Do you sometimes think our culture is at the crossroads, tipping toward the gates of hell? If so, you’re not the first or the only Christian to wonder if the church will make a difference in a pagan culture. If that describes you, keep reading.
Christ Challenges the Disciples: Take the Gospel to the Gates of Hell
The Gates of Hell
In the New Testament book of Matthew, Jesus is moving toward the end of his ministry, heading slowly toward Jerusalem, the Passover and His crucifixion. But he has a few more lessons to impart to His disciples. So, as usual, He does something that the disciples must have found quite astonishing. He brings them to a city known for evil, sexualized worship of pagan idols: Caesarea Philippi.“Caesarea Philippi,” That the World May Know Ministries, https://www.thattheworldmayknow.com/caesarea-philippi (June 28, 2018).
There, the Lord asks the disciples several key questions, “Who do people say that I am? Who do you say that I am?”
Caesarea Philippi was built near a rock cliff, with water gushing out of the mouth of a cave at its base. Greeks and Romans believed that Hades was under the earth, and that a number of rivers flowed to and from it. So those who lived in Caesarea Philippi believed that an underground spring coming from a mysterious cave had to be from Hades – a gateway to and from the underworld. Because of this, the site was called “The Gates of Hell.”
Above the cave and spring, worshipers carved niches into the cliff and placed idols into each one. The site was dedicated to the god Pan, half-goat and half-man, a god of fertility, sexuality and nature. Temples and courtyards built to worship other gods stood nearby, and people came to make sacrifices and engage in debauched sexual activity.
For the Jews, this setting was blasphemous and horrifying, yet this is where Jesus takes His disciples and where His exchange with them takes place:
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Matthew 16:13-18 (ESV)
On This Rock I Will Build My Church
Jesus’ questions and Peter’s response are familiar to many of us, as is Jesus’ play on words: Peter’s name means rock, and Jesus will build His church on this rock – Peter and his confession of faith in Christ.
But perhaps there is more to the story. Maybe like many of us, you’ve never thought about when in Jesus’ ministry this discussion takes place and where it occurs.
Ray Vander Laan, founder of That the World May Know Ministries, teaches the significance of both the timing and the location in a video study, “The Early Church: Five Lessons on Becoming a Light in the Darkness.” He explains that Jesus is using the site as a vivid object lesson to make several key points. Most importantly, Jesus affirms Peter’s response about who He is: The Messiah, the Son of the Living God. “Not these false gods, worshiped here at Caesarea Philippi, but Jesus is the one true God,” Vander Laan says.
Jesus agrees with Peter and then says, “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
Vander Laan notes that “a gate is defensive, if the gates of Hades won’t stand, it is the community of God that is bringing the message to the gates.” Vander Laan pictures Jesus pointing to the “Gates of Hell” and the idolatry and sexual brokenness and telling the disciples,
“Look at this. This represents everything disgusting and broken and wrong with the world we live in. And what I want you to do is to bring the message of the love of God and I want you to show them that this is wrong and I want you to replace it with what is meaningful and significant. Build my community on this rock. Replace it.”Ray Vander Laan, “Everything to Lose, Nothing to Gain,” The Early Church: Becoming Light in the Darkness, (© 2008 Focus on the Family and Ray Vander Laan), published by Zondervan.
Our Challenge Today
That’s what Jesus did. He built His church. And He built it on the pagan culture that surrounded the early Christians. Beginning with a small band of disciples, the church has grown to an estimated 2.2 billion people today. At the same time, hardly any one worships Pan anymore. We live in a different world because of Jesus and the church.
So how did they do it? And how do we continue to build the church today? Some Christians, bombarded by news and media, feel discouraged about the broken state of our culture. Sometimes it seems like the gates of hell are prevailing. How do we move against those gates?
Here are three things to keep in mind:
- The church has been here before: It’s nothing new for the church to be surrounded by pagan activity – Jesus sent out the disciples with good news to that pagan world.
- The church has prevailed: Throughout our Christian history, from the early church transforming the Greco-Roman world, to a wide variety of places and times throughout history, the church has brought life and transformation to a broken and hurting world.
- The church will prevail: The church, built upon the foundation of Christ, the work of the Apostles, and with the power of the Holy Spirit, is transforming individuals and our world today. It will until Christ returns.
In this series, we’ll look at how Jesus built His church throughout history using average Christians – and how He’s still doing it today. We’ll look at three important truths that Christianity brings to the world:
- The dignity and sanctity of human life
- The importance of advocating for children
- God’s good design for marriage
From the beginning of the church, Christians lived out these truths and values, people were attracted to their lives, and the church grew and spread. This cultural change took place in the midst of difficult opposition and great trials, but Christian values and ideas affected and transformed the surrounding pagan culture. The same can – and does – continue today.
In each article in this series, we’ll look at biblical and historical examples of Christianity bringing transformation and life – prevailing against sin, death and darkness. Along the way, we’ll get some practical ideas about how we – as the church that Jesus is still building – can be encouraged and can prevail with God’s grace, power and truth.
The Dignity and Value of Life
The ancient gladiator “games” give us a vivid picture of the callous Roman disregard for life. Imagine huge crowds of blood-thirsty spectators, screaming with excitement, as slaves, prisoners and criminals walk into arenas across the Roman Empire. There, men would fight each other to the death. While they fought, the crowd roared with excitement, “Kill him! Lash him! Brand him!”1
Gladiatorial contests started about three centuries before the birth of Christ. Sometimes more than a hundred gladiators would fight in a day, and the games would last for days, weeks – even months. As sociology professor and pastor Alvin Schmidt points out in How Christianity Changed the World, the spectacles were deeply entrenched in the Roman culture:
Thus, by the time Christians arrived in Rome, the Romans had watched hundreds of thousands of gladiators mauled, mangled, and gored to death for at least three hundred years. These games, as one historian has noted, “illustrate completely the pitiless spirit and carelessness of human life lurking behind the pomp, glitter, and cultural pretensions of the great imperial age.”2
The barbaric cruelty, the agonizing screams of the victims, and the flow of human blood stirred no conscience in the crowds of the gladiatorial events.3
The death and depravity horrified Christians, who were vocal in their opposition and encouraged believers not to attend these bloody spectacles.
Christianity Valued Human Life
Christianity teaches that human life has value and dignity because men and women are made in the image of God. Christianity inherited this teaching from the Jews and the creation account in Genesis. Jews and Christians alike took seriously God’s command, “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13; Deuteronomy 5:17).
Building on this foundation, Christians believed that the incarnation of Christ took the value of humanity even further: Humans are valuable because God the Son became a man. Jesus was born as an infant, grew into manhood, and died in our place on the cross. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection manifest the value of human life.
In addition, Jesus taught his followers, by words and examples, to have compassion on people. He said that the two highest commands were to love God and to love others. He told the disciples to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, welcome strangers, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” Jesus also modelled this compassion for his followers as He fed the hungry, healed the sick and cast demons out from tormented individuals.
In sharp contrast, Romans generally had contempt for pity, mercy and compassion. Sociologist Rodney Stark notes the difference with Christian teaching and attitudes in The Triumph of Christianity:
In contrast, in the pagan world, and especially among the philosophers, mercy was regarded as a character defect and pity as a pathological emotion: because mercy involves providing unearned help or relief, it is contrary to justice.4
Professor Schmidt concurs, “[T]he Greco-Roman culture did not see the hungry, the sick, and the dying as worthy of humane assistance. The worth of a human being was determined by external and accidental circumstances in proportion to the position he held in the community or state.”5
One of the most obvious ways Romans demonstrated this lack of mercy and contempt for pity was in the gladiatorial contests. Though the games continued for hundreds of years more, Christian influence grew, and Christian emperors eventually stopped these barbaric entertainments. Schmidt quotes the historian W.E.H. Lecky as he comments on this achievement:
There is scarcely any single reform so important in the moral history of mankind as the suppression of the gladiatorial shows, a feat that must be almost exclusively ascribed to the Christian church.6
Care for the Poor and Sick
In addition to stopping the violence of the games, the church demonstrated a value for life and the dignity of humanity in many other pro-active ways. In a world where human life was devalued and where pity and mercy were viewed as weak, the early church demonstrated love and compassion for orphans, widows, the sick and the poor. Here is just some of what the early church did as it exhibited mercy to a dark world:
- The book of Acts describes the apostles healing the sick and establishing deacons to care for widows within the congregation.7
- The Apostle Paul collected donations from wealthier churches to take to the poor in Jerusalem.8
- James, the brother of Jesus, instructed the early church, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” (James 1:27 ESV)
- Church fathers, such as Justin Martyr and Tertullian, describe church members donating money to care for orphans.9
- After Christianity was legalized by the Roman Emperor Constantine, Christians built orphanages, hospices, homes for the elderly, housing for strangers and travelers, and institutions for the blind.10
Non-believers noticed, and some came to Christ after seeing the compassion of believers for each other – and for those outside the church.
For example, plagues swept across the Roman Empire with regular occurrence, and the response of most people was to flee the affected cities and towns, if they could afford to do so. Those who couldn’t leave avoided all contact with the sick, even casting victims out of their homes.
When a devastating plague swept through Alexandria, Egypt, in about 250 A.D., Bishop Dionysius wrote that non-Christians, “thrust aside anyone who began to be sick, and kept aloof even from their dearest friends, and cast the sufferers out upon the public roads half dead, and left them unburied, and treated them with utter contempt when they died.”11
But Christians cared for the sick – within the church and without – because people had dignity and worth. A member of Constantine’s army, Pachomius, saw how Christians cared for his fellow soldiers who were sick and starving. He converted to Christianity and was the founder of an order of monks in Egypt. He devoted his life, as Jesus taught, to loving God and loving others.12
Sometimes the world today seems as dark as it did in the era of the early church. But take heart! Our world is radically different due to 2,000 years of Christianity, and just learning about our own church history can be uplifting and encouraging. To learn more about the positive effects of Christianity, and how Christians can continue to influence the world for good, read:
- How Christianity Changed the World, by Alvin J Schmidt
- Restoring All Things: God’s Audacious Plan to Change the World Through Everyday People, by Warren Cole Smith and John Stonestreet
- The Triumph of Christianity, How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion, by Rodney Stark
- Third Time Around, A History of the Pro-Life Movement from the First Century to the Present, by George Grant
It can be inspiring, as well, to read biographies of heroes of the faith who helped transform the world. Here are just a few ideas:
- A Chance to Die: The Life and Legacy of Amy Carmichael and Through Gates of Splendor, by Elisabeth Elliot
- Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More: Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist, by Karen Swallow Prior
- Great for God: Missionaries Who Changed the World, by David Shibley
- Seven Women: And the Secret of Their Greatness, Seven Men: And the Secret of Their Greatness, and Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery, by Eric Metaxas
Sanctity of Life and Advocacy for Children
Under Roman law, initially established about 500 B.C., the male head of the family had complete power over his wife, children and grandchildren – even the power of life and death. Infants who were weak, sickly or deformed were often rejected by their fathers and abandoned or killed. Infants were also killed or abandoned if they were female or simply because the father did not want to be burdened with another child. Husbands could also force wives to have an abortion, and given the lack of sanitation and cleanliness in Roman culture, this often led to her sterility or death.1
Abortion, infanticide and infant abandonment became so common that they led to a declining population. Roman Emperors responded by offering land or political advantages to men who fathered at least three children.2 The abandonment and killing of so many infant girls led to a skewed sex ratio. Sociologist and author Rodney Stark says that the best estimates suggest that “there were 131 males per 100 females in Rome – rising to 140 males per 100 females in the rest of Italy, Asia Minor, and North Africa.”3
These issues were not just part of the Greco-Roman world; they were world-wide phenomenon. Pastor and author George Grant writes, “Virtually every culture in antiquity was stained with the blood of innocent children.” He goes on to describe horrors inflicted on pregnant women and unwanted children in Persia, China, Arabia, India, Canaan, Polynesia, Japan and Egypt.4 Sociologist Alvin Schmitt concurs, and adds that infanticide was also practiced in North and South America, Africa and Asia.5
The early church carried the belief from Judaism that children are made in the image of God, male and female, and that children are a gift and blessing from Him. The church followed the command, “Thou shall not murder,” and knew that Christ died for these little ones. So killing children – whether by abortion, abandonment or infanticide – was a sin.
The Early Church Worked to Save Children
Here are several ways the early church fought the horrors of abortion and of abandoning and killing infants:
- Through the preaching of the gospel, Christians taught that God loved people so much that He gave His Son to die for their sins, offering forgiveness and redemption. That’s how valuable and loved every human is.
- Bishops and priests taught church members not to abandon or kill their own babies, but to receive them into their families and love them, raising them to know God’s love. The Didache, for example, is a set of instructions for the church written in the first century. It may have been used as a catechism to teach new believers the basics of the faith, and it includes clear instructions, “Do not murder a child by abortion or kill a new-born infant.”6
- The church offered forgiveness and cleansing from guilt, sin and shame to those who were involved in sexual sin, committed abortions, or had abandoned or killed their own children. One former prostitute, Afra of Augsburg, was so transformed by the faith that she started a ministry to abandoned children and created an adoption network.7
- The early church reached out beyond its own members, working to rescue and care for abandoned children. In the second century, for example, Callistus of Rome set up “Life Watches,” where Christians would watch at the places where infants were abandoned. These infants were rescued and placed in Christian homes.8
- Christians also worked in the public arena to promote the sanctity of human life. George Grant, in The Third Time Around, writes about the work of St. Basil the Great. Among other actions:
He preached a series of sermons on the sanctity of human life; he mobilized the member of his church to help care for families of women who were facing crisis pregnancies; he began to exercise the full weight of his family influence as well as his own considerable powers of persuasion to change the laws; he began and education program throughout the entire city so that people could fully understand the issues…”9
Basil’s work is said to have influenced the Christian Emperor Valentinian who outlawed abortion, infanticide and child abandonment in 374 A.D.10
This edict did not completely eliminate these practices, but the church continued to speak out and affirm the sanctity of human life. Schmidt notes that from the fourth century to the twelfth century, the church issued four thousand canons that upheld the value and sanctity of life.
An Ongoing Task to Affirm Life
From its earliest days up until the 1900s, the church stood firmly for life, and Western, Christian-influenced countries had laws against abortion. However, as George Grant writes, “Some battles just don’t stay won.”11 And the last century saw a steady erosion of the church’s centuries-long pro-life legacy. In the U.S., this eventually led to the 1973 Supreme Court decisions that changed abortion laws in all 50 states. So the church is once again working to transform the culture into one that values life.
What Can I Do to Promote a Culture of Life?
Many supporters of Focus on the Family also participate in pro-life work. But for Christians who aren’t yet engaging the culture on this issue, here are a few ideas for joining us in our life-affirming efforts:
- Get educated and equipped about pro-life issues. Our free resource, The Advocacy for Human Life Toolkit, will help you be a voice for life in your church and community. It’ll also help you raise your children and grandchildren to know the dignity and sanctity of life.
- Partner with us in one – or more – of these projects: The Sanctity of Human Life: How We Help.
- Our affiliated Family Policy Councils work to pass pro-life policies at the state level. Contact your state’s Family Policy Council to connect with others who advocate for life.
- Watch Focus on the Family’s film release, “The Drop Box,” a documentary about South Korean pastor Lee Jong-rak, who works to save and care for unwanted and abandoned children.
Transforming Sexuality and Marriage
God is Love
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. I John 4:7-8 (ESV)
Christians who live 2,000 years after the death and resurrection of Christ have a hard time realizing how radical the Apostle John’s words were to those living in the first century world.
“God is love.” When John wrote these words, this would have been a completely foreign concept to most people outside the church. All that the Greeks and Romans—and the surrounding nations—knew of the gods was that they were not loving and not good. They were powerful and immortal; that’s what made them gods. Professor Jeremiah Johnston, in his book Unimaginable, explains that the pagan gods based on superstition were not benevolent, loving or righteous:
The Greco-Roman gods were jealous, petty, vengeful, easily offended, and lustful. The essence of these gods was power and immortality. Most were mean-spirited—against one another and against humans in general. …
Normally, the Greco-Roman gods had no love for humans. When they did express love, it was usually erotic lust… The gods cheated on one another, tricked one another, and sometimes injured one another.
The gods demanded respect, attention, offerings and honor. There was no religious imperative from the gods for people to act morally. Pagan deities just weren’t that interested in people or how they acted toward one another.1
Since the gods acted immorally and did not ask people to live ethically, it’s no surprise that the gods’ crude sexual behavior was reflected in Greco-Roman society. As Professor Alvin Schmidt writes,
By the first and second centuries after Christ, undefiled sexual intercourse, along with marital faithfulness, had essentially disappeared. Not only were adultery and fornication common, but people engaged in all sorts of sexual methods, many of them obscene. These sexual practices were shamelessly illustrated on household items such as oil lamps, bowls, cups and vases.2
In this sexually broken and sinful world, Christ built his church. Christianity’s transformation of the immoral culture began with a transformative view of God: God is love.
Instead of fallen mankind trying to appease immoral, capricious, disinterested gods, Christianity teaches that God Himself reaches out in love, through Christ, providing atonement for the sins of the world. As John continues on in the passage quoted above,
In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. I John 4:9-11 (ESV)
Love One Another
Christianity taught that God loved people, and therefore, people were to love each other. This love was to be lived out with a radically different ethical system from the surrounding culture. The Christian social ethic is rooted in the Old Testament, and especially the Ten Commandments: Honor your parents; don’t murder; don’t lie; don’t steal; don’t covet; don’t commit adultery. It’s those last two that primarily speak to the subject of this article: the marital and sexual ethic.
Many of those watching the early church saw the difference between Greco-Roman sexuality and Christianity, and they were drawn to this growing new faith. Here are just five ways the early church taught and lived out God’s design for sexuality.
- Christians elevated the meaning and importance of marriage. Marriage was not just a human-created institution; it was a divine covenant between a husband and wife, uniting them and making them one flesh. The church taught that marriage was created by God and pointed to a deeper truth: The relationship between a husband and wife was a picture of Christ’s relationship with the church. As a result, men were to sacrificially love their wives and wives were to respect their husbands.
- Christianity elevated the role of women. One key to elevating the meaning of marriage was the Judeo-Christian teaching that women are created in the image of God and reflect His likeness. Christianity taught that marriage was the union of a man and a woman who were equally deserving of dignity, value and honor. This was in contrast with the Greek world, were wives were virtually like slaves. Wives did not leave the house, unless accompanied by a male escort. They did not interact with the husband’s male guests. Roman women had more freedom, but still had none of the rights that men did. And the larger culture had little respect for women.3
Just as Christ’s death on the cross elevated us to become one with Him and unite with Him as His bride, so too did Christianity elevate woman to a higher status. This is such an important concept that we’ll give a few examples to show the unprecedented value Christianity placed on women:
- Mary, the mother of Jesus, was honored by the church and known as the “Theotokos,” the one who bore God incarnate.
- Women supported the ministry of Christ, sat at His feet and learned from Him.
- Women were the first to view Christ after His resurrection.
- Women were recognized as leaders in the early church.
- The early church showed great concern and care for widows.
The church has not always treated women with the honor and respect they deserve, but Christianity gave women a higher status than almost any other culture or faith in the world. As Schmidt asks, “In short, where else do women have more freedom, opportunity and human worth than in countries that have been highly influenced by the Christian ethic?”4
- Christianity condemned adultery for both men and women. Christian teaching limited sexual expression to the husband-wife relationship. Schmidt explains that under Roman law, a wife was the property of her husband:
Among the Greco-Romans, adultery was exclusively defined in terms of a woman’s marital status, not the man’s. A man, married or single, could only commit adultery with another mans’ wife, because she was his property, and adultery was a property offense. The man, however, was never a woman’s property. Thus, if he sexually consorted with an unmarried woman or a prostitute, he could not commit adultery.”5
Christianity eliminated this double standard: Both men and women were to avoid adultery.
- The church rejected homosexuality. A great deal of homosexuality in the Greco-Roman world involved pederasty—sexual activity between an adult male and a post-pubescent boy. An older man would mentor a young boy, usually around 12-16 years of age, and their relationship often involved sexual activity. At the same time, sexual relationships between adult males, between a man and a male slave, or between a man and a male temple prostitute were also common. The church taught that God created Eve as a suitable partner for Adam, that marriage was the union of a man and a woman and that sexual expression was restricted to marriage. As a result, like the Jews from whom they inherited the Old Testament and a great deal of teaching and theology, the church also rejected homosexuality.6
- The church rejected prostitution. Throughout the ancient world, prostitution was common. Often the worship of pagan gods involved fertility rituals and cultic prostitution. As Dennis Prager notes, Judaism rejected this worship. He explains that most other cultures viewed creation as the result of sexual activity between a god and goddess. Judaism proclaimed that God was separate from His creation and that He created the heavens and the earth by His word and His will. God was not a sexual being, as humans are, or as false gods are portrayed.7 Christianity taught this same truth, rejected temple prostitution that was part of pagan worship and rejected any form of prostitution, calling on people to flee sexual immorality. At the same time, the church proclaimed love and forgiveness to those who repented and turned from prostitution.
Prevailing Over Sexual Sin
The church was birthed into a world of moral and sexual chaos. Pagan gods and goddesses, and their worshipers, engaged in all manner of sexual immorality. Into this world, the church proclaimed a different message: God is love, we are to love others, and this love includes abstaining from sexual immorality. Over time, the church prevailed. Even though we face similar darkness in our own era, we can be a light, pointing to a better way.
Here are some resources to help in our encounters with a broken world:
- For those struggling with their own sexual sin, Focus on the Family has many resources. Contact us at 1-800-A-FAMILY (232-6459) or [email protected].
- Be encouraged by reading about the many ways the church has transformed our world, and pass on this teaching to your family and friends. Here are two informative resources:
- Alvin J. Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World
- Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion
- Teach your children about God’s good design for marriage and sexuality: