First Century Conversion
Quarter 2, Lesson 3

Lesson Three

The Conversion of Idol Worshippers

The words, "The Conversion of Idol Worshippers," were chosen for a specific reason. The reason was to call attention to this fact: the conversion issues of first century idol worshippers and the conversion issues of first century Jews had little in common. Why is that fact important? Conversion issues were distinctively different for those who were not a part of Israel.

Was there one God or many gods? Should they forsake all "known" gods to devote themselves to the one living God? Was that a dangerous choice? Why should they make that choice? If they made that choice, would the living God protect them from the other gods? Did they need protection?

It is highly probable that most American Christians consider such questions ridiculous. Most American Christians enjoy the blessings produced by a religious heritage that acknowledges only the one living God. The fact that religions that worship other gods are becoming common in America confuses many American Christians. They cannot understand why anyone would choose to worship gods other than the God they worship.

In the first century, such questions were not considered ridiculous. Much of the first century Roman world worshipped a god or gods other than the God of the Jews. While a few gods required exclusive devotion, most gods did not. In most instances, worshipping one god did not mean the worshipper could not also worship other gods.

Many considered it dangerous not to honor other gods. Trade guilds commonly had a patron god or goddess. When business went well, that guild correctly honored its patron god. People whose livelihood depended on agriculture honored gods who assured fertility. Everyone honored the gods their local government honored [many population areas had a patron god or goddess]. Depending on the area of residence, people honored the ruling Caesar as a god.

Did a person seek healing? Did a person want prosperity? Did a person seek status? Did a person need to rid himself or herself of a demon? Was the person looking for immortality? Approach the god or goddess who could be of assistance. Better still, approach numerous gods who collectively assisted in a variety of ways.

First century "religion" was not restricted to a compartmentalized life. For example, a person did not do his "business" thing, his "civic" thing, his "financial" thing, his "family" thing, and his "religious" thing as separate, independent facets of life. The attitude that "business is business, work is work, civic responsibility is civic responsibility, and religion is religion" was neither typical nor common. The gods were a part of everything: business, agriculture, family, local politics, and world politics.

Suppose significant adversity occurred in business, agriculture, family, or politics. An acceptable answer to "why" was, "The gods are upset." Offending the gods was dangerous. If a person was the "reason" for the gods being offended, he or she was in serious trouble.

Do you want a biblical example? Consider Acts 19:23-41. Artemis was the patron goddess of the city of Ephesus. In Ephesus, Artemis and her temple made a major economic contribution to the city. That temple was one of world's wonders. Pilgrims from the Roman world came to honor Artemis.

Demetrius [possibly the leader of a guild] called a meeting of his guild and all the workers "of similar trades" (verse 25). His message was blunt, straightforward, and exaggerated. His calculating intent was to incite a powerful, emotional response to a concern.

The status and standard of living of the silversmiths in the Ephesian society depended on their trade. Likely, the silversmiths made replicas of Artemis' temple that were used as offerings to Artemis, amulets, or objects of worship when the pilgrim returned home. Though Demetrius' financial concerns are obvious, his concerns involved issues beyond financial considerations.

His concern verifies people throughout Asia Minor were hearing about Jesus Christ. However, evidence does not verify "a great number of people" in that region had turned from idolatry to Jesus at that time. Demetrius exaggerated to serve his own purpose.

"Imagine what will happen if our trade becomes shameful [loss of status in a status conscious city]! Imagine what will happen if Artemis' temple becomes worthless [loss of empire status]! Imagine what will happen if the magnificent Artemis is dethroned as a religious force in the world [loss of world religious influence]!" Demetrius was not thinking a few hundred years ahead. He was thinking of the immediate future. "Imagine what will become of us!"

Whose fault was it? Paul's! Why? He said gods made by human hands were not gods (verse 26). That simple statement provides an incredible insight. Paul's conversion message to the idol worshippers focused on God. His message in Athens on the Areopagus (Acts 17) is probably his core message to idol worshippers. The living God does not depend on human efforts for existence.

In Ephesus, what result did Demetrius' blunt, emotional charges produce? A near riot! The whole city was filled with confusion as people shouted, "Great is Artemis of the Ephesians."

Conversion issues outside of Judaism centered in reactions to the gods. "Who is deity? What is the basic nature of deity?" To many Christians in early twenty-first century America, such questions are "non-issues." In the first century, such questions were major issues.

These "conversion issues" are evident in 1 Corinthians 8 and Romans 14. As you consider both scriptures, do two things. (1) Back off and look at the situation. (2) Suspend your theological issues and questions to look at their theological issues and questions.

Read 1 Corinthians 8.

  1. A significant issue centered in sacrifices offered to idols. What did they have (verse 1)? What problem could that create?

  2. What did they know about idols (verse 4)? How did Paul contrast their view with a common world view (verses 5, 6)?

  3. How did some weak Christians regard the idols (verse 7)?

  4. State the problem that existed and Paul's instruction in verses 9-13.

  5. Why did that situation exist?

Read Romans 14. How do verses 1-12 verify that differences existing between those who believed that the gods existed and those who rejected the gods' existence was significant in the church at Corinth?

Link to Teacher's Guide Quarter 2, Lesson 3

Copyright © 2001
David Chadwell & West-Ark Church of Christ

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