The new tree of the knowledge of good and evil

From last week’s message on Acts 17:16-34

Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.

So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for

“‘In him we live and move and have our being’;

as even some of your own poets have said,

“‘For we are indeed his offspring.’

Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them. – Acts 17:16-34 (ESV)

Paul begins this episode provoked in spirit over the idolatry all around him. Indeed, Athens was so full of idols that they even had a catch-all altar to the “unknown god”, just in case they missed one.

It’s easy from our modern perch to ridicule the ancients for their idolatry, but if you think about it our generation is no different. The joy that explodes in social media over the release of a new phone OS, the way we fawn over our celebrities, the energy and time spent pursuing that ancient, unholy trinity of sex, money and power; all of this points to a society no more free of idolatry than Athens was, and probably even more idolatrous. We don’t bow before statues, but there are all sorts of things that get us out of bed in the morning that aren’t Jesus.

Paul takes the opportunity in a culture awash in idolatry to introduce them to the one true God. He is a God who has been unknown to his audience, for the most part, though they have been given clear communication of him from creation and have been feeling their way toward him all this time. Of course, when you are groping in the dark you will make mistakes, for our God doesn’t need or want all these man-made temples and sacrifices into which they had put so much energy. This is a God who is very near, and who created everything and everybody.

Paul then comes to the point.

“The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

Jesus is the turning point of history. Jesus has come, has lived a perfect life, has suffered under God’s wrath for our sins, has died, and has been raised again. Jesus is the great decision of God to save his offspring, and about whom a great decision is called for in each one of us. Repent, or not. Trust in his great gift, or don’t. Reject our idols and worship the one true God, or continue swimming in a sea of idolatry. Breathe the free air, or drown.

When Paul speaks of the resurrection, some of his listeners begin mocking him. This is because the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the greatest event in the history of the world and is itself the hinge upon which history swings, but it is also a great scandal and offense to our natural minds, living as we do with the natural assumptions of karma and natural ignorance and misconceptions of holiness and unholiness. Into this ignorance Jesus steps, and in him the cross truly becomes the new tree of the knowledge of good and evil, because when we see him high and lifted up we finally see what holiness truly is, and can discard all our self-idolatry and our misnamed, false goodness. In the cross we also see what unholiness truly is, because of our own deep evil that put Jesus there. The cross is like looking in a mirror that shows us our true reflection. It isn’t pretty, in fact it’s horrifying, but Jesus is beautiful. When he is lifted high he will draw all men to himself.

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. – 2 Corinthians 5:21 (ESV)

Jesus is alive! He has come to free us from idolatry and hopelessness and sin and bring us home to wholeness and holiness and him. Praise his name!

Fighting the Approval idol

Sammy Rhodes has written a post that is good medicine for people like me: chronic (and often unsuccessful) people pleasers: Six ways to fight your approval idol.

It’s fantastic stuff. Items 2 and 5 particularly sing:

2. The pursuit of coolness and the practice of kindness are mutually exclusive.

Being a people pleaser means even when I’m doing something nice for you it’s really about me. Which is shorthand for saying, “I want you to like me and think I’m cool.” The way out of this is dying to what you think of me so I can begin to be kind to you in the ways Jesus has been kind to me. In the words of Mark Driscoll, “You’re not cool you’re a Christian.” Because Christians have died with Christ to being cool, we’re free in him to begin to be kind. The pursuit of coolnees feeds our idolatry but the practice of kindness starves it.

Emphasis mine. It hurts to read that first sentence, because truth hurts.

5. Live FROM your identity, not FOR it.

Maybe it’s better to make the distinction between identity and image. Identity is something given, fundamental to the way you see yourself. Image, on the other hand, is something you create, and is fundamentally about the way you want others to see you. The sin of our age is to live for our image instead of from our identity. Which is why Vaughan Roberts wisely warns us that“wholehearted commitment to Christ will not be good for our image.” But we have something better than an image. We have an identity in Christ that nothing and no one can touch. It includes words like “sons,” “daughters,” “servants,” and “heirs.” In the words of Aslan,“You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve…And that is both honour enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth. Be content.” You don’t have to be someone when you are someone.

Read the whole thing. Especially if you, like me, wake up to the monstrous idol of Approval every morning. Praying for 1 Samuel 5:4.

Idolatry versus Joy

Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.  (Romans 1:22-25, ESV)

For some reason, I’ve recently become more aware of the ocean of idolatry I live in (and often swim in). Gone are the days when I would read of the Israelites rising up to play around the golden calf with a quizzical expression on my face. Idolatry can seem quaint, a relic from antiquity, but only when we are blind to what idolatry is. 

Here’s my definition: Idolatry is the expectation, pursued with our daily energy, that there is something out there that can make me happy in the ways that only God can.

There is much that we consider good that can be that graven image of a man, bird, animal or creeping things in our lives. Our family can be an idol. A relationship. Good music.. Our children. Technology – and before you roll your eyes, how excited were you for IOS 7? The day it came out my twitter feed turned into such a river of joy that for a moment I thought perhaps Jesus had returned.

Exchanging the glory of the Creator for the things that he has created is never good; it brings dishonor and destruction into our lives. It also, inevitably, brings disappointment. We weren’t designed to find ultimate satisfaction in things or people. But it doesn’t mean we don’t try. We keep replacing our idols with newer, shinier models because we have an innate knowledge that we were made for better things.

The mistake we make is trying to find joy in better things, or the next, better thrill, or a better relationship, or a better cause, or . . . you get the idea. The chase is fun for awhile, but it gets old. Running around in circles usually does. The scenery starts to look the same. Still excited about IOS 7?

Running after Jesus is the path of real joy, though our idols work very hard at blinding our eyes to that truth. One reason we find joy in Jesus is because Jesus’ path does not go in circles. It goes straight on and up! He is making all things new, including the daily joys of the former idolater who has found the true God that the false ones can only hope to imitate.

We were made by Him. They are made by us. Wise is the person who has compared the Creator’s credentials to those of us idol-makers and has chosen joy!