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 8th October 2000

1 COR 15:30-34

The Olympics closed with the judgment that they were the best Olympics ever in history. Certainly they were the most expensive, involving athletes from the most countries (200), with the greatest crowds and most spectacular opening and closing ceremonies. After such, how is poor, old Athens going to rate?

It is of interest to ask why were the original Olympic games closed down after more than 1000 years of regular activity? Michael Jeffreys, Professor of Modern Greek at the University of New South Wales, states the reasons included the rise of professionalism among athletes who were traditionally amateur. Also the rising strength of Christianity by the fourth century rejected the religious ceremonies and the traditional worship of Zeus. We saw with the Greek Priestesses from Athens at Sydney 2000 Closing Ceremony.

But a further reason, was the Games became increasingly violent. The crowds wanted more and more violence. When the Games were held in Syrian Antioch, there were events that resulted in fighting against lions, gladiators killing each other, and people being torn apart by wild beasts. This kind of Roman violent excess was certainly seen in the Colosseum when people fought wild beasts and each other for the amusement of the crowd. Nothing was as brutal as the glatiatorial games of ancient Rome. These games, which consisted of fights to the death between humans, animals, or both, were the highlight of Roman entertainment. Bloody, barbaric violence is not considered part of a civilized society. Why do we consider the Romans as a great, ancient civilization? 

Violence is often seen as a game. Children play electronic games in which characters representing humans are demolished, destroyed and obliterated. Cartoons on televisions are incredibly violent. Every child before leaving school has witnessed thousands of deaths on the screen. No wonder some mentally sick school children in America with access to guns have gone to school and obliterated their class mates.

Why do we accept death as a form of entertainment? Why did people consider death entertainment? It is hard to imagine people flocking to huge stadiums to cheer on gladiatorial games. How could people possibly view death as entertainment? No society is far from becoming barbaric. Society forces people to suppress evil desires and behave themselves. If the rules go, people revert to savagery. This theory is explored in the novel "Lord of the Flies". Here, young boys are abandoned on a deserted island. Without adults to guide them toward civilized behaviour, the boys revert to killing each other and wild beasts for fun. This theory of instinctual savagery may help explain why Romans were so interested in the gladiatorial games. Violence has been a public spectacle for centuries. From public stoning, hanging, and burning of criminals to violence on TV, society has always had a lust for blood. Blood and death is seen on TV and in the movies all the time. Are people today, like the Romans, just becoming more acceptable of death by violence? Is it a co-incidence Russell Crowe's popular movie is called "The Gladiators"?

Politicians gave people "bread and circuses". Politicians encouraged the games because the games kept the citizens happy. At the point of real decline of the Roman Empire, the citizens enjoyed 177 days of contests per year. The government knew they must keep the masses happy, and gladiatorial games served this purpose. A ready supply of people to be killed by gladiators or wild beasts were at hand among rapists, criminals, weak warriors, slaves, the disabled and Christians. Thousands of humans and beasts were dedicated to the games. They provided almost endless entertainment for the people of Rome. Tacitus the Roman historian wrote one night after returning from the Colosseum, having watched Christians being put to death: "And besides being put to death they were made the object of amusement; they were clad in the hides of beasts and torn apart by savage dogs, others were crucified, and others were set on fire to illuminate the night when daylight failed!" 

Paul argues that when we watch with approval, even though we are not personally involved, we are just as bad as the cruel people who do such things. Romans 1:32 "Although they know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them." We reach the depth of depravity when we applaud those who give themselves to such sin. To delight in those who do evil is to become even more degraded than the sinners one observes. This I call The Colosseum syndrome. Many say they could never do such things. But like the crowds in the Colosseum, they applaud the depraved activities in the movies or on television.

They never commit the deeds, but they "approve of those who practice them." In our media-captivated society, millions sit in living rooms watching debauchery, violence, deceit and other vices and applaud what they see! It matters little whether the vices are real or acted, the effect is the same - an increasingly depraved spectator mind. Approving or encouraging another's sin is a sign your mind has reached a low level.

Paul went to Ephesus, which became his base for three years. Acts 19 We know how badly he was treated. He was beaten by the crowd in the theatre at Ephesus, barely escaping with his life. Friends rescued him from a riot against Christians. But he refers in his letters to fighting wild beasts at Ephesus. He barely mentions his own travails, but uses this event to give evidence for the reality of the resurrection of Jesus. 1 COR 15: 32 30 "And as for us, why do we endanger ourselves every hour? I die every day--I mean that, brothers--just as surely as I glory over you in Christ Jesus our Lord. If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus for merely human reasons, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised, "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die." Paul argues that if the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is not true, then suffering and hardship for the sake of Christ are useless. By "endangering ourselves every hour," Paul alludes to the perils in his ministry in Ephesus where he was when he wrote 1 Corinthians. He was in danger of death every day. v31 Paul's reference to fighting with wild beasts in Ephesus v32 may be taken literally or figuratively. That is, he was attacked by ferocious people who acted like wild beasts. Or it may be literal: he fought in the arena against wild beasts.

One occasion, Paul sent greetings to two of his fellow workers at that time in Ephesus: Rom 16:3-4 "Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus. They risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them." Where and when they risked their lives for Paul, we do not know. It was possibly during the persecution in Ephesus where Paul was imprisoned, while they were leading the church there. 1 Cor. 16:19; 2 Tim 4:19 Paul expresses his thanks to them for what they did. This is the only place in the New Testament where the verb "to thank" has a human who is thanked! He adds that "all the churches of the Gentiles" share his feelings, so what they did was widely known. Paul said he was in great danger in Ephesus. 1 Cor. 15:32; Acts 19-23, 30-31 

On one visit to Ephesus, I crawled on hands and knees round the edge of the stage of the great theatre which seated 24,000. It was here Paul was mobbed by people intent on killing him. At the edge of the stage I found square, deep-set holes, the object of my search. Those square holes once held iron railings to protect spectators during gladiatorial fights featuring wild animals, lions, tigers and bears. Paul wrote "If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus for merely human reasons, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised, "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die." Maybe Priscilla and Aquila protected him from an arena death against the wild beasts arguing that it was not right for a Roman citizen to be treated that way. That argument had won the day for him before in Philippi.

Jesus demonstrated a new way of compassion towards the weak and sick, the disabled and disadvantaged. He brought a care and concern for people. He touched the leper. Helped the blind and lame. Defended the widow and orphan. He was the most caring of people. He taught we must not be violent and vicious. He taught we should do to other people only what we would want them do to us. He taught that the foreigner who stops and binds up the wounds of an injured man and takes him to a place where he will find care, pays for that treatment and returns and visits him, is more righteous than any citizen, priest or legalist who just watches and passes by on the other side. He confronted cruel men who were about to stone an adulteress to death. He demanded only sinless people have a right to condemn others. He admonished the woman to stop her sinful ways and to go on her way. 

Yet this Prince of Peace died the most violent of deaths. He died in the place of other people who deserved death because they had sinned. He died because humanity's violence cannot stand the loving care of God who can change and redeem us. He suffered that we may not suffer. All of us have sinned and deserve death, but at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Paul understood this and wrote Rom 5:7-8 "Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." Yet by strange irony, this loving self-sacrifice for others is more powerful than the most violent of acts. The sacrifice of self is more powerful than any violence to others. 

Like their Master, early Christians sought the abolition of gladiatorial contests and all acts of violence as entertainment and won. When you visit the Colosseum in Rome today, there is a huge old cross in the centre of the arena where thousands of people died for their faith. That goes back to 391AD when there was a terrible gladiatorial fight under way. Men were drafted into killing each other for the pleasure of the crowd. While the gladiators fought, an old man in the crowd stood up and appealed for the gladiators to cease fighting each other. The crowds laughed at the old man as he made his way down to the arena floor. 

Then old Telemachus held up his arms and shouted: "In the name of Christ, stop." The crowd booed. He entered the arena and stood between the gladiators. Then one huge gladiator swung a great sword and severed the old man's head. As his blood spilled upon the arena, some of the crowd got up and left. Then more. The trickle of people became a torrent as the Colosseum emptied. Never again in the Roman Empire were gladiatorial combats fought. A wicked practice ended because of the power of a Christian fully committed to Christ. Today, at the foot of that cross is a message "In the spirit of this cross lies the hope of the world." 

When you look at the Cross of Jesus you realise that human methods of violence and revenge never ultimately work. But through the sacrifice of Christ for the sins of each one of us, there is hope. It is still true, that "In the spirit of this cross lies the hope of the world."


Rev Dr Gordon Moyes

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