"Turn from These Vain Things to a Living God!"
Topic: Missions & Evangelism Passage: Acts 14:8–14:18
Learning from Paul in Lystra
Last week, I tried to capture the big picture of chapter 14. Followers of Jesus should expect many tribulations; but God’s grace is sufficient to sustain us through tribulations. Today I’ll focus on Paul confronting the idolatry in Lystra, and explain various ways his message instructs us.
For example, what does Paul’s message mean for us enjoying God’s world? Or, how might it shape our interaction with unbelievers of differing backgrounds? How does Paul confronting idolatry compel us to do likewise? How can we expect the world to respond when we do confront idolatry? Paul’s message will answer these questions. But first let’s study the account in Lystra beginning in verse 8…
8 Now at Lystra there was a man sitting who could not use his feet. He was crippled from birth and had never walked. 9 He listened to Paul speaking. And Paul, looking intently at him and seeing that he had faith to be made well, 10 said in a loud voice, “Stand upright on your feet.” And he sprang up and began walking. 11 And when the crowds saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in Lycaonian, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” 12 Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. 13 And the priest of Zeus, whose temple was at the entrance to the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates and wanted to offer sacrifice with the crowds. 14 But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their garments and rushed out into the crowd, crying out, 15 “Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men, of like nature with you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. 16 In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. 17 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.” 18 Even with these words they scarcely restrained the people from offering sacrifice to them.
The passage has three parts: the miracle, the misunderstanding, and the message. We’ll spend the bulk of our time on the message. But the other parts set the stage. To begin, we encounter the miracle. There’s a man crippled from birth. Never had he walked before. God gives him faith to be made well. And somehow, by God’s doing, Paul discerns this and says, “Stand upright on your feet.”
That’s an incredible thing to say: “Do what you lack the ability to do.” That’s the way God works: he commands us to do what we can’t do; then he gives what we need to do it. We get the grace; he gets the glory. “Stand upright on your feet,” he says. The man walks. The miracle is one example among a number of signs and wonders.
Remember what the signs and wonders are for. They reveal that Jesus is alive. His ministry never stopped but continues through his church.[i] Moreover, the miracles authenticate the disciples’ message. They give concrete expression to their message. They preach the kingdom of God healing the broken world; and a broken man gets up and walks. The point was to provide a platform to announce God’s kingdom entering the world to heal all that sin has broken.
But here’s the thing, while miracles had their place, they never guaranteed conversion. You get mixed responses—mixed responses in Jesus’ ministry, and the same in Acts. Sometimes people believe. On other occasions, people total miss the point.
That’s what happens here: we encounter a serious misunderstanding. It’s not that the crowds miss the miracle. But they just misunderstand who’s behind it. They misunderstand because of their polytheistic worldview.
We went over this last week. A worldview is your all-encompassing perspective on everything that matters. It represents your most fundamental assumptions about reality.[ii] The folks in Lystra are polytheists. They believe in many gods. Two are named here: Zeus and Hermes. Zeus was lord of sky and rain. For them, Zeus controlled natural phenomena on earth. Hermes was son of Zeus. Stories were told of these gods appearing on earth and disguising themselves as men.
What happens when the culture has taught you to view the miraculous through this polytheistic lens? For them, it had to be Zeus and Hermes visiting them. They assume Paul and Barnabas must be gods, if they have the power to heal so miraculously. “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!”
It causes quite a stir. The whole thing lasts for a little while. There’s apparently a language barrier that delays Paul and Barnabas’ response—they say these things in Lycaonian. Enough time lapses for the temple priest to hear of it and bring the oxen to sacrifice in front of the temple. They really think they’re gods of some kind. They’ve got a whole procession—garlands and all—to worship at the apostles’ feet.
But once Paul and Barnabas recognize the misunderstanding, they rush into the crowd and confront this false worldview. They confront this idolatry and false worship. False worldviews will lead to false worship. Paul confronts both.
That brings us to the message. A couple things to keep in mind. One is that verses 15-17 aren’t everything Paul said; it’s only a snippet. Verse 9 suggests that Paul had said much more before he healed the crippled man. And, very often, Luke will use “the gospel” or “the good news” as a way to sum up the whole of what they preached about Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. That’s exactly what we find in verse 7—“they continued to preach the gospel”—and in verse 15—“we bring you good news.”
Something else is that Paul’s message seems to get cut short by all the commotion. Verse 18, “even with these words they scarcely restrained the people from offering sacrifice to them.” It’s chaos. However, a similar message reappears in Acts 17:22-31. Paul is again preaching to polytheists. He brings up the same themes and uses the same approach. That more developed message in Acts 17 will help you understand this shorter message in Acts 14. But what is the message?
Avert the glory
For starters, the disciples avert the glory. They turn the glory away from them to God. They do this by their actions and their words. They tear their garments. To tear your garments signaled a serious problem, sometimes blasphemy. You remember the high priest in Matthew 26:65 tearing his robes when they wrongly accuse Jesus of blasphemy? The disciples show the same kind of revulsion to this false worship.
They also avert glory by their words? “Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men, of like nature with you…” Meaning, “We’re no gods. We have no divine nature. We’re only of human nature like you.”
This reaction stands in contrast to the way King Herod responded to the crowds worship in Acts 12:22-23. Herod takes his throne. Gives his speech. And the people say, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” Herod loves it. He does not avert the glory. He didn’t give God the glory; and an angel of the Lord struck him dead for it. We find a different pattern in the disciples. Cornelius bows to worship Peter in Acts 10:25. But Peter says, “Stand up; I too am a man.” The people try to worship Paul and Barnabas here. But they say, “We also are men of like nature with you.”
Followers of Jesus avert the glory. It all belongs to God. Be careful. The praise of men feels so good. Even when you’re doing good deeds for the Lord, the praise of men feels so good. But to live for the praise of men is a direct assault on the worship of God.
Announce the gospel
Next, the disciples announce the gospel. Verse 15, “and we bring you good news…” “Good news” is Luke’s suitcase term. There’s a lot to unpack. If you put all the speeches in Acts side by side, you get a good idea of what Luke means by “good news.” The bad news is that humanity is crooked. God will condemn people for rejecting his law, refusing him worship. But here’s the good news according to Acts…
God was faithful to his promises. In mercy, God sent his only Son. God crucified his Son for the forgiveness of our sins. God raised his Son from the dead and vindicated him as King. God pours out his Spirit on all who believe, giving them eternal life and internal transformation. God will send his Son again to judge the earth and replace all crooked kingdoms with his own. If you renounce your old ways and trust Christ to forgive you, God will save you and make you part of his kingdom.
That’s the good news. That’s the message the apostles bring into the lives of the people they meet. But notice also, this message has a two-fold purpose. Look carefully at verse 15: “we bring you good news, [and here’s the two-fold purpose] that you should turn from these vain things to a living God.”
In a polytheistic culture, this is bold. Polytheism wasn’t just a private religious practice. It shaped their entire outlook on life—what they valued, how they acted, who they feared. They thought gods watched over the entrance to their homes. They had gods for the sky and the sun and the trees and rain, gods that stood for certain virtues, gods for families, rulers that acted like gods. It affected court systems and business practices and what you did on the way home from work and how you kept favor with others. In chapter 19 we’ll see how it even affects their economy: how’s the silversmith going to make any money if everybody quits worshiping the idols?
Then enters Paul who says, “All of that—vain.” Basically, “You’ve devoted your lives to nothingness. You’re whole society revolves around stuff you made up, and has no life at all.” He exposes their false worldview, their false worship. But not without also pointing them to the true and living God. What’s the living God like?
God created the universe.
To begin, he created the universe. End of verse 15: “[he] made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them.” In other words, there’s no such thing as a god for this and a god for that, a god for wind and a god for the sea. No, one God made everything and everyone. These people don’t have a biblical framework. They don’t know Genesis 1. They’ve looked at the created order and drawn really bad conclusions. Paul corrects it. One God made everything. He’s the living God, the source of all life everywhere; he’s the only Sustainer of everything.
God controls the times.
Next, the living God also controls the times. Verse 16, “In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways.” Many of us grew up with the Bible verse: “Your word, O Lord, is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” God’s special revelation in Scripture is our guide. It keeps us from walking in our own ways.
Israel benefitted from God’s special revelation like this. God didn’t give his special revelation to all the nations. He chose to give it to Israel and leave the nations in their ignorance for a long time. He wasn’t unjust in doing so. He was perfectly just to leave everybody lost. If anything, we have to say God was extremely merciful to give his special revelation to anybody. He chose Israel; and there was a time when he let the nations walk in their own ways, with no lamp for their feet.
But Paul presents the situation as a thing of the past. Hear it again: “In past generations he allowed…”—as if to say God has brought a new time. He says something similar in Acts 17:30, but we get more: “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day in which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance by raising him from the dead.”
What’s going on? It’s not that all the nations everywhere all of a sudden stopped walking in ignorance, but that God now has a mission not to leave them in their ignorance. The death and resurrection of Jesus shifted redemptive history into overdrive, so to speak, so that rather than dealing with Israel alone, God has commissioned the church to take his special revelation into all the earth. Paul is giving the Gentiles that special revelation as he speaks God’s word to them.
God confers goodness on all.
But one last thing that comes out as Paul reveals the living God is that this God was revealing things about himself well before Paul arrived with the gospel. God’s general revelation—that is, the things he reveals about himself to all people in general, in creation, in nature, in the seasons and stars and so forth. God’s general revelation has been showing all along that the living God confers goodness on all.
Verse 17, “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.” See what Paul is doing? He’s finding common ground—good things that the people experience in this world—and then he’s pointing them to their Source.
“When it rained on your crops last week, God gave them. When you watched the summer months turn into the fall harvest, God arranged that. When you ate bread and drank your wine, and said, “Wow, that’s good stuff!”—that was God’s gift. When you celebrate good times, God blessed you with good gifts.” That’s the idea, here.
Everything God created is not just good, but it’s saying something about God. His gifts in the created order scream truth about the living God. Romans 1:20 even says “his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.” You can discern truth about God’s attributes by studying the things he made.
The problem is that people suppress the truth about them. Everybody knows God by the things they can see in creation—they just suppress the truth. They look at the sun and the moon and the stars, they taste a good burger, and instead of acknowledging God’s goodness toward them, they suppress the truth. They push it down like trying to wrestle a beach ball under water.
Now, to be clear, general revelation can’t save anybody. We need God’s special revelation in Scripture and in Christ to know him in a saving way. But that doesn’t mean his creation isn’t speaking his goodness. It is. Every day the sun comes up on the just and the unjust, it reveals God’s mercy. Every time it rains to give us food, it reveals God’s goodness conferred on all.
Know & enjoy God through the things he has made
Which brings me to a first point of application. I wouldn’t say this is Luke’s primary point. We covered much of that last Sunday. But the theology in Paul’s message does teach us to know and enjoy God through the things he has made.
That’s not to say we know and enjoy God apart from Scripture. Scripture reveals how to interpret God’s created order rightly. It’s also not to say that God is in the things he has made in a material and spatial sense. We want to avoid that error as well. But God has created a good world for us to enjoy. 1 Timothy 6:17 says that “God richly provides us with everything to enjoy [full stop].” Some of us need to pause more often to enjoy the things God has made. Really enjoy them.
Some Christians get the impression that spiritual maturity comes by distancing yourself from things on earth. They might even quote Colossians 3:2, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” But the next verses tell us what Paul means by those “things on earth.” “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” Earthly means something more like “sinful things” in context.
Instead, orient your mind around holy things; have a Christ-like mindset about the world he rules. Everything was created through Christ and for Christ. When we enjoy the things God made rightly, we’ll also learn to enjoy more of God. Think of the characteristics that come through with an artist in his painting or a composer in his symphony. When you look at the painting or listen to the symphony, certain skills, wisdom, passion, creativity come through.[iii]
That’s similar to the way God communicates in creation. Romans 1 tells us that his eternal power and divine nature are clearly perceived in the things he has made. Acts 14:17 says that God bears witness about himself, when he satisfies your hearts with food and gladness. To ignore these things, isn’t just to rob yourself of joy but to rob God of the worship rightly due him.
Knowing God through the things he has made also provides a point of connection with our non-Christian friends. They’re looking at the same world you are. They experience many of the same gifts from the Creator’s hand that you do—a well-ordered cosmos, air to breathe, friendships, double-battered fried chicken, a good wine or chocolate. These are platforms to proclaim the greatness and goodness of God.
Where it serves the gospel, learn to adapt to various cultures.
Something else we learn: where it serves the gospel, learn to adapt to various cultures. Many of us are familiar with Paul’s principle in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 of becoming all things to all men. But it’s in Acts where we see him model that principle.
Even if we compared his message here to his message in Acts 13, you’ll notice differences in his approach. For the Jews who know Scripture, he points to prophecies about their Messiah. He proves that their law-keeping will never save them. The Gentiles, however, are biblically illiterate. They don’t have these categories. For them Paul appeals to general revelation, God’s greatness in creation. Then proves that their idol-worship will never save them.
The Jews interpreted Scripture wrong; the Gentiles interpreted creation wrong. The Jews seek salvation in a righteousness of their own making; the Gentiles seek salvation in gods of their own making. Paul recognizes these differences and then adapts. He has a different starting point, a different way he reasons, a different sin problem he addresses—but he preaches the same gospel. People have called this contextualization.
Funny story: Rachel’s grandmother was a missionary in Zimbabwe. She shared this story one time of an American pastor coming to Zimbabwe. This pastor ends up preaching a sermon through a translator. At the close of his sermon, he tells the people that responding to the gospel was as simple as ABC. A-admit that you’re a sinner. B-believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. C-commit your life to following him. There’s only one problem, in the Shona dialect, none of those sentences begin with an A, B, or C.
It’s a funny example, but it gets the point across. No effort was made to learn the culture and adapt the message in such a way that would communicate Christ more clearly. You’ll encounter this as well. You’re starting place with a Muslim will not be the same with a Hindu. The way you preach Christ on south LVT will differ from the way you preach Christ on the TCU campus. The people in those cultures have different assumptions about God, different backgrounds, and different value systems motivating them. Learn from Paul. Imitate his contextualization. Know the culture and adapt where it serves to communicate the gospel. Become all things to all men in order to save some.
Confront the idolatry of the culture.
But as you do that, don’t shy away from confronting the idolatry of the culture. Paul confronts the idols here. He calls them “vain things.” Our culture has a multitude of vain things and vain ideas and vain pursuits. Hardly anyone would say they worship the gods of Zeus and Hermes anymore. But for us it’s self and sex and loads of cash.[iv] It’s safety and comfort and entertainment. It’s political ideas and sports teams and accomplishments at work. It’s power and social media and the latest iPhone.
Our culture teaches people to value these kinds of things so highly, that sometimes we aren’t even aware of how they’ve trumped our allegiance to Jesus. Like a fish scarcely knows it’s in water, sometimes we scarcely realize how much the culture has skewed our view of God and warped our understanding of Jesus. Because everybody’s fine with following Jesus until life becomes dangerous, or until Jesus demands we cut off arms to have him.
Paul doesn’t back down. He calls the idolatry as it is. Part of taking the gospel into our culture is exposing the vain things for what they are, and then turning people to the true God. But keep this in mind: we won’t call people away from the idols we’re still bowing to. We won’t call “vain” those idols we still worship. Part of taking the gospel into our culture is first exposing the vain things we give ourselves to, and then looking to the gospel to turn us to the true and living God.
Preaching the gospel involves turning people from idols to serve the living God. We see it in Paul’s ministry so clearly. It happens again in 1 Thessalonians 1:5 and 9. Paul writes that “our gospel came to you not only in word, but in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” What happens when the gospel comes to a bunch of pagans in power, in the Spirit, and with full conviction? Verse 9, “…you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.” Pray that happens with us; and pray that happens in your ministry to others as well.
Expect persecution when you speak the truth
Finally, don’t always expect it to go well when you confront idolatry. Certainly, the Lord will use your preaching to save some. But we must also expect persecution when we speak the truth. The world doesn’t release idols so easily. Notice the shift in the crowd from verse 18 to verse 19. They go from treating Paul and Barnabas like gods to joining the Jews in stoning Paul. They move from applause for the miracle to attack. Even monotheistic Jews team up with idolaters to stop the gospel…
Just like they did with Jesus, actually. Earlier I noted that signs and wonders showed that Jesus’ ministry continued through the apostles. But something else that shows Jesus’ ministry continuing through the apostles is their suffering. In and through their sufferings we see Christ living in these men. They were laying down their lives to turn others away from vain things to the living God. Jesus laid down his life to turn us away from vain things to serve the living God.
Far more, he gave his life to sever our love-affair with false gods. He gave his life to free us from our slavery to idols. Then he rose again to send us the Holy Spirit. When the Spirit dwells in us, he drives out unholy desires. He smashes our idols and helps us to worship God in truth. As we come to the Lord’s Supper, let us eat and drink to remember what God has done in Christ to make us true worshipers.
[i]Acts 2:22, 2:43; 5:12.
[ii]One of the best summaries that I’ve heard on “worldview” is by James Anderson. The wording here comes from the lecture found at the following link: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/what-are-worldviews-why-do-worldviews-matter-how-does-one-change-worldviews/.
[iii]I got this illustration from Joe Rigney, Things of Earth: Treasuring God by Enjoying His Gifts (Wheaton: Crossway, 2014).
[iv]This line comes from the lyrics of “Jealous One” by Shai Linne.