by Jeffrey W. Hamilton
Text: Ecclesiastes 1:3-11
I. Some questions are hard to answer
A. Not because the Bible is unclear on the subject
B. But because there is a strong cultural bias against the correct answer
C. Example of idolatry
1. We have no difficulties denouncing idol worship today
2. Even non-Christians understand that an idol is worthless - Jeremiah 10:14-15
3. Yet it wasn’t always the case. Paul’s teaching upset people - I Corinthians 8:4
4. The reaction in Ephesus - Acts 19:25-29
5. The truth that idols are nothing has never been difficult to grasp.
a. People understood the message when delivered by early Christians
b. What made the teaching difficult is that it went against the cultural norm
II. Teaching against society’s beliefs is never easy
A. We forget that the world of New Testament was hostile to God - Ecclesiastes 1:10-11
1. We read about the great sweeping acceptance of the Gospel and somehow think it must have been easier back then - Ecclesiastes 7:10
2. Think of what it must have been like to teach in those days.
1. The powers of the nations did not support religious freedom in any way.
2. The Jewish authorities, both civil and religious, claimed to follow Moses, but the truth was they were more interested in upholding their traditions - Matthew 15:1-9; 23:1-7
a. The Sadducees, made mostly of the civil rulers, did not believe in angels, spirits, or life after death - Acts 23:8
b. The Pharisees, the religious leaders, led the early persecution against the church - Philippians 3:4-6
c. The chief court, the Sanhedrin council, issued orders against the teaching of Christ - Acts 4:15-18; 5:40-41
d. The chief priests issued orders to kill people in the church - Acts 26:10-11
3. It was no better in the Gentile cities. Provincial and city governments supported idolatry and the belief of multiple gods.
a. Magistrates in Philippi had Paul and Silas beaten and thrown into prison - Acts 16:19-24
b. The Roman governor, Felix, delayed freeing Paul for two years in hopes of receiving a bribe. His replacement, Festus, kept Paul in imprisoned as a political favor - Acts 24:22-27
4. The Roman Empire was officially polytheistic and eventually demanded worship of its emperors.
a. Claudius demanded that all Jews leave Rome - Acts 18:2
b. Nero is believed to have burnt some of the slums in Rome and blamed the Christians for it.
(1) Paul alludes to the present distress - I Corinthians 7:26
c. Under Domitian, food could not be purchased without proof that you worshiped the emperor - Revelation 13:16-17
C. Society’s ills
1. In many ways the culture of the New Testament was far worse than our own.
2. People didn’t understand the idea of morality - I Peter 4:3-4
3. Divorce was common place in Roman society and Jewish society
a. “According to the Roman writers of the first century BCE and first century CE, divorce became increasingly frequent after 200 BCE, initiated easily by the husband or the wife. In addition, wives had their own property, which they could sell, give away or bequeath as they liked. As a result, women became more liberated and less dependent on their husbands. In fact, by the late Republic a rich wife who could divorce and take her wealth with her had a real threat against her husband and could wield influence over him. The sense of independence also showed up in increasing sexual promiscuity and adultery.” [Family Values in Ancient Rome by Richard Saller]
4. Child Rearing
a. “Roman men deplored the fact that these rich women were more concerned with their own figures and luxuries than with their families. Unlike the good, old-time matrons, according to the historian Tacitus around 100 CE, these modern women did not spend time with their children and did not nurse their infants but left them to slave wet nurses. Furthermore, children were handed over to be raised by child-minders, usually the most useless slaves of the household. Roman authors don't say much about daughters in general, but they wrote about the moral decline of sons. In the age of degeneracy, sons in their youth no longer obeyed their fathers the way they used to, they spent profligately on women and wine and they became increasingly sexually promiscuous.” [Family Values in Ancient Rome by Richard Saller]
b. “A standard character type in the comedies of Plautus, written not long after 200 BCE, was the loose-living son who was smitten with love, often for a prostitute. In the plays--ancient versions of sitcoms-- there is a debate about whether fathers should be strict or indulgent toward the moral failings of their sons--usually they were indulgent in the end, just as in modern sitcoms. In fact, sons in these plays are never beaten for their disobedience, as slaves are. Plautus' errant sons are not a fictitious type invented by his imagination but are characters that had their counterparts in reality. The historian Polybius, who lived in Rome around 160-150 BCE , described the lifestyle of his senatorial friend, Scipio Aemilianus. According to Polybius, Scipio was an unusual youth precisely because he did not indulge in the fast living of his peers.” [Family Values in Ancient Rome by Richard Saller]
c. “Some Romans argued for the positive effect of corporal punishment of children, but in the surviving texts the more common view is that children should not be beaten. The advice to parents not to hit their children sounds similar to advice about child-rearing today. For the Romans, however, the logic was a bit different, because it was part of an ideology of a slave society. An author of a tract on child-rearing written around 100 CE had this to suggest: ‘Children ought to be led to honorable practices by means of encouragement and reasoning, and most certainly not by blows nor by ill treatment; for it is surely agreed that these are fitting rather for slaves than for the freeborn; for so they grow numb and shudder at their tasks, partly from the pain of blows, partly also on account of the hybris. Praise and reproof are more helpful for the freeborn than any sort of ill-usage, since the praise incites them toward what is honorable, and reproof keeps them from what is disgraceful.’In other words, in this slave society corporal punishment was regarded as fit for slaves, not for free citizen children. To beat free children risked making them slavelike. Around the same time, another Roman author, the philosopher Seneca, suggested that corporal punishment be used as a last resort on children before they were of an age to understand reason.” [Family Values in Ancient Rome by Richard Saller]
5. Infanticide and abortion
a. “As Will Durant stated, infanticide was so common in ancient Rome that "birth itself was an adventure." Caesar and Christ, page 56. Indeed, so common was infanticide in ancient Greece that Polybius (205-118 BCE) blamed the decline of ancient Greece on it. (Histories, 6).” [Pagans, Christianity, and Infanticide by Christopher Price]
b. “A chilling letter from a pagan husband to his wife captures the casual nature of this practice among the pagans: "Know that I am still in Alexandria.... I ask and beg you to take good care of our baby son, and as soon as I received payment I shall send it up to you. If you are delivered (before I come home), if it is a boy keep it, if a girl, discard it."” [Pagans, Christianity, and Infanticide by Christopher Price]
c. The Jews, at least, did not follow this practice. “Cornelius Tacitus went so far as to condemn the Jews for their opposition to infanticide. He stated that the Jewish view that "it was a deadly sin to kill an unwanted child" was just another of the many "sinister and revolting practices" of the Jews. Histories 5.5.” [Pagans, Christianity, and Infanticide by Christopher Price]
6. Homosexuality, fornication, and adultery was prevalent, as can be deduced from the church in Corinth, but also support in history - I Corinthians 6:9-11.
a. History documents that homosexuals and pedophiles were wide spread; even having rules governing the relationships.
7. Polygamy was also common
III. Christianity was met with persecution and violence because it often contradicted the cultural norms of its day
A. Yet, the message of Christ flourished in an atmosphere of violent opposition - Acts 8:4
B. The conflict did not stop people from speaking the truth - I Thessalonians 2:2
C. It was a message that the world, in general could not grasp - I Corinthians 1:27-29
D. But it spread, turning the world upside down - Acts 17:5-6
E. Does the message of the gospel need to be modified for a modern society?
1. No, modern society is falling back along old pathways
2. The sins of men remain the same and the solution remains the same - II Corinthians 10:3-6