The ancient world worshiped false gods. The desire to worship something is God implanted. The Adversary took advantage of that desire and introduced idols to man. Man fell for it. The gods included animals, objects in nature, and glorified men. The gods of the past were recycled from culture to culture. The gods of Sumer, Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and Persia were very similar.
Then came the Greeks. Homer, believed to be a blind singing poet, taught his people about the Olympian gods. Homer’s theology was embraced by the Greeks from around 700 to 500 BC. The gods were said to live on Mount Olympus. The chief of the gods was Zeus. Zeus resembled the Babylonian god Marduk. The Olympian gods were associated with forces in nature like the Egyptian and Mesopotamian gods were. For instance, Apollo was associated with the sun, Poseidon with the sea, and Artemis with the moon.
There were Greek goddesses too. These super-chicks were personifications of qualities or things. For instance, Athena was the goddess of wisdom, Aphrodite was the goddess of beauty and love, and Hera was the goddess of marriage. This last “babe” was Zeus’s wife.
But corrupt religion never satisfies the longing of the human heart. Around 500 BC the religion of Homer started to wane. That’s when the Philosophers came on the scene. They were the first people who were bold enough to question the Olympian gods. These philosophers recognized that Zeus and his buddies were nothing more than human beings created and deified by Homer’s wild imagination. In the sixth century BC Xenophanes mocked Greek polytheism and anthropomorphism.
Socrates was executed because he told the youth to question the gods. He was accused of poisoning young minds. Plato was a student of Socrates. Plato recognized that there is an underlying order in the universe. He was moving in the direction of Scripture truth, but he never fully arrived. Plato thought the gods were so ridiculous he banished them from his ideal Republic. Aristotle was a student of Plato. Aristotle went even further than Plato. Aristotle not only recognized an order in the universe, but he concluded that there had to be a single being running it.
But philosophy didn’t answer the longings of the human heart either. The gods were replaced by the human mind as an object of worship. The Greeks replaced “know Zeus” with “know thyself.”
Then comes Alexander the Great. Alex was a personal student of Aristotle. He applied Philosophy by force and conquered the world. Alex kicked the bucket when he was 33 and his kingdom was divided into four regions. As a result of Alex’s conquests Greek culture spread around the world, however, the new Greek faith started to wane. Greek philosophy made people curious and inquiring, but with all their inquiries they were never able to come to a knowledge of the truth. The old gods were dead and were replaced with the Aristotles and the Alexanders of the world, but the Greek curiosity wouldn’t allow them to hold this faith without a measure of doubt.
From the death of Alexander in 323 till the birth of Christ the people felt lost. The gods were the foundation of the ancient world, but now they were gone. The new gods were wandering aimlessly in philosophical thought.
Then came Rome. Rome conquered the Greeks. But the conquered Greeks became the teachers of their new Roman masters. Greek wisdom was now combined with Roman law and energy. Neither could this combination solve man’s need. But there was a bright spot. Roman conquests united North, South, East, and West with a common language, culture, and laws. With walls between ancient nations broken down, thinkers like Virgil and Cicero began to see a common humanity. A sanctified eye is thrilled to see that these acts of Providence were God’s way of preparing the world for the unifying message of God’s love and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ – the message that unites mankind!
This is the world into which Jesus Christ enters. He is the answer to man’s desire to worship and think clearly. With Thomas we can worship Him as our Lord and our God. With John we can call Him the Word of God. He’s the logos longed for by the philosophers. Jesus Christ isn’t the distant God of the Philosophers, neither is He an unstable human character like the gods of Mt. Olympus. Jesus Christ is the mediator between God and men, He’s the perfect representation of God and the perfect expression of what man was designed to be.
God gave man the desire to worship and to use his brains. But these desires unaided by God’s revelation only lead to corruption. The truth about God and human reasoning were corrupted as a result of the tower of Babel. With this new “faith” human behavior became corrupt too – see Romans 1:18-32.
Phillip Schaff makes an amazing observation:
Notwithstanding this essential apostasy from truth and holiness, heathenism was religion, a groping after “the unknown God.” By its superstition it betrayed the need of faith. Its polytheism rested on a dim monotheistic background; it subjected all the gods to Jupiter, and Jupiter himself to a mysterious fate. It had at bottom the feeling of dependence on higher powers and reverence for divine things. It preserved the memory of a golden age and of a fall. It had the voice of conscience, and a sense, obscure though it was, of guilt. It felt the need of reconciliation with deity, and sought that reconciliation by prayer, penance, and sacrifice. Many of its religious traditions and usages were faint echoes of the primal religion; and its mythological dreams of the mingling of the gods with men, of demigods, of Prometheus delivered by Hercules from his helpless sufferings, were unconscious prophecies and fleshly anticipations of Christian truths. This alone explains the great readiness with which heathens embraced the gospel…
The elements of truth, morality, and piety scattered throughout ancient heathenism, may be ascribed to three sources.
In the first place, man, even in his fallen state, retains some traces of the divine image, a knowledge of God, however weak, a moral sense or conscience, and a longing for union with the Godhead, for truth and for righteousness. In this view we may, with Tertullian, call the beautiful and true sentences of a Socrates, a Plato, an Aristotle, of Pindar, Sophocles, Cicero, Virgil, Seneca, Plutarch, “the testimonies of a soul constitutionally Christian,” of a nature predestined to Christianity.
Secondly, some account must be made of traditions and recollections, however faint, coming down from the general primal revelations to Adam and Noah.
But the third and most important source of the heathen anticipations of truth is the all-ruling providence of God, who has never left himself without a witness. Particularly must we consider, with the ancient Greek fathers, the influence of the divine Logos before his incarnation, who was the tutor of mankind, the original light of reason, shining in the darkness and lighting every man, the sower scattering in the soil of heathendom the seeds of truth, beauty, and virtue.
The flower of paganism…appears in the two great nations of classic antiquity, Greece and Rome. With the language, morality, literature, and religion of these nations, the apostles came directly into contact, and through the whole first age the church moves on the basis of these nationalities. These, together with the Jews, were the chosen nations of the ancient world, and shared the earth among them. The Jews were chosen for things eternal, to keep the sanctuary of the true religion. The Greeks prepared the elements of natural culture, of science and art, for the use of the church. The Romans developed the idea of law, and organized the civilized world in a universal empire, ready to serve the spiritual universality of the gospel. Both Greeks and Romans were unconscious servants of Jesus Christ, “the unknown God.”
These three nations, by nature at bitter enmity among themselves, joined hands in the superscription on the cross, where the holy name and the royal title of the Redeemer stood written, by the command of the heathen Pilate, “in Hebrew and Greek and Latin.”
God allowed the Greeks and the Romans to reach the greatest civilization possible without God. They developed religion, science, art, and law like no other people before. The Greeks thought the hardest, the Romans fought the hardest. But brains and muscles combined couldn’t solve man’s problems. God allowed man to develop and exhaust all his resources to prove that man doing his best apart from God can’t save the world.
Jesus Christ changed everything. Romans 1 -3 demonstrates the folly of idolatry and provides salvation through Jesus Christ. First Corinthians 1-4 demonstrates the follow of human wisdom and provides true wisdom through Jesus Christ Who is the wisdom of God.
The Greeks looked on foreigners as morons, the Romans looked on foreigners as enemies to be conquered. Rome means “force”, yet Christ is the “power” of God. Christ alone will bring in a universal empire which will never be destroyed. Christ’s kingdom is based on the worship of the true God, godly wisdom, and godly power. What Greece and Rome couldn’t do, Christ will accomplish:
“And wisdom and knowledge shall be the stability of thy times, and strength of salvation: the fear of the LORD is his treasure.” Isaiah 33:6
“Let he who boasts boast in the Lord.” When we worship Christ we worship God. When we hear Christ we hear God. Christ is the answer to man’s desire to worship and think correctly. True worship, brains, and muscle are found in Christ.
All hail the wise Conqueror of the world, the Logos, the King of kings, the power of God, the wisdom of God, Jesus Christ our Lord!
Let me conclude with an article I wrote called: “The Desire of Nations.”
The most important event in history is the coming of the Savior into the world. Mankind’s deepest longings were answered in Christ.
Man longs to hear from God. How’s that fulfilled?
Christ is The Prophet. He speaks to man for God. That’s why he’s called the “logos.”
Man longs for a mediator with God. How’s that fulfilled?
Christ is the Great High Priest.
Man longs to serve God. How’s that fulfilled?
Christ is The King. As King He directs our service.
Christ is so important that our calendars acknowledge Him as the center of History. We use the terms BC and AD. The former means “Before Christ.” The latter is “Anno Domini” which means, “in the year of our Lord”.
The years before Christ came into this world were the countdown to His birth. The years after document His influence till God’s goal is reached. The History of the World before Christ was preparation. The years since are progress toward the goal.
Christ came in the fullness of time, the perfect time. The world had been properly prepared. The preparation period proved that man needed redemption. Christ came and accomplished it.
No wonder Christ is called “the desire of all nations.”