Sharing the Gospel of God – Bible based answers to life’s greatest questions
As Paul neared the end of his long stay at Ephesus and anticipated the completion of his third missionary journey he ‘purposed in the Spirit, when he had passed through Macedonia and Achaia, to go to Jerusalem, saying, “After I have been there, I must also see Rome”’ Acts 19:21. Jerusalem was home to Paul for in that capital of the Jewish world he had been ‘educated at the feet’ of a famous Rabbi called ‘Gamaliel’ (Acts 22:3; 5:34). As for Rome, Paul had never yet visited the imperial city even though himself a Roman citizen. So, after leaving Ephesus he came to Macedonia and eventually to Greece in A.D. 57 where he spent three months according to Acts 20:1-2. It was during this time that he wrote from the city of Corinth his longest and greatest epistle to the saints at Rome in which he informed them of his intended visit.
LIFE IN ANCIENT ROME
The mention of ancient Rome invokes the mind to think of the power and glory of that historic city and the vast empire over which it ruled. Rome grew from ‘a small Italian market town by a ford on the river Tiber,’ to be the metropolis of the ancient world as her empire stretched from west to east across the Mediterranean. Unequalled in her brutality and lust for power she conquered while her structure of government, administrative prowess and legal system along with her military might made her ‘the greatest empire the world has ever seen.’ The maxim: ‘All roads lead to Rome’ was true
for with their engineering skills the Romans built them. Their social, political and moral values still influence society to this day for as the author, Antony Everitt says in the Preface to his book The Rise of Rome: ‘We live in the world they made.’
The transitional struggle from Republic to Empire was finally decided with the battle of Actium - 31 B.C. when Octavian, the adopted son of Julius Caesar, defeated Marc Antony along with Cleopatra to become ‘Imperator (im-p-rä-tr) Augustus Caesar.’ Already a cosmopolitan city and the centre of culture, trade and industry by the middle of the second century B.C., Rome continued to expand so that by the first century A.D. it had ‘a population of about one million.’ People came to the ‘eternal city’ from all across the empire and beyond its borders and by the time of Paul’s epistle the emperor was the eccentric, extravagant and evil Nero (54 - 68 A.D.).
Roman society was separated by class. Divided along economic lines there was ‘an enormous gap’ between the upper and lower classes. For the upper classes it was, according to law, the privilege of birth and the possession of wealth that determined their status and right at the top of the class structure were the ruling elite, ‘the Senatorial Order.’ The vast majority of the population, both in Rome itself and across the empire, were found among the lower classes. The ‘owners of small farms and businesses’ formed the top division of the lower classes and were relatively well off compared to those below them. Interestingly, in Rome the homes of the rich and poor were not segregated into separate neighbourhoods. Rather, the overcrowded tenement dwellings and slums of the poor were found amid the homes of the wealthy and important. And of course, danger, corruption and hardship, according to the Roman Satirical poet - Juvenal in his third Satire, were part of daily life for multitudes of people in Rome.
Everywhere in first century Rome there were the reminders of the Roman pantheon, the shrines and temples to the gods they worshipped. Participation in religious ritual was a way of life for Romans and its practice, they believed, formed a legal contract with the gods assuring a person of their peace. A distinct group within the city were the Jews. They had a population of around 40,000 in first century Rome. There numbers had been greatly increased in 63 B.C. when the Roman General and Statesman Pompey brought back with him from Judea many Jews as slaves. Their presence in the city was not always without problems and it was somewhere around A.D. 49 that the emperor ‘Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome’ according to Acts 18:1-2 (ESV).
It was, however, most likely that through the Jewish population the gospel reached Rome and took root in the city. Acts 2:10 records how there were ‘visitors from Rome’ in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost when the Spirit descended and Peter preached his first sermon. Perhaps it was they who returned to Rome with the truth of the gospel in their hearts and its message on their lips in those early days of Christian witness.
Most Jews and Christians, it seems, lived in the region across the Tiber from the central part of Rome which was apparently a low rent district noted for its ‘insulae’ [in-su-lay] which is Latin for ‘islands’ and refers to tenement housing or city apartment blocks. These buildings housed most of the lower class urban population in ancient Rome and were up to six or seven stories in height with the higher apartments being the smallest, cheapest and most basic whereas the larger, more expensive and well ‘to do’ apartments would have been on the bottom floors. Aquila and Pricilla, who were in the trade of tent making according to Acts 18:3, evidently had in Rome a home large enough to accommodate church or assembly meetings as Rom 16:5 indicates. Perhaps they ran their business from the ground floor shop of an ‘insula’ with spacious living quarters above.
Finally, it would appear, based on the identity of those greeted by Paul in chap 16, that the majority of the believers in Rome were from a Gentile background being either slaves or of slave origin. The makeup of the Christian community in Rome has often been discussed, particularly as to whether it was predominantly Jewish or Gentile. While such a discussion is relevant to the study of this epistle the important thing is, that whether Jew or Gentile, slave or free they were all ‘the called of Jesus Christ’ (1:6) and they all shared the same status before God. Thus, Paul opens his epistle with this greeting: ‘To all that be in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ’ (1:7).
THE REASONS WHY PAUL WROTE ROMANS
To the reader it is evident that there are a number of reasons why Paul wrote this epistle. In the introductory section (1:8-15) Paul gives his first reason for writing. He wants to inform the believers of his purposed visit. He had often desired to be with them (1:13) and now in ‘the will of God’ he hoped to finally fulfil that desire (1:10). Particularly, he longed to see them in order to spiritually bless and strengthen them as well as derive personal encouragement from them (1:11) and he wanted to have a fruitful season of gospel ministry at Rome, the capital of the empire and the heart of the Gentile world (1:13).
Then, in the concluding part of the epistle, he takes the opportunity to add further detail concerning his purposed visit by informing the saints of his travel plans (15:22-23). Having completed his pioneer gospel work in the east which had prevented him from visiting Rome sooner (15:22), he would travel to Jerusalem with the collection for the poor saints there (15:25-26) after which, and when on his way to Spain, he would stop off at Rome to enjoy their company and experience their help in his onward travels (15:24, 28). We know, of course, from Paul’s subsequent history that these plans didn’t work out for him.
Clearly though, these two reasons, are not the sum of why Paul wrote this epistle. Obviously he wanted to inform them of far more than his visit and travel plans. The body of his epistle tells us that his primary purpose was to expound in writing to the saints in Rome the essential truths of the gospel of God. There is no question that the gospel of God is the epistle’s focus and while Paul intended to come unto them ‘in the fullness of the blessing of the gospel of Christ’ (15:29) he evidently thought it prudent being, no doubt, guided by the Holy Spirit to expound in detail what the gospel is all about in order to develop the believers in knowledge and understanding before he himself arrived to teach and preach. The development of their knowledge and understanding of the gospel was not only vital for a solid foundation to faith and the assurance of salvation it also governed life and relationships. Therefore, the matters Paul deals with in the final section of the epistle (12:1-15:13) suggest that there were some practical issues needing to be addressed among the Roman saints of which Paul had personal knowledge and, while all that Paul states in these chapters is of equal importance, perhaps two matters were of primary concern having to do with both external and internal relationships. One was about their subjection to the governing authorities (13:1-10) and the other dealing with relationships between strong and weak believers which probably had to do with differences between those from Jewish and Gentile backgrounds (14:1-15:13). These were very important practical matters relevant to the gospel and they would only be rectified by understanding its teaching.
These above reasons then focus on why Paul wrote particularly to the Romans, but was there perhaps a bigger influence and a broader motivation behind what he wrote that was not only relevant to the believers in Rome but necessary for all believers across the empire and beyond? I think the answer to that question is yes.
Ever since Paul took his first missionary journey with Barnabas and John Mark, his footsteps had been dogged, and his ministry opposed by Jews, who, says Paul in his letter to the Thessalonians: ‘killed both the Lord Jesus and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they do not please God and are contrary to all men, forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they may be saved’ (1 Thess 2:14-16). After he and Barnabas returned to Antioch from their first missionary journey Jews arrived from Judea saying: “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). Paul and Barnabas strongly opposed these men (Acts 15:2). Then the ‘Jerusalem conference’ considered this matter and sent its decision to the Gentile brothers and sisters in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia of disassociation with the Judizers, commendation of genuine brethren and prohibition concerning four particular things relevant to Gentiles (Acts 15:23-29). Paul also wrote against the Judizers and their influence in the strongest of terms in his epistle to the Galatians (Gal 1:6-10) and exposed them in his second letter to the Corinthians (2 Cor 11:12-33), written not long before he arrived there himself in A.D. 57. Soon he would be in Jerusalem well aware of the problems he would face from the many thousands of Jews which claimed to believe the gospel yet were still zealous for the law (Acts 21:20). Therefore, with the Jewish opposition to Paul increasing rather than diminishing and a suitable period being afforded to him the time had come to definitively, comprehensively and absolutely state the universal truth and application of the gospel of God, while showing the reason for, and implications of Israel’s failure to believe it. Moreover, the wider impact and the lasting legacy of Paul’s epistle is that it established for all time and for all saints in all places the absolute ‘benchmark’ of gospel theology. The divine design and wisdom of this becomes apparent as we read church history and look at the state of professing Christianity today.
These various reasons then ‘intersected’ in Paul’s ministry and his stay at Corinth afforded him the opportunity to write to the saints in Rome. Also, at the commencement of the closing part of his epistle - 15:14-16, Paul informs them that while he was ‘fully convinced about’ their goodness, knowledge and ability to ‘instruct one another’ he did feel the need to write ‘boldly’ on ‘some points so as to remind’ them of the truth of the gospel ‘because of the grace given to’ him ‘by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles’ (NET). And while Christianity had flourished in Rome without an apostolic presence Paul wrote with the authority of the ‘apostle to the Gentiles’ (11:13) and in so doing confirmed and established in their hearts the indisputable foundations of their faith and the faith of all God’s saints.
A SIMPLE ANALYSIS OF THE LETTER
Finally, the theme of this epistle is, as already stated, the gospel of God (1:1) which communicates how righteousness from God is revealed through Jesus Christ. Paul demonstrates how sinners can be justified freely by God because of the Cross and His grace (1:17; 3:21-22, 24). He takes for his text the OT statement spoken by God to the prophet Habakkuk – ‘the just shall live by faith’ (Hab. 2:4; Rom 1:17) and expounds its meaning by explaining both how a person is justified and how a justified person lives. Paul having clearly stated his theme and focus in the introduction of his letter - chap. 1:1-17 then proves in chaps. 1:18-4:25 the need for the gospel. All are sinners under condemnation and only by justification by faith apart from the works of the law can acceptance with God be known. In chaps. 5:1-8:39 he deals with freedom through the gospel. By the abundant grace of God the justified are freed from sin’s power to serve God and live life in the power of the Holy Spirit. Chaps. 9:1-11:36 are about Israel and the gospel. Their past election, their present situation and their future salvation. Chaps. 12:1-15:13 are concerned with living out the gospel. Lives dedicated to God and submitted to the Lordship of Christ are the response to the ‘mercies of God.’ Finally, chaps. 15:14-16:27 it is the work of the gospel. Paul writes of his plans, sends greetings and warns against those who ‘cause divisions and offences’ (16:17).
In conclusion I can do no better than quote James Stifler who in his commentary on Romans writes:
The whole epistle is marked by a sustained elevation of thought and sentiment. This universalism and eloquence befit an epistle to the
world’s capital – an epistle that deals with the world’s destiny through its two divisions of men, Jew and Gentile. In its style the epistle is
marked by great energy, but not with vehemence. It is the resistless flow of a broad, deep river, noiseless, but ever onward … The epistle
is the masterpiece of the apostle, in which the gospel in its strictest sense is methodically unfolded and shown in its widest connection.
All men, Jew and Gentile, are lost, “being justified freely by His [God’s] grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (3:24) (The
Epistle to the Romans James Stifler, ‘Introduction’ p 16).
Thank you for reading.
THE AUTHOR AND HIS IDENTITY V 1
Paul begins his epistle to the Romans by identifying himself in three particular, yet related ways. He writes as the bondservant of His Master – ‘Jesus Christ’ and as such, he fulfils his calling as ‘an apostle’ in a life dedicated to ‘the gospel of God’. Apprehended by the exalted Christ on the Damascus road as the light of His glory shone around him, the raging persecutor humbly submitted to Jesus as Lord and was gloriously saved to serve Him. Called by God’s grace this ‘chosen vessel’ (Acts 9:15) was commissioned and sent forth by the Lord Jesus as ‘the apostle to the Gentiles’ (Rom 11:13; Acts 26:16-18) to live and preach the gospel of God in order [as he states in v 5] ‘to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of His name among all the nations’ (v 5 ESV). It is concerning this gospel, which Paul summaries here in his opening words so powerfully, that he is going to write to the saints in Rome.
THE GOSPEL AND ITS THEME VS 2-4
The gospel of God is all about a person – none other than the Son of God, ‘Jesus Christ our Lord’ (v 3). God had promised His coming ‘through His prophets in the Holy Scriptures’ (v 2). This indicates that the gospel of God was ever in God’s mind and purpose. He promised it through His prophets who recorded these many promises concerning the coming Messiah on the pages of Holy Scripture. Paul’s point is not merely that prophecy predicted the coming of the Christ, rather, he is stressing how God specifically promised that He would come and the fact of His promises made and fulfilled demonstrate not only the unchanging character of God and His absolute faithfulness, but also the accuracy, authenticity and authority of Scripture. God keeps His word.
Paul makes two statements concerning the divine Son - He ‘was descended from David according to the flesh’ (v 3 ESV), and in the flesh He was ‘declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead’ (v 4). Paul emphasis the royal lineage by which the Son came in His humanity. This proves He is the promised Messiah. God assured David that his house, kingdom and throne would be established forever (2 Sam 7:16; Psa 89:35-36) and that from his descendants would come a mighty deliver and ruler (Isa 9:6-7; 11:1-5; Jer 23:5-6). The great wonder of the gospel message is the incarnation. He who is eternally the Son of God became the Son of David as the Old Testament promised. The New Testament opens with the story of how God fulfilled His promise. The gospel of Matthew begins with these words: ‘The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham’ (Matt 1:1). Matthew records the genealogy from Abraham to David the king and then from David he traces the royal line right to Joseph the carpenter, ‘the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus who is called Christ’ (Matt 1:16). Matthew shows that He who was uniquely born of the virgin, Mary - herself a descendant of David - was given the legal status of the firstborn son in the house and family of Joseph, Mary’s husband. Thus was established His place not only in the royal line, but as the final and rightful heir to the throne of David. Jesus had no physical progeny, the line ends with Him (Matt 1:18-25). But, not only is the Davidic descent of Jesus vital to the gospel promises of God so also is His divine identity as David’s Son. On this very issue, Jesus confronted the Jews a few days before the Cross:
“What do you think about the Christ? Whose Son is He?”
They said to Him, “The Son of David.”
He said to them, “How then does David in the Spirit call Him ‘Lord,’ saying:
‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at My right hand,
Till I make Your enemies Your footstool” ’?
If David then calls Him ‘Lord,’ how is He his Son?” (Matt 23:42-45)
They couldn’t answer nor would they’re unbelief let them answer. The implication was clear; the Messiah must be far more than the Son of David if He is David’s Lord and indeed He is. This is why Paul asserts that He was ‘declared to be the Son of God with power’ by His resurrection. Just as His birth identified Him as the Son of David, His resurrection identified Him as the Son of God. Moreover, He became Son of David ‘according’, or in relation ‘to the flesh’ and He was declared Son of God with power ‘according’, or in relation ‘to the spirit of holiness’. The ‘spirit of holiness’ either refers to His own spirit or the Holy Spirit. If His own spirit, it highlights the sinless and holy life lived by Jesus. He ever walked and served in the full consciousness of undefiled intimacy and unbroken fellowship with His Father and the only possible outcome of such a life of perfect holiness and obedience even in death was His glorious resurrection (Phil 2:8-9). Alternatively, if the reference is to the Holy Spirit who particularly came upon Jesus at His baptism (Matt 3:16) anointing Him for the fulfillment of His ministry (Luke 4:18) and through whom He ‘offered Himself without spot to God’ (Heb 9:14), then just as the fullness of the Spirit operated in that perfect life of holiness and obedience, so it was in His death, He was raised from the dead by the power of the Spirit of God. The Messiah’s expectation was realized in resurrection: ‘For thou wilt not leave my soul to Sheol; neither wilt thou suffer thine holy one to see corruption. (Psa 16:10).
It is fitting that in the Greek Text His threefold title - ‘Jesus Christ our Lord’ comes at the end of v 4 rather than at the beginning of v 3. He truly is God’s Saviour, Anointed Sovereign and Exalted Lord.
THE RECIPIENTS AND THEIR STANDING VS 5-7
The Roman believers had responded to the gospel call and were among the saved of the nations through, and for the glory of the name of Jesus Christ. As with all who honour the Son of God by acknowledging Him as Lord, they were specially loved of God and as they lived in Rome and moved among its people they fulfilled their calling as saints; a status and identification which is the lot of everyone who obeys by faith the gospel. There is no waiting for merited sainthood to be conferred after death by some ecclesiastical authority, rather Christianity is about living a holy life in a sinful world not to merit divine favour, but because of it.
And so, Paul finally brings to these believers the beautiful greeting of divine grace and ‘shalom’ - peace from the Father and the Son and so completes his extended salutation.
Thanks for reading.
PAUL'S INTEREST IN THE SAINTS AT ROME vs 8-15
His Desire to Visit vs 1:8-12
Paul was a man of prayer. It was his native air. He lived in the atmosphere of heaven on earth being continually in communion with God. This is evident as we read his epistles. Most of them begin with either thanksgiving or prayer or both and are interspersed with references to prayer and expressions of praise (Rom 10:1; 11:33-36; 15:30-33; 16:25-27….). Like Paul, every servant of God should be a prayer warrior and a vessel of praise. Paul thanked God for every Roman believer and for the far reaching testimony of their Christian faith (v 8) and affirmed before God his unceasing remembrance of them in his prayers and unabated request that in God’s will, he may eventually and successfully make it to Rome (v 10) for he longed to see and serve them in order to build them up spiritually and benefit from the encouragement of their fellowship (vs 11-12).
Paul refers to how he served God in his spirit in the gospel of God’s Son (v 8). The gospel for Paul was a sacred service done with devotion and worship. He fulfilled his ministry in communion with God conscious of the privilege of preaching and making known the Son of God. Moreover, Paul’s ministry was a priestly ministry. He was ‘a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit’ (Rom 15:16 ESV). Paul never performed his service mechanically or ritualistically, but in adoration and for the glory of God. What a contrast to the ‘deadwood’ of so called religious leaders today who don’t even have the conviction to believe and preach what the Bible says never mind appreciate the wonder of the gospel concerning the Son of God.
His Reason for Visiting vs 13-15
Up to this point, Paul had been hindered from coming to Rome even though he oftentimes purposed to visit. His workload in the East had prevented him moving west (Rom 15:19-23), but now with his ministry fulfilled in the East he wanted to fulfil a desire of many years and have a fruitful visit with the saints at Rome by edifying them and evangelizing with them. Paul saw himself as a debtor to all people whatever their culture background or social status (v 14). He was entrusted with and commissioned to preach the gospel (Acts 26:16-18; 1 Cor 9:17) and therefore considered himself under obligation to fulfil his God given ministry. He owed men the good news and was eager to discharge that responsibility everywhere he went.
PAUL'S CONFIDENCE IN THE GOSPEL OF GOD VS 16-17
The Message of God’s Transforming Power v 16
Paul had no embarrassment or felt no disgrace concerning the gospel (Cp Mark 8:38; Rom 6:21; 2 Tim 1:8). He would visit Rome with its lawyers, statesmen and orators bringing God’s message. What Paul preached had a power far greater than the might of Rome. It transformed lives, delivered souls and imparted righteousness. Paul would stand among the Romans with humility to declare with authority the greatest news ever heard by man.
The Message of God’s Revealed Righteousness v 17
When Paul speaks about a righteousness of God being revealed in the gospel he is referring to the fact that sinners can be brought into right and harmonious relationship with God against whom all men have sinned. He will give or impute to the believing soul righteousness in the sense of a right standing before Him – they will be justified. God’s righteousness is declarative righteousness. That is, the man or woman reconciled to God by Christ’s death, is declared, or accounted righteous before Him being fully acquitted, fully forgiven, and fully accepted – justified. The bestowal of righteousness therefore has to do with our judicial standing before God in contrast to our moral regeneration by the power of the Holy Spirit. Paul expounds this essential gospel truth in his letter both as to the means of justification and the life of sanctification that follows. In these beginning chapters he proves the guilt of humanity, Gentile and Jew, and how all stand condemned as unrighteous before God (3:19).
The gospel then addresses the issue of our status before God, our Creator and Judge, and answers the problem of how we who are alienated by sin and guilty of sinning can be find acceptance with Him and be declared righteous before Him. Moreover, just as God’s saving power is experienced by the sinner who believes the gospel (v 16), so His righteousness is bestowed ‘altogether’ by faith – out of faith unto faith. It commences with faith in Christ and continues with faithfulness to Him. J B Phillips translation captures the idea: ‘A process begun and continued by their faith.’ This is not a new concept. It has always been so as God’s word to Habakkuk shows: ‘the just shall live by his faith’ (Hab. 2:4). This is Paul’s text and his letter to the Romans his exposition of it.
Thanks for reading.
Paul, having expressed his reasons for visiting Rome now goes on to explain why people need the gospel. The summary statement that ‘all have sinned and come short of the glory of God’ (Rom 3:23) is clearly demonstrated by what Paul writes from chap 1:18 through to chap 3:20.
Verse 18 is the Headline Statement of this section: ‘For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.’ Having stated the reality, he goes on to expound why and how it is so. It is important to stress at this point what Paul is specifically saying - God’s wrath is presently being revealed from heaven even as he writes. Not that it was or will be revealed, but that it is evident in Roman society. God’s displeasure with the attitudes and actions of men is ever current. He is never indifferent to their sin. Paul describes how He responds to their rebellion by displaying His displeasure and disapproval of their sin through abandoning them to the consequences of their deliberately chosen path of folly as vs 24, 26, 28 show. God’s righteous justice still operates today against ‘all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men’ who wilfully and arrogantly deny, denounce, and dismiss God from their society and His world.
GOD REJECTED VS 19-23
God’s Natural Revelation vs 19-20
God holds men accountable for their wilful denial of His person and for their deliberate practice of unrighteousness. They cannot plead ignorant of God’s existence nor can they avoid responsibility for their choices and actions ‘because’ (vs 19-20) God has given to humans, who are made in His image, the capacity to understand the testimony of Creation as well as a conscience to discern the difference between right and wrong as Paul states in Rom 2:14-15. Creation is therefore the evidence that demonstrates God’s existence. It is the abundant and eloquent testimony to an Almighty Creator who is the Divine Designer of the universe. In the midst of such overwhelming proof people have two options. They either respond to the Creator by seeking Him or rejecting Him. Sadly, as Paul explains, the Gentiles did and continued to do the latter.
That the invisible God has made Himself known via natural revelation is foundational to relationship with Him. Creation demonstrates the fact that God is there, that He exists apart from this world and yet is relevant to it for its existence and continuation depends upon Him. Creation imparts knowledge as to what God is like in terms of His power and wisdom. That He is an infinite being transcending the limitations of men and deserving of worship ought to be obvious. We do not seek God in natural things, but through them. This was ever His purpose for the nations. Paul, while preaching in Athens in the midst of an idolatrous society, said this:
God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. Nor is He
worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things. And He has made from one
blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their
dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us;
for in Him we live and move and have our being Acts 17:24-28 (Italics mine).
The tragedy is that men did the opposite. Instead of responding to God who revealed Himself through nature, they rejected Him completely and turned from what they already knew to falsehood. The concern about those who have never heard the gospel is often raised - sometimes sincerely and sometimes skeptically. Paul, in writing this letter is certainly establishing the need for the gospel as the ‘guilt’ of the Gentile peoples and indeed the Jews demonstrate, but what Paul makes clear here is that everyone has heard from God through Creation and how they respond to its message is their responsibility. The universal ‘voice’ of creation is ever there as Psalm 19:1-4 states:
The heavens declare the glory of God;
And the firmament shows His handiwork.
Day unto day utters speech,
And night unto night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech nor language
Where their voice is not heard.
Their line has gone out through all the earth,
And their words to the end of the world.
This does not mean that creation imparts sufficient knowledge to ‘save’ a sinner, but the knowledge it does communicate is sufficient to cause someone to ‘seek’ the Creator who is really there. Those who have ever done so have discovered that He is not a distant Creator, but a near, loving, and saving God. As the American scientist and Inventor, George Washington Carver, said:
I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting station, through which God speaks to us every hour, if we will only tune in.
Man’s Wilful Rejection vs 21-23
Paul, after stating why God’s wrath is revealed now moves to explain how this situation came to be among the Gentile peoples of his first century world. The cause for the righteous anger of God upon them lay with themselves ‘because when they knew God they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things’ (vs 21-23). History demonstrates that men have ever rejected God. The spirit of Babel lives on (Gen 11:1-9). About one hundred years after the flood with earth’s population still together and perhaps numbering 30,000 people they set out under the leadership of Nimrod (Gen 10:8-10 [See Leupold]) to build a city and tower on the plains of Shinar. This building project was in itself an act of rebellion against the Creator. They sought to organize themselves against His expressed will, centralize their power base and elevate themselves closer to the heavens by their own effort. None of what they did was to honour God, but to ‘make a name for themselves.’ They no doubt thought the way modern man thinks – they wanted to be remembered and honoured by subsequent generations for their boldness and defiance of God. God dispersed earth’s people in judgment as a result, but they took with them the ‘spirit’ of Babel. As they had sought in rebellion to elevate themselves higher with their brick tower, in the same spirit of rebellion, they brought God lower in their thinking, right down to the very brutish level of men and animals as described by Paul (v 23). Such thinking and practice continued through the generations with each living out the legacy handed to them by their ancestors. Yet, according to Paul, each generation is confronted with the same evidence of God through Creation. He does not allow that the legacy of the past excuses people in the present. Rather, each generation and each individual is responsible for how they respond to the knowledge of God which they have. Each is ‘without excuse.’ This is true whether it’s the first, or twenty first century.
Religiously the Gentiles failed. They refused to obey and worship God. The Jews, with greater revelation, did the same. This is always were the downward spiral of sin begins. The refusal to acknowledge the one true God is the starting point of ruin whether among the ancient peoples of the world or a chosen people like Israel or in a modern, so called, secular society. The outcome is the same. When men deliberately turn from the light of reason through revelation, whether in Creation or through the word of God they become empty headed in their thinking and stupefied in the darkness of their desires. Those of whom Paul writes embraced the folly of idolatry and ‘exchanged the truth of God for the lie’ that God was nothing more than a creature which ‘they worshipped and served … rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen’ (v 25). It’s no different to today. The abandonment of God for the idols of materialism, celebritism, intellectualism abounds and many other forms of idolatry besides.
WRATH REVEALED VS 24-32
As they debased God in their thinking they debased themselves in their behaviour. They did not act according to God’s natural or moral order. Rather, in the folly of their idolatry they followed the passions of sin to the dishonour and unnatural use of their bodies (vs 24-27). Indeed, it was to practice their chosen idolatrous and immoral lifestyle that they suppressed and denied the truth about God their Creator. Their chosen lifestyle was an affront to God who gave to them ‘life and breath and all things.’ Therefore it met with His disapproval and displeasure and He actively and righteously judged these people by giving them up to their ‘uncleanness’ (v 24) and ‘vile passions’ (v 26). That is, to display His wrath He removed His restraint upon them and handed them over to the power of their sinful lusts leaving them to indulge their passions to their utter ruin. Moreover, as they deliberately abandoned God because they did not think Him worth considering, they become empty headed and debased without Him and were instead ‘filled’ with the unliveable characteristics listed by Paul (vs 29-31) which are the marks, not of a civilized society, but of one that is intolerably wicked. This state of affairs is the result of what Paul calls a ‘reprobate’ or ‘debased’ mind (v 28), a mind void of spiritual and moral understanding that has lost the ability or willingness to know the difference between right and wrong and is fixed on its own way even though that way is the way hell. Such a mindset is so far off the Creator’s purpose, it is rejected by Him.
Yet, men sin with their eyes wide open. ‘Who, knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are deserving of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them’ (v 32). Men know intuitively that such behavior is wrong and will be deservedly judged by God. Still, they don’t and won’t change and worse, they applaud others as they join them in practice these same things. Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them stand along with the nations of Canaan as examples in history of the solemn truth of which Paul writes and the accompanying consequences of divine judgment.
In Psalm 11:3 the question is asked: ‘If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?’ The natural, moral and spiritual foundations of society are in the process of being destroyed today particularly in the Western world. And, like they have ever done, the truth is being suppressed with those who speak it the targets of slander and hate from those who claim to promote love and tolerance. Such conditions cannot continue indefinitely. Soon the Creator will intervene in judgment. And yet, just as there was in the first century, there is still hope and that hope is the gospel of God. It is what all men need to hear and experience.
Thanks for reading.