The Religion of the Common Man


The Religion of the Common Man

July 29th, 1979 @ 7:30 PM

And when they were escaped, then they knew that the island was called Melita. And the barbarous people shewed us no little kindness: for they kindled a fire, and received us every one, because of the present rain, and because of the cold. And when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks, and laid them on the fire, there came a viper out of the heat, and fastened on his hand. And when the barbarians saw the venomous beast hang on his hand, they said among themselves, No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he hath escaped the sea, yet vengeance suffereth not to live. And he shook off the beast into the fire, and felt no harm. Howbeit they looked when he should have swollen, or fallen down dead suddenly: but after they had looked a great while, and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds, and said that he was a god. In the same quarters were possessions of the chief man of the island, whose name was Publius; who received us, and lodged us three days courteously. And it came to pass, that the father of Publius lay sick of a fever and of a bloody flux: to whom Paul entered in, and prayed, and laid his hands on him, and healed him. So when this was done, others also, which had diseases in the island, came, and were healed: Who also honoured us with many honours; and when we departed, they laded us with such things as were necessary.
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Dr. W. A. Criswell

Acts 28:1-10

7-29-79    7:30 p.m.


To all of you we encourage your opening of the Word of God to the Book of Acts.  And with the great throng in the Lord’s house here in the First Baptist Church in Dallas, let us read together the first six verses of Acts 28 [Acts 28:1-6].  In our preaching through the Book of Acts, this morning we finished chapter 27 [Acts 27:39-44], and now we begin with chapter 28.  This is a chapter that concludes the story of the apostle Paul in his journey to Rome, there in the imperial city to present before Caesar the claims of Christ.

We shall read the first six verses, all of us out loud:

And when they were escaped, then they knew that the island was called Melita.

And the barbarous people showed us no small kindness: for they kindled a fire, and received us every one, because of the present rain, and because of the cold.

And when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks, and laid them on the fire, there came a viper out of the heat, and fastened on his hand.

And when the barbarians saw the venomous beast hang on his hand, they said among themselves, No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he has escaped the sea, yet vengeance suffereth not to live.

And he shook off the beast into the fire, and felt no harm.  Howbeit they looked when he should have swollen, or fallen down dead suddenly: but after they had looked a great while, and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds, and said that he was a god.

[Acts 28:1-6]

And the title of the message is The Religion of the Natural Man.

After the furious storm and the terrible tempest, the violent hurricane had broken up the ship, battered it and hammered it to pieces.  And after, according to the promise of God, all two hundred seventy-six aboard were finally come safely to land [Acts 27:22-25, 37, 39-44].  They of course, inquired where they were.  And found that they were on an island, in an ancient day called Melita, today Malta [Acts 28:1].

I have been on Malta.  It is the most populated island in the world.  And in the days of the Second World War, was the most bombed place on the face of the earth.  For those many years, it was a British possession, and the British had a tremendous naval base there out of which they sought to recover the territory and the lands that were seized by Nazi Germany.

Malta has played a great and distinct part in the history of the Mediterranean world, and became solidly Christian.  As I looked at the island, there were churches, churches everywhere.  There is a famous cross called a Maltese cross made like four arrows pointing toward the center, a Maltese cross.  And in the days of the Crusades, there was an order of the Knights of Malta.  They were Hospitallers.  They were those who attended to the wounded and the hurt.  They came and were cast upon an island called Malta [Acts 28:1].

Then Luke refers to the barbarians who inhabited the island [Acts 28:2].  That’s an interesting word.  In the days of the Roman Empire, the population was comprised of four distinct cultures.  One, of course, was Roman, Latin speaking.  The second was Greek, the universal cultural language of the ancient world.  The third was Jewish.  And the fourth culture was barbarian.  All of those who were not in one of the other three categories were called barbarians, that is, the Greeks called them barbarians.  The Romans called them “provincials.”  You know that Luke is writing in Greek because he uses the word “barbaros, barbarian” and not “provincial.”   The word barbaros is an onomatopoetic word that refers to how their language sounded to the Greek and Latins’ ear.  It made no sense.  It was “bar, bar, bar, bar” to them.  So they called them “bar, bar, barbars.”  They were “barbarians.”  They were people who did not speak Greek and did not speak Latin.

Actually, these people on the isle of Malta at this time were Carthaginians.  Malta was a colony from Carthage.  Ancient Carthage itself was a colony of the ancient Phoenicians.  So the language they were speaking there, unknown to the Greek and the Latin, was some kind of ancient Phoenician.  “And these barbarians,” Dr. Luke writes, “showed us no small kindness, no little kindness: for they kindled a fire, received us every one out of the cold and out of the rain” [Acts 28:2], and were good to them and gave them all the provisions that they needed.

Now isn’t that just like God?  For in the promise of the Lord, the only thing that God had said to Paul was that all two hundred seventy-six on board that ship would be saved [Acts 27:23-24, 37].  But look how the mercy and gracious goodness and kindness of God goes even beyond His greatest promise.  Had they been cast upon an island that was a desert, had they been cast upon an island and the inhabitants thereof were vicious and attacked them, it would have been an ultimate, disastrous salvation.

But God saw to it that they not only were saved, all two hundred seventy-six of them, but He also saw to it that they were cast upon an island and the inhabitants thereof were kind, and welcomed these who were saved from the battered wreck, and kindly entreated them and welcomed them [Acts 28:1-2].  So the crew, and the centurion, and the sailors, and the soldiers, and Paul and his little party are now on the island of Malta, and spend three months there with those barbarians, the native people [Acts 28:11]. 

We come now to a looking at natural religion; the religion of the natural man.  Look at it.

When Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks, and laid them on the fire, there came a viper out of the heat, and fastened on his hand.

And when the babarians saw that venomous beast hanging on his hand, they said among themselves, There is no doubt but that this man is a murderer, whom, though he has escaped the wrath of the sea, yet vengeance suffereth him not to live.

[Acts 28:3-4]

The religion of the natural man; that is the first great half of it.  And there is great truth in the light that is in the heart of the lowest and most uneducated and untaught savage or barbarian.  They without exception believe that there is a retribution that always follows wrong, always.  And that is not only seen in mythology, but it is a universal sensitivity toward right and toward wrong.  One of the reasons that I believe in God is this, that there are no peoples, no tribes, never have been, never will be who are not morally sensitive.  I remember reading about the Tierra del Fuegans down there in lower Patagonia; the lowest tribes that Charles Darwin in his journey on the Beagle ever saw.  And Charles Darwin said they are so low and degraded that they are animals and they have no moral sensitivity.  That’s what Charles Darwin said about them; the Tierra del Fuegans, down there at the bottom of South America.

Some Christian people heard about that in England and they sent missionaries down there.  And the missionaries won those people to the faith and to Christ.  And they became model Christians, deeply moral, and committed to the faith of our Lord.  And Charles Darwin himself became a subscriber to the missionary enterprise to support the work down there, saying it was a miraculous thing and contradicted all that he had said.  All people, however degraded and debased they may be, all people have a great sensitivity to right and wrong.

Now that is the first great half of the religion of the natural man.  Whether it is mythological like the Greeks, whether it is something seen in the life of Charles Darwin, or whether it is the result of the study of an anthropologist, always that is the sensitivity of the human heart to evil and its retribution and compensation.

Now we are going to look at that for just a moment; the religion of the natural man away from the revelation of God.  I copied this out of, I suppose, the most famous essay that was ever written.  It is entitled, Compensation, and was written by Ralph Waldo Emerson; a brilliant study by, I suppose, the most brilliant mind that America has ever produced.   Now, you listen to Ralph Waldo Emerson as in the essay on Compensation he writes, quote:

Every act rewards itself. . .Men call the circumstance retribution. . .It is inseparable from the thing itself. . .Crime and punishment grow out of the same stem. . .Punishment is a fruit that ripens within the flower.

. . .

This is that ancient doctrine of Nemesis—that’s a goddess—who keeps watch in the universe, and lets no offense go unchastised.  The avenging Furies, they said, are attendants on justice, and if the sun in heaven should transgress his path, they would punish him. . .

When the Thasians erected a statue to Theagenes. . .one of his rivals went to it by night, and threw it down. . .until at last he moved it from its pedestal, and was crushed to death beneath its fall.

From Emerson’s essay on Compensation.  Every evil act has its inevitable retribution.  And every punishment and sorrow is caused by some evil deed.  That is the religion of the natural man.

Now I want you to see how that is found in the Bible.  When Job came upon such tragic sorrow, lost all of his family, children all killed, lost all of his possessions and he was the richest man in the East [Job 1:3]; finally, afflicted with boils from the top of his head to the sole of his foot, Job sat in ashes and cursed his day and bemoaned his sorrowful ill fortune [Job 1:1-2:8].  There came three comforters to him [Job 2:11].  “Job’s comforters”—that’s become a little proverb in our language, “Job’s comforters.”  And they came to the old patriarch and they said to him, “The reason you suffer so is because you are a great sinner” [Job 4:7-9].  Then you have the rest of the drama.  The rest of the drama is a discussion between Job and those three comforters, who avow he is a great sinner!  And Job, of course, defends his integrity.  God said he was the best man in the world [Job 1:1, 8, 2:3].  That is natural religion.  “Job, you are a vile sinner because you suffer such tremendous, agonizing sorrows” [Job 4:7-9].

Take again: the Lord Jesus referred to those Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices [Luke 13:1-2].  And the whole world of jewry said those Galileans were vile sinners because they were slain as they were sacrificed to the Lord.

The Lord Jesus used another illustration.  He said, “Those eighteen upon to whom the tower of Siloam fell” [Luke 13:4].  All of the people in Jerusalem said those eighteen are sinners above all the other people who live in Jerusalem, because the tower of Siloam fell on them, killed all eighteen of them.

You see another instance of this natural religion in the hearts of the apostles.  As they walk along with the Lord, they come upon a man who is born blind [John 9:1].  And they turn to the Lord Jesus and say, “Lord Jesus, who did sin, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” [John 9:2]  His blindness, according to natural religion, is caused by his sin.  And whose sin was it?  Was it his parents or was it his own, that he is born blind?

That is natural religion.  Now you also have that in your heart.  There is not one of us who falls into hurt and sorrow and agony and distress, but who will say, “Great God, what have I done?  What have I done, that this evil and distress should fall upon me?”  That is the religion of the natural man.

Now how does revealed religion speak of that?  Listen to the Word of the Lord.  God said to Job’s comforters, “You are wrong.  And you go to Job and ask him to make sacrifice for you that you might be spared” [Job 42:7-9].  God said Job’s comforters were wrong.  Look again.  When the Lord Jesus spoke of those Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices, the Lord said, “These were not sinners above all the other Galileans: but except you repent, you shall all likewise perish” [Luke 13:2-3].

Look again at those eighteen upon whom the tower of Siloam fell.  The Lord said, “You say these are sinners above all other men in Jerusalem, I say to you, that except ye repent, you also shall likewise perish” [Luke 13:4-5].  And look again at the Lord as He speaks of this man who is born blind [John 9:1].  He says, “Neither did this man sin, nor his parents that he was born blind: but he is blind in order that the glory of God may be manifest in him” [John 9:2-3].  And the Lord opened his eyes, and he magnified and glorified the Lord [John 9:6-7, 38].

And now about us: when trouble and disaster overwhelms us, is that a sign that we are sinners above all other men in the world, and that this is the divine retribution that is following us, and hounding us to the grave?  Is that the interpretation of suffering and sorrow in life?  That is the religion of the natural man, but it is not the faith of Jesus Christ.  Who suffered beyond anyone who ever suffered?  Who sweat as if it were great drops of blood that fell to the earth? [Luke 22:44].  Whose suffering was that?  Who bowed in Gethsemane? [Matthew 26:39, 42].  Who was nailed to the cross?  And who died in agony? [Matthew 27:32-50].  Not for His sins, but suffering for us [2 Corinthians 5:21].  Who did that?  That was our atoning Savior [Romans 5:11].  That was our precious Lord.

Paul says that “my sufferings are beyond what any other apostle has borne.  Thrice I have been beaten with Roman rods.  I have been castigated by the terrible scourging of the Jews.  A night and a day have I been in the deep.  Once was I stoned and dragged out as dead” [2 Corinthians 11:23-25].  Is that because he is a sinner beyond any other sinner in the earth?   Foxe’s Book of Martyrs is one of the most moving and famous books ever written in the English language.  And it is that; it is the story of the suffering of God’s people.  Retribution is not necessarily the cause of the great agonies that come upon the people of the Lord.  Sometimes the Lord is humbling as He did the apostle Paul.

Lest I be exalted above measure . . . this thorn in the flesh was

given me . . .

And when I asked the Lord about it . . .

He said, My grace is sufficient for thee: for My strength is made perfect in weakness . . .


he says—

I glory in persecution, in necessity, in hurts, and trials . . .  For when I am weak, then am I strong.

[2 Corinthians 12:7-10]

And there’s not anything that bows us to the ground, that bends us low, that makes us lean upon the strong hand of God like the necessities and the hurts and the agonies and the disappointments, the trials that come into our life.  So it’s always a great mistake thus to persuade yourself that because I cried or because of this deep sorrow or because of this agonizing disappointment, I have sinned before the Lord, and this is the retribution for my evil.  God says it may be that we might be disciplined, that we might be prepared for a better world: that we might learn to humble ourselves before Him; that we might bow deeply, we might lean on His kind arm; that we might pray more, be sympathetic more, be kinder and love God more.  That is revealed religion.

Now let’s take the other half of the religion of the natural man.  And when Paul found that viper clinging to his hand, this is in November, and the venomous animal had hibernated.  It was in a state of torpor.  And the warm fire awakened it, and when it was aroused, why, it attacked the hand that had lifted it up and was hanging on the hand of the apostle with its fangs buried deep in the hand of Paul.  So he held his hand over the fire and shook off the venomous beast and it fell into the fire [Acts 28:3, 5].

Now these natives, these barbarians, they watched him and they looked on, thinking that he will soon be swollen and shall fall down dead suddenly.  And they watched him and they watched him, expecting for the swelling and for the falling down dead.  But after they had looked a great while and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds, and said, “He is a god” [Acts 28:4, 6].

You know, that’s the other half of the religion of the natural man.  To worship at the shrine of the miraculous and the superstition and the mysterious and the marvelous; the religion of the natural man.  It’s a strange thing: two times in the life of Paul he is in contact with the barbarians; one time in Lycaonia, in Lystra, and there they said he was a god [Acts 14:11-12], and the second time is here on Malta, and they say he is a god [Acts 28:6].  The religion of the natural man worships at the shrine of the mysterious and the mighty and the majestic and the marvelous.  That’s natural religion.  When you see it in the days of the ancient world, they are worshipping the sun and the moon and the stars, and all of those mythological characters that identify themselves with those heavenly bodies.

In the animistic world, I’ve watched this in Africa.  They will worship before a great stone, a spirit in the stone, or a great tree, the spirits in the tree; or in a mountain, the spirits in the mountain.  As I visited the king of Eyo, there he was with all kinds of deities above his door; superstitious, worshipping the unknown.  That’s the way it is in the ancient world, and the barbarian world, and the mythological world.

Today, it’s the same thing only in another category.  Today the enlightened world bows at the shrine of science, of knowledge, and they worship with a telescope, or they worship with a microscope.  And they are overwhelmed by all of the gadgetry that has been brought to us by modern scientific achievement.  That’s the most amazing thing come to pass in the history of mankind, is how the modern civilized world bows itself down before the shrine of science.  We are scientists therefore, and in all of the things that follow after.  “What that preacher says is idiocy, and what that church believes is foolishnesses, and what that Bible reveals is nothing but sheer superstition.  We are scientists.  We have come to a great understanding of modern, miraculous truth.”

And then they have much to show for it.  They sent a man to the moon, that’s a marvelous achievement.  And they can send a big projectile called the 747 clear across the ocean; send it over there in a few hours.  And all of the other gadgetry that science has brought to us, these electric lights, and everything connected with the things that we live with in modern day; so we forget God who made the world.  And we forget the revelation of the Bible.  And we forget Jesus our Savior.  And we are now worshippers at the shrine of science, and exult in the gadgetry it is brought to us; an automobile, an airplane, a man on the moon; all of the other things that science brings to us.

Isn’t it a strange thing how when you bow before any other god except the Lord God in heaven, how things turn to dust and ashes in your hand?  Those temples of the ancient Greeks finally crumbled to dust.  They were meaningless.  And today, let me give you a little illustration.  In England, they don’t have televisions such as we have.  And it’s owned by the government.  And I sat and I looked at night at a long presentation of the British Broadcasting Company.  You know what it was?  It was a description, at great length, of a movement in Great Britain to get out of the madness of the rat race in the city.  And Britons by the thousands, that BBC broadcast said, are going back to the farms, and they are going back to the soil, and they are going back to the primeval life.  So what the broadcast did, it presented men and women out there on those farms who are now milking goats, that’s one of them; plowing a garden, working in the field, living in a little cottage.

And the interview with those people was a marvel to me.  They said, “Our souls are empty and sterile with all of the gadgetry of modern life, and we have come back to the soil, where we pray”—and it showed a family praying—“where we pray for the rain to fall and the seed to sprout, and we see it grow.  And we take care of our animals and our husbandry, and we live close to God and are happy in Him.”  My brother, anytime we persuade ourselves that things feed our hearts, that is the religion of a natural man, and it could never be more mistaken.

If science discovers ten thousand other gadgets, we’ll still be just as poor in spirit and as hungry in heart as we ever were.  Bowing down before the miraculous; “He is a god.”  Dear me.  That’s my introduction.  Ah, what has happened?  And the time is gone, and our radio goes off over KRLD, and this is the sermon.

This man Publius, the ruler of the island, heard about Paul and his party.  And it came to pass that the father of Publius was sick, and Paul entered and prayed, and laid his hands on him and healed him [Acts 28:8].  And then all the sick in the island were brought [Acts 28:9].  And Luke practiced medicine and they were healed.  “And they honored us with many honors.  And when we departed they laded us with such things as were necessary” [Acts 28:10].  How did that come to pass?  Look at it.  It is all because of that viper; that viper [Acts 28:3].

“Well, what do you mean, pastor, that viper?”  When Paul landed there, he was just one of the drenched wretches.  And the head of the party was a centurion.  He was in command of all, and next to him was the master and owner of the ship, and then below them were the sailors and the soldiers.  And Paul was just a prisoner on the way to Rome to be tried for his life.  And you look at what the viper did.  When that viper seized his hand and they looked at him, expecting him to be swollen and to fall down dead, when he didn’t, every eye was on the apostle Paul; every eye [Acts 28:4, 6].   They weren’t looking at that centurion.  They weren’t looking at that master.  They weren’t looking at that owner.  They weren’t looking at those soldiers.  They weren’t looking at those sailors.  They were looking at Paul.   How God calls attention to the preaching of the gospel, and that night every house and cottage on the island of Malta were talking about that man, the apostle Paul, how God focused the attention on him by that viper [Acts 28:4, 6].

Now I’m no student of herpetology, snakes.  There are more than three thousand species of them, and the books say that practically all of those species are good.  Not in my book.  They are all bad.  They are all bad.  Ever since I read about that one in the third chapter of Genesis [Genesis 3:1-6, 14-15], I’ve been agin’ ‘em.  I’ve been agin’ ‘em.  Ah, Ah!  There are no nice snakes to me.

But what a marvelous come-to-pass, what God has done here with that viper, venomous and poisonous.  God calls attention to the preacher of the gospel of the grace of the Son of God.  And look how marvelously the Lord uses the witness of the preacher.  They were kind, those people.  They were gracious, those people.  They were friendly in their welcome [Acts 28:2].  And God rewarded them [Acts 28:8-9].

Paul stands in the midst.  And in the palace, the home of the ruler of the island, he brings the healing message of the Lord Jesus to that prince and to his father, and finally, to all of the island people.  They are brought under the influence of the gospel of Jesus [Acts 28:8-9].  You remember how I began?  I suppose the most solidly Christian island in the world is this island of Malta.  The people were healed, and they were blessed, and they were saved by the preaching of the gospel in their land.

And that is God’s marvelous way with us today.  When we turn aside from the revealed religion of Christ [Ephesians 2:8], we fall into all kinds of error; all kinds of superstition.  I don’t think in the history of civilization I have ever read in any book anywhere so many cults and so many aberrations and so many superstitions as is seizing the attention of America today.  And you know why?  It is obvious.  When America turns aside from the faith of Christ, and the revelation of God in His holy and inerrant and inspired Word [2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20-21], they turn to all kinds of gods, and all kinds of superstitions, and every aberration that the mind can think of.

It is the true and revealed religion that makes us sons of God [John 1:12]; walking in the freedom of His glory, forgiven in His grace and mercy [Ephesians 1:7; Titus 3:5], encouraged and helped and strengthened in our pilgrim life; our hearts filled with praises, and the psalms of glory and joy on our lips.  My brother, there is no more precious way, no more beautiful way, no more meaningful way, no more rewarding way than to walk in the way of our Lord.  Blessed be His name, that His mercy reach down to us.  On our shores there came a missionary to preach the gospel to our forefathers, and through them we heard it and were healed and were saved.  Blessed be His wonderful, wonderful name.  Now, may we stand in His presence?

O God of glory and might and wonder, the true Lord who made the firmament above us and the earth on which we walk [Genesis 1:1-23], who revealed Himself to us in the loving, atoning Savior, the blessed Jesus [John 1:18], and who speaks to us today by His Holy Spirit through His Word and brings to us the light of life [John 16:7-15]; O God of mercy and glory, be Thou our Savior, our keeper, our Lord, our Master, our King, our hope, our assurance, our salvation.  And, our Lord, may we never be deluded into worshipping false gods, whether it be at the shrine of science or cult or superstition; but may we walk in the light of the knowledge of the glory of God that shined in the face of Jesus Christ [2 Corinthians 4:6].  And our Lord, tonight, this night, may there be some who come to Thee, accept Thee, believe in Thee,  trust Thee, live their lives for Thee, and find their soul filled with all of the joy of the living presence of our living Lord.  Please, God, make it now.

And as our people pray and as we wait, and as we ask God for you, a family you, a couple you, or just one somebody you, down that stairway or down this aisle, “Preacher, I have decided for God, and here I am.  I am taking Jesus as my Savior [Romans 10:8-13], and here I stand.  I am walking with the Lord in this pilgrim way, and I begin tonight.”  As the Spirit shall press the appeal to your heart, answer with your life.  I will be standing here at the front.  Stand by me.  “Pastor, I give you my hand.  I’ve given my heart to Jesus.”  Or, “Pastor, we are putting our lives with you and these dear people in this wonderful church.”  Make the decision now in your heart.  And as we begin to sing, waiting for you, praying for you, on the first note of the first stanza, come.  And God bless you in the way as you come.  Do it now.