There in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve initially encountered two influences. There was God and of course there was evil, the devil, in the form of the serpent. The human pair had been warned not to eat of the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Along came satan and told them they would not die, but if they ate the fruit they would be as “gods knowing the difference between good and evil.”
That was a rather heady promise and prospect. Bingo! They ate -- and in the process they took “God” and with their newfound knowledge and intellectualism, turned Him into “Good!” In other words, man was now well and truly into the “good” business. Spirit death brought mind-power, control and manipulation and it was this knowledge of “good and evil” that birthed religion, self-righteousness, pride, intellectualism, morality, idolatry and elitism.
This was, of course, the birthday of the sinful Adamic man. The first of the “belly-button brigade” was Cain, who came forth in Adam’s image. Cain just did not want to listen. He wanted to do it his way and finished up slaying his brother Abel. This was the start of family life and sibling rivalry. What a disastrous beginning.
A few thousand years later things had gone from bad to worse and God decided to wash it all out and start again. He chose the most righteous man, Noah. He and his family and all the animals got in the ark, but when the flood was over, Noah built a vineyard and then got drunk. He was the best, the most righteous of the Adamic flock, but now he, too, was disgraced. Noah was simply confirming that man is sinful and will always get drunk on the fruit of his hands.
In a nutshell this is the problem with mankind. We are sinners! Wretches! The heart is wicked; nobody is good and the Bible tells us that even Jesus didn’t trust us because He knew our hearts. We, of course, don’t want to believe this. We would call it “negativism” and so we counter with success, fame, wisdom, prosperity, intellectualism and good works. And that has become our world. And it is a daunting, hugely intimidating mission field.
But how did Paul handle the ogre that has grown out of this intellectual arrogance? In Acts 17, he is in Athens, the hub of the then world. The city was famous for its learning and it was overrun with idols and idolatry. It seems they go hand in hand.
He was summoned to appear before the city elders at Mars Hill. They wanted to know what he was on about. He was bringing some strange new ideas and while the people of those days enjoyed new revelations, this was causing an upheaval.
Interestingly, the scripture tells us that Paul’s spirit was “provoked” as he looked around at all the godlessness. Indeed, the Spirit does open eyes and give discernment. It convicts on sin, righteousness and judgement and reveals the true state of individual and corporate sinfulness.
The Spirit is not fooled by positivism, patriotism, optimism, success or flattery nor does it bow down to criticism or accusations of negativism. The Spirit separates us unto the Gospel and we “groan inwardly” as we wait for Christ to be revealed. Only believers do see the world for what it truly is because the unbelievers “have their eyes blinded” by the god(s) of this age.
Satan’s “spin doctors” are trying hard to convince us that all is well and that things are under control, but true believers will see through the deception. We see, too, that the Spirit prompts action, as Paul went into both the “synagogue” and “marketplace.” The Gospel needs to be preached in the business forum as well as constantly challenging the church!
Paul didn’t just sit around having fellowship and preaching “soft” ear-tickling sermons to the converted. He was doing it daily, not just at the weekends. The Spirit always emboldens. It does not produce secret agents, silent partners or submarine saints! The Spirit stands you tall and bold, with passion and conviction.
There was opposition. Another sign of real impact! The philosophers were calling him a “babbler” because he was preaching about Jesus. Intellectual moralists are, in fact, great enemies of the Gospel and the true kingdom of God. No doubt they were thinking that Paul was a radical, fundamentalist freak who had gone overboard with his absolutist ideas.
Above all, he would have been seen as a trouble-maker coming to disturb their carnal complacency. The Gospel unfortunately is “offensive,” “divisive” and “elitist” in the eyes of its detractors. It stirs, agitates and confronts. Jesus promised us that He didn’t come to bring political peace.
Then Paul began his strong message. “I see you are very religious” -- he could have been right here in South Africa! Churches and denominations all over the place and people acting and proclaiming as if Christianity is hereditary. When religion abounds, sadly it brings with it the inevitable “intellectualism” and self-righteousness. “Intellectualism” is when humans regard their own knowledge and wisdom as a god!
This, of course, takes us back to the devil’s promise to Eve. There is no anointing on religion, denominations or structures. In “religion” you are worshipping an unknown god, stated Paul rather emphatically. And that’s the truth.
There is no inspiration, just interpretation! There is no rhema or revelation. You might know something about God, but you do not know Him. That was the substance of the damning observation.
Then Paul proceeded to tell about the awesome, sovereign, supreme, mind-boggling, mind-blowing, immutable God of the Universe. God is indefinable, incomparable and awesome and He certainly does not need you and me. God is all-sufficient and in Jesus Christ is everything!
The Kingdom of God proceeds and you and I can decide whether we want to be part of it or not. But God is marching on! God gives life and breath to everyone and we can all seek Him and find Him if we really search with all our hearts and souls. It is about a relationship, and we can actually experience it because in “Him we live and move and have our being.”
We can taste, smell, hear and see and that it is for real, not just a figment of an over-active imagination. But it’s not synthetic. It’s not man-made or shaped by man’s devising.
Paul certainly did not spare the horses! He told it as it is, pulling no punches and not trying to soft-soap it, or make it seeker-friendly to gain their intellectual approval. He finishes off, as any good preacher, telling them that they need to repent and that judgement is at hand.
Paul countered the daunting challenge of addressing “religion” and “intellectualism” by presenting the Gospel, not by entering into philosophies or allowing himself to be side-tracked by political or social issues. So far above everything else is the issue of really knowing God and having a relationship with Him. It is not about our knowledge of what is good and evil. That was, and still is, the fruit of the tree of temptation and deception!