Board Devotional – Reverend Joey Donahue – Acts 17:24-31
About three weeks ago, I shared with Judy Boyd some things going on in my life and with my ministry. She shared them with David Conner, and David in turn asked me to do the Friday morning devotional, suggesting I incorporate those things in our time together.
I’m a simple guy. I was reared in a suburb of Atlanta. I’m the pastor of a small church in suburban Memphis, Tennessee. About seven or eight years ago my life and ministry took an unexpected turn. I found myself reaching out to Muslims with the Gospel. For the most part, this has been a personal effort; frankly, not too many people are sympathetic with the notion of interacting with people they perceive as terrorists and who pose a threat to our way of life. There has been little sympathy or support from most of the people who are around me.
Well, at least until about two months ago!
About two months ago, I baptized a man from a Muslim country – a man who came to Christ out of Islam. His was not a sudden conversion; it never is. God was working in his heart, and it was during Juma (Friday) prayers at the mosque that things came to a head. The Imam had spoken about Jesus – and I remind you Jesus is very prominent in Islam – but what he said left my friend deeply troubled. Following the service he approached the Imam, and the two of them sat down to talk.
My friend said to the Imam: “You are saying Jesus is a prophet and, apart from Mohammed, the greatest prophet that ever lived. He healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, caused the lame to walk, cleansed the lepers, and even raised the dead. All of this is in the Qur’an. But Muhammad never did such things! What’s more, Jesus had no father; He was born of a virgin. The Qur’an teaches that. You said that this morning. But even Muhammad had a father! Something is not making sense here. Jesus had to be more than just a prophet!”
He was connecting the dots in his mind. But the more the Imam spoke the more confused and disturbed my friend was. Within three days, he found his way to a large Baptist church. After introducing himself, he requested a Bible, asking where it said Jesus was God. The secretary directed him to the first chapter of John, and over the next weeks and months he read and reflected. It was through simply reading the Bible he came to believe in and trust Christ. As he did so, he began to distance himself from the Mosque and from Islam. One day, as he was reading his Bible, he forgot to lock his bedroom door, and his teenage daughter walked in and asked what he was doing. She immediately told her mother who confronted him in a hostile manner and then reported it to the Mosque. There was intense pressure from the Imam to return to the Mosque, accusing him of being an apostate. In February of this year, the Imam was able to pressure his employer, a wealthy Egyptian who is one of the major benefactors of the Mosque, to fire him. Now he was without work and without income. In June, his wife took their four children and emptied his bank account and returned to Iraq. When I met him, he was living out of his car and at the mercy of the world.
I met him at the Mosque at an iftar during Ramadan. He was doing the same thing I was doing, attempting to talk with Muslims about Christ. My friend is a natural born evangelist! On several occasions, I asked him to share his testimony at my church. He is extremely likable, bright, and winsome; everyone has fallen in love with him. To make a long story short, I baptized him a couple of months ago. His person and the power of his testimony have won the hearts of my people. My folks are saying, “Wait a minute, he is a Muslim, but he is not what we thought Muslims were.” So our church has gone to the next level from being relatively distant to the idea of relating to Muslims to saying, “This is something we need to be doing.” Now, rather than being my ministry, the church is involved.
The last seven years have been intriguing. The highlight of each year is a mission trip to Dearborn, Michigan. Dearborn is the epicenter of Muslim culture in the United States. The first year was an eye-opener, something of culture shock. In a city of 100,000 people, 30,000 are Middle Easterners, mostly Muslim. It seemed like there was a Mosque on every other corner on Warren Avenue, and there were places where Arabic seemed to be the only language in use.
Last year we were in Hamtramic, an incorporated city located in the heart of Detroit. It consists of just over two square miles. In it were about five churches, mainly large Catholic churches. There was one Buddhist temple, one Hindu temple, and no less than six Mosques. At one of the large churches, the bells chime each day and you could hear them on the block on which the church was located, but the call to prayer from the Mosque was audible where we were staying nearly three quarters of a mile away! The speakers on top of the building were huge! It was an unmistakable in-your-face statement! The message is, “We are here, and we are not going anywhere!”
So – to return to our text – I can see Paul’s consternation as he wandered around the streets of Athens waiting for Timothy and Silas to join him. In looking around the city, he saw a shrine on every corner. There were gods everywhere. There were more gods in Athens than there were people! (In Memphis, we say there are more Baptists than there are people!) But in Athens, everywhere Paul looked there was a shrine to an idol. And lest they might have left one out, they added one to an “unknown” god.
I have an elder who does the announcements every Sunday. Three weeks ago he was going to express appreciation to the congregation for their efforts through a booth we sponsored at the Bartlett Festival. He began to name names but stopped himself before he called the names for fear that he might leave someone out. So he did not mention any names. That was probably the concern in Athens, the fear of having left someone out. So they created a shrine to an unknown god. Or, they might have been thinking there was another god who was different from these others, one who is bigger, stronger, and smarter. In fact, one transcending these petty gods – and so we have this shrine!
Paul, as we read, was provoked. He was moved to action. He confronted the unbelief he saw there. And, as was his custom, he began at the synagogue with the Jews, reasoning – literally dialoguing – with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles and then going to the marketplace – in public debate with the pagans. He challenged their ideas, and, in so doing, drew the attention of the people. They were stunned. They were taken aback. His monotheistic worldview was a novelty to them. His proclamation was bold and without equivocation. He said:
“What therefore you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.”
He didn’t mince words. He said, “I am right and you are wrong; however, let me explain why I am right and why you are wrong.” In humility, Paul presented the claims of Christ. His argument took the form of a study in contrasts. The contrast between the petty, finite gods of the Greeks and Romans on the one hand, and Christian theism – what James Sire alludes to as “a universe charged with the grandeur of God – on the other hand. What a contrast between worldviews: that of a universe charged with the grandeur of this sovereign God and that of the petty gods they served! Look with me at the God Paul puts on display.
He begins by assuming and asserting the existence of God.
I think of Moses in Genesis 1:1. Moses is going to write Genesis, but says, “Before we begin, we need to establish the existence of God. So, let us begin with the cosmological argument and then proceed to the teleological argument.” No! That is not what Moses did. Moses began, “In the beginning God.” The Apostle Paul begins with the words,
“The God who made the world and all things in it . . . does not dwell in temples made with hands.”
This is THE unknown God, the God they didn’t know. This is the God they could not begin to comprehend, the one true God.
Secondly, he paints a picture of this God, describing His nature in great detail. Let me give you six things I gleaned from this:
1) He is uncreated and immaterial.
“We ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man.”
We are made in the image of Almighty God, after His likeness. But it is not enough that we are made in His image to praise Him, we have to create gods in our image and after our likeness. John Calvin said the heart is an idol factory. Someone described it in terms of a factory with a conveyor belt with one idol after the other rolling out. That’s what we have done. We have created gods after our image and likeness.
Our minds immediately go to the satirical description that Isaiah gives of the gods the Canaanites and Phoenicians, and eventually the Jews, worshipped. It is dripping with sarcasm. “You cut down a tree, section it, cut in half, make a fire and warm your hands, cook your meal over it, and the other half you carve into a god and bow in worship and say, “This is my god.”
2) He is self-sufficient.
“The God who made the world and all things in it . . . does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything.”
3) He is immense and unbound.
He is not a portable god who needs to be carried around and can be manipulated by men.
He does not dwell in temples made by human hands.
“But will God indeed dwell with mankind on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heavens cannot contain You; how much less this house which I have built.” (SOLOMON – dedication of Temple)
4) He is sovereign.
“The God who made the world and all things in it . . . is Lord of heaven and earth”
He upholds all things by the Word of His power – upholding the cosmos but controlling the destinies of men and nations.
“He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation.”
5) He is knowable – versus an ‘unknown’ god.
“What you worship in ignorance, I proclaim to you.”
6) He is accessible.
Paul speaks of these people as seeking God.
“If perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move (exist) and have our being.”
But in addition to describing the nature of God, he tells what He has done.
This God, the one we proclaim to you, as opposed to the gods you serve, is the one that created the entire cosmos and governs it day by day.
There was a time – before time – when nothing existed except the Triune God. There were no molecules, no gasses, and no forms of energy – nothing! (As Aristotle said, nothing is the stuff that sleeping rocks dream of). But for reasons we cannot begin to fathom, and by the sheer power of His word, He spoke into being everything that exists – upholding and sustaining it.
But so what! What bearing does all this have on us? What difference does it make for me as an individual, us as a nation, or for the church? Are there implications of this doctrine for higher education, and for this particular institution of higher education?
Yes – to all of the above. I contend the choice of a worldview and the consistent application of it to the various spheres of life is of immense importance.
How many times have you heard people say that they do not like the Presbyterian Church because Presbyterians tend to be theological? “I don’t need doctrine,” people say. “It is not relevant to life. Give me a list of 10 things to make my marriage better, to help me raise my kids, to get over depression.” Yes, those things are all helpful, but doctrine is essential. Jesus said, “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he!” Ideas have consequences. But we have failed to grasp this, and the consequences of our failure have been disastrous. Let me illustrate my point with two great statesmen.
In 1978, Alexander Solzhenitsyn delivered the commencement address at Harvard University. He painted a very bleak picture for the West.
At the moment the question is not how the Soviet Union will find a way out of totalitarianism, but how the West will be able to avoid the same fate. . . . The West is on the verge of a collapse created by its own hands.
But why? How did this come about? What caused the changes? Solzhenitsyn continued:
How did the West decline from its triumphal march to its present sickness? The root of the problem is to be found in the realm of ideas . . . in the developments that have taken place in human thinking over the past few centuries. An erroneous world view became the basis for government and social science, and could be defined as rationalistic humanism or humanistic autonomy; the proclaimed and enforced autonomy of man from any higher force above him. It based modern Western civilization on the dangerous need to worship man and his material needs.
As with the Greeks Paul encountered: Man is the measure!
Solzhenitsyn was not the only, or even the first, to raise this concern. Nearly a century before he delivered the Harvard address, Abraham Kuyper delivered a series of lectures at another Ivy League school, Princeton. He asked the same questions:
Why have we, Christians, stood so weak in the face of this modernism? Why have we constantly lost ground? . . . Simply because we were devoid of an equal unity of life conception that alone could enable us with irresistible energy to repel the enemy at the frontier.
One thinks of Rome in the 5th century when her enemies began to invade from the northern frontier, an invasion she was unable to withstand. But this is an intellectual, not a military invasion, an intellectual conquest we have not been able to withstand. We have been challenged in the intellectual realm by comprehensive and coherent worldviews (including Marxism, Naturalism, various Eastern ideologies, and now Islam), but rather than responding with a comprehensive and coherent worldview we have given answers that are piecemeal and inconsistent with our most fundamental principles.
Dr. Kuyper goes on to say in the Roman Catholic Church everyone knows what he lives for. The sovereignty of a church overshadows every dimension of life. But then he adds,
Even in Islam you find the same power of a conviction of life dominated by one principle. Protestantism alone wanders about in the wilderness without any aim or direction, moving hither and thither, making no progress whatsoever.
In Islam there is the belief in one god, and it is one who is absolutely sovereign. In one respect, Islam is not a religion; it is an entire way of life. There is, for instance, no separation of church and state. Islam presents a worldview that is theocratic in nature where fundamental beliefs touch on every dimension of life – politics, economics, education, etc. So, our statesman says that here is to be found one principle that governs everything. Evangelicalism alone wanders about in the wilderness without any direction moving hither or thither making no progress whatsoever. Let me back up and say that we not only are making no progress, but we are regressing; we are losing ground. I don’t need to document that this morning. We know that. We are losing the culture.
With Kuyper’s allusion to Islam, we come full circle to where I began a few moments ago as I spoke about the inroads Islam is making in the United States. My mind goes back to the MEDCOM controversy where we had a Muslim student enrolled in the DMin program. In investigating the institution from which he had gotten his degree (to determine whether their program provided the necessarily educational qualifications for admission into the DMin program) I ran across their Statement of Philosophy. Listen to how they perceive their task:
The graduate school of Islamic and Social Sciences’s curriculum is founded on the premise of the essential unity of human knowledge in all its diversity, and on its ultimate grounding in transcendent values drawing on the principles of unicity, the oneness of God. The oneness of God governs everything.
Complementing and corresponding to its view of knowledge is an understanding of the unity and purposefulness of life in a world attuned to the humanistic and civilizing vocation of the individual person as vicegerent of God on earth (al khilafa). This affirmative premise informs its two-pronged approach at critiquing and reconstructing the current legacy of human knowledge as it is encountered in the two principle domains that constitute the School’s mission focus: namely, the classical Islamic sciences (ulum al sharia and ulum al maqasid) and the modern social science disciplines.
By reformulating the basic matrix of inquiry in terms of a unifying and transcendent vision, the way is paved for integrating, consolidating, and building on the best in the traditional and the modern sectors of a new academy along lines that reinforce its intrinsic sense of integrity, integrality, and moral purpose.
These Muslims have their act together! They know what they are about. They understand that ideas have consequences, that theology informs all of life, that life cannot be partitioned into the “secular” and the “sacred,” and that in the realm of academia, the curriculum cannot be divided in that manner, that the ‘religious’ cannot be relegated to a chapel service once a week, and that Bible is not merely an adjunct, divorced from other disciplines and confined to isolated courses. They understand the concept of an integration of faith and learning.
My point in citing this is to emphasize the threat from Islam is not a military invasion or terrorism. It comes, in part, through the classroom. A similar threat came from the Soviet Union during the Cold War where Khrushchev said that they would take the West without firing a single shot! The threat from Islam comes from immigration (called by some their ‘Trojan horse’) and education. If we are going to withstand this threat, we must be as deliberate and decisive in articulating our vision. In fact, our calling is not to withstand, but to advance and to conquer. We simply cannot afford the ambiguity of an unclear bugle (I Corinthians 14:8).
In 1880, the Free University of Amsterdam was established. In his inaugural address, Dr. Kuyper described Christ’s sovereignty in words that should echo in every chamber of our hearts and minds, and, particularly, in the halls of academia:
There is not one inch in the whole realm of human existence over which Christ, the sovereign Lord, does not cry, “MINE! It is mine!”
To say that “Christ is Lord” means that He is Lord over every aspect of this endeavor we call education. This was Paul’s message to the Athenians:
There is an infinite-personal God who exists, and who created everything else that exists, and upholds and governs and guides it in minute detail. Because of this, He is the sovereign Lord of the universe and every facet of our lives is to be brought under His lordship!
In short, this doctrine is foundational for everything we are about in our under-taking as an educational institution and as a board. If ever there was a time when we as Christians need to be clear in our understanding, vision, and agenda, it is today.
May God give us that clarity of vision, and purpose, and resolve to pursue it with all of our being.