How the Greeks Destroyed the Jewish Church
By Pastor Hal Mayer
One of the most incredible changes ever to happen to God’s church took place at a time in which there IS no biblical record. Yet the changes were so profound and so devastating that it is vital that we study them. The Jews were led by Satan to the ultimate rebellion and to their rejection as God’s church. There are many lessons for us today that we had better learn if we are going to avoid making a similar mistake in our day.
Please turn with me in your bibles to the book of 1 Corinthians chapter one, vs. 18. Now, before we read God’s holy word, we must bow our heads and ask for his wisdom to understand what He wants to tell us today.
Our Father in heaven. Thank you for your holy word and the TRUTH that it contains for us today. Please send your Holy Spirit to speak to us about this truth and help us to understand what you wish to say to us. Help us to see how that what happened to the Jews before Christ came to this earth has its parallel today. And we thank you in Jesus name, Amen.
Now reading from the 18 th verse. “For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God. For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent. Where [is] the wise? where [is] the scribe? where [is] the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe. For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.”
Notice the contrast between the preaching of the cross and the thinking of the Jews. The Jews were looking for sensational manifestations of truth in order to be willing to believe. They were in some ways like the charismatics of today, who want a religion that mostly involves their senses and feelings, but is largely ignores the intellectual. On the other hand, notice that the Greeks were emphasizing the intellectual and avoiding the emotional.. “The Greeks seek after wisdom,” Paul said. Vs. 22. Paul saw that something happened between these two groups of people, the Jews and the Greeks, that he believed would also threaten God’s church. He could see what had happened to the Jews under the influence of the Greeks and he warned all of God’s people down to the end of time what was to come.
Originally, the educational system God gave the Jews was simple, practical, natural, and designed to create love and loyalty to God, and an understanding of His law in their hearts. If Israel had remained loyal, God would have blessed them so much that they would have been the admiration of the world and consulted regularly. God’s educational plan would have prepared Israel to announce Messiah’s salvation to the world.
But God’s chosen people stoned the prophets, went whoring after idols, languished in Babylon, and ultimately rejected Christ the Messiah. After returning from captivity, being fearful of idolatry they hedged themselves with rules and regulations to prevent apostasy. Satan knew it would be extremely difficult to entice Israel into rank idolatry again, so he tried another angle.
At the end of the Medo-Persian Empire, Alexander the Great conquered the civilized world, but his sudden death left the empire divided between his four generals. The Greek empire championed worldly masters of wisdom. Aristotle, Socrates and Plato laid the foundation of Western Culture. They tried to solve the moral dilemmas of society using worldly, pagan philosophy. Though Greek civilization flourished economically, their system of philosophy and education failed to produce the moral system that could change the heart and make it truly noble. It had no divine system of evaluating right and wrong.
Sophisticated Greek culture required highly developed colonization and city life. The city state was the only social concept of mature Greek culture. But it was not a city with walls and fortifications. They were more interested in the usefulness of the city in which to engage Greek culture. Grecian kings were known for establishing large cities, colonizing and mixing cultures together under Greek principles.1 Colonizing large cities removed people from the natural simple influences of the country and engaged them in the complex, man-made and the artificial.
Previous empires forcefully imposed their culture and religion on those nations they conquered, but it was always difficult. Alexander was the first emperor to leave national culture and religion alone from a military standpoint.2 Nevertheless Hellenistic philosophy, economics, lifestyle, language, and the arts sunk in very deeply. By popularizing their culture and education they could integrate it into other cultures, resulting in one vast “Greekdom” under their intellectual masters.3 This strategy was very effective, not by creating an empire controlled by military power, but by creating a cultural empire built on ideas and a way of thinking that would influence nations throughout all time.4 What Babylon and Medo-Persia had failed to do by force of arms, the Greeks did by force of intellect. Though their military power was relatively short-lived, the power of Greek intellectualism is still with us today in every aspect of our lives. No wonder Paul wrote what he did in first Corinthians. He was very concerned that the philosophy of the Greeks would compromise the church. He could see that these ideas were very attractive to the unregenerate heart.
Devastating effect on the Jewish church
The effect of Hellenistic culture on God’s church during the 400 years between the last Old Testament prophet and the time of Christ is instructive to His church today. There were no prophets to speak to God’s church, and the Bible is otherwise silent concerning the history and condition of the church during this period. Interestingly many of the same principles the Greeks used on the Jewish church, which led to its terrible rejection of Christ, are being used on God’s church today to prevent it from receiving the latter rain.
One of the four generals that took control of the southern part of the Greek empire after the death of Alexander the Great was Ptolemy I. He began the Ptolemy dynasty that ruled from Alexandria, Egypt. This kingdom had the most influence of the Jews during the 400 years just before Christ came to this earth.
The Ptolemys were very willing to let other nation’s leaders close to the circles of power in Alexandria. They invited these leaders to participate in at least certain aspects of their government. This strategy was effectively used to strengthen the cultural integration back home. The pagan Greeks were very friendly to the Jews. Alexander and Ptolemy I offered them equal rights, benefits and protections with all other citizens.5 This friendly relationship between the Jews and the Greeks caused large Jewish communities to arise in Alexandria, Egypt.
The Ptolemy strategy to integrate Greek culture into Jewish life was a multi-pronged approach through their educational system, economy, entertainment and the arts. The Jews were intrigued by the intellectualism of the Greeks, and eventually became enthralled with it.
The Ptolemy dynasty controlled Egypt in the south and Judea, Phoenicia and the surrounding regions. One of the Ptolemy kings strategically commissioned a large number of rabbi scholars to come to Alexandria and translate the Old Testament (their sacred oracles) into the Greek language.6 This would no doubt open opportunities for the Jews to become more familiar with the culture of the Greeks by exchanging ideas with the Greek master philosophers. The Jews would have vainly seen it as an opportunity to influence the Greeks with their own sacred texts.
Promising and talented Jewish youth were no doubt invited to Alexandria’s schools and then with their degrees came back to teach in Jewish schools. Because Greek culture was becoming quite popular, the Jews thought this a good way to bring fresh thinking and new perspectives into Jewish life. The average Jew was enamored with Greek lifestyle and materialism. And the prospect of wealth strengthened the Jewish fascination with Greek thinking and culture. Meanwhile Greek intellectualism crept into Palestine.
The Jewish priests had made themselves singularly wealthy from the offerings of the people and had become corrupted. Their chief aim it seemed was to gain money.7 What does the scripture say, “The Love of money is the root of all evil.” Since the priests were essentially the national leaders, they guided the course of their country according to their ambitions and became easy prey to Hellenic influences which improved their chances of increasing their wealth even further.
But a broader economic principle was to come into play in Judea which would effect everybody, not just the priests. The Ptolemy king made a certain Jew the head of tax collection from Phoenicia to the borders of Egypt. He in turn appointed his own countrymen to help him. These enriched themselves and in turn invested in Judea, showering it with money and wealth and improving economic conditions. This investment in Palestine raised the people from poverty to prosperity and changed the course of Judean history.8
The newfound wealth helped turned admiration for the Greeks into emulation. Jewish tastes became more refined. They became interested in less practical arts, especially painting. Their homes became more beautiful. Their clothing copied the fashions of the Greeks. But the simple habits and customs of the Jews designed to keep them loyal to God and separate from pagan idolaters was lost.9 Though they no longer bowed down to idols, they were guilty of a new idolatry to the gods of reason, materialism and fashion.
It was the Jewish leaders that led the “yuppies” of the day to adopt extravagant habits and frivolous customs. They copied the Greeks in everything from eating and drinking to fashion and finances. They indulged in wine, music, drama, theater and other entertainments. They placed more importance on making money than on spiritual values.10 Greek fashions became customary in Judea. Youth would exercise under Greek hats,11 and flaunted the popular Greek country dress through the streets of Jerusalem.12 As the new educational system advanced within Jewish society, so did the corresponding love of worldliness and monetary gain. These enchantments greatly appealed to the youth who were quickly drawn into dissipation and unchastity.13
The Greeks loved their festivals which consumed a large share of public life.14 Some important Jews, familiar with Ptolemy’s court, witnessed, and even participated in the corrupt orgies connected with the numerous Greek festivals. These leading Jews brazenly introduced them at Jerusalem, including the wine, dancing women and pagan music.15 The result was that there was less interest in the festivals that God had given to His people to inspire them with truth and soul-saving education. You see, the Jews were being re-educated into the thinking of the world.
Some of the leading Jews knew that in order to Hellenize the Jewish church, they would have to control the education of the young so the Jews could become as much like the Greeks as possible. Some of the most influential Jews shamelessly conspired to systematically Hellenize the Jews through education and eventually abolish the faith of their fathers. The goal of these “liberals” was the complete incorporation of Jewish life and customs into worldly Greek culture.16
Greek education put a high priority on sports. The Jewish revisionists introduced games, races, wrestling matches and contests of all sorts in Jewish schools, even though Jewish law sternly opposed these innovations. One of the High Priests named Jason introduced the Olympian games into Judea and built a gymnasium for this purpose in the heart of the city close to the temple.17 Jewish youth flocked to this Olympic shrine within their own borders. Greek sports masters were hired to teach their games. The Jews crowded the stadium. Even the Priests neglected their duties in the temple so they could participate in the games.18
There was one embarrassment to the Jews. The participants in the Olympic games were required to compete naked. One of the distinctive marks of Jewish singleness to God was circumcision. Yet this became a mark of shame under the influence of the Greeks. To prevent derision, Jewish Olympians undertook a special operation to disguise this.19 And little wonder. Competitive sports are contrary to God’s system of education, and this symbol of their singleness to God was a constant reminder of their new idolatry.
Loss of Distinctive Doctrines and the Sanctuary Message
The decline in standards fostered by the liberal leaders led to a general disregard and even denial of the fundamental truths of the Jewish faith.20 “By the act of its own people, Jerusalem had renounced its age-long isolation and come into line with the great Hellenic world.“21 The increasing fascination with Hellenic culture led to less interest in the old Jewish laws and ways. Little by little the things that made the Jews distinct; their very identity, became open for discussion. Even conservative Jews began to question their old traditional beliefs. They wondered if the teachings of Judaism were actually correct. They could see that their old teachings were in conflict with Greek reasoning. Yet the Greeks were so “successful,” could it not be the blessing of God that they were so beneficial to Jewish economy? They gradually replaced God’s definition of success with Greek ideas. They even began to wonder if God really required self denial, and whether God was really concerned about man at all.22 You see, these two things go hand in hand. How can we understand that God loves us deeply, and sacrificed Himself for us if we ourselves have no desire to help others and sacrifice for them? Self-sacrifice is one of the ways that God helps us understand His love for us. God ordained sacrifice to help us grasp the principles of heaven.
The rabbinical schools of the Jews continued to operate. But as Alexandria-trained rabbis held sway over the curriculum, the training in these schools became greatly compromised. Increasingly they were less practical, less biblical, and more theoretical. Sports, games, wealth and luxury were glorified. Worldly motivation replaced service in God’s cause.
Year after year the word of God was studied less as the educational curriculum moved toward intellectualism and rationalism. Year after year man was exalted and God was less thought of. The degreed rabbi was extolled and the unlearned depreciated. Ceremony increased as piety diminished. More emphasis was placed on the Mishna and the Gemara. The Mishna was a commentary on the Bible which added many laws and ceremonies. The Gemara was a commentary on the Mishna which again added more regulations and rules. There was a saying in “The Ethics of the Fathers” which went something like this; “A child of five years should study the Bible, at ten the Mishna and at fifteen the Gamara.23 As a student advanced in years and increased in mental ability, he studied God’s word less and man’s writings more.
What do you think this did to the principles of the sanctuary which were designed to protect God’s people from worldliness and teach them the way of salvation? In the Jewish mind these things began to become less and less important. Fidelity to God’s law was seen as too narrow and restricting. Attendance at temple services was less and less. The simple truths of the sanctuary message failed to impress their minds anymore.
The Peril of Prosperity
Liberal compromises do not bring peace and unity. By the second century B.C. the degeneration of the Jewish faith led to severe internal conflicts creating a reaction. Those that opposed this liberalization banded together and formed the Chasidim or “The Pious.” The conflict between the liberals and the conservatives pushed both parties to opposite extremes so that they could not comprehend each other. The conservatives accused the liberals of backsliding, “breaking the law” and of “fearful sin.” The liberals accused the conservatives of folly in retaining the old landmarks and of undermining national progress, prosperity and stability.24 As you can see the conservatives trying to uphold the principles were accused of causing the disunity. Does this sound familiar?
Arguments arose on all fronts. Disagreements about sports, food, medicine worldliness, and philosophical problems created general discord. Both parties struggled for political influence. The liberal Hellenizers wanted one of their number to replace the conservative high priest and soon the burning question was whether it was really necessary that the high priest be a descendant of Aaron, leading to fears that the liberals would desecrate the high office.25
The people generally took the middle course. They enjoyed the luxuries, refinements, entertainments such as drama and theater, and the ever-present sports, but disapproved of the extreme liberal excesses because they did not want to break their connection with the past. Some even began to rationalize that since the Jews were the special objects of God’s affection, these changes to society, buttressed by economic strength, were actually blessings from God and should be accommodated.26
The conflict and strife in Jerusalem with its political intrigues drew the attention of Antiochus Epiphanies, who marched on Jerusalem. In 169 B. C. Antiochus desecrated the temple, and made the keeping of the Sabbath and circumcision capital crimes, while forcing the Jews to keep the pagan festival to Dionysias.27 The revolt of the Maccabees and subsequent wars eventually restored the temple and Jewish nationality under the control of conservatives. But the infiltration of Greek principles was never eradicated.
The Jews had departed from God again, and to supply the lack of spirit, the conservative rabbis made the Jewish religion much more legalistic in order to restrict Hellenism’s progress.28 Yet the religious leaders had lost sight of the true object of their religion. They multiplied ceremonies without understanding their real purpose. Meanwhile, the Jewish church had become so compromised that full reform was essentially impossible. By the time of Christ, it is obvious that even He could not change them and had to start a new church.
“As the Jews had departed from God, faith grew dim, and hope had well-nigh ceased to illuminate the future. The words of the prophets were uncomprehended.“29 The influences of pagan culture, philosophy and lifestyle had so gutted the religious life of the Jews that when Jesus came to them, only a few humble souls recognized and welcomed Him. Even the masses who followed Him daily looked for a temporal kingdom, and when threatened by the religious leaders, they deserted Him.
Can you imagine how sad heaven must have been to see the reaction of the Jews to Jesus? Imagine their horror at the hatred that was directed at Christ. Imagine the heartsick angels that ministered to Christ as we was persecuted by the priests, as He anguished in Gethsemane, beaten by the Romans, and hung on a cruel cross. Imagine the shock and amazement of heavenly beings as the church leaders mocked him and derided him there as he hang on that cross. Unbelievable! Satan had been so subtle and so slick in captivating the minds of the Jews with all these liberal compromises, and then creating a conflict that prevented them from coming back into the balance of the truth. It is difficult to imagine it perhaps, but is it possible that Satan is working to do the same things to God’s church today? As difficult as this may be to accept, it is true. Here is how.
Application to Modern Times
In our day, there has been a similar loss of the core principles of the truth in God’s church, and the parallels are phenomenal. For example, to meet accreditation standards, teachers attend evangelical and secular seminaries for advanced degrees (in the Greek tradition no less) and bring evangelical teachings back into our seminaries, compromising the training of younger pastors.
Years ago, the liberals knew that the only way to change the church was to control the educational system. This they have done successfully. Our schools have replaced agriculture with the Greek pagan concept of games and sports and have tried to become as much like secular schools as possible. Have you noticed that many churches have gymnasiums built across the parking lot. The distinctive features of God’s educational system that were to set our educational system apart from the world have been largely eliminated. Academic curriculums now emphasize less Bible and more evangelical theology and ecumenical teachings.
Like the Jews, we have developed an entertainment mentality which includes celebration style worship services, mimes and clowns, movies and theater, amusement parks, computer games, dancy music and the ever present sports. Many of us live in city environments where these entertainments are more easily available. Similar to the Jews, affluence consumes our time and energies, providing little time for God and family. Many are more concerned about making money than about their spiritual life or the eternal salvation of others. And many among us try to become as much like the worldlings around us as possible.
Like the Jews, many now question the distinctive features of our faith. Many “progressive” leaders (as liberals like to be called) are determined to incorporate evangelical religious culture into our Adventist lifestyle and completely do away with the faith of our fathers. Many of us have become ashamed of the distinctives of our faith and like those Jewish athletes, want to hide or minimize them. It’s interesting to note that Jewish distinctives, such as the Sabbath and circumcision, once compromised, eventually became a target of repression under Antiochus. Will similar compromises lead to persecution of those who uphold our distinctive truths that God has entrusted to us, perhaps even by those of our own house of faith? Conflicts between liberals and conservatives today have gotten to the point where they often can’t understand each other.
God’s plan of true education, designed to strengthen the loyalties of God’s people to the Law of God is almost wholly extinct today. Except for a few self-supporting schools such as Hartland College, where young people learn the biblical principles of our faith, there would be no place for youth to avoid, what God calls foolish Greek principles (see 1 Cor. 1:18-28) that prevail in our educational institutions. Compromise has gutted denominational education to the point that many graduates have little or no motivation to serve God’s cause.
Even most self-supporting institutions are silent; fearful of speaking up against the Hellenization of Adventism and the lowering of standards, for fear of being “blackballed” by leadership. By the way, one interesting difference exists. The old Jews had a conservative leader in the high priest to help the conservative cause. We don’t have that luxury today. Therefore we cannot hope that a political change in Adventism is going to restore the faith once delivered to the saints. The burden rests on you and me!!! We are the ones that must keep the faith, uphold the faith, reveal the faith in our characters and live like we believe that Jesus is coming very soon.
The Messiah not recognized
The Jews were so steeped in Greek education and lifestyle that they could not discern that among them was the Promised One – Jesus the Messiah. They viewed him as unlearned and lower class because he never studied in their schools. They hated his pointed public accounting of their infidelity to the Law of God. They despised his simple teaching about how to be saved. But most of all they were angry that he refused to obey their authority and follow their rules. They may well have been upset that He accepted donations and perhaps even some tithe and taught his disciples to do it too (Read Luke 10:3-12). The Greek system of education and philosophy had destroyed the Jews capability to comprehend Jesus’ mission and they ended by crucifying him. Oh, that is sad!
The Latter Rain
Is it possible that many of us are so steeped in worldly (Greek) principles that we will treat the genuine manifestation of the Holy Spirit similar to the way the Jews treated Christ? Is it possible that many will miss the latter rain while it is falling all around them because they have refused to follow God’s simple plan of education? How many among us will miss the last opportunity to cooperate with heaven in the final warning message to the world because they have frittered away their preparation time in sports, entertainment, or other worldly pursuits?
Perhaps we need to rethink our relationship to Christ and the world around us and find where we are personally compromised, and do all in our power to recover our faith and live by it in our homes, schools and churches. Perhaps we could gain much by restudying the sanctuary services that God gave to Israel to illustrate His principles of salvation. If we understood what Christ has done for us and His powerful love for each of us personally, we could see the pathway through all the temptations and attractions that the Devil would throw at us.
Christ and Him crucified is to be the center of our lives. If that is our focus, we will escape the dangers of worldliness and selfishness.
How is it with you? How is it with me? Are we striving to become part of the last group of people that will understand and reflect the fullness of the character of God through Jesus Christ? Will you join me in living for Jesus today, no matter how much ridicule, no matter how much persecution, no matter how difficult it will be? Will you join me in pleading with God for a true experience with Jesus? Will you join me in digging deeply in His word for truth?
Let us pray. Father, it is in Jesus name that we come to you today. We know that we have often compromised our faith and have adopted worldly principles in our lives, even after we have professed to accept Jesus and the truth for these last days. Help us to see how dangerous it is to play with Satan’s devices. Help us to see how to come apart and be separate from the world. Help us to leave these things behind and look only to heaven, for that is where our home is. We are on the borders of the promised land – our heavenly home. May you sanctify us and purify us, and make us ready, so that when the crisis comes to us and the Holy Spirit is poured out, we will be part of that great final warning message, and that we will not reject Him and miss out on this crucial time. This is our prayer in Jesus name, Amen.
1. Bevan, Edwyn, Jerusalem Under the High-Priests, (London, 1904, Edward Arnold & Co.), pp. 31-33. See also Graetz, H. History of the Jews, (Philadelphia, 1891, The Jewish Publication Society of America), pg. 419.
2. Graetz, pg. 415; Beven, p. 33-34.
3. Graetz, pp 411.
4. Bevan, pp. 18.
5. Stanley, Arthur Penrhyn, Lectures on the History of the Jewish Church (New York, 1884, Charles Scribner’s Sons), Vol. 3, pp. 221.
6. Josephus, Flavius, The Works of Flavius Josephus… Translated by William Whiston (Philadelphia, The International Press, The John C. Winston Co.) Book XII, Chapter II. pp. 349 -350; Bevan , pp. 44 .
7. Op. cit., Stanley, pp. 217; Bevan, pp. 45.
8. Op. cit., Graetz, pp. 426, 427.
9. Ibid., pp. 427.
10. Ibid., pp. 427.
11. Mathews, Shailer, A History of New Testament Times in Palestine (New York, 1927, The MacMillan Company) pp. 8; Bevan, pp. 79; Graetz, pp. 435.
12. Op. cit., Bevan, pp. 79.
13. Op. cit., Graetz, pp. 427-429.
14. Op. cit. Bevan, pp. 36.
15. Op. cit. Graetz, pp. 428, 429.
16. Ibid., pp. 435.
17. Schurer, Emil, A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Christ, (Edinburgh, 1890, T. & T. Clark), Div. 1, pp. 202, 203; Bevan, pp. 79;
18. Op. cit., Graetz pp. 435, 445, 446; Shurer, pp. 203
19. Op. cit., Mathews, pp. 8; Graetz, pp. 445, 446.; Shurer, Div 1, pp. 203.
20. Op. cit., Graetz, pp. 446.
21. Op. cit. Bevan, pp. 79.
22. Op. cit. Graetz, pp. 429.
23. Incorporated in “Jewish Daily Prayer Book,” (New York, 1890, Rosenbaum & Werbelowsky).
24. Op cit., Graetz, pp. 435, 436.
25. Ibid. pp. 435-437, 440.
26. Ibid., pp. 436.
27. Op. cit. Shurer, pp. 207.
28. White, Ellen G., The Desire of Ages, (Mountain View, CA, 1940), pp. 29.
29. Ibid., pp. 32.