Acts 14:8-20 - Worship the True, Living, Creator God (Rev. Erik Veerman)
Who or what do you worship? Worship is when you honor something or someone to the extent that ascribe ultimate worth to it… you put your hope in that person or thing – you orient your life around it. I ask because every single person worships. It’s engrained in us. We can’t escape it. We have this internal draw to worship something. This has been demonstrated over and over throughout the centuries and civilization. Sometimes it focuses on other gods …or centers around specific people …or a search for oneness with things or the environment or something out there. Even those who claim to not be religious, demonstrate this in their devotion to things and people and philosophies.
Why? Why is humanity so religious? Where does this inescapable sense to worship something come from?
The answer from a Christian perspective is that every single human being has been made in God’s image. It’s like we each have God’s fingerprints on us. Because of that, we innately sense there’s something greater than us, something to worship.
There’s a problem, though. It’s that sin has fractured God’s image in us. Sin is our rebellion against God. It separated and separates us from God. Sin didn’t remove the imprint of God on us, but it shattered it.
Blaise Pascal, the 17th century mathematician, put it this way: “there was once in man a true happiness [a happiness in God], of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace. This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him… though none can help.” Pascal went on to say essentially that this vacuum in our hearts can only truly be filled… to use his words… “by the infinite unchangeable… God himself.”
He was saying that we each worship something – we seek to fill the God-shaped hole in our hearts, but our worship is all vain, it’s all futile, unless we worship the one true God.
And that’s the message here in Acts 14:8-20. To worship the living and true, creator God – and not the false gods, false religions we pursue. If you look down to the middle of verse 15, you’ll see the clear message. The apostle Paul said “…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.”
This morning, I want to begin by examining what exactly was going on in the city of Lystra. What transpired, why, and look at how the apostles responded. And then second, take this and apply it to our world today. Because you may be thinking, “how is this relevant to me or our city or our culture? I mean, our culture doesn’t believe in Greek mythology – we don’t worship Zeus or Hermes, you know. So why does it matter?” That’s a very legitimate question. What I want to show is that the religions today – formal and informal - resemble the false worship here in Acts 14. And therefore the call of verse 15 is the same for us.
Part 1: The false worship in Lystra
As you know, we have been working our way through the Acts – we’re here in chapter 14 – at the half-way point. Most recently we’ve followed the apostle Paul and his companion, Barnabas, on what’s been called the first missionary journey. They were commissioned by the church in Antioch (the Antioch in Syria) to take the Gospel message of Christ to the nations. They began in familiar territory. First in Cyprus where Barnabas grew up, and then to southern part of Asia minor, modern day Turkey, near the Apostle Paul’s hometown. From there, they ventured to the central part of Asia Minor, to the region of Pidisia. Every step along the way, they preached the Gospel. And every step along the way they ran in to some opposition.
In verses 5 and 6 of chapter 14, we learn they had to flee the city of Iconium because of threats. And so that brought them to Lystra.
Now, their usual practice when arriving in a new city was to find the local Jewish synagogue. But Lystra was very different than the other cities. There wasn’t a Jewish synagogue. Instead, there was a temple to these two Greek gods – Zeus and Hermes.
Lystra was, in fact, the very location where a mythological account of Zeus and Hermes took place. Zeus, or Jupiter in Latin, was the known as the supreme God. And Hermes, or Mercury in Latin, was his son.
Legend was that these gods disguised themselves as men and they came to the very area of Lystra. By the way, this was all recorded by the Latin poet Ovid. The story went that that Zeus and Hermes were denied hospitality by the local people over and over… until this poor elderly couple that took them in their small straw house. Well, the gods were angry with all the people that had rejected them. And they therefore destroyed every home by a flood – all except the home of this couple.
Well, the people of Lystra were afraid that this would happen again – so they built a temple to worship Zeus and Hermes. Archeologist have also found a stone inscription to Zeus and Hermes in this ares. As a city, they were very much focused on these gods. Their lives revolved around them – and they worshipped them. This was very different than what Paul and Barnabas had experienced so far.
And that explains a lot of what was going on!
Notice something – the healing miracle in verses 8-10 was very similar to what happened back in chapter 3. Do you remember that? In both cases, a man, disabled from birth, never able to walk, and Peter in the first case, and Paul here, looked intently and saw his faith and then called out - Stand up and walk! And in each case, the man was healed.
But what was very different was the crowd’s response. In Jerusalem – praise of the God of the Scriptures - many came to faith in Christ – the messiah.
But in Lystra – their underlying culture was vastly different. They didn’t have the Jewish Scriptures or an understanding of the God of the Bible. So when the people saw what happened – what did they do? They filtered it through their religion and belief. Look at verse 11. They lifted up their voices. “’The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!’ Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker”
By the way, Hermes or Mercury was the messenger God. That’s why Paul was called Hermes You see, to them these gods had come back, again. Just like the first time, in the likeness of men. Well, the people of Lystra didn’t want to make the same mistake as the people in the legend. They were afraid – and so what did they do? They began to worship Paul and Barnabas – thinking they were these two gods.
At that point, the people were speaking in their own native tongue, Lycaonian, it says. So likely Paul and Barnabas didn’t even know, at first, what was going on. But then, the priest of the pagan temple came to them. He had an oxen as a sacrifice for them. As soon as Paul and Barnabas understood – it grieved them, of course. They ran into the crowds and tore their clothes. Pleading that this worship would stop. No, they were not gods. “We also are men, of like nature with you”
Back then, tearing their clothes was a sign of deep concern over the people’s actions. The other examples of this in the Bible also involved false worship, idolatry, and blasphemy.
This is where Paul then declared to them the living God. We’re back again to verse 15, “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.”
Paul was saying, “You are worshipping false gods who cannot save you. But let me tell you about the one true God who can.” For most of the people in Lystra, they had never heard this before. The Jewish people who had been scattered by the various exiles… had not settled in Lystra. There was no one to speak of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
So Paul’s message focused on the one God – He is living and he created all things – “the heaven and earth and the sea and all that is in them,” he said. Paul continued, this God was the one who gave you the rains and seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness. In other words, the living creator God did not spin up creation and step away. No, he’s alive and active in it.
Creation itself was a witness to God, he said– testifying about him. Verse 17.
We responsively read earlier from Psalm 19. “The heavens declare the glory of God and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.” Or Romans 1 “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For 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.”
Romans 1 is very applicable to Paul’s sermon here. Paul went on to write, “So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking… they… exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.”
Now back to Acts 14 - Paul was saying to the people of Lystra: the God-shaped hole in your heart, you’ve been trying to fill with the wrong things and wrong worship.
Some of you wear glasses. And depending on how bad your vision is, you may not be able to see much without them - everything is blurry. Maybe it’s even hard to walk or drive – by the way, it’s not a good idea to drive without your glasses. But with the right prescription, the right glasses, everything is clear. That’s the point of glasses – to help you to see clearly.
Paul was giving them glasses. Everything had been blurry – they knew something was out there, they had the inescapable sense to worship, but they were driving without glasses the wrong way down a one way street.
These new glasses… this new way to see the world was the only right and true worldview. The lens of the true living creator God.
You may be asking, though. Where was the Gospel message? The Gospel message is that salvation is found in Jesus alone. Did Paul speak of Jesus? That’s also a reasonable question because in the words we’re given here, Jesus isn’t mentioned.
Yet, we know for sure that the Gospel of Christ was mentioned and preached. First of all, look back at verses 6 and 7. When Paul and Barnabas had arrived in Lystra and the surrounding area… it says “they continued to preach the Gospel.” That was the purpose of their trip. Verse 9 also indicates that Paul was speaking. It says, “He [that is, the disabled man] listened to Paul speaking.” We’re not told what Paul said, but what else would he have been speaking about than the Gospel.
We also know that some believed in Christ, and over time more and more believed because a church was formed.
Paul would even come back to Lystra multiple times to strengthen the church. Lystra is also where he met Timothy who would accompany him on his second missionary journey.
But that’s not the end of this particular event. Because look what happened next. First of all, verse 18, many still tried to offer sacrifices to Paul and Barnabas – the people there were so steeped in their local deities.
And meanwhile, they had been followed by the Jews! Remember Paul before his conversion? He, himself, sought after the Christians to persecute them, wherever they went. So the Jewish leaders from Antioch and Iconium arrived in Lystra. They stirred up the people there. It went something like this: “Paul and Barnabas are not gods – no, they are false prophets!” Everyone was riled up. And in a mob like fashion, they dragged Paul outside the city and stoned him, just as Stephen was. They left him for dead.
This is like cancel culture version 1, isn’t it? At one moment, thinking he was literally a god – the next moment literally trying to kill him.
But Paul wasn’t dead. No, God had more work for him. He got up and went right back into the city – imagine that! Then the next day they departed for nearby Derbe.
When Paul wrote the letter to the Galatians (remember, these cities are in Galatia), he was writing to the believers there and wrote this, “…I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.” He wasn’t saying, as some think, that Paul had nail marks in his hands and feet like Jesus. No, when you are stoned, as Paul was, you will bear the physical scars for life. It was a constant reminder to him and others of the cost of following Christ.
Bringing the hope of Jesus to these people, who had never heard of the living God, was worth the cost.
Part 2: Worship the true and living creator God
That brings us to the second part this morning – what does this teach us today?
Our culture has not been ensnared by the Greek gods and myths. Yes, the Avengers probably are the closest things we have to that – but they are seen for what they are - CGI.
However, that doesn’t make our culture any less religious. No, we are just as religious but in different ways. We won’t be able to unpack all the different ways this morning, of course. In a few weeks, we’ll have some more time as we study Paul’s address at Mars Hill in Athens. There he witnessed a city full of idols and gods – not just two– and Paul very effectively witnessed to the truth. Stay tuned for that.
Here in this text, the first thing to understand is that Christianity claims exclusivity. While there are many organized religions of the world - the Bible teaches that there is only one true God… only one God that we should worship… only one path to God, one way to be saved - through Jesus. Everything else is “vain” to use Paul’s words. Vain worship – empty and hollow worship of gods that are merely myth.
That vain worship includes…
• Hinduism’s many deities and its pursuit of dharma - duty and conduct
• Buddhism’s path toward ultimate reality - nirvana
• Islam’s submissions, and pilgrimage, and prayers
• Confucianism’s teaching of perfectable human nature
• And many others
These all, though they draw many to their religious practices, are ultimately false worship of false gods.
Just this last week I was invited by another pastor to have dinner with several leaders of another prominent religion. I can’t share specifics right now as we hope to continue the dialog. We enjoyed the time. They shared their beliefs. We shared our beliefs. And while there were external similarities – there were vast differences on salvation and truth. We spoke plainly about Jesus, and faith and grace and the cross. They shared about their beliefs about the path to God. Our prayer is that the Gospel message would have been heard… and that we would be able to meet again to go deeper.
To reiterate Paul’s message. There’s only one true God – and he is vast beyond all measure. Creator of all things. And as Paul said – even though all other worship is vain, there is “good news.” Don’t miss that phrase in verse 15. The good news is that the God of the universe is not only great – he desires to be known and worshipped. The true living creator God whom we should worship alone.
But also, besides the formal religions of the world, there are informal religions out there. Many of them, actually. Just like the false worship of Zeus and Hermes which had beliefs, and priests, and temples, and sacrifices – these informal cultural religions also have gods and beliefs, concepts of sin and penalties, and forms of worship.
Politics, for one, can certianly take on informal religious overtones. It has priests and saviors and creeds. Paths to salvation and paths to destruction. Concepts of sin and sacred writings. These religious elements in politics are not named with religious terms but they function in the similar ways. To be sure, I’m not talking about any one political party. No, rather I’m speaking about the religion of politics.
We can become more zealous about our politics than our faith in God and salvation. I’m not saying that politics shouldn’t have a place in our lives or to a certain extent, the church. Yes, the Bible should speak into our politics. But the lens through which we see the world… including politics should be our Christian worldview. Not the other way around.
When we evangelize our political ideology more than our savior… when our social media posts are more about what we think about government and policies more than our faith in the God we serve… then we need to step back and consider what and who we worship.
Another informal religion (in our culture today) is justice and race and sexuality. These have converged in a new ideology – critical race and social justice theory. It has creeds - you need to think in a certain way. There’s sin and consequences – when your actions or words go against this new religion, you are cancelled. There are priests – people who champion the woke message, and there’s penance – reparations. Now, to be sure, we all care about these matters – justice and race and sexuality - the Bible speaks to each of them. But according to this new kind of religion… if you don’t conform in a certain way, then you’re out – you’re labelled as not caring and not loving.
I know with this particular topic, there are many sensitivities. I don’t want to cause more confusion than clarity and so I haven’t unpacked any details on purpose. However, we do plan to help navigate these things with some helpful teaching and material in the coming months. But I think you can see that this prevalent ideology is an informal religion of our time. What I’m saying is that when this lens becomes your worldview – when you evaluate everything that happens through it, then you should ask yourself whether you’ve replaced worship of the living creator God and his Word with this new religion.
Let me end with the question we began with. Who or what do you worship? Because the vacuum in your heart will not go unfilled.
What we each need, is to fill our hearts with worship of the eternal living God – He created you and me, and all things. Who has not just created us, but who desires to be worshiped. Who alone is worthy of worship. Who fashioned and formed us for true worship. Who did not leave us in a shattered and fractured state because of sin, but who has done an amazing thing!
This true living eternal God has given us a sacrifice greater than any sacrifice ever offered. A sacrifice that can fully repair that eternal separation we have from him. He sacrificed himself – the living creator God took on human likeness– it’s not a myth like Zeus and Hermes. No, he came in the flesh – he fulfilled what we could not fulfill in our own man-centered semi-religions pursuits and thinking and philosophies. He saved us from sin, restored us to life, reconciled us to him. Who is he? He is Christ the Lord – the son of God. Jesus. The one who died and was raised for us and for God’s glory. And to him alone every knee should bow, and every tongue confess the king of glory now.
There’s no other religion that answers the questions of life and meaning and hope and morality – and no other god who should be worshipped and glorified. That’s because he is the only true living creator God.