What is idolatry? And who is the living God to whom Paul urges the people of Lystra (and you) to turn?
A local myth described a visit to the area near Lystra by the Greek gods Zeus and Hermes disguised as humans. That may have contributed to the readiness of the citizens to offer sacrifices to Paul and Barnabas when they healed a lame man as they preached in that city (Acts 14:1–20).
Turn from worthless things. The gods of Lystra were myths, gods created in human form. Paul and Barnabas, having preached in Iconium and having found that the good news of Jesus, the Messiah, was a divisive as Jesus had said it would be (Matthew 10:34–39), moved on to Lystra. As they were preaching, the healing of a lame man triggered a startling reaction from the local population, as they attempted to offer sacrifices to them, thinking they were gods. The local gods were the product of mankind’s imaginations, gods in human form with all the foibles, petty jealousies, and sins which characterize man. Isaiah 44 mocks the making and worshiping of images that represent a false deity. Paul makes a similar point in 1 Corinthians 10:19–21. A temple to Zeus stood just outside the gate of the city, and the legend kept the inhabitants alert to the possibility of a visit by the gods. The miracle of healing the lame man triggered an attempt to sacrifice to the two apostolic missionaries. Paul and Barnabas were barely able to restrain them.
Turn from the idol of self. Idolatry involves a worship and service of a personal being other than the living and true God. It is not just a mis-prioritization of good things in our lives. The concept of sin is an increasingly difficult one to convey in our relativistic world. There may be a danger of dropping the concept of sin, with its attendant ideas of moral absolutes given by God, and replacing it with a watered-down concept of idolatry: we have messed up our priorities and need to re-order them. It is suggested that we have let good things become ultimate. While there is an element of truth in that, beware of failing to realize that idolatry involves the worship and service of a personal being other than the true God. The idol maker of Isaiah 44 may well have realized that his product was not ultimately able to answer his petitions—the idol represented a greater being whom he worshiped. The greater being we worship today is not just our things, but is self. Paul’s message to the people of Lystra should motivate you to ask who is at the center of your life, God or self? God or you?
“To put it bluntly, man is his own idol today. This idolatrous orientation to self is evident even more clearly in our Western context than in ancient pagan examples of idolatry. We are the personal agents who vie for the glory that belongs to God alone. We are the ones who foolishly boast of power by which we try to defy God’s sovereignty. We are the objects of our own false worship instead of God. Things such as money, sex, and fame are not idols in the biblical sense, as many claim. They are instead merely manifestations of our self-worship. Satan and the world offer, and we selfishly employ, everything under the sun to worship ourselves instead of offering ourselves in generous worship to God.”Carlton Wynne, “Is Idolatry the New Sin?” http://www.reformation21.org/articles/is-idolatry-the-new-sin.php
Paul not only rebukes idolatry—he calls you to turn in faith to the living God. God has not left himself without testimony. Compare this sermon, interrupted though it may have been, with the message in Antioch. There, addressing Jews and those who were familiar with the Scriptures, he quoted frequently from those writings. Here, speaking to a pagan audience, he emphasizes that the God he represented was unlike their pagan deities. He is unlike the worthless things, Deuteronomy 32:21; 1 Samuel 12:21. This is the God who has given testimony to himself in the creation. Paul emphasizes that God has created all things. His goodness is seen in his provision for his creatures. Rain, crops, food, and resulting joy are indications of God’s presence and favor. Yet even here, Paul is echoing language of the Scriptures, Psalm 145:5–7; Jeremiah 5:23–24. As you speak to unbelievers, remember that they are living in a God-created world. His creation summons them to turn to him. And his Spirit can use your words to draw them to himself.
Receive God’s kindness by faith in his Son. The God Paul proclaimed is the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. Lystra had a myth of gods visiting briefly in human form. Paul proclaimed the incarnate Son of God who died and was raised for his people. The good gifts that God gives come to their fullest expression in the gift of his Son and the Spirit who draws people to himself. The miracle of healing the man born lame (note the parallels with the miracle worked by Peter and John in Acts 3) is a visible form of the good news of the kingdom of God.
Turn whole heartedly to God. As Paul and Barnabas rush into the crowd in order to stop the sacrificial worship directed to them, they summon the people to turn away from idols to the living God. You need to leave idolatry. But you cannot turn from idol worship to nothing, to some kind of void. Because God is God, and because all men and women are made in his image, you are designed to worship something or someone. You can turn from an idol to worship of self. But that fails to satisfy. It sounds paradoxical, but the only course to true freedom is the liberating enslavement to righteousness. You are saved by grace, though faith, not by works — but you are save for the good works which God has foreordained for you to do, Ephesians 2:8–10.
“The gospel is the good news of free remission of the guilt of sin and of freely imputed righteousness. That, of course, is at its heart and must never be lost sight of or obscured. But the gospel is as well and equally the good news of liberating enslavement to righteousness. Noteworthy is the way, as reported by Luke, that Barnabas and Paul proclaim the gospel in the response to the idolatrous crowd in Lystra: ‘we bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God’ (Acts 14:15; cf. 1 Thess. 1:9).”Richard B. Gaffin Jr. , In the Fullness of Time: An Introduction to the Biblical Theology of Acts and Paul, pages 397–398
God’s kingdom has invaded this sin-cursed world. Luke’s description of this miracle looks back, not only to the one worked by Christ through Peter at the temple gate, it is tied in with Jesus’ response to John the Baptist’s question in Luke 7. As Jesus heals and then cites Isaiah 35, he does not just proclaim with words, he demonstrates, the presence of the kingdom and himself as the King. Luke’s description of these two miracles in Acts shows that God’s kingdom has invaded this sin cursed world, and by Christ’s Word and Spirit healing, salvation, and new life have come.
This good news seems to fall on deaf ears. Though the sacrifice was stopped, the crowd, agitated by unbelieving Jews from Antioch and Iconium stirred up the crowd, and they soon stoned the one they had identified as a god. But the Spirit still worked. As we will see next week, Paul returns and encourages believers. Among them is a young man named Timothy (see Acts 16:1–3; 2 Timothy 3:10–11), who would join Paul in his missionary work.
Unlike the pagan myth, the story Paul told was true. The living and true God still shows his kindness and summons you to turn to him. Serve and worship him this week.