Paul did not say what the Athenians believe in was wrong. He merely pointed them to the true nature of God.
We live in a world that is lost and broken. And even though we celebrate a diverse variety of religious and cultural traditions, we realise that the bulk of humanity is lost.
As I studied the diverse riches of cultural and religious traditions of Asia, I am fascinated by the similarities Taoism have with Christianity. In my reading of Taoist scriptures and in my limited understanding of Taoist deities, I come to realise that their highest God, the Jade Emperor, isn’t quite the highest in terms of rank. Worse, it isn’t he who created the universe in Taoist mythology too. Sure, the Jade Emperor governs all of creation in Taoist mythology, but he did not create. He is not the reason why the universe exists in Taoist mythology.
Most Taoist practitioners do not know that.
While waiting for my gramps to come home for a family gathering, I ventured into a Temple of the Jade Emperor near their home. Within the temple, there are many statues. So I spoke to the people working within the temple, asking them to tell me more about the gods that they worship. Almost all of them told me that they do not know the gods inside the temple. They just worshipped. I asked if they knew what they were doing. They said they do. They were just following the instruction of worship.
After talking to a few of them, they brought me to the Temple Owner （庙主）. I asked him to share with me about the gods. He briefly pointed some slightly prominent ones to me. He stood in the distance, far from the statues. He doesn’t seem too passionate in sharing about his faith, though. So I asked again.
“Who is the Jade Emperor?” I asked.
“That one in the centre,” he replied.
“There’s quite a few in the centre.”
“The highest one.”
“The biggest one is a thousand hands guanyin… No?”
“No, above her.”
“That small one?”
“What small, he’s the largest.”
“Ya, smaller in terms of size?”
I walked towards the statue and saw a plague. It reads “The Jade Emperor of Heaven governs all of the Mortal and the other Realms, but ranks below the Three Pure Ones （三清道神）”.
Because of my reading, I know who is this Three Pure Ones. But because I did not see the statue(s) of the Three Pure Ones, I asked, “where is the statue of the Three Pure Ones”?
He looked at me with disbelief.
“What Three Pure Ones? The Jade Emperor ranks lower than them? Can’t be!” he exclaimed as he walks towards the plague and takes a closer look.
“This is wrong! I need to tape this up!”
I looked at him and asked, “but the plague says so?”
“Wrong! Can’t be! I’ve not heard of the Three Pure Ones!”
At this moment, I have that conflict within me. To preach or not to preach? I chose to keep my cool and trust that the Lord will show Himself to the temple owner. Ultimately, the Three Pure Ones in Taoist mythology is the Trinity of Taoism, the Creator of the universe.
My heart conflicted within me as I pondered on the Taoist verses that the Holy Spirit brought to my attention.
(The Dao produced One; One produced Two; Two produced Three; Three produced all things.”
— Daodejing Chapter 42.
(I do not know whose Son it is. It might appear to have been like God.)
— Daodejing Chapter 5.
(The Dao which originated all under the sky is to be considered as the mother of them all. When the mother is found, we know what her children should be. When one knows that he is his mother’s child, and proceeds to guard (the qualities of) the mother that belong to him, to the end of his life he will be free from all peril.)
— Daodejing Chapter 52.
Within these verses alone, we see the creation of the universe, the mystery of the Trinity, the relationship between the Son and the Father, and the adoption of all humanity to sonship.
The points mentioned above is similar to what Paul used when he preached to the people of Athens. He used their philosophical and religious texts to proclaim the mysteries of God. First, he pointed out that God created the universe and hence do not need to be served (Acts 17:24-25). Second, he pointed out that we are God’s offspring (Acts 17:28-29).
Paul did not tell them that what they believe is wrong. Paul however told them that they “ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man” (Acts 17:29, ESV). He pointed them to the true nature of God and all that the Lord had done for them.
I think this is our calling. We are not called to rebuke the people from their beliefs. We are called to point them to the truth hidden beneath their beliefs. We are called to point them to the true nature of God that has been lost through ages of misunderstanding and ritualistic traditions. Through having a proper understanding of the truth of God, nations will walk in the light of God, and the kings of the earth bring their respective glory into the kingdom of God (Revelations 21:24, ESV).
The Kingdom of God is truly rich in cultural diversity. Now, it is up to us to uproot eons of ritualistic legalism and to point people to the glory of the God of all creation and to help them see the riches of God’s mysteries.