The Incarnation - Death-blow to Paganism, Life-blood of Christianity
Lewis C. Bond, Tavistock
During the Golden Age of Greece and Rome, before the time of Christ, most men wore worshippers of many gods. The Jewish people kept alive the knowledge of the true God but the other nations turned to polytheism, the worship of imaginary deities or idols. This was the religious background of the world into which Christ was born. As men came to know about the unique Person who had lived in Palestine, who had been crucified because He claimed to be God, and who had miraculously risen from the dead, they began to see the emptiness of their religion and were restored in measure to belief in the true God, The "good news" of Christ spread from city to city and town to town, but it took longer for people living in outlying places to hear it. These men and women of the rural areas, who were naturally the last to abandon the idolatrous beliefs and practices, were called "pagans" from the Latin word "pagus" which means "country district." In the pagan world, temples were as common as churches axe today and often those temples were marvellous examples of architecture like our finest cathedrals. The Temple of Diana (or Artemis) at Ephesus was probably the largest ever built by I he Greeks and it was included in the Seven Wonders of the World.
The Temple of Diana at Ephesus. In the 19th chapter of Acts which relates the events of Paul's stay in Ephesus we read about "the temple of the great goddess Diana" (v. 27), and the local craftsmen who made silver models of the temple for sale to tilt: pilgrims who flocked to the sacred city of the cult of Diana. Five temples had been built on the same site and together they spanned nearly the whole period during which the worship of the goddess nourished, about 1000 years. Paul saw the last of the five, which was destroyed by the invading Cloths in A.D. 263. The largest of the five was 438 feet long by 226 feet broad, almost double the area of the famous Parthenon on the Acropolis at Athens: it had 127 columns, each 60 feet high and 6 feet in diameter.
The ancient temples were looked upon as the dwelling-places of the gods to whom they were dedicated. Some contained an image of the god or goddess, and this was so at Ephesus. As the town-clerk of Paul's day mentioned, the imago of Diana was believed to have fallen from heaven (Acts 19. 35). The templeswere not buildings where large numbers of the people might be expected to gather, so they were usually quite small; in this respect the Temple of Diana was exceptional. The usual shape of Greek temples was an oblong, about twice as long as wide, "with a gable-roof at the front and back; they were never built upon the ground directly but upon a platform approached by an uneven number of steps. The main chamber of the interior contained the image of the god which stood on a pedestal, often placed in a niche, and usually faced the east opposite folding doors which always opened outwards, In front of the image stood an altar used for sacrifices. The chamber generally received its light through the door alone, but sometimes there was also an opening in the roof. Frequently only one god had an image and altar in the chief chamber, whilst others were worshipped in adjoining chapels. Many temples had besides the main chamber another which was entered by the priests and only at certain times.
The triangular wall under the front gable of the Ephesian temples was magnificently carved to show Diana on her throne with princes and horses, lions and rams, on cither side hi a procession of honour. There were also figures of Pericles the Greek statesman and Alexander the Great. The altar was designed and carved by Praxiteles, one of the very greatest of Greek sculptors. It is recorded that the temple was dedicated to Peace, and no fighting or weapons were allowed within its walls; it was also a place of refuge. The remains of the structure are very scanty; some fragments of the columns may be seen in the Ephesian Room of the British Museum; the site of the "sacred city" is occupied by some villages.
The Image of God. As we reflect upon the religion of the ancient world we cannot fail to notice the contrast with the Bible, God revealed Himself to men in the earliest times as The One God; men did not preserve this knowledge of the true God, but degenerated into idolatry. The revelation in the Old Testament contains a divine commandment against making an image or representation of God, so that wrong ideas of Him might be prevented; pagan men made countless images of the many gods and goddesses. God ordered men to build one Temple to be the centre of the ritual which was designed to foreshadow the supreme revelation of God in the Person and Work of the Lord Jesus Christ; heathenism copied the Temple and perverted its use and significance, building thousands of such shrines dedicated to the multitude of gods. The tragic story of the downward path of human religion from the purity of divine revelation is vividly told by the Apostle Paul in the first chapter of his letter to the Romans.
The: worshippers of Diana believed that the image of the goddess had mysteriously fallen from heaven. In this crude idea we have an interesting comparison with the central fact in the revelation of God to man. The Old Testament makes it clear that God could never be represented by a man-made image. Man himself was made in the image of God (Gen. 1. 27) and if God was to revealHimself to men it must he in the form of a Man. The term "The Incarnation" (meaning "into flesh") is used to express the truth that in the birth of Christ "the Word was made flesh" (John 1. 14) without ceasing to be" in the form of God" (Phil. 2. 6). In the miracle of the Virgin Birth, God became "true Man"; in the miracle of the Resurrection, He was proved to be "true God." It is important that we should know something of the reasons for believing these two great facts about the Person of Christ. Throughout the centuries since the earthly life of Christ, various incorrect and unworthy views of Him have been suggested by men who have been unwilling to accept the teaching of the Bible. All such errors have arisen because men have found it difficult to understand that these two facts are fully true of the same Person.
The Humanity of Christ. It is beyond dispute that Christ is presented in the New Testament as a Man. His birth was a, miracle, but His mother was human. He grew normally from infancy to maturity. He suffered weariness, hunger, and thirst. He- felt compassion, joy, and anger. He was tempted, He died, and was buried.
No one who saw the image in the Temple of Diana would have said: "This is a living woman!" At most the image could be thought of as a model of the goddess. The Person who lives and moves in the pages of "the Gospels is the living" express image "of the Person of God, by whom all things were made and are upheld. (Heb. 1. 1-3.) Jesus of Nazareth was truly Man; yet, even as we are insisting upon the real humanity of Christ we are conscious that there is more, much more, to be said of Him, He challenged His chosen followers to see in His Person more than humanity when He asked them: "Whom do men say that I, the Son of man, am? … whom say ye that I am?" (Matt. 16. 13-17).
The Deity of Christ. As we read through the records of the life of Christ on earth we can mark the stages by which His disciples came to recognize Mini. For instance, in Matthew's Gospel we see the advance from chapter 8 where they asked "What manner of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey Him!" to Peter's confession in chapter 16 "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God." The witness of John's Gospel is even more direct: "In the beginning … the Word was God" (chap. 1. 1.); "I and (My) Father are one" (John 10. 30).
It is a law of human nature that the more holy a man becomes the more acutely he feels the sense of sin, In Christ a sense of sin did not exist; He did no sin. He knew no sin, in Him was no sin. He is unique: He is God.
These two aspects of the Incarnation are brought together in a famous passage from Paul's letter to tile Philippians: "Have this mini I in you which was also in Christ Jesus; who subsisting in the form of God, counted it not a prize that He was on an equality with. God, hut emptied Himself by taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself, becoming obedient even unto death,
yea, the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly
exalted Him and given Him the Name which is above every name:
that at the Name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth: and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Dr. Gifford’s translation of Phil. 2)