It is quite easy for us to identify the threat of the Jewish religion to Christianity in the first century because of the evident enmity between the proponents of that system and Jesus and later with the apostles and the early church. It would naturally be expected that this would be carried over into the church after its establishment and be a problem there. But what is not so evident is the ongoing threat paganism posed to the church after the gospel began to spread into the greater Roman world of the first century. There was no prior history of such a conflict. However when the gospel went into the Gentile world the conflict happened, perhaps more than we have ever realized.

In our last post we began looking at the evidence of the inevitable clash of Christianity with some of the many pagan religions of the Roman world. And it should be expected that the one person who would, more than any other, confront this threat was the apostle Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles. Certainly the confrontation of Paul with the Athenian philosophers in Acts 17 illustrates that it did happen in an account that most likely came from Paul himself to Luke, the writer of Acts. Another direct collision (“no little disturbance”) between the apostle and the established religion of the Ephesians is found in Acts 19 with the riot of the silversmiths over their loss of income because of so many people being converted from the worship of their goddess. “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” they shouted – for about two hours! (We will return to Artemis in a future post).

But there are other evidences, hints and indications that we in our modern world simply pass over because of our customary way of looking at the Bible and not being familiar with the presence, prevalence and nature of certain religions in the first century.

Before we go on to other pagan gods there is one more passage I want to pay attention to which obviously is directed at the religion of Dionysus. When Paul wrote to the Ephesian Christians he told them “to put off your old self” and the things they had learned as Gentiles … and “put on the new self” which has been “created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24). He then lists a number of things that were to be put off … lying, stealing, corrupt talk, etc. and things that were to be put on … truth-telling, honest labor and sharing, edifying speech, etc. In the 5th chapter he continues this contrast of things to be avoided or put away with positive qualities put in their place. Some of these things are stated in a “not-but” kind of contrast – “not that, but this” all having to do with how the Christian is to conduct himself in this world as opposed to how they formerly had and how the rest of the Gentile pagan worshipers continued to live.

There is in Ephesians 5:18 the last of these “not-but” contrasts; “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit.” This contrast between wine and the Spirit is telling. In their worship of Dionysus people were supposedly liberated from the constraints of the physical and merged into oneness with the divine or spiritual reality by an ecstatic experience. (We would say they got drunk!)

Following the torches as they dipped and swayed in the darkness, they climbed mountain paths with head thrown back and eyes glazed, dancing to the beat of the drum which stirred their blood’ [or ‘staggered drunkenly with what was known as the Dionysus gait’]. ‘In this state of ekstasis or enthusiasmos, they abandoned themselves, dancing wildly and shouting ‘Euoi!’ [the god’s name] and at that moment of intense rapture became identified with the god himself. They became filled with his spirit and acquired divine powers. (Wikipedia)

Spirit possession involved liberation from civilization’s rules and constraints. It celebrated that which was outside civilized society and a return to the source of being—which would later assume mystical overtones. It also involved escape from the socialized personality and ego into an ecstatic, deified state or the primal herd (sometimes both). (Wikipedia)

The word rendered here as “debauchery” is variously given in other translations as profligacy, dissipation, riot, etc. Perhaps the best and easiest word to remember is waste. It is the same idea as used to describe the “prodigal” son of Luke 15. He “wasted” his money on profligate living. The drinking of wine, especially in the manner of the pagan worshipers of Dionysus was just a waste. It didn’t accomplish anything of benefit. In fact, it represented a degeneracy from civilization to chaos.

B. W. Johnson rightly comments on this verse: “Enjoyment is not to be sought, as the world seeks it, in wine, but rather be filled with the Spirit. Then your songs will not be bacchanalian (of the worship of Bacchus/Dionysus. mr). (People’s New Testament – via eSword).

In contrast to the Bacchanalian orgy of wine drinking and the resultant foolishness which passed for a higher state of spiritual awareness, Paul tells the Ephesian Christians to “be filled with the [Holy] Spirit.” Why? What would be the outcome of such a filling?

“…addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart,” (Ephesians 5:19 ESV).

Those who were filled with wine would speak ecstatically, supposedly uttering divine wisdom. Paul calls their exercise a “waste” – it didn’t do a thing. He says that Christians filled with the Spirit will speak also, but with words that will extol, glorify and magnify God. The Spirit’s work in this world is to point to and magnify Jesus. The Christian’s speech under the influence of the Holy Spirit, rather than being a private experience for the sake of the experience, would be for the purpose of bringing others to Christ for their benefit and his glory.

Then again, instead of a self-centered indulgence, the Christian under the influence of  the Spirit will overflow with thanksgiving.

“…giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,” (Ephesians 5:20).

And finally, Christians will, as a result of being filled with the Spirit, be mutually submissive.

“…submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21).

This is in direct contradiction to the spirit of pagan society. The submission to one another through the filling of the Spirit is not a forced or coerced bowing to the domination of another. It is making of one’s self a willing servant for the benefit of others. It is, in fact, the way the love of the kind that characterizes the being and nature of God operates. Jesus, the Son of God, humbled himself to wash his disciple’s feet. He humbled himself to associate with prostitutes and sinners of all descriptions to save them from their wasted lives and from eternal damnation. He humbled himself to come to earth and become the sacrifice for the sins of the whole human race.

Then he goes on to describe how that submission operates in society. Husbands were to love their wives. In loving them, they were offering themselves, their life and their abilities and their riches for the care and protection of their wives. This does not mean the men are to be the “boss,” but as Paul says, he is to love her as his own flesh and to nourish and cherish her.

Wives were to submit to their husbands instead of seeking to continue the old battle of the sexes begun at the time of the original transgression in the garden of Eden. In many of the pagan religions (Artemis, Dionysus) there was a claim made by women that they were superior to men – and indeed in some of these religions there was female domination, e.g., the religion of Artemis. For wives to submit to their husbands did not mean that she was inferior to him or that there was inequality of any kind.

They are one in Christ, restored to their original relationship with God and with one another (Gal. 3:28). They are companions – they are partners. One is not an object to be used and discarded. They are to be mutually supportive, each being a blessing to the other.

This could only be done through the help of the Spirit who fills those who are God’s true children – then and now. The kind of life being described as coming about as a result of being filled with the Spirit couldn’t come about from the senseless and wasteful lifestyles of the worshipers of the pagan gods. That worship was earthly, sensual and devilish. It was centered in the self and the pleasurable experiences that went with that orgiastic worship.

Although there is not as clear a contrast between Christianity and paganism in what was going on in 1 Corinthians 11:17ff there is certainly the possibility of that where one was full and another drunk. Here is seen a self-indulgent spirit that obviously cared little about either showing or having a mutually edifying relationship with other people. While Paul does not condemn the practice of the church (the agape or “love feast”) he condemns them for their self-indulgent, gluttonous ways. The Lord’s Supper was not to be an orgiastic eating and drinking party (a la Dionysian religion), but a communion, a sharing of a common, mutually beneficial life in the Lord.

The worship of God with a Spirit filled life that seeks not only the best for one’s self, but the well being of others equally is a deeply satisfying, rewarding life. It is a life that results in peace within one’s own heart, between him and his fellow man and between himself and God. It goes beyond a moment’s selfish, sensual pleasure to the building of a society that seeks the best for all in righteousness, joy, peace and love.

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