The following is a lightly edited transcript of this message. Please confirm quotations using the original audio or video, above.
Most of the talks and most of the messages, the expositions are going to be a consecutive covering of the book of Second Timothy on how to steward and communicate the gospel. What I’m going to do here at the front, and Don Carson at the end, we’re going to do two book-end expositions to reflect on the nature of gospel ministry. In my case, because I want to talk about something that is assumed in 2 Timothy and is very, very important to gospel ministry. While it’s not explicit here, it’s explicit in the book of Acts.
I’m going to read to you from Acts 19:23-41. It’s a very entertaining and extremely interesting and vivid incident in the ministry of Paul, and one of the very few places in the book of Acts where you have an incident depicted without a sermon from an apostle.
There’s no actual example of apostolic preaching, except for a little synopsis, which you’ll hear in the middle. Acts 19:23 says,
About that time there arose no little disturbance concerning the Way. For a man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought no little business to the craftsmen. These he gathered together, with the workmen in similar trades, and said,
“Men, you know that from this business we have our wealth. And you see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost all of Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods. And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may be counted as nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship.”
When they heard this they were enraged and were crying out, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” So the city was filled with the confusion, and they rushed together into the theater, dragging with them Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians who were Paul’s companions in travel. But when Paul wished to go in among the crowd, the disciples would not let him. And even some of the Asiarchs, who were friends of his, sent to him and were urging him not to venture into the theater. Now some cried out one thing, some another, for the assembly was in confusion, and most of them did not know why they had come together. Some of the crowd prompted Alexander, whom the Jews had put forward. And Alexander, motioning with his hand, wanted to make a defense to the crowd. But when they recognized that he was a Jew, for about two hours they all cried out with one voice, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”
And when the town clerk had quieted the crowd, he said, “Men of Ephesus, who is there who does not know that the city of the Ephesians is temple keeper of the great Artemis, and of the sacred stone that fell from the sky? Seeing then that these things cannot be denied, you ought to be quiet and do nothing rash. For you have brought these men here who are neither sacrilegious nor blasphemers of our goddess. If therefore Demetrius and the craftsmen with him have a complaint against anyone, the courts are open, and there are proconsuls. Let them bring charges against one another. But if you seek anything further, it shall be settled in the regular assembly. For we really are in danger of being charged with rioting today, since there is no cause that we can give to justify this commotion.” And when he had said these things, he dismissed the assembly.
This is the reading of God’s Word.
The main thing I’d like to show you is that Paul, in his preaching of the gospel, always took on and challenged the idols of the culture, the idols of people’s hearts. Therefore, you can’t really administer the gospel in a life-changing way unless you also, like Paul always did, discern, expose, and challenge the idols of your place.
What I want to show you here is something about how to discern idols, how to expose idols, and, then finally, how to destroy idols.
How to Discern Idols
First, discerning idols. Paul preached the gospel in such a way that it changed his converts’ lives. Because he went after the idols of the region and the idols of the people’s hearts, when people converted, it so changed the way in which they lived in the world that it affected the culture.
Today, a lot of folks are having born-again experiences, as they say, deciding for Christ, saying, “I’ve received Christ as my savior,” but they don’t live any differently than anyone else in the culture.
That’s actually one of the scandals of our church. I think it’s because their idols weren’t confronted with the gospel. Paul confronted the idols of the culture so his converts changed in the way in which they lived to the extent that the very economy was affected—the culture was affected. Now, how did he do that?
As I mentioned before, Acts 19 doesn’t actually give us a sermon from Paul, which is rather unusual, though it gives us a little synopsis. I slowed down as we went over it so you could hear it. Demetrius actually gives us a synopsis of the kind of preaching Paul was doing. He says, “This man, this fellow, Paul says, man-made gods are no gods at all.”
So that’s actually discerning and exposing. He was talking about the idols, and he went after the idols. Now, we don’t learn more than that in this passage. So, if you want to know something about this sermon, this kind of preaching, it’s not that hard. If you go back through the rest of Acts, you’ll see Paul confronting the idols in Acts 14 at Lystra and in Acts 16 at Philippi.
Perhaps, the most famous place is Acts 17, where he preached in Athens. If you go back there, and we won’t do that very long since we’re trying to expound this passage, you will see three things about how Paul dealt with idols in his preaching.
First of all, when he went into Athens, we see in Acts 17:16, he saw that the city was filled with idols. He saw the idols. He discerned the idols. He recognized them.
As I just said, I don’t think you can minister the gospel very well unless you look around your city and see the idols. Figure out what they are. Every gender has a set of idols. Every culture has a set of idols. Every class of the set of idols. Every race has a set of idols. Every individual has a set of idols. And Paul knew what they were.
Every gender has a set of idols. Every culture has a set of idols. Every class of the set of idols. Every race has a set of idols. Every individual has a set of idols. And Paul knew what they were.
Secondly, he went to the Agora to preach against the idols. Now, again, not to go too deep into Acts 17, but you and I, when we see the word Agora, which has always translated “the marketplace,” we see Paul went to the marketplace to preach. In our culture, we only think of the marketplace or the public square as a place where there’s a lot of shops and maybe foot traffic.
So, when you and I hear that Paul went into the Agora, the marketplace, to preach against the idols, you and I think only about individual evangelism. He just wanted to find individuals and preach the gospel to them. And of course, he did. It is important to realize something about the Agora. That’s where the culture was formed. All this is happening before print. All communication had to happen face-to-face. Therefore, the Agora, the marketplace, was the place not only where there was commercial culture going on, which of course is very important. This was where the business, theaters, and public halls were and where everything was debated. This is the place where the law courts and the state houses were.
In other words, for Paul to take the gospel and confront the idols in the marketplace would be like us going to Hollywood, to Harvard, and writing in The New York Times. He is not just out on the street. Today, literally, out on the street, all we get are individuals. We don’t get into the culture, because the culture is actually not there anymore. In that time and place, Paul was taking the gospel into Hollywood, into the faculty of Harvard, and into the boardroom of The New York Times. That’s what he was doing. And he began preaching against idols.
And what are the idols? See, over every marketplace, certainly we know in Athens, but also in Ephesus, over the Agora were always the shrines, temples, and the actual images of the gods. The idols overshadowed the marketplace because all cultures are based on idols. Every individual life, every community, and every culture that is not based on the glory and the grace of God is going to be based on some created thing in God’s place. Everyone, every community, and every culture looks to something to save it or rescue it.
Every individual life, every community, and every culture that is not based on the glory and the grace of God is going to be based on some created thing in God’s place. Everyone, every community, and every culture looks to something to save it or rescue it.
A culture puts its hope and its meaning in something. Just take a look at these gods. Beauty is a great thing, but if you mythologize it or raise it up to the level of deity in a person’s life or culture’s life where it matters more than anything else and becomes a kind of ultimate value, then you have Aphrodite, not just Beauty.
Human reason is a great thing, but when you lift it up to the place where that’s the thing that’s going to save us and decide what is right or wrong based on it, then you have Athena.
Take money for example. It’s a very helpful thing to have. Making money can be a great deal of fun. If you do very well in it, you can do an awful lot of good. It’s great to make money, but when it becomes the ultimate thing, when it becomes the central thing in the life of a culture or an individual, then you have Artemis.
In other words, these gods overshadowed the marketplace not just because that was an architectural motif of the time. Every single culture is dominated by idols, unless it’s dominated by the glory and the grace of God. And what Paul did was he went into the Agora, every place he went he identified what those idols were, and he went after them. Now we have to do the same thing. And at this point I need to, under this heading, I need to deal with an objection.
Every single culture is dominated by idols, unless it’s dominated by the glory and the grace of God.
Here comes the objection. It goes like this:
Well, yeah, of course, Paul always had a preach against idols. And you’re saying that we have to preach against idols to ever really preach the gospel in a life-changing, culture-shaping way, but we don’t have idols anymore. We are in modern Western culture, and people aren’t bowing down to little statues anywhere. So how in the world should we be coming against idols?
Of course the answer to that, biblically speaking, is please don’t be naive. By the way if you want a far better version of the message you’re getting from me right now, you might want to look up an old worthy Puritan named David Clarkson, whose three-volume set of works was put out by Banner of Truth a long time ago, but it’s out of print now.
In the second volume, David Clarkson has an unbelievably thorough, typically Puritan sermon called, “Soul Idolatry Excludes Men Out of Heaven.” His whole point in there, which is pretty obvious from reading the Scripture, I’ll give you a little bit of the scriptural underpinnings, is this. He says,
Open, outward idolatry [is] when men, out of a religious respect, bow to, or prostrate themselves before anything besides the true God.
Secret and soul idolatry [is] when the mind is set on anything more than God—when anything is more valued than God, more desired than God, more sought than God, more loved than God.
In other words, you can make anything into an idol. Anything at all. It does not have to be a statue. It almost never is. Now, where do you get this from the Scripture?
Recently, I was looking at some of the great passages in the Old Testament about idolatry, which are Ezekiel 16, Jeremiah 2–3, and Hosea. Those prophets use one of the three basic metaphors in the Bible for idolatry.
One of the basic metaphors is that of spiritual adultery. We love our false gods, and therefore we commit spiritual adultery with them. Another metaphor is the political or covenant metaphor. We serve idols. They become spiritual masters. The third, of course, metaphor is the religious metaphor—that we look to our gods to save us and sacrifice to them.
Jeremiah and Ezekiel talked about idolatry. At one point, they said that you have bowed down to the gods and committed idolatry when you entered into treaties for political protection with Egypt and Assyria.
Obviously, I’ve been reading this passage for years and never noticed this. When those prophets say, “That’s idolatry to have entered into those protective treaties with Egypt and Assyria,” surely the government officials of Israel must have said, “We’re not bowing down to the gods of Assyria. We’re not bowing down to the gods of Egypt. What are you talking about?”
In these protective treaties, they gave up political power, money, independence, and they allowed high taxes. Therefore, they took on political subjugation so that the great Egypt or the great Assyria would protect them. The prophets were saying that when you look to some created thing to give you what only God can give you, that’s idolatry. They weren’t bowing down, but when you look to anything to give you what only God can give you, that’s idolatry.
Let’s drill down briefly so we can move on here. What’s an idol? An idol is anything in your life that it’s so central to your life that you can’t have a meaningful life if you lose it. Idolatry is anything you look at, and in your heart of hearts you say to it, “If I have that, then my life has value, then my life has meaning. And if I would lose that, I don’t know how I would live.”
What’s an idol? An idol is anything in your life that it’s so central to your life that you can’t have a meaningful life if you lose it.
You see, an idol can be anything. An idol can be family and children. It could be a career or making money. It can be an achievement or critical acclaim. It can be social standing or a romantic relationship. It can be your competence and skill. It can be physical beauty, either in yourself or in your partner. It can be some political or social cause. It can be your moral record. It can be, and we’ll get to this in a second, your religiosity and your religious activity and even your ministry success. All of those things can be idols. Here’s how you know when something has become an idol: when you lose something, and it’s just a good thing to you then you’re sad, but if you lose one of those things and it has become an ultimate thing, then you want to throw yourself off a bridge.
If you can’t live without it, then you can know that you have an idol in your life. There are all kinds of people out there who, like most people in America, would say, “I believe in God.” They may even say, “I go to church.” Yet, they are so invested in their career or a particular romantic relationship or ministry success that if it goes south, they want to kill themselves.
This perspective shows that you’re in the thrall of an idol or the arms of an idol. When you take a finite, limited, good thing and make it into an ultimate thing, you’ve created an idol, and you’re enthralled with it.
This is the reason why the pagans weren’t crazy to have sex gods and work gods and play gods and nature gods and national gods. There’s a god for everything because everything could be a god. Everything, anything, any object, relationship, pursuit, or material thing, and especially the best ones, can take on the role of deity in your life or deity in a culture.
How to Expose the Idols
Paul was a really effective preacher because he (and I hope now you) saw idols everywhere. Not only does Paul discern the idols everywhere, and I hope we start to rather than hiding behind the idea that we don’t have shrines or temples, but he exposed them.
By the way, that’s not entirely true. We do have shrines and temples. In Boston they ask, “What does he know?” In New York they ask, “How much does he make?” In Philadelphia they ask, “Who’s his family?” Those are idols. Cultures have their idols, because you have academic excellence, and that’s what really matters, or you make a lot of money, that’s what really matters.
Ironically, different regions “poo-poo” people in the other city because they say, “Oh, they make such a big thing about money.” In the business world, the idol is profit. In the artistic world, the idol is self-expression. So in the business world, they say, “Sure, express yourself, but not if it’s going to make you lose money.” In the artistic world, you express yourself, and if you make money, it’s an insult. You’ve sold out. Why have you sold out? See, because now you’re like those people over there in the financial world. And you see their idolatry. They sell out for money. But you’ve sold out. You’ve sold out this self-expression. What’s so great about self-expression? It’s an idol. Do you see the idols in your vocational field? Do you see the idols in your city? Do you see the idols? Now, once you see them, if you see them, the second thing is you have to expose them.
Paul doesn’t just say, “There are many man-made gods around,” but then he also says, “And they are no gods at all.” Paul knew how to expose them. One of the reasons that this very passage is given to us is so that we look at Acts 19 and say, there’s a lot that happens to Paul. Lots and lots of true things really happen to Paul, but only a few of them get into the Bible. So, why did Luke decide to give us this one, especially when you don’t get a sermon in it?
Most of the commentators tell us to look at what’s actually happening. This was a way to show readers that the idol worshipers are claiming that “Our culture is failing and our social order is in jeopardy because these Christians are preaching this gospel.” Yet, at the end, the city clerk is trying to say, “Guess what, our social order is more at risk because of you than from the Christians” because the idols never deliver. When idols are threatened, there’s chaos. There’s confusion and violence. When a person is in the thrall of an idol, they can be looking pretty respectful and respectable on the outside.
When idols are threatened, there’s chaos. There’s confusion and violence.
If you threaten that idol, they’ll kill you. And so the point here, of course, is that, in a sense, the incident exposes the idols, the weakness of the idols, exposes the fact that they can’t deliver the social order they’re supposed to deliver. The big charge against the Christians was that they were jeopardizing the social order by saying there’s only one true God and the idols are no gods at all.
Contrarily, this incident shows that, no, actually, the social order is more in jeopardy from the idols themselves. Now, let’s press on this. Let me give you some examples. We’re here for practical ministry. There are three kinds of idols that you’re going to have to expose if you’re going to communicate the gospel.
If you’re trying to communicate the gospel to anybody, you need to know what their idols are, because the gospel says, “You’re saved by grace,” and the idol says, “You’re saved by something else.” And it’s one thing to say, “Oh, you’re saved by grace. You’re not justified by works.” But do you realize how many different forms of works there are? Do you realize how many different forms of works righteousness there really are out there?
Unless you know what form you’re talking to, how do you know how to apply the gospel to it? Three kinds of idols that you have to expose: personal idols, religious idols, and cultural idols. We could spend a lot of time on this.
Every individual, because we don’t want to believe that we’re justified by grace and don’t want to rely on God and on Christ for our salvation, relies on something else. Any life that’s not built on God’s glory and His grace is going to be built on the deification of something else.
Any life that’s not built on God’s glory and His grace is going to be built on the deification of something else.
It’s going to be built on turning something else into a pseudo-savior, some way in which you save yourself without having to go to God. So you think you’re keeping control of your life, but you really are not. Romans 1 says, that’s really the form of how sin works itself out in everybody’s life anyway. It’s always idolatry. Romans 1 is pretty remarkable in how it talks about that. It’s talking about sin in general, in the whole human race, and basically says idolatry is the essence of all sins.
Exposing the Personal Idol of Money
Let me give you three personal idols. One is the one that’s actually dealt with here, money. By the way, Artemis ended up becoming the goddess of business. It’s because Artemis was the goddess of the moon, of the hunt, and also of fertility.
Because she was a goddess of fertility, that made her associated with fertility of the ground, and therefore of good harvest, and therefore financial prosperity. On top of that, you saw there was a reference to this by the city clerk, a meteorite fell to earth near Ephesus. Many people thought the meteorite looked like a statue of Artemis.
Therefore, we have a statue. I mean she sent us her own image. And so they set it up, and they created the temple of Artemis with the temple of Diana, which was seven times bigger than the Parthenon and was one of the wonders of the ancient world. Everybody went to come see the meteorite. Everybody wanted to come see the size of this thing.
It became Disney World of the ancient world. It became an enormous tourist attraction. As a result, because of all the commercialism that went around it, the temple became fabulously rich, and Ephesus became a business center, became a financial center. And Artemis became the goddess of business.
If you wanted to make a lot of money, you sacrificed, served, and honored her. They’re afraid that if people aren’t honoring Artemis, their whole economy might collapse, because they’re not going to be buying our statuettes, but not only that, but perhaps it means we’re not honoring her, then business is going to go down.
Isn’t that awful? And very often it was child sacrifice. Listen, I live at an Ephesus called New York City. Let me press this home a little bit. I know this is going to be really shocking when I tell you this, but all over New York City, there’s the practice of child sacrifice. The goddess of business in New York City means that if you want to get in the financial world and make a lot of money then you have to sacrifice your family.
The jobs are set up that way. The work is structured that way. You have to sacrifice your family. You will not be a good father or mother. You can’t be, and that’s what you do. If you’re going to get the money and the power that comes, you have to sacrifice to the goddess.
To be a Christian, do we want to say, “This is the thing that we face in New York City, so, no Christians should work in the financial world.” I don’t think we want to say that. I don’t think that’s great. I think we need to say, “Every single part of the world is Jesus’s part of the world.”
Making money is not intrinsically wrong and finance is not intrinsically wrong. It can be a great thing. Yet for Christians to walk into a place as dominated by this god, this idol that demands child sacrifice, is really tough. How do you get in there and still do your job and not bow down.
In other words, how do you make money just money? How do you demythologize it so it’s not Artemis, the goddess? How do you demythologize it so it’s not your identity, so it’s not your main value, it’s not your salvation? Only with the gospel.
How do you make money just money? How do you demythologize it so it’s not Artemis, the goddess? How do you demythologize it so it’s not your identity, so it’s not your main value, it’s not your salvation? Only with the gospel.
Exposing the Personal Idol of Romance
Let me give you a second kind of personal Idol, and that’s romance. If you fall in love with somebody, oh my it’s very, very powerful. Therefore, this is really, really hard, a very hard line to draw. You can begin to look to this other person to make you feel worthy and valuable. You feel like I’m nobody unless this person loves me. It could be a great name for a song. If in your heart-of-hearts that’s how you are, then first of all you’re going to put no boundaries on your relationships. You’re going to get into lots of relationships in which you shouldn’t have sex, you know you shouldn’t, but you do. You shouldn’t be practically married or married to a non-Christian, but you do. Why? There are no boundaries.
But, listen, what’s the difference between a slave master and a boss? Bosses can’t do anything to you, can they? There’s a limit to what they can do. Slave masters could literally do anything. They could beat you. They could rape you. They could kill you. Slave masters had no boundaries. How do you know whether your love relationship is just a love relationship or it’s Aphrodite? It’s mythological. It’s grown to mythological proportions.
You have no boundaries. See, your idol is doing anything it wants with you. You feel bad about that, but you do it, because you can’t lose this person. You feel bad about what you’re doing, but can’t lose this person. You lie or you cheat to cover up your affair.
Exposing the Personal Idol of Children
In the evangelical world, we don’t think of children as idols, but let me tell you, there are all kinds of parents out there who essentially are looking at their children, and in their heart of hearts, they’re saying, “If my children are happy, if my children are believers, if my children love me, if my children are successful, then I know that I’m worth something.”
If that’s how you look at your children, not just as good things but as ultimate things, and you start to live your lives out through your children, basically, the child will follow one of two paths. They are either going to stay near you and be crushed under the weight of your expectations, or they will get as far away from you as possible, and because you’ve turned that child into an idol, it’ll wound you in a way that you’ll never get over.
You’ll be mad at God. How dare God do such a thing as this? I can’t believe in God, but the depth of the wound is your own making. Unless, you understand personal idols, your counseling, pastoring, and preaching are going to be so superficial. It’s not going to touch them. For example, Martin Luther, in his larger catechism, his exposition of the Ten Commandments is so crucial. You know, the first commandment, “Have no other gods before me.” And then you have all the other commandments. And Luther said that he didn’t think it was an accident that the idolatry commandment is first.
The more you think about it, you never ever break Commandments 2–10 without first breaking number one. The sin underneath, all other sins is the sin of idolatry. And here’s an example. If you lie, you’re breaking one of the Ten Commandments, because you lied. But why did you lie in any particular situation? You say, “Well, I lied because I was just so afraid of losing face.” In other words, human opinion is more important at that moment to your self-worth and your value than Jesus, which means that’s an idol, and you wouldn’t have lied except you really failed to rest in Christ as your salvation, as your righteousness. Human opinion is your salvation and your righteousness. You don’t really believe the gospel at that point. You say, “I believe in the gospel of grace,” but basically, functionally, and at the heart-level, you’re being saved by works. Do you see that?
You can’t understand moral failings without understanding idolatry. You also can’t understand psychological problems without idolatry.
Years ago, when I was a young pastor, I had two women at the same time in my church who were just bitter against their husbands, and their marriages were falling apart. Now their husbands were not believers, and the wives were. The reason they were so bitter was because each of them had one son and because the husbands were being such poor fathers, the sons were acting up and beginning to get into a lot of trouble.
I remember thinking, as a pastor, the very first thing I need to help these women with is to forgive their husbands. I said, “You better forgive your husbands, because you’re not going to be able to talk with them when you’re so angry. You’re not going to be able to see their perspective. I told them, “You’re in the right on what they’re doing wrong, but the way that you’re expressing yourself, you’re always shooting yourself in the foot. There’s no way a man is going to listen to somebody talking in the tone of voice you’re talking in when you are filled with anger and bitterness.”
As a young minister, it was odd to me that the woman who forgave her husband was actually a less mature Christian who had the worst husband of the two. The other woman, who was actually at least a more experienced Christian and really had a better husband of the two, couldn’t. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t.
I realized years later, when I look back, that there was a key difference. They both loved their sons, but the woman who couldn’t forgive her husband had turned her son into an idol. Basically, partly because she had such a cold relationship with her husband. Over the years, she had turned and said, “The main way in which I get love in the world is my son. If my son loves me, everything is okay. Well, I believe in God, but if my son doesn’t love me, I don’t even want to live,” and she couldn’t forgive.
When people say to me, “Oh, I believe God has forgiven me, but I can’t forgive myself.” Have you ever said that? Have you ever talked to anybody who says that? That happens all the time in my work as a pastor. I know God has forgiven me. I can’t forgive myself.
You can’t say, “Well, I don’t know what to say.” I’ll give you something to say. This shows that there is a higher god in their life than God. They failed something or someone else. For example, many people are driven by parental expectations. When they fail to reach those parental expectations, they hate themselves and beat themselves up.
Whenever they fail, they think, I know God forgives me, but I can’t forgive myself. What that really means is your real god, which are your parents, your parental expectations are cursing you because that’s your god—it’s your spiritual master. And the gods are always violent. There’s no mercy in those gods. And unless you repent of your idolatry, until you repent and recognize the fact that, you know what, you say you believe in Jesus Christ, but functionally speaking, he’s really not your Savior. Your parents are your saviors.
This is all through the Bible. Money can be an idol. Greed is idolatry. Politics can be an idol. You made the Egyptians and the Assyrians into an idol. You have to expose them for what they are. They’re killing you. They can’t deliver, they can’t give you the salvation they say they’re going to forgive. They can’t give you the social order they say they’re going to give. They can’t give you the joy they say they’re going to give. You expose them.
Exposing the Religious Idol of Truth
Okay, secondly, you’re not going to be very good communicators of the gospel unless you know how to take on religious idols. Religious idols? Oh, yeah. In the same way money-worshippers think they’re just hard-working, and child-worshippers think they’re just loving their kids, those who worship religious idols think they’re very devoted to God, but they’re not.
Remember that an idol is a good thing you’re looking to instead of God for your salvation or viewing as more crucial to your value, security, confidence, and meaning in life than God is. There are three idols that very busy religious people tend to trust in instead of God: Truth, gifts, and morality.
I’ll be careful, but I’m going to say it. First of all, here’s what I mean by truth. Is it possible to say, “I am okay. I am saved because of the rightness of my belief,” instead of, “I’m okay because Jesus Christ died for me.”
Is it possible to rest your salvation functionally in the rightness of your doctrine? Yes. Proverbs has several categories of fools. The category that is mentioned 17 times is the scoffer. Some translations called them the scoffer, scorner, or mocker.
There’s two marks of this scoffer. The scoffer is dogmatic and closed in his mind. He never admits he’s wrong, but he’s sure he’s right. This could be true of somebody who just believes the truth and is not making out of the truth. The second mark of a mocker and scorner comes through his consistent disrespectful, belittling, mocking, and disdainful actions towards his opponents.
This is the very reason why they’re called scorners or mockers. Sarcasm and bluntness clearly are sometimes warranted. In 1 Kings 18:27, Elijah acts sarcastic and actually mocks the priests of Baal. In 2 Corinthians 10–13, Paul is sarcastic with his opponents.
Yet, according to the Proverbs, when you’re always disdainful of people who differ with you, by making fun of, mocking, and sarcastically dealing with them, you’re a fool. And here’s the reason why you’re a fool. By the way, of all the fools, it’s the one with the least hope.
Now what’s scary about this is—besides the fact that Proverbs says, of all the fools, the scoffer is the most far gone—that the Internet breeds scoffers. Lots of traffic comes to your blog if you’re a scoffer, right? Tell me I’m wrong.
What this means is it’s possible to make an idol out of truth.
Exposing the Religious Idol of Gifts
Secondly, it’s just as possible to make an idol out of gifts. Jonathan Edwards in his Charity and Its Fruits sermons, in the first or second one has an absolutely amazing, devastating critique of one of the great mistakes that evangelicals make today: The mistaking of spiritual gifts for spiritual fruit.
We look at spiritual gifts, and we mistake them for spiritual fruits. Spiritual gifts are leadership, preaching and teaching, and evangelism and ministry success. Spiritual fruit is love, joy, peace, patience, self-control, humility. And what Edwards points out there, which is so important, is that when you are a great communicator, or you have great musical gifts, or you have great leadership gifts, and, as a result, your ministry is successful and grows, essentially, even though you say you believe in justification by grace, you actually believe in justification by ministry. You feel like, I know God’s with me, I know I’m okay, and I know I’m right because of all the things that are happening through me. And of course, if you’re a minister, your people will be very happy to conspire to affirm that.
Every tradition is different. I would say in the Reformed world, we make an idol out of being a great preacher. I know a lot of guys who, more than anything else, want to be great preachers. They make an idol out of the gift of preaching. They want people to flock to their banner because they’re such great preachers. As a result, they’re not working on pastoring, not working on listening to people, not working on evangelism. They are only working on their messages. They just want that more than anything else. It’s an idol. And I know a lot of guys who don’t even want to be in the ministry if they’re not going to be great preachers. You’ve got this paradigm of what the ministry has got to look like. And it’s all based on the mistaking of spiritual gifts for spiritual fruit. So you can make an idol out of truth.
Exposing the Religious Idol of Morality
My book on the Prodigal is about this, that it is typical for Christians to say, “The reason God loves me is because I’m so sold out for the Lord. I come to church. I take notes on the sermon. I’m praying. I’m having my quiet time. I’m just saying ‘no’ to all this bad stuff. I’m trying to obey the Ten Commandments. Surely, God has to bless me. He has to answer my prayers.” That’s garden-variety moralism and legalism. And it’s taking a moral record, which is a good thing, moral righteousness, which is a great thing, holiness, which is a great thing, and turning it into an idol, trusting in that instead of in God, trusting in truth instead of in God, trusting in your ministry’s success instead of in God.
Unless you know how to deal with those idols when you’re preaching the gospel, you’re actually not going to produce converts or people that really live any differently, because these are forms of worldliness.
Exposing the Cultural Idol of Human Reasoning
When you get out into the world, everybody thinks they’re right, and they’re bashing everybody. They make an idol out of it. That’s called ideology. What’s ideology? An idea turned into an idol. And yet, because we make idols out of truth, make idols out of gifts, and make out of our actual moral record inside the church, that’s the reason why the world looks inside and doesn’t see us living any differently. That’s the reason we’re not changing the culture. There’s an awful lot of people out there that say they’re born again. Something like 34% of the population says they’ve had a born-again experience. You know, that’s enough people. I doubt very much that a third of the population of Ephesus had become Christian. I doubt it. And yet there were enough people living lives of such distinctiveness that it was changing the economy. If a third of the people that said, “Hey, I’ve been born again. I’m an evangelical Christian,” were living in a very different way, we could have changed the culture. Here’s one of the reasons why we haven’t changed the culture: when we communicate the gospel, we don’t go after idols.
What’s ideology? An idea turned into an idol.
In some ways, evangelicals like to talk about cultural idols. I mean, it’s fair. For example, the Enlightenment. What was the Enlightenment? It was taking human reason, a good thing, and making it an ultimate thing, was it not? And so when we said, “I’m not going to accept anything in the Bible my reason doesn’t understand, so I’m just going to cut the Bible into pieces and only accept part of it.” It’s a disaster.
Another way in which human reason becoming an idol was a disaster was because of how the cultural elites for at least a hundred years believed that science, technology, education were going to be able to get rid of poverty, were going to be able to get rid of racism.
Human reason is going to bring all this. It hasn’t worked. And of course the results have been devastating, utterly devastating. In 1920, H.G. Wells, in his book The Outline of History, praised belief in human progress, implying that once we overcome the superstition of religion and start to apply science to everything, we’re going to go from strength to strength and get rid of poverty and war and racism.
1933, in his book, The Shape of Things to Come, he was appalled by the selfishness and the violence of nations. He was appalled by the lack of progress on the program he had wanted. And he actually said the only hope was for rational, reasonable, educated intellectuals to seize control of all the governments and to run a compulsory educational program stressing peace, justice, and equity.
And in 1945, he wrote a book at the end of the Second World War, A Mind at the End of Its Tether. And this is a quote, “Homo sapiens,” as he likes to call himself. You notice that Homo sapiens means the rational, the wise. “Homo sapiens,” as he likes to call himself, “is spent. This is the end.”
One commentator basically said, “What happened? He had put all of his hope in the ability of humanity to solve its problems with reason and science. And what happened? The fact of original sin forced itself into a mind who had no grasp of God’s grace or power, and it came to the end of its tether.”
Your gods will always let you down. That’s the point. The gods will never bring you what you think. They won’t bring you social order. Actually, if you give in to these gods, any god but God is going to bring down the social order.
The gods will never bring you what you think. They won’t bring you social order. Actually, if you give in to these gods, any god but God is going to bring down the social order.
Exposing the Cultural Idols of Traditionalism and Individualism
There are also broad cultural idols. Here’s what I mean by that. A lot of people here are from traditional cultures, or their parents are. In traditional cultures, the idol is the family. Individualism is gone. The idol is the family. And by the way, so many of us say, “Oh, yes, we hate the Western individualism. It’s just terrible.” And it is. I’ll get there in a second. But you know what, there’s an opposite to that, and that is the family is an idol.
In cultures in which the family is an idol, what matters more than anything else is your family. Everything exists for the family. Then you have things like honor killings. You kill the women that have disgraced the family even if it’s your daughter. Women are treated as chattel. Gay people are bashed and literally killed.
Then on the other hand, we have Western culture. Western culture says the individual and my feelings are absolute. In an individualistic culture, no one must tell anybody else that they are wrong. No one must tell anybody that their beliefs are wrong. No one must ever even offend anybody. If you say something that offends and upsets another person, that’s wrong. Of course, the idea that you should not tell anybody that their beliefs about God are wrong is itself a belief about God, which is being imposed. To say you can’t tell people that their beliefs about God are wrong is a belief about the nature of God that is being imposed. Therefore, postmodern relativism, like all idolatry, is violent at its core. And yet it’s failing.
High critical theory, which is really where all the postmodern deconstructionist stuff came from, is dead in academia, because of what I just told you. The inconsistency—they see it. The gods always fail.
Exposing the Cultural Idol of Politics
Let me give you another quick example. The political swings we have are due to idolatry. I’m so old that I remember something. I remember in the ‘70s, the people that were killing, genocide, were communists, atheists, and terrorists. They were killing people by the millions. They were the Communists, right? But on the other hand, the corruption, the high corruption, the moral corruption was in government, Watergate. So what did we decide?
Free enterprise, the free market, Reagan, Thatcher. Secular humanists. They’re the bad guys. Because, see, it’s the atheists that are killing people, and it’s the government that’s corrupt, so what we have to do is free enterprise, and let’s lower the taxes, and let’s stress traditional values. So you have the conservative movement come in with Reagan in the early ‘80s, and Thatcher.
Now what’s going on? Who’s killing the people? It’s the religious fundamentalist. Oh, it’s the religious people that are bad! Yeah. And where’s the corruption? Oh, it’s in business. So let’s raise the taxes, and let’s go to the state. I remember in The New York Times there was an article recently about Bernie Madoff. One of the speakers basically said, “Of course human beings are selfish, and they’re greedy, and they’re going to do stuff like that. Of course. That’s why we have a government to regulate it.” What’s a government? Isn’t the government people?
Conservative ideology says, “State is bad. Private enterprise is good. It will give us all we need.” And there’s a liberal ideology that says, “Private enterprise and capitalism is oppressive, and a centralized government, the state, will give you all we need.” We’re going to go back and forth, why? Ideology. Idolatry. Absolutely. Do you understand? Do you know the idols? Can you expose them?
What’s going to happen, by the way, is there’s going to be a crash. Every time we say, “Oh, the whole problem is over here, so let’s get away from those people.” We demonize those people, and we idolize these people over here. And then it’ll be a breakdown. Why? Because people are people. And, there will be corruption in government. And then we’ll have a swing back. I hope I’m dead by then. These swings take 30 or 40 years, and so, you know, I probably won’t be around.
How to Destroy Idols
Now my question, last point, it’s the briefest and probably, in some ways, the best. How do you actually do something, not just expose the idols, but how do you actually destroy them?
Notice this part of the text. It’s right here. Paul wanted to appear before the crowd, but the disciples would not let him. Even some of the officials of the province, friends of Paul, sent him a message begging him not to venture into the theater. Now the point is that when the idols are opposed, it’s dangerous.
As I’ve said all along, idols are violent. Now the Bible is very ambivalent. And that’s a weird thing to say about the Bible, but the biblical writers are ambivalent about whether idols are something or nothing.
Idols are violent.
On the one hand, idols are empty. They’re worthless things. You’ve taken a created thing, which doesn’t have the power to give you what you want. It’s something you’ve made yourself. On the other hand, they seem to wield enormous power over you. You know, the woman who was in the grip of the idolatry of her son, who never could forgive her husband, let me tell you what devastation happened.
She was angry. She was violent, basically. That marriage fell apart. That family fell apart. Everybody is miserable. The kids are a mess. And here’s why.
Idols are nothing, but through them, the powers and principalities, the forces of darkness, control us. That’s the reason why, on the one hand, the idols are nothing, and on the other hand, they’re unbelievably powerful. If you oppose them, you take your life in your hands. You take your life in your hands. But here’s the key, Paul risked his life in order to defeat the powers and principalities, but was saved.
Idols are nothing, but through them, the powers and principalities, the forces of darkness, control us. That’s the reason why, on the one hand, the idols are nothing, and on the other hand, they’re unbelievably powerful.
It cost Jesus his life. Jesus was picked up by a crowd. They cried, “Crucify him, crucify him,” and they did. Why did he die? Paul risked his life in order to defeat the powers, but it cost Jesus his life to defeat the powers, and that’s what he did, because it says so in Colossians 2:15. “Having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them on the cross.” When the world, the flesh and the devil, when the powers and principalities unleashed all their fury against the Son of God, he bowed his head into it and died. That storm engulfed him, as it were, and he sank.
And yet, we’re told, in doing that, he defeated them. He utterly defeated the idols. He utterly defeated the powers and principalities behind them. How so? He did it objectively and subjectively.
Idols Are Destroyed Objectively
First of all, he did it objectively. If you’re really serious about understanding idolatry, really serious, you’ve got to read a book by two Jewish philosophers written in 1992, put out by Harvard University professors called Idolatry. The two writers’ last names are Halbertal and Margalit. It’s fascinating to watch two Jewish philosophers deal with a very important issue in Hosea, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah.
They explain that in the biblical metaphor of idolatry as spiritual adultery, there’s a conundrum. In these texts—Ezekiel 16, Jeremiah 2, Hosea—adultery was a capital offense. Therefore, in the metaphor, God the husband tells the wife she must die. According to biblical laws, she had to die. And yet because God is still the husband, and he wants reconciliation. It’s fascinating to see two Jewish philosophers wrestle with this, but they explain that it is a profound contradiction at the heart of the spiritual adultery metaphor. Because on the one hand, what’s so awful about the sin of idolatry is it deserves death, but on the other hand, because it’s betraying someone who loves you. The lover who is betrayed, God, wants you back, but how can He? How can God both punish the adulteress as she must be punished if God is just, and also reconcile with the adulteress and bring her back into a happy marriage, which He also wants. In the end, they find no way through this contradiction. For them, it’s just the limitation of the metaphor.
But they’re wrong because Jesus Christ, our true bridegroom, came and took the punishment that we spiritual adulteresses deserve so that he can be both the just and the justifier of those who believe. Therefore, he can punish our adultery and still make us again his true bride. Therefore, objectively, he’s overcome the powers and principalities.
He can punish our adultery and still make us again his true bride.
Idols Are Destroyed Subjectively
Subjectively though, what is going to actually help me? I know Jesus died for my sins, but what’s actually going to help me pull my heart off of these things that my heart really loves more than Jesus?
I have to see what he’s done for me. That’s why I’m singing about it. That’s why I’m preaching about it. That’s why I’m listening to people preach about it. Because when that reality breaks through on me, that changes me on the spot. That frees me from my idols. That defeats the powers and principalities that he objectively defeated on the cross. Now subjectively, that triumph is coming into my life.
You’ve just got to remember this, that if you live for your career, your career can’t die for your sins. In fact, if you fail your career, it’ll punish you forever. The person I love most in the world is my wife Kathy. And my wife and I know that our biggest temptation in idolatry is the other person. It’s very hard not to slip into idolatry with your wife or your husband if your marriage is good. But here’s what I must keep telling myself: I need to love Jesus more than my wife. The only way that’s going to happen is if I worship and pray and think the gospel deep into my heart so that as much as I love my wife, Jesus Christ is my lover, is my king, is my Savior. And I see what he’s done for me, and it pulls my heart up to him. I don’t want to love my wife less. I want to love him more. One or the other of us is going to look at the other person in a coffin. And, if our savior is in that coffin, how will our savior help us when our heart is breaking? There’s only one Savior that can always help you when your heart is breaking, who’ll be able to help you face anything.
One or the other of us is going to look at the other person in a coffin. And, if our savior is in that coffin, how will our savior help us when our heart is breaking? There’s only one Savior that can always help you when your heart is breaking, who’ll be able to help you face anything.
Do you know how to take the gospel to the idols? If you learn how to do that, then and only then, will we turn the world upside down. Let’s pray.
Father, thank you for giving us this tour of the importance of this remarkable theme of the Bible. And we pray that you would help us understand it better, apply it better, but we have to start with ourselves. We have idols, and we need to see that objectively you have saved us from them, and subjectively this triumph needs to be pushed deeper and deeper into our lives so that we can live the kind of lives free from the power of these false gods, and so that we can communicate your gospel and life-changing, world-changing ways. And we pray this in Jesus’s name, Amen.