False Religion vs. The Way

by Gary Petty Estimated reading time: 11 minutes. Posted on 5-Mar-2024
Paganism is inclusive. True Christianity, once called the Way, is not. Its original followers pas-sionately rejected the concepts and practices of religions not based on the Bible. What does that mean for you?

Are you willing to sort through all the clutter in today’s fragmented Christian message? There’s the popular health-and-wealth gospel. The LGBTQ gospel of acceptance of what the Bible forbids is spreading. How about the all-roads-lead-to-God gospel or the entertainment gospel, which is sparse on teaching? Sadly, even what’s considered traditional Christianity has been corrupted by wrong ideas and practices since early times.

The message of the first Christians was so different from the beliefs of the society around them that they were accused of turning the world upside down (Acts 17:6). We’ll see in one story that the Christian message caused people in a major ancient city to burn books about practicing magic and almost started a riot.

True Christianity, then called the Way (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 24:14), was quite distinct from the surrounding culture. To the first Christians, there were only two kinds of religion—either worshiping the God of the Hebrew Scriptures (often labeled Judaism) or all other religion, viewed as idolatry and demonic. The earliest Christians were considered a Jewish sect. But most Jews resisted them, refusing to accept Jesus as the Messiah.

The wider world embraced paganism, a general term for religions that don’t accept the God of the Bible. The worldview of the first-century Roman culture was inclusive, embracing all gods and goddesses. With emphasis on elaborate rituals and exotic temples, participants felt very spiritual. The spirit world for them was everywhere and in everything. Life was guided by the stars. The home was decorated with statues of dead relatives and gods and goddesses for seeking their help. And ritualistic magic was the key to contacting the gods and goddesses and all spirits.

Yet while paganism is generally inclusive, it cannot abide the Way, which is not, rejecting paganism outright—setting up a major cultural clash.

Are you willing to discover the Way? You can experience the same transformation the early Christian believers experienced, finding God’s purpose for your life. But know that it comes at a cost, because the original Way challenges many common and cherished Christian beliefs.

Burning bridges in Ephesus

Let’s observe what happened in the story mentioned above, as recorded in Acts 19. The apostle Paul, responsible for spreading Christianity through many areas of the Roman Empire, traveled to the city of Ephesus in what’s now western Turkey. This large and influential city was a provincial capital, a major seaport, a trade center where the cultures and wonders of the European and Asian continents met and mingled together. And it was home to one of the seven wonders of the ancient world—the temple of Artemis (called Diana by the Romans)—accumulating great wealth from those making pilgrimages here.

When Paul first came, he began to teach the Way, Christian faith and practice, in the Jewish synagogue. But resistance there led to a rift. After three months, he left the synagogue and established a teaching center for both Jews and non-Jews. Some of the pagans began to accept and respond, believing Jesus to be the only way to the true God.

The account records that “many who had believed came confessing and telling their deeds. Also, many of those who had practiced magic brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. And they counted up the value of them, and it totaled fifty thousand pieces of silver [a fortune!]. So the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed” (verses 18-20). Notice how the Way changed their lives. The pagans who believed enthusiastically burned their books containing incantations to the spirits and magic spells and rituals.

They were effectively “burning their bridges behind them”—removing the way back to false religion now that they had started on the Way. Note that these early Christians didn’t burn their neighbor’s books or attack libraries. They burned their own books. Considering them worthless and evil, they destroyed them. The point here is that those who followed the Way, accepting Jesus as the biblical Messiah, passionately rejected the concepts and practices of religion not based on the Bible.

Let’s engage in a mental exercise here. Try to imagine yourself having grown up in the ancient world of Ephesus, with temples all over the place to gods and goddesses and you having worshiped Zeus and Artemis or Diana. You were very superstitious and worried about evil spirits all the time. You sought help from magic spells and temple priests, who would examine the entrails of animal sacrifices to interpret for you the message from the gods.

Think of being a person in that environment who has turned to the God of the Bible and accepted Jesus. You’ve left paganism behind, burned your bridges, rejecting it as false and evil. Your life is profoundly changed, your world turned upside down. You’ve since lost friends, business contacts, maybe a job. And you’re persecuted for following the Way.

Pause now and consider your own life today. Are you as committed? You’re a Christian, right? You don’t participate in paganism. Are you sure? Let’s look at one example. How about Halloween? It’s just a harmless children’s party, right? Is it? Halloween’s origins can be traced to ancient pagan rites associated with evil spirits, which later morphed into All Saints Day and All Souls Day, medieval Catholic days honoring the dead. In many churches today, these are still considered religious holidays. They’re tied to the practice of praying to saints in heaven, a custom also derived from paganism that denigrates the biblical teaching that Jesus Christ is the only mediator between us and God.

Let’s return to our mental exercise. Imagine that, as one of those early Christian converts having left paganism to follow the Way, you are now brought forward into our world and seeing Christian life today. How would you respond to dressing up a child as a zombie or a witch, going trick-or-treating, a remnant of pagan superstition, at a time many still go to church to somehow honor God and Jesus Christ? Halloween may now seem trivial, but the earliest Christians, because of what Jesus and the apostles taught, would not accept pagan worship customs. And every aspect of Halloween is rooted in paganism. There’s no connection to true Christianity because those who followed the Way left paganism. Today’s Halloween would be absolutely intolerable to them.

So how can Christians today tolerate bringing paganism back into the Way? The truth is that the most cherished holidays, Easter and Christmas, though given a biblical veneer, are also rooted in paganism. Jesus wasn’t born in December. The date of celebrating His birth is based more on the ancient Roman Saturnalia and winter solstice than the Gospels. Many Christian traditions like the Christmas tree, Easter eggs and bunnies come from pagan customs. The name Easter comes from an Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring. Christians who followed the Way rejected those kinds of customs in the worship of God. By accepting these customs, Christianity is guilty of returning to the practices the original Christians rejected.

True Christian worship and paganism don’t mix

Now let’s go back to the story in Ephesians. How did the message of the new Christian way, amplified by those burning their books, impact Ephesian society? How was the world turned upside down? Well, it was pretty dramatic, affecting an entire industry dedicated to making statues of the city’s patron goddess.

Note what happened, continuing in Acts 19: “And about that time there arose a great commotion about the Way. For a certain man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Diana [Artemis in Greek], brought no small profit to the craftsmen. He called them together with the workers of similar occupation, and said, ‘Men, you know that we have our prosperity by this trade. Moreover, you see and hear that not only at Ephesus, but throughout almost all Asia [western Turkey], this Paul has persuaded and turned away many people, saying that they are not gods which are made with hands. So not only is this trade of ours in danger of falling into disrepute, but also the temple of the great goddess Diana may be despised and her magnificence destroyed, whom all Asia and the world worship’” (verses 23-27). Paul’s success at turning people from their worship of this pagan goddess was cutting into their own livelihoods and the city’s economy!

“When they had heard this, they were full of wrath and cried out, saying, ‘Great is Diana of the Ephesians!’ So the whole city was filled with confusion, and rushed to the theater with one accord” (verses 28-29). Many thousands were worked into a frenzy. City officials eventually did get control of the crowd before it turned into a riotous mob trying to kill all the Christians. It’s hard to imagine the impact this small group of people had in turning their world upside down simply because they told others about the Way.

Most Christians today don’t grasp the modern relevance of the conflict here. Consider that the foundation of the Christian Church, accepting Jesus as the promised Messiah or Christ, rested on its dedication to Scripture—which was then what is commonly known as the Old Testament—including its outright rejection of paganism. Here we are, almost 2,000 years since the book burning and riot in Ephesus, and where is the faithfulness and dedication of those ancient people today?

The message of those now purported to be the Church, the followers of the Way, has become what? Clouded, confused, fundamentally changed. The enthusiastic rejection of paganism has been replaced with a comfortable compromise with paganism. Why do Christians pretend that a jolly old man in a red suit drops down chimneys to leave toys to good children on Christmas Eve? Why do they pretend that rabbits lay brightly colored eggs?

Remember what I said earlier, that for the first Christians there were only two kinds of religion—belief in the God of the Hebrew Scriptures and every other religion, considered idolatry and demonic. While Judaism rejected Christians over their acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah, early Christian rejection of paganism remained just as vehement as in the Jewish community.

In a letter to the church in the Greek city of Corinth, Paul addressed certain compromise with pagan ceremony, noting that while idols of wood and stone are powerless of themselves (see 1 Corinthians 10:18-19), they are part of a darker reality: “Rather, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice they sacrifice to demons and not to God, and I do not want you to have fellowship with demons” (verse 20). Think about that.

In referencing the bread and wine symbolizing Christ’s sacrifice at Passover, he continues: “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the Lord’s table and the table of demons” (verses 21-22). Thus, you cannot mix the Christian Passover with pagan Easter—or any pagan worship practice. Those who followed the Way knew that there was a power in paganism. They understood the reality that Satan and his demons are fallen angels bent on wrecking God’s creation and keeping people from following the Way. You see, paganism isn’t just another way to the true God. It is a counterfeit spiritual belief system promoted by the devil to lead people away from the true God!

Proceeding in the Way

Now you can understand why the Ephesians burned their books and why the silver craftsmen didn’t want them around and sought to drive them out. If Christmas, Easter and Halloween are derived from paganism, are there any special days Christians should observe in their worship of God and Christ? This is another step in discovering the true Way.

It starts with the weekly Sabbath, not Sunday. And there is a yearly biblical Christian calendar that has nothing to do with paganism. This calendar includes: the Passover, a memorial service of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ; the Feast of Unleavened Bread, a time to celebrate the work of Christ in leading us from sin to salvation; Pentecost, the day the Holy Spirit was given to the Church (see Acts 2); the Feast of Trumpets, a day to celebrate the future hope of Christ’s return; the Day of Atonement, a time to be reconciled to God without the influences of the devil; and the Feast of Tabernacles and final Eighth Day, a time to celebrate the future rule of God’s Kingdom, with the opportunity for salvation extended to all.

These biblical celebrations reveal the authentic gospel, God’s plan to draw wayward humanity back to Him so we can become His children.

In closing, here are three lessons to ponder from the Christian experience in Ephesus. First, Paul and the Ephesians didn’t teach many ways, but one way. The popular idea that all religions lead to the same God is a false gospel. Second, Jesus as the Son of God is central to the Way. He declared, “I am the Way” (John 14:6). He defines what it means to follow Him, and that includes obeying the Scriptures. And third, the earliest Christians rejected any form of paganism in their worship of the true God. They didn’t go out and try to force conversion on people, but they shared their message loud and clear. It’s the same message presented here in Beyond Today.

Are you ready to live according to the Way?

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