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City of Idols (Part 1 of 3)

Truth for Life / Alistair Begg
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April 17, 2024 4:00 am

City of Idols (Part 1 of 3)

Truth for Life / Alistair Begg

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April 17, 2024 4:00 am

A Pharisee who mercilessly persecuted Christians became a bold evangelist after encountering Jesus! Study along with Alistair Begg on Truth For Life to see how this changed man responded in a radically different way to the idol-worshipping Greeks.


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This listener-funded program features the clear, relevant Bible teaching of Alistair Begg. Today’s program and nearly 3,000 messages can be streamed and shared for free at thanks to the generous giving from monthly donors called Truthpartners. Learn more about this Gospel-sharing team or become one today. Thanks for listening to Truth For Life!


Saul of Tarsus was once a loyal Pharisee. He mercilessly persecuted and condemned Christians.

But after an encounter with Jesus, Saul became known as the Apostle Paul, and he boldly proclaimed the Gospel. Today on Truth for Life, Alistair Begg takes a look at how this changed man responded in a radically different way to the idol-worshipping Greeks. I invite you to turn to an Old Testament reading, if you would, to the prophecy of Isaiah, and to Isaiah and chapter 44, and I'm going to break into the reading. God has said through his prophet in verse 6, I am the first and I am the last, and apart from me there is no God. Then he challenges anyone to step forward that would seek to be his rival, and then he speaks to the issue of idolatry, its futility. And he describes the absolute nonsensical nature of the fashioning of idols. And in verse 16 we'll pick it up.

We won't read it all. Half of the wood—that is, the wood that he has cut down on the tree from the tree—half of the wood he burns in the fire. Over it he prepares his meal, he roasts his meat and eats his fill. He also warms himself and says, Ah, I'm warm, I see the fire. From the rest he makes a god his idol. He bows down to it and worships, he prays to it and says, Save me, you are my God.

They know nothing, they understand nothing, their eyes are plastered over so that they cannot see, and their minds closed so that they cannot understand. No one stops to think, no one has the knowledge or understanding to say, Half of it I use for fuel, I even baked bread over its coals, I roasted meat and I ate. Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left?

Shall I bow down to a block of wood? He feeds on ashes. A deluded heart misleads him.

He cannot save himself or say, Is not this thing in my right hand a lie? Now, from there, turn over to Acts chapter 17, and we follow Paul as he arrives in Athens, following his time in Thessalonica and in Berea. He has been ferried some three hundred miles and has arrived now in the city of Athens, Luke tells us. And since the city was not exactly on his missionary program, and since he's waiting, as we find in verse 15, for the arrival of his friends Silas and Timothy, he does what we might expect him to do. In that context, he does some sightseeing.

And as he moves around this city, Luke doesn't remark on his response to its architecture. Presumably, he was struck by the immensity of it and its stature. But Luke actually tells us—gives us an insight into what was happening in Paul's psyche, if you like, what was going on in the core of his being.

We sometimes look at someone—it may be a public figure, it may be someone with whom we're familiar on a personal note—and as we see them in a certain context, we look at them, and then we say, I wonder what they're thinking, or I wonder what they're feeling right now. Well, Luke tells us exactly what it was that Paul was feeling, and presumably he knew as a result of Paul telling him. Paul was absolutely consumed. His spirit was provoked within him.

In the NIV, in verse 16, it reads, he was greatly distressed, and the source of his distress was the city being full of idols. The word that is used here is a word that would be used to describe the luxuriant undergrowth of, for example, an equatorial rainforest. And if you've been in the equator and you've been in those rainforests, you know that it wouldn't be a good place to lose a golf ball, because if it went in there, you would probably never find it again. It is impossible to walk through it. In its most dense and intense, you would need something to hack your way through.

The undergrowth is so luxuriant, it consumes the place. That is the word that is used here for the impact of idolatry in Athens. It was said that it was easier to meet a god than to meet a person in Athens.

And Paul, we're told, couldn't look at this and say, Oh, that's interesting. But he was actually consumed in the core of his being. The Greek word is the word which gives us our English word paroxysm. And we can go into paroxysms of laughter, or we can have a paroxysm that overwhelms us, bringing us in deep distress.

But the word we understand in English is indicative of something that is affecting the core of our being. And that is exactly what Luke tells us is happening here. Paul looks at all of these shrines and all of these altars. He knows that he's in the cultural capital of the world. This is where Plato and Socrates plied their trade and developed their philosophies.

This is where both of them were born. And this was the adopted house and home of Aristotle, a city that was and remains to this day aesthetically magnificent. It was philosophically sophisticated. It was at the same time morally decadent. And it was, without question, spiritually deceived.

If Paul wanted to seize upon one city in particular, that would embody what he wrote to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians chapter 1, as Athens would be the city. You remember when he writes to the Corinthians and he says to them, In the wisdom of God, the world in its wisdom did not know him. This was part of the wisdom of God. This was not something that has taken God by surprise. But God has ordained that there is, if you like, no ultimate intellectual road to God, that the way a man or a woman comes to know God is as a result of God's self-disclosure, as a result of the fact that he has revealed himself, he has made himself known. And he has done so in his world, and he has done so in our moral beings, and he has done so by setting eternity in our hearts and minds, and he has done so in his Word, the Bible, and he has done so finally and savingly in the person of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, as the Alpha and Omega, brooks no rivals and is not like any other religious leader on the board of human history.

Paul is distressed. He was a Jewish boy. He grew up in a Jewish home. He knew the Ten Commandments. He knew that God had given them to his people. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. And he could then go on and recite them, You shall have no other gods before me.

It was in the core of his being. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything, either in heaven above or on earth beneath or in the waters below.

You shall not bow down to them or worship them. And he comes into the city of Athens, and what does he discover? That the glory of God is dragged down amongst the machinery and the mechanisms and the philosophies of this immense city.

And instead of him, as it were—and acronystically, I say it, you know, snapping a few pictures and saying, I'll need to take this home and show them to my family—he almost doesn't have time to see the magnificence of it, because he is so stirred by the perplexity of the people represented in their confusion. He, as a Jewish boy, had his mom and dad say to him routinely in Deuteronomy 6, Here, O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength. And they said that to him when he went to his bed at night. Saul, as you go to bed at night, God fashioned you. Saul, God is the beginning and the end of your life. Saul, you were made by the Creator God. Saul, God made you for himself. And as he would go to sleep of a night, it was drummed into him. And yet this was a God that he didn't know until he meets the risen Christ on the Damascus Road, and he suddenly sees it all, and the pieces of the puzzle all come together, and the picture forms up in the front of the box. And he says, I get it now.

And once he had got it, he was intolerant of everyone and every other thing that would be opposed to that message—not for Paul, the pluralism of the Roman Empire, not for Paul, a willingness to put Jesus up amongst the idols of Athens or the idols of Rome. But no, he looks at it, and it breaks his heart, because he sees the lostness that is represented in the religious panorama of the vastness of this place. Oh, I wonder how long it will be before I learn to feel that when I view the cities of America. I wonder how it is that I can snap so many photographs and think so many other things and fail to see the idolatry of twenty-first-century America.

Because don't let's think for a minute that this is so long and going far away that it is irrelevant to us. The high streets of our neighborhoods are filled with shrines—shrines to ourselves, and shrines to materialism, and shrines to sex, the great god of sex, and shrines to the god of sport. Nothing represents it more than Super Bowl Sunday. I know you hate it when I say that, but I'm telling you that it is the great idol worship day of the year in America. If we were to realize how much money is expended, how much money is generated in that one event leading up to it and in it, it could deal with vast areas of poverty in sub-Saharan Africa.

It could radically make an impact on some of the diseases that are completely left untouched, because for the drug companies, there is insufficient funds in them to do anything about it and so on. But still, we bow down before this great god, and young families are driven all around the communities, rushing to soccer and rushing to softball and rushing to swimming and rushing everywhere. Why? Because it is an idol. And there are children in camps learning to hit tennis balls at the age of three, and children learning to hit golf balls at the age of four, bowing down before the idol, not simply of sport but of all that sport might bring if they happen to be one of the rare prodigies that may emerge. No, I say to you again, the idols of our day are not simply represented in the Buddha that you can find in the high street and buy one in rubbish tummy, not simply in the things that we may hang from the windows of our cars, but it is represented in the great idolatry of my own life whereby I'm stuck on myself, and I think about myself, and I worship myself. And God says, You shall have no other gods before me. Who is like me?

Nobody. Who do you think you are, putting yourself at the center of the universe? People say, Well, I will maybe respond to the gospel.

I need a little purpose in my life. That's not the issue. The issue is you are your own God, and God brooks no rivals.

And until you are prepared to get off your throne and bow before the living God and see his Son enthroned in his rightful position, then any interest you may have in the benefits of the gospel or the effects of religion or the passing fancies of so much that is in offer in our contemporary culture will just leave you ultimately cold and empty. So what does he do if his reaction is to be greatly distressed? You'll notice that his counterreaction, his counteraction, is not to curse the darkness.

This doesn't go into a great diatribe now. And he was greatly distressed when he saw the idols in the city. And so he said, Man, I hate these idols in this city. And we would expect the speech to go on from there.

And then he got a group of people to put banners together. We are against the idols in Athens. We are opposed to the idols in Athens. We don't like the idols. We don't like the idols.

Then the other people, We love the idols. We love… No, he doesn't do that. He doesn't suggest that they reestablish the structure of the courts. He doesn't determine that they will infiltrate the political systems. No, somehow or another, this little converted Jew actually believes that the truth of the risen Jesus, about whom we've been singing, that that truth has the power to tear down strongholds in individual lives, in families, in communities, in cities, and in nations. He actually believes that. If he didn't believe that, it would be stupidity for him to do what he did.

And since he does believe that, it would have been a violation of everything he understood to do anything other than that. Listen, my friends, and listen to me carefully. I am as committed as you are to the privileges of democracy. I hope I am as concerned as you are about the issues that face us in relation to life and the right to life and the systems of justice and jurisprudence and the impact on our family and on our education.

I am as consumed with that as I think it is right to be. But I do not believe for a flat-out nanosecond that any one of these things ultimately, ultimately can or should take the place of our devotion to what Paul tackles here in dealing with the idolatry of Athens. And I think—and I may be wrong, I often am—I think that many of our commitments to these other things may be tied to the absence of a conviction about the power and the efficacy of the gospel message itself.

Not in every instance. It's not a blanket generalization judgment. It's not said to induce guilt in any of our hearts. It is said simply as an observation, as I look at the emphases of contemporary evangelical Christianity, and as I meet people from other parts of the world and as they observe things objectively, they have virtually assumed, because of what comes out from us, that what we're really concerned about has to do with our lives, our lifestyles, our family, our children, our futures. We say, But aren't we concerned with those things?

Yes, but not ultimately. Jesus said, If you want to be my disciple, then take up your cross every day and die to yourself and come follow me. And if you don't want to do that, then don't come and follow me, because only those who are prepared to do that will be my disciples. If a man seeks to save his life, he will lose it. If a man loses his life for my sake, says Jesus, he will find it.

That's radical terminology. And it was that which underpinned Saul, now Paul, as he counteracts what he finds in the city. He doesn't curse the darkness. He doesn't head into the hills. He doesn't run away and hide. He doesn't establish some little enclave where he can all go and feel comfortable and safe with nobody ever coming, knocking on the door, nobody interfering with him.

He doesn't do that at all. No, he actually heads for the synagogue, Luke tells us, in verse 17. He starts off in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, those whom we mentioned last time, who had come around the monotheism of Judaism without entering into all of its rites and rituals.

They were known as God-fearers. They wanted to know God, and they were interested in what the Jews were saying, but they had not themselves converted to Judaism. Paul goes into that group, and he speaks to them. Presumably, in Athens, he followed the pattern previously established.

That pattern, Luke tells us, is as far as there in verses 2 and 3. If you let your eyes look up the page, you will see that when he went into the Thessalonica, he, as his custom was, went to the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days, you will notice he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. In other words, he did the hard work of biblical exposition. He didn't just go in there and tell them, you know, if Thessalonica needs a good shake, or let me tell you what happened to me when I was down the street in another place, let me share some experiences I've had of the Holy Spirit.

All of those things would have been interesting and marginally profitable, but he knows that's not what he's called to do. Isn't that what he's called to do? No, he's called to make much of Jesus and to explain the gospel. And so what he does is he reasons with them—he's not unreasonable—and he says to them, What I want you to do is to look at your Bibles at the Old Testament. And then he takes the Old Testament, and he explains, and he proves that the Christ, that is, the Messiah, had to suffer and rise from the dead.

That was his strategy. Let's look here, he must have said, at Leviticus. Let's look at the Day of Atonement and see what has happened there.

And what has happened there on the Day of Atonement that a substitute has died in the place so that a sacrifice for sin may be offered for those who are sinners. And he would have gone on through there, and he would have shown his listeners that the Messiah that they were waiting for was a Messiah who actually had to suffer. Yes, he was a king who would reign.

Yes, he was a prophet who would speak God's Word. But he had to show them that he was also a priest who would himself die to bear the sins of his people. And the light started to go on in the eyes of certain people. They said, Oh, oh, oh!

And that's what he did. He said, Are you getting this? Do you realize that what the Old Testament is saying, that the Messiah, when he comes, must suffer and rise from the dead?

And when one or two of them said, Yes, we understand that, then the coup de grace. Then Luke tells us, he said, This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is that Messiah. He doesn't start off about Jesus. He starts off with the Old Testament.

And we're going to see that it is remarkable what Paul does here in Athens. When he gets the ears of the intelligentsia, he doesn't start with the doctrine of the Atonement. He starts with the doctrine of creation.

Most of us are afraid to start with the doctrine of creation because we've already given up on the idea that God could create the world in seven days if he wanted to. I'm hard-pressed to find anybody who would actually believe that. Say, You don't possibly believe that?

Well, I'm very happy to believe that, yes. Well, how did it get as old? Well, I've seen you antiquing things. Don't you think God can antique things?

He makes something new look old? You do it. I've been in your houses. I've been in my house.

I don't need to go in anyone else's house. And when he's done that in the synagogue, then he moves out into the marketplace with those who just happen to be there. That's verse 17. And he talked with those who happened to be there.

In other words, he didn't have appointments. He just engaged people in conversation. Now, some of us are better at this than others. Some of us are raconteurs. Some of us can talk about anything. Most of the time, nobody wants to listen to us. Other people have difficulty in engaging people in conversation. Not everybody is able to do it in the same way.

But if you're introverted and you're not good at starting these conversations, that's okay, because people are looking for people like you because they don't like extroverted people who are like in their face all the time. And so God knows what he's doing in putting people together. And Paul, given his temperament, given his personality, is out in the community, in the mainstream of life, down in the marketplace, and he just seizes the opportunity to speak with those who happen to be there. So I have a sneaking suspicion that if we would just scatter into these communities and into these places, intentionally thinking about opportunities for the gospel, we'll actually fill Parkside up two or three times over with people who are just interested as a result of our conversations. If you're listening to Truth for Life, that is Alistair Begg concluding a message titled City of Idols.

We'll hear more tomorrow. We learned today how the idolatry prevalent in Paul's day, and still prevalent in our day, was actually predicted by the prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament. In the same way, in John's gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that everything written in the law of Moses and in the prophets and in the Psalms is about him and must be fulfilled. So you can see it is tremendously helpful as a student of the Bible to understand the Old Testament scriptures as well as the New.

And we found a booklet that we think will help you do that. It's titled Does the Old Testament Really Point to Jesus? This is a short 45 page book that illustrates how the Old Testament prophets predicted the coming Messiah, and it explains why this Jesus is that Messiah. This is a booklet every student of the Bible ought to read. It's a great companion to any Old Testament Bible study.

It's very helpful to share with those who are new to studying God's word. Ask for your copy of the booklet Does the Old Testament Really Point to Jesus? when you donate to support the Bible teaching ministry on Truth for Life. To give, simply tap the book image in the mobile app or visit us online at slash donate.

Or you can call us at 888-588-7884. And by the way, if you make a donation and request a copy of the booklet Does the Old Testament Really Point to Jesus? and you'd like to purchase additional copies for a Bible study group or to give to others, you'll find them in our online store. They're available for purchase at our cost while supplies last. Visit slash store.

I'm Bob Lapine. Thanks for joining us today. As we are finding out, the Apostle Paul, when he became a follower of Jesus, didn't seclude himself for the rest of his life in isolation. His compassion for others compelled him to be right in the thick of things, and tomorrow we'll learn how we can engage with the culture without compromising our faith. The Bible teaching of Alistair Begg is furnished by Truth for Life, where the Learning is for Living.
Whisper: medium.en / 2024-04-17 06:52:59 / 2024-04-17 07:02:36 / 10

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