For centuries, the marketplace of faith had changed very little. People could carve, sell, or buy idols, give them a name, pray to them, and give them offerings in hope that something greater than themselves would bless their lives with an abundance of food, riches, and general good health. If one god or goddess seemed powerless, there were hundreds out there to try – until one of them seemed to work. Each culture seemed to have it’s own choice of famous gods and goddesses and not-so-famous ones – Ra, Hathor, Anubis , etc. (Ancient Egyptian), Ishtar, Tiamat, Marduk, etc. (Ancient Assyrian-Babylonian), Athirat [Asherah], Baal, Molech, etc. (Ancient Canaanite), since many cultures were together in a small area, their concepts of gods and goddesses often overlapped – this is seen with the Roman and Greek pantheons whose gods are very similar, they just have different names. (Zeus = Jupiter, for instance.)
About 2,000 years ago the vast majority of the world was under Roman rule – the fact that Rome was in charge solidified the power of their gods, who were not threatened by the gods that the rest of the world worshiped. As long as the people did their civic duties and did not riot, there was no reason to force them to give up their own local gods who were powerless to prevent the Romans from taking charge anyway.
What was so new, so different about The Way that made ancient pagans give up their idols? It was love. Before, these people could love their idols, decorate them, offer them food, but no matter how long they waited, their idols could never ever love them back. The message of Jesus, on the other hand, was this: For God so loved the world (you) that He sent His son to die to save the world (you.) Furthermore, early Christianity was all about love – they would go out of their way to feed the hungry, care for the ill, and they held their possessions in common – providing for each other as they had the need. This love for one another was remarkable and once people ‘got’ it, they wanted in on it.
It took about 325 years for The Way to spread and become the dominant religion of the Christian Roman world. From there, Christianity spread to all of Europe and eventually the New World – America and beyond. None of us can imagine what it would have been like to worship gods and goddesses in ancient temples, none of us can know the frustration of switch from idol to idol trying for a bit of luck, none of us have to worry about accidentally offending a god we don’t know … but we also can’t imagine how much freedom it must have felt like to attend our very first love feast, surrounded by caring brothers and sisters in the faith.
There were four words meaning “love” in the Ancient Greek:
1. Storge – meaning “affection”, The natural affection between parents and their children.
2. Philia – a “mental” love, an affectionate regard for one another or friendship-type love.
3. Eros – a “physical” love, like love at first site.
4. Agape – meaning “I love you”, it’s a “spiritual” love, when the love-feasts are mentioned, this is the word for that. It’s also the word used for love in 1 Corinthians 13
Love changes absolutely everything. And that, is how God loves you.