By Tom Roberts
If one could have access to a newspaper published anywhere in the Roman world during the first century, the headlines, daily news, advertising, classified ads, and yes, even the comic section would probably have made us blush with shame. The Roman world was a hedonistic society, a culture that explored the depths of sexual and immoral pleasures. Philosophy, religion, customs and history combined to provide a climate that encouraged wantonness and excess. Philosophies (such as Epicureanism) supported sin with a rationale that man could not help himself: “if it feels good, do it.” Religion (with its pantheon of gods) gave its blessing to sexual impurities by including all kinds of vices within the embrace of heathen temples that were little more than brothels. Customs of the day (fornication, homosexuality, pedophilia, etc.) made immorality such a common practice that chastity and virtue were practically unknown. From the athletic contests (often featuring nudity among the participants) to the wares available on the street markets, sin was a part of the daily lives of those in the ancient world. Historically, the lascivious life was well established by the time the gospel met face to face with one of Satan’s more popular devices, the lust of the flesh. This theme of Acts whereby the gospel reclaims souls from sinfulness is very much needed in our day, a time more and more reminiscent of the darkness of the Greco/Roman world.
Jewish Morality, the Last Outpost
Had it not been for the influence of the Jews who were faithful to the Law of Moses and who were dispersed throughout the Roman world, nothing at all would have been remembered of the early days of the earth when men “knew God” (Rom. 1:21). The Ten Commandments as exemplified by the Jewish minority was the only contact Gentiles had with virtue. At the time the gospel began to be preached, there was a total absence of any moral code extant among Gentiles except some weak, aesthetic philosophies that were based on the faulty premises of man’s sinful nature. It is notable that when the gospel was first addressed to Jews (Acts 2-9), the approach was to verify the events of Jesus’ life and death by the appeal to the Old Testament. These people already had knowledge of morality ingrained into them from their youth up. In fact, the early church was a Jewish church. It was only later, when the gospel was probated to the Gentiles, beginning with Cornelius in Acts 10, that confrontations began with a profligate lifestyle.
Of course, the Jews themselves had not avoided the temptation to abandon morality entirely. The Greek culture (Hellenism) had given Rome its modern ideology. In those cities where Jews had been scattered, the temptation was to imitate their peers, In fact, Jerusalem itself was not immune to an inroad of hellenization through the public baths, the games, education, jobs and religion. Many Jewish families saw their young people act, dress and talk like the Roman overlords. Which parent today does not understand this? Our own people reflect this same struggle in today’s society and not a few have been lost to the siren call of worldliness. We need to see anew the “power of the gospel” (Rom. 1:16) in combating this deadly evil.
The Battle Is Engaged
We must never underestimate the power of the gospel in overcoming worldliness. All is not lost today because all was not lost then. As badly as darkness covered the face of the populated world, a light of truth exposed the lost to a better way of life. Jesus had told the apostles that they would be his witnesses in “Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). As the integration of Jews and Gentiles was completed, instruction began which weaned the Gentiles away from their previous life. As the debate over integration finished in Jerusalem, the Holy Spirit instructed the new Gentile converts to “abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality” (Acts 15:20,21,29). As Paul and Silas returned to Asia Minor to continue the work of conversion, they took with them the letter containing these instructions and read them to the churches (16:4). The battle was engaged.
Leaving behind strong churches throughout Palestine and Asia Minor, Paul was directed to Europe by the Macedonian call (Acts 16:9). Through Luke’s account in the book of Acts, Paul’s journeys to the strongholds of sin is recorded. As the Lord told Paul in a vision in Corinth, “Be not afraid, but speak, and hold not thy peace: For I am with thee, and no man shall set on thee to hurt thee: for I have much people in this city. ” A beachhead was first established in Philippi, then the gospel was preached southward throughout Greece until Corinth was reached. Before his life was finished, Paul also visited Rome itself. In every place, he proclaimed a holy God and a holy way of life. On Mars hill in Athens, he taught the philosophers about God and the futility of idols. At Corinth, he met and baptized those who had been given over to the basest of life styles. He preached plainly: “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.”
This was the same message that he had preached in Asia Minor. To the Colossians, he had taught, “. . . put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire and covetousness, which is idolatry.” “. . . put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him” (Col. 3:1-14). To the Galatians, he had taught, “For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another so that you do not do the things that you wish.” Following this passage (5:17) is a list of the “works of the flesh” as contrary to the “fruit of the spirit” (5:19-24). Christians were (and are) to “crucify the flesh with its passions and desires.” To the Philippians, he had written that they should be “filled with the fruits of righteousness which are by Jesus Christ, to the glory and the praise of God” (1:11). They were taught to have the “mind of Christ” (2:5) by which they would become “blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world” (2:15).
Not only the book of Acts (that records the evangelism), but also the rest of the New Testament that testifies to the power and success of the gospel message, has become a testimony to our world that we must turn from darkness to light. The evils of the ancient world are now modern. We have inherited not only the lifestyle of the Romans, but the diseases and social disorders as well.
Can We Learn Our Lesson?
We don’t know the numbers of the Christians in the first century. The Bible is strangely silent concerning how many members belonged to the early churches. However, one thing is sure. Everyone who turned to the Lord received forgiveness of sins, was added to the Lord, gained fellowship with God and had the promise of eternal life. To people who are in the darkness of sin and who know firsthand the heavy burden of guilt and worldliness, the gospel is a saving message. It will take the vilest of sinners and turn them into precious children of God. It will destroy the power of Satan in lives that before were hopeless and helpless. There is power in the gospel because there is power in the blood of Christ. Let us continue to preach Jesus to a lost and dying world. There are people all around us who need its gracious news as much as any citizen of ancient Rome.
Guardian of Truth XXXVI: 23, pp. 718-719
December 3, 1992