St. Paul was often in trouble with local authorities when he preached the Gospel. One of the worst incidents came in Ephesus.
The Acts of the Apostles does not say exactly what Paul was preaching in Ephesus. But from what he said in his writings and in his preaching, it's pretty clear that Paul was preaching against idolatry.
The silversmiths in Ephesus rioted when one of their leaders, Demetrius, told them "this man Paul has persuaded and converted a great number of people with his argument that gods made by hand are not gods at all" (Acts 19:26).
The silversmiths were no doubt pious pagans. They also were dependent on the sale of their silver gods for their own livelihood. Indeed, Ephesus was such a central place in pagan religiosity that the sale of idols was crucial to its prosperity.
Once the riot was over, Paul prudently left town.
Earlier, Paul had visited Athens, where "his whole soul was revolted at the sight of a city given over to idolatry" (Acts 17:16). Indeed, one of the most common themes in his writing is his revulsion at idolatry and the degenerate effects it has on those who worship idols.
James Dunn, perhaps the leading scholar of Paul in our day, notes that Paul does not outline any theology of God in his writings. The word "God" appears 548 times in Paul's writings, but he does not bother to say much in a direct way about what he believes God to be. One can only assume that this is because Paul and the people to whom he is writing shared a common belief in God.
Paul's God is the one God of Jewish monotheism, the lord and creator of all that is, the God who loves us passionately. From the incidents at Ephesus and Athens noted above, he clearly felt compelled to talk about this God in his preaching to the pagans.
But when he wrote to the Christian communities, he did not need to convert them to belief in one God. Paul congratulated the Thessalonians, for example, for having "turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God" (1 Thessalonians 1:9). Rather than preaching against paganism, St. Paul constantly challenged the Gentile Christian communities to overcome any vestiges of idolatry that remained.
On this point, the most interesting discussion comes near the beginning of Paul's letter to the Romans. There is no excuse, he says, for not believing in one God: "Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made" (1:20).
But the pagans failed to honour and give thanks to God. "Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal men or birds or animals or reptiles" (1:22-23).
This painting of St. Paul preaching in Athens is on the ceiling of St. Paul's Basilica in Toronto.
Belief in false gods is not simply wrong belief; it is inextricably tied up with depraved living. This is a key aspect in understanding St. Paul. He is not only advocating a reformed Judaism – one that accepts Jesus as the Messiah – but is also calling for a renewed humanity, one in which the dignity of the human person is honoured and made more evident.
So not only do the pagans believe wrongly, but "They were filled with all manner of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless" (1:29-31).
That pretty well says it all. Not only are pagans murderers, they are gossips too.
Paul does not stop there however. Having made clear what happens when a people do not accept the God of the Hebrews, he turns his attention to the Jewish people and says they too are guilty of idolatry. "In passing judgment upon (another), you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things" (2:1).
The Jews too are under the power of sin. Why? Because many of them want to limit the power of God by saying he is God of only the Jews and not the Gentiles as well. It is by faith in Jesus that one is saved, not by adherence to the Mosaic Law.
Whenever Paul arrived in a new city to preach the Gospel, he went first to the synagogue. Invariably, he was thrown out. It's not hard to understand why. Although he preached the one God of the Hebrews, he charged the Jewish people with the same sin they saw in the pagans - lack of respect for the authority of that one God. He accused them of the gravest of all sins unless they would have faith in Jesus.
Today, we have the audacity to believe that we live in a more enlightened age. Too often, we believe that we do not need God. Religion is a myth for the weak and the nave. Freed from such illusion, men and women can now stand on their own two feet.
However, the real illusion is the belief that we can and ought to live without God. This is not the liberation, but the diminution of humanity. Without making the one, loving God the centre of every moment of our lives, we fall into all of the sins Paul enumerated among the pagans.
The Gospel properly preached to challenge the idols of our day will bring the same angry response from the idolaters that Paul faced from the silversmiths of Ephesus.