are not used to glorify Him, but to glorify some god of their own making. Everything we do we do for the God who made us, or for the gods we make. The poet put it-
Whatsoever cometh as a cloud between
The eye of faith and things unseen,
Causing that bright world to disappear
Or seen less lovely or its hopes less dear,
That is our idol.
Power, sex, money, are all good in themselves and necessary, but when they blind us to God's will so that we pursue them rather than His will, they become goods which destroy our relationship to God. Profession Walter Horton told of girl in one of his classes who said she didn't need God. She was engaged to be married to a wonderful man who would meet all her needs. Horton said he trembled for her because he knew the man, and while he was a nice enough fellow he lacked several important qualifications for the role of deity.
C. T. Studd, the great missionary, tells of how you can spot an idol in your life. What is in the heart wags the tongue. He became so in love with the sport of cricket that it was all he could talk about. He stopped talking about Christ and talked only about cricket. He realized that he had become an idolater. He knows it happens to all Christians at sometime in their life. The idol may be parents, husband, wife, or any number of good things, or even gifts of God. Idolatry is not dead, but it is alive and well and is one of the battles we fight constantly just as did the people of God in the Old Testament.
Awareness of this reality is the first step in victory over it, and that has been my point. Idolatry is far from dead in any of our lives, and it is important that we always remain aware of it. We need to be aware of idolatry, admit our practice of it, and take action to demonstrate we desire forgiveness and change. Only as we confess our guilt can we gain the power over this dangerous enemy. We need to pray with Cowper,
The dearest idol I have known
What'er that idol be,
Help me to tear it from thy throne,
And worship only thee.