[Partly revised, March 23, 2017]



    Henry Clay was one of the greatest of American statesman.  He is often know as the great compromiser, the man who, more than any other, worked to reconcile the opposing factions in America prior to the civil war.  Yet compromiser though he was, Clay was also a man of principle.  When warned that his stand on a particular issue would cost him his chance at the presidency, he said, "I would rather be right than president."  At first, we might think this a rather odd sentiment.  The -average politician today seems to prefer prestige and power to being right.  And yet for many people, maybe even most people, the need to be right is every bit as deep and even deeper than the need for prestige and power.  By this I don't mean simply need to have correct opinions--need to have approval of our own conscience, to be confident that the way we are living our lives truly is right.

    And yet it's not so easy--whenever we try to be right, try to live our lives as we should, we end up blowing it.  Ovid, one of the greatest Roman poets, "I see the right, and approve it too--I condemn the wrong, and yet the wrong pursue."   One of the ironies of the Roman world is that, although morality had in many ways collapsed and society had become completely decadent, Roman people in the midst of this were constantly searching for something that would make them feel right--overcome the sense of guilt and shame that they were not living their lives as they ought.

    This is one of the reasons that Christianity had a chance to succeed in the Roman world.  The Romans were looking--not necessarily for Christianity--but looking for something, looking especially for something that could help them be right and feel right.

    This led to the rise (or rather the increasing popularity) of what are called the "mystery cults."   Understanding these cults is difficult: to reveal secrets meant the death penalty, a penalty rigidly enforced.  Because of this, the secrets, for the most part were kept secrets, and, even today, scholars are unable to speak with confidence about the specific practices and beliefs of even the most important of these mystery cults. Still, what little we do know is helpful in understanding the Roman world at the time of Christ, and often surprisingly helpful in explaining some of the difficult passages of the New Testament.  Particularly this is true in the case of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.

    The mystery cults centered on a dying and rising god or goddess. The Eleusinian mysteries celebrated the goddess Demeter.  The Dionysian mysteries celebrated Dionysius, as did the Orphic mysteries. The mysteries drew on the basic stories of these figures and on pagan mythology in general.

    Pagan belief and teaching was very different from most of our contemporary religions. Pagan belief was not clear/consistent/coherent set of doctrines and practices we associate with religion today, and no one really expected it to be.  There was no authority like the Bible.  Various versions of the myths--and actually this was a good thing for something that is meant to be mysterious and hard to fathom.  Nevertheless, the versions you have heard of this myths are close enough, thought the high school retellings often leave out key elements.  

    The pagan idea was that all things began with some sort of primordial Chaos. Emerging from this Chaos, Gaia, the mother goddess and Ouranos, the father god.  Or, perhaps, it’s Chronos that’s the father god.  Or maybe Chronos is the son of Ouranos and Gaia: the myths are simply not consistent.  But they have in common the idea of intense rivalry and conflict among the pre-Olympian gods.  The  Cyclopes, Hundred-handers, Titans battle it out with each other, with their father and mother, and, eventually, with the Olympians.  Zeus eventually emerges as the chief of gods, but the rivalries and jealousies continue, aggravated in part by Zeus promiscuity.  Zeus fathers Dionysius on Persephone. The Titans kill Dionysius and feast on his body.  Zeus destroys the Titans with his thunderbolt, saves the heart of Dionysius, which he later uses to impregnate Semele.  The pregnant Semele is destroyed when she is tricked into asking to see Zeus in his glory, but Zeus once again saves Dionysius, by taking the foetus, slicing open his thigh and putting Dionysius inside to incubate until he can be born again—Dionysius, then, is twice born. From the ashes of the Titans and the parts of Dionysius body burned with them, Zeus creates Man.  We are created from a mixture of the Titans and Dionysius: body and soul, good and evil.

    The great goal of the mystery cults was to free soul from body.  Death alone was not enough to do this: one’s soul was constantly reborn in a new body. The trick, then, was to find a final escape from our bondage to the material world.  Just as Gnosticism promised its followers escape from the prison of the body, so did each of the various mystery cults.

    The Mysteries very hard to pin down.  Only initiaties could learn secrets.  But the essence of the mysteries a kind of conversion experience that took place in several stages.  

1.    Initial purification
2.    Mystic communion/communication that involved learning a sacred story (Dionysius, Demeter, Orpheus)
3.    Sight of holy objects
4.    Participating in certain rituals--everything from castration to temple prostitution--tearing animals apart with hands.  
5.    Crowning with garlands of initiate and a welcome to an exclusive community
6.    An experience of happiness and enlightenment as a result of communion with god
7.    Assurance of an after-life of bliss reserved only for initiates.

    Keeping these general things in mind is very helpful in understanding certain aspects of what Paul is doing in the book of Ephesians.  

    Ephesus was one of the great cities of Mediterranean world, a prosperous trading center in what is today Turkey.  Ephesus was prosperous also because it was a center of religious pilgrimage (Image that fell from heaven: virgin goddess equivalent to Greek Artemis/Roman Diana--following Bible, we call her Diana of the Ephesians. Notice that this was intently religious city--maybe why Christianity did so well there.

    But there were some problems for the church in Ephesus as well. Demetrius the silversmith stirred up an anti-Christian mob who, in their enthusiasm, spent hours calling out "great is Diana of Ephesians."  

    But more of a problem, the tendency of pagan religion to religion to eclecticism. To be an initiate in the  Eleusinian mysteries was good.  To have an additional initiation into the Dionysian mysteries better.  And to be initiated in to the Orphic mysteries also,  better still.  Many in Ephesus probably liked Christianity--but wanted to add it to everything else- as an extra insurance policy.

    What Paul does in Ephesians is present Christianity as the mystery religion par excellence--the greatest of all mystery religions.  But he is doing this sort of tongue in cheek.  

Want secrets?  You’ve got the mystery of God’s will, the mystery of the gentiles included in the kingdom of God, etc., the mystery of the unsearchable riches of God  (Eph. 1:9)

Want a sacred story?  You’ve got the Gospel (Ephesians 1:13)

Want to become part of an elect group? Well, there’s the church (Eph. 2:4-6, 2:19-22)  

Want a purifying ritual?  You got the purification of the blood of Christ  (Eph. 2:13-16)

Want happiness and enlightenment?  You’ve got the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13-19)

Want victory over death and assurance of eternal life?  You’ve got it.(Ephesians 2:1-6)  

    But, as I say, Paul is doing this all tongue in cheek: Christianity is no mystery religion, there’s no secretiveness about it.  And Paul and those writing with him almost certainly were amused no end as the pointed to the advantages of Christianity over the mystery religions even in those things the mystery religions most emphasized.  Paul’s message: this is the only mystery you need understand.  (Cf. Chapter 3).

    Now notice that what is said in these chapters goes a long way toward making one feel right, and they are some of most encouraging chapters in Bible in this regard.  But the next step is -to be right, i.e. to do those things that are right and pleasing to God.  This is what second half of Ephesians is all about (4:1, "I therefore the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vacation wherewith ye are called").

    There's lots of advice here about relationships with other people.  I single out in class particulary Paul's advice on marriage in Ephesians 5. Paul tells women to be “subject” to their husbands, and he tells husbands to love their wives as much as Christ loved the church.  The word “subject” is (in Greek)”upotasso.”  It is, in some ways, best understood as a military term.  “Tasso” is the word we get tactics from.  Women are being told to treat their husband like Roman soldiers treated their commanders.  What does this mean?  Well, Roman soldiers loved their commanders, each unit bragging that its commander was the best.  And this is the kind of thing that men want out of marriage: a wife who is proud of her husband, who praises him and supports him.  And as to women, what they want out of marriage is the reassurance that they are loved.  If a man assures his wife that she is loved, and a woman supports her husband as a really great guy—well, 90% of the time, that marriage is going exactly in the right direction.

    Paul's advice is helpful because, so often he goes to the root causes of problems rather than just focusing on  externals.  Note the commands to parents, children, husbands, wives, servants, lords, etc.  Also key, I think, is the overall attitude.

    One key passage, the command to take on the "whole armor' of God.  The Greek world here is "panoply" from "pan" (all) and "hopla" (weapons).  This armour includes the helmet of salvation, breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, and the sword of the spirit.  Here, I think, is a great psychology for feeling one is on the right track--and, just maybe, if you do these things, you are on the right track.


"All the world's a stage," says Shakepeare, and all of us play many parts.  But what kind of part do you want to play?  Richard III says, because he can't play the lover, he'd just as soon be the villain.  But most of us would prefer to be the hero, or at least on the right side.  We want to think of ourselves as good people...and playing a positive role in the lives of others. 

But, depite our good intentions, we tend to feel like we've come up short.  And that's a terrible feeling: to feel one has failed at school, or failed on the job, failed in marriage, or failed to raise our children in the right way.

But, especially, we don't like the feeling that we've failed at the big one, at life itself: the feeling you've flunked the whole course.

And we do fail.  We come up short.  And we try again. But then we fail again.

How does one break such a cycle?  That's, to a certain extent, what I Peter is about.

Peter himself could identify with the cycle of failure and success.  He's the man who affirmed his faith in Christ and was told he was a rock on which the church would be built.  But then, all of a sudden, he's told he's speaking with the voice of Satan!  He says he'll go with Jesus to death--and then denies three times that he even knows who Jesus is.

But somehow Peter broke through that cycle--and he's sort of the SI leader for anyone else who wants to do well on that big exam.   For Peter, and for the church, that big exam is on the way.  Peter is in Rome just as Nero's attack on the Christians is about to begin.  He's writing to churches in Asia minor that are going to go through the same test.

So, what's his study advice?

1.  Keep your eyes on the prize. 
2.  Be obedient children
3.  Realize that this world passes away
4.  Focus on God's word
5.  Stay on the foundation
6.  Don't give those who oppose gospel legitimate reason to complain of you

Notice the strategy has for servants who might find themselves mistreated by masters.  Also, note his advice to wives..and to husbands.  To the latter, especially good advice: treat your wife like a fragile, but precious "vessel."

Perhaps most important, be ready to suffer "in the flesh"--God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.


James is another great SI leader.  James was the half brother/step brother of Jesus.  Must have been tough.  Having a high-achieving sibling isn't easy--and, for James, the standard he has to live up to is Jesus!  But James, although not initially even a follower of Jesus, ended up doing pretty well.  He was acknowledged as the head of the church in Jerusalem--and earned the nickname "James the Just."

So, what advice does James have for us?

1.  View life as a test.
2.  Seek wisdom from God, but make sure you are wiloling to obey
3. Desire to do the right thing (Every good gift comes from God!)
4.  Control the tongue.
5.  Have the right attitude toward wealth
6.  Seek for the right kind of things