God’s Word for You
Acts 14:13-15 bulls and garlands
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Wednesday, July 1, 2020
13 The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and garlands to the gates. He and the crowd wanted to slaughter sacrifices to them. 14 When the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting, 15 “Men, why are you doing this? We are mortals just like you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God. He made heaven and earth and the sea and all that is in them.
Bulls are depicted as wearing garlands (wreaths of flowers) in Greek pottery and in cornices and other decorated parts of buildings. The animals would be brought to the gates of the temple and slaughtered there (as opposed to being slaughtered inside). Curiously, the apostles were not told about the sacrifice by the priest of Zeus (perhaps he assumed they would know about it whether he told them or not). When Paul and Barnabas found out what was going on (from someone in the crowd), they did their best to stop it.
The apostles didn’t run out shouting in order to save the lives of the bulls. They rushed out to stop an idolatrous act from being performed. Their reaction was the very same as when the angel saw John fall at his feet to worship, and he said, “Do not do it! I am a fellow servant with you and with your brothers the prophets and all who keep the words of this book. Worship God!” (Revelation 22:8). Barnabas and Paul actually tore their garments, a sign of grief which in this case was because of blasphemy or idolatry or both.
Notice Paul’s speech. As always, if he is speaking, he is preaching the gospel. But there is a difference here between the way we would expect him to speak to Jews or believing Gentiles (such as Cornelius) and these pagans. His audience here knew nothing at all about the true God. For this reason, Paul had to begin with the basics. He marked the difference between God and man, and he proclaimed God as the creator of all things. His words are similar to the little sermon by Jonah aboard the Phoenician trading ship (Jonah 1:9). Paul would write about this kind of conversion of Gentiles when he commended the Thessalonians for the way they did not turn away the gospel when it came: “You turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath” (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10).
Paul calls what they are doing “worthless.” All of their actions, their sacrifices to the gods, prayers and devotion to the gods, the temple and its upkeep, and the whole service of the priests, were all “worthless things.” Paul is nothing like modern liberal theologians who want to respect everybody’s views as valid even though they are condemned by the lips of God himself. Paul has to speak the truth. All of the works of mankind count for nothing before God’s holy throne. We would like to think that by being pious, by going to church, by praying, by obeying the commandments, that we merit something before God, but our sinfulness is like mud slopped all over our Sunday best, as if we all fell down face-first in the pigsty on the way to church. We stink of our sins in God’s nostrils. But on account of our faith in Christ, God overlooks our stink and our sins, and he welcomes us because he loves his Son. Luther showed how this is the case even with a newborn:
“Infants who have no (good) works are saved by faith alone, and therefore faith alone justifies. If the power of God can do this in one person it can do it in all, because it’s not the power of the infant but the power of faith. Nor is it the weakness of the infant that does it, otherwise that weakness would in itself be a merit or be equivalent to one. We’d like to defy our Lord God with our works. We’d like to become righteous through them. But he won’t allow it.” (Table Talk No. 5570a).
God batters down our feeble attempt to be saved by our little popsicle-stick battlements of good works with the fury of his Law. Jesus does this most effectively in the Sermon on the Mount. To those who smugly think they have never committed murder he says, “Anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment” (Matthew 5:22). And to those who think they are sexually pure, he says, “Anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). And if you think you’ve never broken an oath, Jesus says, “Don’t swear at all. Simply let your Yes be Yes and your No, No.” (Matthew 5:37). And we know that Jesus will do this down the line with every syllable of the Law on Judgment Day. He will condemn every sin in every sinner who doesn’t have faith in him, and they will be stunned by the vast reeking pile of their sins and the thoroughness of his righteous divine judgment. Who would be able to stand up before that? Nobody. But we wear Jesus himself like a garment, and he will see us in the Judgment and welcome us home to the mansions he has prepared for us. This is why in our preaching we talk more about Jesus and the cross and the resurrection than anything else. Who Jesus is and what he did about our sins is more important than anything else. Run, run, run to Jesus! In him you have forgiveness and everlasting life.
Pastor Timothy Smith