A City Full of Idols

by Matthew W. Bassford

As all of us are doubtless aware, we are currently in the middle of Pride Month, a celebration of a number of different lifestyles the Bible condemns as sinful. In case we have forgotten, anytime we shop at a chain store, displays and decorations all remind us. I would not be surprised if, in the years to come, Pride Month develops the same kind of national presence as the holiday season.

Many brethren find this spectacle deeply distressing. What are we supposed to do when we see ungodliness being exalted everywhere around us? As always, the word of God gives us the answers we need.

In the first century, Christians were a tiny minority in a society that celebrated ungodliness too. Let's consider, then, one Christian’s reaction to such a display. Let's turn to Acts 17 to see how Paul conducted himself in Athens, a city full of idols.

First, we see Paul talking to, not just about. Consider his behavior in Acts 17:16-21. Note that Paul didn't come to Athens intending to preach at all. He has only traveled to the city after having been driven out of Berea and is there to wait for Silas and Timothy. Interestingly, this meeting never happens. Silas and Timothy only catch up with Paul after he moves on to Corinth.

As far as we can tell, he doesn’t stay in Athens for very long. However, even this brief delay bothers him. Athens is an extremely idolatrous city, and he finds the evidence of idolatry distressing. There is a synagogue in Athens, and the Jews there would have been as anti-idol as Paul was. The synagogue is not the only place that Paul visits, however. He also goes to the marketplace and reasons with the idolaters.

In our day, it is easy for us to stay in the synagogue, both real and virtual. It's easy for us to come to church and complain about how awful Pride Month is to people that we know already agree with us one hundred percent. It's just as easy for us to go on our social media platform of choice and make the same complaints to Christians and other conservatives all over the country.

However, there are two problems with confining ourselves to what is easy. First, like gossip, it tends to produce self-righteousness in our hearts. The more we condemn somebody else’s sin that does not tempt us, the more we begin to believe that we are more righteous because we don't know that temptation. We start sounding like the Pharisee in the parable of Luke 18, who thanks God for making him better than the sinners around him. If we are not careful, self-righteousness will lead us to trust in ourselves and not in Jesus.

Second, complaining about sinners to other Christians never saved anybody. We are sneering at people who are drowning in sin without even checking to see if they want to be rescued! Obviously, reaching out to sinners can be hard on the ego. In Acts 17, many of the sinners treat Paul with contempt, and different sinners treated Jesus the same way. However, when the value of the soul is so great, who are we to stay silent lest our egos get squished?

Notice, though, that Paul doesn't make his appeal in a contemptuous or perfunctory way. Instead, he seeks common ground. Look at Acts 17:22-29. All the way through this sermon, Paul is doing his best to come to Gentile idolaters on their own terms. He praises them for setting up an altar to an unknown god. He quotes their own poets to support his argument. He doesn't call them to repentance until he has gotten buy-in already.

We can and should do the same thing, even in the context of Pride Month. On one level, Pride Month is about celebrating everyone as valuable and special. You know what? We celebrate that too! The Bible teaches, and I believe, that everyone who is lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer, or any other letter out there is precious, infinitely valuable, and loved by God more than we can imagine.

In fact, we can make that argument more strongly than the world can. Pride Month arose because of the horrible way that many of those people were and are treated, often by those who claim to be Christians. Let me add, by the way, that such displays of mockery and contempt are just as evil as the sins they purport to be condemning. Pride Month is an attempt to balance the scales, but the problem is that it offers no better reason to feel good about yourself than what others are saying about you. When the parades are over, then what?

Christianity, by contrast, teaches that everyone is infinitely precious, no matter what others say or do. We are created in the image of God, and Jesus was willing to die to redeem us. This means that every one of those people with pride flags has an intrinsic worth that is greater than the world and everything on it. Pride Month does not and cannot offer an assurance like that. We don't come to them because they are disgusting and need to clean up their act. We come to them because we love and value them simply for existing.

Finally, we must point sinners to Jesus. Look at how Paul concludes his sermon in Acts 17:29-31. He has shown that he respects the idolaters of Athens, but they still need to repent, and they need to repent because Jesus has risen from the dead.

This must always be our appeal. People in the world shouldn’t become Christians because Christianity uniquely affirms the value of everyone, even though it does. They should become Christians because God has made this Jesus whom they crucified both Lord and Christ.

The Lordship of Jesus, as proven by the resurrection, matters for two reasons. First, it means that whoever we are, we can rely on Him for salvation. As the Hebrews writer says, He saves to the uttermost. It doesn't matter what we've done. We can be as wicked as wicked can be, but His grace is great enough to erase all our sins. When Jesus stands between you and the devil, the devil isn't going to get through!

However, Jesus as Lord doesn’t only offer grace. He also demands submission. The day will come when He will judge everyone on earth. This is the great tragedy of Pride Month. All of those people celebrating their sin, for all of their value and worth, are facing eternal condemnation. God is not willing for any of them to perish, but all of them will perish unless they repent. If we want them to be saved, we must tell them both that repentance is possible and that it is necessary. The reason for both of these things is Jesus.

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