Preaching to Bright Pagans 2; Acts 17:29-34

What's wrong with idols? When Paul arrived in Athens he was deeply provoked by them. Most English translations don't get quite the sense of depth of provocation, jealousy for God and anger at the oppression caused by idol-worship. Athens loved its idols. It was well said that you could find a "god" more easily than a man there.

Paul sets up his sermon at the Areopagus entirely to get to this point: God is going to judge the world for worshipping idols, so you have to turn from them. Just remember the flow of his argument:

  1. God made the world
  2. God created people and nations
  3. God is sufficient but we are needy. We should be dependent on him
  4. Therefore, since we are his offspring, his creations, we should seek him

And then the climax in v29: since this is the case, get rid of idols. Why does the argument he made counter idols? What is it about them that challenges God as creator and provider? Here are ten reasons why God hates idols and we should hate idols:

  • Idols are something we make and control, not someone who makes and rules us
  • Idols are gods made in our image, turning on its head the truth that we are made in God's image
  • Idols enshrine ignorance about God not knowledge of him
  • Idols are an attempt to domesticate God to our purposes and use
  • Idols need to be served. They are gods that are dependent on us, turning on its head the truth that we are completely dependent on him
  • Idols replace God by offering something that seems to make us independent of him
  • Idols don't make us free but enslave us to something that isn't God
  • Idols make us think that knowledge of God isn't worth having (Romans 1)
  • Idols are the equivalent of adultery, introducing a third person into a marriage to prevent us cherishing our spouse
  • Idols give us something we created to worship thereby overturning God's exclusive right to worship

John Stott says that idols reverse the respective positions of us and God, allowing us to create and rule over the divine. In other words they are a physical crystallisation of the primary sin of rebellion against God. In worshipping idols we say "God is dependent on me, I am self-sufficient and no longer dependent on him." No wonder God is going judge the world for idolatry. It is the opposite of seeking him. Idols are the means of fleeing from him to anything - literally anything - else.

When Paul makes this case people laugh at him. I don't think they are laughing at the statement that Jesus is risen from the dead, I think they are laughing at someone telling them to get rid of their whole worldview. Their whole lives are so steeped in idols that they cannot see past it to the truth.

Now, how to apply today. Its fairly easy to see how to do this for non-Christians. But what about for believers? I think the single hardest thing to preach to Christians is absolute total commitment of the whole of life to Christ. Getting people to the point where we actually believe and act as if Christ is king over everything we are and everything we own. Helping people jump off the cliff with no plan B if God doesn't act for us. Most believers treat the "God part" of life as one component alongside others like family, job, leisure activity and the like. We don't tend to look on submitting to God's purposes as the governing factor that defines all the rest. We don't ask "how do I do family, job, leisure, etc, in all ways to honour him? How do I use all my money, my house, my time, my marriage to honour him? How do I take risks with my possessions to honour him?" 

Why don't we? If we explore deep enough the underlying reasons for not submitting every area to him are always an idol of some kind. It always reveals that we trust something else rather than God, whether that is a savings account, ambitions, material things. 

The subtlest idol of all for evangelical believers is trusting in our works of evangelical religion. It is all too easy to substitute God's rule over the whole of life for attending a Christian meeting, or doing Bible study. Both good things, but they are not the same as whole-life discipleship. In fact if I think I am being a disciple because I do evangelical works of religion I have fallen hook, line and sinker for an idol. Jesus told a story of a Pharisee who thanked God for all the things God had done in his life, and then offered those to God for his righteousness. The biggest evangelical idol is "God will accept me because I believe evangelical truth and do evangelical activities not because of Christ alone."