Last weekend I had a chance to prepare a sermon on Acts 13-14. Acts 14 contains a rather unique and somewhat comical story in which Paul and Barnabas are mistaken for the Greek gods Hermes and Zeus respectively.
Some basic research uncovered helpful background to this event, as summarised in my sermon on Sunday:
Helpfully for us the works of a Latin poet named Ovid from around this time shed light for us. Ovid records the legend of a visit by Zeus and Hermes to the Phrygian Hill Country – which is just North of Lystra. Zeus and Hermes were disguised as mortals seeking hospitality. According to the legend they were rejected by numerous people before being taken in by an elderly couple whose home they blessed by turning it into a temple and then brought destruction on those who had not shown them hospitality. Seems now that these Lystrans have seen an extraordinary miracle in the healing of this crippled man – which is extraordinary let’s not forget that – they link the legend in the past with the events of the present and want to ensure that the past is not repeated.
There is also a strong contrast being made by Luke between the reaction of Paul and Barnabas and the reaction of Herod earlier in Acts 12:20-23 – where Herod is also hailed a god, but in contrast to Barnabas and Paul arrogantly accepts the praise and is struck down by God in judgement.
The passage itself got me thinking tangentially about our current preoccupation with Christian celebrity culture: the elevation of Christian preachers and teachers to the level of rockstar status, whose works are generally universally accepted and remain above criticism. That’s my own definition for what I’ve seen, and admittedly been a part of.
Now while Acts 14:8-18 doesn’t specifically deal with the issue I did see some parallels and some things in the text which might be helpfully applied for both the ‘fanboy/girl’ as well as the outsider looking in.
First – just because some preacher has a fan base doesn’t necessarily invalidate the content of that preacher/teachers teaching.
You can see this in the passage. Paul performs a miracle which is clearly connected to his speaking and preaching (verses 8-10). The crowd’s reaction does not nullify the content of Paul’s earlier preaching.
Engaging with the content of any teacher is necessary to discern their faithfulness. But just because a particular teacher is popular doesn’t automatically undermine the quality or the content of their teaching.
Second – when we see a preacher with a fanbase, we need to discern how the preacher reacts to the celebrity status.
Paul and Barnabas are quick to try to defuse the adoration. Their message in 14:15-17 contains three basic points:
- Stop your worship – because we’re men just like you.
- Our message is that you should turn from this sort of behaviour, and turn to the true and living God.
- This God has abundantly blessed you as a witness to his goodness.
It’s what I’d call a pre-evangelism message – since there is no reference to Jesus or the gospel. A message designed to ignite in the hearer a desire to know more.
Paul and Barnabas react with humility and a quick resolve to defuse the adoration. In judging the preacher we need to discern their humility and how they have handled the adulation for their work. Do they call attention to themselves, or are they doing their best to direct attention away to God?
Third – the preacher may do their best to deflect attention and celebrity, but that doesn’t mean their fan base will necessarily comply. And that’s not necessarily the fault of the preacher.
Verse 18 rounds out the rather comical story with these words:
Even with these words they scarcely restrained the people from offering sacrifice to them.
Paul and Barnabas seem pretty clear. But the crowd doesn’t hear them and continues in their adulation. You can’t really blame Paul and Barnabas for that.
Finally – even with the adulation we need to discern the ongoing ministry of discipleship from the preacher. Does their message focus on building up disciples of Christ or can we discern an building up of their own kingdom/reputation?
The ongoing focus of Paul and Barnabas is clearly to build up the churches which have been established through their preaching. Their discipleship is primarily twofold in this passage: encouraging the Christians to persevere in the faith (cf 14:22), and discipling and raising up leaders to continue the work (14:23, 28).
The church has always had its celebrities, but I think we also live in a time and age in which celebrity is stronger than ever before – thanks in part to the 24 hour news cycle, the boom in Christian publishing, and the internet. So we do need to take greater measures to ensure thankfulness and appreciation of a ministry does not turn to unhelpful adulation and divisive sectarianism (cf 1 Corinthians 1:12).
While the above test from Acts 14 isn’t exhaustive, it’s a start. What would you add to help Christians work their way through celebrity culture? Put it in the comments below.