God has hardwired us for worship. It is an expression of our humanness. We worship what is uppermost in our affections. So the question is not whether we worship but what we worship.
Idolatry is the worship of anything other than God. We see this misplaced worship in our culture at large. It is nothing new. We make sacrifices to and serve that which we worship. We even gravitate toward community around common objects of worship.
This was true of Athens in Paul’s day, as recorded in Acts 17:16-34. The landscape of the Athenian culture was littered with temples built to provide dwelling places for various gods. In their ignorance, the Athenians became enslaved to dead religious activity, hoping to appease these demon gods through their sacrifices (1 Cor. 10:20).
The Wells of Moralism, Intellectualism and Pleasure
Provoked by the Spirit, Paul became motivated toward gospel engagement, attempting to align the hearts of the Athenians to true worship of God. In this engagement, we get a close-up view of some of the idolaters from this pagan culture, the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. The Epicureans ultimately pursued pleasure, and the Stoics ultimately pursued righteousness through moral and intellectual perfection.
The narrative reveals that these empty wells of intellectualism, moralism and hedonism, as with all idolatry, leave the soul unsatisfied, enslaved and craving more. The novelty of newness never lasts as they “spent their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.”
All idolatry is ultimately based in ignorance. Paul thus engaged the ignorance of the culture and made known that what they worshiped was unknown. He introduced Jesus, the One on whom their minds and hearts could be satisfied. All righteousness and pleasure flows from Jesus, who is Himself both righteousness and joy.
Ignorance leads to empty emotionalism at best and idolatry at worst. Only a mind set on the gospel will provide the fuel for the red-hot flame of the Holy Spirit’s presence within the furnace of our hearts. God is seeking those who worship the Father in both spirit and truth.
Jesus tells the woman at the well, in John 4, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that is saying to you…you would have asked…and he would have given to you living water.” If you only knew who is offering such a gift and all that He sacrificed to give it, you would ask, and He would satisfy your soul.
Repentance and the Gospel
Paul writes, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
We must now turn our attention to the landscape of our culture and churches today. How many of our churches are feasting on something other than the gospel? How many of our gatherings are plagued with empty wells of intellectualism, moralism and emotionalism? How many of us seek gifts rather than celebrate the Giver? How different are we than the pagan culture in Athens? This is not gospel-centered worship.
Gospel-centered worship is a response to the reality that in Christ we have been given all things – the greatest of these being God Himself! If we gather for other reasons, we rob ourselves of the Holy Spirit’s manifest presence and power, and our churches become dead.
What is the way back? We must stop going to the wrong well and pursue awe-inspiring, soul-satisfying worship of God by repenting of the interplay of our idolatry and ignorance, returning to our first love.