Acts 17: just another God?

So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”

Acts 17:22-23 (NIV).

The scene that met Paul in Athens was typical of the Roman Empire of the day. 

As he wandered through the Areopagus, at the heart of the bustling ancient city, he was confronted by the presence and veneration of countless gods, goddesses, and mystery divinities. The ancient world was “very religious”. Just as much as our own contemporaries worship celebrities, money, fashion and sex, the ancients were worshippers. In many ways they worshiped the same gods as the world around us, they merely personified them. In Plutus they had a god of money, in Aphrodite a goddess of sex. So when Paul passed the “objects of worship” in ancient Athens, he was met not with idols of meaningless false gods, but with manifestations of the false gods the Roman world had raised up as a result of their sinful rebellion against God.

In the absence of an object of True Worship, human beings then and now turn to objects of comfort and self-centred gain and worship them. The Roman merchant would pray to Neptune ahead of a sea voyage – to ensure calm sailing and safe arrival of their cargo. The Roman soldier would pray to Mars before battle, to beg for victory over inferior foe. The traveller would submit to Mercury when setting off on a journey, to ask for safe roads and swift travel. You get the picture. In the absence of a true focal point for human worship, the sinful heart erects false gods to come to. 


The Roman world was full of gods. There was a god or goddess for every event and occasion, and if you couldn’t find anything at home, then divinities from abroad were more than welcome in the Roman pantheon. The polytheistic religious attitude of the ancient world incorporated the likes of Isis and Osiris from Egypt, and Mithridates from the Orient. If you still couldn’t find the god you needed publically, then the household gods, or lares, were personal deities found and worshipped in small shrines in every Roman home. There was no state religion, because the state was religion. The Emperor himself encouraged worship of the imperial ancestors, and imperial cults sprung up across the empire venerating past and present Roman Emperors.

So when Paul moves to speak of this Unknown God, he makes a radical call.

“Being then God’s offspring, we 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. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

Acts 17: 29-31 (NIV).

Paul calls his Athenian audience to repent. Because his True God is not some metal or stone image carved by their sculptors. Nor is he content with ignorance and half-hearted service. Paul’s Christian God does not want you only to heed him on odd days of the week, or at times when you need a hand in a crisis. Paul’s Christian God wants repentance from ignorance, and lives given over to Him before His final judgement comes. This message itself is even more countercultural. The gods were certainly seen as powerful and mighty beings. But they were by no means sovereign. The current gods of Rome and Greece were believed to be ruling (under Jupiter, the King of the gods) merely because they overthrew a divine race of Titans and stole their power and authority. There is no sense in which their rule is eternally assured, certainly no sense in which their sovereignty is so total as to one day call the men of the world to a final judgement. Such teaching contradicts everything the ancients believed. Even their notions of judgement at death were profoundly different: with most believing that all the deceased passed on to a shadelike existence in the underworld, where a mere few enjoyed the semi-passable eternal existence of the Isles of the Blessed.

No, Paul and the faithful of the Early Church taught one God supreme in authority, sovereignty and judgement. And when Paul made known the unknown God, he was asking his pagan audience to turn from their false gods and humble themselves before the one true God. The one God who could satisfy them, the one God who could save them.

Paul was not preaching just another god to fit into their crowded marketplace. He was preaching the one true God, the one true saviour and the one true judge. 

‘Systematic exploitation’ and the freedom of Christ.

Image result for unbelievable tom holland tom wright

I recently watched the UnBelievable interview with Tom Holland and Tom Wright.

I enjoyed it immensely, and if you haven’t yet watched it, it’s a few years old but still an interesting conversation to listen in on.

One thing that stood out for me was the use of a particular phrase by the writer and historian Tom Holland. Holland claimed that the ancient world was built and sustained through the concept of what he called “systematic exploitation”.

Holland goes on… “the entire economy is founded on slave labour, the sexual economy is founded on the absolute right of free Roman males to have sex with anyone that they want anyway that they like. And, in almost every way, this is a world that is unspeakably cruel to our way of thinking.”

Holland’s comments reveal a cruel and oppressive nature in the ancient world, that, rightly, clashes with our own ways of looking at the world. This is not a blog post aimed at dissecting why it is we are so uncomfortable with such behaviour, though for a timeless book on such questions, I would recommend C S Lewis’ Mere Christianity.

The Oppression of Rome

Holland is speaking of Ancient Rome with these comments (he reflects them back to Greece as well – but his focus is the later ancient power). And the Rome he describes is the Rome in which Jesus lived and died, Paul wrote and travelled, and the Early Church was founded and grew. In the Italian peninsula alone, some studies suggest the slave population was around 3 million by 100 AD. Another study reckons between 5 and 6 million slaves empire wide by 260 AD. That’s nearly 15% of the entire imperial population, enslaved and oppressed.

Holland mentions the sexual oppression of the ancient world, and there was certainly a culture of manipulation and abuse in this regard. Prostitution, adultery and paedophilia were commonplace in the Roman world, some thought of as respectable, some regarded as crass. Little of it was considered wrong or evil.

The ancient world was built on the systematic oppression of the poor, vulnerable, alien and needy. Much of what went on in Ancient Rome ought to repulse us. But this was the everyday world of the Early Church. Before they became Christians, respectable men and women would have viewed sex completely differently, would have happily owned other people for the simple sake of household chores and business matters, and would have turned a blind eye to the brothels, slave markets and sexually licentious drinking parties that they both walked past and engaged in.

Christianity in Context

Such a context ought to shock us when we read passages like these of Paul…

“The body… is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.” But whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit.”

1 Corinthians 6:13-17 (NIV)

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favour, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”

Colossians 3:22-24 (NIV)

An open sexuality, prostitution and slavery were so commonplace in the ancient world. Let’s take these two cases in turn, because Paul has something to say about the oppression of Ancient Rome, and the way (and reason) Christians ought to respond to it.

Sexually: Christians must be different. Sex is God’s gift to mankind, to be wonderfully and joyfully embraced in marriage. Prostitution contorts this. It breaks this marriage bond, distorting God’s good gift into a broken thing. More than that, the Christian is now united not only with their spouse, but with Christ! The Christian is one with the Lord in Spirit. How could something so holy, pure and good be united with a prostitute? Paul is radical in this teaching. Prostitution isn’t a perfectly fine everyday occurrence, its a distortion of God’s pattern for relationships and the world, and the believer must flee from it. Paul speaks of the prostitute here too. Her body is united in sexual immorality. This is a concerned message. Prostitution, sexual licentiousness, it doesn’t just turn one person from a right view of and relationship with the Lord, it takes two. Paul is urging Christians to flee from this sexual oppression, for their own sake as well as the sake of those they would be oppressing.

Paul is just as radical with slavery. Elsewhere in Scripture, Paul urges masters to be kind to their slaves, forgiving them their errors and treating them justly. But here, Paul speaks to slaves themselves. Paul commands them to obey their masters, to work hard for them, as for the Lord. A radical teaching! It is not a command to flee their oppression, but rather to respond to it in gracious subservience. There is so much that could be said on these two passages, and both betray huge topics that must rightly be explored. But in Paul’s response, there is one unifying theme that stands starkly against the systematic exploitation of the Roman world in which he writes.

Freedom in Christ.

In the Roman world, freedom was a big deal. Paul repeatedly used his freedom as a Roman citizen as defence in Acts, and citizenship (as discussed in my earlier blog) was a big deal. But even such freedom came with the recognition that you were part of the Roman machine. You were subservient to the Emperor, the elites, the laws and cultural quirks of Rome. True freedom, taught the Early Church, is only found in Christ.

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.

Galatians 5:1 (NIV)

Christ has set the believer free. Free from sin, shame, oppression and evil. Free from serving and doing what is wrong. Free from the final and ultimate punishment that our broken and sinful hearts deserve. Christ has set us free to live for Him.

“You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.”

Galatians 5:13 (NIV)

“Live as free men, but do not use your freedom to cover-up for evil; live as servants of God.”

1 Peter 2:16 (NIV)

The Christian in the Roman world, and the Christian today, is called to a wonderful freedom in Christ. But that freedom is a calling from a life of sinful slavery. So, urges Paul and Peter, don’t use your freedom to carry on as you were. Live different.

Paul urged men and women to live sexually pure lives, they are now free in Christ to pursue sex in its right place, in marriage. They are now free to show love to the oppressed by treating them lovingly, not abusively. And Paul commanded slaves to live humble, hardworking lives. Because they are free to do so. Free to honour their masters, submitting to them as though to the Lord, because they are free to live for Him. Knowing, as every Christian knows, that their freedom is eternal and far outlasts the cares and worries of this earth, no matter how great they may be.

The Roman world was built on a systematic oppression of minorities, the impoverished and the vulnerable. Christ’s Church is built of free men and women, of brothers and sisters born not of the same earthly parent, but won through the wondrous actions of Christ on the cross. The Roman world was never truly free. But in the Early Church, men and women were living truly free lives in the ancient world. Living different, living free.

Partnership at a cost: Philemon

In his short New Testament letter to Philemon, Paul asks for something absolutely outrageous.

Philemon is all about partnership. Paul celebrates the encouragement his friend has been to him (and others) in the past “Your love has given me great joy and encouragement,because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people” (vs7), and looks forward to being with him for a time of fellowship again soon, “Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers” (vs22). But in between these two clearly tender remarks, which illustrate their close brotherly relationship in the Lord, Paul asks of his friend an outrageous request.

It is a request, an appeal. Though Paul says he could pull rank and order him to obey (vs8), he appeals, vs9, out of love. And the appeal is for the slave, Onesimus.

“I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.”

Philemon 10-11.

Paul is appealing on behalf of this slave Onesimus, who clearly belongs to the well-off Philemon. Onesimus has fled from Philemon’s house, clearly he has wronged his master (either by running away or perhaps some other misdemeanor – the letter doesn’t make that clear). But somehow he has ended up with Paul, and now, wonderfully, he has come to a saving faith in Christ. Paul shows this in calling him “my son” – and we are told in Colossians 4:9 that he is a “faithful and dear brother.”

So Paul makes this appeal: formerly this slave was useless to you Philemon, he wronged you, but now he is in right fellowship with me and before God, and he is of use to you again, accept him back into your household. And accept him not as a slave (vs16) but as a brother. In fact, Philemon, receive him as you would receive me (vs17). 

This is an outrageous request, because Philemon and Onesimus couldn’t be more different, and in real terms: they couldn’t be more estranged.

They were not two friends who had a falling our, or siblings who had a row. This is two men at polar opposite ends of the social spectrum, and Paul asks the ‘greater’ of these two men to accept the ‘lesser’ as though they were brothers! It’s the Queen accepting the beggar as a brother, or the CEO promoting the secretary to be her partner. But more than this: Onesimus has wronged Philemon, he’s a runaway slave, Philemon is within his rights to have him put to death! In Roman times the slave was the ultimate possession of the master, and if that slave fled, crucifixion was a perfectly acceptable (and common) punishment. Onesimus had wronged his master in a serious way, there was no worldly coming back from this. And yet Paul appeals. Forgive and embrace him, says Paul. Not as a debtor, not as a slave, but as a brother. Paul is asking the important Philemon to ask a criminal social outcast to be his equal. It’s a radical call to working out his heart of partnership in a costly situation. In the social standing of the day this was the utmost folly. But Paul doesn’t care, he’s only interested in these men enjoying and living in a successful partnership for the Gospel.

Onesimus is, in a worldly sense, next to nothing. He was a possession, and one that needed to be destroyed for his crimes. Philemon was a big deal, he was a homeowner, a slaveowner, clearly a man of social standing. It’s a radical plea from Paul, but it’s made on one qualification only

Onesimus is useful to Paul, and to Philemon. How? Because Onesimus has come to believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And because of that one fact, he was useful. Paul is making a pun here – Onesimus’ name means useful: in his crime he was useless, but now, made right in Christ, he is useful. And his use is incredible.

Paul thanked Philemon for the way his love “refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people” (vs7), likewise Paul hopes that if Philemon obeys his appeal here he will “refresh my heart in Christ” (vs19). The Christian refreshes his or her brother and sister by displaying a Gospel-centred Christ-like love towards them. Any Christian, from the slave to the master, the PhD to the sixth-form drop out, can encourage their brothers and sisters, can be useful to them. God is merciful to use each and every one of us. In our church, our ragtag bunch of Christians from all walks of life, every single person is useful. Because every single person can point us back to the Gospel.

And clearly, from the outrageous nature of Paul’s request, that is the thing that matters most for any and every believer.

Ignatius: Focussed on Unity

Ignatius was headed for his death.

And that is one of the first things we know for sure about him.

He’s another one of the Early Church figures about whom it is almost impossible to piece a biography together. Born in the early first century (c.AD 35) Ignatius rose to the position of bishop in Antioch, a church leader in one of the important Early Church centres.

His death came about in AD 107, as he was taken to Rome and executed for the charge of atheism. One of the most common charges levied against early Christians, atheism – denying the Roman gods – could be punishable by death, and for Ignatius, it was.

Traditionally Ignatius is seen as one of the disciples of the Apostle John, whether or not this was the case, it seems that he likely succeeded Evodius as the second or third bishop of Antioch. In this role, he spoke and wrote extensively against heretical divisions, sending letters to churches throughout the Eastern Mediterranean.

Quite why Ignatius was taken to Rome for his execution is unknown, when persecution arose Christians were normally punished locally by the imperial provincial authority. Despite this peculiar circumstance, we know he endured a long journey to Rome, where he then met his death. On his way to the imperial capital he wrote many of his extant letters and it is these that provide most of his legacy. Letters to churches in Ephesus, Magnesia and other cities throughout the empire have survived. His letters often dwell on the themes of unity, submission to church leaders and fellowship through the Lord’s Supper.

Ignatius sought to encourage a unity built around a mutual encouragement and growth in the Gospel. He spoke against those who would seek to divide the church through falsehoods and lies, and encouraged a united submission to the undershepherds Christ had raised up. His letters betray his primary concern as he went to his death in Rome: the faithfulness and unity of the Church. His letters urge his readers to “follow the lead of the bishops” to “take heed to often come together to give thanks to God” and to “revere the deacons” among many other commands. Ignatius has a picture of a global Church gathered in local churches; under the authority of local church leadership, serving and growing in the glorious Gospel of Christ.

Eventually he went to his death, and as with so many of the other Early Church martyrs, his focus in death as in life is a challenge to us all.

Let fire and cross, flocks of beasts, broken bones, dismemberment … come upon me, so long as I attain to Jesus Christ.”

Ignatius of Antioch

In death as in life, Ignatius looked towards and rejoiced in Christ. In his ministry he encouraged his flock to do the same, and in his own life he sought nothing more than to attain to Him.

His life reflects the words of Paul to the Philippians, written during Ignatius’ own lifetime.

“For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”

Philippians 1:21.

Paul, and a little later Ignatius, saw life as being rightly lived when it was lived for Christ. And death? With death comes the great reward for the Christian is to be united with Christ for all eternity. Ignatius reflected this Pauline ambition, to live in such a way that Christ was glorified, and to die with the wonderful and certain hope that today he would be with Him in paradise.

Citizens of Heaven

Paul’s Claim

Being a Roman citizen was a big deal. It afforded protections, rights and liberties simply not available to other classes. And until the third century, this status was the prize of the chosen few. The advantages are seen in the book of Acts. Having been beaten and imprisoned in Philippi, Paul and Silas alarm their captors by revealing that they are in fact Roman citizens (16:37-38). But in Acts 25, Paul uses his citizenship for the ultimate end: to appeal to directly to Caesar.

Paul answered: “I am now standing before Caesar’s court, where I ought to be tried. I have not done any wrong to the Jews, as you yourself know very well. If, however, I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die. But if the charges brought against me by these Jews are not true, no one has the right to hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar!”After Festus had conferred with his council, he declared:“You have appealed to Caesar. To Caesar you will go!”

Acts 25:10-12

Paul could make this appeal because he was a citizen of Rome. His special status meant he had the right to special treatment. The vast majority of those living inside the borders of the vast Roman empire were not citizens. They were either allies or aliens, but neither had the rights of the citizen. It was a special claim and a special status, it was a big deal.

After Caracalla

In AD 212, the Emperor Caracalla changed what citizenship meant. Before his rule, citizenship was a prized asset, the possession of the few and a key social marker distinguishing the privileged few from the masses.

But in AD 212 Caracalla issued an edict of universal citizenship. Suddenly, this changed everything. This edict (the inventively named Edict of Caracalla) granted citizenship status to ever free man in the Roman Empire. You might think this was a wonderful thing, suddenly everyone was special! But the reality is, when everyone is given this special status, it’s not longer really that special.

When citizenship was reserved for a social elite, it had meant something. Clearly it meant enough for Paul to get the special treatment his status deserved. Citizenship status mattered in the ancient world, and when Caracalla challenged that, it became a far less important commodity.

Citizens of Heaven

But up until the third century, this language of citizenship was impressive. In Acts 16 the revelation that they had been beating and mistresting Roman citizens shocked the captors of Paul and Silas. In Acts 25 it led to an appeal straight to Caesar. Citizenship in the ancient world really did matter.

And so as Paul wrote to the small Philippian church, he reminded them where their citizenship truly was, and this was incredible news.

Our citizenship is in heaven, and we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Philippians 3:20

Paul tells the first century Philippian church – slave or free, man or woman, Roman, Greek or Jew, that they have citizenship. But this citizenship is not the flimsy Roman kind, great as all that is, this is citizenship of a much greater kingdom. An eternal one, a heavenly one.

The Philippians are citizens of Heaven. This is their status. The perks and privileges of citizenship are theirs. Not just any citizenship, but Heavenly citizenship. The Bible fleshes out what this means for the believer. Our citizenship is so special because not only it is of Heaven, but we are adopted by the King of Heaven.

The heir of the Roman Emperor had special access to his court. Paul could appeal to see the Emperor as a perk of citizenship, but the heir to the empire? He could walk right into the throneroom at any time. We are citizens of Heaven, and we are adopted children of the King of Heaven.

See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!

1 John 3:1a

In fact, Hebrews tells us that quite literally we can approach the throne room of God because of this new status of citizenship and divine relationship.

Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

Hebrews 4:16

And as children of the King? We are heirs and coheirs with Christ.

Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

Romans 8:17

Scripture is wonderfully clear on the status of the believer. We are God’s children, citizens of and heirs to His kingdom. And this is something God has bestowed upon us. The Bible explains what this  bestowing means for the believer. It means God has bestowed love on us (1 John 3:1, Ephesians 2:4), grace (1 Cor 1:4) and indeed every spiritual gift (2 Peter 1:3-5, Eph 1:3).

Our heavenly citizenship is an incredible status. Such language was music to the ears of the small and suffering Early Church, and it ought to cause us to rejoice as well. So let us reflect on and rejoice in our status, and let us obey Paul: let’s eagerly await the return of our Saviour from this Heavenly kingdom.