This is the second of a series of articles on `The Last Generation'.
In the first century a small rag-tag band of men and women who called themselves Christians introduced a revolutionary way of looking at God that was so radical that it literally turned the world upside down (Acts 17: 6). The Greeks, for instance, believed that because God is so far removed from the mundane lives of Everyman, therefore we must go in search of Him in the places where He might be found. Like all pagans, the Greeks believed that the souls of men originated in God. They further refined this belief by declaring that as the souls of men are immortal, then the soul is like a dim mirror that imperfectly reflects the divinity of God. They reasoned that as God is good by nature, so also is man; simply because in essence man is God-like by nature and therefore the love of God is reflected in the souls of men. They has a word for this kind of love, and called it Eros. The English word erotica is derived from this word, as the erotic love which a man has for a woman best described Eros. Cupid, the Roman god of love was the equivalent of the Greek god Eros and is usually depicted as shooting arrows into our hearts. They believed that as man is god-like by nature, then it is the duty of man to imitate that perfection, as the following statement by the Roman philosopher Seneca (c. 4 B.C - 65 A.D), reveals:
`Need you refuse to believe that there's something divine in one who is a part of God? All the world that contains us is one, and is God: we are his colleagues and his members. Our spirit is able: it arrives there, if its blemishes don't hold it down. As our body stands erect, its eyes fixed on the sky, so our spirit, free to expand as far as it will, is formed by nature to desire equality with godhead.' (`Seneca's letters to Lucilius: Volume 2', Lucius Annaeus Senceca.) Seneca was a disciple of a branch of Greek philosophy known as Stoicism and believed implicitly in pantheism, - which is derived from two Greek words - pan; meaning "All", and theo - meaning "God"; and thus means that `All is God'. This philosophy lay at the basis of Greek thought, and teaches that as everything originated in God, then everything must in some small way imperfectly reflect the divinity of God and is therefore naturally immortal of its own right. The Greeks also had a fable which they believed epitomised the noblest and most virtuous form of love there is.
King Admetus was the ruler of a small kingdom which was situated near the sea. He was a kind man of gentle disposition who lived to serve his people. He loved them and they loved him; for his people were overjoyed that their king was such a fine, upstanding man who went out of his way to help his subjects and make them happy. Even the most destitute who had little or nothing he deigned to help if he could. For instance, if a man who had no coat needed one; he would not hesitate to give him his own.
It came to pass that he fell in love with a fair maiden named Alcestis, whom he later married. As the years wore on and the happy couple prospered, so too did their kingdom; for Admetus was such a good man that the god Apollo blessed his kingdom. One day Apollo appeared to him and with a heavy heart informed him that Hades, the god of the underworld would shortly send death to him; but as he was such a good man who deserved to live, Apollo had decided to meet with Proserpine, the wife of Hades, in the cheerless halls of the underworld and bargain with her for his life. Proserpine agreed that it was right that Admetus should live, and informed Apollo that if the king searched his kingdom and was able to find one virtuous man or woman who would willingly take his place, then he could live. Apollo informed the king: `For you are loved by all and rightly so; happenstance it may be so that you will find someone who is willing to take your place'.
So Admetus approached his aged parents and told them of his predicament. When he asked them if they would die for him, each exclaimed:
`My son, though we love you more than life itself, we cannot die for you.'
He then approached his siblings but received the same answer. So he took to the streets of his small kingdom to try and find someone who would die for him. But as the word of Apollo's bargain with Proserpine became the gossip of the marketplace, the streets soon lay quiet and deserted, as his people bolted their doors against him so that they might not have to face him - for none were willing to forgo their earthly existence so that their King might live. Even an old crone who lay at death's door recoiled in horror when asked her if she would die for him! Finally, resigned to his fate, the good King Admetus retired to his bedchambers, and lay down and wept, hoping that death might speedily take him. At that moment Alcestis cried out to Apollo and exclaimed:
`Oh beloved Apollo, you have blessed my dear husband and increased his kingdom tenfold. He is such a good man and his people need him so much that he deserves to live! I will die for him, so that he can live.'
Thus Alcestis died for her King, so that he might live. `This,' declared the Greek philosophers, `is the greatest kind of love there is - that a man might die for his friends!' Imagine their astonishment when the newly formed sect called Christians informed them that this wasn't `it' at all; for the greatest form of love there is was demonstrated to us at Calvary, when one Man died for his enemies; for God loves the unlovely. Our King died for the ungodly, so that we might live. The apostle Paul commented on this awe-inspiring love of God in the letter to the Romans, when he obliquely commented on the legend of Admetus and Alcestis, and compared this to our Saviour's sacrifice at Calvary:
`For when we were yet without strength, in due time Chris died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet perhaps for a good man some would even dare to die. But God commendeth His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.' (Romans 5:6-8.)
As there was no word that was in use that could express this kind of love, the disciples chose a little-used Greek word called `agape' and infused it with new meaning; for it is a love which completely empties itself of self. For instance, when John, the beloved disciple of Christ declared that `God is Love' (1 John 4:8), he chose `agape' - and it was this revolutionary view of the character of God that was encapsulated in the word `agape' that turned the world `upside down' . For the word `agape' describes the Lord Jesus Christ our Saviour as the literal Son of God Who was for us forever. Agape is self-effacing, self-abasing and totally devoid of ego - and is so far beyond our natural human comprehension that it took Calvary to demonstrate it to us. Not only did Christ pay the price in full for the corporate sins of man at Calvary, but if Calvary had never transpired - we would never have been able to comprehend the agape of God at all!
Here are the articles in this series:
The Last Generation - Part One
The Last Message of Mercy - Part Five