If we are always concerned with what people think about us, we will always be reluctant to tell them about Jesus.
Perhaps the single most significant hindrance to Christian witness in the world today is our hunger for human approval. By nature, we think more about what people think of us than about what they think of Jesus. We crave acceptance and dread rejection — which inclines us toward whatever might improve others’ perception of us. And that will very rarely, if ever, lead us to call them to repent from their sin and believe the gospel.
The apostle Paul lived differently. Apparently he had been liberated from the need to be liked, or even respected. He moved from town to town, in and out of crowds, anchored in the safety and satisfaction of knowing Jesus (Philippians 3:8). Many adored him, even to the point of worshiping him, and others hated him, even to the point of trying to murder him. But he lived and served above approval ratings. He worked for someone else’s fame, whatever that fame might cost him personally in popular opinion.
He abandoned the haunted hayride of human approval to walk Calvary’s underground road to freedom from the fear of man.
Zeus, Hermes, and Human Approval
Everywhere Paul went, he met dramatically mixed reviews.
During his and Barnabas’s time in a town called Lystra, for instance, they came to a man crippled from birth. He had literally never used his feet (Acts 14:8). Paul saw through the man’s disability, though, into his heart, and he saw faith — a brilliant and strong belief that Jesus could heal him inside and out (Acts 14:9). So Paul healed the man’s legs (Acts 14:10).
The crowds saw the man walking, after sitting for so many years, and they rushed Paul and Barnabas. They treated them like gods (Acts 14:11) — not like governors, or star athletes, or movie stars, but gods. They called them “Zeus” and “Hermes” after familiar figures in the pantheon (Acts 14:12). They even brought oxen to sacrifice to them (Acts 14:13).
Imagine your neighbors trying to worship you by slaughtering their animals.
The Seduction of Attention
How do Paul and Barnabas respond to these acts of worship? Do they bask in the attention? Do they relish the over-the-top affirmation and support? Do they change their handles to @Zeus and @Hermes, and retweet a few lines of the people’s praise?
No, they ran from their raving fans as fast as possible. “Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men, of like nature with you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them” (Acts 14:15).
To Paul and Barnabas, the allure of human approval — acceptance, esteem, and intense admiration — seemed more dangerous than enticing, more threatening than tempting. And they knew the roots of the crowd’s flattering idolatry would eventually kill each and every one of them. So they confronted them, risking their skyrocketing social statuses, with a brave call to worship the living God and live.
“Even with these words they scarcely restrained the people from offering sacrifice to them” (Acts 14:18).
From Worship to Weapons
The very next verse in the story reads, “But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having persuaded the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead” (Acts 14:19).
Having narrowly escaped being worshiped by the crowds, Paul immediately faces a new crowd — a mob that responds very differently, even violently, to his news about Jesus. One group tries to worship him, and the next tries to murder him. One moment, he’s exalted as a god; the next, he’s brutally beaten and gasping for life. One moment he’s the celebrity pastor; the next, a notorious villain being executed in the street.
He wasn’t snubbed at the office, or unfollowed on social media, or ignored by friends and family. He was beaten with rocks, and then left for dead — all for simply giving them the good news about Jesus. How did Paul respond to the attempt on his life — the most severe criticism, opposition, and persecution imaginable? Did he give up?
No, he went to another city to say more about Jesus (Acts 14:20), and then he went back into Lystra — where stones still laid covered in his blood — to encourage the believers there (Acts 14:21–22).
Paul accepted their rejection, embracing the hostility, because he did not live for what they thought of him, but for what he thought of Jesus. Paul did not make decisions so that more people would like him, but so that more people would love and follow his Savior. With Peter and John, he surrendered to Christ, whatever may come, “We cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20).
Beware of Praise and Criticism
These two scenes in one city illustrate the haunted hayride of human approval.
Whether the world applauds us or attacks us, if they do not worship Jesus, they will die without real hope. Their approval (or rejection) of us has no bearing on our eternity, and it certainly will not save them. Will we surrender our need to be loved in order to truly love the lost? Are we willing to change the world in Jesus’s name without being loved for it here, maybe without even being noticed much at all?
Over time, some people in the world may like us and even admire us for our “spirituality,” but we can be sure that some will hate us. At least they’ll hate what we believe, as well as the decisions we make because of what we believe. Jesus promises, “You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Mark 13:10–13).
But as we retreat from the treacherous and counterfeit roller coaster of human approval and hide ourselves in Christ, we no longer need to fear (Matthew 10:28), we’re no longer tempted to boast (1 Corinthians 3:21), and we will no longer cower to please others (Galatians 1:10). We will live, instead, for the pleasure of knowing God and being known by him (Philippians 3:8).
Beware of acceptance, and beware of rejection. Beware of followers, and beware of enemies. Beware of praise, and beware of criticism. Above all, be content in what God says about you because you are in Christ.
Find your identity and confidence in him, not in what people think about you or in your status here in this life. It will free us to tell the world the beautiful and offensive message it desperately needs to hear.