Summary: When you grow accustomed to the way things are, you no longer see things for what they are... idols that affect the way we think and live and ultimately deter us in our devotion to God.

Series: All-American Idols

Title: Becoming Ill-At-Ease with the Way Things Are: Idolatry

Text: Acts 17:16-34

Thesis: When you grow accustomed to the way things are, you no longer see things for what they are… idols that affect the way we think and live.


While in North Carolina recently I notice that Clay Aiken, one time runner-up for the title of American Idol is now running for Congress in that state. His odds seem pretty good in that while I was there his opponent passed away. But more to the point, I confess to being a bit off-put but the name “American Idol.” I know it is merely a competition to determine the top potential recording artist in the estimation of the viewing public. I am something of a geezer so I may be out of touch but it seems the term “idol” is kind of a strong term for a pop star but when I see pictures of the hysteria that goes on at a Justin Bieber concert… maybe “idol” is the right term. I remember when my cousins… a little older than me returned from an Elvis concert in Des Moines, they seemed similarly enamored with Elvis. I prefer to think the adoring public of a pop star does not bow before or pray to an American Idol contestant. What does happen with American Idols and other pop-artists is that they receive excessive adoration. Hopefully in the next few week we will be able to get at what real American Idols look like.


Every year U.S. News and World Report people publish an issue ranking America’s best colleges and universities. The categories include: Best National Universities, Best Liberal Arts Colleges, Best Regional Colleges and Universities, Best Value colleges and universities and Up and Coming Schools.

It is not surprising that the top national universities include: Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Stanford, Duke, MIT and so on…

Beyond academic rankings, depending on what ranking you read there are a number of towns that make the list of best College towns. Those lists include towns like Ann Arbor, MI, Madison, WI, Berkley, CA and Boulder, CO. Sometimes college towns are ranked as best party school. Places like Iowa Sate in Ames, IA and C.U. in Boulder, CO make those lists.

Interestingly one of the best college towns listed is Athens, GA… home of the Bulldogs and known for its art and music department which produced The B 52’s, a new wave band in 1972 and R.E.M., a popular alternative band in 1980. In my estimation I think R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” is one of the most hauntingly beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. And they are right out the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia

Our text today focuses on another famous university town, Athens, Greece. Athens, Greece was at that time the greatest university town in the world… it was not known for being a party school or for producing rock bands but as a center for learning that attracted students from all over the world. Athens was the place to go if you wished to discuss “the latest ideas.”

Our text begins with the Apostle Paul making an observation.

I. The Observation

While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply troubled by all the idols he saw everywhere in the city. Acts 17:16-21

In our culture we do not see any idols per say. I grew up in a tradition that thought of religious icons as forms of idolatry. Of course Crucifixes and Virgin Mary statues were at the top of the list. Also highly suspect were those little statues of St. Christopher glued to the dash of the family car to assure you of safe travels. Not too long ago a lady, selling her home, told me she buried a statue of St. Joseph head down in her yard and sold her house the next day. The little adage goes something like, “St. Joseph can sell your house for you while standing on his head.” Those kinds of things as well as signs of the zodiac, horoscopes, fortune-telling, weegie boards and good luck charms were thought of as witchcraft and as such, also idolatrous.

Of course our crosses are acceptable because we have taken Christ off the cross. However someone recently asked me how many crosses we have on display when you drive into our parking lot… Some of my colleagues jibe me about practicing bibliolatry… referencing our name and the large bible displayed out front.

I speak of these things, which may or may not be relevant, because they are things one might observe about our culture.

This morning we need to begin with a context from which we will observe the events from Acts 17.

1. The Ten Commandments begin with God stating: “I am the Lord your God and you must not have any God but me (or other than me). You must not make for yourselves an idol of any kind or an image of anything in the heavens or on the earth or in the sea. You must not bow down to them or worship them, for I the Lord your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affections for any other gods.” Exodus 20:3 and 4

2. Then in Matthew Jesus said this: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. This is the first and greatest Commandment. A second is equally important: Love your neighbor as yourself. The entire law and all the commandments are based on these two commandments.” Matthew 22:37-40 and Luke 10:25-28

The ultimate test of idolatry is determined by the question, “Is this idea, value, perspective, thing or person more important to me that God and God’s will? (If not philosophically… practically? Does my life reflect an inordinate or out-sized priorities that do in fact displace my devotion to God?

These are central truths and convictions Paul took with him through life and these are the truths that informed his observations when he walked through the city of Athens. There is one God and God does not tolerate our having affections for any other gods.

A. Paul was deeply troubled or vexed or greatly distressed or provoked or experienced extreme emotional concern by what he saw. Some would say that Paul was really, really ticked and enraged. Interestingly, Paul did not act on the basis of his emotional state.

Today we would expect that Paul would immediately whipped up some online petitions for letting the powers that be the public’s unhappiness about the abundance of idols in the community. He mighthave some “God Hates Idolaters” placards and begin picketing about the city of Athens. He might go to court to argue the separation of church and state with Christianity being the exception. He might pull a Carrie Nation and grab an axe or a sledge hammer and go around smashing the idols. He might have erected protest barriers and camped out with an AK-47 daring anyone to worship one of those idols. He could have over-reacted but he didn’t. He reasoned with the Jews and God-fearing Gentiles.

B. Paul reasoned. He asked and answered questions. And then as one thing led to another he was invited to have a debate with smart, philosophical types…

C. Paul debated the Epicurean and Stoic Philosophers. I don’t know how the debate went other than he told them what he believed about God, Jesus and his resurrection.

1. Epicureans believed: Everything happens by chance. Death is the end of it all. They believed there were gods but gods were remote and did not care about human affairs. They believed that because humans have consciousness we have the free-will and the ability to craft happy lives and to avoid painful choices. And they believed that pleasure was the chief end of man. For the Epicureans the pursuit of pleasure was a virtue. Thomas Jefferson was an avowed Epicurean and was responsible for getting “the pursuit of happiness” included in the Declaration of Independence.

2. Stoics believed: They believed everything was God (essentially pantheists). Everything is fated because everything is the will of God. Everything is out of your control. The way Stoicism worked out in life was that you did not get passionate about anything. You were apathetic about everything and were logical and reasonable in all things. The Stoic naturally preferred pleasure but did not require pleasure to be happy.

• The Epicurean has the power to pursue pleasure and create happiness in life.

• The Stoic has the power of peace of mind whatever the circumstances in life.

(Both philosophies are still alive and well in our culture but are not labeled as such.)

Apparently the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers thought his talk about a perceived foreign god warranted a larger audience with the “thought police” on Mars Hill.

But before we move on to take a look at how Paul responded to the opportunity to talk about the “idol to the Unknown God,”

We need to ask a couple of thought provoking questions to get us thinking: Do you think a biblical understanding of idolatry limits the definition of an idol to things created by human hands and displayed to be worshiped?

After debating the philosophers he was taken to the high council of the city where he was asked to tell them about these strange things… they wanted to know all about this latest new teaching.

II. The Teaching

Paul said, “Men of Athens, I notice that you are very religious… I saw many shrines. And one of your altars had this inscription: ‘To the Unknown God.’ This God, whom you worship without knowing, is the one I’m telling you about.” Acts 17:22-31

The Athenians were people who wished to be informed of every idea floating around out there and they enjoyed debating the issues. Not so many years ago in academic circles the university was a place where you could be exposed to ideas and learn to think and make informed decisions. Not so much these days.

The University of Colorado Boulder raised a million dollars to create a chair for a “Scholar in Conservative Thought.” However, when Steve Hayward expressed conservative thoughts he was accused of having and expressing conservative thoughts. In other words we like hearing liberal thoughts but we do not want to hear conservative thoughts (or vice versa). Smith University nixed having Christine Lagarde, head of the International Money Fund, speak at their Commencement because students objected to IMF policies. Condelezza Rice was nixed as the Rutgers University Commencement speaker by the Rutgers University faculty who accused her of war crimes. The First Lady, Michelle Obama, was nixed as the speaker at the Commencement for high school students in Topeka, Kansas because she was too popular and people would come to hear her rather than honor the students… I suspect there were other unspoken reasons for that nixing.

Currently in our culture, if you don’t like someone or what someone thinks… just nix them. However the highest court of thinkers in Athens issued Paul an invitation: “Come and tell us about this new teaching. You are saying some strange things and we want to know what it is all about.” And so he did.

In verses 22-31 he complimented them on their religiosity and then pointed to the idol with the inscription, “The Unknown God” and proceeded to tell them that that was the God of whom he was speaking.

Paul’s new teaching about the previously unknown God according to Wm Barclay:

A. The Creator, 17:22-25 (Not the made but the Maker!)

B. Guides history, 17:26 (Decided before hand who would rise and fall and established boundaries.)

C. Made us to desire Him, 17:27-29 (His purpose was that all would search for him and find him.)

D. Commands everyone to repent, 17:30 (Days of ignorance are over. Now is the time to repent and turn to him.)

E. Will judge through Jesus Christ whom…, 17:31a (He has set a day for judgment with justice through Christ.)

F. Raised Christ from the dead, 17:31b

We find ourselves in the enviable position of being on the right side, so to speak. What Paul explained to the Athenian scholars is not new news to us. We have had the benefit of knowing for a long time what those people heard for the first time that day. We readily affirm everything Paul said to the Athenians.

But before we move on to see how the Athenians reacted to Paul’s new teaching we might pause once again to ask more probing questions: Do you think we may have any “unknown” or “unidentified” gods in our lives? If so, what might their names be? Consider Ephesians 5:5 and Colossians 3:5 and Philippians 3:18-20 If greed can be identified as an idol… are there other mindsets we might have or ways we might practice idolatry? And does a reading of Philippians 3:18-20 suggest that our appetites are forms of idolatry?

As is hopefully true of any teaching, Paul’s prompted a reaction/response.

III. The Reaction

…some laughed in contempt, others said, “We want to hear more about this later.” But some joined him and became believers.” Acts 17:32-33

As you can see in the text:

A. Some mocked or laughed in contempt. 17:32a

B. Some said, “Let’s think about this some more.” 17:32b

C. Some joined him and believed. 17:33

I don’t know that much has changed in the way people react and respond to the Good News that God sent his Son to die for all the sin of all who have ever lived in all of time. I Peter 3:18 And that this God raised Christ from the dead and in that we died with him in his death, we now live with him in life now and forevermore. Romans 6:4

Some still laugh in derision and contempt for such an outrageous story. Some are not so quick to dismiss the possibility that it might just be true. And others still and will believe and receive the truth of God’s Word.

If we wish to place ourselves front and center in the text we might ask ourselves with whom we most identify:

Do you find the idea of one true God laughable?

Do you find the idea of one true God worth considering?

Do you find the idea of one true God to be true?


While there are several ways we may approach and apply this text I want us to take a leap or change our perspective from that of standing “behind” Paul, as if to have his back to standing “before” Paul as if were speaking to us. I want to suggest that if Paul were to wander into our lives and wander around the streets of our hearts and minds, he might see some things we have grown so accustomed to that we no longer see them for what they are… idols.

Anything more important than God and our relationship to God; anything more important to us than others; anything for which we are overly passionate; anything that dominates our thoughts and controls our time and attention; our money, anything to which we are addicted… is an idol. Anything that takes our eyes off the prize, so to speak, is an idol.

And why should we be concerned about forms of idolatry? Because God said, “I am the Lord your God and you must not have any God but me [before me or other than me].” (Or other than me). And Jesus said, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. This is the first and greatest Commandment. A second is equally important: Love your neighbor as yourself. The entire law and all the commandments are based on these two commandments.” Exodus 20:3-4 and Matthew 22:37-40

An ancient Russian proverb compares the love of a man for a woman and the love of a woman for a man as the way we are to be single-minded in our relationship with God.

They say, “When a man has a bride, he is no longer surrounded by men and women but by people.” No one else matters most… neither his hunting nor fishing buddies nor the Victoria’s Secret model look-alike across the room. He only has eyes for the love of his life.

When we become followers of Christ, all of the idols and altars we might bow before do not detract from our single-minded devotion to God.

During the month of June we will be looking at a few of those things we might think of as American Idols that have usurped the primacy of God in our lives.


Praying “Lord God Almighty and Everlasting Father” feels and sounds like of formal when we may sometimes casually think of you as “the Man upstairs.” We have a way about us of wanting to create you in our image or reduce you in ways that feel more familiar… we love the image of You as “Our Father.” And we are encouraged to approach you as our loving Heavenly Father and so we pray:

Our God and King; Great and Mighty; Awesome God; Exalted God. Jehovah God; Glorious God; Holy God; Majestic God; Almighty God; Immortal God… to whom we sing “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name” and who is worthy of “All Glory, Laud and Honor.”

This morning we acknowledge and bow before you as our God. We acknowledge no god other than You and we acknowledge that there really are “none like You.”

And so it is we begin our week with you praying:

Our Father who is in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil for yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.


May God be with you and bless you as you go… loving the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, heart, mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself. Amen.