Gods of this World
People in the ancient world worshipped a multitude of different gods. Each had its own story, its own myth, of the origin, the character, the blessings and curses they offered, and the worship each demanded. These myths often recalled ancient events either involving the true God (many ancient religions had a story about a flood) or the past history of the people who worshipped the god. In contrast the Bible clearly teaches monotheism”the belief in one God” who is the creator of all things. The belief in and the worship of the myriad of deities in the ancient world must be traced to the corruption of the knowledge people had of the true God. The nature and character of the gods and goddesses the ancients created reflect human nature. These deities have some qualities which might be considered good, like justice or mercy, as well as some very perverted characteristics, like promiscuous sexuality or vengeful hatred. Study of the pagan religions is really a study of the view ancient people had of themselves, or the way they wished they could be. For their gods were created in their own image.
The Bible often refers to these gods. This does not mean they actually existed, but rather they were a subjective reality in the minds of their worshippers (Rom. 1:18-25). Paul attributes the character of these created deities as a gateway to the source of evil…the devil himself (1 Cor. 10:19-21). The Bible contains the story of the great conflict between good and evil, or God and Satan. For that reason, the warnings against the worship of false gods, the punishments for that worship, the call to worship the true God and to invite others to worship him to resound throughout Scripture.
It is most helpful to understand the beliefs people of the Bible held about their deities for this will help understand the way the Bible message is presented, as the correct understanding of reality in contrast the pagan one. Many Biblical stories highlight the contrast between God and the gods. Baal, the Canaanite god of fertility, of rain, storm and flood, is a fake. Only God has the power of rain. So Elijah demonstrated to King Ahab and Israel (1 Kings 17-18). Baal does not have control of the floods but Yahweh does. So the people of Jericho learned (Josh. 3). The New Testament is the same. The God Yahweh and his son, the Messiah Jesus, are the truth. The pagan gods are created in human image and therefore only evil. Many of the stories of the New Testament include elements that strongly confront the mythology of the gentile world as false and evil. Aesculapius is not the god of healing, but Jesus is. Demeter is not the bread giver, but Jesus is. Many of the lesser gods were thought to be the product of a human mother who had relations with a god, making her child the son or daughter of god. But only Jesus had a divine birth and by a miracle not by a licentious relationship with a deity. Knowledge of the Greco-Roman religious of the first century will highlight how powerfully the life and teachings of Jesus declare that paganism is a lie. A lie that brings only death. Life comes only from the true God.
The deities of the New Testament are those of the Greek and Roman pantheon. As the pagan beliefs of the Greeks and Romans mixed with the native religions of the east (especially Asia) the deities became increasingly perverted and immoral. The Greeks did not believe that the gods created the universe, but that the universe created the gods. Heaven and earth were the first parents. Their children were the Titans, ancient gods of great strength and power, who were rarely worshipped any longer in the first century. These Titans included Ocean, the Sun, and Atlas who held up the earth. The grandchildren of the heaven and earth were the Olympian gods like Zeus and Hera his wife, their children Athena, Apollo, Aphrodite, and Artemis as well as Poseidon, Hades, and others.
Those mentioned in the Bible include Zeus, the king of the gods (Acts 14:12-13), Hermes the messenger (Acts 14:12), and Artemis, the fertility goddess (Acts 19:24-35). While others are not mentioned by name, the message of New Testament Scripture contains powerful statements that other deities are demonic frauds too. Aesculapius (healing), Dionysus (fertility and wine), Apollo (beauty), Pan (fertility and the underworld), Hestia (home and family), Cybele (sex and fertility), and Demeter (grain and bread) are all pretenders?figments of human imagination. The God of the Bible is the real creator and provider and his word the only guide to knowing him. This made the message that the disciples learned and brought to their world relevant (it spoke to the world around them) and provocative (it contradicted the most strongly held beliefs and most common practices of their culture). And they knew their message was the truth.
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