I didn’t know what kind of greeting to expect. Each culture has their own way of showing honor and hospitality to a visiting pastor, minister, or theologian who they’ve invited to speak at their church or fellowship. I’ve been a guest speaker before and received honorariums ranging from checks to dried mangos to t-shirts, so I didn’t think much of the beautiful, massive flower wreath that they placed around my neck when we stepped into a local church in Asia where I was invited as a speaker for their regional pastor’s conference. It was, after all, their way of showing honor and esteem to a visiting minister. At least, that’s what I thought.
Sitting next to me was a local pastor from that particular country. He, too, was invited to speak at the conference. He, too, had a flower wreath placed around his neck. Only, he took it off shortly after and kept it off throughout the entire afternoon. The Americans, including myself, asked him why. We knew that, as a native of that country, he was well-versed in its culture and the meaning of particular gestures. He explained with the following (paraphrased): “People here have a tendency to treat pastors like deity. It’s baggage from their polytheistic background. And one of the ways they indicate this is by putting this wreath around your neck.”
A few months later, now back in America, I was watching a Netflix documentary on the country I mentioned above. Part of the documentary was an interview with a family that worshiped a particular animal that they kept in their home and considered sacred. Once a year, they would throw a religious festival for that animal by putting around its neck—you guessed it—the same massive flower wreath that had been placed around my neck at the pastor’s conference.
Men Have a Tendency to Make Much of Men
The truth is that man has a tendency to make much of men. More pointedly, man has a tendency to make other human beings objects of worship. Cornelius, a reputable Gentile in his own right in both his ability and his works of charity (cf Acts 10:1-2, 22) tried to worship Peter when the apostle entered his home: “When Peter entered, Cornelius met him, and fell at his feet and worshiped him” (Acts 10:24).
We can’t miss the irony. The fact that a Roman soldier of his societal stature—not to mention the amount of authority vested in him as a centurion (cf Luke 7:8)—would fall down to an uneducated, Jewish ex-fisherman and worship him at a time when military soldiers were esteemed above all others, is indicative of the natural tendency of humans, no matter how accomplished, to glorify other humans and to ascribe to another human the worth and honor that is deserved only by God Himself. It would have been like watching Shaquille O’Neal walk into my home, getting on his knees, and kissing my feet (as I was trying to get his autograph!).
What Cornelius tried to do to Peter may seem ironic, but it reveals the natural tendency of the human heart to make other humans objects of worship. As Americans, we are the the furthest thing from the exception. Bowing down before statues, animal worship, pantheism, and ancestor worship may not be as prevalent in Western civilization and American society as it is in other parts of the world, but idolatry is just as rampant. And for Western culture—whose foundations of both politics and philosophy can be traced back to Greco-Roman culture and Europe’s post-medieval humanism—those idols don’t take the form of totem pole statues, but of actual human beings based on their perceived merit.
If you’re not convinced, watch the way young boys respond when they see Stephen Curry or consider the way young girls react when they see Justin Bieber. I’ve often wondered why conferences try to capitalize on the so-called faith of famous athletes and artists by having them speak at their conferences. Considered from the angle of expertise, these invitations don’t make sense. Why grab an NBA player and have him speak at a conference where people are supposed to hear the preaching of the Word, when his craft is in shooting a basketball and not biblical exegesis? Yet, these invitations are only too predictable. If you want people who have little interest in the things of God to attend your conference, then bring in a speaker who they treat as God. In America, it’s not that difficult to do. We’re a nation obsessed with the GOAT’s (Greatest of All Time), because we’re a nation obsessed with merit, accomplishments, feats, and record-breaking. Whether it’s our politicians, our musicians, our actors, our athletes, or our scholars, we instinctively like to make much of people.
Christians Should Not Make Much of Men
Christians, however, shouldn’t make much of men because there’s really nothing to be made much of. When Cornelius bowed down and worshiped Peter, Peter had the option to receive it. After all, he was the one who God spoke of in the vision to Cornelius. Instead, Peter responded in the way every man should when people try to worship him:“But Peter raised him up, saying, ‘Stand up, I too am just a man’” (Acts 10:26).
This story reminds me of how seventeen-year old Aranxta Sanchez-Vicario responded when asked, on the eve of the French Open final, how she would deal with the intimidation and awe of having to play top-ranked Steffi Graf who was on a five-grand slam win streak: “I came to play her, not to pray to her,” she firmly said. (She defeated Graf the next day.) Maybe Sanchez-Vicario thought of the apostle Peter during her pre-match press-conference. Peter wasn’t being falsely humble or self-deprecating when he refused Cornelius’ worship. He was being sensible. To bow down and worship a man—a finite, created being—is senseless, in the same way that praying to the Mauna Kea volcano is senseless.
Peter refused Cornelius’ worship not just internally, but formally by physically getting Cornelius out of his prostrated position because such worship was unwarranted. As humans, we don’t worship other humans because humans are not worthy of worship. No matter how many three-point buzzer-beaters you’ve made, no matter how many academic papers you’ve written, no matter how much you’ve proliferated your business product, no matter how much governing authority has been entrusted to you, you are not worthy of anyone bowing down to you and ascribing to you the glory and honor that ought to be given to God alone. Why? Because, as Peter reminded Cornelius, you too are just a man.
Only one man ever rightfully received worship during His time on earth—Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ and the Son of God. In Him alone does the fullness of deity dwell in bodily form (Col 2:9). He alone came down from heaven to die for sinners and pay the full penalty of our sins (Rom 3:21-26). He alone was resurrected from the dead into a glorified body that is now the first fruits of all who believe in Him for eternal life (1 Cor 15:20-23). He alone is worthy of worship, for, though He is a man, he is not just a man. He is God Incarnate. Let it be Him—and Him alone—who we make much of as men.