Turning to a Living God

There is a story told by the poet Ovid, who lived and died just a few decades before Christ, telling of a visit made by Zeus and Hermes to the very region of Phrygia where Paul and Barnabas have gone in Acts 14:8-20. In summary, the gods come down disguised as men in order to test the hospitality of the Phrygians. After revealing themselves through a miracle, those who didn’t welcome them are destroyed, while those who did are blessed. Ovid’s moral is that the gods take care of good people, and blast bad ones. It’s quite possible that this story is part of the reason why the Lycaonians in Lystra respond to Paul’s healing of the crippled man by identifying Paul and Barnabas as Zeus and Hermes, and by attempting to offer sacrifices to them. They think the story is coming true!

At this point, Paul’s got to be thinking “Hasn’t anyone been listening? These are the false gods that we’ve been attacking! We’re not incarnations of these vain idols, we are just men, messengers of the one true God, the Creator of heaven and earth! You’ve been looking for a visit from God? Well, who do you think has been giving you rain, and fruitful seasons, food, and everything you need?”

And in the middle of his rushed speech, Paul presents the central concern of his ministry: He exhorts the people of Lystra to “turn from these vain things”, that is, the ceremonies and sacrifices and worship of pagan deities like Zeus and Hermes, “to a living God”, a real God, a healing God. The healing of the crippled man only serves to underscore this reality: here was a man with dead legs, worshiping dead gods. In the name of a living God, Paul has restored life into his legs. A dead god cannot give life to dead legs, but the living God can! So why would you worship useless idols? Get a better God!

Think about it from another angle: Zeus and Hermes wanted the Phrygians to show hospitality, visited them in disguise as a test, and judged them for failing. This is simple moralism: be good, and God will love you. There is nothing unfair in that. It’s just not gracious, and it does not heal the lame or give life to anyone. Moralism is a dead end.

Contrast the visit of Zeus and Hermes with the visit of Jesus Christ. Like Zeus and Hermes, Jesus wants us to be hospitable. In a sense, He also visited us in disguise, and very few people welcomed Him. But His coming was primarily a gift, not a test. Zeus and Hermes think “I want to test them.” Jesus thinks “I want to be with them.”

It is true, however, that Jesus’ coming presents a test, followed by judgment. But instead of immediate judgment, Jesus responds with forbearance and grace. He promises to forgive the sins of all those who repent and believe, even those who killed Him! This is the kind of living, gracious God you want to serve! Moralism says: be good, and God will love you. Christianity says: God loves you, even though He knows you aren’t good. And because He loves you, He sent Jesus to save you even before you got your act together, and offers you the goodness of Jesus in place of your own lack of goodness.

These two ways of thinking about God couldn’t be more different, and so the main lesson for us is this: Get a better God! Replace your old worthless idols with the God of the Bible. When it comes to salvation, we are all in the place of the crippled man – we’ve never taken one truly righteous step in our life. But Jesus has. And so this Word from God is staring intently at you, looking to see if you have faith to be made well. Jesus doesn’t transform good people into slightly better ones. No, He turns sinners, failures, cripples like you and me into righteous men and women who can stand before God unashamed, having our sins forgiven, clothed in the righteousness of Christ. So stand up, let go of your idols, and turn to a living God.

Posted on Wednesday, September 10, 2014 by CJ Bowen